Yesterday, my brother Mark and his wife Anne took Kathy and me to a picnic park on a projection into the sea called Second Peninsula, which has wooden tables set down on the rocky shore at water’s edge, where anyone who feels like it can settle down for a nice meal by the ocean. You can pack a basket, or even set up a BBQ, which is probably against the rules, but nobody’s going to get all excited about it. Where we sat, somebody had recently had a lobster and crab feast, leaving the shells strewn here and there among the smooth stones. We munched on a less exotic but very pleasant lunch of sandwiches, lemonade, chips and cookies.
The water there is shallow, and though the beach is composed of rounded rocks, not sand, the sea is surprisingly warm and inviting, and the urge to dip your toes is irresistible. Anne had brought a few pairs of wading shoes along, and our tender feet thus protected, we walked into the calm, clear salt water up to our knees and splashed about. The odd pleasure craft went by, generating low waves. A few hundred feet down the beach, somebody had anchored a small power boat, and was sitting inside doing nothing at all, probably taking a snooze under the shelter of a green and white golf umbrella as they floated there, bobbing gently. Anne threw a ball a few feet off shore a couple of times for their dog to swim out and fetch – she’s a Portuguese Water Dog named Molly, and despite her pedigree seemed dubious. The ocean surface, a mirror of the sky, was brilliant blue as the Sun poured its warm light down, and a cool breeze complimented the perfection of the 22 degree weather.
It was pretty much by instinct, muscle memory working from the brain stem, that I reached under the water and began feeling around for smooth stones to skip. Skipping stones was a favourite pastime when I was a boy, as was every manner of throwing rocks into the sea. We’d walk down to the shore of the long narrow inlet on the Western side of the Halifax peninsula known as the North West Arm, make our way along the rocky terrain exposed at low tide, and find various bits of jetsam that we could throw back into the water to serve as floating targets. Old driftwood, discarded beer bottles, empty plastic motor oil containers, all served as fodder for target practice. We became expert at scoring hits at long range.
We boys are fascinated with the ballistics of thrown objects, whether it’s baseballs, or snowballs, or round rocks with a particularly pleasing heft in your palm when you free them from the sandy bottom at water’s edge. I don’t know whether females feel quite the same fascination, but I’ve always thought this must be a naturally selected trait. The ability to hurl a deadly missile accurately must have provided a crucial edge to our primate ancestors, as they left the forest and wandered out on to the savannah to challenge the big cats and nasty canines for turf. What good are teeth and claws against five or ten guys pitching dozens of one pound projectiles at your head from 60 feet away? The instinct to throw things, far, hard, and straight, would have been a crucial bit of the evolving hominid kit, and growing up, we distant (though only somewhat evolved?) descendants of those upright apes could still feel the thrill of it, the deep, visceral joy of turning an inert rock into a powerful thing that strikes right where you aim it, just as hard as you can sling it. Only an odd sort of critter with long arms, grasping hands, and binocular vision could possibly do such a thing; all those adaptations to a life in the trees had equipped us to dominate the wide open plains. Hey, you big, ugly hyena, have a jagged igneous rock in the teeth, you want to snarl at me. It was like the most ancient layers of our developing brains were still urging us to prepare for battle. Day in, day out, all summer, we threw stones out into the water at all sorts of improvised targets, and were hugely gratified as our skill improved.
Even hitting what you’re aiming at, though, is nothing compared to making the stone jump across the water like a sort of bouncing frisbee, striking the surface again and again, almost seeming for a couple of seconds like it’ll never stop. In the realm of simple pleasures, that reigns pretty much supreme, you ask me, and – oh, joy! – it turns out that it’s like riding a bike. You never forget how. I guess it also comes as no surprise, given the quintessentially male energy that gets brought to bear, that skipping stones has also been elevated to the level of elite adult guy competition! Anything fun in its own right is twice as good if you can dominate some loser and win a shiny object while you’re at it, right? I gotta admit, I find a good rock skipping bout entirely mesmerizing – just look at these guys:
Geez, if I’d known there was a pro tour, I might have practised harder, maybe made a name for myself, even gained admittance to the Stone Skipper’s Hall of Fame or something – ask anybody, I’m a natural. I might have been the rock skipping world’s equivalent to Arnold Palmer, for all you know.
Ah well. I suppose that when I get back to Toronto, there’s nothing stopping me from going down to the lake and skipping the odd rock, after all, water’s water, I guess, and rocks are rocks, but still, it just doesn’t feel the same, you know?
Whoa, wait. When I get back to Toronto?
Huh? How is it time, so soon, to go back to Toronto? You mean Summer’s over? Already? Back to High Park, then? Back to concrete towers, subways, and buildings everywhere blocking the view as the Sun goes down? No more waves lapping a few feet away from the back deck? No herons, loons and terns? No more nights so quiet that you can hear the odd duck quacking quietly in the wee hours, probably having ducky dreams?
Farewell to Nova Scotia?
O.K. All right. This is, as they say, sub-optimal, but it isn’t the heartbreak it used to be. We’ll be back, maybe sooner rather than later, and when we return we’ll stay for months, not days. We have our place by the sea, and we own it outright, so from now on Toronto is the temporary place, not here. One day, maybe, we won’t go back to Upper Canada at all. Everything’s going to be all right.
It’ll probably be 43 frigging degrees when we get back, on the cusp of going down to minus 30. A long, grey winter looms. To help us ride it out, I’ve been video recording sunrises and sunsets, and when things get grim we’ll play the scenes of a Mahone Bay August on our big screen TV and huddle together in the dark. A brief sampler is attached below. Note the heron at the bottom of the shot, who lingers for a while before taking a few stately strides, and then flapping away in the twilight to go wherever it is herons go when night falls. When it’s cold and black some starless February night on Glenlake Ave., I’ll think about little mysteries like that and feel better.
Soon enough, we’ll be back. Lots of stones still to skip.