Archive for April, 2009

Places – Devil’s Island

Devil’s Island is in the news today over the issue of its lighthouse – will it be saved, and by whom, and why it should be, and so on.

Anyone from Nova Scotia who reads this blog probably knows that Devil’s Island is the outermost island in Halifax Harbour. The island is maybe best known for being the place where Helen Creighton did some of her earliest folklore collecting, most of that from Ben Henneberry. I grew up hearing about stories of how the devil once showed up to a Sunday night card game on the island, and was identified by his cloven hooves.

Devil’s Island is low-lying, and you might assume from afar that it is a sandy barrier island, but it is not. Devil’s Island is actually bedrock, or slate, similar to the “ironstone” that makes up the old drystone walls and foundations in the oldest parts of Halifax (although it could be related to the bluestone found in parts of Lake Echo, I’m not sure – where’s a geologist when you need one?). The ocean side of the island is sharply corrugated by the rock striations, and littered with flat cobbles.

I visited Devil’s Island a few years ago, and these pictures I am sharing are from that trip. When I was there, the old house, the second-most prominent building on the island other than the lighthouse (pretty much the only other thing left standing), was empty inside save for a moudly old armchair and some makeshift kitchen counters. An old boyfriend of my mother’s once Went Hermit and spent a couple months squatting in the house. I don’t think my mother was impressed; she kept searching and found my father.

The island is mainly covered in grass and various weeds and wildflowers. There are lots of little hummocks on the east side of the island, old seagull nests. Little paths crisscross in and out and around the hillocks – they’re rat paths. But don’t worry, they’re little rats, nothing near the size of their waterfront cousins. Just don’t plan for a picnic on the island if you’re rodent-averse.

Despite the bald lighthouse and empty house, there’s nothing particularly menacing about Devil’s Island, no bad vibes or ghostly fingers on the spine. But standing on the island and looking back at the harbour still gave me an odd sort of feeling. The island seems abandoned and forgotten by the bustling inner harbour denizens, and yet it is so close that it is never beyond the glow of the city lights.

I’m not going to say that the lighthouse should be preserved for nostalgia alone. And yet, how wonderful is it crossing the harbour in the winter dusk and watching the navigation buoy lights blinking all the way out to the open sea? It’s true that lighthouses don’t guide the way for very many storm-tossed vessels in our day and age, but I think they serve a new purpose – reminding us to look out beyond ourselves and tell stories and even daydream, however inaccurately and nostalgically, about where we came from.

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Quicklink – Grand Pré UNESCO bid

More in the news yesterday about the Grand Pré UNESCO World Heritage Site bid – homeowners (well, two of them) in the proposed area shared their concerns about what might happen if the bid is successful – possibly higher property taxes, more visitors could mean more people cutting across private property hoping to walk along the dikes, and more development in the form of hotels and restaurants.

These World Heritage designations are a great tool to recognize (and preserve) significant landscapes, but they can be doubled-edged. A successful bid can be a bit like waving a red flag in front of the tourist industry. On the other hand, Grand Pré is already one of the top tourist destinations in the province, and I wonder if UNESCO recognition would  actually attract significantly more people than the area’s existing “carrying capacity” for tourists? If the nomination committee is a good one, they have already considered the increased environmental/infrastructure/lifestyle pressure at the site that this designation would create, and are able to address local concerns (who knows, perhaps the homeowners were speaking out at a public info session – the article is kind of poor, by j-school standards).

Links of Note – Roberto Dutesco

I love Sable Island. I love the idea of it, I love pictures of it, I like to hear about the scientific research that takes place on it (this is my post on the Sable Island Update from 2008), I think it’s all good. The academic in me tells me to resist the romance and embrace the pragmatism, but even “objectively,” the landscape is stunning and the location (out in the North Atlantic, on the edge of the continental shelf) and history is captivating (yes, I grew up in one of those families with a “Graveyard of the Atlantic” map of Sable Island in the basement. We have a ceramic blue nose as well).

I watched a documentary this evening called Chasing Wild Horses, about Roberto Dutesco’s photography of the Sable Island horses. It was intimate, evocative, sparse and poetic. Because we didn’t get to see any of the finished photos until Dutesco was back in New York (he’s best known for his fashion photography), the emphasis was on the process and the experience of being out in the dunes with the wind and the horses.

I’m not going to post any Dutesco images here since I’m cautious about copyright infringement, but I would encourage you to visit Dutesco’s online gallery to take a look at his images of the horses and landscape of Sable Island.

For more information on Sable Island, visit the Green Horse Society’s information-packed website.

The images in this post are from NSARM’s Clara Dennis virtual exhibit.

Spring in the Maritimes

The online staff of CBC Maritimes have an interactive map with viewer-donated photos of the harbingers of spring. They are adding images of crocuses, pussy willows, running water, tulip flowers, and maple blossoms.

(This picture is from the front ditch last April. I checked today, and the pussy willows are just starting to emerge)