High Plains Drifting: A Wander Through Time and Space


My uncle used to call me a “high plains drifter.”  Granted, I think he may have called everybody that, but I always kind of liked it.  It bespoke a certain romanticism that appealed to me.  Very little of my actual wandering was done on the high plains though, and I think the moniker might say as much about the time as it did about me.  The nineties wasn’t such a bad time to be in your twenties with no plan.  I never had all that much trouble finding work, and as much as we thought gas prices were high–they weren’t.  The economics lent themselves to wandering and a brand of personal and spatial contemplation that seems on the wane, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of me getting older!

The lighthouse at Peggy's Cove, looking west across the entrance to St. Margaret's Bay

So I’m on my way to the Atlantic Canada Studies conference in Saint John, New Brunswick at the end of the week.  I left Halifax Sunday afternoon to drive down the coast towards Yarmouth, and then up along the Fundy shore to Digby, where I’ll catch the ferry across to Saint John.  I’ve been living in Halifax for the academic year and while the city is lovely, the circumstances of my residence there have sucked all kinds of bad.  My apartment is shared with adolescents, despite the landlord’s assurances to the contrary lo those many months ago, and my office–my refuge–has some sort of air quality issue that makes my eyes burn when I try to work there.  I’ve had some degree of a cold for months.  It was time for a wander!

Sunday evening I made it to Peggy’s Cove just as the sun was setting over the iconic lighthouse there.  After pondering the ominous warning sign on the side of the structure I rounded the corner to find a young couple that had been engaged for somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen seconds—they were considering the fit of the ring, which seemed agreeable to both.  I wondered if these fell into the category of “careless” sightseers.  I only hope they meet a more hopeful fate.

Earlier in the day I had stopped through Portuguese Cove and Ketch Harbour again (see Ground-truthing Portuguese Cove and Ketch Harbour and Frontage, Flake Stuff, and Pilots for my earlier explorations of these places).  I love the roads that go down into some of these old seaside villages.  They dive downhill, often quite precipitously, wind around, become less and less “maintained” and then abruptly end in a place that may or may not be wide enough to turn around.  I took the South Point Rd into Portuguese Cove—a turn I had missed on my first trip—where, as the charts reflect, there is really only a tiny notch in the rocks that affords any protection from the open water.  The village itself is sheltered by high ground on either side, and is, today, an eclectic mix of summer cottages and year round homes to which time has not been kind.

In Ketch Harbour I followed East Side Dr out along the harbour until it turned into Gill Cove Rd and headed up over the promontory.  I turned back when it became unclear from the signage whether I was exploring or trespassing.  Then I checked out one of two old cemeteries along the main road.  Many of the stones had not stood the test of time.  Having read all the documents I could find in the archives, I had a pretty good idea of who I was likely to find in the cemetery.  I mean these places were never big, and I know who owned all the land.  I was going to find Martins and Flemings and Grays and Brooks and Hollands and O’Sullivans.  And sure enough, there they were.  It gave me a little bit of the feeling Katherine described when looking at the thank you note from Toy Len Goon (see I Found Her in the Archive…).  But in this case the presence of the past manifested itself in the mushy, uneven earth, salt air, and tombstone inscriptions of Ketch Harbour.  I also imagined a conversation amongst early settlers seeking to identify a spot for their burying ground, as this hillside seemed the only spot for miles around where a shovel could penetrate more than a couple inches.  The temptation to cultivate that spot must have been great!  The most promising lead I picked up for later exploration was a monument to Father Thomas Grace, a capuchin monk who came from Ireland to Nova Scotia and became the pastor of one of the first parishes on that part of the coast, at Prospect.  He served in that capacity from 1794 until his retirement at age 71 in 1823.  This and a retrospective series in the local newspapers from the 1950s called “Churches by the Sea” is all I have gathered of the religious history of the western shore and the role it played in the conduct of the fishery.  But one of the things that draws me to places like these is that such communities were so dependent on their fisheries that every aspect of their lives was, in some way, related to the fishery.  The questions become “how” and “how big”?

My next destination was the fisheries museum at Lunenburg.  It’s a place I had been before, several years back, and found very helpful.  On this trip, however, the exhibit I really wanted to look through turned out to be closed for the winter—“winter” up this way is the thing you’re in if you’re not in tourist season!  This year winter ends on May 19th.  As I recall, the exhibit does a very nice job of demonstrating what fishing gear looks like and how exactly it’s deployed.  I really wanted to get a more precise sense of what fishermen meant in the 1850s and 60s in the Maritimes when they talked about “nets” or “seines”.  At what point in the technological development does a net become a seine, and when does the vernacular used to describe them catch up with them to an extent that it can properly describe the distinctions?  The differences between them have management implications that I began to discuss in some of my earlier posts from Portuguese Cove and Ketch Harbour, mentioned above.  In some instances one type of gear would be restricted through regulation because it was perceived as too extractive, in other cases simply because its deployment created logistical problems for men working with different types of gear.  And I’m quite sure that on many occasions one rationale was substituted quite freely for the other when appealing for regulatory support.

So the first night out I happened by a sign that read “Backpacker’s Hostel” on the road from Mahone Bay to Lunenburg.  It was around 10:30 at night by that point, and there weren’t a lot of lights on at the place, but I decided to give it an inspection.  What I found was the Kip & Kaboodle Backpacker’s Hostel.  Shit you not!  My host, Greg Inglis, was the nicest guy ever—and that along with the accent and number of times he called me “mate” leads me to assume he was from New Zealand.  He wasn’t exactly open for the season yet, but he set me up with a room anyway, which was quite frankly WAY nicer than the hole I live in in Halifax.  And because it had WiFi, I hopped on my laptop and looked the place up.  It turns out there are a string of hostels situated at short intervals all around southwestern Nova Scotia.  This morning I am sitting on an aging but clean and comfortable couch sipping on the first cup of Maxwell House I’ve had since my days guiding kayak trips.  To be honest the stuff tastes better when sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean.  But when you wake up in a town like Port Mouton where the only restaurant is open from Wednesday to Sunday, sometimes you have to see what’s in the “free food” bin in the hostel kitchen!  Today I will do some dissertation writing, and then move on to another hostel in Yarmouth.  Staying in hotels always bugs me because you pay what seems an exorbitant sum for an experience that you mostly sleep through.  It being still a bit chilly for camping, the hostels are a great alternative for less than a third of the price.  I always enjoyed the hostel experience when traveling abroad and wondered why the US and Canada did not have similarly robust networks of hostels.  Not surprisingly the growing network in Canada seems to be driven largely by people from overseas—my host here is Irish I believe.  What would it take to get such a network going in the U.S.?

Think of how useful it could be to grad students, academics at any level really, doing research and seeking to spend some time getting a feel for the places they’re writing about.  I think of my nineteenth century natural historians who wandered about, staying in people’s homes, and collecting, drawing, and describing species and phenomena that they witnessed.  History can no more be done in the archives alone than science can in the lab.  Both require their own, admittedly unique, forms of fieldwork as well.  The setting is a critical component of any story, and getting a feel for the characteristics of a physical landscape as well as the ways in which places have preserved their past through place names, commemorations and public history carries us much closer to a place where we can engage in informed and interesting story-telling.  Thoreau and I don’t have a great deal in common, despite what my uncle might think, but I think we’d agree on that.

About Rob Gee

I am an international environmental historian who focuses on marine and fisheries policy in the Atlantic Ocean. I currently teach history and environmental studies at Unity College and the University of Maine. I have interests in the connections between geological and quaternary histories of watersheds and coastal ecosystems and their modern development of settlement patterns and economies, the dissemination of scientific knowledge through communities of scholars, resource users, and government officials, and a rapidly growing interest in systems of food production and distribution. I'm also a fascinated observer of evolving relationships between technology, knowledge, and education, and our sometimes hapless efforts to knit them meaningfully together!
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4 Responses to High Plains Drifting: A Wander Through Time and Space

  1. Pingback: Feeling knowledge on foot – Viewshed

  2. Rob, Great post. The semester is winding down here and, as soon as it’s over, I plan on leaving substantial responses to your and Katherine’s posts. In the meantime, you may to check out this collection of essays, particularly the introduction and first chapter: http://www.amazon.com/The-Re-Enchantment-World-Secular-Rational/dp/0804752990/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335911481&sr=1-1

    Best,
    Greg

  3. Rob Gee says:

    Hey thanks, Greg. I look forward to conversating via blog, ours and yours, during the summer. Good to have an outlet for staying sharp between semesters and working through research-related ideas and problems. I might save that volume for when I can get it from a library. Even a used copy will cost we as much as a two-night stay here at the Digby Backpackers’ Hostel–and I won’t have my pursuit of book knowledge impairing my collection of local knowledge! Good luck finishing up.

  4. Pingback: On Storytelling and Petty Crime… | Stillwater Historians

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