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An Island Just in Time (Imperial Oil Review, 1997)

The night sky is dark, and the land is darker. The sea is darkest of all, its charcoal surface relieved only by the restless white curl of the breakers. The water is hissing up the sand, then seething with the sound of pebbles clicking and rolling in the backwash. It is a cool June night in Isle Madame, Nova Scotia, a fly-speck on the map just off the southeastern corner of Cape Breton Island, and the air is sharp with the iodine smell of rockweed strewn across the beachface, wrenched from the bottom by a recent storm.

At the edge of the waves stand ten or twelve silhouettes, hushed figures with dipnets and buckets. Eastward, to the left, flashes of light pierce the darkness from the lighthouse on Green Island. Unseen beyond the flashes, the open Atlantic stretches away to Ireland. Closer to us, just across the bay in Petit de Grat, the house windows glow yellow. But there is no light here on Rocky Bay Beach. Light would scare away the fish. So would loud voices.

The fish, when they come — if they come — will be capelin, small silvery fish rather like smelts. Capelin live their lives in deep water, the prey of cod and haddock. In June they move inshore to breed in swarms on the beaches, chiefly in Newfoundland, where they pack into schools dense enough to slow a power boat. They live in sex-segregated herds, and the two sexes meet only on the beach. Two males capture a female between them on a falling tide, and hustle her up through the breakers to the sand. She releases ova while the males cloud the water with milt. Then most of them die.

People net the capelin on the shore by the hundreds and thousands. They fry them and smoke them and “corn” them, lightly salting them and drying them in the sun. The capelin constitute an enormous annual gift from the sea.

“Come down for a feed, have you?” murmurs a young man next to me.

“No, just to look.”

“Seen this before?”


“Me neither. Lived all me life on Isle Madame, and I never seen the capelin come ashore.”

If the capelin came ashore in Rocky Bay that night, I didn’t see them; I went home before they arrived. But the image of the silent watchers on the beach will linger. This is the magic of Isle Madame: its fecundity, its endless subtlety, the things it offers up to those who live with it and love it, who patiently watch and listen. I have been here more than 25 years, and my island is still unfolding.

Thirty-five square miles. Forty-three hundred people. But the island’s allure is endless: infinite riches in a little room. A land tender with spring green, blazing with autumn crimson, stark black against the white of winter. Branches glittering in sheathings of ice. Low spruce-draped hills, none more than 150 feet high. A shoreline sprinkled with villages: Arichat, West Arichat, D’Escousse, Petit de Grat, Janvrin’s Harbour, Little Anse.

Little islands ring the shores, an archipelago with haunting names conferred by the Acadians who have lived here for three hundred years: Ile a Couteau, Ile Verte, Ile Quetique, Ile Cascarette. Names which sound like a kiss in French, but a burp in English: Ile a Patate, Gros Nez: Potato Island and Big Nose. P’tato Island ‘n’ Groany, say the Irish families who came to Rocky Bay when the potatoes failed in Ireland.

Rockbound coves and stillwater inlets, wetlands and beaches. Solid rock bluffs trembling under the attack of breakers which took shape in a tropical gale. Tree-fringed jewel lakes where eels and moon jellies are born. Magic.

This landscape is radiant with history. An 18th-century French colonial orchard left us with apple trees blooming and fruiting in the forests, in the fields, along the roadsides. The magnificent wooden cathedral church in Arichat was built in 1838. The tall solemn building across the street was the palace of the Bishop of Arichat before one of my clansmen, Bishop John Cameron — may the fleas of a thousand dogs infest his armpits — moved the seat of the diocese sixty miles to the Scottish town of Antigonish, along with the college that became St. Francis Xavier University. That was 135 years ago. But we still have the only cathedral and the only episcopal palace in Cape Breton…

After 25 years, I learned only this year where the girls on horseback splash through the salt water creeks to reach the Goulet Beach. This year, for the first time, I bought begonias from the big flower-choked greenhouses which Andre Samson built in the woodland behind his house.

This year I asked Clarence David once again to take me out to visit his mackerel trap — the only such trap on the island. He was willing, but it didn’t happen. So maybe the mackerel trap will be part of next year’s learning.

Other years, other learnings. The year of the lobster, sailing out in the darkness with Tommy Kehoe and Freddie Samson and hauling traps all morning. The year of the credit union, when our own tiny people’s bank, founded in 1937, was in danger of extinction and a group of villagers brought it back to life. The year of the schooner, when I bought a little ship in Lunenburg and fumbled my way along the coast to bring it home to D’Escousse. I met the Skipper, Leonard Pertus, who had been the master of the village’s last trading schooner. At 83, he took out my little vessel and deftly sailed her through the reefs and islands, rejoicing to have a schooner under his command again, although to him she was really just a toy.

The year of the crisis, just four years ago, when there were no more fish in the sea. Isle Madame was a fishing community for 300 years; when the fishery collapsed, a third of the island’s jobs disappeared. The governments and media don’t seem to know what it means to belong to a community; they thought that people in places like Isle Madame should just give up and move away. In a pig’s ear! snorted the islanders. (In French they used a much more pungent Acadian expression.) We were here before Canada was invented, and we weren’t going anywhere.

Instead we organized and we made new jobs for ourselves in aquaculture, tourism, communications. We brought some of our university graduates home from the cities and put them to work. We organized community investment funds and small manufacturing plants. Now we’re exporting what we’ve learned about community economic development.

We? I don’t “belong to” Isle Madame, as islanders say, or to D’Escousse. It’s not a rejection, it’s simply a fact. A person “belongs to” the place that shaped him. Not me: I came here when I was 34. I drove along the shore on a wind-tossed autumn day, looking at the pastel shingled houses, the blue water, the green islands. A lovely place, I thought, and I was looking for a place to live. A month later I owned a house here, in a field that ran down to the water. I will never belong to D’Escousse as a native-born islander does. But I will never belong anywhere else….

The year of the wars, 1993, when I learned about the dozens of island elders who had fought in Normandy, Hong Kong, Sicily, Iceland. I did a TV show to honour them. They were only teenagers, but they fought in trenches, sailed in destroyers, flew fighter-bombers, drove tanks, blew up bridges. They starved in prison camps, cut bullets out of their flesh, and had comrades die in their arms.

This is not an insular island. Isle Madame people sail supertankers to the Persian Gulf, crew the Lake boats in the St. Lawrence Seaway, “work construction” in Calgary and Vancouver, serve as peacemakers in Bosnia and teach in distant universities. They come home for the winter, or for weddings and funeral, or for vacations. Eventually they come home to retire. In war and peace, the island’s people fan out across the globe….

The year of the first boatshop, 1976, when I decided the schooner would not serve for long cruises and resolved to build a boat myself. I knew nothing about boatbuilding and little about carpentry. But a century ago, Isle Madame men built brigantines, topsail schooners, full-rigged ships, and sailed them to Venice and Valparaiso. They were smart and strong and courageous, and I revere their memory. But they cannot all have been smarter than me. If they could build a big ship, I could build a small one.

I met a girl who loved to sail. Lulu was thirty, but still a wee slip of a thing, full of gaiety and ardour. She was divorced, with a toddler. She had lived in Europe for eight years, but she had grown up in a house I can see from my window. We married and finished building the red-sailed cutter together and we sailed it into ports in four provinces. Her little boy, Mark, became my adopted son.

The year of the house, 1983. The roomy, run-down dwelling on the harbour had been built in 1890 by a doctor, sold to a teacher, and then acquired by Captain Frederick Poirier, whose family kept it for four generations until Lulu and I bought it. We took a year to dismantle it and put it back together again, working with our carpenters and plumbers and dry-wallers to make it ready for its second century.

Then came the year of the deep tolling bell of mortality, after nearly 17 laughing years together. A lump in Lulu’s breast. Doctors, hospitals, operations, medications. And my body failing, too. I turned grey and gaunt, listless and trembling. Maybe you both have cancer, said the doctors. We were too sick even to care for ourselves.

Isle Madame enfolded us. Friends did our work, cleaned our house, shovelled our driveway. Neighbours fed us, brought us flowers and music, prayed for us. At a clinic in Germany we got a six-foot fax of Christmas greetings from home, signed by everyone who had been in church that night.

My illness proved treatable. But Lulu’s slowly killed her. After 21 brave months — with her unquenchable laughter still rising above her pain — she died in our house, held by six people who loved her.

Now our neighbours wrapped Mark and me in their care, like shipwrecked sailors in rescuers’ blankets. They crowded the church, stayed with us, wept with us, helped with the endless tasks and duties which attend the end of a life. “Lulu’s team” — the people who had eased Lulu through her dying — came together again to build a garden in her memory. Her friends planted flowers in it. We held another service and buried her ashes among the blossoms.

And then, gently, this island taught me about healing. Let go, people said. Move on. Yes, we loved her, and we will never forget her. But we are together in this place for only a little while. Be strong. Make yourself whole again. Life is still sweet, and love is still possible.

Isle Madame has taught me about time and mortality and the brilliant interlude between birth and death. I have been here now for more than a quarter of a century, a watchful navigator in the flowing stream of time. People mature and flourish and fade. The Skipper and his generation are gone. Those who were middle-aged when I came are moving into the serenity of age. The active ones who run our affairs were teenagers when I first moved here. Their own children are becoming young lawyers and school bus drivers, woodworkers and programmers.

I did not expect to spend a lifetime here. But I have, and I am, and this island never ceases to give me joy. One glorious spring day I stood by outside the gas station with Claude Poirier, who with his brother Russell has spent a lifetime operating it. I drew a deep breath and looked around me at the hills and the sea, the trees and fields and houses.

“What a day, Claude!” I said happily.

“Yeah.” Claude lifted his head and drank in the scene for a moment. He smiled.

“We need another lifetime in this place,” he said.