A Saturday Globe review for Miller’s Valley caught my eye, and when I discovered I was 46th in line to borrow the book at the Central Library, I headed to the marvellous independent bookstore Westminster Books during a weekend trip to Fredericton to buy my own copy. The book tracks the coming of age of a girl in Pennsylvania as she watches government pressure inexorably lead to the inundation of her family’s farm for the ‘public good’. The flooding plays the same role in this book as in many others I’ve discussed here and in recent papers – shorthand for obliteration, loss, injustice, and forgetting – but what distinguishes it is in demonstrating the capacity to adapt over time, nonetheless. A few excerpts from the last page resonate particularly:
I don’t really miss the Miller’s Valley I used to know, the one in which I grew up, my very own drowned town. It’s been gone a long time now… They’re talking about having a big celebration for the fiftieth anniversary… and that’ll clinch it. If something’s been around fifty years, it’s been around forever. Most people think it’s always been there. They run fishing boats and go ice skating and sit in folding chairs and look out over the place where we all lived and it’s just water to them, as far as the eye can see. I guess it’s just water to me, too. … When I talked to Cissy about Andover, when I was a kid, I thought her life, her past, her childhood, all of it was buried down there under the water. I didn’t understand that it was above the surface, in her, the way mine is in me. … Lots of people leave here, that’s for sure, but people stay, too. And some are like me. They circle back. (p. 256-7)
In this same weekend I visited Joe George at COJO Exploration, who had spent the day scuba diving in his quest for the old townsite of Kingsclear, now under the Mactaquac headpond. His hand-drawn map from the dive shows the foundations, wells and other infrastructure he swam over, trying to avoid stirring up sediment in the low-visibility (2 ft) conditions. Looking at old maps, he reckons the well (“still water in it!”, he joked) belonged to the Long family. Joe is hoping to set up a recreational scuba track – as he showed me, basically a high-viz yellow cable – to allow visitors to explore the drowned town. He also hopes, however, to find some relics of life there, to share with either prior residents or local museums.
Dams are in the news, either in terms of removal (see a discussion here about opening the gates of the Glen Canyon Dam), or protests about construction. For instance, a public letter signed by Canadian scholars protests about Site C’s approval as a violation of process and treaty rights. An early-stage proposal for a dam on the Eldred River near Powell River BC is being protested by rock climbers (on the basis of a long-standing base camp) and foresters (the transmission infrastructure associated with independent power installations affects forestry and thus jobs), possibly the first time that those two bodies were on the same side of any issue.
I recently re-read Waterland, by Graham Swift, which won the Booker Prize in 1983. It’s a remarkable combination of fenland geography, biographical mythology, environmental/industrial history, and thriller. I think you may need to be into wetlands to get through some of his passages, and certainly be comfortable with a fragmented temporal axis, but it is my kind of storytelling. It is funny – there’s this wonderful bit where he discusses how flat landscapes like the fenlands encourage lustiness – and the main characters are solid. As with much of what I record here, I also see parallels between my recreational reading and my research. This is a book about place, cultural landscapes, and adaptation. In the wake of my more recent research on dykelands, for instance, a late passage seemed particularly interesting upon this second read:
There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress. It doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires. (p. 291)
I was in the middle of Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), by Thomas Hardy, when I received word from the Halifax Central Library that the hold I placed on James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life (2015) was ready for pickup. This was a nice bit of symmetry, as the hero of Hardy’s novel is Gabriel Oak, stout-hearted and reliable shepherd of Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ (south-west England). Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) is a modern shepherd who runs a family ‘fell farm’ of Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, as well as an Oxford graduate who advises UNESCO on ensuring tourism benefits local communities in cultural landscapes. The ‘fell’ is an area of marginal commons pasture shared by local farmers for extensive grazing.
It was fascinating reading these books in parallel, seeing the same farming practices described, despite differences in vocabulary. They were also both deeply landscape-driven and embedded in place. Rebanks is eloquent and pithy, and mounts a passionate defense for this way of life, in part rejecting calls by folks like George Monbiot to destock grazed landscapes to rewild and revegetate them. Many analogies suggest the sense that the land is itself part of the family in shepherd life. About his grandfather’s connection to the land, Rebanks shared (p. 72):
My grandfather had an eye for things that were ‘beautiful’ like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him like a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried hte full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications – namely the end of winter or better weather to come.
Above the love of the land, perhaps, is his love of the sheep themselves. The book also presents a new vocabulary for scholars of place: hefted, from Old Norse for ‘tradition’. Hefted sheep have “become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture”. It seems clear from this book that humans can be hefted, too.
I was moved to borrow Anne Michael’s second novel, The Winter Vault, from the Halifax Public Library after Graeme Wynne’s mention of the book (along with The Sentimentalists) in his introduction to Daniel Macfarlane’s Negotiating a River about the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The book is poetry, really, so do not read it with the expectation of being able to recognize the pattern of kitchen banter from your own life. However, it fits remarkably well in my informal collection of books in which water inundation stands as shorthand for loss, grief and the difficulty of an authentic recovery (whether you cling to the past or invent anew without an eye to that past).
A young engineer is apprenticed to the art of dam-building by his father, and his work on the St. Lawrence Seaway after the loss of that father is a tribute to the older man. He meets his wife-to-be in the dry once-riverbed as she collects plant species, and starts to feel the violation of his work, ecologically but also for residents of the seven Lost Villages. He atones by takes a job relocating the Abu Simbel temples in the erstwhile Nubia, to save them from the rising waters of the Nile during construction of the High Aswan Dam. This, too, feels like a violation, as most certainly do the sterile villages constructed for the displaced Nubians. For the Nubian culture, the Nile was the lifeline, and the inundation severed it and scattered this nation in all directions. Of one of the soon-to-be lost Nubian villages, the heroine, Jane, observes:
Here was a human love of place so freely expressed, alive with meaning; houses so perfectly adapted to their context in materials and design that they could never be moved. It was an integrity of art, domestic life, landscape … it was Ashkeit they should be salvaging; though it could never exist anywhere else, and if moved, would crumble, like a dream. …no landscape alone could arouse such feeling. (p. 131-133).
In the final act of the book, these two erasures are juxtaposed with the destruction and reconstruction of Warsaw in the Second World War, as remembered by Polish-Canadian survivors. Of the reconstruction of the ‘Old Town’, in cartoon form, the guerilla artist Lucjan describes:
Walking for the first time into the replica of the Old Town, said Lucjan, the rebuilt market square – it was humiliating. Your delirium made you ashamed – you knew it was a trick, a brainwashing, and yet you wanted it so badly. … It was a brutality, a mockery – at first completely sickening, as if time could be turned back, as even the truth of our misery could be taken from us. And yet the more you walked, the more your feelings changed … you began to remember more and more. Childhood memories, memories of youth and love … (p. 309)
The characters are not quite people, but ideas. Despite the difficulty this brought for my complete immersion and empathy, the ideas themselves were engrossing, especially for those interested in the impacts of dam construction and removal.