A dream, an oil tanker and a dying bird

HARRY BRUCE May 1 1970

A dream, an oil tanker and a dying bird

HARRY BRUCE May 1 1970

A dream, an oil tanker and a dying bird



Run. Flee the horrid city. Run to the last_

sweet lonely seaside and what will you_

find? Oil pollution, baby. What else? (BELOW)

Aislin looks at the Quebec election tp. is)_

Tax tip: live in sin for fun and profit tp. is)_

Several grisly reasons why it just doesn’t do to climb the big CBC tower (p. 28)

And more argy-bargy among our readers tp. 22-27)

I HAVE SEEN the long, sounding curve of the lonely shore only a few times in my entire life, and I have not come even close to knowing it well since the first summer I was there, the summer I turned 12, and I learned to run barefoot on its hard stones, under the turning gulls, and over the happy clams, and around the sinister jellyfish, the sun-crisped cowflaps, the venerable boat sheds, the lobster pots, the old men of the sea, the dry bones of fish, the tar, the marline, the cork, the shells, the spruce, the roily little

tidal gut, and all along the cold and ceaseless Atlantic foam.

And now, a quarter of a century later, the sheds, the men, the pots, they’re pretty well all gone from the beach but the scene keeps coming back to me, and there’s scarcely a day goes by that I don’t see the small, dark, deep slash of forest above the surf, and the house I’ll build up there to face Spain. And the water system, the septic tank, the wood-burning stove, the pile of firewood, the coaloil lamps, the bunk beds for the children, the log steps down to the water and, always, the noble sloop riding at anchor just off our front door.

It is all so easy to see. The dawn is gold, the trees are wet, the morning air is sharp and, soon, the breeze will be coming across the bay from the brightening southwest. We are alone here. No one can find us. There’s nothing much to do but chop wood, read, go sailing, build shacks in the bush, and slowly recover some halfremembered state of spirituaf,_grace. The city, urban ambitions, ignoble temptations, they stole the state of grace somewhere back in the late Fifties, but we’ll find it again, here in the wind off the old ocean, and our children will have it forever . . .

Well, that’s the idea anyway and, in February, I happened to be in Halifax and, on the afternoon of the ninth, a Monday, I could not stay there any longer, I had to test the dream, and I rented a car and headed east to the bay, the beach, the ribbon of dark forest. I reached Guysborough town that evening, stayed at Grant’s Hotel overnight — I was Mrs. Jenkins’ sole guest — and, by 8.30 Tuesday morn-

ing, my belly was full of poached eggs, bacon, toast and marmalade, and I was five or six miles down the north shore of Chedabucto Bay.

I left the car on the highway and, under some raucous crows in a wet sky, I went down on foot. Down through the packing snow, down a third of a mile to the sliding tides of the useless little harbor, and over the small causeway, and across the snow on the beach to the soaking stones, and the very place where the surf could roll to the edge of my boots and, way off in the west, Stewart’s Head jutted southward and, way off in the east, Ragged Head arrowed its long path into the bay. I inspected the water’s edge in the desolate weather, and it was all as I had hoped it would be. I stumbled through the thick, warm, silent woods, crashing and echoing around, falling down, smearing the rabbit tracks, reveling in my joyous intrusion.

I found that if I stood among the trees at the very edge of the cliff, I could not only see the waves as they rolled in far below, I could hear themv as well, and when we are all settled here the sound will always be with us. The morning was as clean as the inside of a sand-scoured clam shell, and ; it was not until early afternoon that I got back to the car, headed east to the Canso causeway, and crossed a corner of Cape Breton Island to Cape Auget, which broke my heart.

All along the island roads to Arichat and Cape Auget, the Viking, the Skye, Dino’s, the Marbro and the other motels declared they had no vacancies. Helicopters, with their red lights blinking, fluttered above the highway.


BRUCE continued

Light aircraft overtook me and streamed ahead. Cars shot past, crammed with men. The activity was curious, unseasonal. The motels, and even the guest houses, were full of officials from a dozen federal and provincial agencies, and with TV crews, frantic reporters, men from huge oil companies, pilots, demolition experts, conservationists, bird-lovers, biologists, scientists from several parts of the world, and even a team of flamethrowers from the U.S. Army. The Premier of Nova Scotia, a clutch of his cabinet ministers, and the president of Imperial Oil were all in the neighborhood, and the federal Transport Minister had threatened to show up, too. And the reason for all this instant and gross activity, so close to my secret place, was a hideous sort of international happening. A Liberian oil tanker, the Arrow — owned by Aristotle Onassis, a man of obscene wealth — had snagged herself on Cerberus Rock six days earlier, and she was stuck fast, and she was slowly breaking up and now, like some monstrous and punctured sac of poison, she was relentlessly leaking her pestilential cargo in great inky-black gobs.

Already, the stuff had crept upon perhaps 20 miles of shoreline on Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia, and God only knew how many thousands of birds it had destroyed, or how many fish it might eventually kill, or how many more miles of coastline it would infest for how many more years to come.

And the Arrow was only a baby tanker. She was carrying a mere 16,000 tons of bunker oil. All along the island side of the Strait of Canso you can see the busy smokestacks, the fuming evidence of tremendous new industrial activity and, before too many months have passed, there will be oil tankers heading in there, steaming past Cerberus Rock, andvfhese ships will make vessels of the Arrow’s size look like matchbox toys of the high seas. I have preferred to think of the strait area as an obscure part of the world but, in August, the age of the 200,000-ton and even 300,000-ton supertanker is due to arrive there; and, by water, Cerberus Rock is roughly 20 miles from my place on the shore.

Anyway, at 3.30 that afternoon I was standing on the bleak, bony and normally beautiful coastline at Cape Auget. Arichat was across a small bay, and I could see Jerseyman Island, Crichton Island and, way off beyond them, Janvrin Island. About two miles straight west lay the broken hulk of the Arrow and, near her, a

sisterly pair of tugs. On every shore in sight there were long, ugly strips of black mire and scum and, out in the bay, a couple of ducks were floating around. There was something odd about them, they were too dark, they looked like hunters' decoys and I was sure that, although they were trying, they could no longer move their wings. At the point where I stood, a big, flat splotch of the stuff kept nudging and licking the beach, and its edges would curl and move on their own and, for a second, I thought, Migod! It’s thinking! The beach rocks were thick in the blackness, and shiny; and the clumps of seaweed had a hideous texture; and, all along the water's edge, the sludge lay like a curse that no kiss or magic word would ever lift.

A man was coming along the beach. He was stepping carefully, keeping just above the disgusting high-water mark. He wore an olivegreen parka-coat, the working uniform of a Lands and Forests officer, and he was carrying a clear-plastic bag in his right hand. In one of the bottom corners of the bag there was a blob of thick oil, or something. The blob was about as big as a basketball. I watched the man as he came closer and, when he stopped, I spoke to him. “What have you got in the bag?” “It’s a bird, it’s some sort of bird.” “What kind do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. A crow maybe.”

The man looked across the bay. For a second or two, he surveyed the whole terrible seascape.

“My Jesus,” he said, “that’s a sad thing. It’s beyond words, just bloody well beyond words.” □


Mrs. Margaret Atkinson, of Lantzville, BC, mailed a box of laundry soap back to the manufacturers and, along with the package, she sent the following message:

“I hope, most ardently, that you will see fit to eliminate from your product those elements so harmful to life. My sense of values does not place the whiteness of my laundry above the survival of my species. Or, indeed, of any other species. If it does not suit your purpose to thus improve your product, then please, sirs, in all fairness, at least advertise it honestly for what it is: a mild pollutant, but a pollutant nonetheless. Indicate its contents on its wrapping so that we homemakers may decide for ourselves whether or not we wish to kill ± our grandchildren. Here, then, is your soap—plus. Please, dispose of it carefully.”