MAKING A PLACE

Land is not a commodity. Land is a legacy

Greg Cook May 1 1975
MAKING A PLACE

Land is not a commodity. Land is a legacy

Greg Cook May 1 1975

Land is not a commodity. Land is a legacy

MAKING A PLACE

Greg Cook

I was fortunate. I grew up on a farm, and it was there that I first felt everyone should have a trysting space: “An appointed place, as of lovers.” This place is not home. Home is where we learned some rules. Nor is it an island at the mouth of the river. The island was our place outside the law. It is different with the tryst.

There you discover instinct and its natural continuity. As soon as you slavishly follow the rule, for example, that maidenhead moss grows only on the north side of trees then you are lost in the discovery of an exception. The tryst is a place hunters and fishermen may have. Some people who do other things have it, too.

My tryst was along the brook that ran from our farm to the Chebogue River, near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. 1 could peel clusters of alder seeds there, eat the banana-like core and pretend I was an ape. Swinging over water on alders, 1 was Tarzan. Hooking the bleeding worm I learned something of death, how sun diminished the trout’s speckles. Thumps of partridge and rabbit, the chatter of squirrels, the birds and rain were there. Their sounds grew or died out of moon, wind and sun. There were toadstools, evergreen spills and paper birch rustling. And there was the hush of decay and of renewal.

Just one lady’s-slipper a year pleased Mother. I took a girl there, and she looked from her back up tree trunks to skyabove eddying foam in my favorite brook and she saw what I had never seen before. When someone meets you in your tryst they see what you see and more.

If you recognize anyone as an intruder in your trysting place, even if he is your father’s nephew (the one who taught you how to use a gun), he may appear foreign. And you may do foolish things. I went there with him, and I thought I’d show him and my father how well I knew my way. I ran ahead to hide and wait in the trail I knew they’d take and, on my belly behind a mossed-over stump. I tried to hold my breath because its condensation shows in winter. And I peeked because my parka spoiled my hearing of their coming. Had I not looked I would not have seen him start to aim his gun at my rabbit-fur parka. And I would not have said. “Hi,” pretending 1 hadn’t seen how he’d almost shot me.

The revelation of what it is like to be a victim in the eyes of the man who taught you to shoot straight is just a moment of self-awareness in your trysting space. If you experience the spirit of such a place you can survive.

But if we push back our frontiers until there is no more trysting place, we are lost. The spirit of place — cumulative moments of self-awareness — diminishes, and the last crisis of identity faces each of us. Land is more than a mere commodity. When it “changes hands” there is a transmission of feeling for that piece of land. There is an emotion in the last will and testament that passes land, as a legacy, from an ancestor to a

descendant; and, even between strangers, the handing over of land can include a “willing” of dreams, hopes and experience. If it does not, then the continuity of an old testament, and the growth of a new one, cannot flourish. And now, foreign newspapers and magazines offer up our legacy. Nova Scotia land — “$25 an acre. Good investment opportunity.”

Michael and Cathy and a friend of theirs, all in their twenties, convinced a man (who had already been offered three times as much as they could raise for the property) to sell them 300 acres of woodland near Diligent River, NS. On this same site, just above the watermark of the earth’s highest tides, a family homesteaded until one October night in 1896. Father and son went to the barn to see what troubled their braying livestock. Neither barn nor livestock, nor son nor husband were seen again after the wife heard the rush and retreat of the Saxby Gale’s tidal wave. The wife packed what she could carry and walked almost out of memory.

Michael and Cathy have covenanted to renew the dream, log by log, and almost 80 years later. They telephoned me to ask for help yarding their cabin logs because Michael was sick and the old mare. Lady, was on loan for only a few days. The night I arrived at their campsite the full moon was so bright I could read “honey” on ajar in their driftwood kitchen. Venus was bright enough to cast a wide shaft across Cape Split and the Minas Basin channel that some think men may yet harness as one of the world’s greatest supplies of hydro power.

Lady taught us as much as one needs to know to get 60 logs through the woods to a cabin site.

But we had time to paddle an evening to a close on a spring-fed lake where trout lie deep. And we talked to the blue heron as we blistered our hands carting foundation stone. And we watched for the cormorant, as rare as the hearthstone Michael found and Cathy blessed by kissing him.

I found time to whistle to the woods, watch the snake catch its frog lunch, and laugh at the fool hens. I saw Michael and Cathy’s love grow larger than the old-fashioned respect they were learning for what a man and woman can do together with their hands. It embraced everything around them. Their dream is that building their trysting place slow and easy will make it perfect.

Gordon and Charlotte Hammond looked at the globe from Toronto, and discussed why they wanted out. “We just decided that this way of life, the country way, is so much better for the kids,” Charlotte recalls. “And I would have time to paint. Our relationships in the city were getting too incestuous and we just wanted to be alone. To stay you had to totally

Greg Cook is a writer living in Wolfville, N.S.

“Suppose we cut the last tree that grows, then pull out?”

commit yourself to fighting for the right things for the city.”

Adjacent to an old midstream, on an 18-acre point of farmland that juts into the Atlantic, Gordon found a 22-room house heated by wood stoves. Across the paved road to Clam Harbor, about 40 miles east of Halifax, the property extends into 200 acres of woodlot. The owner was in his seventies, his wife had just died, and his asking price was simply what it would cost him to buy a trailer, move back to where he was born, dig a well and build a garage.

“He wasn’t greedy,” Gordon remembers. “He really seemed to get off on the idea of a young family coming in and sort of doing things.”

“You know,” the man said, “I’m leavin’ all the furniture except I’m takin’ the old bedroom suite that come up from Boston by sled in the 1800s. . . and I’m takin’ some of the silver and nothin’ else.”

The lawyer in Toronto told Gordon he’d better get an itemized list. “I said, well hell, he said he’s selling us the house and everything . . . Everything was here. The freezer was here and there were steaks in it and frozen blueberries . . .”

Charlotte remembers, “The first thing that just astounded me was the space. The first two months we just couldn’t believe we were here.”

But the edge of her image of space was first framed on August 25, 1972, when the government announced a national park for a 225-square-mile area all around them. The land and beach beside them would become the heart of the park. “We had some friends here that weekend, and we went down to the beach to look at what we might lose. We just filled with tears.”

The very kind of battle the Hammonds had fled in Toronto had come to roost on their ocean doorstep. For 18 months they were in the forefront of a citizens’ fight with government to save 24 permanent and 165 summer or retirement homes that were destined for burning or demolition. They and some others enlisted press sympathy, 2,000 petitioned and 500 marched on the legislature to articulate and hold intact a cultural heritage, a dream of space and freedom.

Prime holdings adjacent to park boundaries sold within days — some even before the official government announcement — at prices inflated by 300% to 500%; but, finally, in December of 1973, the provincial government announced that it was reneging on its agreement with Ottawa to provide the national park.

Premier Gerald Regan said the cost of private land for the proposed national park would have been nearly $10 million. But in this struggle to share the tryst, who were the ultimate wanners? The residents who protested? Perhaps. Or was it also private enterprise, friends of the Regan government who speculated in land near the park before.it was even announced? Or was it buyers in New England who invested in the land as a hedge against inflation; or the Scott Maritimes Pulp company, which has the contract for cutting on crown land in the area?

And how does the foreign owner of land express the spirit of a legacy? Scott Maritimes Pulp Limited owns one million acres of forest in Nova Scotia. The title to nearly 10% of Nova Scotia’s land mass rests in the Philadelphia books of this multinational corporation. The land has been appreciating substantially in value every year. Scott and two other pulp companies have access to roughly 25% of the province’s forest.

Thomas Smith knows quite a bit about the pulp companies. He’s 61, a retired dairy farmer in Hilden, near Truro. Absentee landlords in Scotland were one reason why his grandfather settled in Nova Scotia in 1776. Tom, the only son in the third generation, was destined to become a farmer.

About 80% of his 700-acre Brookland Farm is forest land, and the farm depends for its survival on the woodlot resource.

Some 30,000 Nova Scotians own 52% of all the available timber land. Each of them owns 200 acres or fewer, and they are mostly farmers, wage-earners and old people who depend on their woodlots to supplement their incomes.

Tom Smith believes that the pulp companies discovered they could buy half their wood from these small operators at a price lower than the cost of taking wood off their own land or crown land. And he believes the four biggest pulp companies have acted as a combine to offer the lowest prices in Canada on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. These are the reasons why he was president of the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners Association in its eight-year struggle to win collective bargaining rights from the provincial government.

Tom remembers his testimony before the legislature’s law amendments committee:

“I said, during the early stages we tried to be on good terms with the pulp companies. We visited each one. And one I remember especially was Nova Scotia Forest Industries Limited [the Swedish-based company at Point Tupper, Cape Breton Island], They showed us through the mill and put on a banquet. And the woodlands manager called us into his office.

“ ‘Look here,’ he says, ‘the most of you are farmers. You haven’t got too much time to look after your woodlots.

“ ‘And,’ he says, ‘my first responsibility is to the shareholders of this company and they are foreign shareholders, and we’re gonna cut trees in Nova Scotia. We have experienced men who can cut efficiently. We’ve got trucks and can haul your pulp wood for you. And we can even plant trees for you, if you'll just make a deal.’

“And then he says this to us. He says, ‘Look, we’re gonna cut trees in Nova Scotia. Suppose we cut the last tree that grows, and then we’ll move out and go somewhere else.’ ”

Smith’s response was blunt. “I said, ‘Brother, no deals w ith me.’ ”

I walked with him up behind his farm to what he calls his “park.” On the highest bank above the brook that gave the farm its name, you feel how the centre goes out of a man when he realizes that none of his five sons or daughter may ever take over the farm. I think I see deer sign, but he says he doesn’t think there are many deer left. Yet, coming down, he finds deer hair on the barbed wire we have to cross. There, in his trysting place, I realize he refuses to cut — not because of the questions of price or of who thinks they own the earth — but because this natural growth of huge timber remains an untouched and private memorial of the legacy handed him.

Tom Smith, the Hammonds, and Michael and Cathy may provide a glimpse of our legacy of land in Nova Scotia, its unwritten will to continue, and its dream of fruition. Their'trysts are real, occupied and private. 1 have no right to invite you there. But you may come into my trysting place. I abandoned it as a boy in favor of the town, of the university and the city, of the job. But 1 have not lost it.

Quality of life is discovered in perspective and balance. You may discover this, alone in your trysting place; but, like a memory, it may be lost unless shared. At Michael and Cathy’s place I may learn to identify the cormorant or feel the meaning of a hearthstone. At the Hammonds’ I may find the meaning of space, or what makes a good breeder sow. These are things we shared. At Tom Smith’s we confirm there are still a few whitetail deer when he holds the strand of barbed wire for me. And I may see how stubborn a legacy is, almost to the point of writing itself, as those large timbers in his “park” grow hollow. I don’t go to my tryst anymore. Someone other than my father owns it now. I don’t need to. The legacy of that land is alive in memory. And if someone points a foreign view at me, I know what to say, how to begin. t£?