WALDEN ISLAND

It’s her paradise. As an American she may have to fight for it

Elizabeth Walden May 1 1975

WALDEN ISLAND

It’s her paradise. As an American she may have to fight for it

Elizabeth Walden May 1 1975

WALDEN ISLAND

Elizabeth Walden

It’s her paradise. As an American she may have to fight for it

Last year the province of Nova Scotia announced it was taking back 5,462 acres from an Ohio woman who had maintained the shoreline property in its natural state since 1946. This was easily the most startling effect of the $8.3 million Nova Scotia allocated in 1974 for reclaiming land from private owners. Well, I’ve got a warning for Dr. Maurice DeLory, the provincial Minister of Lands and Forests. If he decides to expropriate my island property and he’s not warded off by the hiss of a mink at our landing, if deer and wild sheep don’t barricade the meadow path, he’s apt to be met at the house by two children with green-apple munitions and one small American mother with bare feet and a shotgun braced on the rooftop behind her early 19th-century flue.

I became a Nova Scotian landowner through one creased and worried page of a Nova Scotia weekly newspaper in the winter of 1960. I had subscribed to the paper from my home in New York State just to keep in touch with the area where, five years before, my parents had bought an old house and 30 acres by the sea. NOTICE OF ADJOURNED TAX SALE was predestined, _ I suppose, to draw my sight-unseen bid of$99.21 — taxes due | on 265 offshore acres and “some buildings.”

I 1 already knew the island somewhat, having often seen its j eastern shore from the road between town and my parents’ - place. From a distance I’d seen the high rocky bluffs, forest I and lighthouse, and a sail around the island in my brother’s fj two-jibbed sloop had hinted at a pastoral western side.

The tax auction w'as a repeat, no bidders the first time. An* other property on the island was up again for $41.10. but. not ü wanting to seem piggy. I put in only the one bid — and am still 5 kicking myself. A speculator now owns the land I could have Ü had then for $41 and has offered it to me for $10.000. He also ° owns the island's north end. an old house and 65 acres I once E might have had for $500. I think he wants $75.000 for it. Anl other speculator is asking $87,500 for 285 acres next to it.

The only bid was my $99.21. If in one year the tax-delinE quent owner did not reclaim his 265 acres and “some build-

ings,” the deed would pass to me. The following June I went alone to see what might be mine. And I was met by compassionate smiles: “That old place? You’d do best with a can of gasoline, burn her down and start over.” Which I took to mean there actually was a house.

The fisherman’s dory couldn't land me fast enough. Above a w'ind-contorted orchard and higher stand of spruce, I caught sight of two tired chimneys and a frail roof. I climbed a knoll and found a cellar hole and several magnificent apple trees. The view was spectacular.

On the crest of a sloping field stood the house, as if a dream had put it there, rose-hued and miniature, two peaks inclined in unison, so quiet in the waving grass it seemed to be expecting me. I moved around it marveling at cornices and molded window frames, granite blocks the length of solid sills. If this place wasn’t worth trying to save, what was?

Before heading back to New' York I sought the tax-delinquent owner, perhaps a foolish move on my part, but he obviously had no wish to discuss the island. “Never going back to that lonely place,” his wife said at her kitchen faucets, and in a gesture her husband waved aside unpaid taxes and hard memories. For my $99.21 I inherited their house and land, as well as an attached w'oodshed with gaping roof, leaning barn and privy, rotted chicken house, half-shot fish house, washedout wharf and two remaining skids of a pole landing, five prize acres of orchard, meadow', stone walls, lilac, syringa, berries and flowers, another 260 acres of overgrown field and forest across to the eastern bluffs. I inherited 10 summers of torn ligaments, a terrifying sense of inadequacy, and so sw'eet a setting for my qualms and aching bones that 1 love it to distraction; can’t miss a summer; will never see the pyramids.

In the fall of 1960 a bid of $50 (again the only bid) brought me 60 acres of sweeping ocean frontage, broad fields backed

Elizabeth Walden is a writer who divides her time between New York State and her island in Nova Scotia.

by forest, stone walls, a cellar hole. In '61 1 had the deeds. In ’62, the newroof w'as put on by hired help.

The hunt for a willing carpenter was to bald several tires on the old shore roads. Requirements were rugged: he needed a boat, strength for the loads we carried, and a penchant for the absurd. No telephones, so a 25-mile chase from my parents' house on the mainland to where the water narrows, my side of the island, was often blind but never wild-goose. Word spread, and in many an hour of parlor rocking I’d be making friends. I needed an army — or rather a navy — of friends.

The first to come to my aid were the lightkeepers stationed three miles from my place. They, and a wintering lobsterman. were the island’s only residents. Without their boat, wharf hoist, truck and goodness. I doubt that I'd have a house there now. Certainly no kerosene refrigerator, no 500-pound antique pump organ either. The keeper's wife sustained me w ith homebaking: the lighthouse's “second man” demolished some partitions, carted plaster away, mowed the paths and a small lawn until wild sheep relieved him. For three summers I was without a boat. The lightkeepers would ferry me over for three-day work stints, while the children stayed with their grandparents. (I’ll admit here to a decided dependenon grandmother-love, her vegetable garden and warm rooms waiting; on father-power with hammer, saw. marine paint and words of encouragement.)

1 preferred a tent to sheep-and-deer droppings on the floor inside. Kilroy and cha-cha-cha jazzing the walls. The predecessor’s trash w as cleared, but mice lingered with the smells. Swallows in a dow nstairs bedroom, bats in the upstairs rafters, and still another resident I chose to avoid: the spirit of the old man whose name was etched on a kitchen pane, the man who’d built the place ii^ 1810 and a real stickler. He eavesdropped on my thoughts, forced them to keep to the old ways when 1 visualized the restored interior. “No gimcracking!” he shouted from his molded doors, his paneling halfway up the walls. Until we got along better I steered cUar. 1 stayed outside. There the air was pure. A hammer in the evening quiet echoed like rifle shot. Two walls of brash new shingle rose, two windows w ere wrecked from the shell of a house down the wagon road and added to mine, the woodshed was reroofed.

In a shock of red. w hite for the trim, the house was coming back to life. The stain would deepen, then fade. The old man had used the same stain. I think, and was thereafter kinder to me. Still, with my carpenter gone and 110 windowpanes yet to glaze. I chose to stay in the orchard tent. The stone wall was my stove, a lobster crate my table; a basin wedged in a broken chair wras the sink; a pull-spray shower hung from a limb; a

backless rocker seated the lightkeeper’s wife on rare visits.

Otherwise I was alone. My first real sense of belonging came that windowpane summer. The full moon rose over the privy to light my way by night. By day I had the animals for company. Sheep and deer, mice and gophers at mealtimes, a chipmunk on the wall, a great blue heron barking at me from the collapsed barn roof as it smoked in the sunrise.

September came, the grass like ice, underfoot when I’d leave the tent. A ruthless wind finally forced me into the house with the window sashes, cold as a cave inside. The kitchen range needed fixing first but everywhere I looked the needs cried out. And so I fled to children and parents, warm rooms, bath and bed. Next summer I would have to face it: the time had come for the inside work I dreaded. One room per summer was accomplished, the living room spread over three.

During two winters the island’s lobsterman built our big pole landing, raised the fish house roof, w'orked out a drainage system for the Kiwanis-auction, cast-iron sink (75 cents), big enough for small people’s baths and cradled by a robust Dadbuilt counter. When the kitchen was ready and the new boat launched, we moved in.

Since then, the old man of the house has been fairly tolerant. Until the children hear him pace the stairs at night they forget about him. But I know he’s always there. Slow to accept the new' and different, such as ice cubes, he likes to monkey with the kerosene fridge, grab the cleaning rag and lodge it halfway up the flue system, poke holes in the oil pan. jam the glass chimney, break it. and keep the door from latching two slams out of three. Often, though. I’m glad he’s there. Once he called me down from a sound sleep to check a lantern left burning high by a guest.

1 knew nothing about motors when I took possession of our 18-foot Cape Island boat w ith cuddy built for children and cargo. The fishermen at Sandy Point keep her each winter, endorse her each spring as a good safe boat. Indeed the Molly is. loaded often to the gunwales with lumber, windows, doors, Franklin stove, iron beds, pump organ. I admitted to no one a fright verging on panic when I first took the outboard helm. She seemed huge. I still fear rough water, rocks and frequent fog. when 1 have to trust the children’s future, dog. cat and groceries to the compass and the laws of chance. After about 20 fogbound crossings of a summer I begin to expect collision at some point on the two-mile diagonal across the harbor’s mouth. In rough weather 1 shut out cowardice only by fierce concentration and get on with the w harf-ladder loading — 20 feet down to low tide while the Molly slam-bangs against the pier. Then the wet unloading from mooring to punt to pole

landing, the several wheelbarrow loads up the long hazardous path. When 1 dare, I bring the Molly in on the poles. A big rock narrows the landing, and tide and wind must be right. Before the mooring was rigged she would drag anchor in strong westerlies; one night she moved all the way to the tidal rocks. I sang prayers from her nearly capsized hull until 2 a.m., when the tide finally turned.

I'll always thipk of her as young, but the Molly's grow ing old. So is the paint job on the house, and the kitchen needs redoing. The house now has a guest room and shower room in the attached woodshed.

Now that the house is saved, there's time at last for the island. Remains of a 19th-century community, relics, bottles, crocks and earlier indications (French? privateer? Indian?) excite the archaeologist in me. Beachcombing is never dull. Low tide offers clams, mussels, sea urchins, scallops, whelks, a million periwinkles. Swimming’s either numbing or sublime, no bathing suits required in either case.

Maybe my favorite sport is metamorphosing in the woods. I follow shafts of light that reveal a clearing I didn't know existed. Invariably new' discoveries; another cellar hole, stone w'all sinking to oblivion, offspring of an apple tree. With each new discovery the dilemma deepens: how to save this gold mine from profit seekers? The island is threatened, the north end seriously, by speculators. They want to develop. They don't own its protected western shore, a “beach lot” grant, but if no one fights they’ll take it.

I'll fight.

In 1972 we stayed year-round, surprising everyone, particularly the Department of Transport. One.October Wednesday. I heard chain saws start up. heavy equipment lumber over the highroad and knew that the talk of electricity for an automated lighthouse was becoming actuality. In my paint rags 1 tore through the huckleberry shortcut. “Those are my trees!” 1 yelled. “And you’ve bulldozed my communications system!" (The old chair and ox yoke for signaling the lighthouse truck were in pieces on a bank of uprooted birch and apple.) Everything stopped. But only until officialdom confirmed the highway department’s right of way: 66 feet across what the deeds call the base line dividing the original grants and not touched by the highway department’s scraper since World War IF

Farther along the highroad, slender, numbered poles marked the spots where big ones would stand. Nearing the south end a 200-year-old pine towers w here the road bends. A landmark for the early settlers, this tree in the island's centre could be seen from all sides and base-line sightings were taken from it. Four of the markers impaled its trunk likes spears of a

picador. To make way for one bleak electrical pole the landmark was destined to meet the chain saw. 1 protested until the poles were detoured; the pine stays, but the power line could not be stopped. Today an electronic bleep like a dying cow replaces the lighthouse’s old steam-powered horn. If the keepers go too. someone will have made a grave mistake. Come a winter storm, a fallen wire and the usual automation bugs, a critically needed light, unmanned, could bring disaster.

Self-protection was a main concern for many vears. Who owned the knoll with cellar hole, the lower orchard where 1 first landed? After 10 years of sleuthing, delv ing into records. 1 learned that this old homesite belonged in 1780 to my old builder’s father, and since 1960 has had its taxes paid bv me (along w ith taxes on 100 other acres I didn't know about). Evidently my name was allowed to spread here and there on the tax map as a convenience, relieving the office of additional assessment. owners unknown, and unpaid tax bills. I didn't quibble. Instead I paid the taxes on more acreage to the south, gained title and found I'd beaten a development team to it bv a couple of hours.

And that has made me a land-grabber. Owning half the 1.800-acre island, more than I can sustain. I've formed a partnership with five American friends. Together we hope to fend off development, are pledged to defend the w ildlife, the delicate low lands, the island's history . In 1980 each of the five w ill own an original 50-acre grant never to be subdivided or to contain more than one dwelling, preferably log. Meanwhile, under our “Settlers' Agreement.” we share the taxes and mv partners begin to settle the southern grants.

Understandably, there's some local resentment. Yet I ask the few who have grumbled — You were there, why didn't you grab 11? In 1960 you had two chances, vv hv didn't you bid? A lot more easily than I. and spending no more than you would for a car, you could have made the old place what it is today. Might not the millions of dollars the prov ince has set aside for reclaiming land from private owners — expropriation - be better used against the speculator and developer than the American resident who cherishes his land and wildlife?

I'd like to have the whole island, to keep it as is. Silence sings. I hear the bird's flight, the forest breathing. Still, the island's wonders are not my propertv. The island belongs to itself. It belongs to the viewer on the mainland or the water. It should belong to anvone w ho steps ashore and pauses, listens, breathes its special fragrance, follows its paths and wagon roads, glad to find it unspoiled — maybe rediscovering in the unpeopled quiet a part of the self that was left behind bv progress or lost in the noisy crowd. Ó