GUEST COLUMN

Dying signals from proud beacons

Why do we replace human achievement with sterile, standardized blah?’

Silver Donald Cameron May 4 1981
GUEST COLUMN

Dying signals from proud beacons

Why do we replace human achievement with sterile, standardized blah?’

Silver Donald Cameron May 4 1981

Dying signals from proud beacons

GUEST COLUMN

Why do we replace human achievement with sterile, standardized blah?’

Silver Donald Cameron

The island of St. Esprit thrusts into the North Atlantic off the fogbound, lonely coast of Cape Breton Island. Its big white lighthouse was the only real landmark in 30 km. It’s gone now. Transport Canada, through the Canadian Coast Guard, has demolished it and about 50 other maritime lighthouses during the past 10 years; in 1980 alone, seven proud beacons fell to austerity budgets and limits in bureaucrats’ mandates. The lights themselves now stand on ugly steel towers which resemble telephone poles with extra crossbars. The crossbars are painted fluorescent orange, and they’re supposed to be as visible as the buildings they replace. Perhaps they’re visible in an Ottawa lab, but on a wet, grey day, from the heaving deck of a nine-metre sailboat, they’re utterly worthless.

The lighthouses evaporate without warning. One day there’s a bonfire, and the next day there’s a skeleton tower. The coast guard’s weekly Notices to Mariner's informs us only after the building has vanished.

It’s gone: a century of history, a storehouse of memory, a piece of the shore-dweller’s identity. Built on remote capes and patches of rocky islet, lighthouses are often unique expressions of human creativity, triumphant solutions to complex engineering and architectural problems. That’s why there’s no “standard” lighthouse, why Dudley Witney’s 1975 book, Lighthouses, records such a wild, imaginative assortment of shapes, sizes, materials and colors. Forget all that: from now on, residents and tourists alike are invited to feel the emotional resonance of a tarted-up telephone pole.

Lighthouses are noble human achievements, the stuff of poetry and mythology, symbols of peril and aid. To coastal people oceans are highways leading everywhere. Lighthouses guard us from dangers, give us our departures and landfalls. One sails not from New York to England, but from Sandy Hook to the Lizard.

Even practical, hardheaded sailors feel this. “When I saw that big white house on Quetique Island, outside our harbor,” said the old skipper, Leonard Pertus, “I knew I was home.” He was 90 when he died, the last master of sailing vessels in our village. To him that lighthouse was like a personal friend. It was like a personal friend to Howard Doyle, its last attendant, who lived there until his children went to school.

Claude Poirier wanted to tow that lighthouse ashore and live in it. He bought it from the Crown for a song, but on condition that he remove it by the beginning of the official navigational season. The drift ice was bad, and Claude couldn’t get the boats out, skid the house down from its foundation and tow it to the village until the ice was gone.

Allan Fotheringham is ill.

He asked for an extension: it was refused. On the day before the deadline, he sailed to Quetique Island and demolished the building. Otherwise he would have lost his $500 performance bond. What kind of policy makes a man demolish his own dream? To cap it all, the construction crew arrived with a tower high enough to be visible over the old lighthouse. They had been told it couldn’t be removed in time, and made allowances. But nobody told Claude Poirier.

Michael Turner, the coast guard’s regional manager of aids and waterways, points out that the coast guard “has no mandate, and is not funded, to provide tourist attractions. We do stretch a point, when the lighthouse is particularly visible from the land. There’d be hell to pay if we tore down the ones in Baddeck and Peggys Cove, for instance, so we just swallow hard and pay the cost of maintaining them” (an estimated $400 to $700 per annum).

The towers show up well on radar—but not all small boats carry radar. The finest navigational instrument ever created is the human eye, and if we can’t see these wretched towers what then? Turner nods and replies that the lighthouses are now being replaced by fibre glass towers, three to 12 metres high, which look like lighthouses and are much more visible than skeleton towers. And where a lighthouse has outstanding heritage value? Well, the one at ¡¿¡Cape North was built of iron castings and had a compliscated, elegant French lens; iwhen it was replaced recently, uthe old tower was dismantled and shipped to Ottawa, where it will guide shipping from the grounds of the National Museum of Science & Technology.

One can’t blame Turner. But how does it happen that we can co-ordinate government agencies and come up with millions for Mirabel and Chrysler, Bricklin and Mercator, Pickering and the F-18, and yet cannot maintain these beautiful and useful products of our people? The lighthouses are symbolic of the kind of repulsive country we seem to be creating. Why could the Canada of 50 years ago sustain dozens of families in these lighthouses, while the much wealthier Canada of today cannot even afford the buildings? Why is it that the things we once did routinely can no longer be done at all? Why do we always replace human achievement with sterile, standardized blah?

Do Canadians actually treasure the cheap, the boring, the anonymous? Look at any Canadian downtown, any Canadian newspaper, any government building, any shopping mall. The same terrifying mentality, shorn of all that really matters in the human makeup, is always in charge. Even in their deaths, the lighthouses warn us of dangers in. As always, we ignore them at our peril.

Silver Donald Cameron is a novelist and journalist living on Cape Breton Island, N.S.