Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Visiting with the Past

My wife Nancy and I just returned from a visit to Nova Scotia. I should probably mention that , being of Scottish descent, I am likely to find anything Scottish at least a little bit interesting. That minor caveat aside, we were both deeply taken with the beauty of this part of the world, both natural and man made. The natural terrain bears a strong kinship to that of Scotland, with its rugged, rocky coastlines and deep, dark spruce forests. The polished granites of Peggy's Cove speak directly to a far distant geological past, much like that of the Scottish landscape. A little research indicates that this particular stone mates with similar from northern Africa, though, and not Europe! So much for first impressions. The northern coastal climate is the real source of the biological similarities, favoring spruce over the deciduous forests found farther south. The proximity of the sea accounts for the rest, with its inevitable impact on the local sea oriented culture.

It is the overlay of man made history that drives our interest today. Like much of North America, the incoming Europeans displaced the Native Americans, who have left little more than place names to remind us that they predated the present residents. We Europeans have all but obliterated any other trace of their presence, a direct result of our greater (and still increasing) numbers and tendency to build more extensive and relatively permanent structures. The expansion has occurred over some several centuries now and, where the earlier European settlements remain, they call to the more attentive visitor about our history, relatively brief though it is.

Our main focus on this trip was such a place, a rather well known tourist stop: Peggy's Cove. Traveling as much as we do, Nancy and I are all too familiar with the commercialization which tends to destroy the heart of many of these historic places, leaving a thin shadow of the former reality. Fortunately, Peggy's Cove is largely spared this ignominy. While there is a fairly constant flow of tourists, fed by a series of large tourist buses, the accommodations for the buses and tourists are all kept outside of the small village. If you want to see Peggy's Cove up close, it is necessary to get off the bus and walk through the little village, which is still an occupied and functional fishing village. It remains 'the real thing', not some gussied up caricature of a recently deceased community. The changes are limited to a parking lot just outside the village and a rather large gift shop and additional parking at the highpoint just above and beyond the opposite side of the village, near the well known lighthouse. This seems to have worked well to keep the village relatively untouched from the more typical effects of the tourist invasion, with the hardscrabble nature of a thin existence by the sea evident in the ubiquitous peeling paint and mossy, rotting, but still functional, and functioning, structures.

(click on image to enlarge)
These places were once the norm on the extensive New England coastline and are hardly considered 'romantic' or beautiful by the occupants. As with many occupations, the hard, bare lifestyle was made untenable by the introduction of large scale commercial fishing and the resulting reduction of many of the fish species that these communities depended on. The pattern is echoed in our own local fisheries. The South Shore of Long Island was such a place until fairly recently. The once common fishing boats are now gone, and there is virtually no trace of their former existence, as even their old haunts have been filled with condos and restaurants.

(click on image to enlarge)
Visiting places such as Peggy's Cove calls to us, as it reminds us of a recently lost history and way of living. It is interesting that we now find beauty in the spare, plain structures placed so precariously exposed to the elements. There is nothing to be found here that is not functional in some respect, the rare dalliance with the unnecessary restricted to a coat of brightly colored paint on a window frame or a boat hull. All else is unadorned in its pristine directness, built to a purpose. As the bulk of the tourists moved ahead, Nancy and I lagged behind to more closely examine the intimate details of this wonderful place: surprisingly bright colored mosses growing through the peeling paint on the base and foundation of a small wooden outbuilding, the moldy details of a hidden stairway between two buildings, a haphazard pile of bright orange trap floats and rust. Rust was everywhere, ever present. No item of steel escapes, as evidenced by the rusty streaks marking the presence of steel nails in the buildings. Here were the trace details of an active seafaring life grown in place for many, many years.

Why do such places speak to us so strongly? It must be more than simple 'quaintness' of a type of life since past. Do we yearn for the simple directness of such an existence rather than the fast moving complexities of the present? Do some of feel that we have lost something important, even vital in the transition? When I look out on our own Great South Bay, and see not a single individual remainder of the once omnipresent clammers and oyster boats, I know we have lost something important in the local community. The Bay can no longer support the oysters, clams and scallops that once put Bluepoint and the Great South Bay on the map, a victim of overfishing and pollution runoff from expanding suburbia.

It is one of my few regrets that these things, taken so for granted at the time, were passing away even as I watched. My recognition of what was happening came far too late, too late to record all but a few scattered remnants. But I look and find the bits and pieces where I can. Not all has yet been erased and built over, not yet.

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