"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Ships that Pass

Elizabeth Bishop and travel are intimately connected in most of her readers’ minds. She identified her link to this idea and activity directly in many titles, including a poem title that became a book title: Questions of Travel. Most people think of “place” when the idea of travel is broached, that is, the places to which Bishop travelled. Her peripateticism was life-long, indeed, it probably began in utero, so caught up was her mother in moving back and forth between Nova Scotia and the “Boston States.” Further, the places she travelled to were so fascinating – Florida, Mexico, Brittany, Cabo Frio, the Galápagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Diamantina, Newfoundland, Leningrad, Sable Island and so on – there is an amazement when one contemplates Bishop’s destinations.

How she got to these places does not usually come in for much attention when thinking about Bishop’s travels, that is, her modes of transportation. Most of us see the getting from point A to point B as a necessity that is best tackled and then forgotten. Occasionally, it was so for Bishop, but usually she found the en route worthy of note, in journals, letters, stories and poems. Think of “A Trip to Vigia,” a trip done in an automobile, which is really about the en route more than the final destination. Bishop was not much of a driver of cars, though she owned two particularly interesting ones during her life (an MG and a Volkswagon Bug). She was a child during the era when the automobile was the harbinger of modernity and some members of her family (on both sides) were avid motorists. She travelled around Brazil mostly by car, especially between Rio and Petrópolis. Her accounts of these trips pepper her correspondence in the 1950s and 1960s. When she occasionally returned to the United States during these decades, she despaired of the ubiquity of the car and its impact on the landscape.

Interestingly, her first mode of transportation upon landing in Brazil in November 1951 was not the automobile, but the train – she took a train from Santos to Rio de Janeiro: “an apparently undreamed-of procedure, although I enjoyed it very much. The ‘roomette’ was just like those I’ve been trapped in before, except that all the instructions were in Portuguese which made it even more dream-like.” (One Art, Letters, p. 226) Bishop had known trains and train travel early on – during her childhood in trips through Nova Scotia (taking the Dominion Atlantic Railway from Yarmouth to Halifax and then the Canadian National from Halifax to Londonderry Station).

She writes about a particularly painful train trip in “The Country Mouse.” She travelled by train to and from the southern United States, during her years living in Florida. She took a train trip across Canada (west to east) and one across the United States (east to west) in 1968.

Bishop’s anxiety about flying is well-known, though by the 1970s she was using this form of transportation fairly regularly. Remember, Bishop was born at a time when flight was in its infancy. She was of the generation that saw flight transform from a specialized activity for a few hardy adventurers, explorers and dare-devils into a wide-spread commercial activity after World War II. Bishop flew from Boston to Halifax in 1951 on her way out to Sable Island. In her journal she wrote about how fascinating and surreal the clouds looked en route. There was no international airport in the city at that time, but a small regional one on the east side of Halifax Harbour. After landing and crossing the harbour on a small ferry, Bishop boarded the Coast Guard vessel Cornwallis for the voyage out to Sable Island. It is with the Cornwallis that we reach the mode of transportation which held the most significance for Bishop. This vessel was one of many ships Bishop travelled on during her life time.

She more than once noted that she was happiest being at sea and would choose this slower means of trans-Atlantic travel if she could logistically manage it. She loved the suspension of being on the water far away from land – but she also experienced the loneliness and disconnection being so far from land causes.

As we say in the Maritimes, Bishop came by her interest in the sea and seafaring honestly. Her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson was a mariner who was shipwrecked in 1866. Her great-uncle George Hutchinson painted large seascapes and ship portraits as a young man; they hung in her grandparents’ home. Her great-uncle John Robert Hutchinson made his own global sea journeys to India and back, nearly getting shipwrecked. Immediately after their wedding, her parents embarked on a sea voyage to Jamaica and the Panama Canal. Uncle Arthur Bulmer was fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (a year after Bishop’s birth), and Bishop remembered the books about the ship and a framed print of its sinking in her uncle’s house. Tragically, two ships played a devastating role in her mother’s life: the collision of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Belgian relief ship Imo in Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917, resulting in the worst non-nuclear man-made explosion in history, destroyed the north end of Halifax and seriously damaged the Nova Scotia Hospital where Bishop’s mother was resident.

From the time Bishop was a child she travelled between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts by steamer. She spent time as an adolescent at Camp Chequessett at Wellfleet, MA, a nautical summer camp for girls, and learned to sail. One of her first major trips was a 1932 walking tour of Newfoundland, and she reached St. John’s by freighter. She made two trans-Atlantic trips in the late 1930s. She preferred travelling by steamer or freighter – she did not do “cruises” in the way we think of them now, except the last year of her life when she cruised the Greek Islands. Whenever she lived by the ocean, especially ports, she was a keen observer of shipping. Ships fascinated her.

For example, she was fascinated by the strange and mysterious tale of the Mary Celeste, which was found drifting off the Azores in 1872 without a soul on board and no sign of what had happened to the crew. The Mary Celeste was built in Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia and, curiously, was originally called the Amazon.

The Mary Celeste

Some time ago I wrote a little Nova Scotia Connections post about one important ship in Bishop’s life, the North Star. She and her Aunt Grace were onboard in 1919 when it grounded on Green Island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. I did not have an image of that ship at that time, but have acquired one from the Yarmouth County Museum.

The North Star, Courtesy of the Yarmouth County Museum

Its receipt has made me think again not only about this early shipwreck in Bishop’s life (linked as it is to many other actual and metaphorical shipwrecks), but also about other important ships in her life. For example, her first trans-Atlantic voyage was in 1935 aboard the Königstein. I found images of the exterior and interior of this ship on a fascinating site called Time Table Images.

Perhaps the most important ship of Bishop’s adult life was the Bowplate, the ship that took her to Brazil, landing her in Santos (from which came “Arrival at Santos” a poem about a destination but also intrigued by all the shipping), a trip that changed her life. Her account of the en route of that voyage – how she was acutely aware of crossing the equator; how a young missionary made them sing “Nearer My God to Thee” during Sunday service, the song that passengers aboard the Titanic supposedly sung as the ship sank.

The Bowplate took her to a new life that itself included more ships, particularly those that carried her on the Amazon. The Bowplate took her to another ocean perch in Rio, where with binoculars Bishop watched all the ships coming and going. The Bowplate took her to a new life where suddenly, in land-locked Samambaia, at the base of a 200 foot escarpment of granite, she found the first real home of her adult life with Lota, the love of her life, and began to write about her childhood, a long-ago time when she her life was shaped by sea-farers and sea-travel.

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