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

Friday, May 1, 2015

Lifting Yesterday – Supplement – Chapter Six – Sable Island

Chapter Six of Lifting Yesterday continues the “biography inside a biography” narrative. This chapter follows Bishop’s life from the time she left Nova Scotia in 1930 to the point when she left for Brazil in 1951. As always, Bishop’s life was filled with fascinating, strange, (un)predictable twists and turns. This was the time in her life when she fully established her writing career, an important period for any writer.

Researching and exploring this time took me, again, to many unexpected places, none so unexpected as Sable Island. Like all Nova Scotians, I was fascinated by Sable Island growing up. Because most of us here believe we will never visit this isolated sandbar so far off the coast, it holds a mythical kind of magic in Nova Scotians' minds — and especially alluring are the wild horses that have lived there for centuries.
Horses near West Light – photo by Zoe Lucas
Bishop heard about Sable Island early on. Her great-grandfather was likely shipwrecked there in the mid-1860s, that is what family oral tradition held. As she wrote to Katharine White on 21 June 1951, “Of course I heard so much about it when I was little that it has haunted my imagination most of my life.”

When I learned that Bishop actually visited Sable Island in 1951 I was astonished. It is no easy feat to get there today, so getting there then would have taken focused determination — like her trip to Newfoundland in 1932, another remarkable island a journey, which is also part of Chapter Six.

Bishop not only visited Sable Island, she also wrote about this trip. Her intention was to write an article for The New Yorker, which never happened – Brazil intervened; but she worked on “The Deadly Sandpile” for some time. There is a remnant of this article in her papers at Vassar Collage. During the trip, she kept a diary. It, too, is at Vassar. I obtained photocopies of both these documents and transcribed them. The journal is extensive, so it was a considerable task.

Having an excuse to research Sable Island was a bonus. As anyone in Nova Scotia – or Canada for that matter, perhaps globally – knows, if you research Sable Island your path will take you to one of its most famous residents: Zoe Lucas (who has lived on Sable Island since the 1970s and knows more about it than any other person). I met Zoe many years ago through mutual friends. She was quite interested in the fact that Elizabeth Bishop had visited the island. When I lived in Halifax and when Zoe ventured to the mainland, we would meet for breakfast and have wonderful conversations about all things Sable.
Zoe being investigated by a foal. Photograph by Janet Barkhouse
And then the day when Zoe asked me if I would like to go to Sable Island! Are you kidding!! She had invited her good friend Janet Barkhouse (the daughter of beloved Canadian children’s writer Joyce Barkhouse, whose book Pit Pony, about a Sable Island horse used in the coal mines of Cape Breton, is a classic), and there was an extra seat on the fixed-wing aircraft that ferried scientists, bureaucrats and visitors to and from the island.
Pilot Debbie getting ready for take off at the Halifax airport. Photograph by Janet Barkhouse.
On a gloriously clear day in May 2008 we went. I will never forget catching my first glimpse of the long crescent of white sand in the middle of the ocean.
Approaching Sable Island. Photograph by Janet Barkhouse.
Bishop approached Sable Island on the Coast Guard ship Cornwallis, so her experience would have been much more gradual and mysterious. As she wrote in her diary, “We were about a mile off SI; not rough but quite a swell, as there usually is apparently. The fog came & went rapidly – sometimes one could glimpse the island, then it wd [sic] disappear in an instant. A stretch of yellowish sand, high dunes with beach grass on them, a tower … frame-work of the new lighthouse.”

My visit that day was unforgettable and I will be eternally grateful to Zoe for this gift. Whenever I tell people I’ve been there, they say, “Really! Wow!” I had the rare opportunity to see directly what Bishop saw and understand something of why she was so fascinated by this island, why we are all so fascinated: the horses, the Ipswich Sparrow, the interesting residents, the sand.
Me (right), with station master Gerry and Janet. Photo by Zoe Lucas.
Bishop described the island thus: “Anyone familiar with the accent of Nova Scotia will know what I mean when I refer to the Indrawn Yes. In all their conversations Nova Scotians of all ages, even children, make use of it. It consists of, when one is told a fact, – anything, not necessarily tragic but not of a downright comical nature, – saying “Yes,” or a word half-way between “Yes” & Yeah,” while drawing in the breath at the same moment. It expresses both commiseration & an acceptance of the Worst, and it occurred to me as I walked … over those fine, fatalistic sands, that Sable Island with its mysterious engulfing powers was a sort of large-scale expression of the Indrawn Yes.
Me on Sable Island! I'm just a little happy! Photo by Janet Barkhouse.
When I mentioned to Zoe that my father, Herb, was quite interested in Sable Island, she gave me a beautiful moon snail shell to give him, which he greatly prized. Over the next several years, Zoe sent my father many astonishing objects from her vast collection, accumulated during the over 40 years that she has lived there. So delighted was he with these marvelous gifts, he as set up a little display in his house: “The Sun Room Museum.”
Herb's Sable Island display. Photo by Brenda Barry.
He’s a fortunate man because now that Sable Island is a National Park, such removals are no longer permitted. His pleasure in all the objects Zoe gave him is unalloyed and he’ll show his collection to anyone who will look, and get them to sign his guestbook. I think Bishop would have envied Herb his treasure.

If you want to find markers in Bishop’s life that reveal she was, in spirit, a true Nova Scotian, one of the most obvious is her fascination with Sable Island and her determined effort to visit this place. That she didn’t complete her article is no failure, really. Bishop wrote slowly, was fascinated by so much, and died too young — she left much unfinished.

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