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

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Sable Island

How are we connected to any given place, to a moment in time, to an object, to our own lives? One way to demonstrate Elizabeth Bishop’s quiet comprehensiveness is to choose a subject, an image, an idea and go looking for it in her work. Or, when one comes upon a subject in a Bishop poem or story, look for its iterations, its surfacings again and again. When exploring her connections to Nova Scotia, the threads are not only long and enduring (that is, one subject, image, idea can stretch across time and space, perhaps even her whole life); but they are also endlessly proliferative (one subject, image, idea leads to another and another). The big poetic subjects such as love, loss, beauty and mystery abound; but so, too, do details such as clouds, colours, coins and confectionary.

The constellation of connections can be quite astonishing. Take, for example, Sable Island (a complex subject in its own right). It is a veritable galaxy of associations and meanings for Elizabeth Bishop:

Fascinated by islands all her life, Sable Island may have been the first of such geographies she became aware of because her family’s oral tradition held that her great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson was shipwrecked there in September 1866.

Aunt Grace Bulmer Bowers owned a Sable Island horse named Pansy. Bishop met Pansy in 1946 when she visited Grace at Elmcroft, the Bowers’ farm near Great Village.

So fascinated was she by Sable Island that she visited it in August 1951, no easy feat even then. She researched the island at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, read Rev. George Patterson’s Sable Island: Its History and Phenomena, and kept a journal during that visit. She began to write a piece about Sable Island for The New Yorker, which she titled “The Deadly Sandpile.” She never finished it.

In this piece, she likened Sable Island to a large-scale version of the “Indrawn Yes,” a lingual expression common to people in the Maritimes. Decades later this “Yes” found its way into “The Moose,” a poem which was triggered during that 1946 visit to Great Village and dedicated to Aunt Grace.

Just before leaving for Sable Island, she wrote to Robert Lowell that her reasons for going were to see the Ipswich Sparrow (Sable Island is its only nesting site) and the horses, and maybe to write a poem or an article – or, to fulfill her destiny “and get wrecked too.”

She was fascinated by the sea and shipwrecks. Sable Island was known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” and one of the documents she saw at the Public Archives was an amazing map of the island which showed the locations of hundreds of wrecks. She was also fascinated by maps.


I had the great privilege of visiting Sable Island for one day in May 2008, a trip I will never forget. I saw the horses, the sparrows, and walked the eternally shifting sand, perhaps even along some of the paths Elizabeth Bishop walked in 1951. At least I can imagine I did so.

If you want to learn more about Sable Island visit the website for The Green Horse Society (www.greenhorsesociety.com). On Wednesday, 3 March 2010, at 7:00 p.m., the "Sable Island Update, Sixth Annual Public Meeting," will take place at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, N.S. For more information about the program, go to the above website.

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