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

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Roads and Cars

"Welcome to Great Village" sign on Highway 2

One of Elizabeth Bishop’s most famous poems is “The Moose,” about a bus journey from Great Village to Boston, which began on a road (Highway 2) that runs along the shore of Cobequid Bay and Minas Basin at the extreme eastern end of the Bay of Fundy. This highway eventually shifts to one which crosses the Isthmus of Chignecto, the land mass that prevents Nova Scotia from being an island, that connects the province to New Brunswick. The route continues into New Brunswick where the iconic “homely as a house” moose is encountered. The poem ends with the bus starting off again into the night — and we know from two fragmentary, unfinished poems (“Back to Boston” and “Just North of Boston” – both found in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, pp. 166-167) that Elizabeth Bishop took this long drive on a number of occasions (in later years, she more often departed from Maine, where she spent time in the 1970s).

Elizabeth Bishop arrived in and left Nova Scotia in a variety of ways during her lifetime. Early on, she and her family came and went via steamers, which plied the waters between Boston and Yarmouth and in those early days, they would have taken the train through the Annapolis Valley to Halifax and then from the city to Londonderry Station. They could also travel the entire route by train, from Boston through Maine and southern New Brunswick, again, stopping at Londonderry Station. From the station, a horse and wagon or a Model T provided transportation to Great Village.

Bishop wrote about this final leg of these long trips (the ride in from Londonderry Station) in an unfinished novel she began in the 1930s: “They went down, down, with a hairpin turn into the village proper, past the lit-up post office and across the large new bridge over the river. This was the river…and once over it the “village” began….”

By the 1970s, the steamers were replaced by ferries, which left from Portland and arrived in Yarmouth. Bishop took this route at least once during this decade, and while she could have taken the train through the province, she in fact drove the highways from Yarmouth to Great Village, along the French Shore, through the Annapolis Valley and the central part of the province.

During her visits to Nova Scotia in 1946 and 1947, when she spent time on the South Shore and Cape Breton Island, driving the roads and highways was the way she reached her destinations (specifically, Lockeport and Breton Cove). Likely, she took the bus to both destinations.

During her childhood years in Great Village, Bishop would have known the roads in and around Great Village quite well — an evocative description of one of those roads is found in “In the Village,” where she recounts the task of taking Nelly, the family cow, to pasture, along a road locally knows as “Scrabble Hill Road.” This route was an intimate pathway for Bishop and she retained vivid memories of it (she hadn’t seen it for over 20 years when she wrote “In the Village”).

Scrabble Hill Road, circa 1920s

Scrabble Hill Road continues on into the Cobequid Mountains, into Cumberland County, to places such as Williamsdale and River Philip, where her maternal grandfather and his family were from. Bishop remembered that when she was a child her grandfather’s cousins would appear like magi, descending out of the hills, once or twice a year with bear meat and venison in the back of their trucks.

While living in Brazil, Bishop often wrote in her letters about the wild drives with Lota on the roads from Rio to Petrópolis and Ouro Prêto. When she went back occasionally to the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, she was shocked by the proliferation of “clover leafs” — that is, the emergence of interstate and other major highways. As a child she bore witness to the beginning of the shift away from traditional ways of travel (wagon, ship, train), to the ubiquity of the automobile, which eventually brought the scars of asphalt and concrete.

Among many other things, her poem “Manners” speaks quietly about the “motoring craze” that was starting to take hold of the wider culture, even at the time of World War I — she was witnessing the onset of this transformation and knew it meant something significant, even if she wasn’t quite sure what it was.

When people visit Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, many are surprised by how busy the road is. The house sits right on Highway 2, which is the route described in “The Moose.” For decades it was the only road directly to the northern part of Nova Scotia. In the 1960s and 1970s a leg of the “Trans Canada Highway” was constructed, but even that became obsolete and now a big divided toll highway spines its way across the top of the mountain.

Great Village seen from the top of St. James United Church. Elizabeth Bishop's childhood home on right, behind lilac bush.

Though long superseded, Highway 2 remains a busy route, especially in the summer. What must be remembered is that in Bishop’s day, this road was also busy. It might have been dirt, the traffic might not have been much motorized; but it was the main land artery to the north. Bishop would sit at the window in the parlour looking out at the village, watching all the traffic go by.

Bishop herself owned cars during her life: a sporty MG in Brazil, a Volkswagon Bug in San Francisco. Her letters, stories and even poems are sprinkled with comments and complaints about bad drivers, traffic, roads and automobiles. She was in car accidents — one of them, in France in the 1930s, was especially tragic. Living so close to a busy road, her maternal family had tales of accidents and unexpected visitors — one story told of a fellow who crashed right outside the door, his injuries severe enough that her grandparents took him in and nursed him back to health. Her story “A Trip to Vigia” must be one of the most delightful “road trip” stories ever written. Her poem “Filling Station” nods to an early manifestation of that other ubiquity connected to cars. How often does one encounter “gasoline” in Bishop? If you start looking, you will be surprised (it closes “The Moose”).

Bishop understood the romance and the dangers of cars and roads. Her sense of place allowed not only for the wonders of geography and natural landscape, but also for the presence and affect of humanity in and on the environment — and while she often despaired of the blight of highways (the constant threat that four-lane highways would dissect Lota’s Flamenco Park in Rio made them both deeply angry), roads are everywhere in Bishop’s actual and imagined world, perhaps in part because from her earliest years, right outside her door in Great Village, was a busy road that took her to and from home.

Aerial view of the centre of Great Village

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