This is the first post on my first blog about the heritage of a place that has, for three-quarters of a century, delighted my spirit and stimulated my mind. Perhaps it is a good thing to begin by asking what the spirit of this fascinating place is all about.
In Ancient Rome there was a belief that certain places were protected by entities called a genius loci, or Spirit of the Place. This was usually portrayed as a youth holding a cornucopia in one arm and pouring a libation to the gods with the other hand. Special places have been identified and revered since remote antiquity. This ability to recognise the unique, often deeply moving character of a place is a human quality that is still very much with all of us. We are all affected by this spiritual or emotional response.
The idea of the Spirit of the Place became particularly vivid in 1731 when the poet Alexander Pope published his Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. These lines, encouraging the Earl to be inspired by Nature in the construction of his gardens at his vast country estate are now immortal. They brought to the English language the concept of the Spirit of the Place:
Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.
Pope was referring to the new style of landscape architecture born in Britain that would sweep the world and cause the powerful and wealthy to transform their gardens from formal symmetrical beds, designs inherited from the previous century, into vast landscapes, populated with groves of trees, rivers and classical bridges, as well as grazing cows and herds of deer, all kept in their places by hidden ditches called haw haws. Everything, thousands of acres, was manipulated so that, in the end, it would look like the great landscape paintings of the Seventeenth Century French painters Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.
It was this idea of a perfect, measured world that Samuel Holland applied to the Island of Saint John, in his great 1765 survey that made our world what it is today. In time, the idea of the Spirit of the Place was applied to landscape gardens, the landscape itself, and even particular beautiful or moving spots in the larger picture.
It is easy to apply to the Island in which we live today the idea of the Spirit of Place. The “place” is our Island home. The place is also a special view, a marvel of Nature, our family farm, our house in the country, and even our tiny home in town. This amazing photograph by Westjet pilot Steve MacDonald taken in 2016 and published on the internet early in 2019 gives us a view of our Island home that shows the whole Island but keeps the intimacy that is lost in satellite photos.
God shines down on the Island and it is blessed. Most of us have been to every part of it and our heart beats faster when we locate our home ground. That is the Spirit of the Place as I understand it in my life.
In the foreground of this remarkable photo is North Cape, and sliding to the right from the lighthouse point, now disfigured by a great number of colossal windmills, is the Black Marsh. It is a huge floating bog that grew over the centuries in a large hole in the ancient sandstone that was scooped out by retreating glaciers 12,000 years ago. The bog, on a deep bed of compressed peat moss, is filled with exotic insect-eating plants such as the Sundew and the Pitcher Plant. At some time after the arrival of Irish settlers in 1811 Hawthorne bushes were introduced on the edge of the bog and eventually people began to refer to the place as the Hawbush. Soon there was a large grove that separated the arable land from the bog. Sadly, in a forest fire that swept through the Black Marsh in the 1960s the Hawbush was destroyed. The bleached thorny skeletons of its bushes remain however, and can be seen against the frequent ominous skies that cover the very point where Northumberland Strait breaks away from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the currents of the great river of that name. Here, for me, is where I have always experienced the most intense feeling of Spirit of Place on the whole Island.
Because of the configuration of the land, the sea and air currents, violent thunder storms can be generated in a matter of minutes. I had gone to visit the Black Marsh on a summer’s day in 1973 when I witnessed this scene that made me catch my breath and caused my heart to beat more quickly. The Spirit of the Place had seized me, and would never let go. I have been irrationally drawn to that spot since I was a boy.
Postscript – 29 August, 2021
Almost two and a half years after I first posted this, I came across some amazing photos and video clips in Joanne Leclair-Perry’s blog site, Tignish Talk. They were taken during a violent thunderstorm – terrifying! – witnessed from West Cape by Derek Stewart, who kindly gave me permission to add his vision to mine, witnessing the further evolution of an historical landscape by the perceived needs of progress.
The mystery of the Black Marsh and the Hawbush is being obliterated by ever growing numbers of giant windmills that dominate and rule the landscape. But not quite. Nature, or the Genius loci, seems to strike back at this desecration of a sacred site, that because of its location in the landscape and the seascape, will never lose its magic and its thunder.
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