MY BOYHOOD YEARS

Our island cries out to be studied in every possible way. It is, after all, a mass of rock and earth jutting out of the sea, a place of promise where people settled over 10,000 years ago and where still, a small population can, for the most part, thrive with considerable security and contentment.

The most basic approach to studying an island is to become familiar with its geology, and from that, its topography – both Greek-derived words. Γαῖᾰ or Gaia, is Mother Earth, and the logos part can signify both form and meaning. So geology means trying to find form and meaning in Mother Earth. Topography is also made up of two Greek words. Τόπος or topos means simply, place. Graphia means writing. Topography then involves not only describing the relief of the land but also what the natural features of a place look like, including artificial features – which by extension are usually the signs of human activity, history, and even culture.

These are some of the things I want to discuss in future posts, and because this blog is the story of my personal voyage of awareness of Prince Edward Island, I will begin with my childhood.

I was a very solitary child, foisted at birth on my grandparents, who had already produced fourteen children and lost nine of them to disease and the effects of poverty. Quite simply I was not the sun that brightened their lives, and I learned very early to be as invisible as possible.

I turned to the outdoors and began to explore my immediate world. It was small but rich. I am reminded of Jacques Cartier’s ecstatic description of the place he discovered in 1534 – full of woods, bushes, things to eat, and marvellous smells. That was my world, filled also with swamps, ponds and brooks full of tiny life that fascinated me. When I was around ten my mother sent me my first toy microscope with which I was able to discover, and be ravished by, tiny transparent invertebrates and algae. I still remember the thrill of recognising the beautiful Spirogyra and seeing my first Paramecium ever!

I soon explored farther afield, getting lost now and then, but developing an idea of my world that I could have drawn on a piece of paper. Later I would do just that: map my precious world so that I would never forget it. In my landscape there were the friendly places and those that struck terror for no apparent reason. Particularly frightening was a clearing in the woods that had been cut down years before, leaving stark grey trunks covered with sharp dead branches and twigs. I was often drawn to the edge of this clearing – never daring to penetrate – that always seemed dark in spite of sunlight and would run away in terror. A detail of the local topography – which I was fast learning about – had become the spirit of the place.

My fear of certain places, I am sure, was the result of listening to the adults talk in those pre-TV evenings of all the haunted places in Lot 1 that they knew of and the supernatural encounters they swore they had experienced. In the late 1960s I hid a tape recorder in the kitchen and taped the elders of the family in a highly-spirited post-supper discussion on that very subject.

My geological studies began in a less idyllic setting. Our neighbour, Leo Gallant, with his horse and wagon, had just delivered a load of coal in front of our barn that would be used to heat the house in winter. Part of my responsibilities was to help move this heavy dirty stuff into the barn before the snow came. I was not very good at it. I kept noticing large grey streaks in the dirty, almost oily bituminous coal that had come from Nova Scotia on the train in boxcars that had bottom trapdoors. In one of those flashes of acute observation that can happen now and then, I noticed the black imprint of a fern, like the kind that grew in the woods nearby. I was thrilled! I completely forgot about tossing the coal in the barn and began frantically to look at other pieces of coal with grey streaks. Soon I had discovered what looked like other plants, in fact, a gigantic version of the horsetail plant, Equisetum! It would be weeks before I discovered in a school science book that these things were fossils. These pictures from the internet show exactly what I saw so many years ago.

I tried to extract these grey deposits from the coal using a hammer and a nail as chisel and managed to separate several specimens. I rushed to the house to show my grandmother the plants I had found in the coal. She flew into a rage that I had gotten so dirty and while neglecting to do my chore. My “specimens” were thrown into the stove. She was a religious fanatic who believed that everything that did not have a use or was not edible should be burned.

Things changed dramatically for the better in my twelfth year. We had always kept a pig for the pork barrel, and my grandfather, sensitive to their friendliness, always turned it into a pet. As he got older and more sentimental, and had a leg amputated, he refused to keep a pig any longer. A new piece of real estate had become available in our barn. My grandfather had a kind heart, and over my grandmother’s strident objections, he decided to give me half the pigpen – the part with the window – for a laboratory. He even constructed a work counter and shelves for jars of pond life – and my rock and fossil collection!

Heaven had finally opened, and I was blessed! We had moved much closer to the village and I got a job as a choirboy singing the Gregorian chant six mornings a week for Memorial Masses in the church. For the first time in my life I was employed and earned money. To sing a Mass you got fifty cents; to serve a Mass, you only got thirty-five cents. I became rich and smug. Now there was money to buy chemicals and a few test tubes and even some books. The Hardy Boys joined my little books on microscopy and pond life in the pigpen lab.

I began to be very interested in rock collecting after the episode with the fossils in the coal. The village librarian (Yes! We had a tiny public library!) Margaret Conroy became my mentor and ordered books on rocks and anything else that interested me from head office in Charlottetown. She watched over me from a distance for years, and by the time I left at the age of fourteen, she had me reading the Dorothy Sayers novels. Miss Conroy was an educated spinster, the last of a family of Irish gentry that had moved to Tignish in the 1860s.

Soon, in spite of being told by my teacher that there was only one kind of rock on the Island – sandstone – I discovered that there were lots of other rocks to be found. Near the church I found pieces of slate that had once covered the roof. In the fields were large rocks, even some boulders, that had been pushed to the edge or piled in the middle. They were strange and had a granular texture. With great difficulty I smashed off some pieces and was thrilled to discover that the inside was filled with what appeared to be crystals. I had found granite boulders! My collection grew. Years later I would discover how and why those boulders found their way into our fields. But that is another story.

By this time, I was fully aware that the Island was mostly red sandstone – some soft, some very hard – that could be seen when we went to the beach for a swim. I did not like lying in the sun and was frightened of swimming, so I explored the beach and the nearby cliffs, fascinated with what I saw. The cliffs were, in some places like North Cape, frighteningly tall and at their bases the sea had eroded caves that were full of mystery. We were warned to stay away from them in case of a collapse, but I went in anyway. In the cliffs everywhere the stone was in layers piled on top of one another. Some were smooth and hard, others banded, while other areas looked as if everything had been cracked and was about to fall apart. There were also curious grey/green veins running upwards through even the biggest cliffs.

Another feature of the cliffs that I discovered in those years was that whole sections appeared to be made out of a completely different stone! It was as if millions of small polished pebbles had been mixed with cement and somehow inserted in all that red sandstone.

It took quite some time to find the name of that rock – conglomerate – and even longer to discover that it was formed when underground water in retreating glaciers, moving fast enough to polish everything in its path, dried out and the remaining detritus hardened into a rock that crumbled or dissolved easily. It took me many years to discover that cobble beaches, here and there around the Island, were the result of the action of the sea dissolving these conglomerate deposits and leaving the lovely cobbles on the beach. People used to collect them to line their garden paths, and usually painted them with whitewash. I collected cobbles and broke them apart to see their fascinating interiors. There were so many questions I was unable to answer. I still don’t know the answers.

Here is a selection of beach cobbles from Anglo Tignish I collected about 35 years ago. They have been cracked open to reveal the beauty of their interiors. The variety of stone is astonishing, and all of it was brought here by the retreating glaciers. They are all foreigners to our shores!

My Tignish days ended when I was fourteen. My mother agreed that I was old enough to survive life in Montreal and I attended a boys’ school to complete my four years of high school. The only science course available at that school was chemistry and so I studied it for three years. Biology was not taught in our school, but it had now become my ruling passion, and I persuaded the Assistant Principal, a very aged Christian Brother called Brother Raphael to let me form a biology club. He gave me half of a big closet under the main staircase and the janitors helped me furnish it. I brought all my chemicals and stuff from home because my mother was being driven out of her mind by the smells. The club had two, sometimes three members. My constant partner in crime was my friend Marcel.

I had, by the greatest good fortune, obtained a very fine microscope from a Jesuit at Loyola College, where I would later begin my undergraduate studies. It was a circa 1915 jug-handled Reichert, made in Vienna, and still by today’s standards, the optics are of high quality.

(I should mention at this time that, as evidence of my growing determination and eccentricities, and deviations from the beaten path, although music was not taught in our school, I founded, and controlled with a hand of iron, the Music Appreciation Society, which consisted of listening to records of classical music in the school auditorium. I wrote extensive program notes, copied from the back of LP sleeves, and mimeographed them. At most, there were four or five members.)

Here is more evidence of me marching out-of-step with the main current. My school had a science fair in 1962 and, in a sea of chemical and physical displays mine was the only one on biology. Since the subject was not taught and I needed a teacher sponsor, Brother Joseph who taught me chemistry agreed – with doubtful looks – to sponsor me.

My love of rocks, and the powerfully emerging sensation that this should now be called geology continued to grow in Montreal. In the McGill campus on Sherbrooke Street there was, set aside in its own little picturesque world, as it is still today, the Redpath Museum. It was built in 1882 in a severely classical style by a great sugar baron called Peter Redpath and is the oldest surviving building in the country built specifically as a museum. It has, among other things, Egyptian antiquities, including mummies, ethnology, biology, paleontology, and mineralogy/geology displays. It is a perfect, practically unchanged model of a Victorian museum and is often called a museum of a museum. For years, when I was a teenager, I would visit that museum every Saturday. (The following pictures are courtesy of the Redpath Museum.)

Everything fascinated me there, but it was the fossil and rock collection of Sir John William Dawson 1820 – 1899), that really drew me. For years he had been an inspector of schools in Nova Scotia and as he travelled on his rounds, he combined them with geological exploration. Although he remained a creationist until the end, he wrote highly influential books on Maritime geology, including one on the geology of Prince Edward Island which I will discuss in a later post.

With the end of my school days came the prospect of university. I chose the Jesuit school, Loyola College, because my high school teachers pushed me in that direction and also because I had earlier met a kindly Jesuit who had sold me my glorious Viennese microscope and who suggested I study biology. This seemed like a great idea as I had been immersed completely, to the detriment of my school work, in learning how to stain different kinds of blood with brilliant aniline dyes and also learning how to make microscope slides of whole insects, flattened and made transparent and mounted in Canada Balsam. I became very good at this and soon had a large collection.

By the time I left high school I was light years away from the boy who had left Tignish four years before. I had taken to the life of Montreal like a fish to water. Most of the boys at school had European-born parents who had come after the war and I was invited to some of their homes. I became completely engrossed in music, especially the music of Beethoven and, most unlikely, Viennese operetta. I knew (and still know) every tear-jerker song. There were free symphony concerts and organ recitals each week and I attended them all. There were art and history museums everywhere and I visited them all, again and again. I got a job in the big book department at Eaton’s and bought my first typewriter (used) and stereo record player.

And I began to accumulate books passionately. At first it was old medical books that were to be thrown out. I suppose they were for show, but soon, over my mother’s almost-dead body, I bought books I badly wanted, like the Complete Works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and my first art book, a second-hand book on Greek art. I was rapidly changing into a new person, now detached from my country origins, and filled with the love of international culture.

My entry into Loyola was marked by great excitement in that I had the best English professor imaginable. He was one of my all-time great teachers and in one year gave me an extraordinary historical understanding of English Literature which has served me all my life.. All my energy went into his course and I neglected everything else. At the end of the year I failed maths so spectacularly that I was accused of doing it deliberately. The next year I repeated the course and at the Christmas exam my performance was even more spectacular: I received a zero. I was hastily shunted into a biology course already in progress and at the end of the year scraped a pass mark and the much-needed compulsory science credit. I was also told that I had no future in any science at all, let alone biology. I was not entirely crushed because I had known all along from my high school experiences that I would never ever pass a trigonometry exam. With a passion, I turned to Greek and Roman Civilisation, and when I eventually finished my degree it was in Classics. My love of science was still strong, but now it was clearly the love of an amateur.

Very curiously, and in a strange manner, my attention soon turned to the Tignish I had left with the greatest jubilation seven years before. I saw it as a goldmine of my new (yes, more interests…) passion for folklore, oral history and historical topography. That story will be told in the next post.

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