Last fall, greeting book enthusiasts from around Minnesota at the Twin Cities Book Festival, we were encouraged more than twice to buy real estate in Nova Scotia. The image of a stone-hewn, seaside cabin on the enchantingly remote north Atlantic coast struck a chord, and seemed to be the start of a fine book for whomever possessed enough grit and zeal to make it happen. Possibly because of the festival's coincidence with the US presidential election, the move to Canada seemed a fine idea, and very doable. But for those, like myself, not quite ready to 'begin again' near the Bay of Fundy, a journey to Nova Scotia still seems equally fine. For this trip there is conceivably no better guide than John DeMont.
In his latest, DeMont distills years of research, meditation, and sharp observation into a highly readable history. He reminds readers of Nova Scotia's distinction of being the oldest Eurpean-settled part of Canada, and its fall from Canada's richest province to being among the poorest. As he winds through Nova Scotia's fog-soaked coves and striking geography, DeMont describes the shameful destruction of First Peoples, the hardness of Nova Scotian pioneers, and the twists of fate that make the province a treasure. No journalist has covered the province more thoroughly, or with more attentive care. DeMont's vibrant book makes Nova Scotia feel like home, though it probably will never be.
Excerpted from The Long Way Home: A Personal History of Nova Scotia by John DeMont. Copyright © 2017 by John DeMont. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
This book is about a small place—just over twenty thousand square miles in total, less than four hundred miles tip to tip—yet it is still hard to get everywhere here. My atlas of Nova Scotia is twenty-five years old, but since not much has changed in the past quarter century I see no reason to replace it. Lots of the nine thousand names on the maps aren’t really places at all in any traditional sense: they’re hillocks, brooks, gullies or ponds that people use to orient themselves to the landscape. They’re singular landmarks—the Barrens, the Big Grassy, the Churn, the Guzzle, the Tittle—that may mean nothing to anyone but the folks who lived there. They’re reminders of what was and, I suppose, could be again.
Those names would have just been gibberish to the first men: Europeans may have called a sweet little harbour on the southwestern tip of the province Yarmouth, but Mi’kmaq referred to the place as Malikiaq, which translates into “winding and turning every which way.” They had known Canso as Qamso’q—in the words of the settlers, “across a body of water”—for as long as historical documents show or anyone can remember, just as they referred to Tidnish (“at the small paddle place”) long before the Europeans arrived. Place names weren’t just names to the First Peoples; they told them where to hunt and fish—Kopitek, “place of beavers,” which the white folk know as Aylesford, and E’se’katik, “at the place of clams,” known on most modern maps as Lunenburg. They told them where to avoid. (Scatarie Island, which the Mi’kmaq refer to as Askataliank, which means “troubling.”) They could even tell them where to go for a good time. (Weskewinaq, the modern-day town of Digby, which in their tongue means “cheerful place.”)
Before that, the geography of this place had no name at all. Nothing did in the days when the plates of the earth’s crust—floating as they still do on a softer, hotter layer of rock—migrated, making oceans open and close and continents collide. The last great merger occurred before dinosaurs or mammals roamed the earth, when an ocean of unimaginable size closed, creating a supercontinent. Nova Scotia sat near the equator, next to what would become North Africa and the Cornwall coast of England, before beginning its slow, inch-by-inch migration northward. Volcanoes and erosion did their thing with the various parts of the province. The earth’s surface cracked and faults formed. Glaciers had their way with the land. At times, parts of where I now stand were sea bottoms, swamps, deserts, rainforests, inland lakes and mile-high glaciers.
Once, near the top end of the province, I was walking past some layers of geological strata, the bones of the earth, which had been knocked askew and hauled into the open. The cliffs slanted downward, at times almost on a ninety-degree angle from left to right. Since I am not a man of science, they reminded me of the Statue of Liberty poking up through the sand in the final scene of Planet of the Apes. Luckily, that day I was with a geologist who possessed a poet’s heart. He told me that as we moved from west to east, we were travelling through layers of ancient time, and I’ve never really been the same since.
Now I look to see the old story unfolding before my eyes as I drive around this place: the elevated coastal cliffs made up of cover from the Paleozoic Era, pierced by change-resistant granite backbone. The valleys carved out by volcanic action in later, Triassic times. It thrills me, in the nerdiest possible way, to drive down some stretch of this province where I’ve never been before—past places that the Europeans, for some reason, called Doanes Cove, Blackberry Island and Coffinscroft—and think of the thin layer of humanity’s story atop the fathomless eons of deep geologic time, to imagine history issuing from geography.