Posted in Creative writing

Geobiography and the Annapolis Valley

Scenes from the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia

Wendell Berry’s book The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of agrarian essays covering a thirty year period. The first essay, A Native Hill under the section heading: Geobiography, describes Berry’s relationship to the land in Kentucky. As Norman Wirzba writes in the Introduction:

Our lives are always rooted in a natural and cultural community, so that to cut ourselves off from these roots, whether that be in the name of progress or human liberation, is to ensure the eventual withering and then death of life‘ (page ix).

Or more directly in Berry’s own words, when talking about his decision to move back to Kentucky from the academic world of New York.

Before coming back I had been willing to allow the possibility – which one of my friends insisted upon –  that I already knew this place as well as ever I would. But now I began to see the real abundance and richness of it all. It is, I saw inexhaustible in its history, in the details of its life, in its possibilities. I walked over it, looking, listening, smelling, touching, alive to it as never before. I listened to the talk of my kinsmen and neighbours as I never had done, alert to their knowledge of the place, and to the qualities and energies of their speech. I began more seriously than ever to learn the names of things – the wild plants and animals, the natural processes, the local places – and to articulate my observations and memories.’ (page 7).

If one was going to attempt a geobiography of the Annapolis Valley, how might you go about it ? One approach, which occurred to me while I was listening to a CBC podcast ‘Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel. It was broadcast on December 1/2017. It was an interview with Richard Holmes reflecting on his life as a Romantic biographer. Holmes was talking about his recent memoir This Long Pursuit.

‘If we have any hope of making a better world, he argues ‘we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively’.

This offers direction, if we want to describe the Annapolis Valley.

From my personal perspective, I would likely transpose ‘Geobiography ‘, and think in terms of ‘Biogeography’. This feeds back into my unpublished Ph.D thesis, The Nature of Biogeography from the mid seventies.

First, we must define the Annapolis Valley. It is a physiographic unit. It includes both North and South Mountain, the Annapolis River valley, and the Bay of Fundy shore. One of my challenges with the Valley REN (regional enterprise network) is that because of history and municipal politics, it does not include Annapolis County or Annapolis Royal.

I think that a geobiography (biogeography) would focus on stories related to the earth’s surface (land and sea), the qualities of the natural landscape, how they have changed over time, how the different inhabitants have been an integral part of this landscape. It would look at the ecological relationships:plants, animals, geology, soils, climate and the various migrations.

Returning to Wendell Berry, in another book What are People for ?

With reference to Maria Popova Brainpickings site, she has a quotation that I like:

‘Wendell Berry on Solitude, and why Pride and Despair are the two great enemies of Creative Work’


Wendell Berry. 2002. The Art of the Commonplace.The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint, Berkeley, California

Wendell Berry. 1990. What are People for ? Counterpoint, Berkeley, California.
Eleanor Wachtel. 2017. CBC Radio. Writers and Company. December 1,2017. Richard Holmes reflects on his life as a ‘Romantic biographer’.
Richard Holmes. 2016. This Long Pursuit. Harper Collins, London.
Robert Maher 1976. The Nature of Biogeography. Unpublished Ph.D thesis. Department of Geography, University of Western Ontario.





Posted in Creative writing

Apple Pressing and the Ghost Orchard

apple_2Richard Sennett says it well in the Acknowledgements to his book The Craftsman, “Making is Thinking’. This week, we have been busy pressing apples and making it into sweet cider.

We started with thirty five bushel boxes of MacFree apples. It is a three step process: cutting, grinding and pressing. The apples need to be quartered before putting through the grinder. One box of apples fills a twenty litre container of ground apples for press. The pressing is done with a hand ratchet press. The end result is forty five, two litre containers of sweet apple cider. On good day, we were able to complete three pressings.


What did we learn ?

Most of our learning was about the qualities of the different apple varieties. Our orchard has four varieties: NovaMac, Liberty, MacFree and Nova Spy.

NovaMac is an early variety. It is a cross between the Nova and the MacIntosh. Talking to Brian Boates from Woodville, he confirmed that this variety ripens quickly and drops soon thereafter. Liberty, (we only have one tree), produces early, deep red apples. MacFree is a later variety. This was our primary cider apple. It keeps well in storage. It is a cross between a MacIntosh and Freedom. Finally, NovaSpy, another cross between the Nova and the Spy, is a late apple. We can leave these trees until the end of the harvest season. Liberty and Freedom are brother and sister varieties.

We found Tom Burford ‘s book, Apples of North America  an excellent resource, describing one hundred and ninety two varieties.

In September, Helen Humphreys was interviewed on the CBC. She is the author of The Ghost Orchard. (Fortunately, Bill Crossman loaned me a copy of her new book.) It is creative, non-fiction. Starting with the White Winter Pearmain, Humphreys’ researches the history of apples in North America. There are multiple stories: about the white settlers (Ann Jessom) planting orchards in the late eighteenth century; the watercolour artists who drew the illustrations in support of the US Department of Agriculture catalogue of seventeen thousand varieties of apple on the continent. Humphreys also describes the relationship between the poet, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas and their walks through orchards in England, at the time of the first World war. Part of Frost’s legacy was to plant new orchards in the United States, towards the end of his life (late 1950’s).

His poem caught my mood. Here are the first eight lines.

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Towards heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Besides it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

For the complete poem, go to



Tom Burford. 2013. Apples of North America. Timber Press, London

Julian Gwyn 2014. Comfort Me with Apples. The Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association. 1863-2013. Lupin Press. Berwick, NS. This book gives a local context.

Helen Humphreys. 2017. The Ghost Orchard. The Hidden History of the Apple in North America. Harper Collins.

Robert Frost check

Richard Sennett 2008. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, New Haven.




Posted in Creative writing

Two books and a thought

The Newfoundland ferry docks at North Sydney. This gave me the opportunity to stop at a couple of my favourite shops in Sydney. First stop, was Ed’s second-hand book store where for two dollars I purchased Larry Mc Cann (ed.) People and Place. Studies in Small Town Life in the Maritimes. Later, I had a coffee at Doktor Luke’s, which also has second-hand books. There, I picked up a copy of David Ehrenfeld’s book Beginning Again. People and Nature in the New Millennium.

The McCann book was published in 1987. It contains a wide range of essays by faculty at Mount Allison. The essays are divided into three categories: Casting the Pattern, the Passing of Traditional Society, and Contemporary Small Town Life. Besides the book title, the essays that caught my attention were:

Carrie MacMillan. Seaward Vision and a Sense of Place. the Maritime Novel 1880-1920.

Eric Ross. The Rise and Fall of Pictou Island.

While I had a copy of Ehrenfeld’s book at home, I had not previously noticed his chapter on ‘The Roots of Prophecy: Orwell  and Nature’. This seemed serendipitous.

I had specifically called my blog site: the Ernest Blair experiment. Ernest celebrates Ernest Buckler. Blair recognizes Eric Blair aka George Orwell.

Ehrenfeld talks about the three qualities that Orwell used in his analysis of the changing life of his, and our times. The first is honesty. The second is reliability/continuity/durability/resilience . And finally, the third property of nature important to Orwell is beauty and serenity.

“Orwell had two visions of utopia: one, a vision of a world in which nature is cherished and improved by a gentle and caring human civilization, and the other a vision of a world in which people treat each other decently and fairly, without exploitation.

Ultimately, as we see in The Road to Wigan Pier, the two visions came together in the picture of a ‘simpler’, ‘harder’ predominantly agricultural way of life in which the machine is present, but under human control and ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men. A world in which progress, itself, is not a form of exploitation.” Ehrenfeld see page 27.

Thought: “Living in the Moment”

Does this concept change as you get older ? That is, you have a finite number of moments. Can you replace living in the moment  (time) with living in the place (space) ?Why do older people go on cruises ? Change the place; change the moment.                      Its time/space. Not time or space.

What is the meaning of going back to visit old haunts ? Realize changing time, but same space ? Not really, spaces (landscapes) change too!

The value of a long term relationship with a place e.g. a garden. Growing things, different seasons.

Why in youth, keep moving ? Different spaces. Living in different moments  Are we trying to extend the good moments. No, trying to find the right space. Is it the moment or is it the sense of being able to change or control ?  Is there a progression as you age ?  The changing perception of time/space, over a lifetime or over a lifespace.


Larry McCann (editor). 1987. People and Place. Studies of Small Town Life in the Maritimes. Acadiensis Press. Mount Allison University.

David Ehrenfeld.1993. Beginning Again. People and Nature in the New Millennium. Oxford University Press.

George Orwell. 1937. The Road to Wigan Pier. Gollancz Press.



Posted in Creative writing

The Valley Region of the Mind

Donald Savoie in his recent book, Looking for Bootstraps and subsequent commentaries on regional development in the Chronicle Herald talks about:

startButton_annapolisValley” the business community, not just governments, has a responsibility for turning the region into something more than a region of the mind. Community institutions need to step up and contribute to the region’s economic development.” (July 29/17 Chronicle Herald F3).


From my perspective, we do need a “Valley Region of the Mind”. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that there is a need for a 2017 version of Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley. Buckler in 1952 described life in rural Annapolis County, mid-twentieth century. For him, the mountain was West Dalhousie (South Mountain) whereas Bridgetown was the Valley.

Fast forward to 2017, if we were to describe the Mountain and the Valley, what are the important features of the landscape? What has changed in terms of agricultural practice? New crops? What are some of the new features (e.g. Highway 101)? If we listened to the conversations of residents, what would be the topics of concern?

EKG_annapolisValleyIn my neighbourhood on Hwy 201, I see new craft beer company (Lunn’s Mill) and Beavercreek Winery. In Paradise, the Morse Estate (Buckler. The Cruelest Month 1963) has been transformed into Burnbrae Farm and Paradise Inn. The town of Bridgetown has merged with the Municipality of Annapolis County.

There  are new communication services extending along the Valley bottom. The Harvest Moon Trail has replaced the railway. It is open to hikers, cyclists and ATV users. The Annapolis River has been upgraded for kayakers and canoeists. The newest thread will be high speed Internet that should create opportunities for remote work sites in rural Nova Scotia.

The new book should address the geography of the Fundy Shore. It would offer more details of our cultural history, the Mi’kmaq and the Acadian.

Conversations with our neighbours would talk about the changing demographic, the role of educational institutions in preparing the next generation for an entrepreneurial, global economy. We would share stories about the remarkable community events throughout the region – access to theatre, music and film. The importance of networking opportunities, illustrated in the print media by The Reader and The GrapeVine.

On the environmental front we would voice concerns about the status of our forests, the soil condition of our agricultural land, as well as species loss in our oceans and rivers. We need, too, to monitor the rate of climate change and its impact on our natural resources.

A new book in 2017, by a next generation Ernest Buckler, would help us to more fully appreciate ‘the region of the mind‘ as well as define ‘the mind of the region’.


Ernest Buckler. 1952. The Mountain and the Valley.

Ernest Buckler. 1963. The Cruelest Month.

Donald Savoie. 2017. Looking for Bootstraps. Economic Development in the Maritimes. Nimbus Press.



Posted in Creative writing

Story Maps: writing, art and the landscape

This week, I rediscovered the following quote from John Ralston Saul: “The key to the idea of leadership in the environment area, and in society in general, is that you must find ways to integrate people and place.”

This month, I have noticed several examples where artists, writers and cartographers have followed this idea, integrating people and place in Nova Scotia.

In Annapolis County, with 150 funding, we see a lot of new signage. On Belle-Isle marsh there is a new bi-lingual map identifying the Acadian families who lived there between 1636-1755. The cartography was completed by Scott Comeau, a COGS student. At the Jubilee Park in Bridgetown at the pavilion in support of the Clean Annapolis River Project (CARP) Monica Lloyd  has created an air-photo mosaic of the Annapolis River with distances and points of interest. Monica is a COGS faculty member. Further up the Valley in Grand Pré, Marcel Morin has contributed his cartographic talent to the landscapes of the region, as well as a map of the wineries.

In Kings County, we have the installations of “Uncommon Common Art“. It includes twenty stops and four eye candy locations. For each stop , there are directions, a geocache and a statement by the artist.

“Working from the perspective that our relationship to place is formed in reference to our own ancestry and cultural histories, the artists this year represent a wide range of cultural contexts”. Curatorial statement.

In Pictou County, Sheree Fitch, author and poet lives outside of River John. In her childrens’ poetry, she has created the character, Mabel Murple who ‘loves purple’.
Sheree and her partner have created Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe and Dreamery. At the bookstore, you can browse a wide range of Atlantic Canadian books. (Many of them are referenced in the book “Ann of Tim Hortons). You can also enter the purple world of Mabel Murple. This may be most extreme example of ‘story maps’, where the creative writing overflows into the landscape.

John Ralston Saul. 2002. Spruce Roots. Transcript #1 ‘Leadership and the Environment’.

Grand Pre Trails Society. 2016. The Landscapes of Grand Pré: images, maps past and present.

Sheree Fitch. 2017. Maple Murple’s Book Shoppe and Dreamery.

Uncommon Common Art, 2017. Kings County.


Posted in Creative writing

Striking a Balance

This story starts in Baddeck and ends in the Valley.

DSCN6052Last week we stopped at the Alexander Graham Bell museum. I wanted to catch up on the work of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association (BLBRA). At the gift shop, I was able to pick up a CD copy of the TVO documentary series ‘Exploring Canada’s Biosphere Reserves’. It covers eight biosphere reserves and is narrated by Jim Cuddy. One of the Biosphere Reserves is Bras d’Or Lake striking balance.

Within the pavilion at the Historic Site, BLBRA have a display. One of the brochures describes the dream of ‘Walking Around the Bras d’Or’.

” The Mi’kmaq have lived here for thousands of years. The influence of the five communities in the Biosphere is what makes dreaming about ‘Awki’j’ (trail) even more vital.

” The concept of ‘two-eyed’ seeing links Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal thinking. One eye learns using indigenous knowledge and the other eye learns using mainstream knowledge. They see together.

” Think of the history, the culture and the ecosystem while walking the trail using two eyes.”

While in Iona at the Highland Village, I happened to pick up a copy of Charlotte Gray’s book, “Reluctant Genius. The passionate life and inventive mind of Alexander Graham Bell.”

20170612_110720 (1)
Chapter 14 describes ‘A Shifting Balance’ and by Chapter 16 ‘Escape to Cape Breton’. I have still to read the Cape Breton years at Beinn Bhreagh (Beautiful Mountain).

“He would stand on Beinn Bhreagh, taking great gulps of Cape Breton air and letting his gaze skim down the ten-mile length of St Andrew’s Channel to Grand Narrows. The frustrations and worries that haunted his Washington life fell away.” p.295.

On returning to the valley, I had the opportunity to read a review of ‘Wines of Nova Scotia’. The map was created by cartographer, Marcel Morin from Lost Art Cartography for the Wine Association of Nova Scotia. Morin talks about the art of Cartography and the new technology. The message, for me, was the need to ‘Strike a balance’. I did manage to pick up a copy of the map at Grand Pre Wineries.

One final story from the Cape Breton road trip. We stopped at Wildfire Pottery and Books ( I could not resist the ‘and Books”). The owner, Paul,  showed me a copy of The Fiddle Tree by Otis Tomas (including the CD). Tomas makes musical instruments. The book describes a specific tree, the process of curing the wood, the design and making of the instruments. The CD includes music written by the author, played by musicians on the instruments made by Tomas from the Fiddle Tree:  a remarkable symbiotic relationship between nature and culture


Posted in Creative writing

In Praise of Libraries

In a recent email, John Montgomerie mentioned a letter written by Ernest Buckler in 1976 to the Halifax newspaper. It expressed concern about cut-backs to libraries in rural Nova Scotia. ” Buckler relied heavily on the bookmobile services to provide him with the necessary resources to aid his writing, for which he was so grateful”.

John and I are both Board members of the Ernest Buckler Literary Event Society (EBLES). It is hosting an event next Saturday, June 3rd. ‘Reading where we live, a celebration of local authors and literature’ (see The Reader,


If we go forward forty years, we still need to protect library services. After living in Nunavut for the last six weeks, it is a joy to return to the Lawrencetown branch of the Annapolis Valley regional library, the Dr. Frank W.Morse Memorial Library and to requests number of books through inter-library loans. These books allow me to write a regular blog for GoGeomatics and contribute to a conversation with Geomatics professionals and Geographers across the country (see latest blog, Atlantic Geography: through books and film).

Many thanks to Jaki Fraser and other librarians across the province. I can only echo Ernest Buckler. As we approach a provincial election, it is important to remind everyone that books and film allow us to tell our stories, about who we are, and where we are.

There are many examples. This weekend, there were four sold-out showings of Maudie at the King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal. You could augment your understanding by reading Lance Woolaver’s book ‘Maud Lewis. The Heart on the Door ‘.

If you are a tourism operator, you must wonder about the relationship of the film, its setting in Newfoundland, and the cuts to the Nova Scotia Film Tax credit. For more insight, check out Darrell Varga ‘Shooting from the East. Filmmaking on the Canadian Atlantic’.

Posted in Creative writing

gtong len: taking and sending

mermaidInTheSnow_400h400w90dpiKen McLeod in his book ‘Reflections on Silver River’ translates and comments on Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. Zongpo was a fourteenth century Buddhist monk living in Ngulchu (Silver River), Tibet. McLeod describes the fundamental Buddhist concept of gtong len, or empathy, where one receives the emotions of another person and responds by sending back supportive feelings. This concept raised the idea in my mind whether we can take or receive from a landscape and return positive empathy back to it.

To explore the idea further, I looked at the literature of two geographies: England and Nova Scotia. My jumping off point for England was Alexandra Harris ‘Weatherland. Writers and Artists under English Skies’. She looks at English culture over a thousand years in terms of the story of changing ideas about the weather.

‘Weatherland is a celebration of English air and a life story of those who have lived in it. As we enter what may be the last decades of English weather as we know it, this is the history for our times.’

My starting point for Nova Scotia was Janice Kulyk Keefer ‘Under Eastern Eyes. A critical reading of Maritime fiction’. Keefer introduces chapters on Community, Nature, History, Politics and ‘Going and Staying’. The region was a stepping stone to the rest of Canada.

Within the context of Nova Scotia, we can find the ‘nature’ writing of Silver Donald Cameron (beaches) and Harry Thurston (tidal wetlands). For ‘community’, we might look to Ernest Buckler or Thomas Raddall.

From the gtong len perspective, what do we receive from the local geography (land,sea and air) ? Depending on the scale, we can think in terms of the Gulf Stream, the Labrador current or the tides in the Bay of Fundy. What do we send back ? A detailed description of our interaction with the landscape and its history — from the Mic’maq, Acadien, New England Planters, Black Loyalists.

If we wish to practice gtong len, then we must relate our stories to the geography. Expanding Harris’s documentation of the relationship of the weather in England to the weather(air),land and sea (geography) in Nova Scotia.

It is the writers and artists who are ‘sending’ us back. It is the destruction of the ecological resources that we are ‘taking’.


Keefer titled her book after the novel by Joseph Conrad ‘Under Western Eyes’.
In her words ‘Conrad wished, among other things, to present to his readers a unique way of seeing and being, to underscore the essential difference between the Russian and European traditions and temperaments.’


Ken McLeod. 2014. Reflections on Silver River. Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. Unfettered Mind Media. Sonoma, California.
Check web site

Alexandra Harris. 2015. Weatherland. Writers and Artists under English Skies. Thames and Hudson. New York.

Janice Kulyk Keefer. 1987. Under Eastern Eyes. A critical reading of Maritime fiction. University of Toronto Press. Toronto.

Silver Donald Cameron. 1998. The Living Beach. MacMillan. Toronto.

Harry Thurston. 2004. A Place between the Tides. A Naturalist’s reflections on the salt marsh. Greystone Books. Vancouver.

Ernest Buckler.1952. The Mountain and the Valley.New Canadian Library Series 23. Toronto. McClelland and Stewart. 1968.

Thomas Raddall. 1950. The Nymph and the Lamp. New Canadian Library Series 38. Toronto. McClelland and Stewart. 1968.

Posted in Creative writing

Citizen Engagement and Virtual Reality

This week, we celebrated the availability of craft beer from Lunn’s Mill Beer Company in Lawrencetown. Their elegant growlers include a couple of messages, as well as a map of Nova Scotia. The beer company is an example of engaging citizens in a rural business venture.

Lunn’s Mill growlers 

‘In 1760, this beautiful part of the Annapolis Valley was known as Lunn’s Mill, named after the major industry in the area a bustling sawmill owned by John Lunn. Around this time, the Charming Molly set sail from New England carrying the first New England Planters. These intrepid people helped expand the community with farms and shops and in 1822 it was renamed Lawrencetown.’

‘Lunn’s Mill pays homage to our past and to tIhe people who choose to come to Nova Scotia and make their living from the land. We strive to keep up this tradition using top quality ingredients locally sourced wherever possible, and partnering with local businesses to put Lunn’s Mill back on the map as a proud brewer of Nova Scotia craft beer.’

Meanwhile, in the weekend newspaper (Chronicle Herald) the debate continues about the state of the forests in Southwest Nova. The Opinion section includes columns by Mike Parker, author and researcher, as well as Jeff Bishop, Forest Nova Scotia. In the Style section of the Globe and Mail, there was a discussion on the use of Virtual Reality as a tool for interior designers.

Here is my point, why not use the tool of Virtual Reality to help engage citizens in decisions related to our landscape. First, a simple example, Nova Scotia Power is consulting with property owners about expanding (doubling) the buffer around power lines. Rather than go house to house, we could organize community meetings, where citizens could look at the impact of this expanded buffer, on their property as well as on the South Mountain as a geographic unit.

The same form of citizen engagement could take place, in relation to the planning of forest harvesting. Indeed, when I was interviewing Tim Webster, Research Scientist at AGRG, they had recently received funding to establish a Virtual Reality laboratory in Middleton.

Citizen engagement is a key ingredient in the new craft beer venture.
Could we not apply the same philosophy of citizen engagement, in terms of using virtual reality technology to make collective decisions with regards power line easements and forest harvesting practices ? This tool would allow all parties to see the same geography.

Of course, right now, today, there are some limitations with regards line speed and access to the Internet in rural areas. But we do have some key institutions in the regions with high speed access e.g. NSCC.

One final note, on Tuesday, March 7th, at the Centrelea Community Centre there is a session on the mapping of historic buildings in the community. This is a collaboration between a group of citizens and Ed Symons, instructor and students at COGS.(

Mike Parker ‘Don’t listen to industry reassurances’ Chronicle Herald, March 4/17 Page F2.
Jeff Bishop. ‘Confusing opinion with the facts’. Chronicle Herald, March 4/17 Page F2.
Matthew Hague. ‘Noticed: Digital Design’.Globe and Mail, March 4/17. Style section page 5.