Little we see in Nature that is ours (part 1)

In this and a follow-up blog post, I draw on five sets of aerial photographs of Prince Edward Island taken from 1935 to 2000 and posted on the provincial website, to discuss landscape change at PEI National Park.

Aerial Photo of Prince Edward Island National Park, 1935

Aerial Photo of Prince Edward Island National Park, 1935


An aerial photograph is a snapshot of a time as well as a place, of course. This first one is from 1935, and Ernest and Myrtle Webb of Cavendish, PEI – their house is in the upper-middle, the farm flowing down the photo – have no way of knowing that within a year their property will be expropriated to become part of the new Prince Edward Island National Park. The Webbs had the good and bad fortune of living at “Green Gables,” the home associated with local author LM Montgomery’s book, and in the previous few years they had begun giving tours and even renovated the house to accommodate tourists. But otherwise, the farm and the surrounding countryside remained much as Montgomery had described it thirty years earlier. The 1936 visit by the federal Finance Minister, a Senator, and members of the provincial Cabinet, telling the Webbs that Canada needed their home, would be the first step in changing that.

Those changes can be seen in the photos that follow from 1958, 1974, 1990, and 2000. Many alterations were immediate. Although I have visited Green Gables dozens of times, it never occurred to me how unusual it is that the lane snakes down across the stream, rather than running straight from the road along the field division, as it typically would on PEI – and, it turns out, as it previously had. Other changes that the park had wrought by 1958 are much more pronounced. The golf course has sprouted from farmer’s fields, development (including a park-leased bungalow court) is running up the Cavendish Road, and forests have been surprisingly successful already. The subsequent aerial photos show changes more in degree than in kind. The 1958 image captures how the park was envisioned and set out in its first decades, and it is this landscape, much more than the 1935 landscape, that will be maintained for future generations. The area did continue to evolve, however. More tourist development crowds around Cavendish Corner, on the upper right-hand-side, by 1974. The golf course grows more tentacles by 1990. And by 2000, the contradictions inherent in Parks Canada’s dual mandate are more apparent than ever at Green Gables. While efforts have been made to make the farmhouse’s surroundings more natural – the parking lot pulled farther away and the golf green in front relocated – it has been at the expense of a considerably larger physical area.

When gazing intently at these unlikely sources from PEI National Park’s history, I thought about the amazing – although daunting – range and quantity of information that we have today about the past, which in turn made me think of Wordsworth’s poem “The world is too much with us, late and soon.” That opening line could serve as a motto for Parks Canada, whose impossible mandate is simultaneously to entice the world to some of the best bits of Canadian nature and to protect that nature from those who come. I admire the mandate, and the agency that tries to fulfill it. But I do think that now that the agency is a century old, it is time that it do more to acknowledge the degree that the landscapes it protects are a product of its own creation, that the parks are palimpsests of past agency decisions. Wordsworth’s poem goes on to say, “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” But that’s not true anymore, if it ever was. What we see in nature is often shaped by humans, and that includes the nature of national parks.

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I'm a Professor & Graduate Chair in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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