Of Birds and Timber: Uncovering Trans-Atlantic Connections at Musquash, New Brunswick (Updated)

Kirsten Greer (in collaboration with Henry McGhie and Sinead Earley)

Photo: Sinead Earley

Photo: Sinead Earley

On May 26th, fellow doctoral candidate Sinead Earley and I embarked on a road trip to St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick, to attend the Canadian History & Environment Summer School (CHESS) at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre. Equipped with provincial maps, eclectic tunes, and strong coffee, we abandoned the halls of the Department of Geography, Queen’s University, to seek new academic adventures in Atlantic Canada. This year’s theme, “Coastal Conundrums: Using Environmental History to Understand Coastal Communities,” provided an excellent opportunity to meet fellow Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) members, and to discuss issues related to fisheries management, seaside tourism, and First Nations relations.

As historical and cultural geographers, we seized the opportunity to conduct fieldwork on the road by bringing along an unpublished manuscript that I had in my “back burner” ideas box. “Travels in New Brunswick, Canada and Manitoba 1868-1877” by Arthur Dresser is a manuscript filled with numerous photographs, sketches, maps, and descriptions of life in New Brunswick. Dresser, who worked at the family lumber mill at Musquash noted that “[t]he Musquash property is nearly all wild wood land and a quantity of dykes spotted here.” He also collected 167 bird species, including the Peregrine Falcon which was then “common all over the parts of N.B.” A visit to Musquash was therefore immanent considering our own research interests in avian historical geographies and forest history.

The manuscript itself has been a source of serendipities and synergies over the last few years. One such encounter included meeting Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Manchester Museum, UK, who has been writing the life-history of British ornithologist, Henry Dresser (1838-1915), in Bird, Books and Business: The Life of Victorian Ornithologist Henry Dresser (due for completion in 2012). Dresser was a leading figure in ornithological society during a time of transition, when ornithology became professionalized and institutionalized. He published some of the most luxurious bird books of the late nineteenth century, which were based on his fabulous collection of bird skins and eggs. Many specimens came from the most famous collectors, including Spencer Baird, Alfred Wallace and Nikolai Prjevalsky.

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As a young man in his twenties, Henry Dresser lived at Musquash, commanding over the sawmill that belonged to his father. During his time there he collected birds and employed others to do the same for him, including the lighthouse keeper at Point Lepreaux. Henry’s younger brother Arthur followed him to the mill and worked there for a number of years. Henry Dresser’s unpublished field dairies are housed at the Manchester Museum; his collection of New Brunswick birds is divided between the Manchester Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, along with smaller numbers of specimens in other UK museums. These collections include many birds collected by both of the Dresser brothers.

Back on the road, Sinead and I turn off the highway to visit the old site of Musquash. The Musquash Estuary, a saltwater wetland, is now Canada’s sixth Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the management of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and the support of the Province of New Brunswick, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and local universities. Ducks Unlimited Canada has also had a presence in the area since the 1980s. According to DFO: “studies have identified it as one of the last ecologically intact estuaries in a region where most of the original salt marshes have been modified by human activities.”

At first glance, we find it hard to imagine how Musquash was once an active lumber mill, transporting timber to Britain. We take out the Dresser manuscript and examine two hand-drawn maps that illustrate the location of the Musquash River mill, the docks, the lumber camps and Inglewood Manor, the house where both Dressers lived. We find it difficult to negotiate the landscape of the past: where were the dams located; did they dredge the wetland; and how has the estuary changed over time? We photographed and filmed the site, hoping to answer these questions at a later date. (Watch out for an EHTV episode by Sinead in the near future).

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Over the last few years, DFOs has collected some historical, social and ecological information about the area, including an Oral History project of several older residents. The trans-Atlantic connections to Musquash, however, remain relatively unknown. Perhaps this is an opportunity to fill in the gap, re-establishing intellectual and cultural connections between the UK and Canada, based on the legacies of long-dead colonists.

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Kirsten Greer is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Geography & History at Nipissing University. Her research focuses on human-environment relations in the past, particularly within the context of the 19th-c British Empire. She is also interested in historical and critical physical geography collaborations. Kirsten is a member of the Transnational Ecologies project with NiCHE.

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