Prince Edward Island National Park, Greenwich Dunes
From June 13 until June 18, Steven Mannell, Michelle Paon, and I attended this unconventional conference which set out to explore how the smallest of Canada’s provinces can act as a barometer for environmental change and environmental policy. Based at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, and hosted by NiCHE [Network of Canadian History and Environment] and UPEI’s Institute of Island Studies, Time and A Place was full of panel discussions and plenary speakers, interspersed with field trips that took us all over the Island.
Exhibit at Confederation Centre for the Arts, Charlottetown
We drove up on Sunday afternoon with Keith Collier, an M.A. from Memorial University in Newfoundland who quite patiently put up with us for the four-hour drive. Although Steven complained about the too-stark, too-functional design of the Confederation Bridge, and although it lacks something of the romance of approaching the Island by ferry, arriving on the Island with its red soils and green hedgerows is a wonderful moment. That evening we attended the opening reception at the Confederation Centre for the Arts – which was featuring exhibits of late -nineteenth and twentieth-century Canadian landscape paintings, and a more conceptual comment on plants (above) including corn stalks soaked in oil. The opening plenary was by Finis Dunaway, who spoke on the importance of visual culture in understanding postwar environmental thinking. Luckily, this was also the last day I had to walk between the campus and the downtown via the ‘strip’ of University Avenue – I discovered the Confederation Trail the next morning and walked it each day that week at sunrise.
Fishing boats coming in to Lennox Island First Nation harbour.
Monday was the longest and most grueling day; as Alan MacEachern (director of NiCHE and expatriate Islander) later said, they threw us in at the deep end. A morning plenary on “two-eyed seeing” – that is, using both traditional aboriginal knowledge and western science – introduced an interesting concept, but I would have liked more on how to actually integrate these two. Then we travelled west to Lennox Island First Nation, the only aboriginal reserve on the Island, where we heard from an archaeologist working on a nearby site and where the braver souls went for a trail walk in mosquito-heavy woods. There is new lobster plant on the reserve, but we didn’t get a chance to learn much about it as we were already about two hours late; we also had to miss the Summerside Wind Farm, to my disappointment. Donald Worster – one of the most influential scholars in the field – made up for it that evening, though, with a keynote on “the age of limits”: asking if North America has finally turned a corner away from the age or mentality of growth that dominated not just the postwar era but the entire modern age. It’s that kind of work that shows how history really can engage with current issues.
Beech woods, Strathgartney Provincial Park
Each day was themed to a different kind of land use, and Tuesday was forests. I confess I’ve never been a big fan of forestry history, but this was simply fascinating: forest habitat, forest use, forest disturbance, and forest regeneration. What this whole week did extremely well was show a depth and complexity to the “gentle Island” too often thought of as singularly pastoral and agricultural. Talks on the forest composition of the Island, based on use, topography, and farm settlement and abandonment were really interesting. Then – a true highlight of the week – a hike through an Acadian forest at Strathgartney Provincial Park, one of the prettiest woods I’ve seen, down to the West River. While I think we feel more attached to places we know and understand, sometimes just being in nature is as important as learning its details. That evening Graeme Wynn, one of the “founding fathers” of environmental history in Canada, gave another excellent plenary on our historical interaction with forests in the Maritimes.
Parabolic dune at Greenwich, PEI National Park
Today was about the fisheries on the Island, and while the organizers were clearly trying to stay away from references to L.M. Montgomery, in order to show the rest of the Island, I couldn’t help but think of some of her descriptions of small fishing communities like Glen St. Mary. Anyway, today was a gloriously sunny day, so we headed to Greenwich, the eastern addition of about twelve years ago to PEI National Park. Talks on the historical and contemporary fisheries (lobster: doing well; others: not so much) were followed by a great lunch outdoors and then, best of all, a long walk on the beach past impressive, and migrating, dunes. This was followed by a lobster supper in the fishing town of Souris on the eastern shore of the Island, and a rather depressing keynote given by Daniel Pauly, a world-renowned scholar from UBC, on mapping (generally the collapse of) fish stocks. Not back until late, but Island historian Edward MacDonald did point out the Island’s vodka distillery on the way.
En route to Sweet Clover Farm, near Orwell Corners
Today was...an experience, as my father would say. (Steve would say an experience is what you get when you don’t get what you expected to get). I found the morning plenary and panel the most interesting; the former was on using GIS to reconstruct environmental use from a well-known diary of 19th century farming, through which geographer Matthew Hatvany argued that the “golden age” of PEI lore was probably a mythic reading of self-sustaining mixed husbandry; and a discussion about sustainability initiatives on PEI, like the Institute for Man & Resources and the Ark in the 1970s. I think here the organizers were getting closest to what they were aiming for: that is, what is possible here? What best facilitates such initiatives: is it scale, governmental commitment, what? Then – after a series of unintended if most picturesque detours on red Island roads – we visited a “back-to-the-lander” and his farm; Orwell Corner Farm Museum (one of these pioneer-village-type things); and the Macphail homestead, where a presentation on the Macphail Woods forestry project proved the most heartening “good-news” story of the week.
Greenwich, PEI National Park
Friday: a day devoted to policy and “what now”? I was most impressed with the extent to which academics presenting this week tried to show how their research is – not just can be, but is – engaged with informing policy. No ivory towers here, although Alan someone did point out that we were free to be here all week while the actual policy makers had to be in the office. (“Free”? It was one of the most exhausting weeks I’ve had in a while). And in fact, said policy makers made some very salient points about the role of the university in all of this: namely, that we are free to provoke discussion and innovation where governments might be too politically vulnerable or insecure to do so. (I was also taken by the presentation on wind resource atlases and wind power potential in the region given by an engineer from Université de Moncton, although that may have been in part due to the many references to Denmark). That afternoon a panel discussed the challenges academics face in contributing to policy, be they corporate intimidation or general disregard for an historical perspective. But that evening, after the banquet, the final plenary asked if we were making progress in environmental law, and the answer seemed to be, more or less, yes.
And I was able to work L.M. Montgomery into my own panel, in arguing for the value of the humanities, the study of ideas and meaning, in the discussion of sustainability:
In the west was a sky of mackerel clouds – crimson and amber-tinted, with long strips of apple-green sky between. Beyond was the glimmering radiance of a sunset sea, and the ceaseless voice of many waters came up from the tawny shore. All around her, lying in the fine, beautiful country silence, were the hills and fields and woods she had known and loved so long.
“History repeats itself,” said Gilbert, joining her as she passed the Blythe gate. “Do you remember our first walk down this hill, Anne – our first walk together anywhere, for that matter?”
- L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams (1917)
All in all, well worth it. A fantastic premise; an educational environment; and a beautiful, valuable place.
22 June 2010
(This list is automatically generated)
- Time and a Place Presentations Archived
- Time and a Place: Environmental Histories, Environmental Futures, and Prince Edward Island
- A reflection on Time & a Place
- A reflection on Time and a Place
- Time and a Place (TnP), after
- Ruby, Emerald and Sapphire
- Two-Eyed Seeing
- And we're off.
- Time and a Place - Local Information
- Time and a Place - Field Trips