In 1990, writer Charles Gaines and his artist wife, Patricia, bought 160 acres of wild land on the northeast coast of Nova Scotia. Eventually, they began to see the land as a place that might heal their recently battered marriage, and as an opportunity to take on a big, risky, long-term project instead of settling into the caution and gradual losses of middle-class middle age. Enlisting their children and their daughter’s carpenter boyfriend, they decided to build a cabin on the land the following summer, with their own hands, as a family venture.
This “heartwarming memoir” recounts that summer’s sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious events with passages of the family’s history that dramatize what is at stake for each of them in Nova Scotia (Publishers Weekly). Gaines describes the process of building a cabin while living in tents without electricity or running water, and the pleasures and limitations of a life so simplified that a week’s biggest social event is a bonfire. He draws a portrait of the small, generous Acadian community of farmers and lobster fishermen surrounding their land, and traces the history of that land to its original French-Acadian owner. And he tracks the mood of his family through the long, difficult summer—from initial enthusiasm to near mutiny, and finally to exhilaration and deep satisfaction at having built something that will last.
“Remarkable.” —Susan Cheever
“Weaving together details of construction and carpentry with personal revelations about marriage and midlife, the narrative works as both a factual account of housebuilding and a poetic testimony of love lost and found . . . A beautifully written memoir.” —Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Charles Gaines is the author of the National Book Award finalist Stay Hungry and the international nonfiction bestseller Pumping Iron, as well as being a lifelong sportsman and outdoor adventurer. He serves as US director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and is a founder and lifetime board member of the US Fly Fishing Team. He lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Birmingham, Alabama.
Dave DiBenedetto is the senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Garden&Gun magazine. He is also the author of On the Run: An Angler’s Journey down the Striper Coast. DiBenedetto lives in Charleston, South Carolina.
Alexander Bridge is a writer and journalist, whose work has appeared in the Montreal Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Ottawa Citizen, and the Boston Globe, among others. He lives in Boylston, Nova Scotia.
Read an Excerpt
This is a book about family and finding a place in the world where family is important. Seventeen summers ago, when our three children were still children, my wife, Patricia, and I took them on a two-week driving tour of Nova Scotia. The purpose of that trip was to isolate ourselves from everything but the healing joy of family closeness. Last summer we all returned to Nova Scotia to do the same thing. This time we did it by building a cabin there for ourselves, with our own hands, and by rebuilding with our own hands the family that would occupy it.
For three months before our first tour of Nova Scotia we had lived in Alabama while the movie of my first novel was being filmed there. Up until the modest success of that novel and the invitation to move to Alabama as coscreenwriter for the film adaptation of it, Patricia and I and our kids had lived a quiet, determinedly rural life in New Hampshire. We went to bed early and got up early together to eat breakfast around a wood stove. We skied together, climbed mountains together, cut wood together, and weathered storms together. When Patricia learned from my agent that the movie rights to my novel had been sold, she and the kids strung balloons inside our little rented house on Lake Sunapee and threw me a surprise party. We believed then that we had good reason to celebrate.
But the three months of filming in my hometown of Birmingham opened a Pandora's box for Patricia and me, and it was years before we could close that box again. We told ourselves we had been shut up in the hills paying bills for a long time, and would soon enough go back to that, and that a little fun never hurt anybody. In no time, I went from a one-Pop-Tart-a-day dad whose biggest weekend kick was a canoe float with my kids on the Contoocook River to a high-handed, big-appetite experience chaser — a caricature of the country boy gone Hollywood. And too often the glitter, and the odd, bogus sense of power and prerogative that making a movie gives you — the sense that you are somehow part of an occupying force in a small, backward country — made us feel like someone had walked up out of the blue and painted big, red S's on our chests. For the first time in our married life we decided we could leave the dishes for someone else to wash. We flirted with movie stars playing versions of ourselves — and with losing everything that mattered to us.
When the filming ended it was July and a hundred and ten degrees in Birmingham. Patricia and I were thin, wrung out, and snappish with each other; our daughter Greta, then nine, had had nightmares every night in her basement room; and all of us had felt for the first time the cold stomach knot of dread that comes when a family that is everything to each other first springs a leak and the world starts pouring in.
With its clean glimpses of ocean everywhere, its cool, bracing air, and straight ahead, cheerful people, Nova Scotia was just the clarifying restorative we needed. We drove the breathtaking Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island and hiked its trails. We ate Scottish oatcakes and played board games beside a fire in a tiny inn on the northeast coast as an Atlantic fog cut us off from everything but each other. We stayed for a few days at a working farm where a Shetland pony, a pig, and a St. Bernard followed the kids around and where mowed fields ran right down to the sea. We played a game called "Mug" in the sea-smelling dusks; we read Hardy Boys mysteries aloud to each other at night; and gradually, over the course of the two weeks we were there, Nova Scotia led us back to health and unity.
Patricia and I returned to the province a couple of times together over the next few years, and I went back a number of times alone to fish and shoot, falling for the place a little more each time, finding it a miracle of abundance and variety. In Nova Scotia you can catch shad in the spring, trout, bass, mackerel, and Atlantic salmon all summer long, and giant bluefin tuna in September and October, when the shooting season opens for woodcock and grouse, snipe, ducks, and geese. Lobster bought right off the boats during the season is less than three dollars a pound. You can dig all the clams and mussels you want on any of dozens of beautiful, unpopulated beaches. The sailing in Saint Georges Bay and in the inland sea called Bras d'Or is some of the best in the world. And you can come around a corner anywhere, anytime in Nova Scotia and be face to face with a visual combination of earth, sky, and sea so important you'd think the whole world depended on it.
Manhattan Island was once a paradise. Wild rosebushes and vast fields of lupine grew in the Bowery, The East and Hudson rivers teemed with striped bass and salmon. Wild turkeys roosted on Wall Street, and black bear denned through the winters along Park Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles, too, was once a good place to live. On the streets that now belong to killer kids, drug addicts, hookers, and the homeless, the Yang-Na Indians had no trouble gathering all the wild cress, grapes, and cucumbers they wanted. And in the smoggy entertainment warrens of Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades, Jesuits once rose early in fields red with foxtail and gold with prickly pear and began their matinals to bird song.
As we know, the modern world has mined many good places to live. And it continues to chug along, implacable and mindless as a pavement eater, mining more every day and giving rise in many of us to the dream of some "last, best place" — a last-stand place, as yet unruined, where life is still lived as the person with the dream believes it should be lived: with the right priorities, in the right company (or lack of it), at the right tempo, and in collaboration with the right landscape.
Montana is popular, for good reason, as a last, best place. New Zealand could certainly stake a claim. Alaska, Patagonia, Tasmania, and Costa Rica could, too. For somebody, the last, best place may even be Manhattan, who knows? For Patricia and me, over a period of time, it became Nova Scotia, and two years ago we decided to look there for a piece of property to buy. At the time, that seemed a simple, even offhand, decision. We had no inkling that we would soon look to that property for the same blessing of family reuniting and healing that Nova Scotia had bestowed on us seventeen years before, or that it would be the place where my wife and I would learn how to love each other again. At the time, all Patricia thought we were after in our last, best place was a little piece of land by the sea.
The sea is and always has been Nova Scotia's defining element, and the sea's cool blue light is Nova Scotia's light.
The province is shaped like a giant lobster. Less than four hundred miles long, with a maximum width of one hundred miles, it has some five thousand miles of coastline — on the Atlantic Ocean to the south and east, on the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the west and north — and at no place in the province is it possible to be more than fifty miles from ocean water. So many of Nova Scotia's people have been lobster and scallop fishermen, clammers, trawlers for haddock, hake, cod, mackerel, and herring, handliners of tuna and swordfish, boat builders, sailors, and driers of Irish moss that the sea is a common language to them, a birthright, and a backyard full of sapphires.
Along with the other Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, and Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia is a part of the northernmost extension of the Appalachian Mountains and valleys of the eastern United States: old land. Some of its rock dates back a billion years. It might once have been an island in an ocean called Iapetus, which disappeared some 430 million years ago in a collision between North America and Africa that made Morocco and Cape Breton temporary neighbors until the formation of the Atlantic Ocean separated them again and configured Nova Scotia as it is today. The glaciers of the Pleistocene era formed its countless inland lakes and its deep bays and coves and scoured much of the province of its overburden of topsoil, which is one of the reasons why only one third of Nova Scotia can now be farmed.
The original inhabitants of Nova Scotia were Algonquian-speaking eastern sub-Arctic Indians known as Mi'kmaq, the ancestors of the modern Micmacs. For over ten thousand years before the first Europeans arrived, this people roamed the province, going where the food was, in extended family groups. Family was the most important element of Mi'kmaq life, and it fully organized the Mi'kmaq society. Power accrued to leaders in proportion to the love and respect tendered them by their families and in accordance with how cohesive and stable those families were.
Extended domestic groups of Nova Scotian Mi'kmaqs would make summer camp together on fish-rich, protected waters such as the Bay of Saint George and flourish there on flounder, eel, striped bass, and sturgeon. Harp, gray, and hooded seals provided them with meat and oil. In winter these groups moved inland, living off beaver, porcupine, bear, muskrat, and moose. The marrow, blood, and meat of the moose were eaten by the Mi'kmaq; its hide was used for clothing and snowshoe thongs; its brain for tanning skins; its bladder was filled up with seal oil; its horns were made into tools; its tendons became thread for sewing; its hair was embroidered; its dew claws made into rattles; its shinbones carved into dice; and its hooves were used as a medicine for epilepsy.
This original Nova Scotian was a family man who could make do.
Nova Scotia was first visited by Europeans in 1497 when John Cabot sailed his little ship, Matthew, into a bay of Cape Breton Island fifty days out of Bristol. Cabot imagined he was in China, the land of the Great Khan. He found no silk or spices in Nova Scotia, but he did discover unimagined treasures on this voyage and a subsequent one, opening up, on the Great Banks off the eastern coast of Nova Scotia and south of Newfoundland, one of the richest fisheries the world has ever known — a fishery that within a few hundred years would make Nova Scotia the richest of Canada's founding provinces and one of the busiest seaports on earth. The fish in these seas, Cabot reported to King Henry VII, were so thick "they sometimes stopped progress of the ship," so numerous that nets were unnecessary, as a boat could just sink stone-weighted baskets and haul up the treasure. Thrilled almost speechless with this place of beauty and bounty that he had found by accident, Cabot claimed all of Nova Scotia for his king, making it Britain's first colony in the New World.
But it was a Frenchman, the writer, explorer, and bon vivant, Samuel de Champlain, who founded the first settlement in Nova Scotia (and the first permanent European settlement north of Florida) in 1605 at Annapolis Royal, then called Port Royal. Champlain also founded L'Order de Bon Temps, or the Order of Good Cheer. Established to enliven the long winter nights at the outpost of Port Royal, this was the first social club in North America, as well as the first known emergence of the honored Nova Scotian inclination to celebrate during adversity.
By 1621 the French were becoming well established and numerous in what they called Acadia. (The Florentine navigator Verrazano is supposed to have originated this name for Nova Scotia after the Greek region of Arcadia, which epitomized rustic contentment and simplicity.) King James I of Britain was made nervous by this, so he declared Nova Scotia a royal province and gave it to a Scottish poet and courtier named Sir William Alexander to colonize, thus initiating nearly one hundred and fifty years of French-English conflict in the province that was not finally resolved until the surrender of the entire French empire in North America in 1763.
The Acadians, as the original French settlers of Nova Scotia were called, were an industrious, practical people who got along and traded with the Indians, diked low-lying salt marshes to create rich farmland, and became, over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more oblivious to whether it was France or Britain who claimed them as subjects. In 1713 France finally ceded Nova Scotia to Britain. The cession was fine by the Acadians until Britain began pressuring them to sign an "Oath of Allegiance" to take up arms against France if Britain deemed it necessary. Many Acadians refused to do this. Concerned during the French and Indian War that Nova Scotia was harboring a "nest of traitors," in 1755 its British governor deported as many of the Acadians as could be rounded up, starting some of those nearly ten thousand souls on a trail of tears — dramatized in Longfellow's poem, Evangeline — that stretched all the way to Louisiana, where their descendants are today called "Cajun," an abbreviation of Acadian.
The British replaced these lost subjects with settlers from northern England and Scotland and colonists from New England. During and after the American Revolution, Nova Scotia became a refuge for thousands more Americans who were loyal to Britain, including many blacks, half the living graduates of Harvard College, and many members of America's commercial, cultural, and social elite who would soon help turn Halifax into one of Canada's most civilized cities. During the eighteenth century Irish, Welsh, and German settlers also moved to Nova Scotia in significant numbers, along with both Protestant and Catholic Scots — all of them looking for a new start in this place Jacques Cartier had called "the finest land it is possible to see."
And finally, after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended for good any French political presence in North America, the Acadians were allowed to return, and many of them did come back to join the few who had never left and resume their quiet, independent lives. A part of, but also apart from, what was by now a burgeoning Nova Scotian provincial character, those Acadians who returned were people forced into themselves and their families — into absolute self-reliance and distrust of government — by exile and by the power of their dreams.
Let's look at such a man, a farmer, we'll say, named Barrio. At the time of his expulsion from Acadia, he has lived in the rich Annapolis valley since his birth in 1705: a fifty-year-old man with a wife, three sons, and two daughters. With help from his neighbors and his large extended family, he has diked forty acres of marshland and raised on it wheat and flax. He has a small apple orchard and a vegetable garden. He keeps milk cows and a steer or two for beef, pigs, chickens, sheep, and a pair of oxen. On a pleasant Wednesday evening in September 1755, he is called in to the parish church at Grand Pré with all the other males over ten years old in his community. They are told there by an English colonel named John Winslow that they will have to leave Acadia, leave their land and their homes for good, and that they will be held there in the church until they can be embarked on the ships that will take them away. They are told they will be reunited with their families on the ships, but in many cases they are not. A month later, when Barrio is placed on the sloop Endeavor, his wife and daughters are aboard, but not his sons, and he never sees those sons again.
One hundred and eighty Acadians sail south on the Endeavor. The forty-two-day journey is a foul misery of too little food and water, overcrowding, and disease. By the time the ship reaches Charleston harbor nearly sixty of the Acadians have died and been thrown into the sea, including Barrio's younger daughter. He and his wife and remaining daughter join with two other families and walk all the way from South Carolina to French-speaking Louisiana where, they are told, other Acadians are going. They arrive in the bayou country in April of 1756.
It is hot. Barrio dreams of the first irises blooming in the bog behind his house, the salt marsh beginning to color, the spring run of shad. For ten years in the eternal muggy summer of the bayou he dreams of the seasons coming and going in Acadia. Acadia is the shape and substance and place of his dreams — and no one has ever dreamed harder. Then, in March of 1764, he learns that some government or another has determined that he can go back home. Barrio is now an old man, his daughter has married a shrimper, and his wife is not well, but he rouses them all and he does that — he goes back home, and all the way north, following the cool blue light of the sea in his mind, his energy freshening like a west wind bringing storm.
These powerful dreamers, these Acadians, were also family men who made do.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Family Place"
Copyright © 2017 Charles Gaines.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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