The view from the base of the old Ash that hangs precariously over the equally ancient woodshed at the edge of the family property on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore hasn’t changed in 75 years. Not, at least, in any way that you’d notice.
A ten-acre field of high grass stretches down to a spruce and fir tree line. A jumble of broken trunks and scrub give way to a tidal pond which nearly encircles a drumlin of scrappy forest that overlooks the mighty Chedabucto Bay.
You could walk a straight path from the shed to the shore, and do that all day, back and forth, and never meet another soul. This is, after all, a part of the world for the leaving of things, not for the returning.
According to a Statistics Canada survey, Guysborough is the least populous and prosperous county in Nova Scotia. The number of residents three years ago was just over 8,000, or roughly two for every square kilometer, earning $20,000 less in any given year than the average Haligonian.
In fact, the population has been shrinking (along with wages) since 1871, from a high of 16,555 to a low three years ago of 8,143, which was, itself, a 10 per cent drop since 2006.
What’s happened to Guysborough is now happening all across the Maritimes. This eastern district was merely among the first to send the flower of its youth to points west. Of course, the restless, generational search for work is bred in virtually all rural bones down here.
“Wave after wave of Maritimers have left their beloved homeland, rolling westward again and again to seek jobs up and down the Atlantic seaboard, in the American midwest and far west, in Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia, and the northern territories,” my father, the writer Harry Bruce, penned in his lengthy love letter to the region, “Down Home”, in 1988. “Leaving Home has long outlasted the golden age of sail as part of their heritage.”
Indeed, it has. But sometimes on a soft, mid-summer afternoon, when the view of the bay from the base of the old Ash is clear and bright, you get a rousing sense of alternatives. History need not always repeat itself in exactly the same nauseating way.
You cock your ear to the merry squeals of your three-year-old grandson robustly engaging a soccer ball and his substantially older (and vastly more patient) cousins on the field beside the main house.
Meanwhile, your sister and her husband are attempting to dislodge a toy airplane made of balsa wood from the lower canopy of a maple tree into which it has careened.
Evident experts on such matters, they take turns hurling various items, purloined from the woodshed, at the flyer, until a garden rake becomes firmly wedged in the elbow of a large branch. Now airplane and rake appear determined to remain where they are until at least the first nor’easter blows through.
You could solve their problem in an instant. There’s a ladder in the shed next to the winter wood. But you wonder. . .
“Leave this to me,” you shout, as you leap from your perch and start bounding towards the maple.
You gaze straight up and with one determined leap wrap your arms and legs around the trunk and commence to shimmy in a manner that’s both workable and undistinguished.
Stepping nimbly among the branches, you manage to guide a homemade contraption from the sibling ground crew to their quarries and, eventually, shake loose both rake and flyer.
Safely back on the ground, you cheerfully accept the applause of your family and marvel at the sheer effort it has taken to coordinate this reunion – harder than climbing a tree at age 53 – in this most out-of-the-way spot in the backwoods of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, where the population has, nevertheless, if only for a summertime moment, spiked by eight.