What Have they in Common? Great Village, Westcock, and Carberry

At first glance it would appear that these three locations have few, if any, links. However, a closer look reveals that the first two share a familiar heritage. Both Great Village, Nova Scotia and Westcock, New Brunswick were once sites of Acadian settlements, and later played important roles in the nineteenth centurys Golden Age of Sail. Westcock overlooks Cumberland Basin; while Great Village, straddles a river that flows into Cobequid Bay. Inevitably, both bear the mark of Fundys restless tides.

In stark contrast, Carberry is thousands of kilometres from the Maritimes and the influence of the sea. Located in southern Manitoba east of Brandon, it was first settled in the late 1870s. Nestled in rolling hills and fertile farmland, it has a population of 1,500; making it the largest of the three communities. The economy is mainly based on agriculture; however, there are two features that make Carberry a tourist destination. The Spirit Sands Desert, is billed as five square kilometres of blowing sand dunes; while nearby Spruce Woods Provincial Park is only minutes away from the town.

Obviously, from the standpoint of history and geography, Carberry is very different from either Great Village or Westcock; yet there are connecting links through literature.

Two major poets, an American, Elizabeth Bishop (19111979) and a Canadian, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (18601943) spent their early childhood years in Great Village and Westcock respectively. In both cases, their poetry bears the indelible mark of these formative years. In the same vein, Carberry can lay claim to artist, naturalist and author Ernest Thompson Seton (18601946), who homesteaded there in the late 19th century.

Roberts and Seton also shared a mutual interest in animal life and the natural environment. Both went on to achieve fame as writers of popular animal stories. In Roberts case, these were based largely on boyhood adventures in the forest and marshland around Westcock; while Seton set many of his tales in the Carberry area, with its distinctive prairie landscape.

Although born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bishop spent her early childhood in Great Village, living with her maternal Canadian grandparents. She attended the local school briefly during the years 191617. Thereafter, until the mid 1920s, she vacationed in Great Village each summer; and was to revisit the scenes of her youth on several occasions. Following her return to the United States, Bishop graduated from Vasser College in 1934. Something of a wanderer she traveled extensively in Europe, and lived in both Brazil and the United States. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker Magazine; she won virtually every poetry award in the United States; including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

While the poetic styles of Bishop and Roberts differ dramatically, each exhibited a profound sense of place; in their prose and poetry. Great Village and Westcock as they once were, are forever immortalized in their literary works. Many readers will be familiar with Roberts Tantramar Revisited, Westcock Hill, The Herring Weir or The Tide On Tantramar among numerous other examples of his preoccupation with this region.

Of Elizabeth Bishop it has been written: Her hauntingly unforgettable poetry speaks to the world of her rich Nova Scotia heritage and speaks to Nova Scotians of their earthly trust wooden houses, church steeples, wild iris, elms and ancestors. On August 1, 1992 an event took place that helped emphasize the Great Village years of Elizabeth Bishop. Local citizens unveiled a memorial plaque on St. James United Church to recognize and celebrate the enduring connection between the poet and her childhood home.

In addition a seminar was held, with papers and reminiscences being presented by a mix of academics and local people. Out of this gathering, a formal Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia emerged; and special events honouring the poet take place on a regular basis. The Society has also issued an attractive and well designed brochure highlighting sites of importance in Bishops life and writings. A self guided tour covering 22 significant locations throughout the village has also been developed.

Ernest Thompson, who later added the surname Seton, was born in South Shields, England in 1860. In the same year, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts was born at Douglas near Fredericton. The Thompson family emigrated to Upper Canada in 1866 and eventually settled in Toronto, where Ernest graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1879. Attracted to frontier life, he moved to Manitoba, and was appointed to the post of provincial naturalist. Later, in 1896 he emigrated to the United States.

Setons first collection of short stories Wild Animals I have Known was published in 1898 and became an instant success. Roberts, a keen naturalist and camper since his Westcock years, also wrote wrote three experimental animal tales in 1896. These were published along with other outdoor adventure stories in his Earths Enigmas. By coincidence, these two important Canadian writers, who were exact contemporaries; launched a new genre or type of storytelling. It is also worth noting that they later became acquainted, and actively encouraged each others work.

Most critics are in agreement that Roberts was the better writer; however, Seton, a gifted artist, was able to illustrate his books and this added greatly to their appeal. His interests were of a more scientific bent than Roberts, and he is remembered as Manitobas Audubon. One of Setons most important works The Birds of Manitoba was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute in 1892.

Of the two, Roberts was more prolific and some of his animal stories have been reissued in recent years. For at least two or three generations, a collection of these stories formed part of the school curriculum in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In later life, Setons interest in woodcraft led to an association with the Boy Scout movement. From 1910 until 1915 he served as chief of the Boy Scouts of America. He also founded the Seton Institute in New Mexico. Here he spent most of his final years; returning to Canada only on special assignments.

Ernest Thompson Seton has not been forgotten in Carberry, Manitoba. Several of his books were based in whole or in part, on his life in southern Manitoba. The most notable example was The Trail Of A Sandhill Stag published in 1898. A memorial to Seton stands in Pine Creek Park east of the town. The wilderness trails that he once blazed, have been restored in Spruce Woods Provincial Park. The Seton Centre in Carberry, dedicated to his memory, sponsors special events highlighting his career. The Centre also displays artwork, books and memorabilia associated with Setons life.

Seton in Carberry and Bishop in Great Village have been honoured and memorialized in the communities that provided a significant impetus to their literary careers. What about Sir Charles G. D. Roberts? Most literary historians agree that Roberts was Canadas first man of letters; while others have attached the label The Father of Canadian Literature. Certainly he was one of the first Canadians to earn a living through his published works. In addition to being a poet of the first rank, his role as a writer of prose and as an historian also call for recognition.

While his fiction and animal stories have borne the brunt of considerable criticism; one thing is certain. Roberts knew his subject matter firsthand. He would never be caught transplanting murmuring pines and hemlocks to the marshlands, as did Longfellow. But then, the latter had never set foot in the Maritimes.

To be fair, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts did receive, over the years, some recognition in his native New Brunswick. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Mount Allison in 1942. Five years later, in 1947 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada included his incomplete name [Sir Charles Roberts] along with that of Bliss Carmen and Francis Sherman on a Poets Memorial at UNB. In 1983 Mount Allisons Centre for Canadian Studies sponsored a symposium that celebrated his life and works. The proceedings were subsequently published.

The same year also saw the republication by Mount Allison, of Roberts locally based novel The Heart That Knows. An introduction by Dr. Michael J. MacDonald outlined the place of this work in regional literature. More recently, Dr. Charles H. H. Scobie has written an important monograph entitled: The Roberts Country: Sir Charles G. D. Roberts And The Tantramar. Published in 1993, it chronicles in detail, Roberts roots in the region.

While the recognition mentioned above is commendable; there is something missing. Simply put, two things are needed. There should be a permanent reminder on location of the life and works of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts. In addition, an ongoing event is required to perpetuate his memory. Only then, will future generations be reminded that the Father of Canadian Literature, not only lived his childhood years in Westcock; but that his works were moulded and shaped by this area. Both Great Village and Carberry point the way!

Its always tempting to let fancy reign and sketch possibilities as to how the above objectives might be achieved. I shall resist. Widespread public consultation and consideration must first take place.

It is, however, appropriate to point out that now may well be the time for action. A proposal for the creation of a United Nations Biosphere Reserve in the Upper Bay of Fundy, is in its final stages and will shortly be forwarded to UNESCO for approval. Will there ever be a better time to honour the contributions of one who, in both his prose and poetry, celebrated the Tantramar in all its biodiversity?