Read The Last Best Place Online

Authors: John Demont

The Last Best Place

Copyright © 1998 John DeMont
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Doubleday Canada Limited.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
DeMont, John, 1956-
    The last best place

eISBN: 978-0-385-67441-6

1. DeMont, John, 1956– Journeys – Nova Scotia. 2. Nova Scotia – Social life and customs. 3. Nova Scotia – Description and travel. I. Title.

FC2318.D44 1997        971.6′04         C97-930702-3
F1037.D44 1997

Published in Canada by
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street,
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9

The author is grateful for permission to include the following:

Excerpt from Malcolm Murray copyright M. Rankin. Reprinted by permission.

Excerpt from the diaries of Samuel de Champlain from
Gentlemen and Jesuits, Quest for Glory and Adventure in the Early Days of New France
, Elizabeth Jones, 1991, (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ont.) Reprinted by permission.

Excerpt from
Down North
, Ronald Caplin, editor, 1980, (Doubleday Canada Limited, Toronto, Ont.) Reprinted by permission.

Excerpt from correspondences between Adelaide Kuntz and Marsden Hartley and excerpt from
Cleophas and His Own
by Marsden Hartley, The Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Reprinted by permission.


To Lisa, Belle and Sam


This is a book about home, specifically my own, which is the province of Nova Scotia. I’m indebted to countless people for their hospitality, time and stories. If they’ll have it, this book is theirs. Any shortcomings on the other hand, are mine. That this book came about at all is due in large part to the guidance and determination of John Pearce, the wisdom and judgement of Charis Wahl and the precise pen of Shaun Oakey. They are the best of editors. Most of all I want to thank Lisa Napier, my first editor and ever-present sounding board. She, more than anyone, kept this book moving forward when at times it seemed to be standing still.

He had been walking around Halifax all day, as though by
moving through familiar streets he could test whether be
belonged here and had at last reached home

Hugh MacLennan


. I am headed for the end of the line. And Lord, I have made a mistake. Not necessarily a big mistake, like kicking Conrad Black’s schnauzer. But a mistake, nevertheless. Lisa is coming later on a bigger plane. I had conveniently forgotten about the puddle-hopper aircraft that take off no matter what the weather, bound for postage-stamp Maritime runways shrouded in fog and sleet, buffeted by angry winds that strike from crazy angles. My stomach is raked by razor blades; the walls close in like a coffin.
Think of an airplane as an unsinkable cork in the ocean
, I recall reading in one of those cure-yourself-of-fear-of-flying articles.
my soul cries as I lean into the aisle, shooting panicky glances in search of the drinks trolley.

Ten minutes later we break through to blue sky. I am alive. My reflection in the window bears the blissed-out, beatific appearance of someone bound for a Tony Robbins convention. I even smile with uncharacteristic benevolence at the plumber from Cape Breton seated next to me. His face has a reddish hue that glows brighter with each mini-bottle of Grand Marnier. On his last flight, he has already confided without the least embarrassment, he was caught smoking in the men’s can and thrown off in Montreal. I’m thumbing through an Elmore Leonard paperback as he tells me
this. So when he makes a fumbling swipe at the flight attendant’s butt I seriously consider giving the suckah a rabbit punch to the bridge of the nose. But she cowed him with a single look, leaving me to return to contemplating the clouds.

Because only from the air do you really understand that you’ve gone as far on this continent as a person can go. Only from thirty thousand feet do you really sense just how tenuous the connection to the mainland is—a thin band of land. Otherwise Nova Scotia is an island, in spirit as well as geography. Ahead, I knew, lay highlands and valleys, rivers that meandered in gentle loops, and a nasty, pounding ocean that made widows of young fishermen’s wives. Ahead was a place where the premier bayed like a dog in the legislature, where Roman Catholic priests married the ex-wives of media tycoons, and Tibetan holy men found the promised land. Ahead was music floating from red-neck taverns and black revivalist churches, from Legions and kitchens. Ahead lay blueberries, Christmas trees, lighthouses, lobsters and strange accents that mingle Scotland, Ireland, Britain, France, Germany and America. Ahead lay the crossroads where the warm Gulf Stream encounters the numbing Labrador Current, the plants of the High Arctic intermingle with the animals of Louisiana. Ahead, I felt certain in my heart, lay something elemental and true, something fundamentally different and essentially better than what I was leaving.

At least this was the jumble of romantic images I held as mythladen truth, like tribal paintings on a cave wall.

“Where ya from, buddy?” asks my seatmate, now cut off from Air Canada’s liquor supply.

That’s a question you hear a lot from Nova Scotians. I’ve heard them ask it in Whitehorse, in Ottawa, in Calgary, Toronto, Boston, on the Isle of Skye and even from a small town in Norway. Note the arched eyebrows, the inflection, the emphasis on the word
. They are important. As casual as the words sound, there is nothing idle in the question. What they are trying to do is place you on their geographic and psychic landscape.
Who are your people?
they really want to know.
Are you one of us?
The code is as well established as Masonic ritual.

Nova Scotians living away refer to that far-off place as “Down Home.” Unless we’ve been drinking, we don’t try to tell others because they just wouldn’t understand. We babble about the low crime, clean water and reasonable housing prices—sounding like a flack for the local chamber of commerce—and say that the lifestyle is what brings us back. Ultimately, there is little to be gained in letting others know that Nova Scotians, more than most people, believe that in roots can be found character. That out on the margins a need exists to be anchored to the dead and to locate your identity in time. Your past and your people are always with you. So, it seems, is being born here.

We are not totally naive. We realize we’re all wanderers and vagabonds; we’re all from everywhere; we all write our own lives as we go along. And yet, and yet. Something compels us to jump off
the corporate ladder to open up a candlemaking shop in some burp of a place that doesn’t see as much traffic in a year as a Yorkville boutique in a single afternoon. Something makes us pack the family and drive like wild-eyed maniacs for eighteen straight hours to swim in water not fit for warm-blooded mammals. Something causes us to gather over rum-and-Cokes in kitchens at parties in Lloydminster or Kamloops or Sudbury and brood about things hundreds of miles away.

This is beyond family, myth and memory. I have a theory. It sounds a little New Agey but here goes anyway: each of us has only one right place where we would rather shiver in the rain than lounge in the sunshine anywhere else; maybe where we would rather die than live anywhere else. It is about where you belong, not necessarily where you were born or where your family live.
, the idea as much as the molecules of a place. Where the heart is, or isn’t, where they have to take you in, where you can never go back. Home that is born in you, follows you and makes you who you are. That consumes you as you consume it. That you can never escape. Home, where you belong no matter how much its face changes.

My hypothesis is that each of us spends our life searching for our own Last Best Place. The ones who find it, the lucky ones, the connected ones, do not all live in physical proximity to their special place: the exiled Italian restaurant workers, tailors and tile and terrazzo artisans who gather around espressos in the deep bowels of North American cities to gossip about their home towns; the bank
executive from Boston who returns to his beloved Ireland each summer and plans to retire there; the Canadian journalists, diplomats and stockbrokers who make their way to the only skating rink in all of London lined the right way for hockey. But even when I was among the temporarily displaced I knew it could be far worse. Those who never find home—who are never even sure what they are looking for—are doomed to endless wandering, moving from town to town constantly searching for that one place that will give them context. They have no choice; it is human nature to strive for connection and spiritual nourishment. The search can take anyone anywhere. It has taken me back home to Nova Scotia.

The Mi’kmaqs, of course, were always here. Europeans followed—first perhaps Viking adventurers in the Dark Ages, then hardy Basque and Breton fishermen. Tradition says that John Cabot landed on Cape Breton Island in 1497 and there he refilled his water casks from a tumbling stream. Before long European fishermen were heading each spring to the Grand Banks near Newfoundland and the waters near Acadia—a territory that included, roughly, the present-day Maritime provinces as well as northern New England—so called because when Giovanni da Verrazano explored the area in 1524 its beauty and richness reminded him of tales of Arcadia, a region of ancient Greece celebrated by poets as a pastoral paradise. Eventually, the French tried the land, grudgingly, lest their English rivals beat them to it. At the turn of the seventeenth century the seriously deluded Marquis de la Roche dreamed of a
settlement on Sable Island, an inhospitable, treeless spit of land two hundred miles from the mainland. He dropped sixty French convicts there, then forgot about them. When someone finally came to rescue them three years later, only eleven still lived, the rest lying buried in a small sand plot.

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