On Prince Edward Island the shore fields roll away down the hills to the edge of the sea. Queen Anne’s Lace graces the margin of the roads, along with goldenrod just beginning to bloom, and clusters of wild pink bramble roses. The shore fields themselves are a patchwork quilt; squares of variegated green, hay, oats, barley, wheat, yellow canola too bright to look at, endless fields of potatoes; patches of purple heather and untamed fallow fields resting now for the season.
The fields are marked out with hedgerows and the hedgerows themselves are dominated by island pines. The trees, some in the shape of Christmas yet to come, march down to the red rocky shore line. Here and there a single pine stands majestically silhouetted by the sea. As the light begins to fade into darkness the moon rises quickly over the Northumberland Straight casting a broad swath of hammered silver along the rippling waters.
Small farm houses decked out with hollyhocks and orange tiger lilies are set well back from the road. The road itself wends its way gently down towards the harbour. The beacon of the lighthouse shines brightly against the encroaching night. The warm lights of homes clustered together like bramble roses speak of the warmth of families, food, and of refuge from the lonely dark. These are the harbour lights along the shore.
Approaching the Island from the sea the reflected light of the moon rising in the sky casts a silvery sheen on the water off the starboard side of the ferry. Ahead of us the water is smooth and black as we draw close to the shore line. The coast line itself appears only as a humpy rise of deeper black barely distinguishable from the black of the sky and the sea, but there are along the shore some lights at its edge. One light higher than the others is brilliant and blinks on and off with its designated rhythm. If you know this coast and count the rhythm you will identify this lighthouse as the Wood Islands Light, and the lower lights around it as the small cluster of buildings marking the Wood Island ferry landing. We are in fact seeing a visual illustration of an old hymn.
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.
Christ Jesus Himself is our Father’s Lighthouse. He is the light of the world. From far away those who are lost on the sea of many peoples, nations, and tongues, see His light shining in the distance long before they see the lights along the shore. Lighthouses serve several purposes. Some say “Stay away! Stay away! Here rocks and wreckage will be found.” Other lighthouses mark the way home. It is the lights along the shore that say, “Come home! Come home! Here warmth and refuge will be found.” We are the lights along the shore.
Not all seaside villages are equally hospitable. Those who fish the coastal waters of the Northumberland Straight will tell you there is a difference. In some places you can set your lobster traps and fish in peace, in some places a malicious few will steal from your traps and make life difficult for people of whom they don’t approve. In some very few places bad blood stirred up by an unhappy few makes hospitality vanish altogether.
Islanders have a sense of belonging to the land and to the sea that is enviable. Those who come to the Island “from away” seek the peace and companionable sense of quiet that marks belonging to the Island and to each other. Some will never be able to belong, whether or not they born here, or how long ago they settled here.
Take Mabel, a “Herring Choker” from Nova Scotia, a loud dominating woman with a wooden leg. At dinner with the neighbours the other night she held forth; she would never have Venetian blinds in her home, only curtains. Our hostesses home has blinds in every room; but to Mabel blinds are dirty. According to her, Reggie, the fisherman she has just moved in with, will have to get rid of his blinds. Reggie says with an odd smile that he just paid fifteen hundred dollars for the blinds, to which she retorts that they will have to go out in the trash. Reggie’s response was missed by some in the room, “The day the blinds go in the trash there is going to be a wooden leg poking up from the middle of the trash!” Mabel was not at all daunted and began to loudly obsess about how she was going to clean Reggie’s place. “I’ll wash the walls and the ceilings three times a year.” An old Irish expression comes to my mind, “O, she laughs and she smiles and she shakes her wooden leg.”
Later, as the party thins out, a few quiet bets are offered. “She won’t make it to the next summer!” “No! By the end of winter Reggie will have had enough.” “She won’t make it to the spring fishing season!” What is the problem? She is “from away.” She will always be from away because she can’t really accept what being here on the island really means. She knows everything. She is right. Islanders, many of whom like blinds, need to conform to her standards and she will bloody well make them, starting with Reggie. She will always be “from away” and she is too tough an old dog to change. After all, she has been right all her life.
By spring she will be gone and wherever she goes she will tell others “from away” about the dirty Islanders with Venetian blinds, who are inhospitable and un-accepting because they won’t do what she knows is right. As long as she stays, this little harbour village will be in minor turmoil; but I give her only until next spring.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave! Some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.” What does it mean to belong? To belong on the Island one has to accept the Island for what it is, but some people, wanting to change the Island to fit their expectations, will always be “from away.”