Friday, December 20, 2013


The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment's forest;
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

- Ted Hughes, from "The Hawk in the Rain" 1957

When looking at visual art, I search for "incidents" in paintings.  That term refers to the specific marks that make a composition or a style come alive.  The incident on canvas is the trace of an artist's hand and eye manipulating paint across the surface.  It may be a flash of colour or an undulating line or a jagged brushstroke, but it's always inspired, and for the viewer, breathtaking.

Ted Hughes' poem "The Thought-fox" speaks of literary incident.  The fox approaches tentatively, testing territory with its nose first, then eyes and body.  Its four paws mark the snow with four progressive, accelerating "now"s  and the course is set - a lonely do-nothing night yields a creative breakthrough; a blank page becomes a resolved poem.

This December night marks the darkest part of the year, a time of intense stillness and cold.  As the snow piles up outdoors,  I scan the line where field meets forest, hunting for an incident, hoping to see a concentrated  "greenness ...coming about its own business."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mary Cannon, 18th century Estate Manager

Mary Cannon was just a girl, a naive 13 year-old, when in 1764 she met Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, an ambitious army officer working for the British.  He wooed her with promises of a genteel life; an improved social status bolstered by the security of land ownership, a country manor house, a steady income and a prestigious Swiss Huguenot family name for the offspring of their relationship.  In exchange, he wanted Mary (or Polly as he called her) to be his housekeeper, mistress and property manager.  DesBarres had acquired large tracts of arable land in Falmouth, Tatamagouche, Menudie, Maccan-Nappan, and Memramcook/Peticodiac.  He envisioned a New World fiefdom that would provide funds for his real interests - expeditions filled with land surveying and cartography - but he wanted someone else to hold down the fort and oversee the day-to-day operation of his empire.

As property manager for DesBarres' colonial holdings (a total of 80,000 acres), Mary was expected to visit the estates regularly, negotiate leases with tenant farmers, collect rents, and monitor improvements, herds of livestock and crop yields.  She was to keep DesBarres informed of all the facts and figures while he was off on a military mission, conducting a survey of the coastline of Nova Scotia.

 DesBarres' work required that he was away from home for six months of the year, sailing with his crew along the bays, inlets, creeks and rivers of the Atlantic shoreline, mapping terrain above and below the water.  During winter months he resided at Castle Frederick, the home base in Falmouth, N.S. that Mary looked after in his absence.  It was a model farm of 7000 acres, with a labour force of 93 people including re-settled Acadian families, Irish immigrants and black slaves.  As the snow fell,  Desbarres and a naval assistant were absorbed in drafting detailed maps, charts and drawings for a 4 volume atlas entitled "Atlantic Neptune."

By all accounts, Mary started out as a capable manager of DesBarres holdings, and handled her administrative duties with gracious authority and fairness.  When DesBarres left for England in 1774 to oversee the publication of his atlas project, Mary was given full power of attorney.  Along with land, tenant farmers and finances, she had five children to take care of, too.

Castle Frederick, Falmouth N.S.

Debarres' sojourn in England extended into a ten year stay, a decade in which "Atlantic Neptune" was published and received with acclaim from government officials, mariners and scholars.  His direct experience and familiarity with the territory earned him an appointment as lieutenant governor of the newly-formed colony of Cape Breton. He returned to Nova Scotia in 1784, and was soon joined by (surprise!) his English wife Martha Williams and their two children.

Meanwhile back at the castle, poor Mary Cannon was overwhelmed with debt and a string of legal battles stemming from tenants who refused to pay their rent. The farmers had tricked her by planting main crops on land adjacent to Desbarres' property, then claiming that they owed nothing to the landlord.  She sent letter after letter to DesBarres explaining her difficulties and imploring him to provide funds.  He ignored her requests.

DesBarres' map of Nova Scotia from the "Atlantic Neptune"
 When New Brunswick became a colony distinct from Nova Scotia in 1784, Mary neglected to re-register the tracts of land that DesBarres owned in the Memramcook/Peticodiac area.   Was it simply a careless oversight, or did she deliberately miss the deadline as an act of revenge?   Perhaps abandoned Mary had some degree of sympathy for the Acadian tenant farmers, who, like herself, had become victims of DesBarres' empty promises.

During the 1760s, Acadians had returned to the areas of Menudie and Memramcook after the "Grand Derangement" only to find their farms sold to DesBarres.  Having no other choice, they reluctantly accepted the demotion to service as tenant farmers, working the land and owing half of the harvest to their master.  DesBarres was happy to have the Acadians settle on his farmland, as they were the only group who knew how to operate and maintain the system of aboiteaux and dykes already established in the region.  DesBarres wrote:
"The estate of Menudie on the Elysian Fields consists of 7/8 tract of 8,000 acres. It contains nearly 3,000 of dyked lands, cleared upland and orchard.  In 1768, I settled 10 families hereon.  Their number speedily increased.  To each family was allowed 200 acres, including a proportion of dykeland, cleared upland and wood to themselves and their heirs forever."

 By the time New Brunswick was declared a separate colony, the Acadians had been working the land for over 20 years and were eager to regain independence and assume ownership of property.  When they discovered that the farms were not legally registered to DesBarres, they applied for land grants. There were evictions, arrests and court cases, and several families (the Bruns, Comeaus, Melansons) packed up and moved north to Shemogue and Cap-Pele.   Bitter disputes over ownership dragged on until 1841 when the government allowed the sale of the former DesBarres land for the price of one dollar per acre.

In 1794 DesBarres hired a new estate manager, John MacDonald, who toured the properties and reported that things were in a general state of financial and agricultural disarray.  He informed his boss that Mary had taken up with an Irish labourer at Castle Frederick, and that the pair were planning to sue him for money owed.  MacDonald urged DesBarres to take legal action.  He charged Mary with general mismanagement and collusion resulting in the loss of valuable properties.  The case was still in the Court of Chancery in 1842 when Desbarres, age 103, died.  A decision on the matter was never reached, but it was a sharp insult added to injury when Mary Cannon learned that DesBarres had left his entire estate to his wife Martha and their eleven children.

Mary had little to show for her union with DesBarres and many years of loyal, unpaid service as land agent.  Burdened with debt, her daughters Amelia and Martha Sophie ended up in a poorhouse in Windsor, N.S.  In 1846, Mary's grandson purchased the outstanding mortgage on Castle Frederick.  Direct descendants of Mary Cannon and J.F.W. DesBarres own the farm at Falmouth which is now protected by the Archaeological Land Trust of Nova Scotia.

In her final letter to DesBarres Mary Cannon wrote:

"The thread of life is only brittle at best and neither you nor I may long be permitted to settle our long standing affairs. I have had a hard life and would wish peace on just terms for what remains."

N.B.  The maps, charts  and drawings of  DesBarres' "Atlantic Neptune" are in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich .