Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island — A Review

Elizabeth L. Jewett

Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, edited by Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen and Irené Novaczek (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).

As I read Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, my mind cast back to a scene from Anne of Green Gables, The Musical as townsfolk discuss the bad weather and the mail boat’s inability to reach the Island. One person chimes in humourously that it is a shame that the mainland’s been cut off again, shifting the central perspective to that of the island as opposed to the large landmass across the Northumberland Strait. Such commentary reinforces this collection’s emphases that the perception of islands as peripheral or marginal is relational, and that it is important to study islands on their own terms because they have deep and complex histories of human/non-human relationships that not only act as warning beacons of our potential environmental futures but also fuel ingenuities.

Time and a Place is an explicitly provincial environmental history that traces Prince Edward Island’s (PEI) ecosystems from its earliest formation to the present day and entwines tales of resource regimes, settlements, industries, knowledge systems, and tourist attractions. The introduction by MacDonald, MacFadyen, and Novaczek offers insights into the reasons for examining environmental change in one place over a very long period especially witnessed through the key touchstones of: islands, people, industry, and governance (9). It also advocates for “place-based” environmental explorations of Canada’s smaller province (10) and how islands provide useful sites to explore our environmental heritage and retrace our not so gentle human footprints.

The chapters introduce the reader to a range of imaginaries, lifestyles, occupations, and industries key to the Island’s past and present. John R. Gilles and Grame Wynn meditate on Islands, and PEI in particular, and how there is a boundedness to their geographies but also richness in their scope for human imaginations and constructions of cultural and natural histories. The former explores “islands as ecotones” and how to construct useful frameworks—spatial and temporal—for these places, and the latter considers the construction of PEI as laboratory and museum with fuzzy boundaries between the two. David Keenlyside and Helen Kristmanson explore the palaeography of PEI and transport the reader by way of the archaeological record through four periods of human presence (Palaeo-Indian, Archaic, Maritime Woodland, and Post-European contact). One of the main takeaways of the chapter is that after a very long time of “constant adaptation between humans and ecosystems”, the arrival of human populations “from away” over the past 500 years has greatly disrupted these systems, rapidly undone successful adaptations, and greatly affected Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) life (74-75, 81).

Next, Douglas Sobey paints an eighteenth-century picture of a forested island covered in old-growth trees. He then tells the tale of how everything from soil moisture to shifts in human disturbances (that included domestic farm use, commercial timber and shipbuilding) destroyed two-thirds of the forests by 1900 and then remade them in different compositions of softwood and hardwood. Rosemary Curley charts PEI’s habitat and wildlife histories and how human populations, technologies, and value-based conservation hierarchies (that include the much maligned cormorant) stressed, protected, and ultimately altered the animal populations found on the Island. She also makes clear distinctions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous constructions of nature and how they affected wildlife interactions and policy. Irené Novaczek dives into the cultures and economies linked to the bio-diverse seaplant communities in the waters around PEI, with specific focus on Malpeque Bay and the Island’s broader commercial history of harvesting and then overfishing Irish Moss. Within her narrative, these aquatic economic resources bind together climate change, land/water use, labour, the roles of women, and environmental protection (156).

Joshua MacFadyen provides an insightful history of agricultural land use that engages with the Island during its slow modernization, so-called “golden age”, and subsequent decline. And although the potato makes an appearance, the analytical focus on other components such as mussel mud collection, especially in the nineteenth century (171), hay shortages, and the land tenure system complicate and enrich the agricultural narrative of this place. Jean-Paul Arsenault continues the agricultural fodder with a chapter planted firmly in the second half of the twentieth century and investigates three major issues: pesticides, landscapes, and land use management (213). Ed Macdonald and Boyde Beck move the reader onto fishing boats and explore the long history of harvesting from the sea that intensified from the eighteenth century onward. The rise of the lobster from little-valued to successful “crop” illustrates the centrality of technologies in these environmental histories and the relationships constructed around “expertise”, bureaucracy, and technologies. Kathleen Stuart also explores technologies and a variety of other historical patterns through an examination of energy on the Island. This long overview considers the availability and limits of different energy resources (including somatic, solar, wood, water, and fossil fuels) and how different human energy needs led to different energy systems as well as innovations and patterns of use based upon the populations and environmental realities of the Island. Looking at a different yet important natural resource of the Island, Alan MacEachern examines the many representations of PEI’s scenic landscapes and why, over the twentieth century, the images chosen to epitomize the place to a tourist public changed. A thoughtful epilogue by Claire Campbell brings together several themes that tie the chapters together. The list of Island legislation compiled by Colin MacIntyre is also a useful tool for understanding Islanders’ relationships to certain constructions of their surrounding environments from the eighteenth century onward.

The chapters feed nicely into each other and provide clear overlap and intersection of material that reinforces several themes. For instance, this collection does not solely focus on the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—as the title suggests, insights come from examining environmental change in one place over a very long period of time (9). Though a fair portion does recount and inform the reader on this more recent turbulent and transformative period, many pieces provide insightful overview of land and sea use regimes, of the settler-colonial frame, and their dynamic ebbs and flows, and the alterations these different lifestyles and industries made on the Island. Yet, several chapters take a longer look back which is an essential approach considering the industries, cultures, and policies of early settler life in what would become Canada as well as the necessary acknowledgment and inclusion of Indigenous histories that make the settler-colonial timeframe a blip on the Island’s timeline but a behemoth in terms of environmental change. While chapters address Mi’kmaq presence and history (including Novaczek’s chapter on seaplants and the interviews conducted with Elders about their knowledge of these species and their properties), involving additional Indigenous Knowledge holders and voices from the Island would add complexity and insight into these histories. Also, the chapters make clear that one cannot separate the histories of land and sea, nor of those liminal coastal areas in-between (including mussel mud harvesting; farm/fishing cycles, especially connected to the rise of the lobster industry; shipbuilding and forestry; and macro-algae and Irish Moss). Technologies largely play an implicit thematic role in many of these narratives. Finally, islands are bounded but not isolated from global events: flows of people and of environmental change resulted in great landscape transformations from the eighteenth century onward that linked migration, population increase, industry and resource use (forestry, agriculture, wildlife, fishing, and tourism) to layers of personal and commercial use.

It is difficult to ignore the declensionist tendencies in many of the chapters that highlight the negative effects human behaviours, values, and technologies have made to PEI over the past 500 or so years. Yet, in our current climate of environmental precarity, such narrative tendencies might reflect, alongside the wider themes of the book, Campbell’s summation on how webs of human exchange and the ways the deep past can bear on our contemporary island realities, how islands contain an abundance of life in divided yet shared spaces that inform our knowledge systems and traditions of use, and how they ultimately illustrate that an island “is a multi-layered metaphor for humanity’s place on earth” (299). The variety of conversations this collection opens up about time and a place are vital to exposing, and hopefully addressing, the multitude of ongoing environmental issues we face and the roles islands play in their unfolding.

Elizabeth L. Jewett teaches in the Canadian Studies department at Mount Allison University. She is an environmental historian whose research includes the development of golf course landscapes in Canada between the 1870s and 1940s and, more recently, a project on the history of the maple syrup industry in Canada.

Featured image: French River, PEI. Photo credit: Elizabeth Jewett.


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