GUEST POST BY KIM BUSSING

                

                     

 

THESE WOMEN WHO ARE MADE OF WATER

by Kim Bussing

 

Willa Cather wouldn’t have seen the fox. Their time on Grand Manan didn’t intersect —red foxes were brought to the island in the 1870s for trapping, multiplied with zest, and then vanished by 1905, and Willa Cather didn’t begin her annual summer visits until 1922 — but the remnants of both linger. When we drive out to Whale Cove, Cather’s former haunt, we pass by Fox Farm Road, a name that I assume I should take literally, or, at least, that I want to take literally. I’m a sucker for mythologizing small mammals, but making myth out of the mundane is not a difficult task on Grand Manan. The fog, when it comes, arrives in blinding swaths; nights are baubled with lights from homes and boats; churches may dot the hills, but wind and water are the true gods. It is no surprise that Cather could not resist this place.

Though little is written about her time here, she spent nearly two decades hunkered down in Whale Cove — which oversees still waters and one of the ubiquitous herring weirs, demarcated by massive tree trunks rearing from the waves — with her partner, Edith Lewis, penning some of her most famous novels.

Out here, Cather found isolation magnified, though she was disengaged and displaced even from the small villages that make up the island. Her indifference to the island is surprising given that many of her works investigate the lives of those at the mercy of vast and unwieldy forces — and such is the case for Grand Manan. Navigating winters where nearly everything is closed and days are muted; navigating the threats of storms or rising ocean temperatures or a bad fishing season; navigating violent waters while pulling up lobster traps, a job extremely lucrative but known to demand a few fingers as tribute, if not more.

I don’t know why Cather didn’t put Grand Manan on the page — elitism, maybe, or her sexuality in a time and place less accepting — but I am wondering how I can do that myself. How do you tell the stories of a place that doesn’t belong to you? How do you sift through such a vast survey histories and know where to begin? I’m not sure, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe writing it is much like living it: an act of surrender to all that you cannot know, of resilience, of faith in all that comes next. 

*

Here is a story: This is an island built by woman.

We are sitting in the Old Well House, a café owned by an Australian singer-songwriter — I have lived in Australia, and we bond

over working visa experiences — where I have made faithful, daily pilgrimages since we arrived on Grand Manan. The windows are open, but the air is lazy and humid and still. Sipping from an iced coffee, Lindsay only takes a break from showing us videos of lobster fishing on her iPhone to greet other islanders as they order paninis, peanut butter cookies, island-famous iced chais.

Lindsay is a career fisherwoman, one of less than ten full-time fisherwomen on an island where the majority of the 2,500 permanent residents work in the industry. After more than 20 years on boats, the thrill of a storm vanquished, the weight of a lobster crate (around 100 pounds) sliding around a deck, the glint of moonlight on the center of the sea must be embedded in her DNA. She speaks casually of the injuries sustained (concussions, severed fingers) and of her own close encounter with the deep (flung off the top of a stack of lobster crates in the middle of the storm), but also of her affinity for the work. It’s nearly transcendental in the physicality and athleticism it demands; on good boats, like Lindsay’s, there is equality and understanding “It’s been a positive experience,” she tells us. “I want people to know that.”

If Lindsay’s account is one of few, it’s only because superstition forbids anything else. Until recently, having a woman on board was bad luck, as was bringing bologna onto a boat or wearing corduroy. Whatever these rules may seem to us now, for many fishermen, they were the space between safety and disaster. The women were left to start businesses, run hotels and B&Bs, manage restaurants, raise kids, oversee households, and the evidence of this remains. Almost every place we shop and eat and visit is helmed by a woman — they have carved out lives from the sea, or in spite of it.

*

Here is another story: a young woman, home from a distant university, is giving tours at the lighthouse this summer. She tells us of how she came out in high school, and how there’s an LGBTQI+ group that is “small but powerful” and meets in someone’s mother’s basement, where they crowd together to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

There is a girl who is preparing to study to become the island’s next funeral director. She begins sentences with, “One time I was working in someone’s brain,” and talks about teenage years going to the docks to jig for squid — you huddle by lamp posts, because they are attracted to the light. It’s tough breaking into the funeral industry as a woman, but she’s determined. “I’m learning the language of grief,” she says. “Funeral services are about helping people, helping them heal.”

There is Carly, Lindsay’s cousin, who has traveled to over 30 countries and lived in several of them, but has kept her mark on Grand Manan: she owns a motel, several other rental properties. She was one of the first women to work on a lobster boat, surviving her first season with a captain so volatile no one else would work with him — but she established a name for herself so the next season, fishermen approached her to join their crew. The memories of the first boat are permanent etchings: there were shifts that would stretch from darkness to darkness, the Beach Boys Ultimate Hits blasting on repeat throughout the 17-hour days, a soundtrack to bad weather, drunken rages, the resilience the ocean demands.

And then the earlier women, the ones who raised broods of children and were dependent on the land and the water for their meals, who may have seen the foxes come and go, who may have immigrated to Canada and been told they were getting one life and instead found another, but who built homes out of dulse, lobster claws, hope, and grit regardless.

*

The Greeks had a habit of hurling women out to sea. And for good reason: they could survive it.

Circe, banished to an island to brew potions and befriend animals or turn misbehaving men into them (depending on who’s telling it). The Sirens, whose bewitching songs drove men to their deaths. Calypso, who got the short end of the story stick and was waiting for a man to wash up on her island, but who seemed to be doing pretty well for herself, no matter what Homer had to say about it.

I am thinking of the most durable elements, of what makes the toughest stuff — these are women not made of iron or steel or the driftwood that persists in the oceans. These women are made of the oceans themselves. These women are made of water.

 

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