Light and Land

My father grew up in a small part of Nova Scotia near New Glasgow. It was about a three hour drive from my hometown, and we made the trip often before my grandmother died.

One trip we made was on New Year’s Eve, when I was about eight years old. It was getting dark when we hit a patch of the Trans Canada that was dotted with old homes – five, maybe six of them, spaced well apart. Perhaps the owners didn’t want to sell when the highway went in, or maybe it was a part of the road used so seldom back then it didn’t matter. In my memory the houses are all hunkering two story affairs with big front porches and farm equipment lurking nearby.

They were, for the most part, all glowing with Christmas lights. This was back in the day when lights were long strings of multicolour bulbs, some of which burnt out in the time between being put up and taken down. Orange was a prevalent colour I seem to remember, and an amber kind of yellow, like at a traffic light. The blue were my favourite and I used to scan the long rows that ran along the eaves, the squares of lights framing the windows, for the soft halo of illumination they gave. It was before the days of clear lights, wire reindeers and restrained decorations. These lights seem to scream, like they wanted to send a signal saying, ‘We are still here, look at us! It’s dark out and this is an isolated stretch of road, but it is still magical!’ At least, that was how it played in my eight year old head. Maybe I was seven? I don’t know, but I do remember we were all sitting in the front without seat belts, me between my dad who was driving and my mom who was always the front seat passenger. It was a very different time.

As the sun set and the sky darkened, my mother observed to my father that it looked like a lot of time and energy was spent on the lights. Until a house appeared, dark and almost cowering in the dimming night sky. It had no Christmas decorations – the only light at all was a haze that came through the front widow, spilling over from the light in the kitchen at the back perhaps. It was impossible to make out the colour of the home, and the very building seemed to be collapsing into the darkness.

‘Look at that one,’ my mother pointed. ‘Strange to see it isn’t decorated when all the ones around it are so bright.’

‘Probably couldn’t afford to,’ my father responded.

And just like that, I was worried. About the family, about any kids that might live there and if they had or hadn’t got any Christmas presents. About them being bullied at school for not having decorations. And strangely, about the house itself. Were the floors sagging, needing to be reinforced? Were the walls damp from the cold? Was the house ashamed, embarrassed, by its darkness? Did it remember better days, different families dwelling within, and yearn for those times?

I don’t remember New Years eve or what we did. I don’t remember looking for the house in the daytime, on the journey home. But I still remember seeing the house, devoid of holiday decorations, how it looked next to the others. The sadness I felt, that has stuck with me. Visited again, in different countries, different places. Because sometimes, a house, a strip of land, a place will speak to me. I feel its energy. Since that day when I was eight (or maybe seven?) and felt badly for that house, I’ve had other connections which may seem odd, but have become one of my very favourite parts of travelling. There are places I have visited where I have no emotional response, places I enjoyed but to which I felt no connection. And then there are some what all but absorb me, like they have been waiting for me to visit. Those are the places to which I return.


On a trip to France many years ago, I left a train station and started walking, ahead of the friend I was with. I had a sense of familiarity about the place, a feeling of returning and being met with open arms. I told my friend it felt like I had been there before and he said, ‘I thought this was your first time in Normandy?’

‘It is in this body,’ I replied. He was silent as we walked the rest of the way to the hotel, me cutting a path across cobblestone streets that felt familiar under my feet. He didn’t shake his head or laugh; he just accepted this part of me. It is why he is a friend, and why we travel so well together. We have spent many days in France, taking epic road trips and visiting battle sites. While all are poignant, some are almost overwhelming to visit. There are many parts of France where you can still see the trenches cut into the ground from the battles of World War One. Can see the ridges and valleys created by the mortars and bombs that rained down over one hundred years ago. The grass that now covers the gashes is almost like scar tissue, a layer of protection and a constant reminder of what once was. The torn holes made in the earth have been covered over but have not healed.

On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the artillery could be heard in England, across both land and the water of the English Channel. I find that staggering to think about. How loud would it have been for the young soldiers who were fighting in the thick of it? The land I think still feels the pain, still holds the memory of the young boys who fought and died there. You can feel the sadness, and I think the land still mourns. I think it always will.

As you walk to the Vimy Ridge memorial outside of Albert, France you are restricted to a paved path that winds its way from the visitor’s centre to the extraordinary and overwhelming memorial where Mother Canada weeps for her dead sons. On the grassy slopes that run along the pavement are signs warning of undetonated explosives. You must stay on the path they say. Walking along, I wondered what would happen if someone tripped and fell, accidently sprawling on the ground. I wondered about the work that went into laying this path for tourists to come.

A guide told us there are factories working 24 hours, seven days a week to deactivate recovered shells, and it will still be many decades before the work is done, if it ever is. The shells must have fallen like rain drops. How did anyone survive?

At Beaumont Hamel, a sign says the ground you are about to walk on is sacred. As I walked it one cold morning in June, I saw where entire regiments of Newfoundland soldiers were buried where they fell. I saw the Danger Tree which marked the gap in the barbed wire where soldiers filed through, and learned they were picked off one by one by the enemy, hunkered down not very far away. I think the land remembers this. I think it knows what happened. I think it weeps for the inhumanity people show one another. I also think there is a lightness to land that has not witnessed an atrocity. And I think people feel the effects of this, too.

Cities have energies. Some are lethargic, some are young and keen. I feel it when I visit. And I am not alone in this. People who have the travel bug the way I do feel it, too.

Once, many years ago, I visited Greyfriars’s Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the corner of the cemetery is the Covenanter’s Prison. For four months men who supported the National Covenant at Bothwell Brig were imprisoned in this area. They had no shelter and were given four ounces of bread per day. Many died. Some were executed. As I stood with a friend I said, ‘this sounds crazy, but I feel like I’m standing near a fire, like I’m burning.’ As we left we stopped into a shop and learned of paranormal activity in the site of where we had just stood. People had reported a sense of being warm, like they were burning. My friend went pale. I shrugged. These things happen to me, and I think it all started when I felt sadness from an old house that stood out from the others. But I’m older now. I know that there are worse things than being poor. That house could have been filled with love and kindness and the ones that shone so brightly could have hidden deep, dark secrets. I hope not. I hope they all looked out for one another. And I hope in the holiday seasons since that time, they all glowed with joy.

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