The province of Nova Scotia, shaped roughly like a three pea'd peapod, dangles out in the North Atlantic, barely attached to the Canadian eastern seaboard. Its northern lobe, Cape Breton Island, is roped off from the sea by a shore-hugging highway. (This means, if you miss your stop just keep driving, you'll get a second chance a day or two later.) At one point though, about twelve miles from the northern tip of the island, the highway cheats inland for a spell, sloughing off a good-sized wedge of province, free of tourists. This point, my left turn, led to the tiny village of Bay St Lawrence. I moseyed down a gently winding lane, passing first through dark forests strobing flashes of sea, then open pastures bordered by low blue mountains. After about ten miles I screeched to a halt on a jetty, a couple feet short of the wide open sea: I seemed to have misplaced the town.
On the other hand, I did discover Theresa. I first met Theresa in 2011; she was among a tableful of late middle-aged women, singing sea shanties in a log cabin bar. They were all fishers and all widows, from the nearby village of Bay St Lawrence. I saved the women's phone numbers, carefully inked on a bar napkin, for a possible film project some day. That day arrived five years later; provoked by pretty much nothing, I scrounged up the bar napkin, called Theresa, the second name on the list, and hustled back north.
The following scenes and words are excerpted from a longform essay and a short film - products of my month-long visit with Theresa and her family during the fishing season.
My first afternoon with Theresa: "Hello, how are you, come on in." Theresa was matter of fact, as if she routinely entertains strangers she's met in bars five years ago, but I was unnerved suddenly, felt my insides shift: I'm walking into the private, the intimate, space of someone I know not at all. I asked Theresa if this was a good time, or maybe I was interrupting her Sunday nap? "No, I have time. Come on in." We shuffled into her light-flooded kitchen - spacious and clean with a tiled floor, flowered wainscoting, French doors framing the meadows and mountains beyond. She continued, "Can’t sleep anyway ever since I lost my son." This, before I’d taken off my jacket. Then she said, "I lost my stepson too. We didn’t know how to deal with the first one, but we learned. Even though you never really do. But, never mind. So what do you want to know?" We sat down at her kitchen table. I had no idea now, what I wanted to know. I had come here to find out about fishing widows, not fishing mothers having endured massive loss. Theresa sensed my hesitation. "OK, you want to know all about how we fish, well I can tell you that."
Theresa, "So. Peter MacKinnon, our grandfather you know, well his sister was my husband, Robert’s, great grandmother. Do you see?" I said, "No." Margaret continued, "And, Peter, who by the way, lived to be one hundred and one, had three daughters from his second marriage, one of them being our mother, Marcella. And each of those daughters had fifteen to eighteen children, which accounts for fifty-one grandchildren right there. Add those to Peter’s eleven children from his first marriage, and each of them had double-digit families, and that's how you arrive at two hundred and fifty or so grandchildren. Do you follow?" I said, "No." We moved on to the fishing industry. Theresa and Margaret carefully explained, with doodlings and figures, recent annual lobster and crab yields, net versus gross figures, quotas, license transactions. A hundred thousand here, a couple million there; the numbers blurred into abstraction. I felt the conversation waning up so I stood up, gathered my stuff together.
Then Theresa said, "The other thing is that a lot of men around here seem to die." I sat back down, made a weak stab at commiseration, "Well I can only imagine, I mean the fishing business is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world...” Theresa looked up sharply, barked, "Nobody in our family has died from fishing, are you crazy? We don’t fish in storms, it’s way too fucking dangerous. The men here die of cancer mostly, or heart disease. They're not healthy here."
Margaret Fraser, Theresa’s younger sister by a couple years, joined us at this point. She was warm, softly contoured: the quintessential grandmother, and a little shy. The three of us bantered for an hour or so and within short order I learned that they’re of the Buchanan, MacLellan and MacKinnon clans; they have thirteen siblings with Theresa and Margaret positioned, respectively, at numbers five and six, and they have some two hundred and fifty cousins (no one knows the exact number.) They grew up poor but now operate multi-million dollar fishing businesses.
But Margaret and Theresa have little interest in wealth for wealth’s sake. On the rare occasions they spend freely it is most likely to help out a cousin or two with extra traps or bait. They take one major trip each year - having been, so far, to Cuba, Mexico, China, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, France - but their day-to-day activities cost almost nothing: quilting, berry-picking, hiking during the shoulder seasons, cross country skiing in the winters. In the evenings they play card games up at the community center, a different game for each night of the week, and periodically (fortunately for me) they’ll venture out of town, find a log cabin bar for feisty songfests.
Other than berry picking, there is little about their present day lives the sisters could have foreseen when growing up. Back in the fifties and sixties, Theresa and Margaret’s family of seventeen had almost nothing: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no toilet paper (just the Eaton's Catalogue.) Theresa said, "Milk the cows in the morning, go to school, dig potatoes when we got home." The girls, often with a child or two on the hip, did most of the work, including the harvesting. Mother staggered meal times, with the boys going first. They ate mostly boiled food for dinner, since it was impossible to fry food in batches for a family that size. "We were poor all right," Margaret said, "We just didn’t know it."
The early morning of June 4, 1996, proved to be a seminal moment in family lore. Ten children were home asleep; father was out fishing, mother was three hours away in Sydney giving birth to her fifteenth child. In the pre-dawn darkness Theresa, then fourteen years old, smelled smoke, discovered a fire on the ground floor, eased her younger sister Margaret out the second floor window, then tossed each of her remaining siblings into Margaret's waiting arms. All ten children stood together on the front lawn and watched their home burn to the ground.
Decades later Theresa has emerged as the de facto boss of the family; some would say of Bay St Lawrence itself. It could be that her heroic efforts saving her siblings nudged her toward self-awareness, an inner confidence leading to her eventual role as family caretaker. But Theresa told me she didn't recognize her own strength until she turned fifty-eight, after her husband Robert died. It was the first time she placed personhood on the top rung of her identity ladder. "Now," she said, "I’m an individual. After that, I’m a mother, then a fisher, then a sister. But first, I am me."
Theresa and Margaret’s fishing licenses account for the bulk of their multi-million dollar businesses; their crab licenses alone are each worth eighty thousand dollars and Theresa owns sixteen. Fishing itself - halibut, lobster and snow crab combined - generates about four hundred and eighty thousand dollars a year. They could quit today, buy second homes in Florida, spend their winters staring at the back nine.
At two thirty one morning I joined Theresa and her crew in her lobster boat, the Greyhound, skippered by Theresa's son Coley; we were on our way to St Paul Island, Theresa’s treasured fishing grounds some twenty miles due east. Crew members Phillip and Barret stowed their gear, then threw themselves face down into the forward bunks. Coley stuck a smoke into his mouth, flipped the switch to auto pilot, turned on 103.5 AM Country, then rocked back in his high-tech captain’s chair. I slid into the cabin's cafe booth, across from Theresa; she handed me sweatshirts and pillows to make my seat more comfortable. We shouted in conversation at first but the engine throb, the fuzzy AM babble, plus an unrelenting high whining sound, together created a stupefying din. We sank into gazing mode. A full moon astern, Venus hovered directly ahead, a prick of light. Glistening black three-foot waves heaved our bow up and to port, Venus swung out of view, but the Greyhound corrected itself and Venus slipped back to its proper place. The pattern was mesmerizing. The universe slowly disappeared leaving only this tiny, fastidious pendulum of light ahead. I fell sound asleep.
The sun was high in the sky, the crew already a good quarter of the way into their harvest by the time I woke up. The Greyhound heaved erratically in the wash thrown off by a sheer wall of gleaming rock no more than a broomstick away. Coley timed the Greyhound's fitful starts and stops just so - fast enough to rip the boat away from the rapidly sinking trap, but not too fast, thus allowing him to cut speed suddenly, twist in an abrupt curve, placing the next buoy conveniently at the end of crew-member Phillip's gaff. I wondered how Coley kept track of individual buoys - those he’s pulled, those needing to be pulled - from among the flotilla of identical bright orange buoys. He tapped his brow. "It’s all in here. I know the pattern, I remember where each trap is. Sometimes I mess up and we pull one I just hauled minutes ago. But not often."
Once back in my cottage I copied my footage onto my hard-drive, then spot-checked it. Looked good. But then suddenly it didn't: the individual shots were fine but once edited together they would quickly lose potency. This is because all shots were taken from the same perspective, while on the boat. To absorb viewers, surround them with the jostling, the wetness, the scrapes and grinds - the sensual experience of being there - I have to provide the countering perspective: viewers have to be off the boat at some point, in order to appreciate being on the boat. Time to hire a chase boat to follow Theresa and Coley back out to St Paul Island for their evening haul.
It took an afternoon to track down Frances MacKinnon, one of the few unoccupied fishers in town willing and able to play chase. I gave Frances a quick seminar on the yin-yang of film scene construction, how to enhance one view through the opposite perspective. Frances, mid-fifties, burly, somewhat begrimed from having just been working on his boat, stared at me - bored, uncomprehending, hard to tell. But then he announced, with remarkable conviction, 'OK, three hundred non-negotiable US dollars.'
Our two hour trip back out to St Paul Island gave me plenty of time both to rationalize this unexpected expense and to learn a little about Frances. His précis, in keeping with almost all the people I’ve met in Bay St Lawrence, followed a pattern: first, he identified his clan, then his fishing boat, the Pea and Sons and, finally, which male members of his family have died and how. Frances, I learned, is one of sixteen; he's lost his eldest brother and his youngest, plus another in between. "So far," he said solemnly.
We arrived at the St Paul Island cliffs just as shards of warm early-evening light angled into the crevasses: a cinematic virtue, but also a problem since half of my camera angles would be 'blown out,' as we say, and unusable. The Greyhound bolted, reversed, spun; the Pea and Sons likewise: two fishing boats entwined in a mating dance while the light faded, along with my three hundred dollar cash investment. I dashed back and forth on the deck hauling my tripod and camera, shouting directions to Frances, trying to set up in time to catch that sweet moment when all the elements - sunlight, lobster boat, jagged cliffs, black waves - synched up. I missed every shot. But then Frances got in the game, started to anticipate Coley's moves. Suddenly, on the Port side, with my camera duly recording, the Greyhound slid serenely into my viewfinder, just as Phillip pulled in a trap, trailing a shimmer of droplets. The Greyhound crew looked back at us, as if they too sensed the happy magic of that moment. This shot might have cost a bundle, it might have taken five hours all told to capture, and it might be the only one I actually use, but I got it.