Seaweed & solomon gundy: flotsam significant to the origin of writing and me

When you grow up in Halifax, you grow up knowing what 200-year-old gunpowder smells like.

You poke at beached jellyfish by the half-buried shipwreck on McNab’s Island, in the shadow of where they used to hang pirates at the harbour gate. Your school’s hot dog picnics are at the crumbling, overgrown ruins of British garrisons, where you scramble atop cannons asleep in the grass and rummage in their yawning mouths for stray grapeshot.

To grow up in Halifax is to have as much hooliganism in your blood as salt.

* * *

Grampa Joe had a boat called Pygargus who lived at a yacht club on Dead Man's Island, a pile of mortar and rock that was once a jail. When I was little I used to skulk around inside the old prison, behind stone walls and iron gates, in cells filled with coils of rope and sails in heaps.

My Grampa Joe kept his pipe in his pocket. His basement was bottomless. And yes—just like in The Dread Crew, my Grampa Joe could fix anything.

* * *

Dead Man's Island was the best place to go junk fishing. Grampa Joe attached a giant magnet to the end of a rope and every time we went sailing, my brother and I would walk along the piers jigging for junk.

We’d land all kind of fabulous things. Old nails, bits of wire, sharp bits, coins. Shards of things rusted beyond recognition. Sometimes the magnet would get caught on either the pier cables or a priceless treasure chest. Not that I'd ever land the latter. A treasure chest would be too heavy for a regular-grade junk fishing tackle. Everybody knows that.

* * *

I've been to a few fancy places, though not as many as I'd like. Manhattan and Scotland and Vancouver, for years. Every place offers gorgeousness and quirks. Chicago's proud facades and tommy-gun bulletholes. The vast and unfamiliar flatness of the beaches—and the ferocity of the undertow—along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Amsterdam's canalside gauntlet of baking croissants and 400 year-old walkups ruined me forever.

But as soon as you get off the plane in Nova Scotia—even at midnight, stinking with travel, fall-down tired—you walk through a revolving door at the airport and inhale pure, wet salt. This is the stuff we are made of. Your body and all your instincts like it. Gives you a wee smack. Time of year or temperature doesn't matter. It's ancient rock and salt and tides. Ocean's burp. It's not fancy, and the air's got no airs. But this kind of wildness is beneficial for the soul. Drink it in.


It's not just a marketing gimmick, though it is that. It's real. Nova Scotia was the stomping ground of the world's most infamous pirates. Blackbeard. Kidd. I can see Al Capone's favourite prohibition-era house from my bathtub window. They ran rum, infuriated the British, buried mutineers under the sidewalk in front of the old public library. The got caught and got away. But they kept coming. Mahone Bay alone—one of hundreds of harbours and tuck-ins—has more than 350 islands. That's not counting all the hidden coves. You could hide here too, you know. It's gotta be said.


This province is perched on the edge of a meat-grinder sea that's craggy and churned up on the best of days. A good storm scrubs the sky.  Fishing boats cling to the leeside of wharves, battened down, and we line up for batteries, water, propane. Salt water rips up asphalt. We scramble eggs on top of the woodstove. When the wind whips the shingles off again, candles flickering as wind buffets the house, we sleep in our toques, and this is when we know the most: we are so fortunate.