Homage to an island

Sunday, 04 August 2019

Green Gables Heritage Place, Cavendish, Prince Edward island, Canada

In July 1970, a mother brought home a box of second-hand books (given to her by a friend) for her bored 13-year-old daughter, which would change the girl's life for ever. The books were an almost entire collection of the novels of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, and that kid was me. I devoured the books (which included the famous Anne of Green Gables (1908) series but also books about various other girls) in a matter of weeks, and re-read them many times over the years. I have them still. The books transported me to another world and I adored the adventures and misadventures of all the characters living in close-knit, rural communities. But what enchanted me the most was the place where all but one of the novels were set: Prince Edward Island.

Wild lupins in a meadow, New London, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Initially, with my poor sense of geography, I assumed this was a fictious place, as surely made up as the exotic lands in Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree, an earlier favourite book of mine. To an Australian girl whose window looked out onto a grey-green bushland valley of wiry shrubs and eucalyptus trees, an island with startlingly red soil, pastoral scenes of lush green fields divided by groves of dark fir and spruce trees, flower-filled meadows and woodlands spangled with dainty spring blooms, and surrounded by white and red sandy shores and the ocean, couldn't possibly be real, could it? When I discovered it was an actual place in eastern Canada, I was determined to visit it one day.

Wild roses, Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island, Canada

In all the novels, the main characters have an abiding love of their idyllic island landscape. Anne of Green Gables, an orphan who had never previously had a proper home, had a deep passion for the physical features of her surroundings, to which she often gave romantic names. She was spellbound by the beauty of the spring blossom trees all around her when she first arrived at what was to become her new home: cherry trees, wild plum trees and apple trees. She adored the woodland trails that led from her home, with maple trees, pines, poplars, silver birches, willows and spruces, carpeted beneath in spring with the ethereal blooms of violets, mayflowers (Epigaea repens), pigeon berries (Cornus canadensis), June bells ( Linnaea borealis), wild lily of the valley (Maianthemum canadensis) and starflowers (Trientalis borealis). In the books, she and her companions spent hours playing alongside the brook that ran through the woods, edged with moss and ferns, and the pond nearby their homes. They picked the raspberries and blueberries that grew rampantly in fields and hedgerows in summer, and plucked spruce gum from tree trunks to chew. Anne also loved the flowers that flourished in meadows and along the sides of the roads, including wild roses, buttercups and daisies.

Woodland trail near site of the Cavendish home of LM Montgomery, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Anne was responsive to the passing of the seasons and how they dramatically transformed the landscape, from the thick blanket of snow in winter, with the black silhouettes of trees standing out against the snow; the delights of unfurling buds in spring and the enormous surge of growth; the verdancy, the flowers, and the crops of the fields and orchards in summer; then the flaming hues of deciduous trees in their autumnal cloak. She observed the effect of changing light through the day on the world: from the early morning sunshine, sometimes shrouded in mists, to the brilliant colours of the sunset - purple, gold and ruby - which were reflected in the sea and lakes, and the moonlight falling on the silvery trunks of the birch trees in the woods. The sounds of the wind in the trees and grasses; birdsong; and the omnipresent murmuring of the ocean inspired her many imaginings. Sneered at as 'purple prose' and 'sentimental' by some literary critics, these descriptions for me were some of the highlights of the books!

Flower garden, New London, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Anne also loved the old-fashioned cottage gardens in her village, and deeply admired flowers such as lilacs, lilies, columbines (Aquilegia species), bleeding heart (Dicentra species), paeonies, daffodils and honeysuckle. Scented blooms were particular favourites. She was allowed to have her own little garden at Green Gables. She often picked bunches of blooms and leaves to bring into the house or to weave into her hair or adorn a hat, to the initial disdain of her no-nonsense guardian, Marilla. Nature and natural beauty sustained her and gave her solace in dark times.

Lilacs and alliums, Victoria-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island, Canada

This love of nature in her characters reflected the passion of the author herself, who spent most of her first 36 years in Cavendish (known as Avonlea in the Green Gables series) on Prince Edward Island. In her the books, she drew on this landscape and those of Park Corner and Malpeque further west on the island, where some of her relatives lived.

Lake of Shining Waters, Park Corner, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Almost exactly 49 years after I first read the books, last month I spent four days on this beautiful island, and I can report that I found it to be pretty much as I had always imagined it in my head. It is still quite bucolic, with half the land being used for agriculture and 1,700 farms existing on the island. It is possible to visit all the places that were the inspiration for homes and landscapes in the books. One can walk along the trails that were the models for Anne's 'Haunted Wood' and 'Lovers' Lane', and see the pond that inspired the 'Lake of Shining Waters'. One can gaze upon the fields, edged with wildflowers, and dotted here and there with rustic barns and the delightful steep-pitched gabled roofs of simple wooden homes.

Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island, Canada

One can walk along the red-cliffed shores and visit the coves, punctuated with the cutest wooden lighthouses, where the characters in the books were depicted as frolicking, and where the author spent many happy hours. Whilst the inevitable commercial development of the larger towns, the hordes of tourists (mainly middle-aged women like me!) and the various modern facilities to cater for them make it hard to forget it is the 21st century, fortunately much of the area in Cavendish (including the land around the Green Gables house property) was declared a national park in 1937. Away from the real tourist traps, it is possible to be quite alone in some of the woods, in the dappled shadows of the trees, hearing the songs of blackbirds, sparrows and other birds, and to have a sense that one is back in the time when the author walked these paths.

Aquilegias growing in the garden on the site of the Cavendish home of LM Montgomery, Prince Edward Island, Canada

My reading of LM Montgomery's books all those years ago awoke in me a consciousness of the beauty of the natural world and a love of plants, which have stayed with me ever since. I dreamed of being able to create a garden with the flowers I read of in the books. That didn't happen, of course, as I have mentioned over the years in this blog, due to rather drastic climate differences between Canada and Sydney, Australia, but a love of gardening, and writing about it, have defined my life for many years. Visiting the island completed the odyssey!