Sable Island’s Lonesome Pine

Please note: There were some inaccuracies in the original post which are now corrected. My apologies.

A brisk wind was gusting straight down the expanse of South Beach as Debbie set Sable Aviation’s little Islander down with deceptive ease. Earlier that morning the Parks Canada team had scouted out a suitable stretch of sand firm enough, despite the rain which had cancelled our flight plans a day earlier. The spot was about four kilometres from Sable Island Station, the sole permanent habitation for those on the island for professional reasons. For the few hundred casual visitors permitted each year between June and October, staying overnight is not an option. By sunset we had to be airborne again.

Sable Island is a wild and wonderful place; a low, windswept, forty kilometre crescent of sand, less than one and a half kilometres across at its widest. Its dunes are the last vestige of a series of sandbanks and shoals that once marked the ancient coastal plain of Nova Scotia, drowned by melting Ice Age glaciers about 6,000 years ago. For all its untamed beauty, it has also earned the darker reputation as “Graveyard of the Atlantic” where some 350 vessels met their end before the widespread adoption of modern electronic aids to navigation.

Landing after a little more than an hour’s flight from Halifax, Debbie’s seven passengers were greeted by most of the human population of the island that day – Sarah and Jennifer from Parks Canada, and the inestimable Zoe Lucas, President of the Sable Island Institute with more than forty years experience on the island. Strolling with her along the beach and through the dunes was a priceless introduction to Sable’s plants, animals, geography and history. After being enlightened by Zoe, refreshed by a quick picnic at Sable Island Station and relieved by a visit to the island’s only flush toilet, we went our separate ways to explore individual interests. We were under strict instructions to remain at least 20 metres from horses and seals, and when walking in the dunes to follow established horse-tracks to minimize stress on the vitally important vegetation hugging the surface and binding the sand.

Crossing the dunes to North Beach, a leisurely walk with a brisk wind at our backs led to what looked at first like a field of man-sized boulders, partially covered by blowing sand. In fact they were part of the largest breeding colony of Grey Seals on the planet. In the great dunes above the beach, wild horses grazed without paying the slightest attention to human intruders, oblivious to the steady, cold wind sweeping their shaggy manes. At the close of a memorable afternoon shared with wild animals and grasses dancing gracefully in the salt- and sand-laden wind under an ever-changing sky, we all converged on the little aircraft in time to lift off into the sunset, bound for home.

That morning Zoe had led us to a gnarled, pathetic-looking shrub which is, in fact, a Scots Pine. Normally this stately species would grow to a height of about 35 metres (110 feet), but this straggly little specimen is barely waist-high, raising one clump of greenery amid an otherwise bleak assortment of bare branches – a mute but eloquent allegory on human attempts to “manage” nature.

Since the mid-sixteenth century people have tried to colonize, tame and transform the island, with limited success. Well-intentioned attempts to introduce rabbits, for example, turned to farce. Unsurprisingly they reproduced to such an extent that cats were brought in to hunt young rabbits, as well as rats and mice arriving in cargo and shipwrecks. The cats succeeded but became a feral nuisance themselves, so foxes were introduced to exterminate them, along with the remaining rabbits. Between them, cats and foxes ravaged the bird population which, among other things, at one point enabled invasive grasshoppers to proliferate and threaten crops. That meant having to hunt down the foxes.  Out of all the rabbits, cats, foxes, cows, pigs, sheep and horses introduced to the island, only the now-feral horses have adapted and survived.

On the botanical side, attempts at agriculture destabilized parts of the dune system so, early in the last century, the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa provided over 80,000 trees of various types for a controlled experiment in forestation. After a dozen years only a handful still survived, and by 1927 there was just one, and it didn’t last. Today’s lonely little specimen is the last of a few trees planted in the 1960s. Zoe reckons that it won’t last much longer since the roots are becoming exposed and horses have taken to rubbing against it.

Sable Island, like all of the natural world, is not some intricate machine put together from a multitude of distinct fixed and moving parts. Instead, it’s an immeasurably complex, interrelated and constantly evolving system, ranging from microscopic underground bacteria to the huge ocean and atmospheric forces that shape it. Puny humans can’t hope to “manage” nature – it’s far too complex. Enlightened managers, scientists and naturalists like Zoe work with nature instead of against it, supported not only by government but also the public through institutions like the Sable Island Institute and Friends of Sable Island. Nature can manage itself perfectly well, with or without us. We humans need only manage ourselves.