© greg hannan| hannangregory@gmail.com 902 825 3534 | Nova Scotia | Canada
Hannan Greg
In the often painful recollections of a life of ill-conceived ideas, at best partially realized. Trading a basement apartment in downtown D.C. for an abandoned, uninsulated two-room camp in a clearing in the woods of Southwest Nova Scotia, just shy of a winter notable for its snow accumulation, was one that I now regard as insane. I'd found this place at the tail end of my exploratory trip, approached Fuzz Milberry, the owner of the acreage on which it stood and asked if I could stay there upon returning. In the course of that encounter, I also met his brother Richard, who manned the fire tower in the wilderness on The Lake Joly Road, and his ninety-year-old father, Arch who I first encountered with a bunny cuddled in the crook of one arm while two dead ones dangled from the other. They would become friends. The camp had no electricity. There was no power on this unmaintained dirt and gravel track called the Parker Road. It gained elevation abruptly, in the course of switchbacks rising behind the village of Bear River, passing a privately owned town dump frequented by bears, then along a two-mile stretch of woods interspersed by two long-abandoned/collapsed homesteads with their 'old world' apple orchards, also frequented by bears. I was destined to have several encounters with bears, both day and night. The road then continued bordered by second-growth hardwood forest. My camp was located midway on Parker Road between the village, and the county maintained Morganvale Road; roughly six miles which were, in turn, sparely inhabited as it led, in short order to the settlement of Morganvale (3 homesteads) and beyond; basically 'into the bush.' Two directions on the compass led to 'civilization' of sorts. The other two ended up in woods and lakes spanning fifty miles or more across the width of the province to its Atlantic shore. No one had lived on Parker Road for decades. To the folks in the region, Parker Road had a murderous history and was haunted. The camp did have water: a century-old stone-laid well, twenty feet from the door entrance that I enhanced with a bucket and thirty feet of rope. There was a rusted porcelain sink inside with a drain that went nowhere but to another bucket underneath to be emptied. The toilet. The toilet was in the woods. There was no outhouse. I'd barely seen one to know its construction and no time to make one up. With Winter's approach, my total concern was heat, warmth. I bought a sheet metal wood heater and lengths of stove pipe and pipe elbows. There was a pipe 'port' in one wall to the outside, and I succeeded in fitting a chimney out and above the shed pitch roof. Unbelievably now, given the contraption I rigged, I did not burn myself up when temperatures fell below zero. Heat block meeting a frozen wall has often burned many structures to the ground. Two rooms: 8x12, 8x8, four windows, including one in the door with single-ply glass panes that drafted and rattled from just walking across a plank floor that had been laid atop timbers in contact with the ground. The outside sheathing consisted of old red asphalt roof shingling; the same as on the roof. The inside walls were sheathed in what must have been the original version of plywood. No insulation. Above, spanning half the larger room, was a board platform for storage, then the rafters and roof. The saving grace, and what may well have saved my life, for its purpose, was an outside porch on the long side of the camp, windowed from waist height with its own door twinned alongside the front door where I could store wood. It acted as well as a 'warm side' to what otherwise was just a sorry ass 'box' saturated from the damp of being ignored for so long. It was as ugly as it sounds: definitely not a 'postcard cabin' nestled in pristine snow-laden spruce with wood smoke gently rising. The clearing was, in fact, choked in by dense, scraggly alders before giving way to taller oaks, birch and maple..but that saved my life as well. Alders can burn even when 'green' and give off a hot fire with some effort. There would be times when this stove, barely regulated by a damper vent, would get so hot it glowed red and though covered in sweat with the door cracked open; I'd man an anxious vigil until the fire abated before I dare go to sleep or leave. There would be no leaving for any real period of time while the stove was burning and that time was mostly spent feverishly cutting alder with a bucksaw for the day's supply. Seldom was there a time when I had cut enough wood to last more than a few days, and I knew that I had to 'figure that one out. In the larger room, a plywood counter ran the length of the porch side with shelves underneath and above, save one end that accommodated the sink. In front of the large four-paned window stood a bare wood table with two wood- backed chairs, then the wood stove occupied the wall with the door. The smaller room had two small single-pane windows, a nightstand, and an old paint peeled wrought iron single bed with spring chains supporting a single mattress I'd acquired. For lights, I had four kerosene lamps. I had a battery-powered transistor radio for entertainment and sounds of a human voice. For company and solace, well, that would soon arrive. My camp sat at the end of a gravelled tire-track drive 100 feet or more off Parker road, which was not a destination to anywhere, at least beyond the dump. There were three roads heading up the surrounding hills coming out of Bear River to intersect with circumferential outer roads like Morganvale road. There were plenty of back roads where people caroused and drank. Days would go by before some pickup truck would ride through, and there never were cars, except mine, a Volvo wagon, and I arrived at the end of the dry season. The road was coursed by runoff and deeply pitted by frosts and freezes that no grader had ever corrected. I imagine the two farmsteads on the road were occupied up to the advent of electricity getting to the village early in the century, and the prospect of getting up that switchback with those first vehicles as opposed to oxen was too daunting. I had been there a month through a spectacular yellow and orange Autumn. The leaves had now dropped, as had the temperature and the flurries sailed horizontal in the wind. I didn't see the truck that dropped a burlap bag at the end of the driveway while I was cutting up alder for the night, but its contents were coming towards me. Three kittens, mewing, about five months old. One female, black coat with a white mask (Shuska)... one male, tawny with a grey patch on its chin (Balthasar) and a calico female (Phoebe). I must have bought food for them initially, but it seems to me now that they already knew how to hunt. I don't remember buying them much food, and they were wild enough. But warmth trumps all, and they either lounged on the counter or perched above me on the platform. I remember Balthasar always up there looking down on us. I now had someone to talk to, when a month earlier, I was never not talking to someone except when I slept. These were my 'china doll cats' as they never grew very big either. Home was as complete as it would be. There are those transitional wet weeks before the freeze and the road, as a result, basically washed out, stranding the car in front of my camp from then on.. for four months. I'd already begun walking to the village, in part to hang out at The Packet, a little diner where everyone came through regularly. It was there I met both locals and the very few who, like me, had fled the consternation in 'The States'. These would be my acquaintances and in the course of the winter friendships developed. However, when you are the one living alone almost no one visits you, with few exceptions.. Nova Scotia has a tradition of 'the young leaving' and young people from Bear River were leaving as well. This was a brief period of time, no more than five years and never to be repeated where those few 'blow-ins' who stretched out to get here and rudimentarily settle in forest/farm outskirts were young and who, in effect, stood in for those who had left. I'd say everyone easily engaged in a place of considerable lore there was no end to stories, including the Parker road. My experience of Nova Scotia now is a lot more insular, but I don't live in Bear 'River. As the temperature fell I 'hardened up' as well. The road East out of the village spurred with Parker road after half a mile where The West Branch joined Bear River which became tidal beneath the village bridge and the road where The Packet, grocer, butcher, post office, bank, legion lined up. Turning off to Parker road, you crossed over the tumbling current of the West Branch then past Ed Giault's farmhouse and barn. Ed owned the dump and picked up the discards from the village. The road sharply climbs up the switchback to level off at Ed's dump, then continues to climb more gently. On the West Branch side, the land drops to a cliff along the switchback but further on, beside the first orchard to emerge from the trees, it slopes as pasture, and all that's left of the Kempton farm is a stone foundation and chimney. Hattie Kempton, age fifteen, was raped and murdered there, by a Scottish sailor who'd come from the port of Digby nearby. The sailor was hanged. This occurred in the mid-1800s. The ghost of Hattie Kempton is believed to live on the road.
re: BIOFILM # 2 (Bear) 2016 wood ash, gesso, medium on paper 42” x 57” Private collection