In the early 1970s, in order to further my studies in Art History, I went to a small university in a small town in Nova Scotia, on the Bay of Fundy. After a long summer working as an assistant to the curator of a gallery in Toronto, I had accumulated a small sum of money to enable me to study without too much worry about my finances. I was also quite exhausted after my intense work in the gallery.
I arrived in the town two weeks ahead of the beginning of my studies, in order to have a recuperating holiday. I transferred all my money to a local bank and secured a room in a boarding house, a grand Victorian building, facing the Bay of Fundy. The establishment was owned and run by Miss H., a retired senior head nurse. Two pre-med students also lived there. They seemed to enjoy some special treatment, which I saw as due to sentiment left over from her nursing days. Also from her nursing days, we had very strict times for dinner, which was served to us on individual trays.
I didn’t mind at all, and rather enjoyed the regularity of the clinical approach to daily life while I was free before my studies began. Every day after breakfast I went to the university library with a brown bag of sandwiches prepared by Miss H. The sandwiches never varied: bologna on white bread. I also had an apple every day. In the afternoons I took long walks. After 10 or 15 minutes, I was in the woods. It was not an original growth forest; the original oaks and maples had been cut down long before to build warships to fight in the Napoleonic wars. This was second growth, very matured oaks, maples and birch. It was autumn, and nature displayed their trees’ colours in full. They outdid any impressionist painter’s efforts.
To reach this particular forest, I had to walk across a meadow that rose up a hill to the trees that began at the crest. I liked to sit along the edge of the woods so I could see down towards the town and the Bay of Fundy beyond. I could also turn around to see the trees and their colours in beautiful layers. I had one favourite spot where a tree had fallen down and at one point lay against another large oak tree. The living oak had a large branch growing out sideways where I sat. It formed a protective alcove where I could sit on the fallen tree and lean against the trunk of the living tree, with my arm resting on the live branch which was like an armrest.
One afternoon I was sitting there, half hidden by the foliage, happily submerging myself in the serenity and beauty of the view of the farmhouses dotted in the landscape, when I heard shoes crunching on dead leaves. A man with a dog was walking along the edge of the woods. When he spotted me sitting there, he and the dog decided to walk in my direction. I didn’t mind the intrusion. I was looking forward to having some company.
When they came closer, I observed that the man was in his 40s. He was wearing faded overalls, a red-checked heavy shirt, and a jacket that had had oily treatment to make it waterproof. He walked in construction boots. The dog walking alongside him was a golden retriever with a beautiful soft coat, slightly curly, and expressive, brown triangular eyes. He nodded at me, and the dog gave me a thorough sniffing. Then the man sat down on the fallen tree, and the dog sat on the ground.
I managed a friendly smile, and had a good look at him and the dog. That’s when I noticed the camera hanging around his neck. In my undergraduate study of the history of art, I had had a course on early 20th century photography. The course covered the development of the camera. The camera around his neck was not an ordinary camera; it was a Hasselblad 500el. It was a camera used by professionals, so I assumed he was making a living as a photographer while dabbling in farming, or he was a farmer who happened to be a more-than-amateur photographer. Whichever it was, he was neither your ordinary farmer nor your ordinary photographer.
As I was observing him, he silently took out a bag of tobacco, a pipe and a tin can. He used a pocket knife to clean his pipe into the tin can, then filled the pipe bowl, and lit it with a match, which he placed very carefully in the tin can. Clearly he was a woodsman. He contentedly smoked his pipe, saying nothing. I assumed he was a man of few words.
I carried on my observation of the man, his camera, and his dog. They looked like a single unit.
The dog was sitting on his hind legs and looking alert. He didn’t seem to be subservient to the man, but rather a guide and protector. He looked like a sentinel and at the same time like one who enjoyed the man’s company. From time to time he sniffed the air, exuding intelligence. From time to time the man leaned over and touched the dog with his left hand. With his right hand he appeared to stroke the camera.
For some reason, I didn’t want to ask the man for his name, but I asked instead about the dog’s name. The man replied with one word: “Baxter.” Upon hearing his name, Baxter looked at the man and then looked at me. He seemed to understand both the question and the answer.
The man began to talk. He wasn’t addressing me so much as he was talking to Baxter. “Baxter and I roam around this area. We see the landscape. We take photographs.”
I was curious about the “we”. Also, I wanted to know more about what he was selecting from the landscape to capture in his pictures. I wanted to engage him in a conversation, so I said diffidently, as if trying to clarify to myself, “You and Baxter see the landscape differently. When you look through your Hasselblad lens, you will be looking from about 4 foot 6 above the ground. Your eye level would be about 5 foot ten. Baxter’s eye level when he is sitting on the ground is about 2 feet 6. When he is standing his eyes are about one foot 10 above the ground. When he’s running he is probably viewing the landscape at about one foot 6 off the ground. So you two are looking at the scenery and landscape and forest from different points of view.”
The man was listening to me intently. He stood up and regarded me without saying a word. Then he mumbled to himself, “I’ll be damned.” Then he turned to Baxter and repeated, “I’ll be damned. I never noticed this before.” He was speaking to Baxter, not to me. Then he put his pipe in his pocket and walked away along the edge of the woods. When he disappeared around a bend, I waited for a few minutes before I realised it was time for me to walk back to Miss H.’s place in order to be prompt for dinner.
Years later, I was working as an assistant curator for a craft museum in Boston, and I was sent to Cape Breton to see a collection of early Scottish settlers’ crafts. Among them were some early chairs that had been made by local Scottish joiners that were well known collectors’ items. I travelled by overnight ferry from Boston to Digby, and then by train to Halifax where I changed to a Cape Breton train. My job was to evaluate the collection of folk art and objects including furniture for the curator to make purchase decisions.
My journey on the ferry was uneventful; the water was calm. After a substantial breakfast, I landed in Digby and immediately got on the train. The conductor announced limited carriage, which meant there was no dining car, and that it was a milk-run. We stopped instead at Kentville for a high tea break before continuing on to Halifax. I recognized Kentville from when I had been studying at the university, which was about 10 miles away.
Once the train had stopped in Kentville, the conductor came to the carriage and announced a 45-minute stop. A whistle would blow 10 minutes before the train departed. He joked that he didn’t want to leave anyone behind in Kentiville because there wasn’t much to do there. I debarked.
Kentville had a main street that could have been a subject for a painting by Edward Hopper. I walked along the street; after my substantial breakfast I didn’t really feel like high tea. Among the shops on the main street was a small front painted with a small sign announcing “Gallery.” As in all small towns, the door was open and nobody was in sight. A sign tucked near the door said “Welcome.”
I entered the gallery and found myself in a small hall with a large room off to the right and one to the left. Through the doorways I noticed one was full of paintings by local artists and one was a photographic exhibition. I went left, and found twenty or so photographs, well framed, lining the walls. I started to look at them. They were beautifully shot and had sharp focus in both background and foreground. The subject matter was the local scenery, including a lake shore viewed just above the water. In forest shots, the focus was on the trunks of trees. They were all carefully cropped; the depth of field was exquisitely controlled in each photograph. When I came to the very last one, which showed a farmhouse viewed through tall grass, I realised the camera’s angle was slightly above ground. I went back to look at the exhibit again. Halfway through, I heard the train whistle. I hurried back to the platform and my seat by the window. When the train began to pick up speed, I murmured to myself, “I’ll be damned! That was Baxter’s world.”