EXPLORING THE IMAGINATIVE LANDSCAPE THROUGH THE LENS OF ISLAND


DSC_6593.JPG



Introducing the Context: The Imaginative Landscape
The landscape, and the way we understand and relate to it, is inextricably linked to the way we understand and act in the world. Authors create and recreate landscapes when they write about them. Creators of text not only describe the landscape as the location of events and actions, they also draw on the names of places, their physical features, and their symbolic power as ways of developing their characters and ideas. Authors can make the landscape the subject of writing and the actual focus, rather than just the setting. Authors can also use landscape metaphorically to show how their characters see and feel about themselves and their worlds.
In this study we are encouraged to consider the imaginative landscape through the lens of a selected text.

We should consider how Alistair MacLeod:


  • Explores the role of place in shaping the way a character feels about of sees the world.

  • Describes the aesthetics of the landscape, its beauty, bleakness or grandeur. Sometimes these descriptions of the outward world reflect inner emotional states.

  • Use descriptions of landscape as a contrasting device. Characters, or periods in a character’s life, are often contrasted with where they are: city or country; land or sea; earth or air; mountain or coast; north or south; developed or undeveloped.

  • Refers to characters’ need to relate to, or make some mark on the landscape, to name it, or to map it.

  • Uses the landscape as a metaphor for how characters are feeling.



Describing The Imaginative Landscape

When we think of a landscape, we not only think of its physical characteristics, but also of how it involves the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Think about how MacLeod appeals to the following senses in his stories, and why:


Sight

¨What are the physical and aesthetic qualities of the island landscape?

Sound

¨Aurally, what is going on? Is it important for the author’s purpose?

Smell

¨What smells are described or implied in the landscape of a scene?

Touch

¨Do any of the characters physically touch the landscape?




Exploring ISLAND

Alistair MacLeod’s sixteen short stories, collected in Island, are all set on Cape Breton Island off the coast of Nova Scotia in south-eastern Canada. While the stories explore a range of ideas, in each one the landscape of the island features prominently. As the title of the collection suggests, MacLeod has made the isolated island pivotal to each story. More than just a setting, Cape Breton features as a character in itself (the landscape and the natural elements are often personified), exerting its influence over the characters who give birth, work and die there.


MacLeod explores a range of ideas associated with the Context The Imaginative Landscape, including:


  • Different ways of responding to, and understanding, the landscape
  • The relationship between landscape and memory
  • The relationship between identity and the landscape
  • The physical and aesthetic qualities of the landscape
  • How the landscape impacts on humans
  • How humans impact on the landscape


Different ways of responding to, and understanding, the landscape

MacLeod’s stories are populated with miners and fishermen, and their wives and children, whose lives are shaped by the isolated landscape of Cape Breton Island. For all the inhabitants, the island is intrinsic to their understanding of themselves and their place in the world. For some characters, the island ties them to their ancestors and their history. For others, the island is a suffocating prison they seek to escape.

MacLeod shows how strong the historical ties are that bind the inhabitants to the land. Cape Breton is explicitly associated with Ireland. The link to the ‘old countries’ of Scotland and Ireland – ‘seeming almost hazily visible now in imagination’s mist’ – is reflected by the many characters who sing and speak in Gaelic.

Since the first settles settled on the island, generations of the same families have live on and worked their land. It is mostly the older inhabitants of the island who see themselves as custodians of the land.

Many of the island’s younger inhabitants, conversely, respond to the island in a very different way, seeking to leave the island to escape the insularity and isolated lives of the tiny communities.



Reflection Questions:



  1. What is an island?


  1. Make a list of ideas and feelings associated with the term ‘island’.



For example,

  • The idea of the island connotes isolation and uniqueness
  • Island spaces are used to explore and create bridges between the real and the imaginary.
  • Islands are often presented in literature as utopian or dystopian landscapes
  • ‘People are islands,' she said. 'They don't really touch. However close they are, they're really quite separate. Even if they've been married for fifty years.” - Ian Fleming, //Casino Royale//
  • ‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ John Donne (1572-1631).



INTRODUCTION: Background to MacLeod


Alistair MacLeod, born in 1936, was raised in Cape Breton, Canada, the setting for the stories in Island. He worked at the occupations he describes – a miner, a logger and a fisherman – before becoming a teacher and professor of English in Ontario. In this way, his life mirrors the lives of the men who narrate his stories, who labour under great difficulty or who leave their early homes to find a wider world.


MacLeod has an intimate knowledge of the physical landscape he is writing about.


The importance of memory and place is intimately explored in Alistair MacLeod’s works.


Literature and art have always served very important social and political functions. With any written or visual text the responder is intentionally positioned by the composer’s use of image to see and respond to the ideas, opinions and assumptions about places and people suggested by the composer. In his short stories, ‘......................................... ’ and ‘............................................’MacLeod employs a distinctly visual language to make strong comments about the landscape of Cape Breton and its people. He effectively uses image to make comment about the character of the island landscape, the emotional impact of island life, and the roles of men and women in this historical and cultural landscape.



The relationship between landscape and memory


MacLeod also shows that people’s memories are inextricably linked to the way they imagine the landscape. He particularly explores the relationship between landscape and the memories of childhood, with the inhabitant’s recollections of the past frequently featuring images, smells and sounds of growing up on the island.


Landscape is never neutral. In real life, people bring their own knowledge, experience and emotions to their environment to interpret the world they live in. In literature, the writer creates a world and invites the reader to enter and to make it real in their own imagination. As Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan tells us, ‘Literature helps people to live imaginatively in places’ (2006). The Cape Breton that MacLeod creates in Island is composed of many landscapes, which combine to develop the imaginative landscape of the text.





The relationship between identity and the landscape


For most of MacLeod’s characters, the landscape in which they live shapes how they see themselves and each other. In ‘Island’, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper becomes, in turn, the lighthouse keeper. Following the death of her parents, the woman steps into the role they’ve left vacant and becomes part of the cycle of generations. Her new role is one dictated by the necessities of the landscape. ‘She settled into the life with a sort of willful determination tempered by the fact that she was still waiting for something to happen and to bring about the change’ (p.397). Her identity and her environment between so intertwined that the tourist boat operators describe her to their passengers as ‘the mad woman of the island’ (p. 406) She is not an individual to them, simply part of the landscape.


In ‘The Boat’ there is an undercurrent of hostility directed at those who aren’t from the island. The mother in ‘The Boat’ rejects her daughters for marrying men not of the island. In her eyes the men were unacceptable as ‘they were not of her people and they were not of her sea’. (p.16)


In MacLeod’s emphasis on ‘her people’ and ‘her sea’, we see the significance of the landscape in shaping the mother’s opinion of others. The island is suggested as more important than the individual, even is means losing her daughters.



Historical landscape

Cape Breton has offered these people a place to survive since their ancestors fled Scotland and Ireland generations ago. Familiar stories and songs, and remnants of Gaelic, keep the memories of those other times alive. The old country can be seen across the ocean on a clear day and Dublin seems closer to them than Toronto. Memory of the past informs their lives.


Using the stories ‘The Boat’ and ‘Island’ find 5 references to the historical landscape.


1. Quote: ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................

Interpretation...........................................................................................................................................................................................................


2. Quote: ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................
Interpretation...........................................................................................................................................................................................................



3. Quote: ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................
Interpretation...........................................................................................................................................................................................................




4. Quote: ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................
Interpretation...........................................................................................................................................................................................................




5. Quote: ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................
Interpretation...........................................................................................................................................................................................................





The physical and aesthetics qualities of the landscape


The landscape determines the lives of those who live there. A harsh and withholding place, all rock, sea and wind, it is their own, proudly-held territory. The landscape is beautiful and MacLeod is lyrical in his descriptions of ‘the harbour ... like a tiny, peaceful womb’ (p.119) and the flowers which ‘burst and hang in all their short-lived, giddy, aromatic profusion’ (p.146). However, death and injury are ever-present in the sea and the mines, and the farmers struggle with cruel weather and stony soil.


  • Using the stories ‘The Boat’ and ‘Island’ find 5 descriptions of the physical landscape. For each descriptive line, explain what it reveals about this landscape.


When characters leave the island it is the physical and aesthetic qualities that they miss, and which inevitably draw them back. MacLeod’s use of colours in his description of the physical properties of the landscape shows how the landscape becomes a visual memory for those who live there. The vividness of the colours – whether bright or muted- creates the colour palette of the characters’ lives.


How the landscape impacts on humans


The landscape MacLeod writes about is and ‘unforgiving’ one. Many of the characters die as a direct result of the landscape they inhabit. Its hostility is exemplified in ‘The Boat’, when the aging father is swept from his fishing boat to his death. The narrator reflects on ‘the final irony, that your father, like your uncles and all the men that form your past, cannot swim a stroke’ (p 23). The landscape affects the fisherman in an unexpected way.


How humans impact on the landscape


The people who across the generations have fished and mined the land and seascape around Cape Breton Island have changed the land, just as it has shaped them. There are passages that describe human destruction of the landscape, through the overfishing and over-mining of the island.


The islanders’ fading ability to make a living from the landscape is a recurrent idea in the MacLeod’s stories.


Cultural landscape

Life is hard for the people of Cape Breton. They work close to nature and their struggle to make a living makes them strong and taciturn. Men and women fulfill separate, traditional roles in the family and often fail to communicate. There is a powerful sense of belonging so that those who stay are often hostile to those who leave, seeing it as a betrayal of the clan and of their world. Those who leave suffer guilt and a strong sense of displacement.


  1. Consider the mother and father in ‘The Boat’. What roles does the ‘mother’ fulfill?
  2. What roles does the father fulfill?
  3. Why do they seemingly fail to communicate?
  4. Why does the mother become hostile to her daughters?
  5. Why does the son suffer a sense of guilt and displacement?
  6. Consider the role of the woman in ‘Island’. What has been her family’s history on the island?
  7. Why does she feel compelled to continue this history?


Social landscape

The remoteness of the community has always protected it. MacLeod portrays the people as clannish and protective of each other, gently spoken, courteous and old-fashioned. By contrast, outsiders seem sometimes shocking and brutal in their speech. Though the people cling to the old ways, the world is changing around them, as tourists move in and work gets harder to find. MacLeod shows, finally, that the landscape he has created is fragile and doomed.


  • How is this demonstrated in ‘The Boat’ and ‘Island’?


MacLeod’s Characters


Archetypal characters recur in Macleod’s stories – often referred to by titles such as ‘the mother’, ‘the father’ and ‘the grandmother’ – as powerful figures in the emotional landscape of the family. The narrative voice is usually that of a son, often adolescent, who feels constrained and frustrated in this narrow landscape. Conflicting views of the world create tension in the stories. MacLeod’s preoccupations are always the cruel, pristine beauty of this landscape, the struggles of the people who inhabit it and the abiding sadness of those who have abandoned it.


Imaginative and physical journeys are explored in Macleod’s landscapes. So too are notions of ‘Belonging’.

Belonging is a powerful word. Maybe one of the most powerful words there is. It taps into something very deep within us - the yearning to be part of something larger than ourselves, to be accepted and loved by others with all of our gifts and limitations. Jean Vanier says that belonging does for human beings what soil does for plants: it nurtures us, and enables us to grow and to blossom.

The desire to belong is universal. Yet despite what we know about the importance of belonging, too many people experience its opposite: loneliness and isolation. For these individuals, "belonging" remains a tragically elusive goal. People with disabilities are perhaps the most vivid examples of social isolation. And isolation is pervasive among other groups as well: the elderly, immigrants and refugees, many young people...and just about anyone who is perceived as "different".


  1. What is the character of the Cape Breton landscape – what comment does MacLeod make about it? How does he do this in stories of ‘The Boat’ and ‘Island’?
  2. What is the emotional impact of life on Cape Breton – what comment does MacLeod make? How does he do this in ‘The Boat’?



Synopsis of ‘The Boat’


As a reflective text, "The Boat" is structured around the narrator's grief for the loss of his father. The narrator's means of coping with his emotional state is by telling a story that explores his relationship with his father, mother and ancestral tradition; these relationships are fraught with conflict and ambivalence, for the narrator documents a period in his life where he must choose between upholding old beliefs and forging his own path in life. In this sense, the story he tells is effectively a coming of age tale--stories that document a period frequently associated with troubled identity and competing life choices. His story, however, is additionally complicated by grief, as the narrator's coming of age experience is fundamentally altered by the death of the father. In the present of the text the narrator has made clear career and lifestyle choices (far away from the traditional world of his youth), but he has not come to terms with the significance of his father's passing, and he still feels a fundamental unease with his life.


The opening and closing paragraphs of "The Boat" frame the narrator's story. "The Boat" begins with the moment of "terrible fear" (105) that awakens the narrator, and the confusion he feels as he comes to an awareness of his surroundings. The link between the narrator's feelings of being "foolishly alone" and the absence of his father is underscored here. The narrator describes his frequent early morning awakenings where he faces "the terrible fear that I have overslept ... [and] that my father is waiting for me" (105) in a manner that suggests an action that has become reflexive after years and years of constant early mornings to go fishing with his father and the other men: "There are times when I am half out of bed and fumbling for socks and mumbling for words before I realize that I am foolishly alone, that no one waits at the base of the stairs and no boat rides restlessly in the waters of the pier" (105).

In the second paragraph of the story the narrator comments on the preoccupation with death that accompanies these moments, furthering the importance of his father's death to the storytelling. As he states, "I am afraid to be alone with death" which necessitates his rising from bed and departure for an all-night restaurant in search of company. The narrator uses images that are laden with connotations of death to depict his predicament, mirroring his emotional state: "At such times only the gray corpses on the overflowing ashtray beside my bed bear witness to the extinction of the latest spark and silently await the crushing out of the most recent of their fellows" (105). As the narrator moves into the story of his past, he juxtaposes his current unease with the elements of his past that trouble him. As the day dawns, he focuses on "the countless things one must worry about when he teaches at a great Midwestern university" (106), contextualizing his occupation and geographical location--both far removed from the world of his childhood and adolescence. With daylight comes the certainty that the past is far removed from the present, that it is "only shadows and echoes ... the cuttings from an old movie made in the black and white of long ago," and with daylight comes "all kinds of comforting reality to prove" that the past is long gone. Despite being figments of his imagination, however, the "call and the voices and the shapes and the boat" had the semblance of reality for the narrator during those early morning hours. Thus, the narrator's assertion that the "day will go by as have all the days of the past ten years" (106) is in part an empty conclusion, offering no resolution to his malaise, for the narrator implies that there have been many similar days, and no consolation or resolution has been attained--therefore, more days like this one can be expected. The role of the storytelling is to fill in the "shadows and echoes" that haunt him, to revisit the old movie in an attempt to come to grips with it.



Adapted from : **//http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2455/is_3_35/ai_83585384///**




IDEAS & ARGUMENTS IN THE TEXT

Island advances a number of key ideas relevant to the Context The Imaginative Landscape. These are briefly discussed below and will be developed further in the following section.



Overview of key ideas and arguments

The Cape Breton landscape that MacLeod evokes in Island reveals his struggle to reconcile opposing views of the place. The natural world offers great beauty but also terrible dangers, and the value of the local traditions contrasts with the restlessness of the young people. MacLeod dramatises this struggle by giving his characters very different views of their landscape.


The idea of human destiny is explored throughout the text: whether to stay where you have roots or to seek a life in another landscape. In many of his stories, conflict arises when young men reject the life of their community for the wider landscape beyond the island. The cycles of nature are shown in the stories, through the seasons and the lives of the animals but, while reassuring for some, they represent sameness and repetition for others. The mother in ‘The Boat’ reveres work and despises the intellectual life her son desires. The beauty of tradition is juxtaposed with the inevitable march of change. MacLeod is ambivalent to the end. He never judges his people but shows that all their decisions have a cost. The grim endurance of the men and women who stay is placed beside the loss and displacement of those who leave.



Analysis of key ideas and arguments

Enduring the landscape

For many people their birth into a particular family and culture is so intrinsic to their identity that the idea of choosing another life in a radically different world is never even contemplated. For others, there can be the awareness that although life is very difficult, the landscape they inherit becomes their destiny. In MacLeod’s stories, accepting the life the landscape offers you can give certainty and security to your identity, but it can also limit your potential. MacLeod has chosen Island as the title for his collection of stories. This symbolises the emotional isolation and silence of the characters.


The landscape calls up a powerful response from those who inhabit it. They are hemmed in by rocky shorelines and forced indoors by ‘stinging sleet’ (p.116) and ‘the shrieking tenor of the wind’ (p.116). The landscape is elemental – it damages and consumes the people and physical toughness is needed to survive. The father in ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ has lost fingers to a dynamite accident, has a scar that ‘runs like violent lightning down the right side of his face’ (p.34) and lungs damaged by coal dust. The people are hardened by difficult lives. This is clear when the men of ‘The Closing Down of Summer’ must dig the frozen ground to bury their dead.


MacLeod depicts the proud strength of the people who rise to the challenges presented by the landscape. Women, such as the mothers in ‘The Boat’ and ‘The Return’, fiercely defend their lifestyle and despise the compromises their children have made to lead city lives. In ‘The Boat’, the mother of six daughters who leave the island one after the other looks on her only son ‘with bitterness’ (p.25) for abandoning his heritage. In ‘The Return’, Angus’ mother turns her anger on him for rejecting his brother: ‘I have my alcoholic ... who was turned out of my Montreal lawyer’s home’ (p.87).


The men who stay accept their destinies more meekly. Some take refuge in drink; others silently endure the burden of physical labour, putting aside their own wistful dreams. The father in ‘The Boat’ encourages his children to pursue the education he longed for, to escape the limitations of the landscape. He sees the value of embracing a larger landscape to understand the world.


There is a place in the clan and the community for all who belong there. Some of the people see a choice, to accept or reject this destiny. Others take up the place that is offered to them without seeming to choose. MacLeod admires the strength and endurance of those who accept life in this landscape but he reveals the physical and emotional price they pay.



  1. Has life in Cape Breton been harder for the father or the mother in ‘The Boat’?


  1. Which characters in the stories have been made stronger by their difficult environment?


  1. List the different kinds of damage, both physical and psychological, that the men in the stories suffer by living in this landscape.



The consequences of escaping the landscape



It is not easy to leave your home and family. People can remain so tied emotionally to the feelings associated with home, that no other landscape can ever be as meaningful for them. Several of MacLeod’s stories explore the idea of abandoning the landscape. Family expectations are strong: young men inherit their father’s work and loyalty to the clan is paramount. However, some are drawn to the world outside their tiny communities, often by the desire for a richer intellectual life as a lawyer, doctor or teacher in a modern North American city. They are torn between love for their families and the fear that they will be bound to the narrow lives their parents have led. The price they pay is a constant sense of loss and displacement.


Other landscapes never seem to be fully real to the exiles. ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ deals with a young man who views leaving home as ‘the planned day of my deliverance’ (p.26). However, the world outside the car window seems unreal to him as he moves through the landscape in a ‘sort of movable red and glass showcase’ (p.55). The little town of Springhill only becomes real to him when he remembers the mining accident that ruined it and he is able to connect the place to his own history. His denial of his origins, when he tells people he is from Vancouver, suddenly seems ‘silly’ (p.56). John, in ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’, found Toronto ‘wonderful sad’ (p.129) and sought connection with his home through watching the city seagulls. The narrator of ‘The Boat’ seems to find his city landscape depleted and meaningless as he waits in the diner for dawn to put an end to another empty night.


Those who leave Cape Breton find it hard to connect with any other landscape.


The exiles also suffer from the knowledge that other people are disappointed in them.


Their absence leaves a gap in the family.


The narrator of ‘The Boat’, for example, knows that his father’s fishing grounds wait for him. Angus, the young narrator’s father in ‘The Return’, feels guilty because he has failed to support his alcoholic brother in Montreal. He has allied himself with his city wife’s disdain and abandoned the values of the clan. Those who leave this native landscape lose a great deal in the way of family support and tradition. In ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’, the loss and anguish is felt by an outsider, the narrator, who came to Cape Breton years ago to study the ancient songs and fell in love with a daughter of the island. He is painfully aware of the loveliness of the place as ‘in the early evening the sun is flashing everything in gold’ (p.118). His decision to leave his son in this idyllic landscape where he so clearly belongs hurts him but he realises the poverty of what he can offer the boy: ‘the land of the Tastee Freeze’ and ‘the elevator to the apartment on the sixteenth floor’ (p.139).


MacLeod painfully evokes the sorrow of the people who choose exile but he does not blame them. They feel they belong nowhere and are unhappy everywhere. The narrator of ‘The Boat’ expresses this best when he shows himself caught between guilt at his mother’s loneliness and a shuddering relief that he has escaped his father’s gruesome fate.



  1. What feelings do Angus in ‘The Return’ and the narrator of ‘The Boat’ share about leaving their native landscape?


  1. How does MacLeod show the suffocating feelings of the narrator of ‘The Vastness of the Dark’?



The landscape and forging connections with others


In a harsh environment, people can survive only with help from others. MacLeod imagines the landscape as a shared one, where people have allotted roles and tasks that help to define everyone’s place in the world they inhabit. Much of the beauty of the Cape Breton world comes from the human connections forged by the landscape that MacLeod depicts.


In ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’, he shows the quiet affection between John, the dog who watches him do his homework ‘in a supervisory manner’ (p.131) and the grandparents who love him. This close family circle lives in harmony with the world outside and its tides and seasons. The grandfather describes his sorrow when John leaves for Toronto in terms of the natural landscape, who ‘Like us had no moorings, lost in the fog or on the ice-floes in a snow squall’ (p.134).


Young children work alongside their parents in a kind of early apprenticeship for the lives they will take up as adults. In ‘The Boat’, the narrator’s first memories are of riding on his father’s shoulders to the boat that was the family’s livelihood and he works with his father catching lobsters and mackerel throughout his childhood. A consciousness that life is hard is shared by all the family members in the stories and each home closes its door on the harsh outer landscape to provide a warm place, with the kitchen stove at the heart of it.


Men and women bind themselves in strong marriages and maintain traditional gender roles, men as breadwinners and women as homemakers, dependent on each other for survival. Through arguments and disagreements, a connection forged through love, duty and mutual work remains strong. The narrator of ‘In the Fall’ ends his story with a powerful image of his parents holding strong in a landscape that batters them: ‘I think they will stand there for a long, long time, leaning into each other and into the wind-whipped snow and with the ice freezing to their cheeks’ (p.117).


The animals in these stories play an important role too. The farm animals and their cycles of reproduction keep the people close to the cycles of nature and the seasons. More than just pets, the working dogs are depicted as having interdependent relationships with the people. The narrator of ‘Winter Dog’, for example, describes an excursion onto sea ice that becomes a battle he and his dog fight together. John’s sea-swimming dog, the old dog that keeps his owner company in ‘Clearances’, the dogs at Rankin’s Point that howl to announce the death of their mistress: MacLeod gives many examples of warm mutuality between the people and the dogs that work beside them. The challenges posed by the landscape demand that people and animals live and work together to prosper and survive.


  1. In what ways are the parents’ relationships similar in ‘The Boat’ and ‘In the Fall’?


The landscape, tradition and a sense of place



MacLeod imagines a landscape shaped by the history of its people. Forced immigrants and refugees from poverty and oppression often keep alive a tribal memory of sadder, older landscapes as part of their communal identity. Despite MacLeod’s ambivalence about people escaping their communities for other landscapes, he leaves the reader in no doubt about the important role that tradition plays in giving meaning to human life. Even when tradition is harsh and requires a bitter duty, it is always at least as valuable as what replaces it. As we have seen, those who abandon it feel forever displaced.


The imaginative landscape he creates for Canadian Cape Breton is founded in the history of its people. The original loss of country and displacement from Scotland and Ireland remains a feature of their stories. This gives greater value to the poor farmland and shoreline that they own in their new landscape. In ‘Clearances’ the narrator describes his journey as a soldier to discover the old country. He finds resonances of home in the Gaelic language and the welcome he receives from the Highlanders. He contextualises his relationship to the landscape when ‘he looked across the western ocean, beyond the point of Ardnamurchan, and tried to visualize Cape Breton and his family at their tasks’ (p.421).


Tradition gives power and meaning to the clan. Traditional ways of relating to the landscape are followed by generations of Cape Bretoners. Fishing grounds and family boats are handed from father to son and men bring their sons under the ground to work beside them in the dangerous little mines. Men and women take traditional roles in the family and home. The women are depicted in their kitchens and the fathers portrayed as working to provide for the family. These time-honoured ways of living offer security to the people and a clear understanding of where they belong in the world. The generations live in harmony and grandparents are respected as the holders of family history. The mother in ‘The Boat’ adheres sternly to tradition and puts an almost moral value on order and duty as she fights to keep her children within the clan’s circle.


Memory plays a part in the creation of an imaginative landscape. It is a way of making the past real, through the traditional stories and songs that link the people to their history. The handing down of Scottish names to newborns, tales of the people who once inhabited the same landscape and the Gaelic songs that carry in their melodies old grievances and sorrows are all ways of keeping alive a sense of who these people are. In ‘The Road to Rankin’s Point’, Calum, the young man who is dying, returns to his grandmother’s farm, his childhood landscape. The old woman plays ‘the ancient music’ (p.158) of their clan on a violin which ‘came from the Scotland of her ancestors’ (p158). He is trying to understand his fate by connecting with his past, and in turn, with the mythology of the landscape.


The inevitability of a changing landscape



External forces can change the meaning of the landscape, threatening a cherished sense of belonging or ownership. New buildings, new people and new processes have to be accommodated into the existing world order. This change is the cause of much grief as people struggle to hold on to their social and economic landscapes.

The communities of Cape Breton are founded on the bedrock of tradition and family. The people have struggled against poverty, accidents and the elements to hold their lives together and remain constant in their values. However, MacLeod shows that they cannot keep the modern world from intruding and altering their lives and their landscape. He presents the tragedy of the inevitable loss of their world.


MacLeod shows outsiders making their way into the landscape and seeing the locals as objects of curiosity. The culture and music of the fishermen becomes the subject of academic study, things of novelty. In ‘The Boat’, the mother rages at her husband for allowing his sea chanteys and Gaelic drinking songs to be recorded by the tourists. In ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’, ‘bright young graduate students’ (p.138) come to collect songs and ballads ‘for the theses and archives of North America’ (p.138). The beautiful landscape is also seen as a business opportunity; the Sea Food Restaurant in ‘The Boat’ is set up to cater for ever increasing numbers of summer tourists. The narrator of ‘The Closing Down of Summer’ decides that singing the old Gaelic songs in the Celtic revival concerts has become ‘as lonely and irrelevant as it was meaningless’ (p.195).


Their world is threatened as the traditional work of Cape Breton begins to dry up. The mines no longer yield enough to support workers and the men have to go ever further away to find employment. As their men leave, the communities feel the strain of separation, and the landscape, once bordered by the edges of their little harbour, is forced to expand. In ‘The Closing Down of Summer’, the narrator is reluctant to leave the secluded beach at Cameron’s Point to travel to his South African mining job. He weeps ‘outwardly and inwardly for all I have not said or done and for my own clumsy failure at communication’ (p.206).


The fragility of their world is seen most poignantly in ‘Clearances’, when the old man who narrates the story is encouraged by his son, in what seems like ‘family betrayal’ (p.428) to sell his land to the German tourists. The clear-cutter, too, represents the ability of the younger generation to survive in a changing landscape and adapt to changing times. He tells the old man, ‘People like you and me ... are no match for the Government and the tourists’ (p.426). The languages – Gaelic among the family members and German among the prospective buyers – represent the private worlds they inhabit and the difficulty the old man has in understanding the new view of the world. Ironically, the tourists are seeking an unspoiled landscape, but their very arrival will change fundamentally the world of the clan.


The story has a devastating end, with the old man and his gentle ‘bilingual dog’ (p.424) about to be savaged by the pit bull. ‘Neither of us was born for this’ (p.430) reflects the old man and his silent protest seems to refer to all the destruction his world is facing. The Cape Breton landscape seems to have come full circle – created by refugees from Scotland’s Highland Clearances of centuries ago, it has now fallen victim to the modern clearances of tourism and government interference. MacLeod shows his grief at the inevitable changes to the fragile landscape through this violent conclusion to the collection of stories. Change can only be achieved at great cost to those who depend upon the security of the meaning attached to the landscape.

Discussion questions


Read the mother’s outburst in ‘The Boat’ (p.10). What makes her so angry about the newcomers?






Points of view on the Context


The following discussion topics, writing topics and activities provide you with the opportunity to reflect on and develop your point of view on the Context The Imaginative Landscape, using Island as a point of reference.



Discussion/writing topics


Although MacLeod’s created world of Cape Breton is very different from our own cityscapes and the Australian countryside, the stories show us that all human beings are greatly influenced by the places they inhabit. Discuss.


‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’, Shakespeare tells us in Hamlet. How do people create meanings for their environments?



Activities

Write a conversation between characters from different stories in Island, such as the woman in ‘Island’ and the father in ‘The Boat’ about leaving home.


Select passages from the stories to show the different physical landscapes of the text, such as the claustrophobic mines of ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ (p.35), the harsh weather of ‘In the Fall’ (p.116), the poignant beauty of ‘The Lost Salt Gift of Blood’ (pp.118-119) and the dangerous seas of ‘The Boat’ (p.23). These passages could be prepared as oral readings to the class, to lead into discussion about the effect of the landscape on the people.


Develop monologues for some of the characters in the stories, such as the mother in ‘The Boat’, the son who tries to leave in ‘The Vastness of the Dark’ and the dying father in ‘To Every Thing There Is a Season’. The monologues should explore the characters’ feelings and perspectives on their own response to the landscape.


Writing in Context: Sample topics

Students will be assessed in Units 3 and 4 and in the end of year examination on writing stimulated by the ideas and arguments found in texts studied in the Context The Imaginative Landscape. The following topics provide an opportunity for students to draw on ideas arising from their reading of Island in order to develop their own writing pieces. Written responses may be expository, persuasive or imaginative.



  • ‘Moving away from home often causes pain and a sense of loss.’

  • ‘The confinement of a landscape can be reflected in the narrowness of its people’s ideas.’

  • ‘A harsh landscape can cause a corresponding hardness in its inhabitants’ approach to life.’

  • ‘It can be difficult to accept changes that occur to a familiar landscape.’

  • ‘Leaving a familiar landscape where you belong in order to be independent is sometimes seen as betrayal by those you leave behind.’

  • ‘A landscape steeped in tradition and family influence is supportive but can also be stifling