Aerial Photography, Landscape Change, & PEI National Park
As different as national parks and aerial photographs are from one another, they have one thing in common: they appear to embody permanence. National parks in Canada are protected by legislation which states that they are to be maintained “unimpaired” for future generations. And aerial photographs impose an order and unity to an entire landscape, presenting a perspective that is simultaneously scientific and Godlike.
Yet both aerial photographs and national parks are profound testaments of change. The parks, which might seem to be inviolable monuments to the time they were established, instead become showcases of natural succession and of shifting cultural ideas about nature, tourism, and development. And aerial photographs are snapshots of time as well as place. Assemble a series of them and you have a flipbook, telling a unique visual history of a landscape.
In 2012, Prince Edward Island National Park celebrates its 75th anniversary-seventy-five years of being one of the smallest and yet most visited national parks in Canada, and as such a longstanding site of both stringent natural protection and intense social and economic pressures. The fact that the Island has been subject to the most comprehensive aerial photography coverage of any place in Canada – with the entire province blanketed in 1935 (just prior to the park’s creation), 1958, 1968, 1974, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010-makes it possible to tell a story of the park in these photos. The three series of photomosaics displayed here reveal the speed and scale of the park’s development, the process of natural or manmade regeneration of vegetation, the effect of the park’s existence on land use beyond its boundary, and even the accidental but acute geomorphological effects of park activity. Above all, the photomosaics offer a unique perspective on the past, a perspective from above.
Cavendish is a district still dedicated to farming in the first image, from 1935, but tourism had already gained a footing. JN McCoubrey runs a cottage business near the beach and Ernest and Myrtle Webb are giving tours of their home, “Green Gables,” because of its association with LM Montgomery’s book, Anne of Green Gables. No one imagines that within a year this land will become valued by Parks Canada and expropriated to become part of the new PEI National Park.
By 1958, the area has been transformed into the park’s showpiece; it is this new landscape, more so than the 1935 one, that will be preserved for future generations. The laneway to Green Gables, which had run straight from the road along the field division, now winds across a stream in more picturesque fashion. Yet there is also a modern bungalow court and cottage development, both configured in postwar suburban fashion. The golf course bears the underpaintings of farmers’ fields, duffers the most profitable of crops.
The subsequent photographs show changes more in degree than in kind. Development thrives, including the development of nature. The Gulf Shore Highway results in a more defined Lake of Shining Waters. Everywhere there is rampant tree growth-some planted, some naturallyoccurring-although stands continue to be sacrificed to the golf course’s needs. Nowhere is the park’s never-ending battle between preservation and use more evident than at Green Gables itself. Toward the end of the century, vegetation is planted to surround the house and the nearby stream is rescued from the golf course-and yet a greatly-extended parking lot is required to accommodate this greening. In pre-park Cavendish, farming negotiated a middle ground between nature and culture; as the park matures, nature and culture live more cheek by jowl.
Robinsons Island, a five-kilometre ribbon of land in the very centre of the proposed park, initially escaped attention, hiding in plain sight between the mass tourism potential of Cavendish to the west and the upmarket promise of Dalvay to the east. Other than calling it “Rustico Island,” presumably to free it of any association to past land use, the new park left the island alone.
In the 1950s, Parks Canada dreamed of a scenic highway running the entire length of the park. Robinsons Island was to be the linchpin, its two ends joined to the mainland. There was an ulterior motive for this plan: it was hoped that building a causeway across Little Harbour on Robinsons Island’s east end would increase the tidal flow through North Rustico Harbour to the west, scouring it and making it deeper and safer for fishermen landing there. In the 1958 photo, a swath of roadway has been cut through the island’s centre and, although it is difficult to see, Little Harbour has been filled in.
But the unforeseen happened: nature sought its own path. With Little Harbour closing off Robinsons Island’s east side, the redirected tides ate away at the island’s sandy west side. Even as the 1968 and 1974 photographs illustrate the park’s developmental hopes for the island-the completion of the highway there, the growth of an amoeba-like campground-they also document the erasure of a considerable portion of the island itself. Efforts to bridge to North Rustico were abandoned.
And then the unforeseen happened again. With the province’s best-paved highway a dead end, visitor use of Robinsons Island plummeted and the campground eventually closed. The latest photographs capture the thriving growth of vegetation there-not to mention the accumulation of a substitute island off Anglo Rustico. It has taken half a century, but Robinsons Island is regaining some of the wildness it lost after becoming part of the national park.
Greenwich tells a different story, not having become part of PEI National Park until 1998. The 1935 image in some ways illustrates traditional PEI land use: small timber cuttings indicative of individual household use and a mosaic of small fields indicative of meticulous crop rotation. But a coastal narrative pervades. The 1958 photograph shows both an entire field swallowed up by dune encroachment and evidence, in two straight lines along the peninsula tip, of Department of Public Works infrastructure attempts to hold the sands in place. (Such berms are also visible, and have visibly failed, in the 1974 photo of Robinsons Island.)
Late-century trends in Island land use are manifest in the subsequent photos. Forests left unattended regenerate. Agricultural decline on less arable land leads on the peninsula’s south end to the disappearance of hedgerows and to monotonous, although picturesque, pastureland. The peninsula becomes a site for hiking, hunting, and amateur archaeology.
The national park finally makes its appearance in the 2000 and 2010 images, most visibly in the boardwalk across Bowley’s Pond and the headquarters area to the east. But the sort of rapid landscape transformation that was evident at Green Gables when PEI National Park was born in the 1930s does not appear. National parks have changed significantly in the past 75 years, most noticeably in that they now undertake less change.
-Alan MacEachern and Joshua MacFadyen, curators.
These photomosaics were composed using aerial photographs from the PEI Aerial Photograph website (http://www.gov.pe.ca/aerialsurvey), the PEI Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and the Public Archives and Records Office of PEI. Copyright for the 1935 and 1958 series is retained by Her Majesty the Queen; copyright of all other series is retained by the province.