Say it in French: ah-cah-DEE.
I repeated the unfamiliar pronunciation, ah-cah-DEE, putting the emphasis in different places than the English a-CAY-dee-a I’d been using. I was in Grand Pré, on the western edge of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, where the French-Acadians settled in the 1600s until they were deported by the British in 1755.
Le Grand Dérangement, they call it: The Expulsion, The Upheaval.
The heart of Acadie, Longfellow’s “forests primeval” and the Bay of Fundy, should have been blue and green, and in places it was: late spring storms had drawn deep from the flora, the pink and purple spikes of lupins, sabers of long grass, buds of trees that made me wish I had Evangeline memorized. But the Bay of Fundy was not blue, never, those tides so compelling that twice a day the peninsula itself moves, the water always red, churning with silt, movement of landscape and water that never stills, not even for a moment.
Acadie. I learned to say it right over a tasting of L’Acadie Blanc, sunshine gold, crisp in contrast to the roundness of French vowels at the Domaine de Grand Pré Winery. Later, I listened to BeauSoleil’s “Recherche d’Acadie”—“In Search of Acadia”— and Acadie was the only French word I recognized, as Michael Doucet pulled something true and raw from his fiddle, the minor key clear and keening. Later, as I stood on the dikes the Acadians built in the 17th century against the sea so they could farm the land, I learned BeauSoleil takes its name from Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil, one of the resistance leaders, a name not far from Babin on the memorial in Grand Pré.
Beautiful Sun, in a minor key.
I had driven thousands of miles to find where my family decided we will not tell this story, where we decided each generation would be responsible for creating its own history, how the 17th century Acadians of my blood and name put such a chasm of water between themselves and the last story they had to tell to come to a land that was not theirs, to become of that land, and then for their story to be forcibly written for them in a language of water again, boats to take them to Massachusetts, boats to take other Acadians to Louisiana to become Cajun, to France, or to death.
I had packed my 13-foot Scamp camper full of my own dreams and memories of camping with my family as a child in our 1972 Starcraft pop-up, writing in my pink journal next to unlit campfires on hot afternoons in Yellowstone or Gettysburg or Itasca. The story I am writing with my Scamp is a story written of a woman camping alone, a dream of this specific camper that I have had long before I finally acquired it in 2008. But right now I am standing on the miles my Acadians put between themselves and the stories that had made them who they were, literally recreating a landscape into a new story until the British came in and rewrote their story for them. I know that historical trauma changes human DNA, changes who we are at the most fundamental level of our bodies. My grandfather’s parents both came from historical trauma, his father from the Acadians and his mother from the Irish.
Part of me understands the stories my grandfather does not tell, historical trauma in his own lived experience: when I found my great-grandfather’s WWII draft card, my grandfather insisted that his father was not drafted, even as I literally held the evidence in my hand. It was true, however, that William Henry Babine, Sr., born and raised in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, immigrated to Maine and Massachusetts and drafted for WWI, never saw combat: seven months after being drafted for another world war, weeks before he was to report for duty, weeks after his twin sons reported to basic training themselves, he ended his life. His death certificate reads accident, which allowed him to be buried in consecrated ground. In 1976, my grandfather’s mother and his twin brother were murdered. I always knew that my grandfather had been awarded the Purple Heart for injuries suffered at the Battle of the Bulge as part of the Railsplitters in the Army’s 84th Infantry, keeping communications with the front lines intact through the worst of the fighting and the weather, but I didn’t know that he’d also been awarded the Bronze Star. I still don’t know why. And yet, my grandfather’s story is one of miles and movement too, cross-country trips during the Depression from their home in southern California to his father’s family in Maine to attend his grandfather, who had been felled by a stroke, camping trips that he and my grandmother took with my father and his siblings, camping trips after retirement in their Class A motorhome that became a staple of my own memories of their travels. But I don’t know these stories either. I only have images in my head, wonderings and wanderings.
In 2012, Grand Pré was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite the only physical remnants of the Acadian settlement being the dikes they built against the Bay of Fundy. This where Longfellow’s Evangeline begins, his “forests primeval.” And mine, as well. I had just spent three days in Yarmouth, where my great-grandfather was born in 1889 and where my branch of the Acadians had settled after the deportation, when they could not go back to Grand Pré because the land had already been given to loyal British Protestant planters. British plantations—evicting local populations and awarding the land to those who shared loyalty of king, country, and the right kind of God—was not new to me, having seen it done in Ireland. To see it done to my history was startling. The land has been English longer than it had been French, and Mi’kmaq for centuries before that, yet I expected much more French flavor to Nova Scotia, to Acadie. The first settlement by the French at Port Royal in 1604—a replica of the fort I toured on a day that made me grateful for my rain boots—wouldn’t have had a Babin in its number, as Antoine Babin (b. 1626) is counted as one of the first settler families when the French presence turned from transient fur traders to permanent settlement, a family story of movement stilling into rootedness. Over the course of a hundred years, six wars, and a place that went back and forth between British control and French control so often it was hard to keep track of who was in charge, the Acadians built their dikes, farmed the land, and created a culture among themselves so that they no longer considered themselves French. They were Acadian.
In the French half of Yarmouth County where the Babines settled after deportation, I learned my Babin ancestors gained the final e on the name from creative census takers. In Tusket, I learned how to pronounce my name: Ba-bin, like the hard flatness of a sheep’s call, not as my family pronounces it, the Bay of Fundy and L’Acadie wine. In the parish records of Ste. Anne de Ruisseau at the archives, as I was assisted by very cheerful archivists, I learned my great-grandfather had been baptized Henri Guillaume, not William Henry. St. Anne of the Stream, the river itself meandering past the cemetery and the church, pulsing with the tides: it was a landscape of movement, the tides high and the tidal rivers making me vaguely uncomfortable, the rivers nearly spilling their banks, but not quite. Later that day, I walked the long, bright grass of the Ste. Anne de Ruisseau cemetery in air too thick for fog but not quite rain, looking for gravestones that would say here’s the story of who we used to be, I knew I would never find what I was looking for. Strangely, this did not seem wrong.
The archivist had told me that Acadians preferred wooden crosses for their graves, not stone, but in the blank spaces where stones should have marked resting places, I could see the swell and dip of the land’s music, what I knew marked the place of collapsed coffins, and I could hear Doucet’s fiddle, triplets of the melody. Even here, the land could not be still. The same would be true at the Acadian memorial in Grand Pré and the Fort Anne Historic Site in Annapolis, not-quite-flat plains of green that would pass by unnoticed if you didn’t know what you were looking at, bright sunshine in the hours I spent at the Grand Pré Historic Site trying to understand these people of my blood and name. In those moments, I understood something new: this was planned forgetting, the erosion of what no longer mattered, what would not be passed to future generations. They were here, but not.
Beautiful sun, in a minor key.
The beautiful sun, in a minor key, elusive behind a storm system that had drenched the peninsula of Nova Scotia for the past three days, had finally returned and it brought with it the kind of glorious joy that can only come from suffering from days of bad weather while camping. My two cats and I had been snug at our campground in Grand Pré in my tiny hard-sided fiberglass travel trailer, sixty square feet of dreams, so I had avoided the perils of wet canvas my dad complained about when my family went camping when my sisters and I were kids. Several days before, we had ridden out magnificent storms on the north shore of Prince Edward Island and I was feeling smug about the beauty of fiberglass.
My campsite was only a hundred yards from the Bay of Fundy and those magnificent tides, that red water that never changed color no matter the suggestion of the sky. In moments where I sat at my tiny dinette table with a pot of tea, watching the rain out my front window, I wondered if I could feel the land moving under my feet as the tides came and went. In the end, however, high tide means nothing on its own and low tide means nothing on its own—why and how they’re important comes in the movement and comparison between the two. On my last night in Grand Pré, when the rain had cleared to a setting sun so pure that it created sundogs around it, something I’d never seen in June, because parhelion are created when the sun refracts through ice crystals in the atmosphere, I walked the tide flats, looking for rocks, as is my favorite mode of collecting souvenirs. My kindred spirit of a niece has recently taken to collecting rocks, much to the consternation of her mother, and I had already saved for her Thunder Bay amethyst and a perfectly shaped egg of white quartz from Yarmouth. In later years, we would collect flat stones from Lake Superior and paint them into story stones, to be arranged and rearranged into new stories. On the tidal flats in Grand Pré, in hours I was not yet willing to leave, petrified wood littered the beach, the grain of wood so clear I could count growth rings in the stone, reorienting again my ideas of how time moves. I stayed long enough to watch two young men catch twilight in their bright kites and I thought I could hear a fiddle in the wind being drawn across the strings in their hands.
KAREN BABINE is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction, finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Her second essay collection, All the Wild Hungers, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2018. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared in such journals as Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, and more. She lives and writes in Minneapolis. (@karenbabine)