Where do you start when writing about the most definitive, most complex book ever compiled on the dykeland legacy of the Acadians?
J. Sherman Bleakney’s book is exactly that – definitive and complex. Sods, Soil, and Spades examines in detail the period from 1680 to 1755 when the Acadians created an unusual French subculture at Grand Pre. Bleakney wrote his book as a marine biologist looking at how the Acadians conquered the Minas Basin tides and how those tides created a unique people. His book isn’t a history, Bleakney forewarns us, but marine biology aside, historical it is since he creates a timeline that starts with the arrival of the Acadians at Grand Pre, a timeline carried on into the Planter period and beyond.
As a marine biologist, Bleakney spent more than 40 years investigating the biological aspects of the Minas Basin, often finding along the way intriguing remnants of Acadian dykeing. This led in turn to further investigation, in particular around Grand Pre, and the result is a book that tells us who the Acadians were and how they converted thousands of acres of tidal meadows, a unique marine environment, into fertile farmland that still serves us today.
As I asked at the beginning – where do I start? Perhaps in 1994 when beginning that year and over the next decade Bleakney accumulated a “treasure trove of artefacts, just plain facts, hypotheses and scenarios” about the Acadians, all dyke related and all found in “local muds, in local minds, in local museums and libraries, in maps, and at meetings.”
Bleakney consolidated this data into a series of chapters on Minas Basin geology, tides, grasses, dyke construction, rising sea levels, old maps and aerial photographs. Reading these chapters, you’ll learn about such things as dyke making and how it was done (and its ancient Roman connection) about historic Acadian roads, the Acadian/Wolfville connection, the grasses the Acadians favoured in dyke making and why.
There’s much, much more than this in Bleakney’s book, including Acadian farming firsts and numerous historical and geological asides that alone make the book a fascinating read. Bleakney tells us, for example, that a part of Nova Scotia originated in Morocco, Africa and another part in Europe, which I bet most of us didn’t know.
J. Sherman Bleakney is a retired professor of biology, Acadia University, and he lives in Wolfville. He has published several books on marine biology. Sods, Soil, and Spades, originally published in 2004, can be found in local bookstores and online.