Reading the Land through Anne of Green Gables: Lessons in Environmental History
What does Anne of Green Gables tell us about the environmental history of Prince Edward Island?
Environmental history tells us about our relationships with nature over time: how nature has shaped our thoughts and actions, and how, in turn, we have created the landscapes around us.
It documents physical or material changes, like the patterns of settlement or building of roads and railways. But it is also a history of knowledge, imagination, and belief: how maps and science, or art and literature, understand and express what we think and feel about the natural world.
So, what can we learn from the story of “a quiet little country settlement where sensations were few and far between”?
Flowers and Gardens
Thinking of nature in the novel, our first thought might be of the flowers of spring and summer: honeysuckle and hollyhock, Mayflowers and “June lilies,” lilacs and “old-fashioned” roses. There are “woodland blooms” tucked among ferns and birches, but more often they frame domestic spaces, as ornament to home and gardens, chosen and planted deliberately and according to certain aesthetic fashions or preferences. Flowers mark especially feminine spaces; even as children, Anne and Diana both have a flower plot of their own, and Montgomery herself was an avid gardener. Many places famous in the novel are further elevated into the realm of romance by Anne’s imagination with names more literary than descriptive, like Idlewild and Willowmere and Lover’s Lane.
But in fact, most of the blossoms in the novel—and on the Island—are from orchards and fruit-bearing trees. The Avenue before Newbridge is a canopy of apple trees; the “Snow Queen” outside of Anne’s gable window is a cherry. Beneath the “filmy bloom” of orchard trees, these are all working farms, choosing useful plants. These fruit trees and bushes would have been deliberately planted not for their scent or visual appeal, but to supply the homesteads at teatime: with cherry and plum and strawberry preserves, with russets and summer apples—and, of course, raspberry cordial and currant wine. (The orchards “hummed over by a myriad of bees” were also crucial for pollinators.)
There would be a kitchen garden for vegetables like peas, while beyond the gate, we are told, were fields planted with potato and turnip, or given over to hay and clover as pasture. (According to the national census of 1881, oats and potatoes were particularly common on PEI.) The Cuthberts also kept pigs and cows. The book opens with Thomas Lynde “sowing his late turnip seed on the hill field beyond the barn”—what could be more practical than a field of turnip?
Farming and Improvement
Beyond the daily work of each farmstead, we get glimpses of the wider networks of 19-century agriculture in the exchanges of goods and ideas. Farmers in Avonlea rely on Carmody stores for seed and supplies, and the little girls in Avonlea School cut out decorations from floral catalogues —after, presumably, their parents have ordered seeds and bulbs for the following season. Women and children earn money raising chickens and selling eggs (but for Anne’s egg money, she would not have been able to buy that hair dye …).
Agriculture shaped the intellectual and cultural life of these rural villages.
Matthew nods off reading the Farmers’ Advocate on a January evening, planning for the spring ahead. At the provincial Exhibition in September and harvest time, Avonlea residents take prizes in everything from Gravenstein apples to homemade butter and cheese. Despite Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s disapproval, then, it is not surprising that Miss Stacy thought it important to incorporate natural history into the curriculum, with “field days” to study plants and birds, and their habitats. “We’re studying agriculture now and I’ve found out at last what makes the roads red,” Anne tells Marilla. “It’s a great comfort.” If your livelihood depended on it, knowing what the soil is made of would be a comfort.
From the 18th-century, the whole ideology of Euro-American agriculture rested on the notion of “improvement”: that nature can and should be arranged and made more productive, through human reason, labour, and technology. Few things were publicly admired as much as a willingness to work, or “industry.” For romance, Montgomery does seek out wilder spots in the woods or along water; the shore road, especially, is “woodsy and wild and lonesome.” But even the brook that runs through Green Gables became “a quiet, well-conducted little stream” by the time it reaches Avonlea. The yard at Green Gables is neat and precise, framed by lines of trees planted in careful rows; the Barry garden—otherwise “a bowery wilderness of flowers”—is crossed by “prim, right-angled paths neatly bordered with clamshells.”
On a larger scale, an ordered nature meant fields and farmlands arranged by crop and by use, in carefully complementary ways. Farms like Green Gables and Orchard Slope include some combination of fruit orchards, gardens, planted fields, pasture, livestock, woodlot, and even shoreline. Indeed, the sea would have been within daily sight and sound of village life: our very first introduction to Avonlea is as “a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence with water on two sides of it.”
While the romance of the sea—in storms and lighthouses and white-sailed fishing fleets—figures prominently in later novels and short stories, in Anne of Green Gables the Gulf is held at a distance, in glimpses of “weather-gray fishing huts” along a harbour road or in shells carried home as ornament for home and garden. In fact, the sea was crucial to the success of those farms and gardens, and the tidal shore an essential complement to those red soils. Farmers gathered seaweed, mussel mud, and marsh hay as fertilizers, fished in season, and prized shore rights as extensions of their farm properties. The shore was also an ever-present reminder to Islanders of their history and identity, and their state apart from a continental Confederation.
Farm lots thus encompassed several different types of growing spaces and their resources.
Each farm formed its own little ecosystem—not completely self-sufficient, but with a diversity and variety in a small space that seems astounding to us in an era of industrial-scale monocultures.
Even the range of trees on the Cuthbert property alone—maple and birch, ash and poplar, spruce and fir, all trees Montgomery knew and loved on the Macneill property—suggests a woodland Eden, where examples of all of God’s handiwork can be found. It is important to remember, however, that this was the work of human hands—all pieces deliberately chosen, introduced, arranged, and maintained. At the time Montgomery was writing Anne of Green Gables, farmers across the Island were clearing new fields—and letting others “go spruce”—ever more rapidly.
Industry and Industrialization
What we think of as the Island’s industries, though, barely appears in the novel. Marilla briefly mentions the lobster canneries and American tourists – but there is little sense of how important these two sectors had been (for the canneries) or were becoming (for tourism) to the Island economy. There is also no real mention – at least in this first novel – of the fishing fleets that encircled the Island and the wharfs along its shores; or mills for lumber or cloth, or other kinds of production outside the home; or the crucial fact that the Island, like the rest of North America, had begun an inescapable commitment to a new energy regime in fossil fuels. Just as Matthew hopes for a branch railway from Carmody, the Island was caught up in the mayhem of railway construction that would bankrupt it into Confederation.
Anne of Green Gables—set in the 1880s (and 1890s) and published in 1908—corresponds to a period of profound transformation in what will become Canada, from rural to more urban, from agricultural to more industrial, from a coalition of colonies to a nation-state. But the novel mutes these larger changes, settling them in the background.
The rural economy of mixed, near-shore agriculture sustained families reasonably if not excessively. The overwhelming majority of farms were family-owned and less than a hundred acres, relatively modest in size but able to make full use of that ecological diversity of plants and livestock. This had something of a socially levelling effect; we do not see the great disparities between rich and poor that were more visible in urbanizing North America. Those who wanted to acquire money or land went elsewhere: to Boston or out West. Those who stayed, wrote Montgomery many years later,
“live in a land where nature is neither grudging nor lavish; where faithful work is rewarded by competence and nobody is very rich and nobody very poor…” 1
But neither nature nor faithful work could guard entirely against poverty or precarity, in harvests or health; Montgomery hints that Marilla and Matthew took on debts ahead of spring planting, and the failure of the Abbey Bank leaves Marilla facing the loss of her family home.
The small-scale, family-owned, mixed farm of 19-century Prince Edward Island is certainly idealized in Anne of Green Gables … but there is something in that ideal worth thinking about. Could we imagine restoring an original farm property from Lot 23, running out to the sea, modeling this kind of agriculture? These rural Island farm communities respected limits to growth; how could they not? They were governed by the limits of property lines, to be sure, and the edges of a small island; but also by the contours of weather and fall storms, of climate and soil; of how much their labour could do.
In the 20th-century, the Island, like the rest of settler North America, would seek to defy these limits—applying new forms of energy, new fertilizers and technologies, and new strains of crops. But as we begin to realize the cost of these ambitions, we may see the value in Island practices of over a century ago. Perhaps we can acknowledge the riches that we have inherited, and adjust our expectations to what nature can reasonably provide.