Rock of ages

Rose Meuse. Photo: Zack Metcalfe

When someone carves something of themselves into rock, something at once insignificant and profound, we call it graffiti, but when we are separated from the artist by centuries, and the thing they carved has been largely lost to time, we call it a petroglyph.

This is rock art, a startling reminder not only that people were here in centuries past, but that they thought and felt as intensely as we do now, preserving what for them was commonplace but for us precious.

Prior to European settlement and for a time thereafter, the Mi’kmaq made heavy use of Kejimkujik Lake, in the heart of modern day Kejimkujik National Park in western Nova Scotia.

Many of the bands which surrounded this lake took to the South Shore in summer, making a resourceful living from the bounties of the Atlantic, but when things became cold they paddled up their various rivers in canoes of sturdy birch and gathered on Kejimkujik Lake, where there was shelter from the wind and the insects were waning.

Storytelling is a deeply human phenomenon and the Mi’kmaq remain masters of the oral tradition but in addition to the spoken word, they once carved their discoveries and values into the smooth slate found on the shores of Kejimkujik Lake. There are five sites known in the national park and only one accessible by road and trail, just off the Merrymakedge Beach parking lots.

You can’t visit without a Mi’kmaq guide. Unintentional harms like the grating of hard boots, zippers, belts, or jewelry can accelerate erosion. Rampant insensitivity has allowed unsupervised visitors to carve graffiti onto these petroglyphs, prioritizing the casual love of teenagers overtop the faded image of a sacred feather, only now losing its long struggle against the centuries. The guides are necessary and they also have something to say.

My guide was Rose Meuse, a member of the L’sitkuk band and a fine storyteller. On our walk to the petroglyphs we discussed our mutual admiration of wildlife and swapped stories, and she described her mission to learn the totality of the Mi’kmaq language, its fragments scattered across different reserves and multiple elders.

It’s a mission I found stirring, as I can only imagine the ferocity with which I would defend English if someone tried taking it away from me. She taught me pjila’si, which translates roughly as come and take your place, the most beautiful brand of welcome I can imagine. This word adorns the signage entering Kejimkujik National Park.

Photo: Zack Metcalfe

Once in our bare feet and on the shore, we mounted the outcropping of slate and walked gingerly. I expected a few petroglyphs here and there, perhaps framed by wooden shields built by Parks Canada, but instead they were naked to the elements, and there were many dozens overlapping, centuries on centuries and pictures on pictures, so chaotic and subtle that the eyes need time to adjust. Here was an encyclopedia of thoughts and ambitions and dreams and lessons, sharing space and competing for depth. It was magnificent.

First we visited Meuse’s favourite, a simple stick-figure hunter with bow and arrow (photo above). Some suspect this particular petroglyph is among the oldest in the park because it’s so faded and rudimentary, perhaps put here when this particular slate was relatively unmarked and the bar for quality was low. Meuse says she also loves it because this hunter exudes a simple pride, one she remembers in her elders.

It is impossible to date any of these petroglyphs: we don’t know if they date back 200 years or 500, nor how many are no longer legible and older still.

Photo: Zack Metcalfe

There are clues, however. Some petroglyphs show European ships with exquisite detail, seen on the coast and re-created here for everyone’s benefit the following winter.

There are several ships carved into the rock, perhaps depicting the bustle of first contact. Other petroglyphs are more forthcoming. Almost anywhere you look there is a single date repeated over and over and over again: 1877.

Meuse has been on a quest to understand the significance of this date. She has many theories; the one I found most interested was the Great Fire of Saint John, which happened that year, colouring surrounding skies throughout the region, certainly as far off as Kejimkujik.

Malti Pictou is also carved into the rock, the name of a historic master canoe builder from Rose’s own band, alongside the date 1897 (the importance of which is lost on Meuse).

Photo: Zack Metcalfe

Near the centre of the outcropping of slate is the figure of a man wearing a pious smile and a peculiar, swooping hat, a heart carved into his chest. This, it has been suggested, is a missionary or soldier, using the word “god” where Mi’kmaq might say “creator.”

My personal favourite is the figure that may represent an Atlantic caribou. This species once ranged across the whole of the Maritimes, but have since been driven to near extinction. (See my April 2019 Halifax Magazine column.)

Having personally tracked down the last 70 Atlantic caribou individuals in the Chic-Choc Mountains of Gaspé, Quebec, I considered myself an expert on the identity of the figure in the slate. Because the image is very faint, however, no one can know for certain if it’s our absent caribou or merely the White-tailed deer who took their place. By way of compromise, Meuse and her fellow guides call it the Deerabou.

The last petroglyph to make an impression was by far the most eroded, a shape like a rectangle but with one of its peaks higher than the other. This is the peaked hat of the Mi’kmaq, worn by women in times of ceremony or on special occasions.

It’s a common petroglyph, sometimes shown on a woman’s head, sometimes on its own, as with the one I saw. I could tell the hat had been decorated, carrying more cultural weight than could be distinguish, in part buried under multitudes of graffiti. This I found infuriating, but Meuse bore the loss with more grace.

She wondered aloud which of these petroglyphs had been carved by her direct ancestors, and which would be left when her three children reached her age. When she began her work in the park, this stretch of slate contained as many as a hundred clear petroglyphs, but now there are fewer than a dozen truly preserved.

Protection is important, but even without the intrusion of visitors, these petroglyphs will vanish. This difficult reality raises artistic and cultural questions as old as time. Should talented Mi’kmaq be brought here to continue telling their stories in rock or should the existing petroglyphs be restored somehow, like Leonardo’s “The Last Supper“?

I lingered on these carvings as long as was appropriate, a privilege to see while they are still here but a torment to bid farewell.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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