Who was there? Where did they go? Why leave an axe, a tractor, a set of four wheels with chromed hubcaps still in place?
Columnist Russell Wangersky raises many questions after discovering an old relic on a Cape Breton back road.
I found it just off the side of a dirt road heading back into the Cape Breton hills.
The front end of an old, rusted tractor — a McCormick- Deering, judging by the nameplate, with a long gash through the radiator. A tractor old enough that it had to be started with a crank — a tractor that, at one time, had been cared for well enough that there was still a tin can placed firmly on the vertical exhaust pipe to keep the water out. A tractor put up, parked, by someone who clearly intended to come back — because, if you don’t intend to come back, why bother?
Behind the tractor, back in the woods, there was a small collapsed house, the roof fallen down into the low rockwalled basement, the only thing left behind a chimney with a metal stove pipe protruding from the top. Trees were growing up through the remnants of the building. Along the edges, it was surrounded by a fan of discarded metal items: pails, shovelblades, oil drums.
I love abandoned buildings, wherever they are, and in the Atlantic provinces, there are lots. Take a trip across the spine of Nova Scotia — Route 8 or Route 10 — and you’ll see a good number. All ages: collapsing mobile homes with flat new windows and insulation bursting out in tufts through cracks in the wall, old homes with their shingles split along the breaks in the walls. Rose bushes in bloom without owners to see them, lilacs wafting their scent unnoticed.
Travel the edge of Newfoundland and you’ll see more. On P. E. I., they’re on main roads as well as side roads, sudden greyed and collapsing structures on the edges of farmsteads or even occasional erratics in the middle of fields.
And always, I’m left with the same questions: who was there? And: where did they go? And: why? Why leave an axe, a tractor, a set of four wheels with chromed hubcaps still in place? Why are things broken in one room, and not in another?
In some places, it’s easy to see: find the right road in New Brunswick and you’ll find yourself next to a collapsing barn in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by stillbearing apple trees where the deer sometimes find their way underneath for fallen fruit.
Inside the farmhouses there can be furniture, sometimes even things left out on counters in a way that suggests the inhabitants, working some barely marginal land, suddenly tossed it all in and decided to leave. But tied up in that, somehow, is a constant fear that they might choose the exact time when I happen to be there to come back.
I know there aren’t enough history books — or enough interest to chronicle every single person and every single thing. But I can’t help but wonder about the hand that left a particular bottle on a particular window ledge — the way I might place a bottle somewhere as well.
Because we’re all packed full of information and memories; many of the things we have carry their memory track and serve to anchor our own experiences. Eventually, we will all go — either we leave or we die, and the world will be left to try and figure out what the order of our small, magpielike collections of spoons and aluminum foil is really all about.
Somewhere, there might be someone left who knows why a relative left a McCormick-Deering tractor to rust away in the remains of a Cape Breton homestead, whether it was death or disease, bankruptcy or a new opportunity somewhere else.
It’s a story whose beginning, middle and end are now unlikely to be found.
Remains of a tractor, east of Baddeck.