No change to these shores

Not long ago our local TV station interviewed two people "from away" who had come to Prince Edward Island to live and work and were now -- after about 10 years, in the case of both -- packing up and leaving, wholly disenchanted.

Attracted by the sweet smallness, the relative simplicity and apparent purity of this island, many individuals and families come here to live; some succeed in adapting to the people and life style; probably as many do not. The two interviewed happened to be Americans, a youngish man, with interest in the field of alternate energy resources, and a married, middle-aged woman experienced in a specialized branch of therapeutic work. Both had propounded, in their work and interests, approaches new to the island's ways and thinking; and both were frequently in the news, expressing their opinions, striving for understanding.

Part of the charm of this island is its resistance to change. Its people are mostly of Scottish or Irish descent, hardy, no-nonsense farmers and fishermen who live as tradition has taught them and care little for mainland methods and manners, and the island itself is a reflection of these people: uncluttered, unassuming, attractive in its naturalness. These are the qualities that draw visitors and, as a consequence, some of the visitors decide to stay.

The difficulty comes when those of us who are new residents (and I am one, of three years' standing) endeavor to change, perhaps inadvertently, those very qualities that attracted us in the first place. Friction is inevitable. In many instances the initiative that enables a person from away to relocate here carries over into his or her plans and activities; new ways threaten the island-born inhabitants; slowly, silently, up go the barriers.

It happened to me. Within a short time of moving to the island I drew the conclusion that art news reporting in newspapers and on radio and TV left much to be desired. I talked to two newspaper editors and they politely disagreed; but the network radio station, less than a year old at the time and still trying to crystallize its programming, listened to me with interest. As a result, I was assigned to prepare and broadcast a regular national and international art news report, and a local artist was brought in by the radio station to chat about arts activities on the island, once a week, with an afternoon program host. Local arts programming continues to this day. My report did not survive: it was not about the island, it was not informal and unrehearsed, and it was delivered in an alien accent.

I was confused and resentful at having been dropped, particularly when the national radio network adopted the concept. Only of late have I seen the obvious: I came here to elude high-geared sophistication -- but I brought it with me. Moreover, I was foisting it on the people and the place I had escaped to. It made no sense. I was threatening to change, through refinement, the fiber and fabric, the honest roughness of which I had so eagerly embraced.

Wise newcomers work unobstrusively within the island framework, absorbing its realities -- like the American who is an official with our Board of Education, or the young American artist from California who has endeared herself to islanders with her portraits of them, their animals and their farms, or the Scot who heads up the island's major art gallery and museum, or the South African woman who farms over in Prince County, or dozens of others from across Canada, the United States and various parts of the world who form part of the 124,000 population in this nation's smallest province. These people can never be Prince Edward Islanders, but they have earned acceptance -- quietly.

"Do you think you will ever return to the island?" the interviewer asked the two Americans who were departing. They both answered in much the same way: "Probably not. Not unless attitudes here change."

I queried our neighbors, Davey and Connie, as to whether they had seen the interview. As for me, I had blundered, I said, misunderstanding the island imperative, and I had only myself to blame for it. "Wouldn't worry 'bout that," they said. And they told me how they had just recently persuaded Davey's 93 -year-old mother to have electricity for the first time. "She won't use it," they said; "she still lights up the old oil lamps and listens to her battery-set radio. We are still learning. Youm are learning." Those few, simple words, linking me to them. . . . They will never know how good they made me feel.

Yes, I am learning of a past that substantiates our existence, supports us as we broach new days, brook the unavoidable uncertainties. For this is the way of the island; and the island way, like time itself, should not -- will not -- be denied.

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