In June, it’s the swallows. They swoop down from roofs and rafters, trailing their forked tails as they search out the puddles surrounding the Dauphin Gate. On foggy Louisbourg mornings, they seem like stealth bombers, manifesting suddenly from nowhere as they zero in on their goal. They slurp up globs of mud in their stubby beaks, then zip back up to perch beneath the faux-ancient eaves. They mix the mud with their saliva to form brown gluey nests, off-puttingly suggestive of wasps’ nests, except for the conspicuous tubular doorways. This is where they lay their eggs. In late July, more swallows are disgorged.
I learn the gorgeous French word for the bird – hirondelle – because occasionally visitors to the Fortress will spot the lumpy nests and ask about them. More often, I’m the one to point them out, especially to youngsters who seem perplexed by the paradox of Louisbourg – “This town is in the past??” – or intimidated by my uniform, my gun. The birds’ nests give them something simple to marvel at. I marvel along with them.
I am a city boy. Summertimes, we’d drive an hour from Edmonton to Pigeon Lake, to my grandparents’ cabin, from which nature spread out towards all points of the compass. Surely the grownups tried to show me how nature worked, but I was always more engrossed in action figures or Mad Magazine. And in any case, we only made the trip a few times each summer. I have never, till now, spent a season surrounded by nature, watching it inch forward with the months.
But the Fortress, though it sounds imposing, is no city. It contains a town, or rather a replica of a town, not inhabited the same way that real towns are – at least, not by humans. We show up in the mornings and leave at 5, and unlike most humans, we try not to interfere with it that much. Within the paradox, it’s always 1744 in there, and so we tread lightly so as not to jolt the clock. We lay fewer pipes and wires and cables; we let more of the grass grow wild; and we keep litter from piling up. By modern standards, it’s an oversized cottage on the coast of Cape Breton. So, nature.
By July, other residents make themselves known. Spiders of all sizes wind their way into windowsills. Between the spiders and the swallows, the site remains blessedly mosquito-free – and this, despite the perfect breeding ground beneath the Dauphin Gate, whose drawbridge spans a ditch which, though intended to be dry, ebbs and flows with the harbour tide, oozing ocean through a faulty sluice-gate in the outer wall. From the bridge, I watch crabs wage territorial wars, colonizing nooks and crannies amid barnacles, minnows, and the occasional eel.
A few more yards, beyond the sortie gate, there is a low wall which tapers off gradually – a glacis earthwork, packed with grass. Long weeds with purple flowers spiral up, floral sentries in a slow invasion against our rubblestone defences. The army of weeds has a timeless alliance with bumblebees – though they seem slow to join the crusade, arriving lazily at end of July to putter in the purples, brushing their bums with pollen as they drone ecstatic tones.
Beneath the sortie gate, brown mice. They also appear near the Governor’s livestock enclosure, and even sometimes on the upper walls. But always only for a split second, in your peripheral vision. They’d make fine spies.
Louisbourg’s livestock is also lovely, though not of course a normal part of nature here, per se. We keep turkeys, chickens, geese within the Bastion (“Aristocratic fowl,” I say, since they would all belong to the Governor). In the village, sheep and goats, along with more geese (“Vivent les oies!” I cry whenever one of their caretakers leads them past on a promenade). They are heirloom breeds, visual approximations of their ancestors, whose goose was collectively cooked by the colonists of Louisbourg 300 years ago. They live the life of Riley, and I haven’t yet had the heart to ask what happens to them all in the wintertime (“They look delicious,” I say salaciously to visitors – and I mean it).
We have squatter geese, too. They show up in August, along with the Tall Ships. Two dozen Canada geese, a surly crude gaggle, but blessedly they lay claim to a pond beyond the main site, closer to the mouth of the harbour. The pond is hidden by some buildings, so most visitors don’t spot them, but once a week or so I’m tasked with walking out that way to raise or lower the flag (Dumb Fact! In the 18th century, the nautical flag of France (that is, the one they flew on ships, and in colonial fortresses apparently) was white. Just white. A white flag.). I dread coming ’round the corner and finding the goose posse grazing on the grass, because I have to walk through that grass, and one of these days, those cross goslings will mug me, I can tell. So far, they’ve sauntered off to the pond, but they always leave a minefield of fresh purple turds in their wake. Le merde des oies.
In the harbour, ducks teach their ducklings to dive. A lone loon buoys itself by. One clear day, a seal comes to visit (I regret that no francophone visitors spot it, so I’ll have an excuse to say “phoque”). At the furthest point beyond the walls, near where the service road wends its way into Louisbourg, two bald eagles roost on a black rock shaped like a shattered nose. It’s the rock from which men were hanged, three hundred years ago.
In late August, a weed called angelica grows basically everywhere it can, choking out marigolds atop the walls, giving the Monarch butterflies and dragonflies a jungle of white blossoms amongst which to hide. The French transplanted angelica – the stalks are medicinal – and it outlasted them. Nature always does.