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JOHN DeMONT: How much longer will the foghorn wail?

Chris Mills poses with the  Gannet Rock Lighthouse in the background, Chris had been the lighthouse keeper for two and a half years.
Former lighthouse keeper Chris Mills says foghorns are 'part of the soundscape to our lives.' - Contributed

What sounds, when heard, speak of this place?

The roar of the surf on a headland somewhere for sure, and also the creaking of a boat tied up to a wharf.

Cape Bretoners, along with those from Pictou or Antigonish counties, might argue for the skirl of the bagpipes.

Mi’kmaq folks could make a strong case for the powerful thrum of a traditional drumming circle.

Haligonians, on the other hand, could claim that a string of expletives from a cyclist nearly mowed down by a passing motorist is this city’s most iconic sound.

But can we also have a show of hands for the foghorn’s funereal dirge. A sound which could just as easily be described as a moan, a lament, a mournful cry seemingly from nowhere and everywhere, which Chris Mills, a former lighthouse keeper in three provinces including this one, calls “part of the soundscape to our lives.”

Few sounds, it can be argued, convey as much emotion as a foghorn.

The Gannet Rock Lighthouse can be seen through the fog in August 2019. - Contributed
The Gannet Rock Lighthouse can be seen through the fog in August 2019. - Contributed

It is only heard when the land and sea are enveloped in fog, which makes it ominous, particularly for those who make their living from the ocean, or await a loved one’s return from it.

For those dry and safe on land, the call can be as comforting as a winter storm heard while indoors in front of a blazing fire.

The foghorn’s mysteriousness makes it ripe for metaphor, which is why poets write, “Surely that moan is not the thing / That men thought they were making, when they / Put it there, for their own necessities,” as W.S. Merwin did.

Musicians, for the same reason, sing about the foghorn's distinctive wail, from James Taylor, Harry Chapin and Nina Simone to Dire Straits and Rage Against the Machine, and Van Morrison who, in Into the Mystic, crooned, “Yeah, when that foghorn blows I will be coming home / Yeah, when that fog horn blows I wanna hear it / I don't have to fear it,” conjuring up a range of feelings for listeners.

For how much longer this iconic sound will continue to have meaning for us is the question.

Foghorns used to be commonplace in this province, and everywhere in the coastal world. Now, because of GPS and other navigational aids, they’re disappearing in Europe, the United Kingdom and, at a slower but still inexorable rate, here.

Hear some foghorn sounds, collected by the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society

The Canadian Coast Guard’s argument is the same as elsewhere: that the sound signals aren’t a reliable source of navigational information, in part because the sound can be distorted by wind. Other types of aides, such as buoys and stronger lights will do a better job keeping mariners and sailors safe.

Foghorns still serve a purpose says Laura Titus, who has lived her entire life in the Digby Neck area, where four horns are soon to go silent.

She can recall the first time she heard one, on Peter Island in Grand Passage between Long and Brier islands, when she was about five.

“We knew what they were there for,” said Titus, who came from a fishing family. “It was kind of soothing.”

Still is. Her husband, Sean McDormand, fishes for lobster and halibut in that area, where the waters are so treacherous that it is known as the graveyard of the bay of Fundy.

Some of his gear is close to shore. When the fog comes in quickly, as it does, the foghorn helps him gauge his distance from shore.

He finds that reassuring. So does his wife, who has launched a petition to save the four Digby Neck lights, arguing that their removal “will result in adverse impacts on maritime traditions, marine guidance, heritage, tourism and safety.”

But I tend to agree with Mills, the author of a number of books about lighthouses, who says that, when it comes to foghorns, “a balance between pragmatism, and romance and culture is possible.”

I hope the feds somehow see it the same way, because there’s a melancholic magic in that sound. Though I’m no fisherman, when I have been far away it has always helped me find my way back home.


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