The Spirit of Sable
How a childhood love of horses and open fields led Zoe Lucas to make a remote island her raison d’être.
I first saw Zoe Lucas, a wide-brimmed hat shading her face, standing beside her ATV on the landing strip—which, on Sable Island, is simply hard-packed beach sand. We had flown in for the day; Zoe was to be our guide.
Zoe first visited Sable Island in 1971, and has since lived there nearly full-time for 27 years, helping to understand the isolated environment and its place in the wider world. She has collected all manner of specimens, from lichen to walrus skulls and litter, and contributed to dozens of articles on topics as varied as cetacean strandings, the health status of harp and hooded seals, oiled seabirds, and pregnancy rates in Sable mares.
She deals with scientists, politicians, oil and gas personnel and sailors, and assists the work of painters, photographers, filmmakers, authors and musicians. Her new book, Natural Sable Island, is slated to be published this year.
In 1994, she escorted Mordecai Richler and Pierre Trudeau on a hike up Bald Dune, Trudeau bounding ahead up a steep slope. She has given hundreds of school talks and public presentations, noting, “You can string any kind of lesson along the string of Sable Island.”
It was a coincidence that I was able to go to Sable Island, the lucky result of working on a raffle committee at a literary event in River John, NS. I discovered that coincidences had originally taken Zoe there, too.
The first coincidence was when she was a jewelry student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), in Halifax. She had a summer job at CFB Shearwater, making box lunches for pilots. The cook, Katie, listened to Zoe’s story—her childhood love of open fields, horses and the ocean; her dream of seeking out the horses of Iceland.
Katie asked, “Why not Sable Island?” She showed Zoe her collection of photos and stories from her three years there. Zoe returned to NSCAD in the fall, continued making jewelry influenced by a marine environment—and looked for a way to get to Sable Island.
The second coincidence involved her Oriental art history professor, Walter Ostrom. Aware of Zoe’s interest, he assumed she was knowledgeable about Sable Island and recommended her as a guide for a journalist with Maclean’s magazine. Zoe went, was inspired and on her return, made more jewelry influenced by the imagery of wind, waves, sun and rain, contemplating a way to get back.
Then in 1974 Zoe met Henry James, a Dalhousie University psychology professor conducting seal research on Sable Island. He needed a cook; Zoe signed on. During that five year project, Zoe’s duties expanded from cook to research assistant. Perched in huts on the dunes, barely warmed by propane heaters, the team observed the pupping and mating habits of grey seals.
Zoe was told early on that being “that art student,” not having a science degree, she wouldn’t get funding for research projects. So she worked at anything that presented itself, from shark predation to bird surveys and litter studies. In 1976, she took on management of the dune restoration program that had begun a couple of years earlier, building dykes out of whatever debris she and her team could find—empty drums, tin and timber from old abandoned buildings, driftwood.
They carried marram grass in buckets, transplanting it deep in the damp sand to reduce the sand from being blown away, and to help new sand accumulate. The goal was to stabilize areas damaged by human activities.
Meanwhile, she also maintained an apartment in Halifax, and taught jewelry courses part-time at NSCAD.
In 1982, Zoe went to work on Sable full-time. She kept her Halifax apartment for occasional mainland trips; over the years, it has become infused with the island—shells, skulls, artwork, horseshoes. When I visited there last fall, the kitchen was blocked by two giant Rubbermaid tubs, filled with horse skulls and bones on their way to the Museum of Natural History, where Zoe is a research associate.
Of course, Sable is known for its horses—they have been an integral part of the island since they were shipped to graze there in the 1700s. Many were left to run wild; others were trained for service in the rescue efforts of the Humane Establishment, the island’s first lifesaving station, built in 1801; some were eaten by starving shipwrecked people; others were shipped off and sold at auction—until 1961, when they were given full protection by the Government of Canada.
As we walked on the island, Zoe had a name for and a tale about each horse we passed. There was Red Star, with the blondest mane. And Zimbar, named by a little girl after the horse in a book she had just read. (When the girl sent the book to Zoe later, the name of the horse was actually Zanzibar. “Things aren’t always what we remember,” Zoe said as we climbed the dune “and often it doesn’t matter.”)
Gem is the horse that Susan Tooke used as a model for the illustrations in Free as the Wind—from photographs supplied by Zoe. Gem had been a band stallion for years when Zoe, following a trail of blood, found him. He had lost an eye, and his band. Gem spent a couple of years recovering and, until recently, re-established the largest band on the island.
Ice, a member of Gem’s band, is named for a wintry almost-catastrophe. She slipped on pond ice and flailed for hours, trying to reach the shore.
Asked how these horses survive with their restricted gene pool, Zoe points out that island conditions select the horses. “They tend to be short and stocky with thick winter coats, and this helps them withstand the chill of high winds and snow,” she says. There is a significant difference, Zoe suggests, between the traits that humans might select in breeding and those that nature selects for survival.
For two decades, Zoe has recorded horse births and deaths, movement, home range, and social organization. Specimens have been collected: hooves from dead horses sent away for study, samples of dung for pregnancy monitoring. She has witnessed how each horse affects every other horse, and sees them as “one big organism, with 1,200 legs.” She knows how rare it is to study a large mammal that has no human interference, and imagines the potential these studies might have for conservation work in other areas.
Change has been a constant over the decades. The landscape erodes and grows, dunes march down the island as sand blows from backside to front. Telegraph poles that connected the old lifesaving stations are half buried in sand, smoothed at horse-rubbing level and covered with lichen above. Where old roads existed on the island, there is now vegetation.
Solar panels have been installed at the weather station; five wind turbines started operating in 2002—steps towards establishing Sable as a “green” island. Oil exploration in the 60s and 70s left buried pipes and debris. That, too, has changed. In 1999, 20 oil industry workers lived on the island for months, rationing showers and respecting strict guidelines established by Exxon Mobil. While the number of programs increases, the human footprint is shrinking, Zoe says.
Looking back, Zoe acknowledges that the years have not been without disappointments. She describes the singular moment when thousands of monarch butterflies landed. She was immersed in an intensive project, and took no photos of this amazing occurrence.
While there are some regrets, and “some things that haven’t happened in my life because of Sable Island, many other things have happened, unusual and marvellous, and I’ve basically spent my entire adult life never being bored,” she says.
The central struggle has been to maintain the weather station. Starting in 1871, the Meteorological Service of Canada collected weather data on Sable. The station’s role has expanded vastly, providing necessary supports for visitors, conducting international atmospheric research, assisting the Coast Guard, offering ground support in emergencies, ensuring conservation and environmental protection, and serving the interests of a dozen federal and provincial government departments.
The day I was there, Gerry Forbes, the other researcher living on the island, walked us through banks of computers, myriad machines to collect weather information, and a separate building where hydrogen is produced. Weather balloons are filled and then released as the door (that is also the side of the building) lifts. I hadn’t realized the complexity of the research that is at the heart of their lives on Sable Island.
The most important issue in Zoe’s mind is maintaining the station. “Everything depends on securing that,” she says. “It is essential to protect the ecological integrity and to act as a platform for a range of services.”
In the mid 90s, public intervention averted its closure by negotiating an interim, shared cost funding arrangement. In 2007, the federal government announced a five-year funding bridge, which Zoe calls “encouraging.” The federal government is now engaged, with the Nova Scotia government, in a process to have the island designated as a National Wildlife Area, she adds.
Zoe realizes that, for her, an end is inevitable—that she will eventually have to start tying things up. Meanwhile, everything she looks into opens up a dozen other questions, resulting in a continuing commitment. This commitment was recognized two years ago when she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Dalhousie University.
There is no pause in Zoe’s work, as she updates greenhorsesociety.com, writing articles and posting photos. The Green Horse Society is a community of people interested in Sable Island—some have visited or worked on the island, many have not. The purpose of the society is to offer people a connection with Sable.
Thirty years ago, Bruce Armstrong said, “I have the feeling that Zoe will someday help us comprehend… and reveal the hidden subtleties of Sable Island.” I witnessed this at a recent Green Horse Society soiree at Zoe’s apartment in Halifax. There was green punch, mincemeat tarts decorated with green horses; the walls were filled with Sable Island artwork. Guests included a scientist who has studied seals there, a flora specialist, a former coast guard supply-ship sailor, a woman who spent her childhood on Sable Island, an illustrator of a children’s book, a director with the Ecology Action Centre, an Elizabeth Bishop scholar—each person’s story is unique. The common thread is Zoe, linking the varied strands, weaving them into a legacy for future generations.