For 10 straight days Mark Brennan made his way to the same stretch of forested wetland along the bank of Middle River, and on the 10th day he sighted the Canada warblers.
Small and brightly coloured in grey-blue and yellow, the song birds are usually the last of the warblers to arrive back in northern areas in the spring and sadly, their population is declining.
“I was beginning to worry they would not be back. One loss in the ecosystem and they might never return,” said Brennan, who has been watching them in the same marshland for three years.
But back they are, having travelled 4,000 to 5,000 kms from South America where they spend their winters.
For Brennan, a landscape artist, photographer and naturalist, the Canada warblers are just one aspect of nature that brings him joy. Growing up outside Glasgow, near the edge of the Scottish highlands, he loved to roam the nearby streams and hills, just as he has continued to do for 30 years in Pictou County.
The son of a submariner, he followed his father into Britain’s Royal Navy at 16.
“It sounds young today but wasn’t unusual then. I was a year older than my father when he joined. I had a wonderful childhood so I wasn’t running from anything, just chasing adventure.”
At scarcely 17, he was sent to the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. He also travelled through the Mediterranean to the African country of Djibouti where he saw crowds of hungry children begging as famine relief was unloaded.
“My eyes were opened by war and then by hunger. When you’ve grown up in safety and security, you are not prepared for such sights.”
As his ship’s photographer, Brennan also encountered Soviet warships.
“It was a tense time politically and we never knew what was ahead of us, all very exciting for a 17- or 18-year-old.”
During the less exciting time he tinkered with water colours, his first step on his path toward becoming a self-taught artist. Since then he tried acrylics but settled on oils.
Back in 1988, Brennan’s ship was the first to respond to the horrific explosion on Piper Alpha, an oil production platform in the North Sea.
“One hundred-and-sixty-seven people were lost and it became a defining moment for me. I realized how very fragile life is and it gave me a warning to live with purpose.”
A year later his ship docked in Halifax but Brennan had ship duties that night. A mate with a hangover offered to take his duties so he went ashore. He met a girl in a bar and the direction of his life suddenly shifted.
“It is a common enough story, sailor meets girl in bar, but it felt very significant from the first moment. During our five days together I fell in love with Lucy from Pictou County. We have a daughter and we’re still together.”
One of Brennan’s first jobs in Pictou County was as a framer at the former Gallery 448. While there he came across a book on the Canadian landscape painters, The Group of Seven.
“From there I was taken with the works of Tom Thomson. I thought he could express through his painting what I felt about the landscape. I saved my money, bought a $200 canoe and went out to photograph and paint.”
He also borrowed every art book New Glasgow Library could offer.
“I read all the bios, all the instructional books. I knew I had to learn all I could and practice if I wanted to be good.”
Eventually, there were galleries interested in his paintings and photographs.
“I’m entirely self-taught and all my work is the product of a curious mind. When I am invited into a gallery, that’s a gift. When I’m rejected, I don’t care because I still enjoy my work. When I sell a large piece I’m overwhelmed that someone is hearing what I tried to say.”
He likes his photographic images to be large, uses analogue film and carries a 13-pound 1970s camera in his gear.
“I like the control it gives me. It is like driving a standard, you have to be totally engaged.”
He is just finishing a collection of Nova Scotia landscape photographs that he hopes to produce as a book.
“As an immigrant, I’ve noticed that while the landscape is stunning, there is little mythology attached to it. In Scotland or in the rest of Europe every hill and brook has a name and stories attached. Here, I think it is only the First Nations people who have that rich history with the land.”
Because he believes nature has enriched his life immeasurably, he is committed to being a voice to preserve “wild nature.” Gully Lake and Eigg Mountain are two areas where he has worked to achieve protected status.
“Those areas will never be logged and will be allowed to evolve naturally. I give credit to former premier John Hamm for seeing the importance of designating those areas.”
Brennan has come to believe in the importance of living as simple a life as possible.
“There are necessities for life today but we need to have as little impact on the planet as possible.”
That philosophy comes out of a belief in deep ecology, a concept fostered by the late environmentalist David Orton. Brennan was among a handful of friends who gave Orton a green burial in rural Pictou County six years ago.
“I see myself as a part of nature, an equal with other species. I think we make a great mistake in seeing nature only as marketable resources.”
As a longtime minor soccer coach and a former assistant coach at St. Francis Xavier, Brennan has had lots of contact with young people.
“I worry that those who have little to do with nature as young people will never appreciate it enough but I’m encouraged by those young people who are passionate about waterways and woodlands.”
He recently saw his daughter fly fishing on Middle River, something she had enjoyed as a child but later lost interest in.
“She and others like her will want that river kept clean. As a parent, that is gratifying.”
When Brennan was 21 and new to Canada, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent surgery.
“I was terrified. My life was just beginning and yet, here I was going into surgery. When I woke up I was told I was very lucky. I had no lymphoma, only an infection.”
While greatly relieved, he was also haunted for a time by what could have been.
“I suppose it helped me understand life is very real, very immediate and I don’t want to waste my time. I know my end will come one day. The question is what do I do with the rest of my runway.”
Listening to the sharp, noisy notes of the Canada warbler as it flits around an Alma marshland is, for Brennan, anything but a waste of his time.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org