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Good Tidings: Local Knowledge and High Modernism in the "World's Largest Hay Field"

Thu, March 30, 3:30 to 5:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Superior


Starting in the seventeenth century, the marshlands of current day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick bordering on the Bay of Fundy and its tributaries were made arable by means of a system of dykes and drainage channels. These structures held back the bay's tides -- the largest in the world, while allowing water to drain out. In a few years, marshland could be transformed into farmland.

In this context, the drained marshland along the Tantramar River in southeastern New Brunswick became known as "the world's largest hay field." By the 1920s, however, demand for hay had collapsed, making it difficult for farmers to keep up dykes, a problem exacerbated by the depression. As those structures were compromised, farmland was often washed away, forcing the Canadian government to create the Maritime Marshland Rehabilitation Administration in 1948. Its program included construction of tidal dams near the mouths of a number of the region's major rivers -- including the Tantramar -- so that upkeep of the dykes upstream would no longer be necessary.

For the farmers of the Tantramar marsh, the proposed tidal dam threatened their longstanding practice of tiding, by which they would create a breach in the dyke to allow the tides to briefly wash over their lands, allowing rich sediments to fertilize their fields. Throughout the 1950s, farmers defended tiding vigorously while the Canadian government deployed studies promoting the use of chemical fertilizers.

This paper will explore the practice of tiding in order to understand the efficacy of the practice, particularly in contrast with the chemicals coming on the market in the postwar era. In the process, this paper will engage with the ideas of James C. Scott (as well as his critics) in regard to local knowledge and its challenge from state actors promoting more "scientific," high-modernist knowledge.