A Dune Adrift


A Dune Adrift: The strange origins and curious history of Sable Island, written with Sheila Hirtle, was published by Walker in New York and McClelland & Stewart in Toronto in the fall of 2004, though the Walker edition turned the title around, calling it Sable Island: The strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic. We switched roles here: Sheila Hirtle did all the on-the-ground (or on the sand, as it turned out) reporting, while we shared the research and I did the writing.

Of course, one of the public fascinations with the island is the existence in this wild place of a herd of feral horses, left alone to live and die, by statute, for they are protected now by law. Here is a paragraph or two to give the flavor:

“Two stallions, galloping along the north beach. They had been wrestling in the soft sand of one of the blowouts to the interior, and the sand was as churned as though an army division had passed through. There had been shrill whinnying, biting and butting, manes and tails flying, hooves flailing, and spittle spraying, big horse teeth in a lipless grimace. It looked as though there would be serious damage, blood and wounds and broken bones, but it was all in play, a black stallion and his son the bay, and when the wrestling was done, with energy still in reserve, they turned and raced each other down the beach, long tails trailing behind them in the wind, Pegasus on the sands of Sable, the very symbol of freedom and muscular joy.

“A gaggle of Preservation Trust members and their families sat on the sand in the lee of a dune to eat their packaged lunches—not bad, lobster sandwiches and plastic cups of champagne brought from the mainland. Earlier, when one of the women had approached the black stallion, he had been guarded, snorting imperiously as she neared, but he’d trotted off and found his son, and the intruder was forgotten in the art of games. Other animals in his troop gathered around, curious; one of the horses, a mare, blew softly through her nostrils and lightly, gently, briefly, laid her head on an apprehensive human shoulder, then backed away, shaking her mane, peering benignly at the giggling creatures on the ground; then she trotted off, her little herd with her.”

Of all the reviews, I liked the one from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald best: “In our tame world of malls and gourmet coffee, there’s something fascinating about a wildly untamed place on the sharp edge of nature. Sable Island – a mere 515 nautical miles from downtown Portland – is just that kind of place. And nobody tells the island’s story better than Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle. For me, reading Sable Island was like stepping into a big-screen IMax 3D theater where the special lens brings us to places where nature really misbehaves.” Kirkus Reviews said it was “Another finely etched portrait of a strange, romantic place …” and the St Louis Post Dispatch:?“Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, who live in Nova Scotia and have written several books on exploration and other topics, make Sable Island as delightful to experience in words as it is difficult to experience in actuality.”