HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 4, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Newfoundland Journal 4
July 28, 2008

Ten miles south of Cow Head you come on a small, crystal river flowing out into the ocean. What you wouldn't know from that spot, unless you were looking at a map, is that the river is the outlet of a large body of water, called innocuously, Western Brook Pond, which extends more than ten miles inland and runs along the base of massive sheer rock cliffs.

A few miles on down Route 430, you come to a parking area, from which you can hike three kilometers to catch a boat which will take you on a two hour tour of the pond. We got there yesterday afternoon just as a group was returning to the parking lot. One man who came up told us the things he had seen were well worth both the long walks in and out and the price of the boat ride. In fact, he said, it was the experience of a lifetime.

That struck me as a dramatic thing to say. What is an experience of a lifetime? It wouldn't have been polite to probe, so I didn't. But the comment intrigued me enough that we decided to go on the tour ourselves. So next week, after we go, I'll tell you if it was the experience of a lifetime for me.

Earlier, we took a long walk on Shallow Bay Beach, just a couple miles north from the cabin. It's a perfect example of the axiom that location is everything. If a beach that long and wide were in Florida it would be the site of hundred million dollar developments. But here, it stretches for well over a mile, surrounded only by nature and used at a single time by no more than fifty or sixty people.

Just off the beach, a bumpy island, inhabited only by birds, lies across a fairly narrow channel -- at least at low tide. From some spots on the beach it looks almost as if you could walk out to it, but when you reach what you thought was a connection, you find there's still two or three hundred yards separating the beach from the island's closest spit.

Whenever I see an island like that, I begin to imagine buying it and building a small shack on the leeward side. There I could become a virtual hermit and let mankind pursue its follies independent of my concerns. All I would have to worry about then would be getting washed away, and sailing across, in what would be my little rubber boat, to the mainland once a week to pick up some supplies. Driftwood would probably supply me with enough fuel to keep warm. It's a childish vision, but, I confess, it continues to have appeal even into old age. It's not one, however, that has seized anybody here in Cow Head. If you were to mention the idea to a resident here you'd be considered completely nuts.

In a community like this, practicality rules, which is as it should be.


Newfoundland Journal 5
July 30, 2008

I'm writing this looking out onto the very foggy harbor of St. Anthony, two hundred miles up the Northern Peninsula from Cow Head, where we came to take a whale and dolphin watching boat out into the northern Atlantic. We were fortunate with the dolphins. Dozens of them sported around the prow of our little ship, diving beneath the hull to appear magically on the other side. But with the whales we were not lucky. The main problem was that whales are spotted by their spouts, which can be seen from miles away. But much of the time on our voyage, vision was limited by the mist to less than a mile.

It's eerie to be out in the ocean, out of sight of land, surrounded by low lying clouds. I couldn't help being reminded of Dr. Johnson's remark that to be on a ship is like being in jail, but with the added danger of being drowned. The speaker system on our vessel piped out merry sea ditties about how a sailor's life is the only life, and so forth. On land, they sound terribly convincing. But out on the water, with the deck swaying so violently it's hard to stand up, they begin to sound like the chirping of demented people. I managed this time not to get sea sick, but, still, I was glad enough when our ship pulled back along the dock and I found myself with a more stable foundation.

We did get some fascinating information from the young mate of our ship, whose holds a degree in biology from Memorial University, the only institution of higher education in Newfoundland. I was most interested to learn that polar bears sometime float this far south on ice flows, in search of seals. When the ice melts, the bears swim to shore, and poke around looking for food wherever they can find it, including people's back yards. But they don't stay long in this region. They head back north, and when they reach the end of the peninsula, they swim across the narrow strait, eighteen miles or so, to Labrador, and from there make their way far enough north to satisfy their icy propensities.

In winter, the whole harbor at St. Anthony freezes over with ice two and a half feet thick. People take their snowmobiles out on it. I imagine it could be a pretty closed off world here in the middle of the cold season. Until the road to the south was cut through, not all that many years ago, the only way to supply the town was by various sorts of sleds.

Towns like this reflect a fundamental practicality that's surprising to someone from more temperate regions. There are few amenities. I haven't seen a single motion picture theatre. The architecture, both domestic and commercial, is stark. Most houses are quite small. There are far fewer restaurants than you would find in a New England town, and keep in mind that for the rest of the United States, New England itself is fairly abstemious.    This kind of a basic existence has a certain appeal, but I'm not sure how well it would wear. It might get into the blood, but it might also induce a fervid desire for escape. Life here raises the question of how much civilization you need -- or can afford -- when nature is resplendent, compelling, and wildly demanding.  St. Anthony seems to have decided on the generic brand, nothing fancy, nothing elegant.


Newfoundland Journal 6
July 31, 2008

At the very top of the Northern Peninsula is an archaeological site known as L'Anse aux Meadows, where in the 1960s Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad established beyond doubt that Vikings had come to the Americas as early as the year 1000.  The village they unearthed there was never a permanent settlement. It operated a base camp for explorations farther to the west and south. But it offers the only clear evidence in America that the Vikings came here almost five hundred years before Columbus made his monumental voyage of discovery.

The site is now a Canadian historical park and a major tourist attraction, although visiting there yesterday, I got the impression that the number of visitors at any one time is seldom overwhelming. The young guide who led us through the park was quite touching in her tribute to the Ingstads. Without them, she said, the region might be decaying economically and she, certainly, would not be able to have her job and live in the land she loves.

A couple hundred yards away from the sites of the actual long houses where the Vikings survived the long winters, the park service has constructed several buildings that resemble the originals as closely as possible, and placed in them young men and women dressed up in Viking attire, who, in a lighthearted way, play the roles of the earlier inhabitants. The houses are fairly crude, but they show clearly that life inside them would not have been terribly uncomfortable. For one thing, the Vikings appear to have been experts in insulation, and built peat walls so thick that a central fire can maintain the temperature at about 70 degrees, regardless of the cold outside.

The houses are located on a flat plain, near the beach, with a little stream flowing down from the hills above. On a clear day -- which yesterday wasn't -- looking out on the Strait of Belle Isle you can see Labrador about twenty miles away. It is a perfect location for exploring the waterways leading to the lands of the south and west -- modern day Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and even New England farther down the coast. There seems to be no knowing, now, how far they went.

Sitting on a bench in the reconstructed long house yesterday, I tried to imagine the mindset of a young explorer one thousand years ago. He had no sense of the social structures that would come in the future. The United States, Canada, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia didn't exist for him. He knew only that he was on land farther west than his people had ever come before, and that it was full of the goods of life, pure water, plenty of timber, the seas teeming with fish. He had come in an open boat, about fifty-five feet long, from Greenland, across hundreds of miles of tumultuous, frigid water. He had no maps. He didn't know what the world he was in looked like from above, or where it led. He knew only that it was big, and open, and wild. And, fantastic as his situation may seem to us, to him it was probably matter of fact. The world was open and wild. How could it be anything else? That is doubtless the main difference between him and us. To him the world was natural, and human systems were rare and far apart. To us, human systems are virtually everything, and nature a place we go for time out, to clear our heads and relax.

We can't say for sure that we are better off than he was. But we can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that the world a thousand years hence will be even more complicatedly human, and more different from us than is the young Viking in his long house.  That is, unless we get so charged up on manias of nationalism and religious conflict that we turn the world back into something even more primitive than the Vikings knew, and have to start all over again.


Newfoundland Journal 7
August 1, 2008

Cow Head itself, or as it's called here, simply "the head," is connected to the shore at its northern end by a rocky isthmus. The other end, a little over a mile southwards is known as the point of the head. All elements of civilization -- a few houses, some fishing buildings and the man-made harbor itself -- cluster around the entrance from the isthmus. To the south, everything is wild.

There is a small wooded path to the point. That's the only sure way to get there. But if you want to be hearty, as for some irrational reason we did yesterday, you can try to make it along the shoreline. Actually, we came back from the head that way, having followed the approved route to get there.

There is no better way to learn that nature cares nothing for human convenience than to try to pick your way along a rocky shore line. But there's also probably no better way to discover nature's bizarre exuberance. The forces that battered and twisted the rocks into the myriad shapes we observed bespeak eons. Nature is a patient worker. She has no reason to hurry, so she doesn't.

In ordinary life we possess a secure, level foothold. We become so used to it we think it's normal. Yet, along the sea, it's rare. More common is to find yourself not knowing which way to step, and thinking that no matter which way you do, you're likely to break something. And after you've made that gamble five thousand times in a row, your legs start to tell you that if you make it one time more, you're courting disaster. If, at that point, there's nothing else but more boulders piled in front of you as far as you can see, the thought comes that maybe it would be best simply to sit down and let the sea, eventually, have its way with you.

Obviously, it's not a thought that lasts very long, and by keeping on, and on, we came to a point where it was possible climb up the cliff and, after a brief struggle through briars and tangles, find a faint trail that led back to open ground.

There's the idea that we like to go out in nature so much because it has no opinion of us. That's very true, but it's also true that it has no concern for us either. And, that, in a way is a sobering thought. The only recourse after such -- perhaps over-dramatic --musings was to drive across the isthmus to the snack shack and get cones of soft ice cream. As it came twirling out of the machine it brought with it the thought that though nature is grand and beguiling, there's something to be said for human society, also.


Newfoundland Journal 8
August 2, 2008

Here in Cow Head, we are right at the edge of a large national park. Gros Morne has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, and I have to say it's worthy of the title. Its variety of terrain ranges from sandy beaches along the Gulf of St. Lawrence to treeless mountain tops, where vegetation resembles the arctic tracts much farther north. One of its most striking features are large lakes, called "ponds" which once were inlets from the ocean. They are now made up of fresh water and from them sparkling streams course down to the sea.

Yesterday, we hiked from the Berry Hill campground to the falls on Baker's Brook, which actually is a fair-sized, fast-flowing river. The falls are five kilometers from the parking lot, so to go see them requires a walk of ten kilometers, or a little over six miles. But the trail runs mostly over level ground, and when it goes through wetlands, the hiker is assisted by long boardwalks, which actually cover about half the distance to the falls. It's not a hard walk, but it is fairly long and I suspect most people are, as we were, glad to plop themselves into their cars at the end of it.

I guess it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the falls are spectacular, but they are quite impressive, and the volume of water plummeting down them leaves you wondering how any lake could feed a river of that size without running dry. A glance at a map, though, shows that Baker's Brook Pond, itself a lake about five miles long, is fed by a series of other, smaller lakes which are all netted together by mountain streams. There's no lack of moisture in this section of Newfoundland. We were told that in August, the flow is at its lowest, which makes you marvel at what the falls must be in the spring when they carry the runoff of melting snow.

There are 4,800 moose in Gros Morne, so you would expect to see some on a walk of that length. And, indeed, we did see three, fairly close to the trail -- a mother, father and half-grown offspring. They didn't appear overly spooked by the presence of humans and stayed around long enough for ample photography before ambling off back into the woods. It's pleasant to see the big creatures, but, actually, the park officials are beginning to be worried about their number. Moose are beginning to eat up the forests at an alarming rate.

At the end of the trail, looking down on the falls, you have the sense of being far out in the wilderness. It's a bit of an illusion, since three miles from a parking lot is scarcely "far out." Still, it does give you the experience of the humanless land that stretches on for many miles across the peninsula. For some reason, we like the idea of uninhabited territory. I'm afraid Newfoundland is on the verge of becoming a major tourist destination mainly because it is lightly populated. But the irony, of course, is that the more people come the more the appeal will be diminished. All in all, it's a good thing that it's difficult to get here.

Near the Berry Hill entrance, on the western side of Route 430, is Rocky Harbor, one of the larger villages on the Northern Peninsula. And in Rocky Harbour is the Java House, which I had been told has the best coffee in western Newfoundland. It offered itself as a comforting place to go after our long walk, and it was, though it turned out to be more of a Newfoundland style upscale restaurant than the coffee house I expected.

The coffee was good, at least according to the taste of real coffee fans. But I heard the lady at the table next to me say it was too strong.  She confirmed my estimate that probably about 80% of coffee drinkers don't actually like coffee very much.

I haven't commented yet in this journal about prices in Canada, but the Java House last night reminded me once again that they're quite high. In the days -- only a few years ago -- when you could buy a Canadian dollar for sixty-five cents, the cost of a meal at the Java House would have seemed reasonable to Americans. But now, almost everything in Canada -- rooms, meals, groceries, admission tickets -- is quite pricey. Prices are not yet at a European level, but they are pretty close to what you would have to pay in England and Scotland.

The effect of the puny dollar on an American psyche outside its own borders is curious. It makes you feel like a second class person. That sense has, probably, not yet begun to pervade the American masses. They don't grasp how their own economic status is being hurt by it. But travelers who venture outside the United States know that their currency has taken a big step towards junk status, and it leaves them feeling a bit insecure. It will be interesting to see how that emotion plays out in American politics over the coming decade.


Newfoundland Journal 9
August 3, 2008

In Newfoundland, the word "lake" is not used. Every interior body of water, regardless of its size is a pond. Yesterday, we took a two-hour boat ride on a ten mile long pond which runs inland from the coast just south of St. Paul's.

Western Brook Pond is perhaps the most impressive of the former fjords that now are connected to the sea only by the streams that run out of them. It is surrounded over most of its length by sheer, two-thousand foot stone cliffs that run straight down into water that's generally at least two hundred feet deep. In fact, Western Brook Pond at its deepest descends almost six hundred feet below the surface.

The water itself is unusually pure. It is so little ionized it won't even conduct electricity - there's a word for the condition but since I didn't jot it into my notebook, I can't tell you what it is. As a consequence of the purity, there's not much in the lake to sustain life, so it has far fewer plants and animals than a body that size would normally have. The thought that purity is beautiful but not particularly accommodating to life was much in my mind as I coursed along the length of the pond. I need to keep it in mind as one of my general philosophic principles.

To get to the boat dock you have to walk three kilometers from a parking lot along the highway. I asked myself, as I trudged through the bogs, over peat beds twelve feet deep, how many people in the United States would walk two miles in and two miles out to take a sail on a lake, regardless of the height of the cliffs around it. I'm sure many would, but I suspect that a majority would not. After all, we're a people where it's not uncommon to see drivers repeatedly circling a parking lot in order to find a space thirty feet closer to the store's entrance.

I mentioned earlier in these notes that we had talked to a man who said the trip into Western Brook Pond was the experience of a lifetime. Since I don't know what that means, I can't make the same profession. But I will say it provided me with spectacular sights. And saying so reminds me that I should explain why I'm not, immediately, sending pictures with these reports. The reason is, I neglected to bring my chip reader with me, so I can't get the photographs on to my computer right now (I have seen no Radio Shack in Newfoundland). But, as soon as I get home, I'll start to work up items for "Harvard Square Pictorial," and post some of the scenes I've encountered here.

One of the happiest things about Western Brook Pond is that it's hard to see how anything can ruin it anytime soon, not even developers. Watching the volume of water sloshing down the Western Brook into the ocean about five miles away, you might think there's a danger of its drying up. But the volume of the pond is so gigantic that even if no water replenished it, it would not run out for fifteen years. And there's no sign the replenishing processes are slowing down. Since it's completely surrounded by a large national park, there's scant possibility that anything will be built along its shores. I'm pretty sure the people of Newfoundland would not stand for anything like that. They appear to like their island pretty much as it is, and though they are cultivating a tourist trade, they also seem determined not to allow it to foul up anything essential.

There surely must be wealthy people in Newfoundland, but the country bespeaks fairly definitely that it does not exist for the sake of creating vast personal wealth. That's the aspect of it that, for me, makes it most different from the United States. Opportunity here is not the process of accumulating billions of dollars. That's not what the country is about. I haven't been here long enough to speak confidently about what the country does exist for, but the absence of overt signs of rampant greed does make it refreshing for a citizen of the United States.

I speak of Newfoundland as a country because although it is, legally, a province of Canada, I don't think Canada -ism -- if there is such a thing -- is of much account here. Newfoundland is a place for itself. Americans tend to think of themselves as Americans first. Maybe that's a characteristic of a vast, powerful empire. And Newfoundland, whatever else it is, it is not a place where overweening imperialism is much on peoples' minds.


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