HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 11, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Newfoundland Journal 10
August 4, 2008

Down the coast, near Sally's Cove, lie the remains of the S.S. Ethie, a ship that was driven ashore during a storm in 1919. Almost miraculously, all 92 people on board were saved, including an infant that was transferred to land in a mail pouch.

It's easy to forget how much a part of life shipwrecks were a century ago. They formed one of the more dramatic public events of the time. The pathos of people on a deck within sight of land, but cut off by a hundred yards of a raging sea, who were so close but usually couldn't be rescued, were perfect fodder for romantic sensationalism.

There's not a great deal of the Ethie left. The largest remaining section must have been the engine room. I assume it was made of harder steel than the rest of the vessel was. Massive drive shafts and gears still litter the beach. They are too heavy for anyone to carry away.

Being on the shore in perfectly serene weather makes it hard to imagine the setting when the Ethie was tossed on the rocks. There is nothing that can change more radically than the sea. At times it seems the most placid and welcoming of phenomena. But, then, it can transmogrify itself, in a fairly short time, into a terrifying monster.

There's little doubt that the society of Newfoundland is profoundly shaped by the ocean. No part of the country is many miles from the seacoast. And most of the economic activity of the country is affected in some way or another by marine enterprise. I have no analysis of a seafaring people, no knowledge of what shapes their souls. But they must be more closely attuned to the realities of nature than, say, apartment dwellers in New York City. The sea must induce in them both respect and fatalism about the natural world.

Among the debris of the Ethie, on a quiet, sunny afternoon, everything is gratifyingly beautiful. The rocks among which the rusting fragments lie are wondrous evidence of geological creativity. Streaks of color decorate the massive gray granite, making one ask what kinds of pressure could have mashed variety into those solid surfaces. I guess most anything can happen over hundreds of millions of years.

We were happy to see quite a few small crabs inching their way through the tidal pools. One diminutive specimen was acting as a miniature wrecking crew, turning over pieces of rock and shale larger than himself. He must have been in search of something, but what I wasn't able to discern. Earlier down the coast, we had seen stacks of lobster pots littered with dead crabs. I guess it's not worth worthwhile even to pluck them out. I don't know what lobstering does to the crab population, but seeing many hundreds of them in one stack of pots doesn't offer a happy prognostication. I hope there are so many even human fishermen can't do them in. But I wouldn't bet on it.

I wish humanity could learn not to be as profligate as it has in the past. I don't want to be excessively prissy about nature. It does, after all, have vigorous recuperative powers. But there are so many of us that if we don't start taking more care, the world will degenerate into something much less fascinating than what our ancestors knew.


Newfoundland Journal 11
August 5, 2008

You might not think that climbing up a trail that rises a thousand feet over the course of a mile and a half to the top of a windswept mountain is much of a physical challenge, but when the path was covered with loose rocks and knotted roots, it provided me with more than enough for a workout. When people tire themselves for the sake of a view they almost always say it was worth it. Often their profession isn't perfectly truthful, but I have to say that yesterday's hike to the top of the Lookout Hills to look down on the sweep of Bonne Bay and the small towns of Woody Point and Norris Point really did repay the struggle to get there.

Our Trail Guide to the Gros Morne National Park told us that the peak of Partridgeberry Hill offers one of the best viewpoints in the park, and once on the top we had no reason to disagree. The long stretches of water beneath us were far from the only things to be seen. Across a valley to the south we looked out on Table Mountain, the summit of the Tablelands, a geographical phenomenon you don't easily associate with Newfoundland. They are completely dry red hills, devoid of all vegetation, and remind you of something you would be far more likely to see in New Mexico and Arizona than in the Maritime Provinces

At the top of the hill we talked with a couple from Belgium, who like many Europeans -- at least the ones you meet in America -- seemed to have been almost everywhere in the world. They confirmed our judgment, saying that the scenes we were enjoying were among the most stupendous they had encountered.

When you walk up a steep hill for more than a hour, you tell yourself that going down will be easy. And it is, on the lungs. The burden, however, is transferred to the legs. Mine were far more taxed going down than anything they suffered going up. And when we got back to the large, comfortable visitor center at the bottom of the trail, I was happy to sit in the plush chairs provided there and rest myself for a while.

After a bit, however, hunger drove us to take the road west across the peninsula between Bonne Bay and the Trout River Pond, to the little town of Trout River, where in the Seaside Restaurant, facing out directly onto the bay we devoured tasty fish sandwiches. Afterwards, we took a stroll along the long boardwalk the town has built along the sea side, and as we have done everywhere else, asked ourselves what residence in Trout River would be. I must say it presented us with a new standard of starkness. Compared to it, St. Anthony's appears a sink of epicureanism. Probably I was too much impressed by Sherwood Anderson in my youth. He left me suspecting that small, stark, out-of-the-way places are emporiums of human misery. Because of him, I may have misjudged Trout River. On the other hand, we are well advised not to romanticize provincialism excessively. The truth may be that the residents of Trout River are both as happy, and as sad, as people are anywhere else.

Back in our cabin in Cow Head, I found in a ten year old number of Canadian Geographic, a review of Michael Harris's Lament for an Ocean, which tells the story of the ruination of the eastern Canadian fisheries by bureaucratic ineptitude and capitalist greed. It reminded me of how the entrancing seascapes which have beguiled us over the past couple weeks also convey a sense of sadness because life in the ocean is far less plentiful than it once was. I worry that the future will deplete it even further, and knowing there's not much I can do about it is a depressing admission.


Newfoundland Journal 12
August 6, 2008

Our time in Newfoundland approaches an end. Tomorrow, we have to drive two hundred miles south to Port aux Basques and catch the ferry back to Nova Scotia.

I don't know if others have as strong a homemaking instinct as I do, but whenever I'm in a place for more than a couple of days, I start to think of it as my residence, and begin to invest something of my self in it. Tomorrow when I drive across the isthmus from the head for the last time, I'll feel the sadness of leaving home, probably never to return. That's silly, but I can't really help it.

A mystery of being is how all the places we've experienced work their ways into us and leave their residues. How, for example, is a person who has known Cow Head different from one who has not? Is it difference of any significance?

One effect of residence by the sea -- for me at least -- is an intensified ambiguity about the ocean. It is a thing to be loved, and also a thing to be hated and feared. The emotions positive and negative are about equal. This morning in the small cemetery in Daniel's Habour I saw a headstone for a six member family -- two parents and four children -- who perished on their boat in the harbor, probably returning from a fishing expedition. I can't help asking myself, what kind of force is that brutal?

The wind picked up last night and has continued brisk all through the day. It's a portent of colder times to come. Though it's still summer and the fields remain mottled with vivid wild flowers, the wind lets you know that it won't always be that way. The days are coming when heated shelters will be a necessity, and here in Newfoundland as well as in the United States, the rocketing prices of fuel are making people anxious about the coming winter. Here we are, having inhabited this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, and we still haven't figured out a way to make sure that all people can stay warm in the winter. It's a pathetic comment on human intelligence. What's wrong with us?

Today, in the bird feeder, we put the leftover portion of a mass of cookie dough, not wanting to use gas to heat three cookies on a baking pan. A crow came by and stuffed almost the whole mass into his beak at one time, and, then, without being able to close his mouth, flapped away. I'm curious if getting an unexpected treat of cookie dough makes him happy. I even wonder what the nature of crow happiness might be.

This morning, latching onto the signal from the library's router, I got e-mail from a friend who said he didn't suppose my being away in Newfoundland had decreased my interest in the U.S. presidential race. I'm not sure he's right about that. Over the past two weeks, both John McCain and Barrack Obama have become less significant figures for me than they were when I passed over the US - Canadian border. My intellect still tells me they can have a serious impact on both the life of my country and the world. But, emotionally, they strike me as small things, important still for their effects, but, intrinsically, not much to care about. I begin to wonder if that feeling will stay with me once I get home. If it does, I may owe Newfoundland more than simply a happy vacation by the sea.

Over the past couple weeks, my thoughts have drifted to the friends Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, maybe because it seems to me that Hawthorne could have made wondrous tales from the shaded woodland paths and rocky shores I've been frequenting. In lifetime, one was far more important than the other. But who, now, thinks much about or cares for Franklin Pierce? Maybe the best thing we can hope for is that McCain and Obama will be Franklin Pierces of the future, and not occupy peoples' thoughts much for good or for ill.


Newfoundland Journal 13
August 7, 2008

Atlantic Maritime's ferry, The Caribou, is a big ship. It carries more than a thousand passengers, and about four hundred cars and trucks. It's equipped with a large dining area, a huge bar with live entertainment, a theatre sized movie lounge, various cabins and staterooms, a gift shop, and strategically placed snack bars.

It makes the hundred mile run from Port aux Basques in Newfoundland to North Sydney in Nova Scotia in about five and a half hours. And if you want to ride on it with a car and three people it costs slightly over two hundred dollars.

It's from the dining area of The Caribou that I'm sending these remarks. The coast of Newfoundland is receding in the distance. And I'm wondering if I'll ever go there again. I got up this morning in Cow Head feeling securely at home. And now ten hours later, Cow Head has become a memory. That's the nature of human experience.

Humanity as exhibited on the Newfoundland ferry perplexes me a bit. I can't figure out why most of the people around me are crossing the water. It doesn't seem to be for the sake of vacation. But if that's not it, what is it? A considerable portion of the men on board exhibit classic macho characteristics. They stride up and down the corridors of the boat in a challenging mode, as though they were looking for a fight. So far, though, I haven't seen a single fight break out. Perhaps with most of them there's a serious dysfunction between internal emotion and facial expression. I haven't written as much lately about facial misbehavior as was once my wont. But that doesn't mean it's not still a common phenomenon.

I heard some people at a table across from me talk about how much fun it would be to water ski behind The Caribou. I thought they were nuts. As I look to the rear and see the wide wake of the ship stretching behind us for more than a mile, the thought of being in the midst of it on two little sticks of wood gives me the willies. There's no accounting for what people will say they would like to do, or even for what they would actually do if they had the chance.

I saw a Tom Hanks movie a while back about a guy who got trapped in an airport and couldn't get out of the international lounge for months. Thinking about it makes me wonder what it would be like to get stuck on The Caribou for a half-year and go back and forth, back and forth, between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. Might I write a great novel if that were to happen? Might I go completely insane? If someone were to offer me the chance, free of charge provided that I didn't get off the ship for six months, would I take it? These are all questions for deep contemplation, and I'm fairly sure they'll never get the attention they deserve.

The lottery drawing was last night, and I haven't yet checked to see if I won. If I did, I'm now in possession of many millions of dollars-- and I don't even know it. I'm a little worried that if I did win it might complicate my life. But I don't suppose it's a thing to get worked up over until I check the number.

In the midst of writing this, I had a half-hour conversation with a guy who grew up in Newfoundland and now lives in Ontario. He has just made a trip back home with his two sons so they can keep in touch with the family, and learn something of their antecedents. He said that when he was a boy in the 1970s, the cod were so thick, you could catch hundreds of pounds with almost no effort. But then the big fishing companies ruined the spawning grounds, and drove most of the small fishermen out of business. He also said Newfoundland is a place to be from. Almost all the young people, as they come to adulthood, have to go away. There's little opportunity for them in their home country. The traditional ways of life can't support people any more. It's an ancient story. When a culture of basic sustenance comes into contact with the modern world, its underpinnings are swept away. Some people see that as tragedy; some see it as opportunity. I suppose anyone who looks at the process honestly has to see it as both.

Outside now, dark is coming down around the ship. The horizon is simply a faint black line. Somewhere in front of me is Nova Scotia, and when I drive my little car out of the bowels of this boat and onto land there, my Newfoundland adventure will be over.


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