Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

Home – where is it?

Having lived at various times of my life in different places, I’ve often wondered where home really is. Is it where I live right now as a suburban transplant in a small town by a large lake? Is it back in Toronto or in some large city where everything is more or less the same: same stores, same entertainment, same shopping malls, same pace same anonymity? Or stretching back into the past, is it the Spartan home of an expatriate in an oil•drenched oasis, the home of a hired gun who could be sent back at any time when services are no longer required? Or even further back where it all began, in an island by the sea whose gentle waves and peaceful people later turned into killing machines? (And weren’t those gentle people fighting over whose home the island really was?)

As occupations become more temporary and transferable, as the world shrinks with globalization, as civil and climatic unrest displace populations, the concept of home is becoming a preoccupation for more people than just myself. I tried writing a novel about a man discovering home. The models I drew from were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which the hero, Ulysses, leaves the island of Ithaca, has many adventures abroad, and returns to drive out the usurpers of his wife and throne, and builds his nest again. But this homecoming is contrary to my personal experiences. When I returned to my old island after a 21•year absence, I drove past the old family home without recognizing it – the place had become a jumble of over•construction. So too was my former transient expat building in the Middle East: I couldn’t see the oil flares in the open desert and the planes coming into land at the airport – instead I stared at the glaring neon sign of a night club in a tall skyscraper that had landed across the street obliterating the once panoramic view. I wasn’t inspired to tarry long in these old haunts for they did not remind me of home any more, and there were no usurpers to throw out or nests to re•build either.

Then I read the old novel, Captain from Castile, and it hit me that Shellabarger’s hero, after finding that his old home in Spain has changed, heads back to the New World, where he had earlier made a fortune and forged his adult identity, to establish his new home. He has no sense of what he will find when he gets there but he pursues the dream, nevertheless. His home is in the present. This premise made more sense to me.

So, where is home? Is it a geographical place, a place in time, or a state of mind? Whatever it is, it is a human dilemma which consumes large quantities of emotion and contemplation. Wars have been waged over homelands, security forces have arisen to protect The Home Land, real•estate and mortgage industries have been formed over our desire to own a home even if we cannot afford it, and families draw battle lines when it comes to divvying up the family home due to a death or a divorce. And transplants like me float around seeking this elusive refuge, leaving a trail of blogs, novels and stories in my wake.

Christians adhere to that Gospel saying “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Could I apply that statement to the concept of home as well and say that the “Home of Man is within himself?” Therefore, there is no need for battle in the name of defending or conquering a home because it cannot be physically damaged or taken away. Like our DNA, home is a unique and personal space. I’d like to say that and end this perennial quest.

Looking Beyond

The waters are calm when looking over the ocean from the battlements of the Fort that guards the entrance of the harbour at Santiago de Cuba. Off to the right over the horizon lies Jamaica in the sun, and to the left is Haiti in its destruction, while down below, in 1898, the Spanish galleons had come out in single file, like innocent sheep, only to be sunk by American warships lying in wait outside the mouth of the harbour. This fort is a vantage point of history, recent and past, representing the beauty and horrors of life. I could not see any of this at street level. “Look beyond,” my wise teachers and mentors had told me, “and you will find vistas never seen before.” I was reminded of their words while sitting up there in those battlements.

I wrote the paragraph above while touring Santiago de Cuba with a group of Canadian writers recently. There were many such set pieces that I captured on paper in this land that seems to be frozen in time, reminding me of what life was like when I was growing up in a tropical island somewhere else in the world, where scarcities had been a fact of life, where the developed world was out there somewhere, a place impossible for us forgotten ones to get to. I remember climbing the giant Jam tree in the front yard of our family home, perching myself in its highest branches and looking out over the paddy fields, watching the planes fly overhead and wondering when it would be my turn to fly away.

Over the years, by a combination of looking beyond, being dissatisfied with the status quo, striving, and luck (isn’t luck the product of hard work?) I seemed to have swapped places with those fat•cat tourists who used to come to my island home and dole out money as if there was no end to the flow. In Cuba, this time around, it was my turn to dish out the pesos, while the locals looked on in anticipation. I wanted to tell them not to be fooled, that there was a finite end to this supply of money; that even in rich countries like Canada, bounty came from hard work, and that jobs could end with a small downslide of the stock market ticker. But what did they know about stock market tickers? All they knew was that they worked hard too, but did not have the money to show for it, so according to them, we must have some other unknown secret. It’s because of freedom and private enterprise, I wanted to say, but being a man following the Middle Way, I did not want to be a poster boy for Capitalism.

I did not know what to tell these islanders, and returned from my trip somewhat frustrated. In retrospect, I should have told them to go to a Fort•like place and look beyond, look to the sunshine and destruction in lands beyond, look at the world with all its possibilities, good and bad, and pick a spot to play, beyond one’s comfort zone. Perhaps that was the only way out beyond scarcity and insularity, the path towards growth, and towards finding breakthrough solutions beyond the “tried and true” that provide only marginal returns and keeps one like the unenlightened frog, forever circling in the slow•boiling cauldron.