We should listen to what they have to say

I enjoy reading Agatha Christie mysteries and, if I had a library at home, there would be wall-to-wall mysteries adorning the walls.  I like Agatha Christie’s mysteries because they’re set in England, but it wasn’t until I moved to outport Newfoundland that I noticed something very interesting about her novels.  Some of the dialect spoken in her books is used right here on the Island!

So what does that mean?  Well, it only goes to show that language travels, and it endures.  It is passed down from generation to generation, which is fascinating stuff if you give it any thought at all.

My husband is a genealogy buff and knows his Newfoundland ancestors backwards and forwards, but I have an impressive line of ancestors myself, which I can trace back 17 generations.  On my father’s side, the family tree extends back to Somerset, England; my maternal grandmother was an Irish war bride from Wales; and, on my maternal grandfather’s side there were staunch Mennonites from Italy, Germany, and Pennsylvania.  This family tree information was passed down to me two ways: by word of mouth and by the written word.  My parents’ ancestors documented their history by writing everything in family Bibles and books, which have endured to this day.

Driving to town here on the Northern Peninsula, it’s plain to see that autumn has arrived; trees are ablaze with gold, tangerine, crimson and scarlet leaves.  In November, those beautiful leaves will be lashed by rain and swept away by wind until the trees are stripped bare.

In October we celebrate Thanksgiving, when all the bounty is brought in and stored in freezers, jelly jars, and root cellars.  Perhaps though, some of you are only too aware that your fridges and cellars are full of provisions but your communities are losing their young people due to the effects of out-migration.  What, then, can you be thankful for?

I’ve spoken to quite a few people lately and many are saying the same thing…that as the older people are passing away, the customs and traditions of rural Newfoundland are passing, too.  The old ways were passed down by word of mouth, but the newest generation of young adult Newfoundlanders is leaving the province, and there are very few to pass these traditions and stories on to.  It seems as if the Baby Boomer generation is the last to remember, vividly, the way life was before cars, computers and consumerism corrupted the landscape.

Recently I met an elderly gentleman in a store, and we had a pleasant chat while I waited in line.  As he spoke to me, it struck me that the autumn season, with it’s aging leaves, is something like this older generation; full of colour and beauty.  I bet there are plenty of interesting things the old timers could tell us if we’d listen to what they have to say.

The Baby Boomers are telling me the old ways are passing away; that their generation is sandwiched between those who lived the hardships and the glory days of the fishery, and the younger generation as they leave the province to find work.  What, then, is to be done to preserve the past?

I think the answer lies very close at hand: in the hospitals, in the nursing homes, in seniors’ complexes, and in houses and apartments in Newfoundland communities.  If the younger generation has up and left, why not gather another kind of harvest while it’s there for the taking?  Why not sit down with pen and paper, with camera and camcorder, with laptop and listening ear, and document the past before it is gone forever; it’s what my ancestors did when they recorded those births, deaths and marriages so long ago.  If they found the time to do this in a time when families were large and time was scarce, surely we can do the same?

Then, when the younger generation asks about their ancestors, there will be something to show them, to tell them and to teach them about Newfoundland and the people who settled it so long ago.  It’s a provincial treasure worth saving.

Don’t wait until the winds of time strip the leaves from the trees.  Harvest them now, and press them between the pages of your Bible.  Treasure the past; it is the wisdom and hope for the future.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city, or the ancestors, out of the girl.

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Who’s Counting?

Up ahead of me, legs hammering the road like pistons, antlers like tree branches raking the air, the morning sun shining off his burnished coat, his beard swinging back and forth with each toss of his head, and a rogue eye glancing back at me over his shoulder as he trots along the yellow line, Mr. Moose is on the loose, and he has no plans to share the road with me, or to let me drive by.  Could it be that he’s waiting for me to turn on my signal light before he lets me pass?

One of the most common questions directed at me since I moved to the northern peninsula is, “Seen ‘ere moose today?”  It’s not a hard question for me to answer; I just don’t see why it matters how many moose are out there, and I don’t understand the Newfoundlander’s fascination with an animal that can pester the wits out of people by trotting up the center of the road and defying drivers to pass.  Perhaps it has everything to do with something I heard someone say not long ago.  “He’ll be a great one to get in the fall.”  Is it possible that, when people are counting, they’re actually counting moose steaks rather than moose?

I’ve discovered that many Newfoundlanders take their moose sightings very seriously and that the whole tide of a conversation can be diverted in the blink of an eye by calmly stating, “I saw 87 moose today.”  Guaranteed, Buddy saw at least a dozen more than that, even though he was one car-length behind me at the time.

So, when it comes to moose, I know people are counting, but the question that begs to be answered is, why are they counting, and why does it matter?

In the early 1960s, my dad drove a 1952 Chevy 4-door sedan, and every summer our family took a vacation across the prairies.  Back then, the old car seemed as big as a boat; I know, because my parents, plus all six kids, a dog, and two cats fit nicely inside.  My favourite spot in the old blue Chevy was up on the ledge by the back window, where I could lie for hours watching the dust clouds behind us and the clouds of grasshoppers in front.  When boredom struck, as it occasionally did, one of us would ask, “How many more minutes till we get there?” And my dad would say, “There are 300 miles to go, and 26 telephone poles per mile.  Just count the telephone poles and that should give you some idea of how long it will take.”  Dad was just giving us something to divert our attention from the long hours that lay ahead because, other than the occasional sighting of a herd of antelope, there was very little to speculate about while crossing the prairies.

So, we counted telephone poles and became very good at it.

The way I see it, this moose-counting thing has got to be more fiction than fact.  I’ve lived on the island three years, and I have yet to see the sheer numbers of moose that are supposed to be out there along the side of the road.  I’ve traveled along the roads at dawn, at dusk, and times in between, and the most moose I’ve seen on any trip is a couple dozen.  I’m beginning to think people claiming to see large numbers of moose are really counting legs instead of the number of animals, and really, who can blame them?  One moose on a slippery road, propelling itself out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, legs flailing like chunks of wood falling off the back end of a truck, is sure to make a person think he or she is seeing more than one moose; I know; it happened to me.  One second a collision was imminent, the next, Mr. Moose was gone in a mad flurry of hooves and legs and ugly snout, tearing off through the brush like a scalded cat.

So, when it comes to counting, here’s my advice (although I know no self-respecting Newfoundlander will ever heed it).  Count telephone poles.  I guarantee you’ll get the numbers right every time and, because telephone poles ‘stay where they’re to,’ you won’t have to share the road with them, or tell lies to outdo Buddy.

You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t expect her to swallow all the ‘moose tales’ circulating in outport Newfoundland.  At least, not yet.

This way to the bakeapple marshes, August 11, 2008

“It’s just a short walk through the trail to Jenny Anstey’s marsh,” said Len.  “The fields are red; look at them!”

I squinted and tried to see past the cemetery, past the tangle of trees, and past the low-lying mist to the field of bake apples in the distance.  I nodded my head in agreement, figuring he ought to know if there were berries out there; he grew up just down the road from the marsh.

I spent my teen years in the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, and I certainly knew about berries.  For six weeks every summer I picked raspberries at a farm, from six in the morning till six at night, six days a week.  Later in the summer, blackberries, even bigger than raspberries grew along the deep ditches.  Picking blackberries was a risky business; the bushes grew ten feet high with thorns that could tear a person to ribbons if he or she accidentally fell in.  But, once picked, these luscious berries were delicious with milk and sugar.

“Where’s the trail?” I asked Len.  He hesitated, and then began walking down the road a bit.  I should have guessed; he wasn’t sure.  He pointed to a deep ditch and indicated a filthy trail through heavily twisted spruce.  I managed the ditch and followed him, thankful I had worn my rubber boots, trying to keep a foot on either side of deep pools of mud.  Twisted roots snaked across the trail at every turn, branches slashed me in the face, my boots became mired in mud that sucked like quicksand.  “This isn’t a trail!” I howled, “It’s a bog!”

That’s when I realized there are two meanings to the word, ‘marsh’.  One is the dictionary meaning, and the other is experience.  Panting, I splashed through the muddy trail, grasping at branches for dear life.  Eventually, there was less mud but deeper grass and more water.  Len sprang from one tuft of grass to another, calling out that there was a little brook ahead.  “You’ll have to jump it,” he advised, leaping first and holding out his hand for me to grasp.  I wanted to say something unkind, but looked up and noticed two people on the other side picking berries, so I clamped my mouth shut.

Once across the stream, the marsh stretched into the distance, rimmed with spruce.  The bog was coloured with white lichen, hummocks of peat moss, pools of mud, delicate marsh flowers, and crops of red and orange bakeapples.  A nor’ east wind sighed over the dry grasses and the roar of waves beating on the shore at Cape Onion sounded like heavy traffic on the 401 freeway in Toronto.

Len bent to the task and soon I heard the thunk, thunk, of berries hitting the bottom of the one-gallon pail.  I stood watching the other couple, who snapped lids onto their pails in preparation to leave.  But, wait!  They were going directly through the trees to the road, and the path they were taking certainly looked shorter than the swamp we had just passed through.  I tapped Len on the shoulder and asked, “Where are they going?”  He looked up and frowned.  “There must be another path.” he suggested, and held up a berry.  “Make sure you pick the shucks off,” he said, demonstrating the process.  Did he say, ‘shucks’?  In the city, ‘shucks’ is something you say when you’re disappointed or irritated; and I was certainly a little irritated.

At first, I picked the ripest bake apples and shoved them into my jacket pocket, but it didn’t take long to figure out that ripe berries turn quickly to jam, so I ate them instead.

I’d like to say getting out of the marsh was easier than getting in, but that wasn’t the case.  The alternate trail was shorter, but just as treacherous.  When we reached the car, I felt as if I’d been on a three-day safari in the Amazon jungle; all for a one-gallon pail of berries.  My hands and pockets were sticky with bake apple juice, my pants were mud-spattered, and my boots were caked in mud.

So, as much as I like Jenny Anstey’s marsh, and admire the fact that she must have been quite the berry picker, getting into and out of the bog is more of a workout than I’m willing to endure.  I would rather buy bake apples at a store than cross that bog—because you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t always take the city out of the girl.

The Best Laid Plans, July 14, 2008

Global warming.  In northern Newfoundland, it’s a myth; I’m still wearing my coat most days.  On the mainland, global warming is a fact, but that’s only one of the culture shocks I’ve experienced since coming here.   The other is this; until we moved to this neck of the woods Len’s enthusiasm for hiking had been kept in cold storage.

The Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, coined the phrase, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft’ awry.”  And that’s exactly what happened when Len decided the three of us would take the first sunny day and hike to the summit of Western Head.

Opposites attract.  I’d rather sit down with a cup of coffee and read a book; Len would rather challenge the summits.  I’d rather bake a sheet of cookies; Len would rather cut and stack firewood.  The pay-off for Len is that he gets to hear me quote a line or two from a book, or sample cookies; the pay-off for me is that I get to help stack wood, or go hiking.  Can this be fair?

“The wind is south.” Len said as we began to pack the knapsack. “This means the Back of the Land will be sheltered.”  He packed essential hardware, like binoculars, matches and the Kelly Kettle, and I packed the picnic.

“I thought we were only hiking to the summit, and coming back,” I complained, already feeling the perspiration breaking out on my brow.  In my mind, this hike should last one hour, and no more.  One of my faults, if you can call it a fault, is that I want to know all the rules right from the start.  I want to know start times and finish times, how far, and how long.

“We’ll just walk the loop,” he said, but I knew he’d change the rules; he always does.

Amy cheered me on.  “C’mon, Mom, you can do it!”

“Once we climb to the summit,” promised Len, “there are no hills.”  That was lie number one.  There were more lies to come.

As we toiled over the hills, I admired the majestic cliffs and winding pathways, the indigo blue of the sea, the pristine icebergs and the deep, plushy, pink moss beneath our feet.  When I remarked on the steep incline of the hills, Amy said, “They’re not hills, Mom, the ground just has a slight upward slope.”  What a girl.

An hour later, after a mad scramble down into the cove at Back of the Land, we arrived on the beach.  The south wind swept down through the valley.  “I thought you said it’d be sheltered,” I remarked.  Len looked surprised.  “I thought it would be, too.” he said.

That had to be lie number two.

We scavenged for driftwood on the beach and Len lit the fire successfully with one match.  “You fill the Kelly Kettle with water while I find kindling,” he said.

The Kelly Kettle, also aptly named the Volcano Kettle, was oft used by Irish fishermen on boats.  It is constructed of three parts:  firebase, chimney, and water chamber.  I pulled the cork out of the water chamber and filled it with the remainder of our bottled water and popped the cork back in.  Len lit the kindling in the firebase and we sat down, shivering in the cold wind, waiting for the kettle to boil.

“Shouldn’t you remove the cork?” I asked.  A warning on the kettle said, “ALWAYS REMOVE THE CORK BEFORE LIGHTING THE KETTLE.”  Len took a spoonful of beans and said, “It’ll boil faster this way.”

KABOOM!  The cork on its chain popped off like a gunshot.  The volcano kettle erupted, spewing boiling water.  The firebase tilted and fell into the grass.  The wind swept down and caught the embers, scattering them.  We leapt up, Len with scalded hands—there was no time for first aid—and ran to the beach for water, I stomped the flames with my feet, and Amy pinioned the plates to the table with both arms.

Fire out, it appeared as if our little picnic had fallen into cureless ruin, but Len salvaged the Kelly Kettle and handed it to me and I poured out a meager cupful of steaming tea, which we shared.

This misadventure will be a family memory we can laugh about over future campfires.

But, was Len satisfied with a one-hour hike?  Nope.  That was lie number three.  That one hour stretched into five, so it’ll be a frosty Friday before I venture out on another hike.  However, with global warming a cold issue in Newfoundland, that frosty Friday may come sooner than I think!