Gravitas -- Republican Style
August 30, 2008
It has been clear for some time now that John McCain isn't a serious person. He seldom says anything that digs more than an inch beneath the surface of an issue. He brags that he doesn't have to think. Little he has done during his political life indicates a broad grasp of governmental problems. And now he has chosen a person to be vice president of the United State to whom he had talked briefly two times before he announced her as his appointment.
If the choice of the vice-presidential running mate is a candidate's first presidential decision, then John McCain has revealed himself as a frivolous aspirant to the Oval Office. Flippancy has been McCain's strategy for promoting his status as a maverick. He likes to say things he considers witty, and he likes to be known as a person who utters clever sentiments. That might be okay were there anything else to go with them. But McCain is nothing but flippancy; he doesn't balance it with thoughtful concern for the public well-being.
We can hope the public will see McCain's appointment as the garish insult to their intelligence it is. Supposedly, women who were disappointed because Hillary Clinton didn't prevail over Barack Obama will vote for McCain simply because he now has a woman on his ticket. No matter that the woman is opposed to virtually everything Senator Clinton stands for. She's still a woman.
That McCain couldn't find a single well-known Republican politician he dared to put on his ticket should have told him something about the state of his party. But that's not the kind of lesson McCain can take in. In fact, the Sarah Palin shenanigan shows he's incapable of learning. He has to fall back on childish antics whenever he decides to demonstrate boldness. That is the man the American people are being asked by the Republican Party to invest with dangerous powers of life and death. It's a silly request.
No More Lying in the Road
August 29, 2008
Obama's speech last night accomplished two things, both necessary but one more important than the other. First, he laid out in greater detail than he has before the major policies he will pursue when he becomes president. He has been short -- in his major addresses -- on that sort of information, so though he has published fairly full position papers he had not pushed his program into public view as forcefully as he needed to.
The second, and far more important part, was his announcement to the public and, particularly to the Republican Party, that he's not going to cower before Republican attacks. If John McCain thinks he going to drive a Hummer over the Democratic candidate, he had better go shopping for a pretty big Hummer.
Obviously, it has been intensely frustrating to watch Democratic candidates in the past shy off from punching Republicans in the mouth. Both Gore and Kerry were too timid to do it, and watching them neglect opportunity after opportunity was almost enough to drive one crazy. Recently there has been a fear that Obama, in the interests of unity and attracting disgusted Republicans, was about to follow the same course. If he ever had that in mind -- which I doubt he did -- the Party has let him know that they won't stand for it. The two Clintons led the way and Obama followed them with full vigor. It was a satisfying moment and the crowd in the stadium showed how long they've been waiting for it.
One thing more Democrats need to do to show they're not going to be patsies any longer: stop praising John McCain for his service to the country. He has been praised more than he deserves. He got shot down while dropping bombs on people who posed no threat whatsoever to his country. I understand the conditions under which he did it, so I'm not blaming him for it. But, on the other hand, it wasn't the most glorious thing ever done either. And it has nothing to do with his abilities to manage the government intelligently. So, as far as I concerned, Democrats should hush up about it and concentrate on John McCain the politician while forgetting about John McCain the jet jockey. I know the Democrats won't be bold enough to follow my advice in that respect. But, I wish they would.
The Ultimate Icon
August 28, 2008
Politicians are required always to speak in code. The particular string of arbitrary meaning I find most difficult to swallow lately is Democratic criticism of the Bush administration for "going it alone in the world." What's actually being spoken of is a imperial, militaristic policy which has caused the deaths, in a near-murderous fashion, of tens of thousands of persons over the past seven years. But no politician can say that because it might be taken as criticism of the brightest current icon of American romanticism, "the troops," or more accurately, "our troops." (Have you noticed how no one talks about "our FBI" or "our CIA"?)
"Our troops" must be saluted as the best thing about America, rising far above anything else in which we might presume to take pride. And, certainly, no evidence about what American military personnel actually do can ever be allowed to darken the glowing image we have made of them.
When young American men take bound Iraqis to the edge of a canal, shoot them in the head, remove the restraints, and dump the bodies in the water, are the shooters "our troops" then? It would be an interesting question to put to John McCain, but I'm pretty sure that no one able to get into his vicinity would have the courage to do it.
You don't have to make monsters of American soldiers and marines to see them as they are. They are not monsters. But neither are they gods, and casting them as gods is not doing either them, or us, any good. I was a soldier once, and I can assure you that the soldiers around me were not celestial beings.
Why is it not good for them to be spoken of as gods? Because it helps manipulative politicians send them off into violence -- in which many of them are going to get their brains blown out-- for reasons that cannot stand examination. Examination, you see, is not an appropriate response to the actions of gods.
Hundreds of thousands of people are now dead or maimed because we enjoy indulging ourselves in military romanticism. We ought to stop doing it. But guess what? We're not going to stop doing it anytime soon, and as long as we don't, our politicians won't either.
August 23, 2008
Need it be said that ABC-Washington Post news polls are idiotic?
Already, just a few hours after Obama announced he had chosen Joe Biden as his running mate, the poll concluded that "Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate is unlikely to shakeup the presidential horse race." This is based on the finding that three quarters of voters say Obama's choice won't make any difference to them.
How do they know? They haven't observed the campaign; they don't know who McCain will pick; they don't know how the two vice presidential candidates will compare to one another in debate; they don't know anything about Biden's influence.
Polls like this are nothing but popping off. Yet, they are announced as though their findings are virtually oracular. In fact, news has become little more than the announcement of more and more popping off, and news analysts spend most of their time pontificating about it.
The practice empties the campaign of substantive political meaning. It turns us into a nation of bobble-heads.
We hear more and more expressions of disgust over the facile nature of polling. Yet no one seems to know how to defang it, and not very many want to.
August 22, 2008
If there's any political fact that should be established in a sentient person's mind, it is that when Republican candidates talk about taxes, they lie. Perhaps they deserve a twinge of sympathy. They have no other choice. If they didn't lie they would lose. Consequently, their message about taxes has to be addressed to the portion of the population who knows virtually nothing about government. After all, any Republican who is halfway informed knows his party's message about taxes is false. He likes it that way because he wants the results that rise from the deception. So, the party in its message isn't after him. Instead, the target is the voter whose decision is determined by vague sentiments and defective syllogisms. They're after the guy who will say, "I don't want my taxes raised and the Republicans are against raising taxes so I'll vote for them." If you told him that the Democrats are not going to raise his taxes and, besides, that failure to collect adequate funds for needed public services will cost him more in the long run, he would find that too complicated.
Democrats are frustrated by their inability to craft an argument that will thwart Republican falsity. Their problem is, they are mistaken about what they need. They shouldn't be seeking to point out the illogic in the Republican argument. Rather they should simply turn to the statement that Republicans lie. Democrats shouldn't say it aggressively. They should never appear to expect a challenge. They should present it as simple, commonsensical, everyday fact, as though they were noting that if the sun shines tomorrow, it will be warmer. This is the tactic that will, gradually win over the voters the Republican have been addressing. Republicans lie when they talk about taxes. That's who they are. That's what they do. Period. End of story.
If every Democratic candidate would make that statement every time he appears in public between now and November, the outcome of the election wouldn't be in much doubt.
August 21, 2008
So now the Republican candidate doesn't know how many houses he owns. This may be the essence of Republicanism. If the Democrats and Obama can't make use of this instance of McCainiana, they may as well withdraw from the presidential race.
American history is rich with irony but there can scarcely be any greater instance of it than the public's supposed ability to identify with McCain while feeling put off by Obama's background. I wonder what percentage of the American public is unsure about the number of houses they possess. Guess what? I'll bet Obama knows how many houses he has. In that, he's just like the rest of us.
I don't hold with the notion that the president should be just like the average guy walking down the street in Peoria. If that were the case, why go to the expensive bother of a presidential campaign? Why not just send an FBI team to Peoria to scoop somebody up? On the other hand, it probably is useful for the president to have some sense of the lives led by the people he presumes to serve. If he doesn't, his concentration will be directed at goals which have nothing to do with the health of the people. And that's exactly what we see in John McCain. When he thinks of the United States the people who inhabit the country have almost nothing to do with his concepts. For him, the United States is a power structure whose only purpose is to gobble up more power. Keep in mind, victory is all he cares about. But victory for whom? Not for the people who live here.
In thinking of McCain, the people have a clear choice. Do they want to surrender themselves to someone who wants only to use them? Is a McCain-like notion of national grandeur ample recompense for a ground-up social structure, wasted lives, diminishing opportunity for young people, an emptied-out dollar, and streets made up mainly of pot holes? If that's what they want they've got their man, although they may have trouble finding him among his many houses.
The American Prejudice
August 19, 2008
I've heard considerable commentary on the two candidates' responses to Rick Warren's question about evil. A common theme has been that Obama's answer was thoughtful whereas McCain's was presidential. These are seen to mark a strong contrast. They are also seen to represent a decided advantage for McCain.
You'll recall that McCain said he would defeat evil. After all these millennia of human history, with millions working to combat evil, we now have a potential leader who will not merely struggle against it but will do it in. I guess we ought to snatch him up, and in the process beg him also to banish death and disease.
Somebody could write a great book about how it came to be in American politics that in a response to a question the more simplistic answer is the more presidential. Thinking is something that non-presidential persons do. Great presidents, by contrast act. They don't have to think. Consequently, a person who's incapable of thought is best suited to occupy the White House. That seems to be the core message of McCain's campaign. No thought would ever sully the brain of President McCain.
It's difficult to see how the promise can be appealing, yet journalists continue to tell us that it's a powerful and popular stance. Wielding it vigorously is like slashing away with Excalibur.
It remains to be seen just how sharp it will be this season. I suspect we'll see it used as violently as possible by the Republicans, and the outcome may turn on whether Obama will seize the opportunity to point out, with a proper seasoning of sarcasm, that the idea of thoughtless president is pure silliness.
August 17, 2008
Watching Rick Warren interview Barack Obama last night, I was reminded that Stuart Shepard, who makes videos for Focus on the Family recently asked people to pray for torrential rains when Obama makes his acceptance speech in Denver on August 28. He and his sponsor received so much ridicule for the request that they eventually backed off and said it was a joke. But it's pretty clear they didn't mean it as a joke when they first announced it.
I'm not sure that Rick Warren is the kind of person who thinks God would respond to prayers of that sort, but on the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if he were. Warren is supposed to represent a new style of Evangelicalism which "is more socially minded and diverse than the orthodox religious movement of the Christian right," according to the New York Times report. But it seemed to me, watching Warren's encounter with the two candidates, that his difference from Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson is more of manner than of substance.
He continues to be, as his predecessors have been, devoid of any grasp of complexity. Everything is black and white, good and evil, godly or ungodly. There's little inclination to accept that situations can be complex and involve some things that we like and some that we don't.
Now, once again, we are being told that the candidates must appeal to people who think that way or risk failure. And we're also told that there's something invigoratingly American about dismissing all subtleties. It's a euphemistic way of saying that American strength and virtue lie in stupidity.
Whenever I see shows like the one broadcast last night, I'm grateful that I'm not a politician. Having to respond to Warren's syrupy questions without pointing out their foolishness requires a form of patience I'm not sure I have. At, at the moment, I don't see the lack as a weakness.
August 14, 2008
I certainly don't know for sure what's happening on the border between Russia and Georgia, but I do know for sure that I'm not going to find out by listening to the network news reports. From them, you get the impression that the outbreak of violence is no more than inexplicable aggression by the Russian military. And the New York Times this morning had an editorial that was so mixed up it was hard to tell what was being said, yet the impression it left was that Russia is just bad for no reason at all.
I have no doubt that the Russian government can be brutal. They have demonstrated that quality before. But to paint Georgia and its president Mikheil Saakashvili as innocent, democratic victims is more than naive. The Georgian army did kill some people in South Ossetia, the province in which Russian forces were supposed to be keeping the peace. How many people the Georgians killed, and why, is uncertain, but at the least it's fairly obvious that their actions gave Russia an excuse to retaliate.
The goal of the United States should be to calm passions there, rather than exciting them by nonsensical bluster. John McCain's commentary on the situation is close to irrational, and shows no grasp of the complexities at work. If this is how he's going to react to outbreaks of violence around the world, then we're in deep trouble if he becomes president.
Reason is the only tool the U.S. has to apply in the region. We clearly can't exercise any force there. The kind of school yard taunts and threats President Bush and Senator McCain have been directing at the Russians will only make them more belligerent. And if Russian does decide to take over Georgia, what will we do then?
If the press had intelligence enough to let the American public know that this isn't a black/white situation, then American officials might be pressured to exercise intelligent diplomacy. But with the people in the dark, figures like McCain conclude they can enhance their reputation for toughness by issuing empty threats, and not run the risk of being considered reckless.
The media supposedly learned something from their childish support for Bush's aggressive rhetoric in 2002 and 2003. But what they learned is hard to discern right now.
The Genuine Struggle
August 13, 2008
The publication of Jerome Corsi's new book attempting to hatchet Barach Obama is a symbol of the process the American people have to go through in order to reinstitute a democratic republic. The book is a pack of lies, but shortly it will be at the top of the New York Time's list of nonfiction bestsellers, boosted by large numbers of bulk sales. Its influence on the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama will be a pretty good indicator of the distance Americans have to travel to regain national sanity.
Gradually, ever so gradually, the American people are waking up to the kind of operatives who have directed their national experience over the past decade. Yet, still, a good portion of the population is not only willing, but eager, to gulp down nonsense that has been crippling the nation. When Joseph Lieberman can introduce John McCain with the slam that McCain is a real patriot whereas Obama is not, as he did recently, and not be booed off the stage as the freak and fanatic he has become, it shows we are still in deep danger.
The problem is that many people, including many journalists who should know better, continue to swirl through the same cycle without discerning a pattern in it. Remember when Michael Mukasey's appointment to head the Justice Department was hailed as a return to integrity for the nation's legal organization. Why did anyone believe that when Mukasey was appointed by Bush? Why did anyone think Bush would appoint a person who would take an independent stance at Justice? Now we see pretty clearly who Mukasey is. His argument that violating the law is not necessarily a crime will define him forever, and, I suspect, will end up making him more of a joke than Alberto Gonzales ever was. But why were we willing to be deluded in the first place, and why did it take us so long to see what had been foisted on us?
At the moment many of us are listening to the message that McCain is not really another version of Bush. He can fail to vote on the renewable energy bill eight times in a row, and people will still believe he supports an energy policy that's not designed to reward oil companies as much as possible. Why? Do they not really know how he has voted during his time in the Senate?
The Afghan war has gone on for seven years now, consuming thousands of live and uncountable resources, and yet some Americans appear to believe McCain's proclamations that military victory is just around the corner, if we will simply clinch our jaws tight enough.
A hideous bill of goods has been peddled to the American people, and they will continue to suffer from it unless they wake up and recognize it as a pack of tripe. How quickly that can happen is the fundamental political question facing us. You might even say it's the only one that matters.
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.
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 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 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 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 my "Out and About" page, 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.
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 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.
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