Tag Archives: history

Keys, Shellfish, and Vikings (A Newfoundland Travelogue)

There was a blur preceding the steering wheel. I had been awake nearly thirty hours, with a toddler no less, and I was in and out of airport terminals and darkened airplane cabins from Alberta’s sunset to Newfoundland’s sunrise.

There isn’t a chance for me to do anything more than just sit in an airplane seat as restfully as my poor posture will allow. I obsess about design changes that could actually help me sleep. But I am in the wrong trade for having any influence on in-flight comfort—and I would probably involve a lot more hammock technology than airplane safety rules would allow.

My echo chamber flight was worsened by the fact that I dreaded our landing. Somewhere between securing my luggage at the drop-off and sitting down in my seat, I had lost the key to the luggage. We would land to about two-thirds of our luggage, held hostage by my idiocy (and the key, which probably fell out of my pocket when I dangled in the playground to amuse my child in the Edmonton airport.

Of course, that meant as soon as we landed, I got to get smashy. The regional airport we landed in, Deer Lake, was meant to get us as close to the kick-off of the itinerary I had planned. There are many benefits to flying into regional airports…their selection of TSA master keys, the codes for which are clearly marked on most commercial luggage locks, are not one of those benefits.

The key that best fit our suitcase was a flat-headed screwdriver.

2017-07-10 - Intro Pic Optional
Smashing it against an iceberg would have also worked.

I had five hours to forget about the luggage that gaped open in the backseat of our rented minivan (I know: minivans are awful, and awfully practical). Despite my the thirty hour blur that preceded that steering wheel, the next few hours allowed the road to hypnotize me, as it’s done countless times—I was able to lock in, and read the landscape, and not make a chore out of driving but ribbon myself into the route like the gulls threaded in and out of the sea.

The road can do this to me—and Sadhguru put it better in a video published after I returned…I poorly paraphrase his words as my own: essentially, I didn’t need to possess anything to make it mine. (The possessive at the end sounds malicious, but in context, making it mine means capturing it within the boundary of what I consider myself—i.e. oneness. I think I’ve over-explained it now).

The cautious guest

who comes to the table

speaks sparingly.

Listens with ears

learns with eyes.

Such is the seeker of knowledge.

            – Havamal

It took a mere four hours to time travel from bustling industrial Newfoundland, to days-gone-by-b’y coastal coves, to the tundra-esque north where my wife swore she saw an albino moose until we reached service and could definitively say we saw a caribou—then finally to Vinland, on the Northern Peninsula’s tip nub (that’s a geological term, I think).

2017-07-10 - Caribou
Caribou on the Northern Peninsula (Newfoundland, Canada).

That tip nub was long home to the ancestors of the people we now call First Nations. For a brief time, it fooled the Vikings into thinking it was a promised land, all to themselves. For a while after that, the English and French argued in Versailles over it. Now, it’s hard to say who lives there, because the sea ice was thick and within a week of me standing on an ice floe off the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve the Canadian government would announce $5M in support for fisherpeople and other seafolks who were held up or even trapped by atypical ice conditions.

The newcomer

needs fire

his knees are numb.

A man who has made

his way over mountains

needs food and fresh linens.

            – Havamal

The few people I did encounter were the nicest people I could have encountered after too many hours awake and too many kilometers and a hankering for the slimmest chance to lay horizontally and forget about everything. When we reached our cabin in Raleigh, Nanny & Poppy Hedderson were ready to offer us the comforts of home.

Between the drizzling day, the freezing wind that never fucking stopped, and my third or fourth wind that was threatening to stop at any point, I was just giddy to be able to parade on the roads of Raleigh and fall down if I so pleased, without driving my family into a rocky ditch.

So of course, I didn’t even hesitate when Poppy told me that the LIVE LOBSTER sign out front wasn’t even LIVE so much as it was STRAIGHT FROM THE OCEAN, which wasn’t so passive as it sounded. Poppy drove us out to the dock with a Dutch couple so that we could harvest our very own lobster.

2017-07-10 - Lobster Cages
“Would you care to sit in my parlour?”  – My Dinner Lobster

The tourist theatrics were so regular for Poppy that my ego wasn’t stroked when he asked me to help him haul the lobster cage out of the water. But it was hella fun. After the cage was opened, we fished through for the right lobster for each person, like we were fishing Valentine heart candies out of a bowl.

The lobster went straight from the ocean to a pot, and eventually to my plate with the oft-encountered pairing of garlic bread and Caesar salad. A little cod tongue to start, and some Iceberg beer to wash it down, and this is a recipe for making one sleep-deprived dude enter a semi-conscious state.

When I came to the next morning, we ate oatmeal and oranges and tea with a little cannabis honey before heading out to the Viking encampment beside a black beach. More formally, the camp is a National Historic Site. It was just above freezing, with ice stretching out to the horizon. It was surprisingly busy, but then again, national park sites like L’Anse-Aux-Meadows were free for Canadians to celebrate the sesquicentennial [Note: There were more international tourists than Canadians].

2017-07-10 - LAAM and Bay
The bay which the Viking settlement overlooked at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

On a given June day around 1000 CE, there were alien settlers on those shores. They built angular buildings with vented roofs and forged bog iron. Although tundra now, there’s understood to have been a historically warmer climate, so Leif Erikson and his crew would have found a peninsula rich with timber.

2017-07-10 - Tundra at LAAM
A cozy tundra stroll to the seaside settlement, L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

They had already found an endless stretch of precious wood further north, and an endless beach which would later appear in Norse epics. These were men from societies who were spiralling into what we might call intellect—budding into pursuits like cartography, astronomy, literature, architecture, and metallurgy.

None of this was necessary for survival, which was proven by the people the Vikings encountered when they made the first European contact with North America. From Viking sagas we know that there were Native people who visited the Norse Vinland encampment. Trade ensued, although Leif refused to trade their weapons.

When passing

a door-post,

watch as you walk on,

inspect as you enter.

It is uncertain

where enemies lurk

or crouch in a dark corner.

            – Havamal

This is obviously where some sort of rift ensued—or at least, that was what the dramatic video at the National Historic Site insinuated. It’s not understood exactly why the Vikings built buildings, had a couple smelts (100-200 boat nails?), stayed for less than a decade, then burnt it all down and sailed into the sunrise.

My guess is that people lie. Leif had an accident in the rough waters off the North Atlantic and had to post up for a bit to make some nails and rebuild his boat. But the place was bountiful and they had enough grapes to make a lot of wine.

You have a friend

you hardly trust

in whom you cannot confide,

with fair smiles

and false words

repay cunning in kind.

            – Havamal

But then again, there were already people here. It was the same problem Christopher Columbus would face. Except he came from a more brutal time and a more brutal place. In the fifteenth century Christianity was reaching its most logical conclusion, the Inquisition, and it probably didn’t seem odd to anyone that there were some things that looked like people but were clearly beasts or demons and could be done away with or used to expand the empire.

Be your friend’s

true friend.

Return gift for gift.

Repay laughter

with laughter again

but betrayal with treachery.

            – Havamal

It is odd that the Vikings, otherwise known for slaughters and looting, bowed out from Vinland. The people of Christ who came later did not seem to have the same restraint. [I later learned that the Saga of Erik the Red describes Leif Erikson’s Vinland discovery as an accident while en route to introduce Christianity to Greenland.]

I never cared for the Viking stereotype, because like Mongolians or Berbers there are always exaggerations, no different than more recognizable stigmatization following more modern wars. The tales from the time do tell about violent clashes between the Kavdlunait (Inuit word for foreigner) and the Skraelings (Norse word for savage). Recognizing that a stable community cannot be built while under constant attack, the sagas tell us the Norse simply left.

The Vikings may have had some direction from their Norse philosophers—maybe even Odin himself, contrary to Leif’s new found messiah…or just good common sense, like the complimentary proverbs on respectively cultivating and preserving a friendship:

A true friend

whom you trust well

and wish for his good will:

go to him often

exchange gifts

and keep him company.

            – Havamal

 

Go you must.

No guest shall stay

in one place forever.

Love will be lost

if you sit too long

at a friend’s fire.

            – Havamal

It was warm inside the re-created halls that Leif and crew burned to the ground a thousand years ago. The site itself is on the tippliest nub of the tip nub—the very northern edge of Newfoundland. The wind carried the cold of the sea ice, and five-foot deep snowpack remained as a reminder of winter. It was near freezing outside, but within the six-foot thick sod walls, we were welcomed and warmed.

2017-07-10- Viking Horn
Sounding in the fog at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

Because admission was free and I have made a point of proselytizing why that’s stupid, I wanted to make a point to pay my way and ensure a place like this doesn’t become a red line item in the budget that might as well be cut. Politicians use these sites the way they use anything else in their self-proclaimed jurisdiction. The Norse would have used Leif’s leap of faith to Vinland as a testament to their courage and knowledge of the world—the Trudeau government is using L’Anse-Aux-Meadows National Historic Site as a golden carrot. In two more years, six more years, ten more years (or however the election cycle shifts)…who knows where this tip nub falls.

Anyway, that’s all to say that I bought some shit. And I came away with a treasure: the Havamal, or The Words of the High One (the book itself was titled The Sayings of the Vikings).

If you are a collector of sacred books, or of written wisdom, or of eclectic ancient poetry, this may be the book you are missing. I hadn’t heard of the Havamal, but it has the reputation of being a northern compliment to the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas—so much so that it’s considered the ‘Wisdom of the North’.

That titled could be respectfully matched by the wisdom of the Dene, Inuit, or Sami. I wished I could have found more about the deeper history of the island’s first peoples, but it was sparse and usually more about conflict following contact rather than the ongoing lives of everyday people.

2017-07-10 - Tablelands Inukshuk
An inukshuk in the Tablelands, probably left unceremoniously by tourists for a selfie (Newfoundland, Canada)

The Vikings made a point to be remembered. I guess that’s why they burned shit down. You know, for posterity.

There is something in the Havamal that goes beyond ethnicity—the blunt, pragmatic proverbs speak to a philosophy coloured by self-reliance, exploration, and presence. It is a philosophy that I may as well have heard from a rig hand in some remote northern camp. The Icelandic literary critic Matthias Vidar Saemundsson summarizes it better than I can:

“The ethics of the Havamal are above all rooted in belief in the value of the individual, who is nonetheless not alone in the world but tied by inextricable bonds to nature and society; to adherents of such a philosophy, the cycle of life was single and indivisible, the living world in all its manifestations formed a harmonious whole. Infringement upon nature struck at the root of a man’s own existence. In the old philosophy of the North, each individual was responsible for his own life, shaped his own fortune or misfortune, and created a life for himself from his own resources.”

This is not to say that Vikings were self-sustaining saints. They were brutal in their expansion efforts and enslaved people and generally made use of Europe’s most outstanding gift to humanity, their institutional inability to give a fuck, as long as they were getting what they felt entitled to. But the weather is brutal too. At these northern climates, it’s a challenge for naked apes. We all bow to the wind.

As I continued exploring Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, I was reminded of the philosophy of the North that Saemundsson refers to. I’ve seen it across Canada…progressively more pronounced as you get away from the southern centres that measure their success by looking further southward.

2017-07-10 - Dock at Raleigh
Old fishing dock in Raleigh (Newfoundland, Canada)

Nanny & Poppy Hedderson knew that philosophy without ever having to crack open a book. It’s writ in the way the wind cuts through you. Or in the way that no one hears you scream out at sea. Or in the way that snow doesn’t care what you consider driveway or ditch. Or the way a stomach growls if the roads are closed and the grocery truck can’t visit your hamlet.

I am no Viking. I am native to nowhere. I can’t smelt bog iron and I can’t skin a caribou with nothing more than a sliver of rock. We are in a blessed time when so many of our survival needs are taken care of. We live in comfort, and as a result, we have time to quibble about identity politics. Which is fine on certain levels—however, the North reminds me that identity in itself is useless. You have to simply be capable and present. Anything else is a luxury.

The only luxury item I had was the broken suitcase in the van’s back seat. Not even realizing it until later, we approached this minor setback with the same fundamental approach used to get on when life was hard by the Natives, and the Vikings, and seemingly everyone before the most recent generations.

Back in Deer Lake the night before our flight, I made a trip to a hardware store to buy nylon rope and Gorilla tape. Like the Viking smelter who sat over the bog fire in Vinland, I sweated over my suitcase, reviewing my bondage knots and generously applying the tape like a cast.

2017-07-10 - Luggage Conclusion
The note read, “The clasps on this suitcase are BROKEN. If you need to open for security purposes, *please* secure it closed again.”

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. At the luggage carousel upon our return, as others impatiently huffed and begrudgingly hoisted their luggage off the conveyor, I jumped in joy that my suitcase emerged in one piece. It was the smallest, most privileged victory for self-reliance. No one else cared.

He is truly wise

who’s travelled far

and knows the ways of the world.

He who has travelled

can tell what spirit

governs the man he meets.

            – Havamal

On Where to Stick Your Free Parks Canada Discovery Pass

WARNING: This blog entry contains unapologetically elitist opinions. Reasonable arguments are included, but I’m going to make you read through my opinion first.

About a week ago, Canadian news reported that the Parks Canada website had crashed when traffic overwhelmed its servers. The reason for the traffic? The free Discovery Pass up for grabs in 2017.

The Liberal government announced that, as part of its platform and in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, national parks and historic sites would be free for every Canadian citizen. It was a very minor platform plank, something to tout Canadian heritage and maybe win over some newer Canadians who feel disconnected with the natural abundance of our great landscape.

A minor platform plank—but for me, this was a sticking point. And it still is.

Before the 2015 election, my father and I were standing in Banff National Park, waiting for the Canada Day parade. He offhandedly brought up this policy idea. I didn’t even have to tell him how stupid of a platform plank that was. He just had to look around.

For those not in the know, Canada Day is probably the worst time to visit the mountain parks. The crowds become mobs, drivers become the me-first-and-fuck-you-very-much kind of motorists you find in any city, and the roadside attractions become mere backdrops for narcissistic selfies. I put up with the parade for my parents. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be within earshot of the place.

In brief, the Banff townsite becomes a diorama of everything I find sad about modern society. And the Liberal government only wants to proliferate this tragic diorama.

Let me unpack that statement a little. I am no old stock Canadian, fearful of immigrants starting to infiltrate parks and historical sites. Despite that—or at least, despite the image propagated by the Liberal government—I am an avid outdoorsman, hopelessly devoted to the Canadian landscape.

That doesn’t mean I am the best at everything outdoors, or that I have fancy expensive equipment. In fact, I pack lo-fi gear as a rule. My friends ask for gear tips for the backcountry, and I have nothing to offer them.

Quite frankly, you only need two things to enjoy nature: the capacity to be present, and a will to survive.

And let’s face it. Our society has a massive attention deficit problem. As a culture, we do not have the capacity to be present. It’s just not a value that is promoted. Even the Lululemon aphorisms or optimistic Instagram quotes about ‘staying in the moment’ are bullshit lip service. The true capacity to remain focused, and to maintain that focus for a prolonged period, is very difficult.

I don’t claim to have this capacity any more than you. But I sure do value it. And our national parks, typically being the largest, wildest places a public citizen can visit, offer a brilliant opportunity to practice. There’s no better place to get in touch with your animalistic nature than being wildly unprepared in a place that offers no help, no comfort, no easy way out.

Trudeau sees—or so he says—an opportunity for new and old Canadians alike to get to know their country. What does that mean, in our current cultural mode, for a place like Banff National Park? It means more commercial properties, more roads so we don’t have to actually walk, more intrusion, more fragmented ecosystems, more big name brand stores so you can shop for the same shit you would buy in any suburban mall—but with a mountain in the background!

National Geographic had a lengthy look this year at how this same model operates in Yellowstone National Park. With the intent to try to infuse nature back into our lives, we impose our lives on that very nature and hope that seeing it in small glimpses out the side of a tour bus will be the placebo we need.

I will say, from personal experience, this opera glass experience is useless. If you go into the wild and don’t break a sweat, or feel lost, or get the minutest sense that all your synthesized identities are a facade of the mind, to convince itself it is something other than nature—forgetting you are nature—well, you might as well throw in an episode of Planet Earth in between binge-watching the newest season of Fuller House.

That’s my elitism about it. No Kardashians allowed, basically.

Now for a little more reason.

It is easy to forget that little over a year ago, Canadians had a very different federal government. Not only was our national leader a lot less prone to selfies, he had a fundamentally different approach to our natural resources. For the Harper regime, Parks Canada was just another department that needed to cut its budget…you know, so Harper could spend money saving Christians and advertising about how great it is.

Since 2012, Parks Canada had its budget drastically cut, seeing 600 jobs lost, winter service suspended for many locations, and a doubling of entry rates. More than $27M was cut from the 2014/2015 budget, even though Parks Canada identified a $2.8B backlog of maintenance and repair work for its buildings in “poor and very poor” condition. At the same time, Parks Canada generated $3.3B for the economy, spread across 400 communities in the country. And still, Harper let it bleed out.

Now, after all these cuts, the Trudeau government is throwing open the gates. Harper starved the beast, and now Trudeau is putting it on display in a cage.

Revenues account for ~25%  of Parks Canada’s permanent budget, with approximately half of this revenue from entry fees. This ~12.5% will need to be accounted for by the federal government, so in a way, we’re all paying anyway. But what’s worse is that the use of government funding is notoriously inefficient. Generated revenues are probably the most carefully spent 25% of the budget. Will this be the same when it’s coming from government coffers?

That doesn’t matter to Trudeau and Catherine McKenna, because they obsess that the experience isn’t accessible. How is a decimated public service going to be any more accessible to people? How is overcrowding and development of a wild area going to help that? Should this experience be easily accessible?

Liberal MP John Aldag, formerly in parks management, put it best: “[…] when you do have crowding conditions, it impacts the entire visitor experience and it can have ecological or cultural integrity impacts.” The current visitor experience manager for Banff National Park echoed these concerns.

Aldag’s solution? “In some ways, it’s managing visitor experience.”

Oh ok, great. So in order to gain an experience of our national parks and historic sites, we have to compromise that experience. That makes a lot of sense.

Overall, this minor opinion won’t change a minor policy. So I am appealing to you, dear Reader.

Sure, take advantage of whatever bonus the government is providing. They are few and far between. But don’t be an asshole about it. Go to the parks, see the sites, but leave some of your civilization at home. Park your car (if you can find parking), leave behind your entitlement for comfort and convenience, and try to immerse yourself in our natural wonder.

Value that experience that can’t be had anywhere else. You can manage your own experience, without compromise, without the government patting you on the back and saying “You’re a real Canadian now!” Make this more than a reprise of a Black Friday sale.

 

Think radicals like me shouldn’t have so much to say about Parks Canada? Then get in on this federal consultation on the Parks Canada Agency Act, because you’re fucking right that I’m bringing my opinion: http://www.letstalkparkscanada.ca/

Sir John A Macdonald Turns Two Hundred (a poem)

SIR JOHN A TURNS TWO HUNDRED

I have fond memories of Sir John A Macdonald,

(Canada’s first prime minister

who would have turned 200 today

had he been a vampire).

.

I have fond memories of John Mac—

not the man, of course,

the Hamilton high school.

.

For years my sister danced in competitions there.

(She danced competitively lots of places,

it was a great way for me to travel,

but something I could never appreciate at the time,

helping my mother lug bags of costumes and shoes).

.

She danced in Hamilton annually

at Sir John A High.

I never saw the place with students, only

with sequinned tots and pre-teens

with long fake eyelashes and too much blush

and taut hair and ticking tap shoes.

.

If I tell people now about

how many dance competitions I attended

they say something like,

‘Oh, lucky you, all those girls

and you that handsome boy’.

I was never handsome and rarely was I lucky.

This was no exception.

.

The girls were dolled up so much that they were fake,

or they were mean and called Brodie and me

things like Dork and Dorker,

or Ugly and Uglier,

and I was always the more pejorative one.

.

Brodie’s sister also danced.

We were bored lots together.

One time in New Jersey we spent days running around

whatever bumblefuck suburb we were in.

(We rode with the girls on the bus down there from Toronto,

tormented the whole time,

with the dance teachers smirking on,

thinking we were having fun being made fun of).

.

Those first few times in South Carolina

we made prank phone calls and found every nook in that theatre

and Brodie’s dad decided to take us away for a day,

and we went deep sea fishing,

and I got so sick I spent the whole time trembling in a blanket

beside a garbage can below deck

(I have never been deep sea fishing again).

.

I remember Sir John A High as a sprawling school,

a huge theatre that made it perfect for dance competitions,

and so many levels that it had an escalator.

.

Every year for one weekend the place was crawling

with these little dancers.

If I had been old enough to get high I

would have been so tripped out.

Feathers and flashy fabrics,

Spandex and sparkling glitter.

.

Brodie and I had seen enough dance routines to know how they go.

We had lots of time to wander.

We probably knew these venues better than the architects who built them.

.

At Sir John A we found stairwells and unlocked doorways,

A way onto the roof,

And the maze of its hallways.

.

The first time we found the way out

of the public area we climbed up

the motionless escalator

and scoured the shadowy hallways.

We were still young enough to think

school was a venerated institution,

so being in an unsupervised school

was a thrill we could not fathom.

.

In this one long hallway we found an open locker.

Then another open locker.

All the lockers were unlocked.

They were full of stuff.

Books, papers, binders,

shit left behind by students in a hurry

to get the fuck out for summer vacation.

.

Naturally, we started going through

the strange and exciting finds.

Then we left behind intrigue

and welcomed chaos.

.

We tossed out all the shit from the lockers,

emptied them all out and left the mess

in the darkened hallway.

.

Then we thought we heard someone coming.

We ran the hell out of there.

That was how we found the way onto the roof.

.

When we thought the coast was clear we

tiptoed back through that disastrous hallway.

.

That was Canada, there:

Treasures left orderly in good faith,

scattered by disenfranchised

and bored explorers in a new territory,

lining the empty hallway,

becoming a tousled tiling

that made sense in its own way.

.

That was how I knew Sir John A.

Happy birthday.

(And sorry about the mess we have made).