“The island floating ahead of me like a moon, tugging me
forward. Whatever it has in store.
. . . there it was, pulling and me already going its way.”
Those are the words of Canadian poet John Steffler in his book, “The Grey Islands” re-issued by Brick Books in 2015. The narrator in this montage of story, poetry, and character monologues is a man undergoing something of a mid-life crisis. He leaves Ontario for Newfoundland, and after a year or so, he leaves that part of the Province for an abandoned island offshore. He was already going its way.
The man is planning a year alone in one of the left-behind houses, and he is very alone except for the occasional stop of the mail boat with supplies or fishermen from other outports who sometimes come into the cove following fish or shooting ducks. They tell him stories of those who used to live on his island, the ghosts that haunt its landscapes, the predictable craziness of the weather. It’s these stories and his own regrets that keep him company when the winter ice moves in and isolates him completely.
I was fortunate this past summer to spend three weeks on Newfoundland. It was my fourth trip there, and the pull of the island for me is like, well, like the tide. Here’s a short essay of mine from that time.
II. Wise Women
Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland
We couldn’t find the path, the trail through the barrens around the headland, the “official” trail. We followed narrow ones instead thinking, perhaps this will be it. But each only led to another made by the unseen—deer, berry-pickers, other wildlife we hoped to see, maybe even ghosts.
We had been promised an official trail, though, and after twisting and turning and twisting, we were frustrated and grumpy. We cast about for explanation: How could experienced hikers like us go so wrong? Why didn’t they make it more clear? Where was the signage?
We eventually stopped as if to turn back—a waste of a trip. The rocks stood silent. The wind off the Labrador Sea blew into our collars. The cloud blanket held onto rain. The lichen never moved.
Then the spirit of the place grabbed us and we said, Let’s keep on. We’re in it now. We’ll cross-country to the trail. We can’t get lost. We were reassured by the long view across the barrens showing a thin line of official trail along the bay in the distance.
But we forgot about the many secrets of barrens and the melding of space and time among rocks that move imperceptibly over eons -- and sometimes over late summer afternoons. We should have know how the “next rise” isn’t necessarily the next rise at all, how there could be hidden bogs to go around and deep tangles of sharp spruce scrub taking you into another direction. We didn’t remember how climbing a stand-out rock for a better view forward can deliver the “wrong” view, the one you didn’t imagine, the uncertainty of your own certainty.
We didn’t care. We laughed. It was fun. It was freeing. The blueberries were ripe. We imagined others who had gone before, pack baskets against their bent backs. We embraced the day.
Until we realized how far away everything really was. The official trail wasn’t getting any larger (when we could glimpse it). We could see how high we had climbed and how down down down we would have to go, and could we even again find the way back from which we came? We remembered our sixth-decade bodies.
We came to an edge, a cliff. Not a terrible cliff. Only a tiny stream trickled on one side, otherwise good-looking dirt. We could do this, we said. We would get there. We started down, picking our way. Rolling pebbles and gravel accompanied us. Roots offered handholds. The streambed sucked at our shoes. A wide meadow waited at the bottom and beyond that the bay. We were wise women that day, abroad in the country, knowing, after all these years the certainty of this life’s uncertainty.
I’ll come back to Newfoundland in upcoming segments. For now, I’ll close with John Steffler:
“not man’s time here.