The Noble Caribou
These image plates are from two different books on Newfoundland recently digitized for the public domain by The British Library. They show the caribou, which is a large mammal that primarily lives on the barrens of the sub-arctic and arctic reaches. In this province they are most commonly sighted on Great Northern Peninsula of the island, and throughout Labrador. While not as plentiful as the moose, and in fact dwindling in numbers, the caribou is still a part of local foodways systems, particularly as you go farther north.
I have only ever seen one caribou in the wild. It was a young animal that had wandered away from its mother, away from its herd. We spotted him on Long Island in Placentia Bay—we were all heading along the same overgrown path through an inland valley. This animal was still a bit shaky on its legs, but had some grace nonetheless. Local lore states that these caribou are not native to the small island, but arrived by way of swimming a few decades back. This herd is small and elusive—they are highly respected and due to the small numbers, are not hunted in this area.
A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records. (With illustrations and numerous maps). 1895
Newfoundland. Its History, It’s Present Condition, and Its Prospects in the Future. (Illustrated). 1883
Paul-Émile Miot was a naval officer and photographer who documented the French migratory cod fishery in Newfoundland between 1857 and 1860. He made this photograph in 1857, having convinced his shipmates to paint the word Album on a large rock in Sacred Bay. The print is slightly damaged, and it’s difficult to spot some of the sailors. One is silhouetted prominently at the top of the outcrop. Below, a second man stands above a short ladder, his white shirt easily mistaken for a punctuation mark as he embellishes the letter M. A third lurks beneath the L, barely visible but for his collar and a staff he is holding.
Apparently, Miot intended to use the image as the title page of an album of Newfoundland photos. The paint could not have lasted long, but because of this image the landmark is still known as Album Rock, and there is a small exhibit about Miot in the nearby community of Ship Cove. Miot’s photographs are some of the earliest made in Newfoundland & Labrador, and many (including Rocher peint par les marins français) can be found in the National Archives of Canada. The National Gallery is currently exhibiting Paul-Émile Miot: Early Photographs of Newfoundland.
I am charmed by Album Rock’s implausible dignity. Atop a wind-blasted rock in the far north of the island, a man poses, aloof, as if in deep thought. There is a kind of yearning in the stylized detail of the lettering, every serif carefully in place despite being bedraggled by the rocky surface. The albumen print is scuffed and scratched, seemingly as timeworn as the rock it depicts. Looking at Ship Cove on a map, the notched peninsula itself is like a serif on the glyph of Newfoundland.
I feel certain a kinship with a man who, in the age of wet-plate photography, would expend precious plates and chemicals on a whimsical experiment. “In spite of the difficulties encountered on board in setting up a small, suitably-equipped photographic laboratory,” wrote Miot’s collaborator Georges-Charles Cloué, “Mr. Miot has succeeded in producing photographs of harbour entrances which offer the highest promise of what this highly-skilled officer could produce with an instrument that has a powerful lens and if he were not frequently halted by an inadequate supply of chemicals.” One hundred and fifty-six years later, looking at Album Rock, it is difficult to imagine Miot describing to his men the necessity of painting the massive word. Scrounging up buckets of leftover paint, perhaps improvising mops into paintbrushes. Historical photography so often preserves scenes of industry or formality, much less often such moments of idle whimsy. There is something incredulous about the entire scene. It’s as if Miot managed, somehow, to photograph a daydream.
Matthew Hollett lives in Corner Brook and makes photographs, poems, and other things. He has taught art and design at Memorial University, NSCAD, and Humboldt State University. He is interested in the visual culture of Newfoundland & Labrador.
MANDELA IS FREE:
An wonderful piece of folk art made by my grandmother Katie Wilson. I’m glad to have this in my collection.
Abandoned But Not Unloved
I frequently study, photograph and ponder the abandoned buildings I encounter in the outports. I like these buildings not only for their aesthetic qualities but also for what they communicate: the questions they beg, the answers they suggest. Why did you leave? Did you ever intend to return? Such buildings survive as reminders of rural people who are now gone. Individuals and families who lived differently than we do now, and built things differently. I imagine their endangered or extinct ways of life playing out ghost-like. These buildings keep standing, but are endangered too. They change quickly under the stress of the elements, or they are torn down, brusquely, as eyesores.
Will we ever be forced to leave our homes behind? When we’re gone, what ailing structures will stand to remind future residents of how we live now? These are the things I think about.
Check out this short video made by Justin Oakey and I about my friend Babe.
Tea with Babe Walsh (Ferryland)
Babe Walsh is an 83 year old woman from Ferryland who lives on the same waterfront property that she was born and raised on. Every winter when the snows arrive, she packs up and goes to a retirement home in Witless Bay where she spends her days walking on the road, waving to passers-by. Rest assured though, come May, she is back home on the farm.
Known locally for her dedication to the Newfoundland Pony as a heritage animal, Babe is an outspoken crusader with a deep capacity for warmth and compassion. Since our first visit, I have spent countless hours with her learning about everything from local folk beliefs and legends to traditional skills such as haymaking and animal rearing. This is a snapshot of the friendship we have formed, and a portrait of the generosity that still thrives in the outports today.
This is original content - materials gathered by Lisa Wilson and assembled by Justin Oakey.
Justin Oakey is a filmmaker and avid outdoorsman born and raised in Newfoundland whose work reflects his passion for the rich history and traditions of his island.
Britain’s Oldest Colony
Dominion of Newfoundland Railway Map, c. 1920
The Overland Route
Newfoundland Railway and Steamship Service pamphlet, 1948
Whales, Women and Salt Cod: Yard Art in Newfoundland
Yard art can take on surprising forms, and yet, most times we barely stop to ponder what it means. Often it appears in the yard as a random nostalgic object, placed purposefully for onlookers: a wooden barrel, a painted anchor, carts and wheels. The yard can become a space to display what is considered an important part of local history. It offers us a flash-back.
It can also show up in the form of folk-art: colourful hand-made objects, placed near the home. But what kinds of objects do people make, and why do they make them? These two photos of yard art in Quidi Vidi Village offer a few themes that commonly show up in yard displays in Newfoundland. Folk objects such as these tend to reflect an important aspect from a life that someone has lived. A life lived on the sea, for example, might mean building a model boat and wheeling it out onto the lawn for the summer, cutting wood to look like salt cod and nailing it to the store, carving a whale from strangely shaped driftwood, or hanging buoys at the perimeter of your garden.
Pride in where you are from might mean cutting out the shape of the island, and putting it on your door; depictions of the provincial flag and flower; painting the sides of outbuildings with scenes of beloved landscapes and animals; recreating iconic imagery, like a matronly woman wearing her trusted apron.
Sometimes though, it’s possible that the yard art you see is detached from meaning altogether… except to say: this is my yard. Whirligigs of recycled cans and bottles, built to spin in the wind; old bike wheels resting against the fence; rocks painted in bright, contrasting colors at the property line.
Lots of thoughts on farming and change in the outports today. Here’s Paddy from Ferryland, who never owned a car or tractor in his life.
An Ode to Oral History
Putting a recorder on the table changes the conversation in an instant. Nonchalant greetings and observations about the day’s weather suddenly stop. The atmosphere doesn’t necessarily become more formal, but it certainly becomes more calculated. When I tell people that I’m about to start recording, after a nod or a verbal acknowledgment, they let a silence fall. I always reassure them that this will be an informal conversation, and the recorder is only there to help “us” learn about what life was like in the past. Everyone I speak to understands how important this process is. Newfoundland is a place of great change, and unlike most places in North America, the breadth of this change has only been in seen within the past 30 years. Newfoundlanders of a certain age carry the living memory of a very different time: one rooted in community, isolation, tradition, and sustainable approaches to resources. The day-to-day life and anecdotes around this pre-disposable lifestyle is the one that I am most interested in collecting. And in doing so, I invariably feel a connection with my informants and learn much more than I could ever express through words.
I have been collecting oral histories in Newfoundland for over four years. My collection of recordings range in topic, length, and quality, but each one holds intrinsic value. Some people I speak with have been visited by other folklorists or academics because they have an existing reputation as a local tradition-bearer. Most times however, I am the first and last person to take such a deep interest in a person’s life story. These are the interviews I enjoy most - people who don’t know that they have important, interesting tales to tell are precisely the ones carrying stories that need to be heard.
Mr. Wells is one such man. Unassuming and warm, he holds court in his old fishing stage. Once an active outbuilding, it’s now simply a place to pass the time. He was a fisherman for 48 years and speaks with enthusiasm about his experiences. During our interview, he told me all about his life spent on the water. His stories ranged from memorable whale sightings, to more frightening and tragic tales such as when he went overboard in iceberg filled seas. Here is a transcribed excerpt of Mr. Wells talking about how fish was processed when he was a young man. In under two minutes of audio, he is able to recall a whole system of labour that no longer exists in Newfoundland. The value of such information is incalculable, particularly when you think of where Newfoundland will be in another 30 years.
"We used to have to split that, salt it, pickle it, we called it pickling. I used to be on the table headin’ all the fish. Doing the livers and headin’ fish. A feller just cut their throat and then you had to pick out the liver and then you had to break off the head. Put your thumb and finger in the eyes and shove there and you break the head off. The head, the young people then, they’d cut out the tongues out of the heads. There’s thousands of fish and they’d get ten cents a dozen for the tongues, that’s all. Ten cents is all they used to get for them and they were right fresh out of the water then. Now they’re a delicacy but they’re too expensive to buy, sure. Then, you could have them. You could have three tongues a day. You could fill up a small bucket full if you wanted. Cut them out when you’re cutting your fish."
Thank you Mr. Wells, for sharing your recollections.
Lisa Wilson is a professional folklorist living in St. John’s who collects oral histories and takes documentary photographs for archival collections. She is interested in the material culture of Newfoundland and the outport experience, past and present.
ORAL HISTORY TREATS:
Thank you Mrs. Snow for sharing your amazing Quidi Vidi life stories and offering this delicious slice of fresh-baked molasses raisin bread.
The incredible Mr. G. French shares stories of his youth and shows some family photos. His parents on the day of their wedding on the left, his own wedding is on the right.
SHIPWRECKS & HEROES:
Tom Dawe’s book of yarns, 1982.