Gulf of St. Lawrence

Editing: the long and the short of it

For a lifelong scribe like me, a big experience is almost always accompanied by the desire to write about it. It's a way of incorporating it, literally bringing it deeper into myself by thinking, distilling, describing. Having started as a journalist, I first thought of newspapers as an outlet for an account of my trip to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But what would the angle be? The functioning of the ship as it works out the bugs that come with being new, so a quasi-business angle? The scenery and the communities I visited, so more a travel piece? Know your audience is the common advice to writers, but newspaper feature stories have a general readership. I would need to write about all those things, condense them into a journalistic narrative that would show that yes, the ship was behind schedule, which meant we had to explore some of the picturesque villages in the dark and the people in the communities were forced to wait unpredictable lengths of time to board their way out to "civilization". Those things were true, yes, but it was also true that the boat was comfortable, beautiful in an industrial sort of way, the food exceptional, the scenery something not often seen, because it so far out there, the Gulf. So far out to everyone but the people who live there.

My first run came in at almost 3000 words and even that left out details about the ship personnel I had talked to and the ship itself, plus some character cameos, and 3000 words would be too many for a newspaper feature, even the few that publish long-form journalism these days. My first solution was to divide it into two parts: part one, an overview; part two, the characters on the boat and their social realities. People are what make a trip for me. I couldn't leave them all out. I sent the draft article to a couple of friends who had asked about the voyage, and both urged me to publish; one suggested a well-known publication whose submission guidelines I researched only to find that the longest acceptable feature was only 1500 words. Would such extensive cuts cause fatal bleeding? Could my piece survive at half length?

Folks who don't sit at their desks every day dealing with words might not understand why I found the process thrilling. A good workout. What a lesson! I discovered ways of making sentences more economical,  that I had more or less introduced the same idea more than once, even if on the surface they didn't appear like the same ideas. I jettisoned qualifiers, words like however and perhaps, and personal observations that applied, but that a reader could do without. I actually felt as if I had won a prize when I clicked on word count in the tools menu and saw 1494. Blessed concision. Almost poetry! As a teacher I used to tell my students that feelings like this are what a writer gets instead of money.

I have written long and short form journalism, magazine features, documentary film scripts, and a non-fiction book, but in the last number of years I have been thinking long, as novelists do, since I write mostly novels now.  Though I coined the motto, "all the news that fits," when I was editor of a weekly newspaper, cutting to fit is something I haven't regularly practiced for a long time. It has been fun to relearn basic principles, but... there is more to say. With publishing going the way it is; with more writers seeking fewer publishers of all kinds,  I have no idea if the well-known publication whose guidelines inspired me to slash my piece will accept it. If not, I am going back to longer forms. Instead of cutting, I am going to expand. I am going to write more about the ship and the individuals I met, more background, more anecdotes. I am going to tell it how it was, for me, because good stories are never simple. It might even end up as a novel.

It's the Water...

"It's the water that unites us," the woman said, glancing out the window as if she could see the people on the land she was referring to, the north, south and west shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. To the east there was only more water, the open Atlantic and then, Europe.

On the other side of the continent now, Pacific, peaceful in character and intent, says the dictionary, under pacific. Utterly tranquil the evening of a hot July day, with low sunbeams spotlighting what the neighbours call a rasta boat. Peaceful in intent, but a cold slap when skin meets water. Soon silky, better. The surface patterns break light; can't see a thing beneath, not here, at this depth; but there are things, living beings like seals, fish, jellyfish that wash on shore at a certain time of year, crabs.  Other shelled creatures, all invisible from this top layer where sudden chilly currents flood my arms so that they feel almost separate, wings; then, just as suddenly, warm again, as if a body has passed through, like when you choose a seat someone has left. Could be it was something large. There have been dolphins in this part of Howe Sound, orcas further out, beyond the gap between two islands, in the open straight for sure. Recently closer, along the ferry route. Elusive. If you look for them, you never see them, but they have been here, even grey whales spouting in front of a beach yoga class.

Swimming alone, fingers together to make paddles pushing back in arcs as if I were fashioning snow angels on my stomach, legs kicking out. Mountains close enough to reach but not by swimming, not that close.  Only eyes reach the stony tops and forested slopes whose foundations rest in the sea. Sun bursting broken through foliage, then emerging whole for an instant as the dock comes closer on the return. When a boat has sped by, or the offshore wind picks up, the water responds with wavy displacement. From eye level, opaque hills with white crests immediately break into crazy designs of dark and darker, shiny, a dog's wet coat, or a duck's, but not those at all, just water, swelling. Stop, bob; let the water hold, slip into ear, splash into eye. Taste of salt.

The standard greeting, as neighbour meets neighbour on the dock: how's the water? And all kinds of theories. Best time to swim is when the tide is flooding in over warmed rocks. Better when the air is colder. Not warm until July, even August.  In fact, the temperature varies little. Always colder at the bottom, milder at the surface, but seldom higher than 15 degrees celsius. A few degrees more perhaps as summer peaks, but never as balmy as Hawaii or Bali.  Yet, on the whole, the North Pacific is warmer than the South Pacific, and that is because there is more coastline in the North. Also, because cold water from Antarctica enters the South Pacific, whereas most of the cold outflow from the Arctic Ocean moves into the Atlantic on the transpolar drift.

Walking home, stopping to look back: the surface is rippled, fretted. There are no hills at all.
Tides, upwellings, currents swirling from one side of the planet to another, it's the water that unites us.

Serendipity and Geopoetics

Blanc Sablon harbour
Funny how things happen. Just as I was planning to research geopoetics as defined by Kenneth White, whose name I came across serendipitously at a museum in La Rochelle, France,  I dropped into my local art gallery to buy a card and found an exhibition by Hiroshi Shimazaki, who works from a similar principle. Says Shimazaki, "Geography and painting share a common concern: the study of the relationship between people and environment."

White, a poet and essayist, says: "If, around 1978, I began to talk of geopoetics it was for two reasons. On the one hand,  it was becoming more and more obvious that the earth (the biosphere) was in danger and that ways both deep and efficient would have to be worked out to protect it. On the other hand, I had always been persuaded that the richest poetics came from contact with the earth, from a plunge into biospheric space, from an attempt to read the lines of the world."

Meantime I am trying to condense my thoughts about the interaction between the people and the
environment of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I am trying to read the lines of that far flung place. My immediate and specific purpose is to write a feature article for whatever journals will run it. I am a communicator. I like to tell people about things. But the experience was so rich that it is hard to cram all the description, information, impressions into a piece short enough for today's attention span.

Random ideas float in like the tide that rolls all the way up to Quebec City from the wide Atlantic. The Gulf of St. Lawrence was the North American entry point for so many explorers, colonists, immigrants. The first Europeans somehow found the narrow entry to the Straight of Belle Isle and tacked up river. Traces remain, especially when formally preserved as they are at Grosse Isle, the principal stop for ships carrying immigrants to Montreal. Here the passengers would be checked to determine if they were healthy, for one thing, and it was as far into the new land as many of them were able to get. The lines of a grassy stretch of that world are lumpy with the remains of those who died of cholera or some other disease ship conditions generated.

More than half a century after the last ship stopped at Grosse Isle, are the icebergs that float in the Gulf or stand stationary in the harbour, fragments from the polar ice cap melting quickly now? Evidence of global warming, so also evidence of man's dramatic and destructive interaction with the environment? Near the edge of terra firma the land and seascapes are so expansive, I wonder, was it courage, blind greed or just plain hubris that made people think they could dominate. Plunging into the biosphere compels one to not only read the lines, but read between the lines, too.

The Middle of Nowhere is Somewhere to Somebody Else

photo by Karen Turiff
On the first day of summer I saw an iceberg glowing  true ice blue in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near La Tabatière, Quebec. In the Montagnais language, the name of the village means sorcerer, so-called because hunters, fishers and sealers used to consult witches before making their forays into the bush, the vast, unpredictable estuary, onto the ice floes. The middle of watery nowhere. Misty, rocky, frequented by whales that are hard to see unless they leap out of the water, which they didn't while I was watching, though I did see the back and the tail of a rorqual, and the spume of another small whale. In this grey, sometimes swelling, sometimes choppy expanse  it is hard to see anything but the fascinating shapes of icebergs that, in certain light, resemble clouds fallen from the sky; it is important to look without expectation, to see what there is to see.

First stop the morning of June 21, Harrington Harbour, a village built on the broad flat rocks of the Canadian shield, where houses and a store or two, the post office, the school, the church, are joined by boardwalks that make moving around on foot or four-wheeler easier in a no-road, no-car town. Several ports later, at Blanc Sablon, Tony, the former mayor of this fishing village of 1000 or so, meets the boat at 3 AM with a schoolbus to take us on a sunrise tour. The schedule we keep is determined by how long it takes to unload and load the cargo it is the Bella Desgagnes' first mission to deliver to the communities isolated along the lower north coast of the St. Lawrence. To show us all he thought we should see, Tony drove fast,  manoeuvring the mini school bus up hills, along gravel turnouts, stopping on a bridge so that we could view the twisting chute, or waterfall, of the Brador. He took us just across the border to Labrador, stopped at the bottom of the hill topped by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, which was brought over from France in the 1920's, giving this part of the town the name, Lourdes de Blanc Sablon.

Katy at Harrington Harbour
The middle of watery nowhere consists of scattered villages, taiga, stunted black spruce, spongy moss, lichen, tiny wild sweet peas, blankets of white-blossomed bunchberry, the icebergs, almost gone now that we are past the solstice, perroquets or puffins, cormorants, the ubiquitous seagulls. Perhaps not much to see by conventional tourism standards, but for the people standing near the gangplank for this supposedly once a week boat to dock, and for those waiting for them, this is home. Katy, for instance, who was travelling to visit her grandparents in La Tabatière for the first time in four years. She and husband Matt, who live on an army base in Vermont, lugged a stroller, car seat and bags, and four-month old Wesley, while little Olivia made her own way down the ramp where the Gallichan cousins waited. The descendant of a family of sealers, Katy, a teacher, knows exactly where she came from, something her husband envies.

In the tiny (120 pop) community of Kegaska, two young women of Acadian background received boat passengers in the church where they offered small pots of jams and jellies made from partridge berries, cloud berries, goose berries, May berries. They had also baked muffins to sell. The display of the town's history consisted of a folding screen to which were pinned  photocopied pictures of the days when the cod fish were plentiful, seal was a staple of every day meals, and a famous shipwreck, the Brion, put the town on the map for us long as the news cycle lasted in the 50's. April and Susie were born here and do not plan to leave. Their efforts show that despite the decline of the cod fishery, the lack of employment, Kegaska is some place to them.
April and Susie

On the other hand, Shelley, a pierced, curly haired aspiring artist, who is third generation Métis, can't wait to get out, and she plans to do so as soon as she can put enough money together to return to school to study fine arts. "People here are suspicious of anything new," she claims. There are no young people because there is no place to work, other than a few service jobs, like hers, as waitress and cashier at CJ's Epicerie and restaurant, the only one in town. Now that the road is complete, the end of 138, the feeling is that the bank will close, the post office, even the airport. A man four times her age, a former cod fisherman, Cecil Organ, agrees. "The road didn't do nothing for us. Maybe 50 years ago, but alls there is to see now is trees."

In La Romaine, Natashquan, St. Augustin, the Montagnais who now prefer to be called Innu, human being,
Innu woman in traditional hat.
have probably never even considered the question, nowhere, somewhere. These former nomads, the first people European explorers encountered in this part of the world, were settled into communities when the government made school mandatory for Innu children.  Instead of considering where they belong, which used to be everywhere, the question is how to balance the temptations of today with the values of yesterday. Long time former chief of La Romaine, ancien chef and sage George C.S. Bâcon described problems unfortunately too well known from tragic stories reeled off by news broadcasters. The poutine, the chips, the pop, the beer that makes people sick because of what George believes are genetically weak livers; the drugs that encourage young people to listen to their dealers more than to elders like the former chief. Diabetes, which affects 50 percent of his people, including him. He smiles as he speaks, but George says that good news is rare. The French sailors and Basque fishermen who found this coast over half a millennium ago, who were greeted and guided by the Montagnais, turned out to be mostly trouble.  The place that so excited Europeans because of its fish and the furs, the forests and the possibility of finding a way to the Orient, had for at least 5000 years already been somewhere to somebody else.