There’s a rugged, worn beauty here. Worn, but not weakened. The land is tough, but forgiving. The people are very much the same.
There’s a harbor in St. John’s that has never been successfully taken by an opposing military force. The harbor itself is tucked away, surrounded and protected by high rocky cliffs. To get in and out of the harbor, one must pass through “the narrows,” a channel that runs between steep rock walls on either side for maybe a quarter of a mile. Only one decent sized-boat at a time could pass through. And one at a time means vulnerable and exposed. There are forts on both sides of the narrows. One, built into the side of the rock face itself. It’s strong, embedded into the land, a perfect defensive position. The other is high on Signal Hill. From there you can see the entire bay and bombard freely if, or when, necessary. The harbor of St. Johns is perfectly protected from the sea.
An assault by land means going through “the bogs.” And the bogs that would need to be marched through are more than a mile long. Movement is slowed by the mud. An opposing force is again exposed and vulnerable.
It is no wonder that the St. John’s harbor has never been taken. Any hostile intentions from outside are doomed from the start. The more Newfoundlanders I met, the more I saw that harbor within them. In each of them there’s a place of safety and vulnerability, of depth and vitality, within which there’s room for many, but it’s well guarded and protected fiercely. They know the way to that place and there’s room for the outsider, but there’s also pride in the walls of the narrows and the character of the journey through them.
Those who enter the harbor might very well be entering the heart of Newfoundland. Any who enter that place sincerely, or in need, and thus also enter the hearts of Newfoundlanders would be hard-pressed to find a warmer reception anywhere.
The landscape of the island seemed to me to be somehow iconic. Rock and strength, spruce and spine, water and heart, sky and generosity. There’s a quiet intensity and a deep tidal pulse beating true with hard work, loyalty, honesty and generosity.
These are people who know who they are. They are distinct and strong. They are bend-but-never-break people, deep wells of feeling, knowing and being. You’ll lose your boots in the bogs and you’ll lose all sense of time in a good conversation. But don’t talk while you’re eating, “Thur’s time plenty fur dat after.”
Like the harbor, the people are well-guarded until your purpose is clear. Like the harbor, there’s a safe place to rest with them. Like the waters, they can appear cold yet inviting all at the same time. It’s not a distant cold, it’s not a cold that pushes you away. It’s pure and clear and somehow sacred. There’s something cleansing about this place and these people.
Cold is a way of life in Newfoundland. Even in May, it went below 0°. The cold is a resistance. It’s a resistance to change, to copy, to adapt, to become something else. Cold is stubborn and there’s a streak of that in this place and in these people. This is Newfoundland, the place in Canada where they don’t say “eh” and “sorry…” Here, they say things I can’t actually comprehend. They speak English, but it’s their own version of it and they all speak it and understand it and translate it for people like me.
For who they are—cold yet inviting, deep yet receiving, tightly knit yet open, protected yet with room for all who need it, strong yet vulnerable—Newfoundlanders face life head on like those rock faces and boulders. They do not hide, they do not hibernate. They are the spruce and the pine, strong, tall and alive, together, no matter the circumstances.
I’m grateful to have been allowed in the harbour.