A land of wondrous riches and wretched poverty
The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes From an Unknown Shore
By Robert Finch, Counterpoint, 270 pp., $26
Since the 16th century, cod fishing has formed not only the economic backbone but the cultural identity of Newfoundland. So when the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on the cod fishery in 1992, the resulting unemployment and exodus left Canada's poorest province gutted and even more impoverished than it already was. And the future is not bright. Today, 15 years after the moratorium began, the stocks of cod off the shores of Newfoundland are estimated to still be only 1 percent of what they were in 1977.
Perhaps these bleak facts contribute to the elegiac tone of "The Iambics of Newfoundland," but its author's keen eye and delight in Newfoundland's people and landscape make this book far more than a eulogy. Instead, in a comprehensive collection of sketches and essays spanning many years of lengthy stays, nature writer Robert Finch imbues every page with an appreciation of endurance - in the birds that "were wholly preoccupied with their own enthralling presence," in the vast schools of caplin fish that "moved as one giant organism, like a sentient storm cloud shot with millions of bright eyes," and in the vivid and often vulgar language of Newfoundland English, a salty stew comprising choice ingredients from its Celtic, English, Portuguese, and French heritage.
Just listen to Finch's obvious relish as he tells us, "Faux Latinizations, or the spontaneous yoking of Anglo-Saxon words to Latinate forms, occur in such terms as roaration (a great noise), scrugility (careful scrutiny), confloption (confusion), and fishocracy (the mercantile class in St. John's)."
He is equally delighted to introduce us to villages such as Squid Tickle, to cliffs and rocks named Cuckold's Head and Bad Neighbor, and to features of the capital city like the Modern Shoe Hospital and "Ziggy Peelgoods, of St. John's and Quito" (a food truck whose owner divides his time between Newfoundland and Ecuador, successfully selling nothing but french fries and your choice of vinegar or gravy in both northern and southern hemispheres). Finch takes us crabbing, hunting, and hiking through landscapes variously bleak and entrancing.
But while Finch's love for the place is tangible, his vision is acute and unsentimental. The ancient and awesome landscape is blemished by suburban ranch homes and "long gashes of denuded clear-cuts streaked the hills." The hunt for caribou is "more like hunting cattle than wild animals," and the hunters are as motivated by blood lust as by a need for meat. There are towns without children, and many of those residents who remain rely on government pensions to keep body and soul together even as they hunger to depend instead on the sea.
The book does have some minor annoyances. I longed for a simple map to help me match place name to geographic location, and an explanation of the cod fisheries moratorium - both its causes and sequelae - would have been much more useful to the naive reader at the beginning of the book than at the end. But the exquisite meld of precision and emotionality in Finch's language more than compensates for these shortcomings. By the time you finish this book, you may or may not want to visit Newfoundland, but regardless, you'll feel as though you've been there.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.