For years I have dreamt of Newfoundland and Labrador; I have always wanted to go there, but my operating principle has long been to focus myself here in Maine. That “go deep” mindset definitely comes from the artistic model I witnessed over five decades of knowing Andrew Wyeth, and my work with the Island Institute, raising a family and my profound infatuation with the coast of Maine was more than sufficient to keep me happy and busy.
Yet there was always the call of the North…out of sight but never fully out of mind. There was never any doubt in my mind that someday I would get there.
I just did.
One week ago today I awoke on the boat before dawn and clambered up onto the wharf to witness the one sunrise I would experience in the tiny outport village of Grand Bruit (pronounced Brit). I wasn’t even off the wharf before I spotted my first (ever) caribou in the wild. Forgetting my plans to concentrate on photographing the village, I spent the next two hours tracking the lone buck up over the rugged hills rising directly above the small cluster of houses. It was exhausting and exhilarating but that lone animal slipped away and vanished into the drama of the monumental landscape.
As I finally turned around and headed back to the boat, I saw six caribou working their way between the harbor and me. I spent some time getting in close to them, made a few exposures and returned to the boat for a great breakfast and a 9:00 departure for our next and final port of call.
Insofar as the caribou went, it was a memorable event, but one that pales behind the overarching tragedy that infused every minute of my time in Grand Bruit and most of my week cruising the southwest coast of Newfoundland.
You see, Grand Bruit is a ghost town…one of the many abandoned outports that are bleak reminders of a spectacular heritage undermined by forces far beyond the control of the stalwart families who settled these remote harbors centuries ago. Newfoundland was built upon the inconceivable immensity of the cod resource and centuries of concentrated small-boat fishing scarcely dented the vast stocks. Then post-WWII technology gave fishermen much bigger and more powerful boats with enormous harvesting capacity, as well as electronics that eliminated any small remaining chance the fish had.
Foreign fleets ravaged Canada’s waters and what they didn’t extract, their Canadian equivalent did. Bad science, inept fisheries management and the genetic predisposition of fishermen to fish until the last of the fish are in the boat all created a perfect storm of bottom-fish devastation which culminated in Newfoundland’s government declaring a moratorium on the cod fishery in 1992.
Overnight the heart was ripped out of Newfoundland’s culture and economy. In the ensuing years fishcrats and scientists wrangled about who was responsible for the catastrophe, and, as bureaucrats inevitably will, only managed to sustain the chronic dysfunction that created the disaster in the first place.
All of which brings us to Grand Bruit, where the bell in the church was last rung for services on June 11, 2010. Faced with the seemingly hopeless prospect of the fishery’s recovery, the government did what governments have done since time immemorial; they cut their losses and made the ultimate victims do the running.
(Read the bottom line in the church ledger image that follows)
Power lines into the communities were cut. Communication services were eliminated. Oh yes, I have yet to mention that, as is the case with many other smaller outports, there is no road into Grand Bruit. So the ferry/supply-boat service was terminated. The government offered the remaining families sums in the order of $20 to $40 thousand dollars to move on…to relocate.
And that was it.
Overnight ghost town(s).
Haunting memorials to ineptitude, greed and stupidity.
I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life working to build the Island Institute as an organization that can effectively help sustain Maine’s remaining year-round island communities and the working mainland communities to which they are umbilically attached. I’ve already written here about how Maine once had 300 year-round islands and today has only fifteen.
I have spent three decades studying, working, photographing, listening, organizing, (etc., etc., etc.) to help ensure that these treasured yet threatened communities have a fighting chance in the face of vast challenges that conspire to undermine their viability.
I have long been aware of the “tragedy of the commons,” of how fisheries around the world (not to mention so many other resource driven economies) have spiraled into near or total oblivion. I “knew” about what happened in Newfoundland.
Then I beheld Grand Bruit and my heart broke for its people and for their outport brethren.
I cannot and will not shake the reality of the abandonment there. Grand Bruit was the most searing and direct confrontation I’ve ever had with this type of massive failure. The 285 lost island communities in Maine have long held a powerful place in my heart and in my imagination….but Grand Bruit was so there.
It has shaken me…and left me more determined than ever to continue to tell the stories that need to be told so that we know what we’ve got before it’s gone.
This holds for outports, islands off the coast of Maine, rural communities anywhere, and, inevitably, for this little “garden-planet” island that sustains us all in the immensity of the black beyond.
And as I sit here at my desk overlooking Rockport harbor with our dozen or so working boats, the far-away waterfall foams at the head of the silent harbor and the caribou wander the deserted paths between the lovely, empty homes, I mean skeletons.
This story is dedicated to Edmund Billings Cabot, a friend who drowned when swept from his yacht by a rogue wave while sailing off the West coast of Newfoundland on September 1st, 2012.
I made these images on September 26; today, October 26th, was Ned’s service in Cambridge, MA. It was, to say the least, an extraordinarily moving event.
Here’s what Wikipedia says about Ned’s ancestor, John Cabot.
John Cabot (Venetian: Zuan Chabotto; c. 1450 – c. 1499) was an Italian navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is commonly held to have been the first European encounter with the mainland of North America since the Norse Vikings visits to Vinland in the eleventh century. The official position of the Canadian and United Kingdom governments is that he landed on the island of Newfoundland.
After tracking the caribou in Grand Bruit, I walked back by the church and spent time there communing, if you will, with the spirit of Ned and his large family, some of whom I love. I tossed a bouquet of wildflowers into the head of the waterfall, then went into the church. As visitors there do, I wrote in the guest book and then rang the church bell of that haunting outport for Ned…for the Cabots.
It was said at the service today that Ned Cabot is now in a New Found Land.
If you want to know more about Newfoundland, there is an abundance of powerful literature available. Read any of Farley Mowat’s books set in Newfoundland; they are variously charming, funny, lovely, heartbreaking and telling. You would also be well advised to read Myron Arms’Servants of the Fish or Robert Finch’s The Iambics of Newfoundland…the list goes on and on.
Oh, and I just found this….. http://www.gulfnews.ca/News/2010-06-28/article-1530519/Grand-Bruit-decommissions-church/1