Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Elementary, my dear

A counsellor friend once talked to me about the importance of creative people getting grounded. We talked about how to do that, how to literally anchor oneself in the present, concrete moment. It was very good, last Thursday morning, to be surrounded by mountains and rock formations because I needed grounding. I had known it would be strange: to be a single parent for a few days while Dave worked in Newfoundland, while at the same time getting myself excited about going away for four days of holidays with my husband afterward. What I hadn't factored into the equation was a sudden and persistent infection, antibiotics that did not kick in until a day into our trip, and the need for consultations with medical professionals about whether or not travel was wise. I had also not factored in the strange feeling of dislocation I experienced when the flight to Newfoundland was far shorter than I had expected. I sat in the car last Thursday morning, kind of dazed: I had been home at supper time the night before, spent just over two hours on a plane, and then there I was, suddenly in Newfoundland, suddenly on holidays. Rocks, I told myself. Rocks and mountains. Rocks and mountains and water. Breathe.

Our one son had done a geography project on the geology of Newfoundland and had told us that Newfoundland was the product of the collision of three continental plates, of what is now North America, Europe and Africa. Within an hour of driving on Thursday morning, we were at the western edge of Newfoundland, on the northern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with what is called the Long Range of mountains on our right. It was partly sunny and that seemed like a good reason for us to stop and hike out to the Western Brook Pond, a deep glacial chasm carved into the Long Range.

We followed a more or less straight line from the highway inland, over gently undulating and incredibly varied terrain. Early on, a sign explained to us that the Long Range itself was the product of the smash-up collision between two plates, with the eastern side ending up rising above the western, forming the range. And then, a zillion years later, the glacial action sawed into the range, forming a deep fjord with sheer cliffs rising above water that was deeper than the CN Tower. (You get less dizzy when you take portraits, I tell you.) We walked over little hills that were glacial deposits, past lakes stained as dark as weak coffee or strong tea by decaying plant material. We walked on boardwalk above carnivorous plants (Newfoundland's provincial flower is the treacherous pitcher plant) and bogs, with many deep animal tracks around us. We walked past weathered trees. Then we found ourselves walking uphill and across a platform built across a peat bog. The uphill part was explained by a sign that told us that the peat was four metres deep, expanding deeper and wider each year.

We stopped after another hour's drive at another rock formation, a series of stone arches, caused by wave action under rock that had been upheaved by another collision of continents. This one was exactly at the edge of the Gulf and we walked under one of the arches, balancing on egg-shaped rocks of every colour imaginable.

And then, we drove and drove. The sun went in and out of clouds, shadows creasing on mountains that accompanied our journey. We never wearied of the scenery on the drive, which was good because scenery was the main thing. There were mountains of 700 metres in height that had water-marks well more than halfway up. On one of these mountains, I saw what looked like a row of terracotta soldiers all looking out to sea. On others, snow lay draped across the top, and still others had swaths of coloured rock and new growth of scrub near but no trees.

We did not realize we had driven north of spring until late in the day. I had closed my eyes for a few minutes and when I opened them, I honestly thought the world had gone black and white. The sun had gone in and the trees were not yet in bud. The coast was bleak and poor, shale and shanty. We had had a hearty breakfast at the bed and breakfast that morning and so we had foolishly skipped lunch. Granola bars and oranges were no longer cutting it, but there was nothing other than a very occasional gas station at this point.

I found our guidebook, looking for some small diversion. Flower Cove was near where the road swept inland and east toward our destination of St. Anthony. It was one of the very last villages we would see. It was also home to thrombolites, unusual rock formations. We decided to stop, if only to stretch our legs.

The wind was strong and the air was biting. We walked on a raised wooden bridge, with planks slightly too far apart for comfortable walking. We walked above sea grasses, bent down by tides and wind. It was more than desolate, but I was fairly sure someone was gleefully watching us, someone whose job it was to count tourists and whose work was not arduous. We reached a newely-repaired gravel path, saw men shoveling gravel into winterworn holes in the path, and burning seaweed on the beach, in advance of the start of tourist season. We kept walking.

And then, we spotted the thrombolites and the sign that explained that these were microscopic creatures, somewhat like coral, that formed colonies, that there were only two known places on earth where the formations were found: here, on the desolate coast and off western Australia. These colonies were calcified, we were pretty sure, and they looked like nothing more than massive canteloupe halves, pocked and ribbed, sitting on the shale beach. We could walk on them or around them and we did, tasting the salt water once more.

On the way back to the car, to what would be the longest-feeling part of our whole trip, I was glad to be there, to bear witness to these rocky structures. I didn't care if the locals were laughing at us or not. I was definitely grounded, definitely taking mental and actual photos of the landscape, tasting the water, the sky and the rocks.

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