Tuesday, June 5, 2012

For Tony Steinberg

If you read enough, watch enough, listen enough, remember enough, it's funny what comes back to you at different times. Some people can recite chunks of poetry, swaths of the Bible. For me, last Friday, driving into the mist at the end of the world, it was The Far Side and Taylor Mali.

I remembered as we drove down the splintered highway, the world closed in on either side by leafless bushes and staunch tuckamore, I remembered The Far Side cartoon where a dog had made signs to lure the cat to its doom by promising 'cat fud.' I remember the dog, hiding behind a door frame, muttering to himself, "Oh please, oh please." I wondered aloud if we were the cat in our scenario, whether we would suddenly find ourselves submerged in the North Atlantic, tricked by signs promising Valhalla.

We had spent the night in the small outport of St. Anthony and had woken to a foggy morning. We turned north, north of this northernmost town and headed to the very end of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, to the place we had been told Vikings had had an encampment a thousand years before. We had the ocean on our right as we set out, but soon we could sense that the ocean was on our left too. We saw a moose and realized that the moose did not have far to go on either side of us. The fog deepened and the ponds turned to dark tea around us. We drove more slowly and the road became more fractured. We entered the grounds of L'Anse aux Meadows, which we had read might have been a mishearing of the French version of Medea, after whom many old ships were named. We stepped out of our car and wrapped ourselves in every layer we had. There was snow in the crevices of the rocks.

We had talked before about why Newfoundland was familiarly known as The Rock. It was not hard to see why, to see the outcroppings of rock everywhere, to see the electrical posts that could not be buried to any depth and so were held up with cribs filled with massive sea rocks, aboveground. But, too, it easily could have been called The Ponds. In another place, a warmer place, perhaps, there would have been faery stories about the creation of all the ponds, big and small. Here, survival was still a pressing matter. And again, it could have been called the Woods or the Barrens, for the stunted and spare trees bent into the wind, or the wide open arctic plains.

We went into the main visitors centre and the machine they needed to process credit card payments was down. Women were unpacking souvenirs from boxes in the gift shops. It was June 1st, the very first day of the season.We had wondered whether we would be the first visitors of the year and whether Viking hats would be issued to the lucky keeners. We were not the first, but about the seventh car to arrive. We had followed a car in that had come from Saskatchewan, and slowed as they slowed when we all saw the moose. It would be awful, we had said, to have driven all the way from Saskatchewan, only to be stompled by a moose two kilometres from the end of the world. They were not and we were not.

We walked about the Visitors Centre and I felt a bit tired and headachy. I thought of one of my kids who hates museums and only wants to learn in situ. We watched a National Film Board movie about the discovery and excavation of the site, by a husband and wife team. We talked with the chatty staff. We saw a fragment of a hundreds-footlong tapestry that told the story of the northern coast.

And then we decided to climb down to the grassy hummocks below. I will confess that I had low hopes. My dad had told me he really enjoyed L'Anse aux Meadows but I wondered if that was all relative:that maybe it was the most interesting thing on the coast but...

We walked through seagrass and stepped between clearly marked raised grassy outlines of ancient structures, houses, workshops and outbuildings. Ahead of us in the gloom was a wooden fence surrounding recreated sod buildings. It made me think of Laura's sod house in the Little House books. I heard voices in the biggest house so I stepped into the doorway.

And that's where everything changed.

Outside it was cold with a damp that seeped through wool and waterproofing and into bones. Inside there was a fire and benches and a fully recreated Viking chieftain's hut. I sat on rabbit skin, next to an elderly man and listened as a man with iron grey hair waving around his shoulders and boots lacing up his legs and homespun layers of cloak and tunic sat, spinning a tale. As my eyes adjusted to the inside of the hut, I could see that there were more than half a dozen people sitting around the fire, listening and interjecting. Four of them were apparently costumed interpreters but all of them knew far more about Vikings than I ever did. I felt very much like I was catching fragments of a history and a people, trying quickly to make it into a whole, to put it into any context I knew. By the time Dave came in, a smile had settled itself over my face and Taylor Mali's story of Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Warrior was in my head.

"He died with his sword in his hand and so went straight to heaven."

We talked of heaven and hell in the hut, of how Viking hell was not hot but cold -- how people dread the extremes of the climate they live in -- but that it was not so bad as there were women there, and there weren't in Valhalla. They talked of how Vikings, unlike the British of a thousand years ago, bathed weekly and how the British reported on this with disdain, adding that the clean Vikings then attracted the British women "by their novelties." We learned that the Vikings were tall thanks to a healthy diet --a full foot taller than the average Britisher. We learned how Irish monks in their coracles had landed in the lands of the Vikings and how the folk religion and Christian religion had mingled. We talked of Vinland and dyeing of wool, of privies and burial sites, of eating fish and not shellfish. That women were fully educated. That storytellers were prized.

There's little I like more than to learn the domestic details of a people. And here, the sagas were told by people who were not rusty after winter but instead were bursting with stories, and with the rough burr of a pirate could switch from Viking lore to current archeological research, quoting anthropologists.

Inside the visitors' centre, there had been signs that said Please Touch. Here it went further. I was allowed to put on an iron helmet and to hold a Viking sword in my hand, and then to trade it for an axe, much lighter to wield in battle. I was told that a sword was more of a rich Viking toy -- that an axe was useful for taking an opponent out at the knees.

And then after an hour of wonder, talk shifted to the present. The youngest of the Vikings asked if we had been hiking at Fisherman's Cove the other night. We had. He had been there with his wife and dog, and thought he recognized us. It was early enough in the tourist season that we stood out. (Later that evening, a woman at the next table at our restaurant got talking with us about L'Anse aux Meadows and how they had seen the chieftain at the Foodland the night before.)We asked them about Parks Canada cuts, feeling that the very best part of the park had been the people and their ability and passion for bringing history to life. They were cautious in their reply, but said that they had done all right, far better than other places. The woman Viking asked us if we were newlyweds.

There were no cartoonish Viking helmets or goofy teeshirts anywhere to be found. Maybe you don't mess with Vikings. Or maybe at the end of the world, you respect such tenacity and life.

We did.

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