Poem by Curt Budden
Art by Christine Hennebury
Newfoundland’s history sticks. It does not fade, drain or slough. Especially when discussing those places once defined as “cut off.” For it was those tucked away outports that got our fishery started. It’s what drew Europeans and then got our land charted. Long before runways, or highways or tracks, back when the cod were so thick that you could walk on their backs.
Merchants swarmed to St. John’s, where new businesses flourished. But it was in the small fishing outports where our culture was nourished. Tiny inlets and harbours is where new lineage was begun, with boat loads of salt cod drying in the sun. A family’s life often hard; but still simple and humble, living off the land and sea while they watched the waves tumble.
Cozy one-room schools with pot belly stoves. Kitchens smelling of white bread from baking off countless loaves. Families planting their feet as their love for home hardens, with thin, rocky soil to grow vegetable gardens. Sunday services weekly, with churches packed to the brim, as folks gathered for prayer or to sing an old hymn. For many were grateful, and had little frustration, until an emerging word surfaced known as “Centralization.”
Also known as “Resettlement” and spoke with a negative tone; to make a long story short, it meant leaving their home. The modern world was arriving and it required new codes. There were new lifestyles, fish plants, school systems and roads. Heavy industry spiked and new changes exploded, leaving those old tiny outports to soon be eroded.
Folks were offered incentives to start a new life. But many lashed back with aggression and gut-wrenching strife. Packing belongings is easy; down to each plate, cup and bowl. But how do you pack up your memories, your roots or your soul? What about loved ones now buried? Where do they go? What about your friends and your neighbours? What about the only life that you know?
Some crowds thought it was easy. They took the offer and ran. They saw a great opportunity to begin a new plan. But many resisted, as they thought the change would be foiled. Their eyes grew heavy with tears and the blood in them boiled. They saw it quite differently and simply weren’t temped. Their love for home stayed with their opinions exempted. They did not want to leave. They did not want to stray. For they were already settled and they wanted to stay.
Even though it meant better doctors, better schools, better pensions; new and great opportunities that could ease all of their tensions. For many the change was quite good, and thus the best move they had made. They were glad that it happened and that they hadn’t stayed. They didn’t show any panic. They didn’t show any doubt. And they rarely looked back because for them it worked out.
As for those who showed hardship, their story wasn’t the same. They didn’t know who to question. They didn’t know who to blame. No matter the promises written, that came in black and white, they preferred to remain and not be caulked full of spite. They didn’t care for new changes or vast personal glory. Their old life was important and their home told a story.
Every rock, every tree, every wharf, every cove. Every house, every board, every kitchen and stove. Every net, every stage, every jigger and rope. Yes, they all triggered memories and they all gave them hope. Their background had meaning and ran deep with respect. They refused to lose all of that because they were offered a cheque.
Their way of life made them happy and it bled admiration. It defined their morality and it based their foundation. But regardless of conflict and their resistance to flee, the towns started fading as folks began crossing the sea. With the decision now final and the new world intact, families were quickly uprooted and were all forced to pack.
And the most mesmerizing occurrence that made hearts sink like stones is that when some families left, they took with them their homes. They’d push their house to the shore at the edge of the beach. They took one last look of home and proceeded to screech. For they couldn’t let go, no matter how many tries. No matter how hard they argued. No matter how many cries.
So with one final launch and with their heavy hearts lifting, they left old times behind with the family home drifting. Their uncertainly strong and their emotions estranged, for it was not just their house drifting - it was a pure drift of change. Because as they fought through transition with their feelings now strained, their bodies were moving but their soul had remained.
Many say it was needed as it came down to cost. But I’m not speaking of money. I speak of a culture now lost. For those outports now vanished? They defined Newfoundland. They sprouted traditional people who lived life so grand. They fought through adversity with each strain and strive. They added chapters to history and kept tradition alive.
Today there are grown over graveyards and caved-in dry wells. And what were once cozy homes are now stale empty shells. Many souls left in shambles and memories stained. Gardens turned into weeds as nature quickly reclaimed. And regardless of efforts where many tempers ran hot, what was once a thriving community was left there to rot.
But some still remember; and they come back to this day. They’ve built cabins and stages and they make time to stay. Some still fish off the waters. Some still tinder the earth. Some still come back to the place where they had their own birth. Even if those who come visit are gone by September? All that matters is one thing: and it’s that they remember.
All that was left from most places were old signs of the past, forgotten belongings and empty shorelines so vast. But these abandoned communities are what we must recall. Their existence can’t be forgotten, and their history can’t fall. So hear the stories, meet the people, take pictures or pray, for these tiny lost places scattered out in the bay.