Sounds carry marvelously well in the quiet forest. Tires hum along pavement south of my camp. Machinery growls in a quarry to the east. Voices rise and fall in conversation at least two ponds and three bogs away. A hammer bangs far to the north. A chainsaw screams briefly in the northeast.
When those noises are stilled — usually at night, but during the day, as well, when human busy-ness is given an infrequent rest — natural sounds emerge. Birds are the noisiest. A woodpecker clatters at a rotting tree somewhere to the west. Two owls, kilometres apart, hoot back and forth for an hour or so before joining up to hoot together. Crows caw in passing. Loons call mournfully, joyfully from lakes near and far.
When even the birds go quiet, when no breath of wind disturbs the trees or splashes waves against the shore, when it seems like the whole forest has gone to sleep, there’s a sound that rolls slowly from the southwest 10 or more kilometres distant: the background roar of Muskrat Falls.
This is the Labrador that is. On a continent where wide tracts of wilderness have been paved over, ground to dust, burned, drowned, trampled, poisoned, fumigated, cut down and cut up, blinded by electric light and deafened by industry, Labrador offers that rarest of modern commodities: the pure silence that seeps from clean water, clear skies, untouched forest and untrod hills.
Unfortunately, this is not the Labrador that was. The region’s natural wealth and beauty has been fading ever since southern financiers discovered that it wasn’t really a land forsaken by God, as had been rumoured, but one that held riches beyond imagination, riches waiting to be dug up, cut down and shipped out.
The Labrador that was was not a kind, easy land. It was a country of fierce and wondrous beauty that demanded and won harsh loyalty; a land where in the worst years people suffered immense hardship, but they knew the caribou would eventually return, the waters would again fill with fish and Lake Melville would once more teem with seals.
Those who climbed the height of land in search of fur also knew that the astounding crash of water on rock was Grand Falls, the rumbling that could be heard not 10 or 15 kilometres away but twice or three times that, the trembling of the very bedrock, would always endure. Grand Falls must last forever, since it could never be stilled.
In the Labrador that is, times are again hard in the woods, but no longer does anyone expect life to return with its former abundance. In the Labrador that is the tremendous roar of Grand Falls is gone, lost to the hum of great turbines that spin only to fill distant pocketbooks and satisfy ambitions of faraway politicians.
The Labrador that is is a land with small pockets of industry growing like cancers in the ancient wilderness, leaving blasted hills and wasted woods, discoloured lakes, poisoned rivers and tainted skies.
The rush of water over Muskrat Falls, although it might carry for many kilometres, is only an echo of the might that was once found upstream, and, as many know, that echo is itself in danger.
This is the Labrador they want. The sound of the falls will first be drowned out by hundreds of heavy machines. It will be engulfed in concrete, the water trapped in pipes and spinning blades. When the roar is gone, it will mean the night sky will be gone, too — lost to the shine of new light.
Clean water will be gone, so will the life in the forest and so will one more chance to preserve what keeps our environment and ourselves healthy.
Unfortunately, many of those opposed to new dams (like, lately, the Liberals) do not object because it will destroy something that holds great intrinsic value, but only because they think there’s more money to be made if it is destroyed in a different way.
Those who see beyond money know that the cost of losing marvels like Muskrat Falls and the silence of a pristine wilderness far exceeds the value of a few temporary jobs.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.