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Paul Sparkes: Gems of description

Near Salvage, Bonavista Bay, May 2017.
Near Salvage, Bonavista Bay, May 2017.

We turn, and through the twilight haze Our homeward course we take, Through wood, and glade, across a marsh, Around each silent lake; Until at length we reach the shack, Our haven of delight, Just as the twilight’s fading gleam Dissolves into the night.

Graham M. Russell wrote “Cabin in the Trees” some 85 years ago. It is a long poem, 10 stanzas in all.

It is not the sort of thing people read today. But its uncluttered phrases still hold words which deliver a portrait of Newfoundland ... “heavy mist”, “a giant spreading birch tree”, “woods forlorn”, “everything is still”. And at least two of Russell’s eighty lines turn the mundane into inspiration: “we pause to rub the face and hands with oil” ...  and tie a kerchief round our ears, the swarming flies to foil.”

Stored in our heritage, in a thousand different ways people of words, paints and music have demonstrated their love of this island.

That love is not inspired only by natural features but also by a unique people.

Writer, teacher and songster Art Scammell wrote about the reaction of his father when a couple, visiting Change Islands from Canada, criticized him for not taking payment upon bringing them by motor boat to where they would board their coastal vessel:

“You outport people have to learn to move with the times. You’ll never get anywhere unless you forget this business of giving your time and effort without getting paid,” the man declared.

Scammell’s father merely replied, “put your money in your pocket young man. This place wasn’t built on them ideas of yours.”

Simplicity is often mistaken for stupidity and a plain, quiet way of life is often mistaken for poverty.

“George” was a south coast resident whose customs and habits were part of a study conducted by Cato Wadel for Newfoundland Social and Economic Studies and published in 1973.

When he was successful with fishing, with sealing or with birding, George would invariably share with his neighbours. And he simply could not see himself selling the catch to his neighbours.

Wadel wrote, “if George could not see himself selling fish, seal or birds to his neighbours when he had a good catch, he would sometimes allow his sons to do it ‘to get some pocket money for themselves’ he explained.”

Don Ryan and Tom Rossiter co-edited a slim 146-page school book in 1984 entitled “The Newfoundland Character.”

It is both entertaining and inspirational — is that not unheard of in a school text? While the editors were skillful, the beauty of the book is in the excellence of the accounts they gleaned from a selection of Newfoundland writers.

Here is a segment of their “A Word to the Teacher”:

“The Newfoundland character is not a person as such. It is the sum total of the qualities that come through in the way Newfoundlanders have met the difficulties and the challenges of living on an island whose climate at times is harsh and uncompromising, whose history for centuries was not favourable to settlement, whose mercantile barter system kept money from going into the pockets of fisherfolk, and whose isolation kept settlers together in closely-knit communities while at the same time keeping them apart from other communities.”



“At last, after five hours’ driving we reached our first place of call on Woody Point. This consisted of a solitary little shack occupied by Bob Williams and his family. We were soon sitting down to a welcome meal of bread and tea provided by our hostess, supplemented by some of our large stock of pork buns.” — (Mid-March, 1916, in the area of Cape Porcupine, Labrador. From the diary of Rev. Henry Gordon).


A memory of Labrador

“She once told me that theft was unknown in the Labrador of former years. People could leave food in their tilts and put down other possessions where they stood and everything would be untouched until the owner returned. Without judgemental bitterness she said that this situation changed when the building and staffing of the base brought in so many people from outside.” — As recounted by Elizabeth Goudie (c. early 1970s) to Rev. W.C. Sellars. Extract from “On the Goose”, The Story of Goose Bay, published by Them Days in 1987.


From “Bartlett the Great Explorer,” by Harold Horwood, 1977

 “Peary’s decision that he needed his valet more than his navigator on the last stage of his journey handed his critics their most powerful weapon ... Bartlett never criticized any superior in his life. He not only supported Peary’s claims but professed to admire him in every respect and continued to do so to the end of his life.”



We are not only British subjects but are nearly all of British descent. In some parts of the Empire, for example, in South Africa where British settlers made their homes generations ago, the natives have persisted to the present day. This has sometimes led to trouble because the natives are inclined to regard the white men as intruders (as, of course, they really are) and to resent interference, which is quite natural. Here in Newfoundland, however, we have not that problem. The Beothucks disappeared a century ago after they had been treated very badly by the early French and English settlers, and now we are in undisputed possession. This simplifies the problem of government, but at the same time it is sad to think that the Beothucks were treated so harshly in their own country by the people of so-called civilized nations.” Today we may choose to entitle the paragraph, “Conscience.” — From the school text “Geography of Newfoundland.” No author identified but published by Thomas Nelson & Sons).


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:




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