Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman,
Celtic Connection, April, 2008 How often do our mortal selves bear scrutiny as a mighty chunk of nature, chiseled as we are by technological realignments to flesh, blood and bone? Probably not too often; rather, we use “nature” as a reference to outdoor surroundings and the birds, the beasts and the blossoms of the wilderness. Nature writers like Robert Finch ordinarily focus on creatures and habitats outside the human realm, but Finch”s new book, THE IAMBICS OF NEWFOUNDLAND, makes a creative inspection of us as “nature” in a remote part of North America. His rambles across Newfoundland (including Labrador) from 1987 to 1996 are distilled in this captivating probe of the area”s prime natural commodity ” people. Generous helpings of anthropology, sociology, biology, botany, geology and politics season his studies, and loads of local humor and lively gatherings of the citizenry offer a graceful portrait of man”s adaptation to a punishing, resplendent habitat. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Newfoundland”s native Beothuk Indians were joined by succeeding waves of Basque whalers from France and Spain, British farmers from Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, Irish laborers from Waterford, and Portuguese fishermen seeking shelter from the tempests. Newfoundland”s capital, St. John”s, was once a prominent seaport famous for cod harvests, but the decline of its main fish brought hard times. This hilly port city is home to garrulous natives with accents akin to Irish, prompting the author to remark on its “charming lack of self-awareness.” The Old World is immediately brought to mind with structures boldly painted in contrasting colors, reminiscent of the Irish port of Cobh, County Cork. In 1949 Newfoundland became part of Canada, but St. John”s still summons an eighteenth-century character with laneways and pedestrian alleys layered over ancient footpaths. Finch”s vigorous analysis of the settlement”s turbulent history tenders some heart-rending testimonies. The city has a long reputation as a tough drinking town, “where, less than a century ago, children of ten or twelve years who worked on the wharves were paid in “lots” of rum by the merchants, so that scores of young boys staggered home drunk from twelve-hour workdays.” Observations about education and the oral history of Newfoundland before unification with Canada will surprise readers. “Schoolchildren . . .grew up with a more-or-less ordered idea of the sequence of British monarchs or the course of the American Revolution, while their own history survived in a dreamtime of stories, verses, ballads, jokes and a dialect that shared more with nineteenth-century Devon than with twentieth-century Toronto.” Finch is at his finest in depicting his relationships with individual Newfoundlanders in their distinct districts. A robust regionalism marks this land with its own time zone (Newfoundland Standard Time is 30 minutes ahead of the other Atlantic Provinces). Villages and towns are called and colored by their particular Irish or English ancestry, (the clans still cling together) and larger communities are defined by their Irish Catholic and British Protestant sections. Newfoundland provides a close encounter with the speech patterns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland and Britain. Delightful passages of humorous, musical vernacular are a sublime treat. The author notes that, “Like most places with widely dispersed and long-isolated populations, Newfoundland has spawned a wealth of local dialects. In St. John”s and in most towns on the Avalon Peninsula, local speech exhibits a strong Irish rhythm and lilt.” Amazingly, the distinct Irish dialect of early nineteenth-century Waterford remains intact, and “Irishisms such as curwibble, flaboolach, glawvawn, kawnya-vawnya, loodle-daddle, noody-nawdy, shabeen, sleveen, and pampooty dance playfully across the palate.” People of all ages are greeted as “my son,” or “my maid,” (phrases still heard in the Ozarks and Appalachia), and the Newfie “f” is often pronounced as a “v.” Accordion players are called “fiddlers,” and a bounty of other idiomatic terms and phrases percolate across the pages. The verbal stew also combines bits of Celtic and French salted with some “mangled Latin.” The language of Virgil, Horace and Ovid weaves itself into daily discourse in the doorways of St. John”s with such terms as “Tallis Quallis,” a common colloquialism for “such as it is.” Linguists, historians and casual readers will find themselves glued to the pages as passionate conversationalists share opinions on everything from churches to caribou carcasses. The sparkling discussion of language continues with examples of mixed subject and verb forms, such as “I plans, and we wants.” Finch relates that, “Virtually all uses of present-tense verbs are given the third-person singular form” an example of which follows: “I plans to go up to the hall Saturday night. Is you thinking of coming along?” Some objects have genders, similar to Latin and French, although the genders might change – e.g., “He was reputed to be a good boat, but I didn”t care much for she.” Finch relays that he “caught most of what the men said when they talked directly to me, but when they began talking among themselves I was generally lost. This seemed to be a common trait among outport people, adapting their dialect somewhat to the person being spoken to, and then reverting to their native dialect among themselves.” Interestingly, many locals refer to the United States as the “Boston States,” a term from Depression days when many Newfoundlanders sought work in Massachusetts. I wished for a map within the book, but tracked Finch”s trail with an atlas close at hand. Evocative place names ring out harmoniously, and the geographic nomenclature enchants ” a “tickle” is a narrow passage of water between cliffs, and a “landwash” is a beach. Place names on tundra, barrens, boggy wetlands, forests and seacoasts allude to their histories. Signal Hill, Cuckold”s Head, Quidi Vidi Harbour, Salvage, Little Careless Brook, Squid Tickle, St. Bride”s, Placentia and Trepassy are just a few places with old stories behind them. From the Cape Spear lighthouse and park to Cape St. Mary”s gannet colony, from barren moorlands to the Cape Pine lighthouse, the author”s expertise on the natural world (beyond our own flesh) asserts itself with eloquence. Moose and caribou hunts are an important financial and cultural industry in Newfoundland. Finch went completely native when he deployed himself on a hunt with Newfie friends, and tales of this adventure include the added amusements of dodging tricky, bureaucratic hunting regulations. As in Ireland, governmental rules are subject to broad interpretations and loose translations. Indeed, our nature writer decided that the “whole system seems to be widely regarded as something to manipulate or evade.” Newfoundland”s seal hunts are under attack by animal rights groups, especially after a much-publicized incident involving the three Hearn brothers who supposedly “tortured” some seals a few years ago. Such brouhaha could only occur when an older, hardier, closer-to-nature culture rebuffs teachings from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Hunters continue to rail against blustering busybodies who interfere with natural resource interactions (hunting traditions) dating back several centuries. Towards the end of this memorable tour, I read and reread the author”s remarks as he watched a Seinfeld rerun and found himself “wondering what Newfoundlanders make of such a narcissistic, nihilistic, irony-drenched portrait of life.” Robert Finch, nature writer, correspondent, interpreter, historian and scout, salutes the bewitching, merry people of Newfoundland and their boundless bonhomie in this joyous, irresistible account.

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