Tilting, Newfoundland and Quieter Times

Tilting by Robert Mellin

As I was going through my bookshelf last week in preparation for our family’s annual potlatch exchange, I came across Robert Mellin’s Tilting:  House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village, which I obtained several years ago following one of my visits to Newfoundland but which I had only skimmed through at the time.  There is so much to like in this neat little book about the sparsely populated and very scenic fishing village of Tilting, which is located on Fogo Island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and is now mostly inhabited by descendants of Irish settlers from the early 1700s.  (See here and here for earlier O’Canada Blog comments about Fogo Island.)  It’s difficult to classify this work by genre — its subject matter ranges across fishing village architecture, local history, oral stories, traditional farming and fishing techniques, and cultural studies.

Mellin, an architecture professor at McGill University, complements his studious observations with an impressive array of photographs (most his own), line drawings and maps, as well as commentary from longtime Tilting residents.  I particularly liked the following amusing remarks by resident Jim Greene on local visiting customs and the frowned upon city-style practice of asking people to remove their shoes upon entering the house:

“They don’t bother to knock — because everybody around here knows one another and they knows what’s in there and they knows what kind of a person they’re going to meet and — there’s no need of them knocking — I think that’s the reason.  .  .  . Nobody don’t want to take off their boots — We had several people comin’ in stopped out in the porch tryin’ to get off their boots — come on in, boy!

“You know Mark Foley?  He was away into St. John’s and I met him one day — I said, “Mark, you were gone.”  He said, “Yes, boy, I was into St. John’s and I had a spell takin’ off me boots. ” Why, that’s bullshit!  They’re imitating that crowd in St. John’s and that’s the reason — we’re going to be just like the crowd that’s in St. John’s and you got to do the same thing in their houses as they does in St. John’s — full of bull.  I had a pair of boots one time I couldn’t get off — what’ll I do then?  You know the kind of boots they are — they calls them “flits” and they calls them “unemployment boots” — them rubbers with a couple of laces at the top.  I bought a pair one time and I put them on — didn’t have much trouble to get them on — but in the evening when I went to get them off I couldn’t get them off.  I lay down on the floor and I hauled on them and everything and I couldn’t get them off — after a while I got them off, and I never put them on no more.  Another fellow down there, Billy Broaders, he’s dead now, he put a pair on one time he had to cut his off!  Well, if you’re going to their house with them boots on you have to turn around and come back — you couldn’t get in, could you?”

The Great Fogo Island Punt Race 2011

Rowers in the 2010 Fogo Island Punt Race

Today marks the fifth annual running in Newfoundland of the Great Fogo Island Punt Race, a 10-mile endurance race that requires its challengers to row punts (essentially, small row boats) across five miles of open ocean between Fogo Island and Change Islands and back.  The official event website is here, which includes a couple of fascinating videos, including “Postcard From Fogo Island”, a gorgeous short video about the race which can also be found here on the website of the Shorefast Foundation.  Aside from being great fun, the annual race celebrates the boating heritage of Newfoundland and its reliance on the durable punt, a craft that the people throughout the province have relied upon for over 300 years.

The Long Studio on Fogo Island

I’ve commented on Fogo Island previously in a post on the National Film Board of Canada’s 1967 documentary “The Children of Fogo Island.”  In addition to its achingly beautiful scenery, this rugged island paradise in Atlantic Canada has a lot going for it, not the least of which is the resilient spirit of its people and their strong sense of community.   Fogo Island’s Shorefast Foundation has done a remarkable job in just a few short years in promoting both deliberate economic development and a phenomenally vibrant arts community.  Providing a good examplef this, is the above photo is of the Long Studio, one of three recently constructed and strikingly innovatively designed arts studios on the island as part of a series of broader arts initiatives fostered by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation and the Shorefast Foundation.

The Children of Fogo Island

I just finished watching a short documentary, The Children of Fogo Island, that consists mainly of observing children going about their daily play activities on this major island off the northern coast of Newfoundland.   Directed by Colin Low in 1967 in cooperation with the National Film Board of Canada, the film dispenses with narration in favor of a simple and melodic music track, which gives the black and white images an elegiac feel.  Aside from the nostalgia that the film evokes, there is also a sense of sadness in contemplating the tenuous hold on survival managed by the people living on this outport island.  Several years ago I had the good fortune to meet a businessman about my age in St. John’s, Newfoundland who had grown up on Fogo Island and who still held great affection for the place.  He spoke wistfully about his childhood there and how so many young people have left  due to their inability to make a living in that remote place.  This film brings me back to that conversation as well as the simpler times of a generation or so ago — which all children amazingly reinvent in their own way.

Link to video:  http://www.nfb.ca/film/children_of_fogo_island

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