The last two days have helped me understand the Homeric sea (Winslow, not that other guy). At times, the sea boils with startling ferocity against the shoreline. Winslow Homer’s art was in making us believe that the sea is always like this, and in seeing that ferocity as romantic.
When I was a child, what was referred to as Vinland in Old Norse sagas (and by medieval historians) was only imperfectly understood. Controversy still raged over whether the Norse had ever reached past Greenland into North America. Today, we assume that Vinland included Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as New Brunswick. That’s logical but not conclusive. The only confirmed Norse site in Canada is at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland.
Prior to the Norse settlement, there were various other prehistoric people in this part of Newfoundland. However, none of them stayed. The Dorset people were driven out by global warming during the Medieval Warm Period; the Mi’kmaq left because it was too cold. Archaeologists believe the Norsemen eventually left because of the weather as well: extreme cold drove their food sources south.
The sky had cleared but the wind still blew fiercely when we reached L’Anse aux Meadows. The visitor’s center, now closed for the season, was unfortunately set square in the middle of the path. I climbed around the building on its uphill side and hopped the fence to the boardwalk. Mary was aghast and followed me reluctantly.
“I’m not the first person to do this,” I said, pointing out the faint path along the slope.
“If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” she retorted.
I raised that kid all wrong.
The longhouses faced the cove in a gentle curve pointing at the shoreline. I don’t understand how that boulder-strewn coast was navigable by any boat. The reconstructed sod longhouse is remarkably contemporary in feel. It could be a settlement in the Dakotas; it could be a modern earth ship.
I knew we could make better time returning on a different path. Still, I have a healthy respect for quicksand and sinkholes. Former President George H.W. Bush sank into it up to his armpits in Newfoundland. So when Mary suggested an alternative route with a boardwalk, we decided to be prudent.
That is how we managed to walk in a wide sweep for 5 km trying to get back to our car. It was bracing, but it gave us quiet time to reflect on the Norsemen who were drawn here. What in this bleak and cold landscape, with its buffeting winds and lack of topsoil, seemed attractive to them?
We set off south with time for one small painting. We were far enough north that we could see Labrador, and its peaks were dusted with snow, as were the strange worn mountains at Gros Morne National Park. I set up to paint there, but my easel was blown over before I even got started.
In the end, that was fine. We made it to the ferry terminal as cars were lining up to board. Today is calm and lovely, and I’m heading to the Cape Breton Highlands.
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