Every Monday, we are making our donors-only ‘letters from the editor of The Independent’ public. This article was initially sent to donors on 4 July 2021 (#49). For more like this delivered directly to your inbox every week, donate here.
The promise of the Ode is true: summer spreads her hand, and Newfoundland and Labrador blooms open to the world once more. For the first time since the novel coronavirus brought the earth to a standstill in March 2020—beyond some brief commingling with our Maritime cousins in the lulls between the waves—outside travellers are welcomed back to the province. Like a school of salmon, the diaspora dispenses with dispersion and returns to the ancestral spawning grounds. It was a winter of despair, followed by a spring of hope; now comes a summer of beautiful reunion.
It is fitting that this should happen now. At risk of hyperbole, it is the fleeting summer months here that render life bearable. The short sweet Newfoundland summer makes all things feel new, all fantasies seem real, all utopias seem possible. It is the Lord’s cup that runneth over with waters from the fountain of youth. It contains the promise that the world really can be prepared for friendship, that man might one day be helper to man, that one day soon the sun will finally shine and banish our spiritual poverty forever. It is, of course, an illusion; but as Voltaire tells us, l’illusion est le premier plaisir. We cannot live without the intermediary of the image. The waking dream of summer is necessary for living through the other three seasons: the beautiful melancholy of fall, the deathly freeze of winter, the mud and mire of the island’s false spring. As wood stores sunlight to warm our hearths through the darkness, so does the Newfoundland summer sustain us.
There is no better time to welcome back our loved ones. The heart bursts at their return. But emerging from human hibernation brings with it many pangs. One wonders how they’ll find us, and what changes have been wrought. The long pandemic year has made all of us squirrelly. Card-carrying extroverts now panic at the sight of crowds; inveterate introverts find themselves feral at the hint of human touch. Cocooned through these long and anxious months of isolation, we have become bags of hormones hijacked by digital thought disease. Newfoundlanders, in particular, have always been predisposed to looking out at the world through our navels—”thank God we’re surrounded by water”—and our year of splendid isolation has reinforced this insularity quite a bit.
The sentiment, of course, seems justified. As the 2020s unfold and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” you can be forgiven for feeling that Newfoundland and Labrador really is a sanctuary against the storm. Especially where other parts of Canada groaned under governments more than happy to let them die if it might appease Moloch, the homeland must have shone like a beacon of freedom—all the brighter, as longing tends to go, for being out of reach. For so long the very thing which held the place back—its forbidding isolation on the north Atlantic fringe—was now, suddenly, its greatest strength. We are privy to the world’s most scenic doomsday bunker.
Even the brutal weather is a boon. Needing rain jackets and sweaters on 1 July 2021 seems confirmation that we are an oasis in a world on fire.
Fire; everything is on fire. A state of violent transition and release; too much stored-up sunlight, dredged up from the bowels of the earth and burned, the incinerating power of the stars now loosed upon the world. What was July 1, this year, more than a testament to the all-consuming flames that we have kindled?
Fire: this world was born in the fires of the Great War. What is Memorial Day but a solemn reminder of what modernity really costs? More than a century after Beaumont Hamel and there is so much thick smoke around it we are losing sight of its origins in a human inferno. The impulse for official culture to sanitize the uncomfortable truths of the First World War is obvious enough. To really reckon with its meaning—that is to say its meaninglessness, its obliteration of all meaning—is to unsettle and destabilize a cherished modern mythology. But there has never been a more urgent time to sunder clear memories from nationalist nostalgia. We cannot ennoble what they did to our fathers in Hell without risking its repetition.
Fire: the western half of the continent is on fire, sweltering under apocalyptic heat. The Canadian Rockies nearly cracking fifty degrees Celsius in June. Mass death from overheating all across the once-cool Pacific coast. Wildfires so ferocious they generate their own weather, pyrocumulous clouds of dry smoke sending lightning without rain across the tinderbox of the plains. The earth itself is in open revolt; the climate crisis is here. Even the ocean is on fire. Walter Benjamin tells us in his Theses on the Philosophy of History that “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” This bill is past due and the future approaches foreclosure. This is the last call. We should add his other warning: “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
Fire: churches are on fire across the west in a great funeral pyre for the noble lies about what Canada is and what it was built upon. Property damage is regrettable but incommensurate with the horrors unearthed seemingly every day—horrors which the perpetrators still largely refuse to acknowledge. The architecture of Confederation is shaped around a foundation of deliberate human suffering. The “Last Best West” is settled over a mass grave. Settlers have to grapple with this genocidal legacy and if there is any lasting promise in the “Canadian idea” it is that we have it in our collective power to freely acknowledge the truth and to create new and better values and reciprocal relationships with the Indigenous nations we have wronged. And truth, by necessity, comes ahead of reconciliation.
The fire is burning everywhere and it can feel all consuming. It can be tempting then to seek refuge—to retreat, to escape—on an island at the edge of North America; an island sealed behind some air conditioned dashboard; a deserted island somewhere deep inside your heart. But “no man is an island” and even here we are inevitably connected to the rest of the community, to the rest of the country, to the rest of the world, a world which every day grows smaller. We are not free from the fire; we cannot escape it. We have our part in building it and we have our part in putting it out. Separateness is a pleasurable illusion but one that will cost us the earth.
Living with other people is hard but it is even harder to live without them. To share our brief time under the sun with those we love is among the chief joys of summer. As our borders reopen to the world so too must our hearts. We have to store up the sunlight while it shines before the smoke chokes out the sky. Only love can shepherd us through sorrow to joy. There is no time left to take anything or anyone for granted.
Did you enjoy this article? Fund more like it, and support the future of journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.