Icebergs and life's illusions
There is no place to seek the mind; it is like the footprints of birds in the sky.
Spring was well advanced when I flew from Ottawa to St. John’s in May 2008. I sat on the north side of the plane, as is my wont on a latitudinal flight, and looked down at the lakes and forests of New Brunswick. With no particular purpose or logic, I thought about love, regret and the passages of life as I looked out the window.
The impetus for the trip was a conference that Lisette was to attend. I’d decided to fly out a couple of days in advance of her arrival, and try my luck at finding icebergs. I’d been to the Rock once before, but never seen an iceberg. The notion of seeing what Charles G. D. Roberts called “glacier-spawned Alps afloat” had captured my imagination.
But in the week before I left, and on the flight as I looked out at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, I realized I’d been tapping some unspoken motivation. When I landed in St. John’s on May 20, it was exactly three years after Genevieve’s death.
It was warm on that Sunday afternoon as I walked the downtow n streets. At dinner, I found myself in an oriental restaurant on Duckworth Street. The Atlantic Monthly I was reading had an article on suicide in Japan. My fortune cookie told me that I was “sympathetic to the problems of others.”
In the morning, I rented a car and set out. Satellite-based radar indicated icebergs off the Bonavista Peninsula , north, as the bird flies, of the provincial capital. By car it’s southwest, then west, northwest, north, and finally northeast – a clockwise sweep, and a trip that afforded me plenty of time for thinking.
When I turned north off the TransCanada highway at Clarenville, I found myself looking for signs. Would finding an iceberg help to retrieve Genny in some sense? What was I really looking for, anyway? And if I faile d to find an iceberg, what might that signify? As I drove past Southern Bay and Summerville, patches of fog made me wonder what I’d make of an invisible, hearsay reality – “There’s icebergs a-plenty in the bay, boy, but the fog’s not goin’ anywhere today, I’ll tell you that!”
Somewhere near King’s Cove someone was on the radio singing the Joni Mitchell song:
Tears and fears and feeling proud –
To say I love you right out loud . . .
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
And then, out the left window, I saw my first iceberg. It was n’t large – it was what the locals call a “clumper,” I think. I was interested, but I also felt a small pang of relief.
When I got to Bonavista, I parked the car and walked out the breakwater. Right in the harbour, perhaps half a kilometer from the shingle on which I stood, was a whale -shaped iceberg. If I’d seen any boat traffic, I’d have tried to get a lift for a closer view. It didn’t move, and I wondered if it were aground. I took a few photos, and picked up some flat stones with pale-coloured near-circles in them – stones that are deemed to be lucky, I later found out.
I found a perch at the end of the breakwater. Patches of fog came and went. When it cleared completely, I could see something on the horizon, but couldn’t quite make out what it was: a snowy hill, or a cream-coloured mansion on a distant unseen shore? No, I slowly realized. It too was an iceberg. Given the distance, it must have been gargantuan – a huge white wall, perhaps fifty or sixty metres long and ten metres high, and soaring above it at one end, a turret, straight-edged and pointing to the sky. “Icecream castle” isn’t a bad description.
Genny would have liked the scene, and she might have painted it. In a way, I guess I’d brought her with me. She imbued the entire seascape.
I wondered about the iceberg’s origins – Greenland? My telephoto lens couldn’t pull it any closer – it looked much the same size in the view finder as it did to the naked eye. It was so distant, yet compelled attention. I guess a painter would foreground it, and eliminate much of the grey watery expanse on which it drifted. I took my time getting back to the car.
I drove to Cape Bonavista where John Cabot is said to have first sighted land on his 1497 voyage from Bristol. The rocky cliffs that form the shore here are indented with steep narrow coves in which the swells rose and retreated. I stood at the head of one of these slate-lined coves. A fog started to gather. And then I noticed another iceberg, this time, a large flat table of white ice. It was close by, but soft and indistinct in the fog. It was moving southeast. Again, I took out the camera. But I lost concentration. I was adrift on a sea of emotion.