Saturday, June 15, 2013

Woods Island

My previous experience with resettled communities in Newfoundland is limited. In 2009 I lived on the Grey Islands for three months, which, until now, was the only intensive, studious period I have spent in an abandoned community. In the case of the Grey Islands the logic of resettlement is clear: the community was extremely isolated (20km over the open icy ocean to the next nearest community) and subsistence there was difficult (poor weather and almost no soil). I thought this logic was going to be the theme of my summer travels this time around, so I was quite surprised by the time I spent on Woods Island this past week.

Woods Island is in the Bay of Islands, about 30km from Corner Brook. It is, to put it mildly, shockingly dissimilar to the Grey Islands, and forces me to question some of my understandings and assumptions about resettlement. Woods Island was a major centre of the west coast fishery and it is easy to see why: it is centrally located in the bay and the land is rich and fertile. In fact, Woods Island seems like a place where people could have been resettled to rather than from, especially when you consider that many of the mainland towns ringing the southern side of the bay are essentially built into little more than dark nooks in the north-facing cliffs.

I have tended, perhaps naively, to think of resettlement as a humanitarian project, a way of bringing people closer to the things they need to be healthy and educated. But Woods Island really makes me think about resettlement as an economic project rather than a humanitarian one. A school or clinic could have been built on the island and a ferry link could have been established, and maybe the community would have thrived. In the short term though it was more expedient to simply put a road up the coast and convince all the people to move over to the mainland. And in any case, resettlement was founded on an ideology of urbanization and economic transformation that could not be denied.

Woods Island is not really resettled anyways, at least not with the permanence and finality that the Grey Islands were. One family stayed after everyone else left, and one member of that family is still there today, living year round in his home. Many others have summer homes there, some using it as a base for their fishing operations in season, others simply as a quiet getaway. There are cabins there, but most aren't the rustic accommodations you might expect - drop any one of them down in a nearby town and it certainly wouldn't look out of place. Almost every cabin has a lawn, and most of the lawns are freshly mowed. In my four days there I saw about ten people - mowing lawns, hanging clothes to dry, putting up a new roof, collecting flotsam from the beach, planting gardens. Clearly many people are choosing to spend a lot of time there.

On the way back I stopped in at the Woods Island Resettlement House in Benoit's Cove. It is a lovely little museum filled with artifacts and photos showing the history of the place. In fact, the museum itself is the greatest artifact, as it is a house that was floated across the bay during the resettlement period. Coincidentally, there was a lecture being delivered by Dr. Rainer Baehre when I stopped, as part of the CU Expo that the university in Corner Brook is hosting. Dr. Baehre has spent much time studying Woods Island and I hope to have a chat with him some day.

Historians and museums are, naturally enough, focused on the narrative elements of resettlement, and not surprisingly most of the art and literature about this period of Newfoundland history has also tended to be narrative, pictorial and representational. I want to take a different trajectory in my project by incorporating environmental, performative and ephemeral elements.

I spent my first evening, morning and afternoon on the island exploring the beaches looking for shards. There were many - I picked up a couple hundred, but I could easily have taken many, many more. And when I picked a spot bare all I had to do was wait for the tide to come in and go out again, and there would be a whole new trove revealed. This first excursion was all about figuring out what was possible and what I might want to do in the future. I built three structures - first a shard pile on a rock, then a circular arrangement on the sand, and finally a line along the beach parallel to the water's edge. This last one was the one I settled on - I arranged the shards from smallest to largest and waited for the tide to do its thing. The arrangement transformed from a sharp, linear object to a fuzzy, organic one. Size matters, of course, so the smaller pieces were more disturbed by the action of the water than the large ones.

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