Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eel

 "The Interpreter of Silences" by Jean McNeil is a novel set in a small coastal village in Cape Breton.  The story is full of eels, a fish that serves as a metaphor for the life of central character Eve.  From the opening paragraph of the book eels are featured, en masse, swimming in a migratory pattern that takes them from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea to the shores of Nova Scotia and back again.

"For months they are only scraps of transparent gelatinous flesh, no bigger than a thumbnail.  They float, thickening, until they resemble tiny chevrons.  By the time they reach the island they have lengthened and look like thin hairs dotted on the ends with two tiny black eyes.  This is the first of several mutations: throughout their lives they will change colour and shape several times, even the composition of their blood."  

"They will arrive and leave at night, entering the island's salt lakes through a bight, wrung in the currents that swirl around the stanchions of the Seal Island Bridge.  They taste the sudden drop in salinity and know they are home.  Although they have never seen this before, there is also something familiar about the single halogen light and the two concrete fingers pointing into the lake in a V, the coal-black water, the shattered hulk of a ruined ferry."

"She is standing on the shore beside the ferry with her father.  He is pointing southeast, in the direction of the Sargasso Sea.  She is twelve years old and her father is explaining that the eels will return there to die.  In his voice is the rough note of satisfaction produced by inevitable truths.  Less than you might imagine separates him or her from these creatures, he says; like them we will return to the nowhere from which we came.  There we will start again.  We are on a loop, he tells her.  Time is repeating itself endlessly, we are repeating ourselves." 

Continuity - eels are a good representative for that. It's not only their snake-like shape suggesting the image of Ouroboros, or the perfect circle of a life cycle made up of instinctive departure and return.   It's tradition in our household;  no New Year's eve celebration would be complete without smoked eel on the table.

My husband Robert has fond memories of "gerookte paling" served on slices of rye bread in his native home, the Netherlands.  The custom is shared by many European countries and seems appropriate fare for a night that heralds the end of the old calendar year, and the beginning of the new.  Perhaps the custom derives from Christian iconography.   After restoration of the work, art historians confirmed that a plate of eel is depicted on the table in Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper."

Leonardo da Vinci, "Last Supper" detail of plate with sliced eel

In the pioneer days of New Brunswick, eels provided a nutritious year-round food for Mi'kmaq and Acadians.  August to November was prime time for downstream runs of mature eels to the ocean, and spring brought the small elvers upriver.  During the winter months, eels could be harvested through the ice with a rake-like spear that pulled the fish from the muddy river bottom.   Mi'kmaq performed a ritual at the end of January called "grandfather feeding" or "apuknajit." By leaving eel heads and skins on a tree stump, natives offered gratitude to their ancestors for helping them to survive the harshest part of winter.

Tonight we'll eat eel for the last supper of the year and give thanks for our survival.  The loop continues...
Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Grave Matters

Across from the church in Cap-Pele lies the Sainte-Therese-d'Avila Cemetery, a park-like setting where a central tree-lined pathway leads to a monumental calvary.   This is the final resting place for many Acadians whose lives relate directly to the history of the village; pioneers, priests, fishermen, farmers and their relatives.  The surnames etched on stone markers are as familiar to those who live in the community today as they were to residents of the region in 1842, when a plot of land was ceded to the Catholic church by the Leblanc and Cormier families for use as a graveyard.  Situated in the heart of Acadie,  it's a significant historic resource and a sacred place.

Sainte-Therese-d'Avila Cemetery, Cap-Pele

The NB government has a register of historic places, and this cemetery is listed in their files.  The notes supporting historic designation of the site mention the graves of prominent local figures, the unique symbolism and style of certain gravestones and the variety of mature trees.

In November, when I took a walk through the cemetery to honour the Day of the Dead,  I was shocked to find that many of the old tombstones were freshly painted.  Coats of white paint topped with flashes of garish colour had transformed the character of the cemetery from historic landmark to Disney-esque stage set.  How had this happened?

A well-meaning but misguided village resident had decided to "spruce up" the cemetery during the summer months.  She sought and was granted permission for the project from the church caretaker, received a donation of enamel paint from the hardware store and recruited a team of volunteers to help out.  Unfortunately, she neglected to do any research regarding acceptable methodology for tombstone restoration.  Any conservator would have advised her to put away the scrub and paint brushes and leave well enough alone.   Minimal intervention is often the best approach.

The professional restoration experts emphasize that stone needs to breathe and should not be sealed with paint or epoxy.  Treatments that seal the stone actually promote deterioration, as moisture laden with minerals and salts migrates to the surface and cannot escape.  Eventually the stone becomes structurally weakened and collapses.  "Surface failure" is the term used to describe an irreparable, crumbling mess.

What took place in the local cemetery is tantamount to vandalism, but no one seems to acknowledge the fact that permanent damage was done - unwittingly, to be sure - by a group that had no business even attempting the task.  Indeed, the initiative of the amateur painter was applauded by church and community and received media coverage on CTV Atlantic.   

The Canadian designation of historic places does not go far enough to legally protect important spots from inappropriate alteration or demolition.  The general standards for preservation, rehabilitation and restoration listed on the Historic Places website start with a basic rule of thumb:  

"1. Conserve the heritage value of a place.  Do not remove or substantially alter its intact or repairable character-defining elements. "

A "before" photo from November, 2013

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Twelve things to remember

Marshall Field (1834-1906)
With "The Twelve Days of Christmas" playing on the radio and the season of excessive consumer spending well underway, it seems appropriate to turn to the words of one of the all-time great U.S. department store pioneers for advice.  Marshall Field is the man credited for transforming shopping into a customer-friendly, fun experience.  He recognized early in his career that buying was done primarily by women, a revelation that changed everything.  Adding conveniences such as a coat check, nursery, library, restrooms, telephones and a restaurant to his store signaled that he aimed to please his valued customers.  Field offered unconditional refunds and consistent pricing, and insisted that his staff use a no-pressure sales pitch.   He built his empire on a sensible formula: "Give the lady what she wants."

Field's account of a dozen things to remember is a surprisingly non-materialistic list for a man who made his fortune selling goods.  It reflects the tenets of a Puritan upbringing, a humble background that the influential Chicago retailer never forgot.   

Twelve things to remember
  1. The value of time
  2. The success of perseverance
  3. The pleasure of working
  4. The dignity of simplicity
  5. The worth of character
  6. The power of kindness
  7. The influence of example
  8. The obligation of duty
  9. The wisdom of economy
  10. The virtue of patience
  11. The improvement of talent
  12. The joy of originating