Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 8, 2006.
Newfoundland and Mongolia

Reluctantly, I left St. Johnís Tuesday morning to head south to the Cape St. Maryís Ecological Preserve, the seabird breeding ground. The day was wild and windy, clouds scudding across the blue skies, but the rains were holding off and temperatures were in the sixties. So it was good weather for Newfoundland.

I hadnít known what to expect when I left St. Johnís. The previous Saturday the world was lost in fog, and I had no idea what the landscape looked like. What a surprise! I had expected to be surrounded by forests, with occasional glimpses of the water and

the shore. Instead I found myself in a vast open space, gently rolling hills punctuated by shrubs, pools, and grasses. Hardly any trees, and nothing to show that the land was claimed by anyone. No fences, no ploughed fields, no paddocks. No grazing animals. Scarcely any roads other than the ones I was driving on. And scarcely any people. Occasionally a small village with a

few houses, a government office or two, a hardware store, a bar, a small grocery with gas tanks in front. In front of one grocery a horse ambled comfortably around the gas tank, ignored by his owner but greatly to the amusement of the tourists stopping for gas. But mostly there was just open space, green land, blue skies, clouds.

It was my first exposure to what The Rock is really like. It is indeed a rock, covered with water and bogs and the small range of plants that can grow in that environment. Blueberries, raspberries, bakeapples, partridgeberries. Pitcher plants, the carnivorous provincial flower that collects water in fine cups where unsuspecting bugs drown, to be absorbed for the nourishment of the plant. Yes, there are a few small trees, but mostly itís a world of bouncy green ground and open sky.

Newfoundland is actually a lot like Mongolia. The land isnít good enough for crops, and the growing season is so short that cultivation would be hard anyway. As a result the island is very sparsely populated, and roads are few and far between. There are major differences, too, of course. The

grasses in Mongolia support livestock, so people are distributed across the country, albeit sparsely. Historically roads werenít needed in Mongolia because everyone moved on horseback. Whereas in Newfoundland even grazing isnít feasible; people survived on the fish. So roads werenít needed because there simply was no reason to go to the middle. Everyone lived on the edges, in the outports, and they got around by boat. In Mongolia there is no edge, no shore, no water; everyone lives in the middle.

Thereís another big difference too. In Mongolia, even now, people outside the cities live at a very low economic and material level. Yes, some people move their gers in pickups instead of towing them on yak carts, and young men are delighted to get their hands on motorbikes instead of Ė or in addition to - horses, but still the rural folks are still living in the past in terms of material culture. Whereas in rural Newfoundland, though there's not much choice in groceries and access to medical care can be inadequate, everyone is living in the 20th century, if not quite the 21st. The C@P sites are there for those who want internet,

everyone has a phone and a television and a car or a truck. The children all go to school, have books and trendy clothes. The economy may be bad, but the jobs that exist are modern ones. Which is not so true in rural Mongolia, where people still travel with their herds and live off their own production of meat and cheese.

And yet, with its thinly dispersed population and expanses of space untouched by people, rural Newfoundland does have something in common with Jalman Meadows, if only the open land and sky and the utter solitude that you can suddenly find there.

The seabirds might even have their parallel in the huge herds of gazelles that populate the eastern grasslands of Mongolia. But I wouldnít know, I didnít see the gazelles, and I did see the birds. Which are amazing. Thousands and thousands come back every year to the same spot at the southern end of the peninsula, attracted by cliffs and sea stacks that

enable them to nest safely, unmolested by animals from land or sea. Big white gannets with black-tipped wings, funny waddling black murres, and delicate gray and white kittiwakes. They emit a constant cacophony of shrieks and cries, and a pungent odor of droppings that takes getting used to. Most are perched on their rocks, tending to their nests, but there are constant comings and goings as well Ė birds wheeling and circling, endless take-offs-and-landings (TOLs, as aviation folks call them), birds diving into the sea to grab fish. On the rocks, some birds sit quietly but others jab at each other, wrestle, harass their neighbors. Fluffy young ones stretch their budding wings and waddle among the nests on their big feet. Parents preen their feathers, or curl their heads under their wings to snooze.

And on the opposite cliff, the birders congregate with their cameras, tripods, and spotting scopes, clambering on the rocks, angling for the best photos, flipping through the pages of their bird books, gently nudging each other out of the good perches, comparing notes about where they have traveled and where they are from. No TOLs among the birders, fortunately Ė that could be very hazardous. But a constant stream of comings and goings along the path on top of the cliff, as new folks arrive and those who have seen enough head back to the shelter and facilities of the visitor center a mile away.

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