Revisiting the Great Conversation

Chris Peters is a husband, father and educator. He finds resonance in the heave of seas, the swirl of fog in the snarl of boreal forest, the sudden startle of birdsong in the quiet of the morning.
The idea to build a paipo, a Hawai’ian word for a wooden, finless bodyboard, cut like a shark fin through my stilled mental fog. It was an idea that appealed to me, that offered a means of immersion in my surroundings. Never mind that those surrounding waters are the North Atlantic, renowned neither for their placidness or warmth. Never mind that accessing these waters would happen via the hardened shores of Newfoundland, where granite cliffs descend sharply to rocky beaches. The idea appealed despite the fact that I had been bodyboarding a grand total of three times in my life. I was transfixed. There was purpose in my days, that became weeks, and now months.


The vague outlines of the paipo taking shape from scrap plywood. A sense of focused giddiness about the work, as when I was a child getting away with something I shouldn’t.


Clouds of wood dust that enveloped the entire shed in a layer of wood and glue fibres. The edges of the paipo gradually rounded down. Catching myself out, already dreaming of being in the water, feeling the surging power of a wave propelling me forward towards the rocky shoreline. The gritty feel of sandpaper beneath my fingers. The quiet whisper of the handplane drawing out the rough patches. A textured smoothness as I run my fingers along the edge, across the board proper.


I asked at the paint shop for a marine paint, something for a paipo. I showed them pictures. There was a quietness in their response which suggested they weren’t sure what to do with this information. Paipo? In Newfoundland? You know the waters are cold, right? They masked these unasked questions by speaking gruffly to the qualities of marine paints, pointing out the rainbow of colour choices. I chose dory yellow. It spoke to me, suggested something about the history of this place. A history now repurposed.

All of this work, the hours spent in the shed as the days got shorter, the nights longer, culminating in three paipo. And as they neared completion, a feeling of gnawing apprehension overtook the giddiness.


Why was I building paipo? In Newfoundland?

What was the point?

Answer One: A Chance Encounter

Turning off the ribbon of asphalt cutting through the barrens, a fog bank looming with wispy tendrils of cool, I slowed the car to a crawl along the rutted dirt road. Raspberry thickets and the seasons first blueberries, a mottled purple-red shone through the late August greenery going quickly to seed. Here and there stands of alder and birch, a lone tamarack slung low and wide against the prevailing winds, stood as waypoints, marking our progress. Dragonflies flitted about by the dozens, and I should have wondered at their numbers.

Finally, we descended a hill and the road went no further. A dozen RVs sat in the parking lot, spruce poles erected close by to create improvised antennae stands. Men and women in various states of undress, drinks in hand sat around listening to country music and talking loudly, generators offering a dull roaring background. Children ran about, masters of their own universe.

We stepped out and began a short, steep walk up the path into the woods. And so entered a different world.

Here, at a place called Chance Cove the snags of boreal forest gave way to a long crescent of rocky beach. Surf pounded in, the hissing approach of waves, the rasp and knock of rocks meeting rocks, and the foaming break background music to our stay. Behind the seafront marshy ponds rounded back up a low valley. The trees grew tall below the grasping maw of the winds. The air smelt richly of the forest, of spruce sap and fir needles, of berries and August grasses. Over it all the smell of the ocean, clean and tanged by wet rocks. Bees and butterflies rose and fell in such numbers that they were best described as a chorus.

The road we had driven down, even the RV parking lot were forgotten here. The noise of country twang and generators was muffled away and lost. Here was a place beyond the pall of human meddling and progressing.

We stopped for a coffee, soaking in the scene while our girls ran off to play in the woods. While the campstove heated the percolator I found a patch of ripe raspberries, and picked my fill. Mosquitoes fell upon me, and horseflies too. I sent small prayers of thanks towards the flitting dragonflies, urged them on to greater feats of gluttony. Nevertheless, I was soon festooned in bloody smears and hot, swollen patches rose on my legs and arms.

Later, we walked down a narrow path where wild roses grew and perfumed the air. Gnarled grey driftwood poked up from the beach rocks. We made our way to the pondfront, a sudden smear of sand that welcomed our feet after the rolling rocks that separated pond from ocean. The pond was no deeper than mid-thigh so that we could walk far out into the water. Minnows sculled about careless until our shadows came too close.

I plunged in, enjoying the ‘frog’s eye view’ of the swim, to borrow from Roger Deakin. The hours passed easily.

My wife and friends took the children to the stream that emptied the ponds into the ocean for a swim. I walked down after them, looking out into the rush of surf, the sound suffusing everything beyond the forest, and found myself looking at a seal. It watched me with rapt curiosity and I called out to it, whistled. It hung about for a time, then fell back without a splash only to rise again, closer. But more nervous, and it fell away again, gone.

My youngest daughter and I picked blueberries as the sky was splashed in the colours of an August dusk, yellows and reds bright against the clouds flung high in the pale blue summer sky. We had brought no tent and the mosquitoes, always present, came out unseen but felt hordes. It was time to go.

A friend warned us they’d seen a moose on the road the night before.

We came back down the path to the car, the sound of the crashing surf quieting, and then lost to the droning peel of a crooners lament, drunken voices rising to the song out of tune and rhythm.

But the world had been restored for me. My wife’s last comment before we began rounding up the kids and sorting kit, as we stood arm in arm surveying the sweep of beach, the swirl of fog at the mouth of the cove, was, ‘This would be a great place to go surfing.’


Answer Two: A Balm Against Exploitation

Newfoundland’s history since the Europeans began arriving is one of exploitation and fishing. The British history here was often one of indifference beyond what its shores and shoals could provide in tonnage of saltcod.


There were so many codfish it was said you need only lower a basket to catch your holds full. But as fishing technology progressed from handlining to codtraps to longlining to trawlers, as sonar gave away the great pulsing masses of biomass (as fish is often reduced to, a word that separates the fish from any felt connection to the wider world) the great cod population of the North Atlantic fell away.


Since 1992 there has been no viable large scale codfishery in Newfoundland.

With its collapse went a way of life. Those who had risen every morning long before the sun to send small boats out in every kind of weather found themselves shorebound, useless. The wharves and stores, painted in vibrant reds, whites and yellows, that thronged outport harbours became dilapidated for want of use, washed away in autumn storms and were never rebuilt. Dories and trap skiffs were hauled up on land, slowly greying and rotting away from the sea. People left without even bothering to pack up their possessions. Just closed the door behind them.

Gone too was a knowledge of place, an understanding and appreciation by fishermen of nature and their own place in it. There was no need to pass this information on, of shoals and rocky crags where boats might get scuttled upon, where the best fishing places were.

The story of this loss is still keenly felt in Newfoundland, muffled though it now is in a state of oil exploration and profit. There’s the promise of a better tomorrow, economically. Politicians puff and posture about climate change, deride and mock it or promise to address it.


The lessons of the collapsing codfishery, of exploiting a finite resource until it disappears, haven’t been learned.

Answer Three: A Means of Immersion

I grew up along the Bay of Fundy in Saint John, New Brunswick. The sweep of the tides, the smell of the ocean were always with me. Our home was littered with beach rocks and seashells gathered on rambles.

As I got older I took to seakayaking. There was no gentle learning curve. A friend and I mistook rowing experience on the Kennebecasis River as an understanding of water, and we signed up for an adventure race. After running through a weave of trails and wrenching our bicycles through mud we got into the kayak, and paddled confidently out of the calm bay. Once out along the coast the wind roared up. Whitecaps sent us slaloming through the short, steep whitecaps and sloughing to beam in the troughs. It was hard work, and we were soon soaked through. Worse, my sciatic nerve was cut off by the posture the sport demanded and my legs fell asleep, useless. As I was steering the boat by the touch of my toes this put us in a dangerous situation.

We did not, as prudence should have called for, make for shore. Instead we grunted, sweated, cursed and cried our way to the finish line. Nevertheless, the taste of salt on my burned lips was intoxicating, the feel of the water beneath the hull magical.

As the years went by I gained something approaching confidence in a kayak. I took to paddling out on my own along the shoreline, in good weather and bad, mesmerised by the magical hum a kayak makes when it came up to speed. I felt connected to the world, elemental.

My youngest brother and I paddled out one grey Sunday in the lee of the breakwater to Partridge Island at the harbour entrance to Saint John. It was half tide, and the water was slack, listless. The sky fell heavily upon the waterline and Nova Scotia, only eighty kilometres across the bay, was shrouded in cloud. The island looked closer than it was and it took some time for us to arrive. Once there we paddled out to where seals scurried from the shoreline rocks for the safety of the water. We then paddled back along the lee of the breakwater, taking our time.

I turned to say something to my brother and found myself looking at a seal just over his shoulder, head high above the water. The seals skin was the exact colour of the day. His eyes were ochre black, and his nose opened and closed wetly. We all of us took each other in, a smile playing on my face. After a time the seal fell away. My brother and I began talking about how great that had been when another seal rose between us and the shoreline. Then another.

At one time nearly a dozen seals took us in at one time, their heads rising and falling in the slow undulation of the bay, noses smacking wetly. I felt a bit like we were a topic of conversation down below.

In this light I can appreciate C.A.Bowers’ contention that the commons is the meeting place between the human and natural communities, in all its constituent parts. This is why we need to celebrate and protect the commons.

Yet to appreciate nature and the commons you need a means of access.

All night long the rush and trampling of water
And hoarse withdrawals, the endless ocean throwing his skirmish lines
Against granite,
Come to my ears and stop there. I have heard them so long
That I don’t hear them- or have to listen before I hear them — How long?
Forty years
But that fierce music has gone on for a thousand
Millions of years.

— Robinson Jeffers, ‘Untitled’

Reading Jeffers lines, poignant, felt, I was brought back to the beach. The background noise of pounding surf rumbled alive in my head, and I could smell the clean air, the forest and wet rock. I remembered the sandpipers that ghosted along the grey shoreline until I startled them into flight before descending, unseen, back to feed
once more further down the coast. I was transported.

Newfoundland is an island. It has a long tradition of fishing and seafaring. Stories of adventures and tragedies both cling as tenaciously as barnacles to the rocky shores. Yet, by and large the way that I have come to appreciate this place have been done on land, through hiking, mountain biking and gardening.

To know an island one must be attuned to the ocean. Not just in knowing academically its moods and contemplations, but by immersing oneself in its vagaries and rages. Therein lies true knowledge. This was why that day at Chance Cove had haunted.

The sea had been calling.

I took to building the paipo because it felt like an appropriate response. It will offer my family a means of access and immersion to this place. It will help us better appreciate it. I wanted to say understand it, but can’t. That would suggest a degree of control over weather, wind and current that even at the best of times, eludes us.

These are not the best of times.

A paipo will not solve climate change or ocean acidification. It will not stymie overfishing or bring back bleached corals.

It solves no crisis.

But it allows for a relationship to be born anew, between myself, my family and the sea. It allows us to re-engage in what the cosmologist and historian Thomas Berry described called the Great Conversation. We can once again find meaning and solace in the sea, in the held gaze of a seal, in the rise and fall of bees and butterflies, in the blazing glory of a sunset caught and illuminated by the evening fog.

This is why I build paipo.


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