Off the north shore of Newfoundland and Labrador lies a small island, Fogo island, about 25 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide. The National Geographic describes Fogo Island in these words: “Fogo Island is not so much a place as a state of mind. W clap-board houses, sea-cliff footpaths, lush forest and warm hospitality set against a striking coastline.”* With a long maritime history, the largest offshore island of Newfoundland and Labrador is a gentle world of bright-coloured With the cod and herring fisheries depleted, islanders have taken to creative measures to enhance the sustainability of their community. Through the imaginative design of a Newfie architect, they have built a number of “residences” for artists to come and do their work, while also engaging with the community as a way to support both the artists and the community’s livelihood. These artists, both aspiring and mature, through applications from around the world, seek and are offered what amounts to a three-to-six-month opportunity to create. What a commendable, creative, imaginative and sustaining approach to both economic development and cultural sustainability! We could all learn from the Fogo Islanders.
Considered by some to be one of the four corners of the earth by those who advocate for the “flat earth” society, Fogo offers a unique yet beautiful landscape, hiking trails some 3000 inhabitants with whom to interact, and an ethos bent and leaning toward creating. One of the advocates of the “flat earth” society, explaining the perspective of her group, on the Smithsonian’s “Canada: Over the Edge,” indicated that we do not see any evidence of a curve from where we are standing, anywhere on the planet, and the “flat earth” group emphasizes the importance of taking in and absorbing the surroundings immediately in front of us. Painters, artists, photographers, writers almost universally subscribe to the mantra “we create from what we know” and so it would appear that there is a high degree of coherence to the “flat earth’s” perspective and that of the artistic community. Peering into a microscope, too, by a scientific researcher in a lab, one observes, analyzes, interprets and learns from the immediate environment. Actors pay diligent and close attention to a script, authored by one whose authenticity springs from his/her connection to a place, to a culture, to an ethos. Similarly, musicians perform the scribblings of a manuscript that was birthed in a highly personal cocoon.
Politicians, too, have memorized and consistently the anthem, “all politics is local” as a core premise for their perspective of the body politic. The take polls, they employ artists to design and produce “messages” including advertisements, PSA’s, editorials and talking points that “address” the perceived needs and aspirations of their constituents. Millions of dollars are regularly raised and spent on matching the strengths of the candidate/party to the perceptions of the voters, as they have been discerned, dissected, curated, interpreted and massaged. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is another mantra of municipal politics, especially, for those considering planting a factory, or a sewage disposal plant or a landfill site anywhere within the borders of a municipality. Urban planning is a highly significant aspect of government, attempting to co-ordinate the perceptions of neighbourhoods with any proposed changes in such things as residential density, traffic flow, environmental protection and the desire of the community and the developer to grow and expand, the tax base and his profit, respectively.
Nevertheless, even with the finest attention to the detail of place, time and ethos, including public moods, attitudes and perceptions, in order for any piece of art, or public decision or scientific experiment to have lasting endurance, it has to speak to something eternal, universal, timeless and resonating with something that resonates with people everywhere, regardless of their connection to the original locus of the creation.
There is an enhanced value placed on the immediate, the local, the neighbourly, especially if and when the community is facing any threat. Scarcity, disease, natural disasters, including pandemics all bring about a heightened anxiety and recoiling of one’s safety, security and the boundaries of one’s capacity to relate to the rest of the world. Under threat, we all retreat, in a psychological sense, to our earliest default stance (how we first faced a serious threat) and sociologically, in a manner consistent with the perceived patterns of the community’s history. There is a sociological precept, for leadership, for example, that if one seeks to move a group “forward” to a specific goal, and one presents a vision of that goal that is “too far” ahead of the group’s capacity to envision their community’s capacity to embrace that vision, that community will rather regress than move forward. I once proposed to a group of grade eleven high school students that ‘we’ consider enacting and producing a musical, like for example, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, as an exercise in “growing” both the adolescents and their relation to their community, through fulfilment of their respective talent. “Oh! we couldn’t do that!” shouted one male. “We could only possibly consider a single scene from the play!” We all behave in ways that we consider congruent with the size and the dimensionality, including the depth, of our perception. And that perception arises from our conception of the universe, and the range of risks we are prepared to confront.
What poses as an interesting, provocative and relevant issue facing the people on the planet, might be expressed this way:
How do/can we embrace both our immediate environment/ethos/culture/place/time and our potential, as individuals and as community?
Balancing the past with the future, given the immediacy of the date, the time, the current saturation of immediately threatening date, on so many fronts, seems to be a stretch too far, just like the musical was a ‘stretch too far’ for that teenager. This is a season in which much public discourse, including prayer, political punditry, scientific experimentation and economic data all centre around the concept of hope. And yet, pursuing our conception of hope necessarily entails the cognitive, emotional, psychological, and spiritual embrace of tomorrow as just as, if not actually more, valued than yesterday. Hopelessness, it seems, is another way of expressing “locked-in” to a situation in which there is little or no prospect of change, improvement, or as the cliché has it, finding “light at the end of the tunnel”. Hopelessness is another way of expressing “No options” in a current state of mind. Stagnation, whether from a fiscal, a career, a growth, a developmental perspective is debilitating. And yet, most of our cultural, political, economic and even spiritual perspective is currently embraced in fear, doubt, uncertainty, anxiety and retrenchment.
This is not an argument favouring opening up the economies of North America to commerce, to schooling, to entertainment, to sports competitions. This is, in fact, not merely an economic argument, but rather a much broader nudge toward a culture in which we critically and clearly examine and discuss our penchant to cling to the existing reality, as if it were our security blanket. It is simply not! The cultural, religious and commercial shibboleths (expressed almost as a cardinal rule in business: “We hate unpredictability, uncertainty, change and we demand stability, permanence, security and predictability!”), while demonstrably useful, need not morph into idols. Worshipping at that altar, just like worshipping at the altar of emotional stoicism, is both self-sabotaging, and repressive of both family and community relationships and development.
The culture could well learn from those community initiatives in Fogo Island. For, while the artists may be painting or photographing or writing about their immediate landscape, (topographical, biographical, historical, biological and psychological), they are mining the deepest veins of their imagination, with the full-throated expression of their whole beings, in what can be considered one of the most courageous, defiant, even rebellious acts of “putting it all on the line” of potential public judgement of their most innate perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values and even ideologies. And they are doing so in both the spirit of and the commitment to a lineage of prophetic voices whose novels, plays, symphonies, poems, dances, canvases and sculptures have lighted the human journey from the beginning. Native elders, too, while embracing the immediate resources of their environment, the trees, the vegetation, the fauna, and their traditions, have one of the most obvious and generous and highly valued cultures, from the perspective of linking the immediate to the eternal.
It is the political and the commercial landscape, from our perspective, that needs a nudge, or perhaps a veritable shove. And shove includes the mass media, dependent as it is on the same foundational precepts of the business community. While the digital data of GDP, GNP, DOW, NASDAC, are all significant; they are not the holy grail. Neither is the myopic and even narcissistic fixation on the roller-coaster of daily news headlines, (for ratings for the networks, and for electoral success for the political class), either necessary or health for the future of our local communities, nor for the protection of our health and our shared environment.
If we cannot, or will not permit ourselves, to see farther ahead than today or tomorrow, we have already surrendered our fate to those who so far have control of the levers of power which have brought us to today. We have to shift our shared cultural attitudes and perceptions of our social dissidents; they are not our enemies; they are our canaries in our own coalmine, offering a singing chorus of both danger and a warning to leave that dangerous situation. We have to change our attitudes and perceptions, and thereby our valuing of our artistic community; they are not our ne’er-do-well’s, but rather our visionaries and our prophets, our voices of hope and inspiration. And just when we are retrenching, in fact cocooning, we are risking pulling back on our capacity to stretch, to change, to adapt and to seed new ways of even doing our businesses.
We have to reconsider our enmeshment, not merely with digital technology, but with the dangers it poses for our own capacity to create, to imagine and to assess critically everything we read, everything we hear, and everything we are told is “important” by those whose voices dominate our airwaves.
Robert Frost reminds us: A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
He also wrote lines that express, far better than this scribe, the meaning and purpose of, not only this piece, but also of our obligation to each other, and to the planet whose air, water and land we need to protect and to pass on in a clean and health condition:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And also from Frost we read:
There are two kinds of teachers: The kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.
This “prod” is to take off the jacket of the false security of clinging to the immediate, the known, the traditional and the conventional, as if it were sacred; it is not! And to wander into the plethora of options that open up each and every time someone in our circle says, “How do we know we can’t do that, unless and until we try!
That is the perspective of Diane Hache in Yellowknife who, on noting the significant community need for a shelter for endangered women and children, (based on mounting evidence of abuse) took it upon herself to enlist the support of those local commercial entities whose rejected copper wire, still encased in insulation, was offered without cost. She, on her own, then began the arduous process of “skinning” the copper wire, (in lengths approximating 30 inches), piling it and selling it and turning the proceeds over the establishment of that needed shelter for women and children. CBC News’ Mark Winkler, reports on December 14, as follows: Diane Hache has processed 88,000 pounds of copper wire, donating $94K to women’s society….Working in an unheated tent in an industrial parking lot on the edge of the city, 65-year-old retiree…cuts through plastic insulation to reveal the treasure buried inside. The wire—88,000 pounds of it, so far…was donated by Hache’s former employer, Diavik Diamond Mine…She could seek the wire without stripping away the insulation, but that would only net her half as much money…”Everyone thought I was crazy, I admit. They said, Diane, it’s impossible. But impossible is just an opinion until you try.”
Not burdened either by “quail shot” or the cliché of hopelessness, or the fear of failure of that grade eleven kid, this woman incarnates, better than this piece, precisely what we all need to reflect and then act upon.