Today’s Frontier

FeatureThe Frontier

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It's the hardness of the land that makes people soft. Newfoundland is an unforgiving landscape. It denies the pathetic fallacy, but at the same time reinforces an irrational love of the place.

Written by
Paddy Harrington

The constancy and reliability is comforting in its infallibility.

It is a frontier.

I grew up in Newfoundland and moved away in my early teens. Its influence on me persists in such a way that only those who have spent time there can understand. It’s something immovable and forceful and fierce.

In 2003 I went back to Newfoundland as an architecture student. For my thesis project, I studied a phenomenon known as Resettlement, where the government forced people to abandon their coastal fishing communities and move into just a few centralized ones. Hundreds of places were effectively wiped off the map.

I know something about the history that lead to Resettlement because my Grandfather was the youngest member of a group called the National Convention. It was assembled to debate the merits of Newfoundland joining Canada, remaining independent, or exploring the possibility of joining America. He was a strong Nationalist. He felt that the benefits of Newfoundland remaining an independent country outweighed the value of joining Canada.

Growing up in Newfoundland I had heard of the National Convention and Resettlement but I was too young to really understand what it meant. To me, it was a vague cloud of frustration and anger that was ‘out there’ somewhere.

Since leaving, I’d always felt the need to understand more. Why was Resettlement wrong? Was it wrong at all? This was my chance to find out. I traveled to a community called Indian Burying Place that had been abandoned in the 1950s. It was now a ghost town nestled in a small cove on the coast of Notre Dame Bay. Many houses still stood, but some were missing entire sides. I could see straight into all the rooms at once.

The idea of Resettlement was to consolidate all these communities. The hope was that the government would be able to offer better healthcare, education and other services to people if they weren’t so spread out and inaccessible.

And here I was, 50 years later, seeing, in some ways, the results of those decisions.

I spent several days in a tent pitched inside of an old fishing store (a building near the water where the fishing gear was stored). The first day in I met a horse that was left in the community to roam free and had been used during the winter to haul firewood out of the surrounding bush. Three days in I met a black bear. So I spent the fourth night sleeping inside the one house that still had a working, lockable door.

There was a small graveyard whose tombstones dated back to the 1700s. Small sun-bleached and overgrown tombstones marked the short lives of several children. Death was an ever-present part of life in these places.

Old metal bed frames were rusting and undergoing a forty year collapse. Blue broken bottles glittered in the long grass like sapphire in a forgotten pile behind what must have been the home of someone who suffered a chronic ailment.

These fragments of a forgotten, post industrial world, the shreds of the fabric that made up daily life, revealed a sort of sustainable living that has been lost today. Everything they needed had been within reach. A fresh stream supplied drinking water. The land and ocean provided food. And the people provided one another with connection and community. With resettlement came the loss of something that can never be regained. Better education and healthcare may have been an enormous benefit, but the loss of a certain kind of equilibrium is even more dramatic.

My journey didn’t stop in Indian Burying Place. I traveled to Gros Morne, a UNESCO world heritage site, and up to St. Anthony, of recent Karl Ove Knausgaard fame, and to L’Anse Aux Meadows, another world heritage site. I travelled to Fogo Island, and around my native Avalon Peninsula where the capital, St. John’s, stands as one of the oldest European settled cities in North America.

The feeling persisted and was strengthen with every place I visited: living on land that is barely habitable requires a resourcefulness you rarely see in modern life. Our ancestors did everything. They built their houses and found their food. They were their own mechanics. They were their own teachers.

We can’t deny that specialization has vastly improved the human condition. But what I saw is something lost in modern life. The willingness to figure things out, even if we don’t understand them. Our ancestors did not talk about some fancy idea of innovation or design. For them, it was a basic need to solve simple problems in practical ways because, well, life depended on it.

It’s something of a lost attitude in modern life: The willingness to figure things out, even if we don’t understand them.

It was not long ago (within living memory in fact) that men scrambled onto steamers in springtime and headed out on the ice for the seal hunt. The stories of wrecks and men found dead and frozen and huddled around burnt out fires are as thick as the stacks of pelts that made up their livelihood. They lived closer to death than we do. Much, much closer.

The Value of Fear

Mortal fear was once a daily fact of life. It’s easy to forget that. And it’s easy to let ourselves be suffocated by risk. We are too often afraid to take chances or explore the edges of the possible. We have come to fear the undiscovered. Why risk a job? Why risk a livelihood? Why put anything on the line? It’s our wellbeing, after all.

We idolize those who define their lives by fearlessness, and a need to forge ahead. Those who bring something entirely new into the world. But because we know that the history of progress is littered with more failure than success, most of us steer clear of the uncomfortable, the risky.

But the promise of that new ground is too much to dismiss. The question becomes: How do we equip ourselves to explore the undiscovered with the same confidence as those sealers who stepped onto the ice every spring? It’s a simple matter of preparation and learning new tools that can help us find the possibility while reducing the danger. Just as skaters on winter ice carry picks to pull themselves out of the water when they fall through, there are simple tools we can use to navigate the unknown world of the possible without risking everything.

I’ve been back to Newfoundland many times. It has the unique effect of ripping me out of the myopia of everyday life. It reminds me that the frameworks and codes we live and work within are paper-thin constructs. They separate us from a confidence in ourselves and our ability to figure things out.

The Promise of Design

Design is the structured management of creative and intuitive thinking. Designers of all kinds are trained to make something out of nothing. Where it used to be thought of as the last step in the process, the step where you picked out a colour and a shape, now we’re seeing its potential as a process to uncover the next big thing. When in the right hands, it has to power to discover and shape new human experiences. At its best, design is a way of thinking holistically. It’s about synthesizing and solving problems in a comprehensive way that ignores silos and focuses on solving the problem.

That’s the new frontier. That’s what I’m reminded of when I’m staring at Newfoundland rock faces millions of years old. The incomprehensibly old reminds us of what it takes to be forever in search of the new. And the culture of the people who lived here reminds us of the simple ingenuity required to live with risk. The amazing capacity of human beings to, as Ezra Pound said, “Make it New”.

Every issue we will talk to people we see at the frontier. We will explore their own creative journeys and how they faced their own obstacles in the face of risk and how they opened up new territory. This magazine is dedicated to those who fearlessly explore the creative unknown.

Paddy Harrington

Paddy Harrington is the founder of Frontier. He has degrees in architecture and literature and is an award winning writer and film maker.

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