Issue #185 - Wilf Cude

Wilf Cude


The Awesome Beauty of Cain’s Hinterland



On the Labrador by Arnold Zageris (Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013, 248 pp., $59.99).


This was the land that God gave to Cain.” Thus John Cabot speculated in the early summer of 1496, cautiously nudging the Matthew, his tiny frail 50-ton caravel, down along the stark frowning cliffs of North America’s far northeastern sharp scimitar curve of coastline, veering southwards at last in relief towards the more hospitable western shores of Newfoundland and Cape Breton. And indeed, there is evidence sufficient enough scattered throughout On the Labrador, the magnificent pictorial display crafted through the sophisticated photographic artistry of Arnold Zageris, to give some credence to Cabot’s dour dismissal. For example, Zageris gives us a most deceptively idyllic view of the somewhat fog-bound entrance into a majestic fiord, the entire expanse bathed in lighting tinged by the most exquisitely delicate pastel shadings, an idyllic view accompanied by this sobering observation. “Fog and mist are a welcome sight when one is searching for mood in a landscape picture. Not so when travelling in a small boat, groping blindly across a forty-kilometre fiord.” And traversing inland from the coast, probing the expansive reaches of hinterland Cabot saw as God’s blighted gift to Cain, Zageris does not hesitate to remind us of the manifest perils ever-present there. We encounter in photos or prose one potential hazard after another: jagged fissures in rock, ready to swallow the unwary without a trace; browsing black bears or lurking polar bears, all impatient with and intolerant of human intruders; voracious bloodsucking flies of every description, mosquitoes, blackflies, horseflies, moose flies, “incessant, relentless, perpetual, nonstop, unremitting, never-ending, everlasting, hostile and ceaseless,” capable of driving any warm-blooded creature into panic-instilled stampede often culminating in stark madness or death.

     So that’s one way of seeing the Labrador. But that is not at all, despite the sporadic reminders in the book’s photographs or text of what Cabot might have seen or imagined, the way Arnold Zageris has seen the Labrador. Turning the pages of On the Labrador, we might be tempted to exclaim, in the words of John Dryden: “here is God’s plenty.” For Cain’s hinterland is also very much home to vistas of truly inspirational beauty, admittedly unexpected yet generally striking beauty, to be found in settings so unique as to be close to the virtually unimaginable. The initial image upon opening the book extends across a sweeping double-page spread: on the right, an array of huge black boulders looming out towards the viewer, an array almost intimidating in its massiveness, but relieved in intensity with gentle tinting in places by speckled touches of coloured lichens, red, yellow, grey and orange; and on the left, a scattering of light grey smaller bouldery, more rounded and weathered, spilling away over a ledge of ancient rusty orangish sedimentary rock flowing down towards an arm of the sea. As the eye moves further across that bluish-grey amplitude of water slowly stirring under casual breezes towards the distant horizon, it rests upon another extensive stretch of dark coastline on the opposite shore, a framing along the upper edge of the image linking the two pages in harmony. And that image sets the dominant theme for what emerges in generous measure. Rock adorned with mystery and magic, vastness upon vastness of rock in all its majesty and splendour, rock shattered into crevices, rock folded into flows of undulating permanence, rock moistly shrouded in mist or brilliantly glinting in sunlight. Rock in astonishing configuration after configuration, each a lovely surprise marrying recognition with delight.

     Nevertheless, though rock may often dominate, it does not exclusively command: for where there is rock, there is soil, sparse enough to be sure, but still present, soil and sunlight and water, so there is also most emphatically life in some abundance, indeed life in some richness, strewn in almost reckless luxury across the panorama of rock. Plant life of every description, hardy, tenacious and resolutely enduring, clings to existence despite all the adversity a turbulent sub-arctic climate can inflict. Sturdy stands of scrubby alder, spruce and pine, interspersed with tangles of underbrush, defy torrential rains and scorching sun in summer, cascades of sleet, hail and snow in winter, and hard-driving howling gusts and gales of wind year-round, sheltered in hardscrabble nooks and clefts and stretches of riverbank deposited along the base of towering cliffs. Situated within and against that occasionally lush background of green are images of startling presence, most notably the individual contorted skeletal remains of sun-bleached dead spruce which Zageris captures to convey impression after impression of a haunting spectral past. And then there are patches and carpets of greenery and diverse colours: soft spongy beds of bright emerald moss, as ebullient as any swath of shamrock that Ireland itself can boast; ethereal strands of spidery-web-like pale creepers, blanched wispy tendrils dangling sparse yet defiant down across dark contrasting stone surfaces; lichens and grasses and flowers, riotous in shapes, sizes and colours, white, yellow, blue, red, purple and pink, ranging from the luminous frosty puff balls of arctic cotton to the muted pink of the arctic poppy. And then again, there is the delicious wealth of edible berries, plump red cranberries, gorgeous succulent deep dark purple crowberries, patch after patch of the sub-arctic staple blueberries. God’s plenty, indeed.

     And that abundance of plant life, not surprisingly, sustains a proliferation of resident animal life. Zageris writes in awe of witnessing the George River caribou herd, today still one of the strongest anywhere in the world, fording the namesake river:  hundreds of heavy horned beasts “packed so closely together that, from a good distance, we mistook them for an island.” Elsewhere, he offers a whimsical little snap of a caribou peeping out in startlement from behind a spray of leaf-laden branches, together with this impish caption: “both of us are trying to decide what we are looking at.” And still farther, there is a most imposing image of a massive bull caribou sauntering across a stretch of riverbank, a tremendous rack of antlers attesting his sheer physical power. Describing another and much closer interaction with an equally impressive creature, a bull sporting “huge antlers” that had stampeded away down an open beach, Zageris estimated that the animal was sprinting at a speed of “fifty-four kilometres per hour.” But as formidable as the caribou might appear, even they slightly dwindle in terms of dynamic potency by comparison with the grandeur of the reigning brute of the Arctic: the classic white polar bear. Dwarfing even the black bears that edgily share the same regional spaces, the polar bear reigns unchallenged over the sub-arctic animal kingdom, its paws of fourteen-inch diameter capable of scooping a seal weighing hundreds of pounds clear of an icy refuge with one mighty slashing blow. This is no beast to be trifled with. Zageris exhibits with a few images the menacing forceful figure of the snow-white Arctic terror, images he underscores with a taut passage of respectful fear. “A polar bear encounter, when you are alone and in the open, ... is sudden, immediate and unexpected,” he writes. “Staring into the eyes of an advancing polar bear in Labrador is not a philosophical epiphany. It’s all physical. You are empty. The cards are dealt and it’s his play.”

     Gratifyingly for those of us perusing this fine work, Zageris survived several such plays, persistently documenting not only the extent of the regional wildlife, but also his own interactions with it. There are smaller creatures in prodigious numbers: chubby arctic hares, some actually gaining ten pounds, feasting past sufficiency among the varieties of berries in summer, maintaining body mass browsing on mosses and lichens in winter; transient ducks and geese, flock after flock, revitalized after a summer’s harvesting the bounty of fish and algae, winging southwards once the nesting season is done; rivers and lakes, fully stocked with trout, salmon and arctic char; the currents at sea offshore, teeming with cod, seals and even whales. For the human residents, the Inuit, those adapting over untold generations within such a harsh, exacting and yet close to over-generous environment, this additional dimension of God’s plenty is key to a strenuous but healthy and rewarding lifestyle. It is with intermingled fascination, admiration and slowly awakening comprehension that Zageris conveys the multiplicity of skills utilized by his Inuit friends in their daily routines. On one particularly prolific occasion, as guest aboard a small trawler crewed with six Inuit, he recounts with increasing astonishment the ease and dexterity of these hunters bagging their prey. First, Joey Agnatok, the boat’s captain, skims ashore in a small runabout and effortlessly takes three ducks; next, off again shortly in the runabout, he equally effortlessly takes a seal; and next, with a minimum of fuss and bother, he plucks the ducks, butchers and cleans the seal, sluices the ensuing mess over the side, and readies the meat for pot or freezer; and then, with nightfall approaching, he proposes a goose hunt on an island nearby. “Goose-hunting? Now?” Zagaris recalls thinking. “What kind of vision do these people have? What is it here that I don’t understand? Are they putting me on? It’s going to be frigging dark!”

     What followed was necessary illumination, not all of it of a physical sort. As the sunlight faded, much of the gear the crew gathered for the hunt was perfectly straightforward: shotguns, ammunition, flashlights, spare clothing, food. But fishing rods? And then there was the boat’s “loaner” shotgun, handed a trifle apologetically to Arnold: it had a slightly bent barrel, the result of an accident, but the problem had been rectified with a hammer, the repair being properly aligned with the aid of a broom handle. Asked if he had ammunition, and not wanting to appear a total novice, Arnold replied bravely he had lots, choosing not to add that his rounds were slugs, heavy solid projectiles designed to stop a charging bear, not at all the birdshot pellets required to bring down a goose on the wing. Once ashore, the crew separated, five hunters moving in one direction, John Agnatok with Arnold in tow moving in another, each group seeking a suitable pond where geese might land to spend the night. The terrain was difficult, “muskeg, tussock grass and spongy moss,” and John and Arnold laboured on until they reached the edge of a small pond. John whispered instructions to Arnold: lie down, listen to geese feeding in the pond, and wait for them to take wing in search of a bigger pond. At that moment, with John’s command “Now!”, Arnold was to point his flashlight straight up, close his eyes, and turn the flashlight on. When John shouted “Now!”, Arnold shone the light straight up and forgot to close his eyes: he saw a flight of geese overhead and heard John fire, but was temporarily blinded by the gun’s muzzle flash and deafened by the close explosions. Two distinct splashes in the pond: John’s kill. Then John ordered Arnold to load and wait his turn. Somewhat recovered from his blindness, though still partially deafened, Arnold saw another flight of geese overhead illuminated by John’s light, and blazed away with his slugs. Shortly thereafter, as the two played the flashlight across the pond, John’s dead geese were floating far from shore: Arnold had hit nothing. But how to recover those geese? Quite easily, with a fishing rod. “Two well-placed casts with an oversized Shakespeare lure brought in a goose every time.”

     John was baffled by his partner’s failure. “How could you miss?” he asked. “They were so close.” To that there was no tenable answer. Arnold couldn’t bring himself to confess that “I had no idea what we were doing, that my barrel was crooked, that I was deaf and blind, and that, on top of everything, I was shooting with slugs.” Upon rejoining the others, he stood shamefaced as everybody studiously avoided asking how he had fared, although it was painfully obvious he was the only one returning empty-handed. The entire incident is depicted with what we should recognize as the Zageris signature self-deprecating good humour, one salient feature of his narrative style. But not to be led astray by that feature alone, since this is a writer with many facets to his literary talent, as we should further recognize by monitoring his consistent and conscientious explorations of the intricacy of his photographic art. Above all else, he emphasizes the influence on everything of variances in the quality of light, right from the initial identification of a suitable image, to the perception of just the appropriate circumstances enabling a successful shot, to the moment of seizing that image through the camera lens and freezing it forever onto film. “I passed this site many times without pausing,” he remarks of an evocative double-page image of a mist-shrouded ridge of high ground fronted by a stretch of scrub woodland, itself dropping down towards what might be a band of riverbank. A pensive study of subdued colours, darker and lighter greens, diverse shades of blues and greys and off-whites, all at once enhancing and yet softening what might in a brighter light have seemed merely rugged and harsh, invites a restful moment of introspection: and this was the product of the perfect light snapped at the exact correct moment, lighting and timing coinciding, that “transformed and vitalized this view.” In passages of prose remarkable for their simple and direct clarity, each accompanying some exquisite image evoking awe and enchantment, we are led to comprehend as well as observe the transformative marvels that light married with artistic sensitivity can yield.

     This is a book nurtured from within and venturing beyond the myriad effects of light, emerging imbued with a sincere and deeply moving sense of reverence, reaching towards an essentially spiritual appreciation of the wonders of our physical realm. “On days like this,” Zageris muses at one point, “I cannot help but feel I am intruding into a world in which I do not belong.” He has before him an image of greyish-white luminescent fog cascading out of the confining grandeur of a crooked fiord, cloud-like fog spilling over but not concealing the massive presence of stone face on either side, vapour and rock emphasizing through contrast a provocative interplay of transience and permanence. The artist’s humility sustains and informs image after image, each attesting yet another step advancing the viewer’s awareness. Those eerie wind-swept and sun-dried near-spectral dead spruce, standing stark and alone as wilderness testament to the inevitable march of time, seem to point up as well successive sombre indicators of our own transitory passages through life. Photos of inuksuit, Inuit stone figures that have “marked the passing of fellow travellers for thousands of years”; photos of more modern evanescence, the wreckage of a crash-landed World War II B-26 bomber, the bright and neatly-tended cemetery in Nain; and perhaps most poignant of all, photos of the crumbling wooden buildings of Hebron, a once vibrant community founded by Moravian missionaries in1831 but finally abandoned in 1959, photos of homes, a chapel entrance, even a charnel house. Gazing about the disrepair of the fading wooden ruins, Zageris is moved to admit: “I am overcome with emotion.” But through the lens of his camera, he can convince us all: “somehow in my mind, Hebron still has something alive and resonating.”

     Quite simply, this is a truly beautiful book, beautiful in every aspect of its presentation, a triumph of photographic artistry, of narrative style, of overall harmonization of content with all the resources of the publisher’s craft. Intended for the adornment of any library or living room display, it goes well beyond elegant embellishment to achieve with distinction the twin objectives of every such significant work: page after page of stunning visual art, accompanied by insightful exposition escorting the reader/viewer gently and easily into places rarely visited so well. Zageris and his colleagues at Fitzhenry & Whiteside have every reason to be proud.