||October 2012 issue
When the capelin arrive
Reflections on a Newfoundland custom and the cycle of life
By Steve Porr
As was my evening custom, I walked from our cabin down
to the ocean to view the last rays of the sun as they disappeared
behind the line that separates the sea and sky.
I headed for a narrow strip of pebbled land. This area has
been shaped by the quirks of the sea, with rocky cliffs shouldering
the land beyond which all Newfoundlanders have come to
describe simply as “the Rock.” I often lingered there at twilight,
quietly considering the mystery and motion of the water. But
this evening was different: a raucous flock of gulls had descended
on the shoreline, screaming and squawking, and the drab stones
were alive with hundreds of iridescent creatures, flickering and
flopping on the rocks.
The capelin were rolling. Every
year, these tiny sardine-like fish are
brought in by the irresistible tidal force
of life, to spawn and die on the rocks.
It was not only the gulls that knew this
secret. Minke whales glided along the
surface nearby, emptying their spent
lungs with a bellowing blast, then disappearing
into the crests and troughs.
Farther out, great humpback whales
appeared as ghostly apparitions, like
distant barques with plumes of misty
spray for sails. Occasionally, one would
breach, spiralling upward, its pectoral
fins reaching outward as if to balance
themselves, then, inevitably, the humpback
would crash into the depths like a
freight train that has jumped the tracks.
The arrival of the capelin is
always greeted with enthusiasm by
Newfoundlanders. As the capelin complete
their final act, the islanders are
there, harvesting the sustenance of the
sea. Older men, retired from years of labour, arrive at first light,
flinging cast nets into the tide. Later, entire families come, with
lawn chairs, coolers and blankets. Some of the children imitate
the fishermen plying their craft, as the younger ones wander
about the shore, shrieking, laughing and playing together.
When twilight descends, lawn chairs are gathered around
a driftwood bonfire. Someone might have a flask, another cold
sandwiches or a brick of hard cheese, and as the hours pass, free
and easy laughter lifts into the dying light. The small children fall
asleep in the laps of parents and grandparents, warmed by the
crackling bonfire as the sparks travel aloft, fading points of light
disappearing far into the starry realms.
But that evening, I was a solitary witness to the cycle of life
— the ending and beginning melding seamlessly into one existence,
one generation giving life to the next. It perplexed me
that this sequence need be so, that death and sacrifice should
be the river through which life and survival coursed.
I stood for some time, alone at the water’s edge, lost in
A storm was approaching, heralded by low scudding clouds
rushing to stay ahead of the nor’easter, and the gathering wind,
aided by the growing chill and mist, shook me from my solitude.
I turned my back to the sea and began the trek back to
the cabin. Slowly, the cacophony of gulls and the visiting
creatures of the deep faded from
my thoughts, replaced by an
ancient scripture: “Unless a grain
of wheat falls into the earth and
dies, it remains alone; but if it dies,
it bears much fruit.”
As I walked, I pondered the
paradox that I could find my true
purpose only by releasing those
selfish concerns and interests that
had driven so much of my existence.
I struggled to grasp the concept that
we are, as individuals, created for
one another, that our strengths and
weaknesses exist to complement the
strengths and weaknesses of others,
that as a body of life, we are incomplete
without each and every other
and that ultimately, we find ourselves
only after we have given
By the time I reached the cabin,
the storm had descended with
a fury, the darkness pierced by flashes of lightning, briefly
illuminating the sheets of rain walking across the hillside.
Once inside, I lit an oil lamp and sat down to read, and
though the cabin shook in the wind, the lamp burned bright,
filling the room with its light and warmth, flickering now and
then, but holding true, on into the night.