“Behind the Icebergs and the Painter: A Summer Trip to Labrador and Newfoundland”
By Louis Legrand Noble; Black Dome Press, 2022; 235 pages; $19.95.
For today’s readers, “after the glaciers” may reflect our knowledge of climate change and the fact that the Arctic and its ice caps are disappearing. We may be in the near future when the glaciers will no longer be found where they used to be. In “After Icebergs with a Painter,” however, the meaning is about following icebergs, as if on a hunt. This book is a reprint of an old out-of-print manuscript – a diary, really – from an 1859 trip by the artist and his friend, the writer, to witness and paint the icebergs that float along North America’s northeast coast.
A very helpful introduction by historian William L. Coleman explains who the two participants were and their goals for the trip. This artist, Frederic Edwin Church, was an American landscape painter of world renown; his masterpiece, “The Icebergs,” is featured on the book’s cover. The author, Louis Legrand Noble, was a clergyman, poet and biographer. The two were struck by the popular idea at the time of nature as “sublime” – beautiful and terrifying but also threatening in its wildness. They also enjoyed early Arctic exploration, including the lost Franklin Expedition of the previous decade. In fact, although “The Icebergs” was completed and first exhibited in 1861, Church later painted the front of the wrecked ship as a reminder of the plight of Franklin and his crew – and of the powerlessness of man in the face of war. the power of Nature.
The map at the beginning of the book shows the route taken by the two men, mostly on charter school – from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Cape Breton Island, then across the Atlantic to the East Coast of Newfoundland, up to Labrador, and back down. the west coast of Newfoundland past the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This was what they called “British America,” and the people they met along the way were Brits, Scots and Irish, as well as Indigenous people. (The latter were not much noticed except for the pastors who were converting them to Christianity.) The route took the men among the snowy mountains and to different places for more than a month.
The search was for the best snowmobiles among dozens sometimes seen all at once. When a good example was chosen, the men took off in a whaleboat rowed by a crew. When they were far but safe, the crew fought against the wind to hold the ship in place while Church drew and painted and Noble wrote his notes.
Many of the sketches and pictures included in the pages are almost all new to this book and show the Church’s true, close-to-scientific approach.
One might think there are only so many words to describe icebergs, but Noble goes on to describe, compare, and celebrate the various “ice islands,” as sailors call them. A large one is like first a “group of Chinese buildings,” then a “Gothic cathedral, ancient style,” which “turned into a Coliseum, the inside of which is now pale blue and then greenish white.” The young trees are “like the ruins of a city of marble.” A “great warship” with a “beautiful image,” broke the “great statue.” One “shines like polished silver falling dew.” If Noble’s prose is often embellished and full of ancient and biblical texts, it still “paints a picture” to compete with the artist and his oils.
In 1859, Church and Noble were remarkably correct in their understanding of science. They knew that the icebergs from Greenland, had broken under the moving glaciers and had been carried west by the winds and waves. Noble learned from talking to “ignorant” people in Labrador that most knew nothing about glaciers and believed that glaciers were “just a collection of loose ice, snow and snow spray.”
From their careful analysis, the two men also understood that most of the icebergs are underwater and that the icebergs can be floating or on the ground. They knew that the water and the sun melted the ice to make their carvings slowly and made them unstable, causing them to spin and roll and crack. It is not clear if they understood the relationship between the ice density and the colors they saw.
Always, they were afraid – less than the sailors who were rowing them – about coming too close to the big icebergs. They heard stories along the way of the wrecked and melted ships and called it themselves – when the top face of the berg broke off and sank into the sea in “a great mass of green and icy fragments,” leaving the berg rocking. The whaleship “nursed the high breasts.”
Although the focus of this book is on the mountains of ice and the greatness and the wild creatures that they represent, the reader will also learn about whales and the places where they met and the lives of others who lived on the coast. Noble includes descriptions of fishermen (“a russet, tangle-haired and shaggy-bearded set”), boats, nets and flakes – platforms built of wood and covered with branches and birchbark leaves used to dry cod and salmon. He describes the sealing industry which involved injecting baby seals, visiting a cod liver oil factory and eating a meal of fried capelin and cod tongues.
Today, iceberg tours are popular on the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. According to a recent tourism fact sheet, of the 40 kilometers of medium to large icebergs launched from Greenland each year, 400-800 usually reach the Canadian coast. Scientists believe that today’s ice melt may mean more glaciers in the near future but less in the future. We have “After Icebergs and Painter” and other accounts of the time when measurement changes come.