And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 14 May 2016


Snapshots, postcards and miniature views of Percé Rock in Quebec.
“I don't see the point of photographing trees or rocks because they're there and anyone can photograph them if they're prepared to hang around and wait for the light.
David Bailey

350 million years ago, as the Devonian period drew to its end, taking with it various armour plated fish but giving the world forests and reptiles in return, a limestone scarp emerged on what was then Euramerica, a landmass to the northwest of Gondwanaland. Earth was still poorly defined although many of the sea creatures are recognizable as ancestors of our sharks, newts and eels. 

 Go forward a few hundred million years, to what is known as the late or Pennsylvanian era of the Carboniferous period and something roughly resembling North America is taking shape. The scarp is made of limestone, itself the product of billions of dead shellfish. Unlike granite it is made of organic, once living things, but like chalk, which is a form of limestone, and sandstone, which is another sedimentary rock, it is easily shaped by wind and water. 

  As this thing called North America finally emerges from the water, shaking itself dry like some shaggy hound, a small promontory near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River breaks away, or more accurately is severed, from the mainland. Storms being considerably more powerful in those primeval times, this could have happened overnight. The arches however were the result of gradual erosion and took more time to appear.

Jump forward to 2500BCE, around the time Gautama Buddha is preaching in India, and the Mi’kmaq arrive in the area. By now the Gaspé Peninsular has the same shape it does today. No doubt the Mi’kmaq give the rock a sacred status. All over the world, from Uluru to Kilimanjaro to Angel Falls, distinctive natural features develop sacred status. In the case of Percé Rock, this would have something to do with its appearance, but with the arches already formed it gave the Mi’kmaq a more tangible benefit. The currents circling the rock and flowing through the arches would have attracted certain types of kelp, which in turn attracted one kind of fish that became prey to another. In other words the fishing would have been excellent, for humans and birds. Depending on the season, ducks, geese, pigeons and gannets were in abundance. Why would a Mi’kmaq move? 

 In 1534 French ships under the command of Jacques Cartier appeared. He was probably not the first European known to the locals. Fishermen from Bristol and the Breton coast had been working in the vicinity for at least fifty years and it is possible that Vikings had been in the area before that. The site at l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland was a relatively short distance by boat.  

 There is a particular legend associated with the first French settlers at Percé, a rather unimaginative one about a too sensitive young sap and his lost love, but the story of Marguerite de la Rocque may not be legend at all, or only bits of it are. In 1541 she was on the expedition to settle New France, as the French called Canada, led by her uncle Jean-Francois de Roberval. Having offended him by her carry-ons with one of the crewmen, she, said crewman and her nurse were cast off on the so-called Island of Demons. This is generally considered to be Belle Island, further along the coast off the Newfoundland Coast but the point to think about is not the precise location but that name; Isle of Demons. One explanation for it is that during the autumn intense fogs blew down from the arctic and to French sailors the calls of thousands of gannets piercing the mists sounded decidedly demonic by anyone’s reckoning. The coast down to Percé was considered supernaturally dangerous, which it was given the extreme weather visited upon it. You can see why the French colonists kept pressing in until they reached what became Quebec City. Before that it was a coastline of madness.

Up until 1848 visitors to the rock saw two arches. The pinnacle at the back was attached to the main body until it crumbled that year. Because limestone is so soft the features could be said to be in a constant state of change. During World War 2 Andre Breton stayed in Percé and described the rock as “a razorblade rising out of the water … a marvellous iceberg of moonstone”. Although its sheer cliffs stop any major assault by tourists, it is likely that soon the only way to contemplate it will be from a safe distance, like Breton did. Not that the government is so concerned about protecting the rock but rather its soft texture and fragility will sooner or later seriously injure someone, which inevitably turns into legal suits.

 Finding photographs in Canada of Percé aren’t hard. It is one of the most photographed sites in the country and has become iconographic of Canada’s east coast the way that Uluru has come to be an emblem of Australia. The images in the gallery include snapshots, a postcard, miniature views and one panoramic view of the rock and the village, possibly taken on behalf of the Quebec or Canadian Government.


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