A Story by Charlie Dennis
My stories usually begin in Malagawatch or â€˜Big Harbour Islandâ€™ as itâ€™s called on the map. My principal Elders are Gabriel Sylliboy and Noel Francis. Other people were involved in some of the stories that were talked about around the campfire about the futuristic view of predicting the next dayâ€™s weather.
My story begins with Gabriel Sylliboy. He had stories about traditional knowledge that he inherited from the past, but in most cases, he developed his own knowledge through spending time in Malagawatch and his travels around the plants, trees, and animals that he encountered.Â
One evening, while sitting out on the steps overlooking the sunset, a beautiful reflection bouncing on the shoreline and with the beautiful colors of the leaves showing their fall foliageâ€“sometimes back then it was hard to tell which was which. It reminds me now of something out of the â€˜Forrest Gumpâ€™ movie; it was a beautiful evening, a classic Malagawatch evening.
As the sun was setting, the thought on everyoneâ€™s minds was that it was an excellent evening or night for spearing eels, or to use more familiar termsâ€“an excellent night for torching. We knew that we were going to have eels for dinner the next day. That evening I went to visit Gabriel to see if he was going out that night to spear eels. We sat in his cabin and talked for a while, until the conversation came up about the weather and I asked if he was going eeling that night.
â€œWell,â€ he said, â€œletâ€™s step outside and see if the weather is going to be good or not.â€ Â We were standing outside while he touched his chin, gave a sigh, and spit his chewing tobacco out. â€œWell, my son, I donâ€™t think the weather is going to be good tonight.â€
I kind of looked confused to him, as the weather seemed perfect, as I stared into the beautiful sunset and calm water. I didnâ€™t ask him how he could tell because of the respect I had for Gabriel. After a while, he gave a chuckle and smiled.
â€œLet me tell you, my son, take a look at the leaves on the poplar tree and you can hear them dance and turn upside down. This usually means that the wind is going to pick up, so you had better leave your boat and spears where they are and forget about torching for eels.â€
Sure enough, a short time later the wind picked up and sadly, there were no eels for dinner the next day. Thatâ€™s one lesson for traditional knowledge Iâ€™ve never forgotten.
The other time, Noel Francis came over to Gabrielâ€™s cabin and spoke of his knowledge of predicting the weather. He also learned this from Elders and his observations of different species. Noel was also an oyster fisherman from Eskasoni (I did a story on Noel in our last issue).Â
While having a chat with Gabriel, Noel mentioned that there were some bad signs, noticing that the weather was not looking favourable for the next day. Of course, being interested (and nosey), I commented that the radio had said that it was going to be a nice day. He smiled and said, â€œyou canâ€™t always believe the radio â€“ this is Malagawatch weather, it can change in a very short time.â€ He was telling Gabriel about his episode that morning with Mother Nature.Â
Gabriel said that while he was out picking up oysters from fishermen, Noel had run into his cabin and asked where his gun was (he was pretending he was mad about something). Gabriel commented that his gun was as old as he was, â€œThat thing will never fire,â€ he jokingly said to Noel. Gabriel then asked the question â€œWhy do you need the gun anyway?â€ Noel swore that a stupid bird was drying its wings an old tree that was sticking out of the water. Gabriel said, â€œThatâ€™s a bad sign.â€ Of course, they were talking about the cormorant that usually sits on old logsâ€“they believe that when these birds dry their wings, the weather takes a turn for the worse. Sure enough, when I saw the cormorants spread their wings to dry them out in my later years oyster fishing, in most cases the weather was terrible.Â
One of the key things I learned from these Elders on long-term weather prediction was about 1977 while trapping. Andrew Ben Johnson and I observed that muskrats were building huts, or muskrat houses all over the place. These were rarely seen early in the season and through the winter. We told this to Gabriel and Noel, and they explained that it was going to be a mild winter.Â
Well, through to the end of the season, Andrew and I were out with our boat with no trace of ice anywhere. I can still remember we were riding our vessels with our T-shirts on. I remember seeing Uncle Gabriel standing along the shore with his fancy cap and rolled-up shirt sleeves. Many times in my life I see this vision, and how beautiful the weather was. Another sign I remember is that a rainbow in the sky predicted unsettled weather.
Iâ€™m sure there are many observations made by our people that are now described as â€œstories.â€ Times have changed, things are changing on a daily basis. With so much change, more than ever we need to observe the weather and its links to strange animals, fish migrating in the fall, and other signs.Â