The Canoe of Theseus

Not long after I was born, the Chestnut Canoe Co. in Fredericton, New Brunswick built a 17′ 2″ Prospector model canoe. Chestnut was a leading builder of wood-and-canvas canoes, which unfortunately failed with the onslaught of inferior aluminum, fiberglass, and rubberized plastic imitations.

The Prospector design is awesome. With no keel, wide ribs, and high gunwales, it can tackle whitewater that flips kayaks and rafts. It can carry two large people and a summer’s worth of gear, or as many as four adults without swamping. It’s quiet, strong, beautiful, and easy to paddle. It can take a sail or motor. And it’s light enough to carry on a portage trail. No design is perfect, and no canoe can meet all needs, but this one comes very close.

I wrote earlier about the restoration of the particular Chestnut Prospector that owns me. Today, we took the aging Prospector out for a paddle. Looking at it, I can enjoy the new canvas with its new brick red paint and new decals. There are new brass fittings to replace those that had corroded over sixty plus years. There are two new ribs and a new portage yoke, many new screws, and new varnish.

Restoring or replacing?

It feels like a new canoe. However, the remaining parts though serviceable for now, show signs of age, and might need to be replaced in a future restoration. Is it simply a fixed up old canoe? Or, is it a new one? Could a time come when I’d no longer feel that it’s the same canoe that Chestnut built in 1954?

Being a bit older myself, I note that I carry replacement parts, and have lost some parts from the original. And while my entire set of body cells may not turnover every seven years, cells are dying and being replaced all the time. What does it mean for something to be “the same,” when that something is changing constantly?

When Theseus returned from his successful mission to slay the minotaur, the grateful Athenians pledged to honor Apollo by maintaining his ship in a seaworthy state forever. Any wood that wore out or rotted would be replaced. Over centuries, the original parts were replaced many times. Had they kept their promise? Plutarch writes:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Is it the same ship? If not, when did it become something else? If it looks and functions more as it did in the beginning, is it more the original than if it’s not repaired? Centuries later, Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks could be located and used to build a ship. If one could assemble the old planks and other parts, would that be more the original? Which ship, if either, would be Ship of Theseus?

The shakedown cruise

We took the new/old canoe out today on Gull, Higgins, and Williams Ponds. I can tell that it creaks a bit and the wood is more brittle than it once was, but so am I.

Nevertheless, it tracked as well as it ever did and handled an occasionally stiff breeze very well. The September sky was beautiful, the trees are just beginning to turn, and the birds are busy all about.

I know that I change over the years, sometimes noticeably from day to day. Can I remain the same person? Can I become someone new?

The old Prospector is still the canoe I’ve known and loved for many years. In many ways it’s a new canoe, but it still serves as the magic vessel it’s always been.

International Handbook of Progressive Education

International Handbook of Progressive Education cover

International Handbook of Progressive Education cover

I returned from Newfoundland to a pleasant surprise. There were three large boxes containing contributor copies of our new International Handbook of Progressive Education. The book represents a project involving over 60 authors and editors from countries around the world.

Mustafa Yunus Eryaman and I are editors, aided immeasurably by Section editors John Pecore, Brian Drayton, Maureen Hogan, Jeanne Connell, Alistair Ross, and Martina Riedler. Peter Lang has published it in both soft and hard cover.


The International Handbook of Progressive Education engages contemporary debates about the purpose of education, presenting diverse ideas developed within a broadly conceived progressive education movement. It calls for a more critical and dynamic conception of education goals as a necessary element of a healthy society. The scope is global, with contributing authors and examples from around the world. The sweep includes past, present, and future. Even for those who lament its failures, progressive education still seems to be asking the right questions. There is a vision, the progressive impulse, which goes beyond educational practice per se to include inquiry into a conception of the good life for both individuals and society. Because progressivists tend to dispute the status quo and the extent to which it nurtures that good life, there is an underlying critical edge to progressive thinking, one that has sharpened in recent progressive education discourse. The handbook’s inquiry into progressive education starts with a number of intriguing and difficult questions: How has progressive education fared in different contexts? How do progressive methods relate to ideas of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching? And do they «work»? If progressive education offers an important alternative, why has it often been ignored, abandoned, or suppressed? What is the relevance of its tenets, methods, and questions in the new information age and in a world facing global changes in environment, politics, religion, language, and every other aspect of society?

Mistaken Point

There’s a problem in writing about Newfoundland: It’s an unassuming place, with few of the Michelin green guide must-see attractions. Some of the best sights are poorly marked or hard to reach.

There are little-known attractions here that rival the most famous sites in the world, and some are unique to the area. I keep experiencing what I think is the highlight of the trip, only to have another even more engaging experience. A recent one was at Mistaken Point.


But first, a little background: In 1868, the Scottish geologist Alexander Murray discovered unusual an fossil now called Aspidella terranovica. Four years later, Elkanah Billings found these at the corner of Duckworth and Holloway Streets, where they can still be seen today, unmarked and unprotected in the back of a parking lot. The fossils are in a Precambrian outcrop of black shale.

This was deemed impossible. Scientists believed that the Precambrian period was the time before the Cambrian explosion of multicellular life on earth. There should be only microscopic bacteria, fungi and the like. Others claimed that these were inorganic concretions, gas escape bubbles, or fakes planted by God to mislead those with little faith.

The doubts continued until mid 20th century. Then, Reg Sprigg discovered an assemblage of fossils in the Ediacara Hills of South Australia, which confirmed the existence of multi-celled organisms on Earth between 635 million and 542 million years ago. They’re now found in many parts of the world, especially in now-dispersed regions (England, FLorida, NW Africa, Newfoundland) that were once part of the Avalonia terrane. Some of the best examples of these fossils are in Newfoundland, including at Port Union and St. John’s.

These discoveries answered a question that Darwin raised in On the Origin of Species: Why didn’t the fossil record show more experiments with multicellular life prior to the Cambrian explosion? It now appears that the Avalon explosion was one such, with a variety of diverse and fascinating plants and animals.

In 1967, graduate student S. B. Misra, discovered and documented similar fossils found in great numbers on exposed rock surfaces at Mistaken Point along the southeasternmost coast of the Avalon Peninsula. Mistaken Point is so named because of the difficulty of navigating in the treacherous waters surrounding the point, which led some navigators to turn north too soon, when attempting to go around the peninsula.

Mistaken Point tour

I’m not a fan of guided tours, but I’m glad that the ecological reserve at Mistaken Point now requires that. Fossils that have lasted 565 million years can be destroyed in a weekend by humans.

We signed up for a tour that lasted most of the afternoon. After seeing the fossils, we went on to the nearby eastern point of Cape Race, which has one of the most powerful and important lighthouses in the world. It’s also the site of the Marconi wireless station that received the first distress message from the Titanic.

You can see a bit of our tour in the slides below. We were given a good introduction to the natural history of the area on the 45-minute walk out across hyper-oceanic barrens. We had to wear booties to avoid damaging the fossils.

We were able to explore shelves which had lain at the bottom of the ocean over 565 million years ago, populated by creatures that have never been seen alive.

This whole experience was one of the highlights of our trip.

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“First Life with David Attenborough” has more about these early creatures, including the fractal nature of their body organization:

A union-built town

Band saw in the restored factory

Band saw in the restored factory

Port Union is a gem that I knew nothing about. It seems little understood by Wikipedia or Google searches, or even many locals. Yet it’s a fascinating site and story, and an important one for anyone interested in workers’ rights or community building. The new museum and other facilities are well worth a visit, even if you have no interest in dramatic seascapes, quaint Newfoundland port towns, Ediacaran fossils, handmade crafts, or beautiful nature walks.

The town claims to be the only union-built town in North America. Some others might quibble. For example, Nalcrest, Florida was conceived, designed and financed by the letter carriers union as an experiment in retirement housing. Cities such as Chicago and St.Louis are often described as “union-built towns.” But it’s hard to find examples anywhere of a town so fully conceived and established of, by, and for a union.

The founding of Port Union

William Ford Coaker, 1871-1938

William Ford Coaker, 1871-1938

William Coaker founded the town as the base for the Fishermen’s Protective Union in 1917. During 1908-09, he had travelled around Notre Dame Bay, seeking support for a union in each of the tiny communities. By the fall of 1909, the FPU had 50 local councils. By 1914, over half the fishermen in Newfoundland had become members.

In rapid succession, the FPU and the town established a trading company to break the merchants’ stranglehold on salt fish trade. They soon built workers’ housing, a retail store, a salt-fish plant, a seal plant, a fleet of supply and trading vessels, a spur railway line, a hotel, a power-generating plant, a movie theatre, a school, and a factory to build these facilities and other things the community needed.

Clamps for door making

Clamps for door making

There was much more, including even a soft drink (or ìtemperance beverage) factory. One of the most important enterprises was the influential Fishermen’s Advocate newspaper.

Reaction and decline

The anthem of the Fishermens Protective Union was sung at FPU meetings to show support for Coaker and his movement to unite the fishermen. It starts as follows:

We are coming, Mr. Coaker, from the East, West, North and South;
You have called us and we’re coming, for to put our foes to rout.
By merchants and by governments, too long we’ve been misruled;
We’re determined now in future, and no longer we’ll be fooled.
We’ll be brothers all and free men, we’ll be brothers all and free men,
We’ll be brothers all and free men, and we’ll rightify each wrong;

Calculator scale

Computing scale used in the retail store

There was widespread support among the fishing communities for Coaker and the FPU. Coaker himself had a successful career in the Newfoundland House of Assembly and as minister of marine and fisheries through 1924.

But they union was attacked by moneyed interests and the Catholic church. Eventually, it lost power and its political role ended in 1934. The cod fishing moratorium furthered the community’s decline.

By the late 1990s, the town was no longer a commercial center and was in a state of neglect. In 1999, the original part of the town and the hydroelectric plant were designated a National Historic Site of Canada.


Questions and connections

I came away from Port Union with many questions. I’ve read that the FPU drew from and influenced the farmer’s co-operatives in the western provinces. I wondered though whether it was connected with enterprises such as La Bellevilloise in Paris, which was founded earlier, after the Commune. It was the first Parisian cooperative project to allow ordinary people access to political education and culture. It, too was a place of resistance with a “from producer to consumer” motto. There were similar projects in Ireland and England, which might have provided a more direct link for Coaker.

The FIsherman's Advocate

The Fisherman’s Advocate

Coaker lived nearly contemporaneously with Jane Addams. Although her settlement house work was not directly union organizing, it shared in the effort to provide self-contained services and to promote workers’ rights.

The earlier Toynbee Hall in London’s East End sought to create a place for future leaders to live and work as volunteers. It was created out of similar motives, and the realisation that enduring social change would not be achieved through individualised and fragmentary approaches. I’d like to learn more about how, if at all, these enterprises learned from one another.

What if

I’d also like to learn more about Coaker himself. Michael Crummey’s novel Galore includes Coaker as a major character. In an interview, Crummey describes the actual Coaker as an enigma and the FPU experience as a pivotal moment:

It is the great “what if” moment in our history. The entire story of 20th century Newfoundland would have been completely different if Coaker had succeeded. We might still be an independent country.

Even truncated as it was, what Coaker accomplished was extraordinary. Delegations from a number of Scandinavian countries came to study what he was up to and implemented many of the reforms in their own fishery that he was fighting for.

Visitor density

Devil's Cove and beyond

Devil’s Cove and beyond

There are similarities between Cape Cod (CC) and Newfoundland & Labrador (NL). Both are beautiful, have long histories connected with the sea, are more residential than industrial. Even details of the fishing are similar–cod, lobster, and shellfish. Many people remark that NL is like CC of fifty years ago.

One obvious difference is the impact of tourism. That’s very evident on CC, especially in July through August, until school resumes. Tourism is important in modern NL, too, but it’s less intense and more spread out.

I did some calculations, which showCape Cod’s well-deserved appeal draw for visitors. They also show why Newfoundland & Labrador appeals to those who seek a place away from population centers, including centers created by lots of visitors.

My data are not ideal. They’re from different sources and years as well as being incomplete on points such as length of stay. One could argue about whether Labrador ought to be included in this kind of comparison.

Nevertheless, the larger story seems clear. It explains why life is much calmer in NL than on CC, especially in August

Cape Cod

visitors/year – 5.23 M
area – 339 mi²
visitors/year/area – 15,428

Newfoundland & Labrador

visitors/year – .50 M
area – 156,453 mi²
visitors/year/area – 3

NL area / CC area – 462

NL visitor density / CC visitor density .0002

The reciprocal of the last figure says that there are nearly 5000 CC visitors in a given area for a single NL visitor.

It’s only fair to mention that I haven’t been to Signal Hill in St. John’s yet. I expect that it may present a different picture from the tiny outport communities.


Moveable feasting

You can’t count on a 4 mph pace on the trails of Newfoundland, even if you can walk faster than that on flat ground. Even 3 mph or 2 mph is hard to manage. In fact, you stop thinking about the pace.

The problem is not the terrain per se. I’m convinced that it involves more walking uphill than down. There are also uneven rocks, loose gravel, bogs, overgrown vegetation, fallen trees and other obstacles. And the occasional bugs and thorns. But you can get used to all of that.

A much bigger problem is the amazing views, even on the most ordinary trails. I’ve learned not to be captive of the camera, but it’s hard not to stop to look at waves crashing against a sea dungeon, to study 560 million year old Ediacaran fossils at Port Union, or to be captivated by abnormally cute puffins on the island off of Elliston Point. Those sights and more are within a 45 min. drive from our house.

But there is a bigger problem still: The trails are edible. It’s hard to keep up the pace when lunch beckons at every turn.

On a short walk yesterday, we saw ripe bakeapples (cloudberries), low-bush blueberries, and raspberries. There were chuckly-pears or chuckle-berries (amelanchier) and dogberries on the small trees, ready to eat. Nearby were partridge berries and cranberries. We’ve also sampled strawberries, juniper berries, bearberries, bunchberries, and many I can’t identify.

These delicacies were right next to the trail, far more than enough for the sparse walkers. When I’d look off the trail, I sometimes saw masses of berries enough for pies and muffins and pancakes, for jams, for adding to cereal, and for munching to keep my energy up.

There are many other edible berries. In addition to the berries on ground cover-type plants, there are fruits, some called berries, on bushes and trees. There are also numerous edible plants and mushrooms.

Click on any image below to see larger, slideshow format.

Port Rexton

Our longest stay in Newfoundland is in Port Rexton, on the Bonavista Peninsula. Close by are the historic town of Trinity with an excellent local theater, Port Union, the only union-built town in North America, shale formations with Ediacaran fossils, bays with dolphins and whales, great walks along seaside cliffs and through forests, freshwater ponds, sea birds, and more.

The pictures below are just to give an impression of the community itself, most of them taken on a walk to the nearby coffee shop.