Cometic Newfoundland

PB's Comet, a delightful tale of a star-gazing lamb calculating, like Edmond Halley did when he was at Tors Cove, when the next comet would stream across the sky
PB's Comet, a delightful tale of a star-gazing lamb calculating, like Edmond Halley did when he was at Tors Cove, when the next comet would stream across the sky

You could say Newfoundland is like a comet, bright and shiny and on its own trajectory in a corner of our country.

There’s another reason we’re calling it cometic.

It began when Clare bought me a book published by Running the Goat Books and Broadsides in Tors Cove and Magellan and I decided the bookstore was worth a visit.

Running the Goat is owned by Marnie Parsons. On her website, Marnie explains that she named her bookshop Running the Goat after a traditional Newfoundland set dance for four couples that involves moves like “The Cartwheel,” “Couples Cross Over” and “The Whip”.

I hoped someday to capture something of the joy and spontaneity, the playfulness and intensity of that first dance in a handmade book; more than two decades later, I still hope readers find some hint of that visceral and organic beauty in the books the press publishes.

We were Marnie’s first customers that Monday morning, arriving about the time she opened the big white doors.

It’s a small shop, a beacon of carefully curated Newfoundland and Labrador books and children’s literature, Canadian and international fiction and non-fiction, nature writing, poetry, letterpress-printed cards and prints, and local crafts.

While I was amassing a pile of books, etchings and cards, Marnie showed Magellan her vintage printing presses: an 1830s Cope & Sherwin iron handpress, an 1880s Golding Pearl treadle press, and a 1960s Vandercook SP15.

As you saw in our feature image, Marnie herself has published a children’s book, PB’s Comet. But it was either sold out when we were there, or I didn’t notice it on the shelves. Only when reading Marnie’s blog to write this story did I discover it—and its thrilling backstory posted on CanLit for LittleCanadians.


PB is a lamb living in Toads Cove (the original name of Tors Cove, NFLD) who, with other sheep and a goat, is taken over to Fox Island for summer grazing. While the others bide their time, grazing and watching tourists and whales, PB is readiing about astronomer Edmond Halley, studying star charts and staying up at night to ponder the night sky. Her focus is on calculating when the next comet might stream across the sky. But the old goat “who was inclined to be grumpy and rather remote” (pg. 12) does not appreciate her efforts. But when that old goat glimpses the night sky, which he’d been missing because of heading to bed earlier than most, PB’s pest becomes her protege, joining her to watch the night sky and learn.

The reason PB is keen about Edmond Halley, the man for whom the most dazzling celebrated comet in the universe is named, is pure Newfoundland quirky and remarkable.

Here’s the backstory.

On August 2, 1700, a fierce storm forced Halley and his crew of twenty men on the sixteen-metre long three-masted H.M.S. Paramore to abandon their plans to sail to Boston and instead, dock at what’s now Tor’s Cove. It was the only place on the mainland of North America ever visited by this incredible astronomer. 

The local fishermen, mistaking Halley and his crew for pirates or raiding Frenchmen, fired their cannon at the Paramore, a warning shot.

After the misunderstanding was rectified, Halley “forgave the affront” and stuck around for three days, gathering birch wood and filling the ship’s casks with water.

While there, Halley estimated the longitude of Tors Cove was 54° from London, quite accurately as modern maps show it’s 52°51’ west of Greenwich.

Halley was forty-three years old when he visited Tors Cove. He had proposed to the Royal Society that he voyage around the world to improve the knowledge of longitude and variations of the “Magneticall Needle,” an ambitious undertaking that was scaled down to cover only the Atlantic Ocean.

Even if he hadn’t discovered the comet that bears his name and correctly predicted its return in 1758 (it was spotted December 25, 1758, but didn’t pass through its perihelion until March 13, 1759, because of gravitational pull), Halley would have been famous.

A Fellow of the Royal Society, “he edited its Philosophical Transactions and published papers on topics ranging from terrestrial magnetism to eclipses, projectile motion, the time and place of Julius Caesar’s invasion of England (utilizing evidence from the records of a lunar eclipse), optics, algebra, and the tradewinds,” writes James E. Force. “During this period, too, Halley cajoled Newton into finishing the Principia, personally paid for its publication, and saw it through the press.” (Alan Cook, a professor of natural philosophy at Cambridge University in England, suggests his encouragement of Newton was Halley’s greatest contribution to science.) He was also an innovative cartographer, inventor of a deep-sea diving bell and author of the first actuarial mortality tables.

Philip Morrison, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing in Scientific American, noted:

Halley the man orbits forever in the shadow of the unmatched Newton, but he was a gifted, original, versatile and productive scientist, and a human being as adventuresome, generous, loving and sweet as Newton was retiring, cold, solitary and austere.

The perfect hero for Marnie’s lamb, PB.

Halley’s correct prediction of the trajectory of the comet that bears his name was the first direct confirmation of Newton’s theories. Halley determined that the orbits of comets are elliptical, that many of them make periodic visits and that by plotting the characteristics of their elliptical orbits, it was possible to predict their many returns.

Halley’s Comet has been regularly spotted since at least 240 B.C. Quite something given it’s more than 168 million kilometres from earth and travels at 106,000 kilometres per hour.

Something I think is cool is that Halley’s Comet moves backward around the sun—something Marnie’s PB would embrace.

Halley predicted “his” comet passes through earth’s atmosphere about every 76 years. 1531, 1607, 1682, 1759, 1835, 1910, 1986…The next one is July 28, 2061. Enjoy it youngsters!

Halley didn’t live to see the 1759 comet. But what a death.

He was sitting in his chair at the Greenwich Observatory when the end came on January 14, 1742, in the 86th year of his life. “He poured himself a glass of wine, took a long drink and then quietly passed away.”

Cheers to Edmond Halley, and long may your big jib draw to Marnie Parsons, Veselina Tomova (illustrator of PB’s Comet), all those like PB who dare to look at the stars, and to Newfoundland and Labrador—the cometic province.

Navigation

Broughton, Peter. “What Brought Edmond Halley to Newfoundland? Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol.89:1, NO.652, February 18, 1995.

CanLit for LittleCanadians review of PB’s Comet by Helen K in March 2018.

Marnie Parsons. PB’s Comet. Manitoba: FriesenPress, 2018. Enlivened with the whimsical watercolour illustrations of Veselina Tomova, this is a delightful story for young and old. Thanks Marnie, for permission to include photographs and words from your cometic book. (Copies are on sale online folks.)

Wilford, John Noble. “Sir Edmund (sic) Halley: Orbiting Forever in Newton’s Shadow.” The New York Times: October 29, 1959.

Running the Goat. Order online; deliveries arrive quickly via Canada Post, too.

Thrower, Norman J.W. Editor. “The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore 1698-1701.” London: The Hakluyt Society, 1981.

4 Responses

  1. Lovely, lovely story Gloria.

    The children’s book illustrations, as well as the writing, are so wild and free with so much character and whimsy.

    A dear friend of ours who lives in Prince Albert just recently told us about a book of poems; “Overheard by Conifers” by the (Prince Albert) poet John V. Hicks with a cover illustration by George Glenn, an artist from PA who now lives at Christopher lake (town).. It is very much of a similar genre sparking the imagination and generating much delight in children and adults..

    Thank you.

    Wade

    1. Thanks Wade. Writing about Running the Goat, PB and Halley was much fun for us, too. Wouldn’t Sheryl have enjoyed sharing PB’s Comet with school kids? Will search out Overheard by Conifers–what a great title.

  2. Interesting looking store, especially the printing presses, must be some serious history in those.

    Indeed the night sky is of great interest especially in August when the skies come alive with shooting stars and we can watch in comfort of the summer heat.

    Cheers,

    1. I just googled the next Perseids shooting star display—this summer it will peak around the night of Aug. 12 and before dawn on Aug.13, 2024.

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