Getting to know Robert O'Brien.
Environmentalist, retired entrepreneur and sailor, Robert O'Brien is founder and chair of Ocean Net. During its 12-year history, Ocean Net has organized 32,000 volunteers to collect more than a million pounds of garbage - the bulk of it plastic - along Newfoundland & Labrador's shores. In 2004, the NL government designated the third Friday in September "Ocean Net Day;" in 2007, David Suzuki presented O'Brien with the national Hometown Heroes Award at the Earth Day Canada awards. Saltscapes spoke with Robert about inclusiveness, Gooseberry Lane and clotheslines.
Q You grew up on the outskirts of St. John's through the 40s and 50s?
A I was born in 1941, so I was eight years a Newfoundlander, then I became a Canadian. I kid people much younger than me. Look, I'm a Newfoundlander.
Q What was life like on Gooseberry Lane?
A I was five or six years old before I came down to the city. We were country bumpkins. It was wonderful. I had rivers, ponds, lakes, woods, berries, and the sky was filled with the Milky Way.
Q Did your passion for the sea start early?
A We were not boating people. My father was a blacksmith. We were a big family with not a lot of money in our pockets. I have three brothers and four sisters. Two to a bed.
Q And your mother?
A A wonderful United Church lady. She's alive today at 91. She made sure we were clean, well fed. I remember one time I fell out of a tree and broke my wrist. My mother had to clean me up before she'd take me to the hospital.
Q You spent summers in Bonavista.
A I used to go there to visit my grandparents. People were friendly, giving-we'd go to the docks, cut tongues out of fish. The first words ?ever spoken to me were by this little boy, his head sticking through a picket fence: "Come out and play with I. I won't hurt 'e."
Q Why did you teach yourself to sail?
A I lived in Toronto for more than 30 years, and only stayed there because of the water. I sailed to get away from the heartache of not being home. Most Newfoundlanders are like that.
Q What brought you back to Newfoundland to live?
A I got this bug to start a flotilla of 70 boats and sail home. It was the John Cabot celebration in 1997, the re-enactment of the landing of the Matthew.
Q What led to the founding of Ocean Net?
A Maybe in the back of my mind, I was not going back to Toronto. I knew they needed someone in the province to take stewardship of this place. I'd read about ghost nets and garbage in the sea.
Q Why is one of Ocean Net's guiding principles "inclusiveness?"
A You may be president of a company or premier, but we're all in this together. The issue will always be to walk softly on this planet. We studied the one-ton challenge and said hey, there's no clothesline in here. It says ride a bicycle to work. This is Newfoundland! We've got ice, high hills-it would kill ya! We said let's design one for ourselves.
Q What makes you hopeful?
A I'm looking at a map of Newfoundland, with pins representing clean-up sites. It's an icon of achievement, as naïve as it is, that shows there are people all over this place who love it and care. We have local heroes out there.