Wednesday, 3 October 2012

And we're back

Well, that's it. Field school is over and we're back in St. John's. Saturday night's sendoff was a great success - our presentation was well received, and a time was had by all. Thanks to Rick Pardy for getting the music going, and to all the fiddlers and accordion players and mummers (yes, mummers!) for making it a night to remember.

And now back to the books, to the rain, drizzle and fog of town, to city shoes, traffic and bus rides. To classrooms, libraries and grocery stores.

Thanks to everyone who made the first Keels Field School such a success.

We'll always have the music...

Wince playing Alvin Hobbs' accordion. (Photo: Jerry Pocius)

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Avoiding Snares in the Field: Reflections on Fieldwork

Fieldwork is not some static line in the sand defined by the absence of any shifting tides. You can't just wake up in 'the field' and say " I am going to do fieldwork", and in the next moment " I am finished with fieldwork." Fieldwork doesn't end. Today, just when I figured that I had finished collecting data for my paper, I found myself gathering vital information this afternoon.

Rodney Byrne showing me the rabbit trails.

(Photo: Ed Millar)

One moment, I was returning a photo of young Rodney Byrne's first hare. The next, I found myself drinking a cup of tea; followed by mussels, lasagna, and bread. Before I can grasp the importance of these exchanges, I am off with Keels' own wilderness expert, Rodney Byrne, on a tour of the rabbit trails near  Harbour Pond. In only an hour, Rodney taught me how to spot rabbit trails, where to look for them, how to place the snare, and prepare the slip. He also demonstrated some moose and coyote calls from on top of a ridge. Rodney invited me to record and photograph our trip this afternoon, and as a result I gained even more useful information for my own use, for archival use, and  for any other future users of this data. All this, in an afternoon which I had previously planned to eat some left over rice porridge in the fridge and look at an Excel spreadsheet.

Perhaps this misconception of a 'finite fieldwork' comes from the assumption that because the written product pours forth from our pen, fieldwork must then stem from us. Well, it doesn't. Fieldwork emerges in that liminal space of the interaction between ourselves and the outer environment, whether they be people, places, or things. While we do hinge on the assumption of the self when conducting fieldwork to identify the 'outer' from the 'inner', we often forget that all life is in motion. Our lives spin like whirlwinds gathering experiences, emotions, and beliefs as we make our way through time and space. As we cross paths with one another, they intensify each and leave in their wake a base of information: fieldwork. In this way, fieldwork constantly expands.

Will our fieldwork here end when we leave Keels?

Well, I guess that is the big question all this raises. Does fieldwork end when we leave the field?

I wouldn't make it as a rabbit.

(Photo: Ed Millar)

The simple answer to that is, I don't know and I don't dare to answer.

But I hope one day I will have the clarity and sense of mind to approach the answer.

Perhaps I could ask Rodney Byrne to help me find the path...and hopefully I won't be the one snared.

Ethnographic Lesson No.1: Expect the Unexpected

View of the community stage and wharf in Keels, NL
 (Photograph: Noah Morritt)
Throughout high school and university I was taught the importance of planning ahead - of keeping on schedule and working toward a solid goal. Well, after three weeks in an ethnographic field school I think that I now have a new perspective on goal setting. I am not saying that planning and goal setting are not important - because they most certainly are - but in fieldwork you have to expect the unexpected and be prepared for deviations. Ethnographic research is about everyday life, people's beliefs, values, and lived experiences. When you enter a community you ultimately become part of that pattern of daily life, and you can never really know what is going to happen.

Phonse Ducey with needles and cards used for
knitting nets (Photograph: Noah Morritt)
You never know who you are going to meet on the street, or who is going to invite you in for tea or unexpectedly invite you to join them on an afternoon fishing trip. This is the reality of ethnographic fieldwork: you think you know what you want to know, and your informants have their own idea of what they think you should know. After three weeks my advice so far - go with the flow and be as flexible as possible, because the insights gained from these impromptu meetings can really help you adjust your approach and improve the questions you ask.

My problem now, however, is what do you do when you have embraced the unexpected and suddenly the end product of your research - the essays, floor plans and metadata - demand immediate completion. It seems that even when you set aside a good block of time to work on those last few paragraphs someone knocks of the door with an opportunity that you just cannot refuse. As a result, you have to slot in work time whenever you get the chance and hope that you can meet the deadlines at the end. In hindsight, I did not mind the busy work schedule or moments of frustration in the midst of trying to finish some assignment, because these past three weeks have been full of great experiences and important lessons, and without question, flexibility is one of the most important things I have learned.   

Friday, 28 September 2012

A Fond Farewell

Hard at work on our presentation

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

Tomorrow is the day we students make our presentation to the Keels community and show them just what we’ve been doing since we arrived.  The six of us have been sitting together for hours, going over photos, videos, and interviews.  It is, in short, a time for summing up.  I’ve spent quite a while thinking about what I should include in this, my final blog post.  Honestly, I’ve been struggling to make a decision.  The last three weeks have been so full of new places, new faces, and new experiences that it would be impossible to create a complete picture in the space that I have here. 

I could focus on the people I’ve met…

A gathering at Jerry's place

(Photo: Jerry Pocius)

Revelry at the beach in Keels

(Photo: Jerry Pocius)

Or the sights I’ve seen…

Bonavista lighthouse

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

Keels shrouded in mist

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

I could write an ode to the mighty codfish, in all its forms…

Cloth cod created by Hope Clark, Ryan Premises, Bonavista

(Photo: Claire McDougall) 

Our day's quota for the food fishery

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

Cod tongues and cheeks

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

I could wax poetic about the past…

A historic fish stage in New Bonaventure

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

An abandoned root cellar in Keels

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

Or pose questions about the future…

John Ducey's speedboat, Keels Harbour

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

The Twine Loft restaurant in Trinity

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

The truth is, though, I’ve yet to make sense of it all.  I have no grand statements to share…and if a picture is worth a thousand words, this post is already far too long.  What I can say is that I’ve met some wonderful people, and been welcomed warmly into a community.  I have seen many beautiful sights.  I have enjoyed cod in many different forms.  I have learned a little bit of the rich history of Keels and the Bonavista Peninsula.  I have heard people speak about their fears and hopes for the future.
It has been edifying and exciting – a true privilege, and a wonderful adventure.  Thank you Keels!

Sunset off Keels

(Photo: Claire McDougall)

Rooting Around in Keels

Who knew such a small, humble structure could cause so many headaches?
Photo: Kristin Catherwood
When it came time to choose which buildings we wanted to measure, I originally had my heart set on documenting one of the fishing boats used in Keels. When that was no longer possible, I decided I wanted to measure a root cellar. Another student wanted to do the root cellar as well, and it came down to a knock-down, drag-out, nail-biter of a draw.  I drew #1 out of the hat, while the other student who wanted to measure root cellars got #2. I carried my sense of victory around for the next day or so, until we arrived at the cellar in question and I realised what a nightmare it was going to be to measure. I had thought measuring individual 2X4 studs in stores was bad, but that was a walk in the park compared to trying to figure out how to accurately measure a building which is composed in large part of a big pile of dirt overgrown with grass and trees enclosed by four uneven walls of vertical boards.
Me, in a posture of defeat while trying to draw the cellar.  Photo: Edward Millar
Thankfully, my teammates, Erin and Ed, knew what they were doing, because I certainly didn’t. Perched on a board wrapped in an old potato sack atop a prickly juniper bush, I had never felt like a bigger loser as I tried to do basic math to figure out how to get the lines to meet on the drawing board. I was definitely regretting that #1 I picked out of the hat by the end of the day. However, several frustrating hours later, I had a drawing of a root cellar, and it even looked semi-presentable. Despite the difficulty of documenting the building, I am now very glad that I did get the chance to do it. I was finding measuring buildings the most challenging aspect of the field school so far, and I still don’t feel like a “natural” by any means, but after the crash course presented by the root cellar, I feel much more confident about my ability to measure buildings, so much so that I’m considering writing my thesis on a topic that would include a lot of measuring of difficult buildings.
The final result.  Photo: Kristin Catherwood

And through all the frustration, I had a lot of fun working with Ed and Erin, and I can only hope they did, too. With a bit of good humour and an acceptance of less-than-comfortable working conditions, spending the day outside measuring an old building is actually a wonderful way to learn, all the while doing the important work of documenting a historical artifact.

I also feel that the root cellar, by definition a humble building, is an archetypal example of vernacular architecture. We have been learning here in Keels the importance of vernacular architecture in that it reveals much about a culture’s ideals, beliefs, means, and desires at a given time. Dr. Pocius refers to vernacular buildings as “fossilized thoughts.” Root cellars are buildings that hold the produce necessary to feed a family through the winter. If one digs a little deeper, more questions are raised. Why was this root cellar built above ground, while others were subterranean?  What kind of vegetables did it hold? Where did the vegetables come from? If grown locally, who did the gardening, and where? Why aren’t there many gardens around anymore?

In a way, “rooting around” in a root cellar is a sort of metaphor for fieldwork in Folklore. We dig around in unexpected places. People may wonder why we’re so interested in that old fish store, or that house which is "just an ordinary house". But we want to dig deeper, to show that “old things” and “ordinary things” are very important, that they tell us a great deal about a certain place, a certain time, a certain way of living. They tell us about people, and what was important to them. And after a bit of rooting around, it’s inevitable that we can find something extraordinary. 
From the road, one would have no idea that such an extraordinary structure exists in this grassy hollow. This root cellar, built by the Fitzgerald family  more than a century ago, evokes a sense of the medieval in modern Keels.
Photo: Kristin Catherwood

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Ocean Goods

I love being on the water! Somehow, I manage to forget that love often, and go months or years without stepping foot in a canoe or boat. The fact that I'm not much into fishing--or fish--is partly to blame for that. My extensive reading in adventure stories and Reader's Digest real-life horror stories is also to blame for that.(I've definitely read enough terrifying accounts of freak accidents, drownings that shouldn't have happened, storms that weren't expected, waves taller than skyscrapers, angry/capricious sea-gods, disgustingly large fish [read: Jonah and the Whale] and badly timed undercurrents.)

Alicia (me) on the water--a little windswept

Photo: Alicia Farnham
But once I'm out there on the water my naturally fearful nature, like the stink of decaying fish, is blown away by that pure wind you only ever come by on an open body of water. It's a glorious feeling. It makes me feel invincible, like I'm accomplishing something magical--I'm on the surface of a liquid! And not just any liquid! It's sparkling in the sunlight, or shadowed in mysterious ways by a cloudy sky. It (generally) exudes latent power and strength; there's a mixture of adrenalin that I'm risking my life with such an unpredictable entity, and rush of freedom and camaraderie with the vast world around me. The last time I was on the ocean was two years ago, whale watching with many good friends on my birthday. The last time I was on any water at all was this summer, canoeing with my parents. Remembering these times, I'm amazed that I could forget how awe-inspiring and exciting it is to be on the water.

Yesterday, all of that came back to me, taking a trip out of Keels Harbour with June Fitzgerald and my fellow student, Kristin Catherwood. The intention was to jig for cod, since this week is the food fishery. I'm [only a little] sorry to say I soon lost interest in this particular ocean good. I couldn't help but feel bad for the stupid fish that swam so thickly below the surface of the water that they could be caught within seconds of lowering a line. They didn't even fight! But all of this was lost in my enjoyment of the boat speeding over the waves. It was a beautiful sunny day--so sunny it even got fairly warm on the water. The spray brought up by our boat cooled my face on occasion and the breeze whipped through my hair. It was a glorious feeling!

Being out on the water elicits something beyond freedom, something more like blissful trust in the elements. Having gradually gotten more and more panicked about the page-long list of things to do before Sunday morning, I felt like an hour-glass, the sands of stress gradually pouring out of me to be replaced by the empty gleefulness that comes from literally throwing my fears to the wind. What a cathartic experience for my last week in Keels!

And speaking of my last week in Keels, this happens to be my last scheduled blog post, so I want to take my last sentence to thank all the residents of Keels for their kindness and hospitality. Thanks for letting me (and my class) invade your home and helping us all learn the art of fieldwork! I've had a wonderful time!

Fishing for information

It occurs to me that conducting interviews is a lot like cod fishing. You put some bait on a line, throw out a question, and hope that you pull in something interesting. What comes up can be a bit of a mixed bag.

After Claire and I finished our last scheduled interview yesterday, we went out handlining with John Ducey. It was a sunny afternoon, a lovely day to be out on the water. John steered us to our first shoal, baited up our hooks and we were off. Not long after, John was reeling in his line. Sculpin! An ugly, spiny fish. Not the face you want to see on your hook when it's cod that you're after. Try again. John got a couple of codfish, and Claire got her first. Nothing for me. Off to the next spot. And then the next. And the next. Sculpin were outnumbering the cod at least 2 to 1. I was having a hard time figuring out when my line had hit bottom, and what did it actually feel like when there was a fish on the other end of the line. I pulled it in a couple of times thinking I had something, only to find my forlorn bit of bait looking back up at me. Finally, I was sure I had something. Sculpin. 

My first catch - a spiny old sculpin. (Photo: Claire McDougall)

Determined to make our quota before the sun went down, we headed back to the place that we started. And all of a sudden, the cod were there. We made our quota in no time (I caught 3!) and got to see a beautiful sunset as we sped back to Keels.

Now that's more like it. (Photo: Claire McDougall)

I've made my interview "quota" for the course so to speak. My Minimum Allowable Catch of audio recording minutes. But there are a few sculpins in there. A few places where I wasn't sure where my line was or if I'd gotten anything. I'd love to have a few more days out on the water, testing out the grounds, and trying my chances for the big one. But our time grows short and I will likely have to make do with what I've got. We'll see if I can make a good sculpin stew out of it.