Friday, 21 September 2012

In Strange Terrain: Berries and Fairies

I never realised how woefully ignorant I am about berry-lore until spending time in Keels these past couple weeks. I've always been comfortable in my perception that Saskatchewan's berry, the saskatoon, was the best around, that it was pretty much unique to the prairies, and that my saskatoon berry pie was delicious. Then I got to Newfoundland, and found out that lots of people have saskatoon berry bushes growing in their yards, but here they're called chuckley pear. I also discovered that there is an abundance of wild berries growing all over Newfoundland, and any preconceptions I had of the "Rock" being a barren, berryless wasteland went out the window.

Juniper berries growing around Keels. Photo: Kristin Catherwood
There are berries everywhere here. Much of the landscape around Keels is covered with juniper and its bluish berry (I was told that some of these bushes, which grow close to the ground, may be as old as a century). Then there are blueberries, which I had never seen growing in the wild before. There are also partridge berries, a local favourite. While picking them the other day with Claire and Erin, I came across another berry, which Claire said was called crow berry. Cranberries grow here, too, though I haven't seen any yet. Then there are bake apples, which I didn't realise were actually a berry at first until Erin filled me in on the supposed entymology of the name. Apparently, French settlers called the berry "baie qu'appelle", meaning basically  "whatchamacallit berry." Over time the name became anglicised and distorted.

Partridge berries, known as lingonberries in other locales, are
a Newfoundland favourite. Photo: Kristin Catherwood
The importance of berries to Newfoundland culture is something you just can't really know about until you come here and witness it firsthand. Historically, berries were very important in the diets of fishing families who mostly ate fish, meat, and root vegetables like potatoes. Berries would have provided essential nutrients. Thus, berry-picking was an important past-time, probably carried out mostly by young women. And this leads me into the next part of my post: fairies.

I'm currently reading Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland by Barbara Rieti, which resulted from her PhD thesis in Folklore at MUN. Many of the stories in her book centre around strange experiences in the woods when out picking berries or doing other important tasks like cutting wood or hay, or tending gardens. This was another part of Newfoundland culture of which I had no knowledge before arriving here: the pervasiveness of folk belief in fairies and other elements of the supernatural, though this belief is apparently mostly a thing of the past.

A thicket of an unidentified berry, possibly marsh berries,
overlooking Keels harbour. Photo: Kristin Catherwood
The other day, I walked alone out to the old slate quarry (see Claire's past post about it) to meet Claire and Erin to pick partridge berries. The walk took me through some "strange terrain", an area that I had not yet explored. In the quiet of the wooded path, I kept thinking about the fairy book, and almost expected to see tiny figures perched among the berries in the bushes on either side of the path. We came to Keels to learn about the fishery, and we certainly are, but the great thing about being immersed in the community about which we're learning is that we get a deeper experience of the overall culture. I haven't yet spoken to any locals about fairy belief, but in Rieti's book there is one excerpt that notes that in decades past, residents of Keels left woolen socks and mittens out on All Souls Night for the fairies, so clearly there was some belief here in fairies historically.

Any map of Newfoundland will show clearly that most of the settlement in the province was along the coast because of, you guessed it, the fishery. But Newfoundlanders' lives were influenced just as much by the woods and bogs at their backs as they were by the sea in front of them. Fairy stories (not to be confused with fairy tales) are often indicative of the awe, and sometimes fear, the woods inspired in those who dwelt near them. You just never knew when an afternoon of berry-picking might get you "into the fairies."
An expedition to pick berries could take one into "strange terrain." Who knows
what could be around the bend. Photo: Kristin Catherwood

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