Friday, 28 September 2012

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

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