The Closing of the Convent Doors

Well, our time in the convent has come to a close. Personally, I’m not quite ready for the real world. Our field school was a wonderful glimpse into Witless Bay, and I think many of us would have liked to stay longer. I know I lingered unnecessarily while packing my suitcase, in a futile wish to lengthen our time here. In some ways, three weeks just doesn’t seem long enough. At our closing reception last night, fairy and ghost stories were told to us immediately after our presentation concluded. I have the feeling that we’ve only scratched the surface- I think there’s a lot left to be told about Witless Bay!

It was truly an unforgettable experience for all of us, and I feel very lucky to have participated. We’re so grateful for the interviews given to us, and for the warmth and generosity of the community. We’ve waltzed, we’ve bingo dabbed, we’ve been schooled at cards. We’ve delighted in the landscape, too. Witless Bay is such a beautiful place to be.


View from the Tolt, the highest peak in Witless Bay.

I’ve come away from this time with much more than I ever expected. Thank you so much.

Bank supports.

The Carey Root Cellar

All of us students have been making individual floor plans of several “out buildings” (sheds, fish stages and root cellars) in Witless Bay. It hasn’t been easy- we’ve had to stand on top of bogs, disintegrate countless spider webs, and crawl into many dusty corners. But there’s something very interesting about spending a significant amount of time with a particular building. I gradually became quite fascinated by my out building, the Carey root cellar.

The Carey root cellar was built by John Carey in the late 50’s, and is currently cared for by Carey’s son, Eddie Ryan. Above ground, one can find a wonderful array of objects, both practical and aesthetic.


Romantic string art.


Intricate glass window and rolls of unused wallpaper.


My Little Pony lunchbox.

The root cellar’s appearance hasn’t changed much since John Carey’s death in 2003. However, Eddie Ryan has made some recent alterations. He’s attached two moose antlers he found in the woods to the exterior of the cellar, on either side of the front door.


Moose antlers atop Carey root cellar.


Squares of carpet laid to enhance insulation of vegetables.

I hadn’t initially intended on exploring the root cellar itself. I’d assumed that the cellar hadn’t been used for years, and I was afraid of what I might find down there. But when I discovered the functioning lightbulb (owing from the fact that the root cellar is, in fact, in use) I knew I had to venture down.

I found the root cellar to be a very mysterious place. Enormous boulders encroach upon the space, and layers of bare earth are exposed on the cellar floor. Root cellars seem to straddle a boundary between the human and the natural- it’s a human structure, but it’s also the feeling of being below the earth, inhabiting the same space as the insects.


Boulder and ladder, Carey root cellar.


The functionality of the Carey root cellar. Lightbulb and tarp.

The Writing on the Wall

We’re moving into the last week of our time out here in Witless Bay. Of course, every passing day brings us a little closer to our deadlines, and we’ve begun to focus more intently on our individual projects. This week, we’ll be scurrying around the community looking for interviews, measuring frantically, and wrapping our heads around the stories we’ve found in Witless Bay.

All of us are focusing on particular local traditions in the community. My goal is to learn about the practice of writing on walls in Witless Bay. I felt fascinated by the writing in both Sheila Ryan and Joey Yard’s sheds, and I was told several times to speak with Jacqueline Mair about this phenomenon. Jacqueline kindly agreed to meet with Sharna and I today for an interview.


Jacqueline has lived in the Bahamas, Scotland, PEI, and Witless Bay throughout her adult life, and in each place, she’s written on the walls of her shed. Jacqueline formerly resided in Sheila Ryan’s house, and she’s the one responsible for much of the writing there.

Words and expressions have always captured Jacqueline’s interest. When she finds a good word, she’ll “pluck it and put it on the wall.” In her words, “expressions will come in, and they’ll visit for awhile, and then they’ll go on their way again. Some other words will come and take their place, and it’s ever evolving.”


Jacqueline invites everyone to leave their mark on her shed. Her current shed wall is mostly a combination of Newfoundland and Scottish expressions, but there’s a little bit of German and French thrown in there, too. She told me that most of the writing has come out of social occasions, and usually as the evening comes to a close.

“I just think that it was something that came out of an expression of people feeling, maybe full bellies, and a full glass, and celebration, and coming together. I think all of those words are representative of a time and an occasion. And none of them- it’s not like any of them are dated, ‘this happened on such and such, and this happened on such and such-‘ I wouldn’t be able to say one word went down, and when another word went down, but I’d say they all came out of a place of occasions, and celebrations.”


Jacqueline’s shed writing seems infectious- her son invites people to leave their mark on the walls of his shed, and now Sheila Ryan has taken up the torch as well. Has shed writing travelled further afield in Witless Bay? I’m so curious to find out!

The Best Laid Floor Plans…

Today we intended to finish our floor plan of Barry Norris’ house. However, we learned a valuable lesson- when you intend to invade someone’s home with measuring tape, check with the house guests first. Sadly, reality sometimes gets in the way of the folklorist’s mission. So, although we spent the morning falling behind in our assignments, we passed the time quite pleasantly with some residents of Witless Bay.

We first stopped off at Ralph Carey and Dena Wiseman’s house. They showed us a number of fascinating objects- hooked rugs and snowshoes from Labrador, a foot trail spinning wheel, whale vertebrae, and a couple walrus tusks they had lying around.

A hooked rug and snowshoes from Labrador.

A hooked rug and snowshoes from Labrador.

An older rug belonging to Dena, initially intended for the floor.

An older rug belonging to Dena, initially intended for the floor.

Dena Wiseman's spinning wheel.

Dena Wiseman’s spinning wheel.

Sharna and Ralph, walrus tusks at the ready.

Sharna and Ralph, walrus tusks at the ready.

A bird hand felted by Dena, nestled into some whale vertebrae.

A bird hand felted by Dena, nestled into some whale vertebrae.

Ralph and Dena's son, crawling around inchworm style in a laundry basket.

Ralph and Dena’s son, crawling around inchworm style in a laundry basket.

Later, we checked out the root cellar across from Bonnie’s place, which had been claimed by a hornet’s nest. The owner of the root cellar, Frank, ambled up and chatted with us about his various hornet misadventures. We were supposed to make a floor plan of the root cellar in question, but with the 9 foot hole, unsteady floor, and hornet’s nest besides, it was decided that it wasn’t *quite* worth the risk. Frank told us that the root cellar started out as a dysfunctional well. Apparently, a well diviner of sorts told his ancestors to dig in a spot with no water. They coped with the hole in the ground by repurposing it as a root cellar.

The root cellar and the hornet's nest.

The root cellar and the hornet’s nest.

Sharna, Daisy and I began our out building floor plan of a fish store later in the afternoon. It was terribly picturesque. I have always found MUN’s promotional photos of students using their laptops atop cliffs (“Study on the Edge- Literally!”) to be a slightly absurd depiction of MUN, but this was before I found the wonder of folklore.



To measure the outside, Daisy and I had to use several platforms to maneuver ourselves on top of the bog. This was a bit of a challenge, as there were approximately two usable pieces of board for both Daisy and I, and we had to circle around. I was maybe a bit too proud of my method. Daisy slipped into the bog and got a little muddy, but she gamely carried on.

All in all, a pretty off-kilter and wonderful day.

Stepping into the Senior’s Home

Though we are by no means restricted to the convent, (and in fact, our entire purpose is to venture into the community) it can be oddly tempting to stay within the convent walls. Some days we drink coffee, eat breakfast, attend class, prepare meals, socialize, study and turn in for the night without stepping a foot outdoors. The ceilings are high, the windows and mouldings are beautiful, we can marvel at stained glass. I think it creates a bit of a barrier here- there’s the convent, and then there’s the rest of the world. It’s an interesting space to inhabit.

Today I got out a little, though, and visited the senior’s home in Witless Bay, Aldergrove Estates. There I met a woman from Ferryland, Babe Walsh.


Babe and her husband used to rear ponies. In her earlier days, everyone used horses for transportation and other utilitarian purposes. Babe held onto her horses long after most people sold theirs off. Some of Babe’s horses lived well into their 40’s!

Babe briefly introduced me to a number of women at the home, from all along the southern shore. Almost everyone expressed their fondness for the particular senior’s home in question. There’s a book club, musical entertainment, exercise sessions, the whole nine yards. Babe and her friends talked about how there was no need of exercise in the old days, not when there was wood to be chopped, water to be lugged, and gardening to be done.

This is the first summer that Babe has spent outside of her home in Ferryland. Last year, Lisa Wilson and Justin Oakey filmed a wonderful video of Babe in the house she grew up in.

<p><a href=”″>Tea with Babe Walsh (Ferryland)</a> from <a href=””>Oak &amp; Arrow</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I very much appreciated Babe’s warmth and spirit, and I look forward to spending more time with the seniors of Witless Bay.

Photography Blitz in Witless Bay

It came as a delightful shock to receive SLR cameras for the duration of our time here in Witless Bay. Up to now, I’ve only ever wielded point and shoots, and so I’ve been fumbling around with my fancy new contraption rather cluelessly. Some more aperture here? On the landscape button maybe? ISO, what does that do again? I think I’d assumed that with a decent camera, one could unthinkingly capture the world in all its glowing splendour. Sadly, this has turned out to be mostly untrue. I therefore felt great anticipation for today, photography day, the day that photography know-how might be ours! Guha Shankur and Brian Ricks patiently taught us some basic principles, and then we quickly descended upon two wonderful settings in Witless Bay, cameras at the ready. We were to photograph everything, and later select three photos for an evening discussion.

We first visited Sheila Ryan’s house, one of the oldest in Witless Bay. She opened the doors of her home, and allowed us to snap our way around all the nooks and crannys we felt inclined to explore. There are many quirky and magical scenes to discover around her place. Some of my favourites included the unicorn atop the fridge, the tiny garden gnome amongst the greenery, the face of her shed door, and the mummers that currently live in the top floor of her shed.




I chose this photo as one of my three. I like her sideways glance, coupled with the jaunty angle of her spectacles. I think she has a lot of personality. You can see another one of Sheila’s mummers in the background, but there were plenty more besides (along with a few similarly crafted witches.) Sheila told me that she puts her characters in her yard at both Hallowe’en and Christmas. I could be wrong, but I think she told me that they recline on top of her fish chairs.


There was an array of writing on the inside of the two sheds on Sheila Ryan’s property, too. I’m so curious about the stories behind it all!


Sheila showed us her garden and demonstrated the depth of her well. She sent us away with vegetables, too. Thank you so much!

Our next destination was Joey Yard’s shed. There was a lot of character and surprises to be found in here, too. Joey has recorded many interesting occurrences on the walls of his shed over the years. He’s commemorated snowstorms, days partying with the b’ys, the death of a beloved pet, and even the day of the cod moratorium. His shed feels like a kind of diary.



This was the second photo I selected of the three. I chose this photo because I found the subject very remarkable. It feels like a momentous shift frozen in time; an epitaph for the day that everything changed.

Afterwards, we visited Joey Yard’s fishing store, and clambered along the rocks on the shore. We shot photos of the fish stages and ocean waves, and also a few of each other.


I chose this photo of my classmate, Sharna, as my third photo. It conveys some of the whimsy and fun of her personality. It also feels honest to acknowledge that I am not alone in the landscape- it can be a relief to let a fellow classmate wander into the frame.