And now for something completely different…

As we wind down (or rev up) for our final day and a half in Witless Bay, there’s a lot to be done. Schoolwork to finish, a presentation to finish (I believe Sharna and Emma are the brave souls who are doing the video editing for the presentation). In short, none of us have any entertaining anecdotes to share about our adventures (or misadventures) in Witless Bay.
I would therefore like to take the opportunity of my final blog post here to extend a special thank you to certain members of the Witless Bay community. We’ve been very blessed to have met many amazing people here, but I would like to extend personal thank-yous to a few of them:
Sheila Ryan, who welcomed a group of strangers in to photograph every inch of her house and outbuildings, and gave us some of her garden produce afterwards.
Barry Norris, who let my team photograph, measure and record both his house and his stable, and let me come back to ask him questions. He even pulled up some of the floorboards in his stable to let us get a close look at the stone foundation.
The Sobols, for their hospitality (including delicious zucchini bread), for showing Terra and I around their home, and for letting us record a very interesting discussion.
The Tobins, for also giving me delicious food, and for letting me record their life experience with gardening. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive morning, followed by a tour of Tommy Tobin’s garden.
And Bonnie Johnstone for showing me her art, her sheep, and her home, and for introducing me to the Tobins.
I think we all have very mixed feelings about leaving–glad to be going home, but a bit sad to be leaving the people (and the convent) behind.

Tommy Tobin's pride and joy: his Labrador tree, lovingly tended. Photo: D. Hurich

Tommy Tobin’s pride and joy: his Labrador tree, lovingly tended.
Photo: D. Hurich

Andrea, drawing the Carey root cellar. Photo: D. Hurich

Andrea, drawing the Carey root cellar. Photo: D. Hurich

It's hard to get a good photograph of fire: here's a photo of our bonfire at Gallow's cove, an example of photography more as an art form than a record of time and place. Photo: D. Hurih

It’s hard to get a good photograph of fire: here’s a photo of our bonfire at Gallow’s cove, an example of photography more as an art form than a record of time and place. Photo: D. Hurih

Barry's stable, with a section of floor removed to look at the foundation. Apparently the floorboards in this area have never been nailed down. He's not sure why it was built that way, but it's an architectural historian's dream. Photo: D. Hurich

Barry’s stable, with a section of floor removed to look at the foundation. Apparently the floorboards in this area have never been nailed down. He’s not sure why it was built that way, but it’s an architectural historian’s dream. Photo: D. Hurich

For the residents of Witless Bay, we hope to see you tomorrow evening at the new rec center. I hope our blog has kept you entertained.

Advertisements

We’re all a little mad here.

The hills are alive with the sound of music, and the convent is alive with the sound of anguished moans.

Actually, right now the convent is pretty quiet, because most of the students have ventured forth from these hallowed halls, in search of local information to complete assignments.The past couple nights here in the convent have certainly been filled with the sounds of moaning, however, and many a fustrated cry has also split the air. We are all responsible for measuring one outbuilding and one house during our time in Witless Bay, and then completing a scaled down, mostly-accurate drawn floor plan for the same.
Anguished exhalations of “it doesn’t add up!” have rent the air, along with dubious ponderings such as “Is it possible for all the walls to be different sizes?” and “are the windows supposed to line up?” have been a constant refrain. I think we’re all starting to get the drawings under control and approaching completion, however. That is not taking into account the written reports on each building.
The house plans have been completed in groups–if you’ve ever tried to measure a 17 foot wall, you’ll understand why. It often takes at least two people to hold the measuring tape, and another to draw. Group work always has drawbacks, of course. Trying to coordinate three people’s schedules is one of them, internal inconsistency in measuring is another one of them. Trying to interpret other people’s systems of measuring and recording is occasionally difficult.
We all seem to be managing these hurdles fairly splendidly, however, which is wonderful. As time is quickly running out (Tuesday night-Wenesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday- Oh no!) we’re all managing the pressure–so far.

A view of the coastline of Witless Bay. Photo: D. Hurich

A view of the coastline of Witless Bay. Photo: D. Hurich

A (partial) group shot, taken in the old graveyard during our first week in Witless Bay. Our professor Jerry, and our T.A, Claire are in the foreground. Photo: D.Hurich

A (partial) group shot, taken in the old graveyard during our first week in Witless Bay. Our professor Jerry, and our T.A, Claire are in the foreground. Photo: D.Hurich

A statue of Mary in front of St. Patrick's parish, Witless Bay, right next door to the convent.

A statue of Mary in front of St. Patrick’s parish, Witless Bay, right next door to the convent.

Accurate/Innacurate ?

One of our textbooks for the field school is called Visual anthropology: Photography as a research method, by John Collier, Jr., and Malcolm Collier. One of the book’s main arguments is that photography can offer essential visual detail for ethnographic research, far more detail than could be accurately recorded in description.

A photograph, ideally, does not lie. A photograph, ideally, is less biased than the written word. Words tend to have inherently charged meanings, and a lot of words are also inherently subjective. “Large,” for example. “Large” is an entirely relative statement. As a descriptor “large” essentially means nothing. The same object could be described as large or small by various people, or even the same person depending on their own mood, expectations, relative size and so on. Supposedly, a photograph is essentially more straightforward than a written depiction.

This is not, however, an ideal world, and photographs can and do lie. The way a camera lens views the world, as compared to the way the human eye views the world, is different. Cameras flatten a three-dimensioonal view into a two-dimensional depiction. Spatial perspective especially is often distorted when viewed in a photograph. Images in this photograph may be larger or smaller than they appear.
Photographs may, of course, also tell a factual lie. A photograph may be staged to present an image that is not an accurate depiction of reality. A photograph may be edited and altered. A photograph may be misinterpreted. A photograph may be assumed to depict a regular occurrence when it is, in fact, a singular occurrence. As I overheard one woman say, “If I’d known we were going to be photographed, I would’ve put makeup on!”

There can be small discrepancies, small edits, and there can be huge discrepancies, deliberate misinformation or bias, in all fieldwork. A human being is not a factual recorder; all fieldwork is subject to errors and bias, whether unintentional or deliberate. We record new information in context to our own personal feelings and experiences. A written statement can contain truth or lies, incomplete information, factual errors, misremembering and bias. So can a photograph. So can an oral history, an artwork, a floor plan.

Every tool an ethnographer has is ‘flawed’ in some way.

We do our best.

A couple of surfers taking advantage of the waves around Witless bay for a spot of autumn surfing. Photo: D. Hurich

A couple of surfers taking advantage of the waves around Witless bay for a spot of autumn surfing. Photo: D. Hurich

Sharna and Andrea, working on the floor plan of Barry Norris' house with the help of John LaDuke.

Sharna and Andrea, working on the floor plan of Barry Norris’ house with the help of John LaDuke. Photo: D. Hurich

Ed Chappell, Jerry Pocius and John LaDuke jelp Barry Norris (not visible) haul a 'long plow' out of his shed. Photo: D. Hurich

Ed Chappell, Jerry Pocius and John LaDuke help Barry Norris (not visible) haul a ‘long plow’ out of his shed. Photo: D. Hurich

An unexpected discovery in Witless Bay: a dessicated puffin corpse hanging on a wall. (Unrelated to previous images). Photo: D. Hurich

An unexpected discovery in Witless Bay: a dessicated puffin corpse hanging on a wall. (Unrelated to previous images).
Photo: D. Hurich

How many folklorists…

…can you stuff in to an attic?

 Jerry's (probably) feet disappearing into the attic of what might be the oldest house in Witless Bay.

Jerry’s (probably) feet disappearing into the attic of what might be the oldest house in Witless Bay. Photo: D. Hurich

…can you fit into a tunnel?

Our T.A, Claire (purple sweater) and our professor, Jerry (red jacket) try to locate students in a tunnel on the old Carey house.

Our T.A, Claire (purple sweater) and our professor, Jerry (red jacket) try to locate students in a tunnel on John Carey’s old property. Photo: D. Hurich

On Sunday night, our guest instructor Ed Chappell arrived from Virginia. We kicked off this week–our second in Witless Bay–with Ed giving us a lecture on colonial architecture in the United States. After lunch, we all piled in to the van to drive to a house on Lar Norris road (about a five minute drive from the chapel, but it was drizzling) so Ed and Jerry could instruct us in the fine art of measuring a building and creating an almost-accurate floor plan.

I wouldn’t recommend an architect try to build a house from our floor plan, but we did measure what felt like everything and recorded it down to the 1/4 inch or so (Yes, we are measuring in Imperial. Ed is from the United States after all). It’s sort of impossible to create a floor plan with eleven people, so the afternoon involved a lot of sitting around and listening, even though we traded off roles.

Today, Ed and Jerry brought us to the Carey premises (also about a five minute drive from the convent, in the opposite direction) so we could learn how to do a site plan—situating all the buildings and landscape features on a property (house, shed, well, and so on) and their spatial relationships to each other.

It is, by the way, very difficult to get an accurate measure when there are trees in the way.

Yesterday night, most of us students descended upon the ‘craft night’ at the new recreation center in Witless Bay (where are “welcome” potluck was also held). The craft night is hosted by the 50+ club, and it is the only one of their events, if I understand correctly, in which people outside of the group can attend regularly

We saw quilts, hooked rugs, crochet, decoupage, Christmas ornaments and many beautiful and wonderful things! The ladies (yes, all women) were very kind to us, and many of them were happy to explain their crafting methods. The evening is part class (there was a group of women learning to do a Christmas table runner), and part social time (the women enjoy showing each other their work, and talking about their projects). There are, of course, hot beverages and desserts on offer as well.

Some of the students were given quilt blocks to arrange during craft night. Photo: D. Hurich.

Some of the students were given quilt blocks to arrange during craft night. Photo: D. Hurich.

Ed Chappell examines the mantlepiece in John Carey's old house with a flashlight, while the students watch. Photo: D. Hurich

Ed Chappell examines the mantlepiece in John Carey’s old house with a flashlight, while the students watch. Photo: D. Hurich

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be working in small groups to measure buildings (because tape measures are hard to manage by oneself). If we’re lucky, the weather will stay dry.

If we’re not lucky, we’ve been told we must keep the drawing dry at all costs. We can suffer–that’s all part of fieldwork–but our research must remain safe!

Ready, Steady, Go!

So.

Our first five days in Witless Bay have been spent mainly inside, which is a shame because the weather has been gorgeous. Fortunately, our classroom is the old chapel, so we have the consolation of looking at the window dedicated to St. Joseph blazing with color. Watching the light from the window dancing on my fellow students lends a whole new meaning to the “sacred institution of education.”

Saeeda and Sharna, under the light cast by the St. Joseph's window. Some of our camera gear is visible in the foreground.

\ Saeeda and Sharna, under the light cast by the St. Joseph’s window. Some of our camera gear is visible in the foreground.

On Monday, John Mannion (cultural geographer) gave us a brief history of Witless Bay and the Southern Shore. He showed us an old photograph of a fish stage, circa 1900, and some slides he himself took back in the 1960s. We took a short walking tour of the ‘main drag’ in Witless Bay and saw the old graveyard.

John Mannion pauses to read "The Irish Loop" during lunch.

John Mannion pauses to read “The Irish Loop” during lunch.

Since Tuesday we’ve been locked in the chapel with Jerry and Guha Shankar (on loan from Washington, D.C)being instructed in how to conduct our research, how to use our sound recording equipment, how to archive our research, and how to be an ethical researcher. On Thursday, professional photographer Brian Ricks arrived to show us how to use our cameras, and two members of the Witless Bay community were kind enough to allow us access to their property so we could put our newly-acquired and somewhat shaky camera skills to work. “Shaky” in terms of both confidence and application of knowledge. In a lot of my photos from the excursion, “shaky” is also a very literal description. What looked good on the camera’s tiny screen looks considerably less good when viewed on a computer screen. We had a photo viewing session in the evening, and I think we all got a significant confidence boost.

Guha Shankar

Guha Shankar

Today, we experienced a live, recorded (that sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t) interview, conducted by Jerry Pocius and Guha Shankar. They interviewed and recorded Sister Lois talking about her life in the convent here in Witless Bay, while we watched and listened.
We haven’t left the convent much this week, but we’ve been lectured and trained (occasionally beyond our brain’s capacity) and prepared. Next week, we’ll be running amok in the community, scurrying about and measuring buildings with glee and academic fervour.

Watch out, Witless Bay!
We’re coming.

I don't know who lives here, but I really want to meet them!

I don’t know who lives here, but I really want to meet them!

Serendipity.

Once upon a time (12 years ago, or thereabouts) I attended the annual Christmas craft fair held by the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. The last few years the craft fair has taken place in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Center, but back when I was young (what’s minimum age requirement to use that phrase without irony?) the craft fair was being held in the convention center, across from Mile one, which may or may not have existed at the time.

And what does all this have to do with Witless Bay?

Well.

At that craft fair, I met an artist whose work I much admired, and who seemed to have an interest in the spiritual/supernatural. He  was also very chatty. I believe we talked for at least half an hour, possibly an hour, and he gave me his business card and invited me to visit his studio in Witless Bay. I said I would. I still have that business card, with the name of an author Peter thought I might like written on the card.

So, the day we arrived in Witless Bay, we were greeted with a lovely potluck (University students almost always like being fed) and seated in small groups with members of the community to ‘get our feet wet,’ so to speak.

As it turns out, Peter and Mary Sobol were sitting at my table. It doesn’t get much easier to find people than that, does it? I think it was meant to be. I look forward to finally fulfilling my promise and chatting with Peter about his art and the fairies that live near his house in the next few days.

A piece by Peter Sobol, living on my bookshelf in St. John's

A piece by Peter Sobol, living on my bookshelf in St. John’s

A piece by Peter Sobol, residing in the porch of the convent. I haven't yet heard the story behind it, but the morning light made her look very holy.

A piece by Peter Sobol, residing in the porch of the convent. I haven’t yet heard the story behind it, but the morning light made her look very holy.