Today was a breath of fresh air from slaving away in the convent all day.

….continued from sharnabrycki’s post

Bonnie Johnstone with a piece of her work felted from a common scene in her meadow.

Bonnie Johnstone with a piece of her work felted from a common scene in her meadow.

After we interviewed Bonnie on felting we shifted the topic to the heritage of Witless Bay.  As a member of the Witless Bay heritage committee and an avid supporter of the arts and heritage in the area Bonnie had an interesting perspective on its place in the community.  Bonnie described a game developed by the heritage committee and played during the puffin festival this past summer.  The game involved several tools used in the community’s history however for many people the objects were hard to  identify.  Bonnie said this was a great way to engage with the community and the committee hopes to further develop this sort of game to keep this knowledge alive.  One thing which stood out most during this conversation was the idea that our parents and grandparents may not always pass down their stories and traditions for a variety of reasons.  Modern conveniences may replace many traditional practices and if those practices are not taught or discussed they could be lost.  This is one of the many reasons heritage committees are so important across our rich province.  These committees provide a voice for the past and help communities preserve and celebrate their past and present traditions and customs.

Petting Boo and Bobby.

Petting Boo and Bobby.


BFFS with Bobby.

After our interview we trekked back through the woods to Bonnie’s home where she showed us several more examples of her work including felted boots, rugs, a wrap and a necklace.  Then we got to meet the adorable source of Bonnie’s wool themselves.  Boo, Sparrow and Bobby grazed in a large meadow set against the backdrop of the ocean and the North Side of Witless Bay.  At first the sheep didn’t know what to make of us but once they were comfortable with our presence they came over and wanted to be nuzzled and have their chests scratched.  We sat in the field with the sheep and chatted with Bonnie about their different breeds and different personalities.  Bonnie even pointed out the architectural clues of an old walk in hearth all that remains of an old house on the property.  Although the rain and winds set in it was a magical morning with many memories.

Architecture clues: outline of walk in hearth.

Architecture clues: outline of walk in hearth.

The Spirit(s) of Witless Bay

With only one week left in Witless Bay, we’re finishing up our house plans, and getting ready to move on to interviewing community members about a variety of traditions in the area.  Since our arrival, our imaginations have been captured by all the ghost stories told about the convent where we’re staying, and about the town more generally.  I’m also very interested in local fairy stories, and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on in my interviews.

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The haunted convent?

The openness with which fairy and ghost stories are offered up is something which continues to delight me about Witless Bay.  I’ve been thinking about why these stories are so easy to tell and to believe in this part of Canada, while back home in Toronto, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would admit to believing in fairies or ghosts with a straight face.  Is it because there’s enough history here to give the ghosts time to accumulate?  Are they beliefs that came over with the Irish ancestors of the people living here now?  Is it because there’s so much hard work done here on the land and the sea that an encounter with the fairies is simply more likely, and that people have to be more intimately acquainted with the spectre of death?

I went for a hike on the East Coast Trail today, and although I didn’t encounter any fairies (which might be explained by the fact that I did have a few coins in my pocket and didn’t stop to pick berries), walking through the tangled woods, and hearing the gusting winds and crashing waves were enough to make me believe that ghost ships really could be sailing by, and fairies watching me.  I’m sure this will be even easier to believe after hearing the local stories this week.

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Hiking the East Coast Trail

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!

House Measuring: Measuring Hospitality

It has been three days since Emma and I started working on Sheila and Mike Ryan’s house, measuring their properties and trying to draw plans of their buildings as a part of our fieldwork in Witless Bay. Exactly from the first, both of us have this feeling that nobody is luckier than us spending time with so lovely Sheila and Mike in their house. On the first day, Sheila welcomed us with home-made toutons.  Sitting around the table in the kitchen and sniffing the pleasant smell of bread, we did really enjoy our hot tea with the warmth and sweetness of these people.

Sheila making toutons for us, taken by Saeede

Sheila making toutons for us in her kitchen, taken by Saeede

Emma working on our plan, taken by Saeede

Emma working hard on our plan in the Ryans’ yard , taken by Saeede 

On the third day, Sheila was not in the house but very generously, she left the key with a sweet letter for us. Thoughtfully and kindly, she also put different kinds of snack in the kitchen for us.

Sheila left a letter and key for us,taken by Emma

Sheila left a letter and key for us,taken by Emma

This three day experience reminds me of Dr. Jerry Pocius told us that “houses are the first entrance to people’s life”. While being focused on drawing plans, it provides me the opportunity to listen more carefully to the unheard voices of the place. The Ryans’ house is just honest as them; simplicity and beauty are interwoven together in every single object. The careful selection of ornaments and furniture is saying out loud of Sheila’s creativity and passion for art. The yellow walls in the kitchen bring testimony to the warm hearted nature of the owners and the blue walls of the other rooms match with their patience and kindness toward guests. Being blessed with their warm hospitality, not even for a split second in these three days, I felt like a foreigner in their cozy house. Thanks to Ryans, now I have this unforgettable experience and wonderful memory which I cannot wait to share with my friends and family in Iran that once upon a time there was a white house in Witless Bay with an amazing couple where I felt like home…

Friday Night Bonfire

Friday night’s supper was a little different than usual. Sharna and Terra decided we would have a bonfire on Ragged Beach, located at the end of Gallows Cove Road, and cook our food in and over a bonfire. We had a great time and the food was delicious.

Building the Fire Photo Credit by: Jacquey Ryan

Building the Fire Photo Credit by: Jacquey Ryan

The menu included roasted sausages and wieners, corn on the cob rolled in foil and then placed around the coals and potatoes prepared in the same fashion.

Sharna Roasting Sausages,  Photo credit: Jacquey Ryan

Sharna, Emma and Saede Roasting Sausages,
Photo credit: Jacquey Ryan


Gathering Around the Fire Photo Credit: Jacquey Ryan

Gathering Around the Fire
Photo Credit: Jacquey Ryan

Then a real treat for our desert, we had banana boats. I had never had these before. First we scored the bananas on the flat side from top to bottom on both sides being careful not to remove the peel entirely. Then a portion of the banana was scooped out and chocolate chips and marshmallows inserted in the cavity. We replaced the peel over the marshmallow and chocolate chip mixture, wrapped the banana in foil and placed it on the coals for about 5 minutes. A taste sensation!

Friday Night Bonfire Photo Credit: Jacquey Ryan

Friday Night Bonfire
Photo Credit: Jacquey Ryan

Hopefully we will get a chance to do this again.



Folklore Faith

This morning Andrea, Daisy and I went with Jerry, Ed and John back to Barry Norris’ house to finish our building plan. The three of us were fairly stressed about the state of our drawing (we had missed a day’s worth of work after not being able to access the house yesterday, so our plan was to get through our work as efficiently as possible). Though, as I’ve learned the past two weeks in Witless Bay, every day is filled with surprises when you’re a folklorist, and plans don’t always end up being what you expect. While this can be nerve-racking when trying to schedule interviews or finish site plans, this constant flux in agenda also quite often leads to unexpected, serendipitous adventures and discoveries.

Instead of heading inside when we arrived to the Norris house our first pit stop was Barry’s stable, the out-building that Daisy will be documenting in the coming days. There we found an eclectic mix of odds and ends, as is usually the case with old barns and sheds in Witless Bay (at least the ones we have been fortunate enough to see thus far). There were old wooden boat parts, a giant wooden sleigh, rusty tin tobacco cases and even a miniature plastic snoopy head stuck behind a stud in the wall.


Tobacco boxes from the stable.

We then went inside the house, but not to draw. We realized that it would be an opportune moment to discuss the history of the house with Barry since we had him there with us. He magically seemed to know this because before we even got the chance to begin asking him our questions he started giving us a background of his family’s house.

Part of our conversation about this history involved sorting through a collection of old family photos and certificates, postcards and maps. The six of us sat on the living room floor with hundreds of images spread out across the rug, while Ed searched about the premises, looking for hidden architectural clues. There were photos of Barry’s grandparents and great grand-parents, aunts and uncles, posters of Witless Bay from years past, and post cards sent from France during World War II. At one point Jerry and I found photographs of Barry’s family in Brooklyn, New York, where many of his relatives lived decades ago. Looking through all of these artifacts and asking questions about them helped us learn so much about Barry’s family and consequently the stories behind his home.


An early 20th century photograph of Witless Bay.


Original hand made nails from the Norris house.


Browsing through Barry’s collection this morning.

Even though we were initially anxiety-ridden about completing our building plan as soon as possible, we put our worries aside and let the day take us wherever it may, which ended up being the best thing we could have done. One of the greatest lessons I have learned thus far during our field school is that while some things may not work out as planned, they do work out the way they were meant to, eventually.


Daisy hard at work completing the last detail of our Norris house floor plan.

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