Category Archives: Nova Scotia

The Geese

Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source has brightened a lot of the last decade for me, opening doors into places and subjects I hadn’t known I wanted to learn about, and introducing me to stuff I’ve since realized I care deeply about. A case in point: an interview with Colm Tóibín, towards the end of which he reads an Elizabeth Bishop poem which is achingly reminiscent of the Nova Scotia I know. His lead-in is absolutely spot-on (“…what was it that just hit you, emotionally? where it was in the poem where that began, and was sustained?”)


About the size of an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
-this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.
Useless and free., it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic handed along collaterally to owners
who looked at it sometimes, or didn't bother to.

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see abled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees., low hills, a thin church steeple
-that gray-blue wisp-or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back,, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist's specialty.)
A specklike bird is flying to the left.
Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?

Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
It's behind-I can almost remember the farmer's name.
His barn backed on that meadow. There it is,
titanium white, one dab. The hint of steeple,
filaments of brush-hairs, barely there,
must be the Presbyterian church.
Would that be Miss Gillespie's house?
Those particular geese and cows
are naturally before my time.

A sketch done in an hour, "in one breath,"
once taken from a trunk and handed over.
Would you like this? I'll Probably never
have room to hang these things again.
Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,
he'd be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother
when he went back to England.
You know, he was quite famous, an R.A....

I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it's still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
Our visions coincided-"visions" is
too serious a word-our looks, two looks:
art "copying from life" and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
-the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

(source for the text: “Poem”)

inversion conversion reversion

I’m still processing our visit to the Qu’est-ce que la photographie? exhibit at the Pompidou, and looking forward to the arrival of the catalog (ordered via Amazon) and the challenge of reading the French text that accompanies the images.

Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to break out of preconceptions about stuff you think you know about –to see the familiar in new ways, and to find context and meaning for the unfamiliar. The Pompidou exhibit flung down just those challenges, and I’ve been exploring them ever since our visit. I’ll try to unpack some of that in what follows.

Consider two rather startling images, neither of which was familiar to me (and I’d never heard of the photographers either, which just goes to show my own insularity):


(see the Pompidou pages for Mulas’ Una mano sviluppa l’altra fissa and Rautert’s Sonne und Mond von einem negativ; and take a look at the website for Ugo Mulas (1928-1973) and a recent New Yorker piece on work by Timm Rautert (1941-))

Neither is quite what it seems at first glance, and the viewer struggles a bit before catching on.
Mulas inverts tonalities and flips horizontally: one hand becomes two. Rautert tweaks a single negative to represent two different celestial bodies.

It’s interesting to explore the notion that multiple renderings of an image can disclose things hidden or obscured in any one version, and the kindred idea that any photograph is potentially many photographs. Where does ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ lie? Is our perception of an image all subjective prevarication?

Digital tools put these questions at the ends of our fingers.

Inversion of tonalities and mirror-imaging are two techniques that are easy to play with using GIMP, and I’ve done quite a bit of that as I’ve explored tessellations of Betsy’s and my own images (see some examples and a few more). Is such manipulation merely a gimmick, or is there something more to it? This is a question that comes up often in the world of Art, and I’m learning to enjoy the ambiguities and widen my purview.

An interesting challenge came my way shortly before we left for France, as I read through the announcement of an exhibit that will open soon at the deCordova Museum in Massachusetts: Integrated Vision: Science, Nature, and Abstraction in the Art of Len Gittleman and György Kepes. Len Gittleman was our teacher in 1963-1964, and we revere him, but the description of the show brought me up short:

Gittleman’s Lunar Transformation portfolio is a series of ten vividly colored serigraphs created from black and white photographs taken during the Apollo 15 mission to the moon in 1971. Gittleman’s discerning use of color transforms the craters and crevices of the lunar surface into vibrant, colorful abstractions which aesthetically parallel the art movement of Abstract Expressionism. The serigraphs’ strong graphic presence reflects the awe-inspiring nature of their source material.

Wait a minnit, I found myself thinking, that’s not photography… and then I heard myself and had to laugh at stick-in-the-muddism. Of course it’s photography, just maybe not the comfortable and predictable sort that I know I like

As I’ve suggested in recent posts, visiting the Griffin Museum and Florence Henri and Qu’est-ce que la photographie exhibits has been ramifying across my own photographic life. This morning I woke up thinking about alternative presentations of an image that’s been a conundrum for me over more than 40 years: Poor Alice G.. I remembered that I’d once scanned a slide of the photo, but happened to reverse it, and I thought well why not? …and so

I’m not sure that either bit of trickery illuminates the tale of Poor Alice G. any further, or that these renderings have any place in Nova Scotia Faces, but the exercise did get me thinking about how confining a straight-ahead descriptive take on that gargantuan project would be.

Remember to breathe

Gnawing on the bones of the past

I’ve been working over various episodes of my checkered past (see sketches of aspects of graduate school years), which need retreading and elaboration). Recently I happened upon a folder from October 1972, when I’d been in Nova Scotia less than six months and was at the beginning of my dissertation fieldwork. My friend Shel Anderson was teaching a course in Anthropology at Acadia, and asked me to do a guest lecture on what I was doing. At that point in my life, it was easiest for me to write out a sketch of what I wanted to say, and then to use it as a springboard from which to talk (rather than reading the words from the page). I was quite surprised to reread the text more than 40 years later and find that I recognize the person who wrote it, and that much of my approach to teaching during the years I was a prof at Acadia (1973-1990) is pretty clearly sketched in the text. It seems worthwhile to transcribe what I wrote, and perhaps that will inspire me to further dealings with that phase of my life.

I’m going to try to lay a whole lot of different stuff on you, some of which will be repetitive and some of which you may not immediately be able to understand because I can’t express it very clearly, or because I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the way things are that you don’t share, or haven’t gotten around to developing yet. So ask if you don’t immediately understand, and disagree if you think I’m wrong about something –some of you (know it or not) know a lot more about the [Annapolis] Valley than I do anyway.

And also I’m still at the stage where I’ve got a lot of basic questions that have to be answered before I can begin to understand better (like 3 weeks ago I didn’t know what silage was. And I still don’t know what [political] Party affiliation means here in the Valley. And I still don’t know what people’s own maps of things in the Valley look like or how they vary. And I don’t know much more than a few anecdotes about social stratification in the Valley –these are all things that some of you could work on if you felt like it –it would be an enormous help to me, and I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to go about looking into these and other things about the Valley… One thing I do have is access to a lot of different ways to look at the Valley, although I haven’t used them all yet…).

Have to know a little bit about what anthropologists do, when they’re not teaching courses. There’s this thing called “fieldwork” where you’re supposed to go to some remote corner of the world and endure incredible privations and have Adventures and Do Research. OK. So what does “doing research” involve? Well, you’re supposed to gather data with respect to some Problem you’ve defined (by reference to theoretical and ethnographic Literature which you absorb in graduate school). Now what anthropologists usually do is rather different from what I’m doing, but I’ll sketch it out anyway –with the proviso that the way I’m telling it is too generalized, i.e., not all anthropologists are wasteful scoundrels…

There are a lot of Traditional Anthropological Problems which necessarily form a part of what Anthropologists Do. Once you decide where you want to go (and reasons are usually pretty ad hoc) and somehow get yourself there, you have to somehow establish yourself, which means get to be known by the people you’re going to rely upon to Provide You With Data. So you choose an area, e.g. a village or group of villages or a bunch of people. And you have to do some very basic information-gathering, like mapping the physical setting (with maps, and with analysis of such things as productive activities) and mapping the population (e.g., doing a survey to see who’s where and who they’re related to). Once these preliminary tasks are begun, you start looking for evidence relating to the particular Thing you’ve claimed you were going to study. And eventually you return [to the university whence you came] and write a report of what you’ve done, which gets called an Ethnography…

But basically what you DO (and remember this is still a very general picture of what anthropologists are “supposed” to do and be doing) is live with, more or less closely, the people you are studying. Now this sounds a bit romantic –the young Sahib, dressed in A-line shorts and solar topi, asking questions and getting answers and writing them down, returning to his tent or grass hut in the evening to Write Up his notes on the typewriter.

Now, anthropologists really do a lot of things which don’t fit with this picture. Like they get interested in bigger things than little villages, and in other human groups than Natives with Bones In Their Noses. In fact, one of the nice things about anthropology is that you can, theoretically, do it anywhere (unlike Sociology, which is usually thought of as the study of your own society), including your own society (although there’s no unanimity on this point –there are those who say you need “Cross-Cultural Perspective” in order to understand anything you see, and therefore must go to a Cross Culture) And an anthropologist (he who has paid his dues in grad school) can call just about anything he does Anthropology.

OK now me: I’m working on some problems that anthropologists generally haven’t paid much attention to –I’m doing research in Canada (but not on Indians), I’m concerned with an unusual (for anthropologists) social unit (the Region) and with some unusual substantive problems (modern agriculture, economic organization of a highly-developed type), and I’m using some unusual tools (quantitative/statistical geography, maps, enterprise analysis using formal economics, and stuff like that).

In a sense I’m ‘only’ doing ethnography, but in a different way, with a different unit of analysis, a different organizational level, and in a different temporal framework than it has been done usually. I’m trying to produce an exemplar of an empirical approach that has not been attempted by anthropologists, and thus to produce a new way to look at human organization.

The fundamental empirical question I am asking is: how are things distributed, in both space and time?

And then (and this aspect requires investigative tools not common in anthropology): how does distribution change? What can be said of processes (economic, demographic, political, social…) in this population? The whole point is to develop a new way of looking at the organization of human populations –or perhaps to develop ways of seeing the interrelations of organizational variables.

So what GOOD is this? Personally, it’s gratifying to know more about the place one lives and the times one lives in. And that’s something that people have to do more (rather than less) of. And ‘professionally’ I’m looking at some things that sociologists, anthropologists, etc. haven’t studied very often: a transformation which is found repeated over the North American landscape, a chunk of time rather than a moment (the only way to study change), a physical and territorial unit of a higher level of integration than those usually studied.

In short, I’m looking at how this region has changed since World War II. Since it’s a farming region, and since farming has changed tremendously since 1946, the main questions I’m concerned with relate to the processes of change in farming. Now there are a lot of processes you can look at –start with just the numbers of farms (and NB that the Census provides my main starting point for data –it provides a statistical sketch of the outlines of change), then look at different types of farms, at different sizes of farms. This generates new questions as one proceeds, but the basic way questions get generated is that you look at the distribution (statistical and/or spatial) to try to account for why it looks the way it looks –how it got that way, what forces have acted upon it and are acting upon it… Anyway, there are a million things you can do. The problem is to string them together into a coherent whole that gives you some ideas about how to answer (or at least deal with) the original problems that got you interested in the thing in the first place. A really good way to think about all of this is in terms of the systems in realspace, with real people in them.

Now since I’m interested in the Region and its organization, I have to consider much more than just farming, even to answer the questions I have about farming. So I look for ways to deal with the population system (and again the Census comes in handy) and with the web of organizations that hold the population together –, that is, in the Integration of the region. Now, Integration is a process, and not just a state. You have to keep working at it to hold things together, and it doesn’t just happen naturally. Thus, you have to expend energy (which you have to get somehow from the environment, and store up somehow for later use) to maintain order. You’re fighting entropy… So because we’re dealing with Processes, we need to see events as structured in time. And it is no less reasonable to be directly concerned with events as structured in space as well.

Now, we can say as a general rule for starting that the Territorial System is spatially structured by centrality, and temporally structured by periodicity. So look at these analytical notions (centrality and periodicity) in relation to any subsystem you define –like political, economic, etc. etc…

So there are Regional Systems, and Regions are real things, and they change and evolve –or rather the populations within them change and evolve. There’s a basic rhythm to this, almost: there’s a population system, with people being born and dying and getting married and having kids… and the individuals in those systems grow up and age and form groups and maybe migrate and maybe make it through school and maybe get a job somehow and maybe change the job and maybe get married… i.e., they’re real people.

And they play a lot of elaborate formal games in order to eat: they trade stuff around, using tokens (and access to and supply of tokens is not uniform, for a lot of reasons) which they get in a variety of legitimate, quasi-legitimate and illegitimate ways.

One can look at those games, how they are played and how the players (and the rules) change –that’s the essence of looking at marketing systems: what flows where and in what quantities.

And one can look at the formal, quasi-formal and informal rules for moving stuff around. And moving the privilege of access to stuff around. That’s what Lenski means by a stratification system –control of access to resources.

And you can look at all the stuffing and frills, the odd bits of behavior that the players have a strange way of repeating –the Culture, Social Organization, the Society…

The thing is, the Regional Systems notion gives you a framework to hang your knowledge of an area on, and thus allows you to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the ways in which your Environment is operating.

There are a number of reason why this is not just an idle game played by people who stayed on the Academic Bandwagon to the end of the line –one of them is purely selfish– if you know something about what’s likely to come from where in your (hostile) environment, that’s better than knowing what hit you afterwards, or rather, better than knowing nothing…

But in order to have any Understanding in any deeper sense, you have to integrate a lot of different kinds (and sources) of Information.

Now, we all DO this, mostly unconsciously and to a much less developed degree than we would if we really thought about it. Like, when you first arrive in a new place, like Wolfville if you’re not already from there, you don’t have any information, you don’t know your way around. You learn, both consciously (like when you ask someone, or set out to find something) and unconsciously. So you’re already structuring your own egocentric map of the region. Over time, the map elaborates, is corrected, becomes a resource…

OK, now imagine trying systematically (and consciously) to develop some part of your map –to get more information about something and construct a more elaborate map. So you identify some domain that you’re interested in (for whatever reason)

Event: like school amalgamation, looking at differential response of localities

Institution: like Kentville town government –look at factions, crises, everyday business over 25 years… or Service Clubs: who’s in them and what do they do? How are they stratified? Who’s NOT in them?

As I remember, the class went very well, was augmented with various show-and-tell exhibits like maps and datasets and photographs, and led to a lot of student questions and improvised answers.

Another video

I’m continuing my exploration of video as a medium of escape for my Nova Scotia Faces collections, this time with a short narrative linking together photos from a photo album rescued from a junk store in the 1970s. I’m not completely satisfied with this presentation, but it’s useful to try out different approaches. I don’t know what I think until I see what I say…

Videos from Nova Scotia Faces

It’s getting on for 40 years since I first started working on Nova Scotia, and I’ve finally found a productive outlet for the thousands of photographs I collected in junk stores, mostly in the 1970s before others saw the possibilities in vernacular photography. Here are two videos, produced in the last couple of days:

The Saga of Poor Alice G.

My life has been entangled with things Nova Scotian for more than 40 years, ever since I realized that I wouldn’t be going back to Sarawak for PhD fieldwork. The choice of Nova Scotia was both fortuitous and serendipitous (the tale is sketched elsewhere). In 1972, soon after we arrived in the Annapolis Valley, I started visiting antique stores (well, many of them were basically junk stores…) and buying tintypes, portraits, photo albums, boxes of snapshots. Thousands of them. I’ve been working on that trove ever since, and many are now resident on Flickr, where they await the Next Step.

A giant step occurred today as I fiddled with one of the images in Aperture:

Poor Alice G.
(on the back, in spidery handwriting: “the last snap Ernest took of poor Alice G.”)

This one has been a challenge and a puzzle since I bought it in 1973 or so. Here’s today’s rumination on the image:

Snapshots have tales to tell, though we can rarely know the truth in all its detail. Sometimes we have only fragments of testimony, thanks to an informant’s evoked memories, or to notations on the photographs themselves. Is it remotely possible that we could discover what happened to Poor Alice G.? We have some information to work with: the locale is probably one of the harbors of Nova Scotia’s Fundy Coast, and the date is probably sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. Alice G. is perhaps in her early to mid-20s. Would Annapolis Valley newspapers of the time have carried obituaries?

…so I did a quick Google search for ‘annapolis valley newspapers’ and found the Annapolis Valley Newspaper Extracts Project, run as a labour of love by Phil Vogler.

I started looking through the ‘Vital Statistics’ there summarized, looking for possible conjunctions of fact…

How about THIS, from the Berwick Register

Grevatt, Alice Maud d/o Arthur Grevatt, died at Berwick, 26 June, 22 years. [30 June 1926 obit].

Bingo. And just by chance I’ll be in the Annapolis Valley next week, and can go to visit the Berwick Register office and see the obit.

Found in the barn

We’ve been cleaning up stuff in the Nova Scotia house, opening boxes that haven’t seen the light of day in 10 and even 20 years. One contained this set of favorite coffee cups of the past:
once-favorite coffee cups

I can remember the feel of each of them, and recall the sense of loss as, one by one, their handles broke and a successor had to be chosen from the trove of Karen Truesdell cups. The cleanup task has had lots of similar moments of remembrance.