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Joan Sullivan: In praise of place-based knowledge

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Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge Excerpts from Chapters I and II By Pam Hall Breakwater Books Ltd & ISER Books $79.95    192 pages

“What I was doing as an artist was making knowledge and moving it around.”
Pam Hall, introduction

Encyclopedias make for interesting objects, and are often actually quite political.  Your modern, 18th century, post-Enlightenment set of volumes, for example, got its creators in quite a lot of hot water, as its comprehensive democratic nature tended to rile the monarchy at a time when irked royalty caused heads to roll. Encyclopedias compose a special breed of reference, and can be dedicated to anything, broad or specific, from the Ottoman Empire to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding routines. Those 18th century encyclopedists intended their creation as nothing short of a blueprint for re-establishing civilization, should calamity befall us.

There’s a lot of action to assembling them, as visual artist Pam Hall notes here. Knowledge is not just a noun, it can also be a verb, and a process, resulting in this imag(in)ed representation.

The introductory pages explain how the encyclopedia emerged and evolved. This is stated with a careful learnedness, explaining “place-based knowledge,” for example, and “Mixing Methods and Metaphors,” in describing how this information was brought together. It’s slightly dense, but in balance to the eye-smacking accessibility of the entries themselves.

The information is arranged, not alphabetically but geographically, with “Chapter 1: Bonne Bay and the Great Northern Peninsula,” and “Chapter II: Fogo Island and Change Islands.” The pages are fully coloured in a realistic, natural palette, with every element (letters, montages) wallopingly precise. Hall first designed many of them as wall-mounted exhibits, and they’re like dyptychs, with the entries spread across two pages.

On the right might be: “On the Location of Lobster from Bonne Bay to Anchor Point,” with maps and charts showing species distribution and pictures of lobster, and on the left “Knitting Heads For Lobster Pots,” with a nine-part, step-by-step visual guide, including an explanation of what heads are: Louise Decker in Neddy’s Harbour, who can knit a head in 15 or 20 minutes, “counts the number of meshes to know when to turn. When she was a girl, her father used to put a nail in the doorframe, and any time there was a free moment from other chores, she would knit heads. Everybody who fished lobster knew how to knit heads.”

Or, on the right might be: “On Knowing Where the Berries are When,” above a panel of Crowberry, Bakeapple/Cloudberry, Wild Strawberry, Raspberry, Squashberry, Blueberry, and Patridgeberry, over a timeline of August, September and October months, and below that paragraphs explaining where each is found, when they are ripe, what they can be used for (jam, tea, chocolate, vinegar, coffee), and how to preserve and store them.

Or, on the left-hand page might be: “What Wesley Pilgrim Knows about Building Boats,” a montage of colour photos, drawings, text, and diagrams: “Wesley Pilgrim built his first boat when he was 13 years old and in the 1960s built a 32-foot trap skiff. Not only did he find and cut lumber for her keel and stem and knees and all her timbers, but he also cut her planks. For this and other boats he built, he invented a portable saw mill — adapting a chain saw to cut regular one-inch planks from logs.” And opposite that could be: “Woodfinding: On Seeing Boats in Trees,” or “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: … one of many traditional quilt patterns used on Fogo Island,” with photos showing the square-corned pie shapes in various lovely patterns of checks and plaids and florals.

Every page is highly visually engaging, and packed with information. “Names for Patterns Seen on Mittens: Snowflakes, Sea Wave, Flying Goose … Knitters share some common patterns. They are not always named the same way, and one knitter might say zig-zag to describe what another knitter might call a wave … “ Or trapping fur, or pickling vegetables. One page displays “How to Read the Wheelhouse of the Lady Kearney,” decodes the Sonar and Sounder technology, the VHF Radio and PSI Gauge, and notes that “Every fisher holds a range of knowledge and reads the world through different means. Sometimes it is the changing weather; sometimes the changing regulations at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and sometimes it is the sound of an engine, the colour of a sky, the lats and longs or the contour lines on a chart.  Everyday a fisher is reading everything he can see by all the means available.”

Because each place has its own techniques and traditions, subjects like boats, mitten, quilts, salting cod, hunting game, and baking yummy pies, recur. The work is informative, illuminating, testimonial and preservative. This encyclopedia is as one-of-a-kind as the knowledge it holds between its blue covers, a unique and invaluable publication.

 

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram

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