Tag Archives: settlers

Just Thinking: Words and Pictures

Last week I posed a number of questions. Have you considered your preferred learning style? What is it? What impact might that have on you, your knowledge or your work? Eventually, I will have a guest write about learning styles because the subject is interesting, and our learning style may affect what we choose to do or not do in writing and in life. Most certainly, learning style affects how we respond to school, courses or workshops.

For now, the question from last week remains, “How do you respond to photos accompanied by text, whether as captions or in running text?”and “How do you respond to photos without accompanying text?”

Acknowledging that some photos are truly art and not focused on sharing information, I posted photos without text. The implied question was “How important are visual literacy skills —as opposed to print literacy skills—for you?” Of course, it was all in fun, and of course, if we are fortunate, we are all able to learn from both visuals and print.

Having published photo histories and included many photos in my books and workshops, the questions and concepts are undoubtedly more important to me than to most people. Admittedly, some images do not need captions to be meaningful. Sometimes, captions clarify what may be important information within images. A caption may use the image as a beginning point to expand upon an idea. On still other occasions, the tension between the printed caption and the image can be meaningful.

So, what about the images that I posted? None were intended as art photos, which stand on their own artistic merits. I shot all of them at Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village in early summer, 2011. My camera was a Cannon PowerShot SD 500 Digital Elph, which would now be considered old. I am not the photographer in the family and know next to nothing about cameras. However, here are my additional comments, some of which reflect my writing process.

This photo benefits from explanation. Because it is coloured, clearly, it is not from the old days. Here a costumed interpreter stands in the enclosed porch of a small pioneer home. Items surrounding her suggest the lifestyle of many western Canadian settlers. Most interesting is the ladder leading to the attic hidden from view. Root vegetables and supplies that might be subject to freezing were often stored there. The concept was fuel efficient since heat from the cook stove, which also provided home heating, kept the attic warm. Also, if the family was older or too large, the attic could be used for sleeping.

A research image for me, the photo reveals a very effective method of  using sod for the roof. Notches were cut in the mud wall for each layer of sod. The method created partially overlapping layers, which would make the roof more stable and weatherproof.

The photo captures what the eye sees fairly well. From the small domes, the church appears to be an Eastern Orthodox Church but the photo reveals little information about the religion or community. However, the information that is readily available and might be added.

Again, this visual does a reasonable job of capturing the image of a prairie elevator with two railcars beside it. A Home Grain elevator, the structure is in good shape compared to the few left standing elsewhere around the country. Little additional information is apparent from the photo. However extensive related history is widely available. There seems to be too much foreground in the image, but for many rural prairie people (except the young), elevators are symbolic and emotional subjects.

This is another research photo. On the roof of the early shelter, a stove pipe is visible. The front mudded wall suggests a wood frame, but natural shadows create uncertainty.  Question: Since the tiny home is in a treed area, why would the settler not simply build a small log cabin? Did the individual or family arrive too late in the year, and winter was setting in? (In fact, going inside of the shelter, tells more of the story.)

So, these words and pictures reveal something of my own learning style and writing process with regard to nonfiction and public histories. Still, I’ve said nothing about how a poem might surface for me or how I respond to photography as art. Yet, sometimes just contemplating process is fun—at least for me.

Doors to the Past: Ukrainian Village

About 35 km east of Edmonton on Highway 16, Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is not just for people of Ukrainian descent. Exploring the historical park provides an opportunity for all to see what life was like for many western Canadian immigrants around the turn of the 19th Century. Specific exhibits are certainly more representative of Eastern European settlers than of those from Western Europe or America.

However, interpreters—some young and others who might have spent their childhoods in such homes, on similar farms or in small villages—are available as guides for visitors. Whether walking with tourists, waiting in houses to relate family stories, driving wagons or acting as store clerks, they tell of days-gone-by. Many adopt a Ukrainian accent, and they stay in character whatever questions or ideas you might suggest. Through them, we experience life as it was for newcomers who arrived with few assets, big dreams and work ethics.

I admit that I like to ramble around by myself, taking whatever time I want for each exhibit. So, except during my visit to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, I didn’t join a guided group. Interested in seeing the sod house, I had difficulty finding it, but when I discovered it in a sheltered and shaded location, I wasn’t disappointed. Although large soddies might be called home for a number of years, I wasn’t surprised when I found a very small dwelling.

Small sod house in Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village near Edmonton, Alberta

Usually only temporary shelter for the immigrants’ first summer or first year in an area, sod homes were abandoned or transformed into root cellars, chicken coops or other useful “buildings” as soon as families could build log homes.

Farther south on the dry and treeless prairie beyond the reach of railways, out of necessity, many soddies provided families with shelter for longer periods, and some had large with interiors well-adapted for long term use.

However, Ukrainian settlers tended to be very selective in choosing homesteads, and the presence of wood as construction material and fuel was a high priority. So, parkland areas such as Edmonton and east central Alberta or similar areas in Saskatchewan and Manitoba became prime locations for their homes and farms.

Just as I expected, the small dwelling at Ukrainian Village had grass growing from the roof. The floor was slightly below ground level, which may have made it warmer but undoubtedly increased stability during heavy rains or snowfalls.

The basics of survival were present, but I could not envision more that one person dwelling there. Did couples and families live in such tinyl homes? History tells me that they did. Certainly, the stories about building sod homes and about what might crawl out the walls or drop from the roof are fascinating. But spending daytime outdoors would have been welcome relief from the tight, dark quarters—well, at least from spring to fall. After my short time in the soddie, I too welcomed the light and open spaces of the park. Yet, my respect for those who faced hardships to fulfill their dreams is ever greater each time each time I visit a heritage park.

Calling Canadian History Buffs

Calling Canadian History Buffs

At times, my husband and I think I must have been born in the wrong century. My favourite era is from the mid 1880s to the mid 1900s—not that I would ever want to give up my computer, dishwasher, automatic washing machine or GPS.

Yet most of the stories that grip me—especially the true ones—come from that timeframe. I like to read such stories, research them, watch films set in the period, become familiar with the material culture and technology of the time and embrace this other world in many ways.

Not surprisingly, my books are rooted in the period. But am I a historian? No, I’m not an academic historian. I’m what’s called a public historian or simply a history buff in the broadest sense of the word.

Clearly, I have other limitations. My interest is not in ancient history or the kings and queens of other countries. So bloggers with such a passion will cruise to other sites. In fact, western Canada is my primary focus, not because I don’t yearn for the history of out entire country. In fact, one grandmother was born in eastern Canada, and I have an aunt who passed her 100th birthday still living in Ontario. But acquiring the stories and history of the eastern Canada doesn’t happen quickly.

Still,  the great  advantage to being Canadian—whether living in the East or West– is that ours is a country with immigrants from all over the world. So, their history is truly our history, and what a never-ending, rich source of stories!

My own grandparents were born in four different countries: Canada, the USA, Ireland and Germany. My great grandparents? Well, some of the links are certain but others are for me –and perhaps you–to discover.

What about my friends’ grandparents and great grandparents or the many individuals I’ve interviewed and included in my writing? Fortunately, time-travel anywhere and everywhere seems the logical possiblity as we blog about our shared past.

Should writers join us? Of course. Whether you are telling true or fictional stories, you need context, perspective and ideas. Whether you are writing time-travel, historical novels and stories, public history or stream-of-consciousness, you might find inspiration and just the right setting in the brave old world of the past.  So, one month from today, we continue this journey.