Thick Description

Books have a habit of leaping out at me when I visit the library and the most recent is Prairyerth by William Least Heat-Moon, first published in 1991, which prismatically explores Chase County in Kansas, the heartland of America. I have long been a fan of books like this that create through layering rather than linear timelines. Books like Prairyerth, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, Songlines by Bruce Chatwin and Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud: A Memoir are part autobiography, part map, part travelogue, part history, part anecdote with maybe even a little fiction thrown in. I especially like them if they contain maps, diagrams, shopping lists and photos. Inevitably the author’s personality bleeds through with a poignant intimacy.

In Prairyerth I came across a quote from Anatole Broyard, long time writer for the New York Times Book Review, that mentioned the phrase “thick description.”

First coined by Clifford Geertz, the phrase refers to a theory of cultural anthropology. In a book with the less than warm and fuzzy title of Interpretive Interactionism (Applied Social Research Methods), Norman K. Denzin alludes to what thick description is not:  “A thin description simply reports facts, independent of intentions or the circumstances that surround an action.”

In other words, information presented without different points of view and context is uninterpretable.

In some small way, Trout in Plaid attempts to paint such a subjective and impressionistic portrait of the cultural life of Peterborough and its surrounding region. There is no one thing that defines the culture here, and that’s what I like about it. You could take one piece away and it would be missed, like the lost piece of a puzzle.

Last summer at Ode’min Giizis, local artist Jimson Bowler gave us a tour of a parallel Peterborough and showed us where First Nation history and burial grounds have been unceremoniously overwritten by settler’s monuments and parking lots. And so, to find true culture means to dig through layers of history and to look outside of our own world view.

More than roads or industry, the political or the financial system, is it not the natural landscape and artists like the Group of Seven’s interpretation of it that have imprinted this region with an identity? Like the author of Prairyerth, I have conjured my own boundaries that may not correspond to the definition of a municipality or a county. In my mind Peterborough is the centre of a universe that stretches from Haliburton to Bancroft, through Norwood and Havelock, down through the hills of Northumberland county, brushing Cobourg and Kawartha Lakes as it enfolds Rice Lake.  How I came to invent these divisions is a mystery, but when I think of Peterborough I think of the watersheds that connect through it, of the rugged geological formations of granite, limestone and alvar, the rural way of life that spans small scale farming and cottaging by wealthy urbanites as well as the once nomadic bands of First Nations communities scattered throughout the region. And last, but not at all least, I think of the majestic witness of 50 foot pines, rushing water over rock, the strong but vulnerable creatures who share this piece of the planet with us – bear, moose, heron, turtle, beaver. Like us they have migration routes, seasonal rituals, nest-building and navigation techniques, songs and what more, we cannot know. I cannot forget that their culture, their history, their language is also part of Peterborough culture.

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