Monday, July 25, 2011

Fieldwork and Discovery

Google Earth Image of Flood Gates Area, Greenwich Township, NJ

...some preliminary notes on fieldwork...

As I look around and take stock of the contemporary state of fieldwork, my feeling is that "fieldwork" has become an overused term, probably because its applicability has been broadened, and it is employed in so many different settings, by so many different people, to so many different purposes and ends.  Political canvassers and pollsters who go door-to-door in neighborhoods, or set up in shopping malls, say they're doing fieldwork, as do oral history interviewers who visit people in their homes or places of business to conduct interviews.  Social workers also claim to do fieldwork, as they make the round of site visits in order to deliver needed services.  I think of fieldwork differently -- as a form of very deep engagement with a place and its people.  It takes a fair amount of effort to achieve depth of engagement, however; among other things, it requires a certain amount of "stick-to-it-iveness," and lots of patience.  But the results of such hard and persistent work can be rewarding, and may even prove to be significant  in some cases.     

When I first began working in Gloucester County, I made some initial guesses about the place in order to formulate a plan of work there.  Looking at a topographical map of the county, I saw that there are a number of small cities and towns – Woodbury, Paulsboro, Glassboro, Swedesboro – along with many smaller settlement areas too.  In some cases, the developed spaces were interspersed with sizable chunks of what appeared to be sparsely developed, relatively open territory.  I guessed that there would be an element of cultural diversity in the larger towns, though of course, these days, there’s a growing cultural diversity in suburban and rural areas too.  As I went over the map, I made a mental note to visit the towns, and take a look around.  

Repaupo Creek, June 2011
Still looking at the map, I noted that the Delaware River is a major geographic feature of the county, along with the system of creeks and streams that flow into the Delaware.  I guessed that when the area was first settled, the river and its drainage system were an important part of social and economic activity in the region, and that they played a role in the formation of local culture too.  I decided that I would spend some time puzzling out the interrelationships of history and culture in those places.

Studying local maps is an important part of planning for fieldwork.  Following that preliminary work with maps, my next step is to actually get out into the field.  Someone once described fieldwork as radically placed-based.  I embrace that definition.  The only way to do fieldwork is to physically go to the field site, and establish a temporary residence there, or establish a pattern of ongoing and regular visits.  Residency or return visits help establish a pattern of work that should lead to deep engagement.  I understand fieldwork to be a process of tuning into the hidden or undisclosed realities of a place, and its people.  Life in any given area is far richer than our assumptions would suggest, more so than our standard sources of information, accessed at a distance, would allow us to believe.  

Getting out and doing fieldwork involves loosening the ties that bind us to our own everyday lives, while striving to become open and connected to other people and places.   

I woke up early one day last week, thinking about fieldwork and especially about how to write about it effectively.  I struggled with that for a while.  Fieldwork is challenging.  If you read between the lines of this post you can probably see why.  You enter unknown territory, where you yourself are an unknown person.  You begin your work.  As you go, you find that there are good days and bad days.  There are days when you feel that it isn’t working, that you’re not “getting it.”  There are days when you can't "land" anywhere, or find anyone to talk to.  They’re either not available, or there are no "sparks."  Such days are mercifully few, but they happen.  Day by day, though, fieldworkers have to find ways to keep the process moving, even when the work seems to bog down. 

Persistence is usually rewarded, however.  At some point, the world seems to open up, and you may then find yourself in a luminous setting, in a truly shining place.  I often think of what it must have been like for the explorers who discovered the prehistoric cave paintings in places such as Lascaux or Chauvet, in France.  You enter a dark and unfamiliar space.  You traverse a narrow passageway, sometimes on your hands and knees, or on your belly.  It’s confining, and disorienting.  Then at some point there is a shift of conditions, and perception.  You feel a draft of air, and suddenly, you sense the openness.  You stand up, light your torch, and hold it aloft.  Hwaet!  The paintings leap and dance in front of you.  There all the time, but unknown until just that moment. 
Cave Painting at Chauvet, France

I think of fieldwork that way, though in less grandiose terms, of course.  As far as I know, there are no cave paintings to discover where I usually work.  But there are significant Native American sites throughout the region.  During a recent conversation at Newton’s Landing in Burlington County, standing poolside and talking to one of the residents of that development, he pointed out that I was standing beside an Indian burial mound.  The mound had been identified by developers, and was protected by a low white fence.  Such sites are common throughout the region, and they have great meaning and significance.  Which is to say that, there is a wealth of hidden-in-plain-view arts and artifacts throughout the region, along with related narratives and understandings, and deeply significant spaces and places, that nourish and enrich the lives of people and communities everywhere.  Every community possesses underground streams of meaning, repositories of  historical and cultural significance, wellsprings of beauty.  The fieldworker’s job is to get out there, establish a position of openness, and begin the process of exploration and discovery that will uncover and make sense of those resources.  There's more to it than that, but I'll let that discussion develop and take shape in the context of ongoing field reports via this blog.