Friday, 25 July 2014

Rambling at the Farm: Walking Tours, History, Digital Humanities

I recently took my friend Kendall, a PhD candidate in history at Queen's University, on a rambling tour through the Central Experimental Farm. Over the course of an hour and a half and covering 6.5km, we jumped through the Euro-Canadian history of the site. While I didn't have a firm plan about where we'd go and what stories I'd tell, the route wound through some of my favourite spots and included an interweaving of apocryphal local legends, histories of the Farm system and of the city, descriptions of archival collections I've already worked with, and a discussion of the various methodologies I hope to apply as I get into my dissertation research.

After picking up coffee at Carleton University's MacOdrum Library (unfortunately Rooster's was closed), Kendall caught her first glimpse of the Farm across the Rideau Canal, framed by the library and Dunton Tower. In that moment, this "Farm" I'd ramble about in Kingston became real, a stretch of agricultural and scientific land in the midst of the city.

Our walk took us through six of the main landscapes at the Farm: the Arboretum, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, the experimental plots of the Eastern Oilseed and Cereal Research Centre, outside the Canadian Agriculture and Food Museum, the Ornamental Gardens, and past the ruins of the Sir John Carling Building. I tracked our course using Google's "My Tracks" app, which produced the image above.

As we're both historians, a significant portion of our discussion was on the merits of walking tours as a (public) historiographic device as well as the methodological concerns and potentials of the digital humanities during such walks. Among other things, our conversations (and at this point I'm interjecting some of my own subtext) had to do with the ways landscapes become layered with meaning through active movement through them and through telling stories about them.

At first blush, walking tours are the most pedestrian of all forms of public history and the furthest removed from the contrivances of the digital world. However, there's a number of ways to over- and under-lay digital humanities on- and in-to walking tours. The image above demonstrates one of the least obtrusive applications-plotting and tracking our movement. Other possible digital humanities applications include using smart phones to access geofenced documents or tablets to share pictures and videos of areas as they used to appear to emphasize change and continuity.

I was especially wishing I had prepared the latter on our walk to contrast how similar the Arboretum looks in 100+ year old photographs and to show the Sir John Carling Building falling when we stood before its rubble. Somethings appear stable, while others change in seconds. Nonetheless, history is about movement and even the stability we may see in the Arboretum is but an example of our human scalar blindness to the process of change in beings that live at different paces than we do.

While some landscape interpretation asks us to open our eyes to the stories told by the world around us, this can leave us blind to dramatic change and covered or hidden storylines. The Farm certainly provides some opportunities to do this-the reuse of the old barns as the Agriculture Museum and the annual plantings of the plots provide two contrasting examples. Indeed, even current or obvious uses and stories rely on a series of unseen infrastructure such as drainage systems, plumbing, and electrical wiring.

For example, while the story of the Macoun Memorial Garden in the Ornamental Gardens, built in the ruins of William Macoun's house and marked by a plaque, is almost immediately visible, interpreting the shift from Dow's Swamp to Dow's Lake and the dry land of the Dominion Arboretum requires looking beneath the surface.

In the coming weeks, months, years I will be returning to the Farm on this website as I undertake my dissertation project. I am also aiming to return to the themes briefly sketched out here in various forms, whether related to the site or not. Let's see, then, how history can be applied.