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Fieldwork Reminiscences

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Memorable Campsites

In February near LeCompte, Louisiana, I camped on a simple one-lane logging road. I made no journal entry about this site, but the memory of one night there remains vivid. I had worked late typing up expense account reports and biographical data sheets. Finally I folded the bed down and, before crawling in, stepped out behind the van to answer a call of nature. Since the weather was too cold for snakes, I did not bother to take a flashlight. Light from the sky was obscured by clouds and a canopy of bare branches, so that I could barely discern the light sandy road stretching back into the woods. After a few moments, however, I did perceive something a ways behind the van that was a good deal darker than the dark grass between the wheel tracks. It was impossible to make out its shape and hard to guess its size. Bigger than a skunk and smaller than an Angus cow, but. . . ? It was moving steadily toward me. Unable to stop what I was doing to jump back to the side of the Wagon and climb in, I had to stand there helpless as whatever it was came closer and closer. It did not hurry, but it did not hesitate, either; it headed purposefully toward me.

“Life in a DARE Word Wagon” by August Rubrecht

(Fall 2000, 3.4)

Peanut Heaven

On one occasion, I had to find an informant in a rural area of northern Florida just a stone’s throw from the Alabama border. This is peanut country, and I am a lover of peanuts. I found the town on the map and drove to it, thinking I’d have a hard time turning up an informant because the town was so small. When I got there, I drove right through the town before I realized that this was it: two gas stations, a general store, a tiny post of­fice, and one crossroad. I came back to the post office, but it was an unmanned office, so I crossed the street and inquired at the store. There were no other choices. The lady there sent me down the crossroad to another store. It was a rickety, clut­tered old general store run by a retired schoolteach­er whose family had been in the area for several generations. This delightful lady was sitting in the back of the store, as if she were just waiting for DARE and me to come along. She was fascinated by the project, interesting to talk with and listen to, and full of Southern charm and grace. A few days later, as I was leaving, she insisted that I take a bag of raw peanuts picked and grown right there. She told me how to “parch” them in the oven until the skins were loose. Her helper also appeared with a bag of peanuts that her daddy had grown and that she had baked for me. I was in peanut heaven!

“Postcards from Florida: A Fieldworker Reminiscence” by Ruth Porter

(Fall 2005, 8.4)

So Much to Hang on to

 I would look at Bill, ask a question (“What do you call ____ around here?”) and immediately look down at the questionnaire. Bill would move his chaw around comfortably, rock forward, and spit deep brown juice into a coffee can. I would look up at that sound, and he would answer. (Before we got the rhythms right, it had been ask, spit, gag, look down, write.) From Bill A., I made contact with Dallas L. and his sister, and before I wanted it, the questionnaire for this community was completed. I had to push on, leaving the dear pioneers behind, two women weeping, three men inarticulate, their hands clenching and unclenching. I had made them “feel alive,” they said. They’d felt “dead for ten years,” and I’d brought them so much joy, they said. It was mutual: so much to hang onto in one week and so much, at the end, to let go!

 “On the Road in the West” by Patt VanDyke

(Winter 2000, 3.1)

Separate Worlds

There is something oxymoronic in the notion of urban fieldwork, and I can remember being somewhat envious of those intrepid DARE Fieldworkers who, like linguistic knights of old, went on their separate quests to examine the language of this vast nation in their Word Wagons. I felt a tinge of regret that I was sticking close to home—Boston, Massachusetts—rather than traveling to parts of the country unvisited before: call it Word Wagon envy. But I soon discovered that locating appropriate informants on home turf could be as difficult as searching them out half a continent away. The Greater Boston area is really many separate worlds, each with its own character, traditions, and unwritten rules. I found to my chagrin that I didn’t know all of them as well as I had assumed.

“Notes from the City: An Urban Fieldworker’s Experience” by David Carlson

(Winter 2001, 4.1)

Life-long Listener

I spent a delightful year listening to interviews the fieldworkers had recorded; my job was to note words and phrases that were new to me, and to transcribe or extrapolate their definitions. The fieldworkers had sought longtime inhabitants of the places they visited, and two-thirds of the informants were over sixty. This weighting was deliberate, according to the Introduction to Volume I of DARE: “Folk language is traditional, and older people remember many things that young ones have never heard of” (p. xiv). I was already hooked on the accents and accounts of older people—as a little girl, I loved to listen to my grandmothers, one from the city and one from the country, gossiping about friends and family members—and probably part of the reason I found the DARE job so satisfying was that it tapped into that childhood experience.

“From DARE to Henry David Thoreau” by Elizabeth H. Witherell

(Spring/Summer 2002, 5.2/3)

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