A Harvest of Stories

October 4, 2016
Maya L. Kapoor

Just 25 miles long, no more than eight miles across at its widest point, Grand Manan is a small place—but only if you stay on land. The Canadian island of Grand Manan sits just 13 miles east of the U.S.-Canada border in the Bay of Fundy, an incredibly biodiverse underwater canyon that is home to at least eight whale species.  Before refrigeration existed, Grand Manan was the herring fishery capital of the world, pulling in millions of tiny fish using a locally invented style of weir. Grand Manan islanders also hauled in many species of groundfish, including cod, haddock, and Pollock, that throve in the bay’s deep waters. These days, there’s a new harvest on Grand Manan: stories about place.

Grad student Jan Bindas-Tenney and Professor Alison Hawthorne Deming ride the ferry to Grand Manan

MFA graduate student Jan Bindas-Tenney and creative writing professor Alison Hawthorne Deming on the ferry to Grand Manan in 2015 for the first Field Studies in Writing program. (Photo: Page Buono)

Under the leadership of University of Arizona creative writing professor Alison Hawthorne Deming, Grand Manan is the site of an innovative course called Field Studies in Writing. Now in its third year, Field Studies in Writing is a uniquely immersive summer course in which graduate students investigate climate change, marine ecology, and cultural resilience in America’s northeastern borderlands, while also mentoring local high school students.

Climate change is altering the ecology and economy of Grand Manan very quickly, Deming says. Traditional fisheries are disappearing; islanders are searching for new livelihoods. Documenting these profound changes—and empowering young islanders to document and develop their own resilience to these changes—is one goal of Field Studies in Writing.

“We think we can document the stories of the island that people think really should be told and preserved and shared in a time of change like this,” Deming says.

Field-Based Writing

For many creative writing students, the opportunity to develop a field component to their research and writing focusing on current issues is prized—and rare. One Field Studies in Writing participant, MFA student Peyton Prater Stark, wrote in her course evaluations (shared with permission) that she was able to develop a stronger understanding of “the interconnectedness of social life, food culture, and the changing environment of Grand Manan” during the field course. Stark also developed a “deeper understanding of the ways in which writing—specifically, poetry—can tell these important stories.”

For MFA student Page Buono, Field Studies in Writing was an important reminder of the importance of writing from experience. “With the world accessible in a few quick clicks, it is easy to forget, even as a writer, the essential element of observation and the unpredictable opportunities garnered from a genuine interaction,” Buono noted. Buono found the time with Deming and the other field course MFA students—from comparing field notes to analyzing island interactions—to be invaluable.

Fishing for New Livelihoods

Visitors who hike Grand Manan’s cliff-side trail system often are struck by the beauty of the island’s forests and coasts. Deming points out that on the island, “nature is also a very rugged place where people work.” Following dramatic cliff lines, the island’s hiking trails were constructed to aid in search and rescue missions for distressed fishing vessels before anything like the Coast Guard existed.

Herring in a purse seine
Herring caught in a purse seine in the coastal waters of Grand Manan. (Photo: Page Buono)

The connection between nature and work is changing on Grand Manan. A community that for two centuries sustained itself through herring and groundfish markets, Grand Manan today is watching those fisheries disappear for complex ecological reasons: climate change is affecting everything in the Bay of Fundy from plankton availability to water temperature. For this problem, there are no well-worn paths to aid in rescue.

But Deming sees hope in Grand Manan, noting islanders’ historic resourcefulness. “They’re very resourceful in taking advantage of what’s available and matching it up with markets that exist,” she says.  Through Field Studies in Writing, Deming and her students are working to understand Grand Manan’s humanity, both in terms of historic resiliency and as a model for future adaptation. “We’re very interested in understanding how they’re working to some kind of sustainable future given the unlikelihood that fisheries are going to be part of their future to the extent they have been in the past,” Deming says.

These lessons may be instructive for other communities, such as those in the Sonoran Desert, that are grappling with rapid change. “In some ways, the Southwest is ground zero for climate change because of drought conditions,” Deming says. “Even though there are only 2,500 people on Grand Manan, it’s also in its own way a ground zero for looking at how communities become resilient and adapt to climate change.” Though Grand Manan and Tucson, Arizona, may seem worlds away for the students who move between them, Deming sees ways in which these two places—both in borderlands, one lapped by seawater, the other drenched in sun—may be connected by resilience and adaptability in a rapidly changing world. 

The Next Generation of Islanders

For Deming, an important aspect of Field Studies in Writing is providing island teenagers with tools to grapple with rapid changes in their home communities. “I don’t like the idea of bringing people from away, as they say, and just having them pluck their stories out and leave,” Deming says. “I wanted to give something back to island youth and for their stories be part of the project.”

Deming created Field Studies in Writing in 2014 using funding from her appointment as an Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice. “When I was awarded the Haury Chair, I wanted to do something different and meaningful that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before,” Deming says. “I wanted to provide the opportunity for students to have a deeper immersion experience in a place.” Deming chose Grand Manan because it has a deep personal connection for her. When she was a child, her family bought a fisherman’s cottage on the island dating to the 1800s. Since then, the island has been Deming’s vacation home and writing refuge.

“I care a great deal about this island community,” Deming says. “I want its story to be told. I think it’s an important story and an interesting story and it’s a microcosm of a lot of issues that are important today as the impact of climate change becomes more and more clear. I thought how great it would be to provide an opportunity for some of our really talented students to go up there, add to the stories that are getting told, and then work with high school students to hear what they have to say and to hear what stories they think are important to tell.”

Find out more about Field Studies in Writing at the project's website (http://www.fieldstudiesgrandmanan.com/) and at Deming's blog (http://alisonhawthornedeming.com/).

Banner images by Page Buono.