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Stories and Maps: the Franklin expedition

On the way to Iqaluit, we had a stopover in Ottawa. On the recommendation of Andrew, my son, we went to see the Franklin exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History.

There were many aspects of the exhibit design which caught my imagination. At the entrance, a projector system showed the history of exploration routes into the Arctic. Each route revealed more of the known geography of the North. These images served to provide a graphic context for the Franklin expedition. The layout of the ship on the floor of the gallery again provided a tremendous sense of the size and plan of the individual vessel. Third, and most revealing to myself, was the combination of Inuit storytelling with current artwork.

While listening to the recordings, it became clear that the role of storytelling in the oral Inuit culture was critical to our understanding of the fate of the Franklin expedition. These stories of the landscape provided a narrative which allowed the Inuit to travel from place to place. The stories were retold in the igloos by the elders. They replaced maps, although there were wooden maps carved to identify islands and inlets.

Once we arrived in Iqaluit, I had access to books. I found Woodman’s book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. This gives more background to the many insights at the exhibition. A second book, on Andrew’s bookshelf, was Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to TalkExpeditions and Encounters. It includes An Expedition to the Pole p 29-64. This essay is brilliant, divided into several headings: The Land, The People, The Technology. These topics and their focus on the Franklin Expedition reverberates with the exhibition (written in 1982).

Meanwhile, as I was flying from Ottawa to Iqaluit, I was re-reading Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places p 17.

“I also decided that, as I traveled, I would draw up a map to set against the road atlas. A prose map that would seek to make sense of the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again, or that would record them before they vanished for good. This would be a map, I hoped, that would not connect up cities, towns, hotels and airports. Instead, it would link headlands, cliffs, beaches, mountain tops, tors, forests, river-mouths and waterfalls.”

One last story. Talking to Julia last night, I found that she had been hired to teach Map Making at Nunavut Arctic College. On the side table, I found, Map Use: Reading, Analysis, Interpretation by Kimmerling et al. Six hundred and fifty pages. With a Foreword by Jack Dangermond at Esri.

It seems that we have come ‘full circle’.


David C. Woodman. 2015. Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. Second Edition

Annie Dillard. 1982. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.

Robert MacFarlane. 2007. The Wild Places. Penguin Books.

Jon Kimerling et al. 2016. Map Use: Reading, Analysis, Interpretation.

Elaine Anselin. Closing in on Franklin. Up Here. Jan/Feb 2018. p 55-62


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There’s Nothing There: a rural myth

There’s nothing there!” scolded Joan, my plein air artist friend. “You’re sending us to a place next week, to a crossroads, where there is absolutely nothing to paint”. Joan was referring to the intersection of Black Rock Road and Brooklyn Street , Kings County, Nova Scotia — our fifth paint-out site of the season (we have 21 more to paint). “I go by there almost every week. Why are we going THERE?”

En Plein Air sketch of decaying home along Brooklyn Street, Kings County, Nova Scotia by Edward Wedler at

That’s part of the problem. Through familiarity Joan has become numbed to the nuances of this rural setting — the details many would miss just driving past. Along with six other artist friends we rhymed off to her the many scenes that can be captured there. “You can do the graveyard or the decaying house across the road from the Grafton Community Hall. What about the cows or the rows of corn in the farmer’s fields? Have you ever looked up the road, towards North Mountain, to see the thick fog hanging in the air from the Bay of Fundy? If you drive up the mountain you can look back at the patchwork quilt of farmer’s fields and see the sunlit silos across the Valley on the South Mountain. “

My wife, Anne, was trained in acrylic art by Floridian artist Joseph Melançon. He paints in the form of the Canadian Group of Seven artists and can create masterpieces from what look like banal landscape photos, devoid of details. He opens our artists’ eyes to the understated geography of rural settings. He creates something from what appears to be nothing.

In my travels across Canada it was the Prairies that struck me most as an artist. The smallest glimmer from a pond, the most subtle grouping of wild flowers, the flutter of startled ducks, the line of telephone pole after telephone pole, was magnified ten-fold in contrast to the expanse of fields and open sky. One notices more clearly the slightest shift in colour, line and form.

I have learned that, through artist’s eyes, when we focus we begin to see what may appear ordinary but in a new light. Bear River photographer and film maker, Tim Wilson, reminds me of that every time he posts another photo or video to his Facebook or website from rural Nova Scotia. Anyone see the film Maudie? Stricken with arthritis and almost stuck in a small house in rural Nova Scotia folk artist Maude Lewis managed to paint and paint and paint. There was always something to paint.

Look carefully and maybe stop awhile. There is always something to see (and do). To say that there’s “nothing there” is a rural myth.