One Sailing Wait (book introduction)

Like most ethnographers, I am fond of a good arrival scene. More than once over the last four years I have been tempted to begin this book with an island arrival scene inspired by Raymond Firth’s classic entrance onto the field in Polynesia. My notes on this subject, scribbled on the back of a printed travel itinerary to the BC Central Coast, read as follows: In the crisp air of the early spring evening, just after sunset, the Queen of Alberni maintained her course westward towards Duke Point, allowing from her bow a few faint glimpses of Nanaimo’s faintly-illuminated skyline in the distant background. As we inched along, slowly Duke Point grew into a monstrous dock violently jutting out onto the Salish Sea from the feet of a mountain chain I never imagined so intimidating. In twenty-two minutes, just as planned by the drafters of the timetable, we reached the lone pier. During this time I could see neither sea vessels nor vehicles from my position. There might have been local islanders waiting to greet me and the other passengers, but no one was there to be seen. The tide was low, and the smells of oysters and algae permeating the moist air were more remarkable sensations than any other sight or sound. Save for a few seagulls Vancouver Island felt quiet, empty, populated more by massive conifers and distant snowcapped peaks than by the humans I had come here to meet. The ship soon came to a halt, and before the locals were allowed onboard, the passengers of the 17:45 sailing were orderly let off. Walk-on passengers first, followed by eighteen-wheelers, recreational vehicles, trailer-hauling trucks, and then the rest of us. My red Pontiac rolled of the ramp with certainty, as if she knew what awaited us. Behind her steering wheel I felt infinitely more hesitant than her to drive into the unknown. I was surrounded by other lone drivers, busy with their own lives to hastily head back towards, seemingly preoccupied with all but the very ship which so un-assumedly constituted, in my mind, their most important and yet least visible lifeline, and I felt chocked by the worry that such pacific human and geographic "material could ever be induced to submit to scientific study."

I long debated over the value of such an opening. Surely it would have been the perfect way to introduce to my non-academic readers what ethnography is all about: the work cultural anthropologists (amongst others) do on the field after their arrival, and before heading back home. But the more I thought about its appropriateness, the more I realized that there was something obviously wrong, far more wrong than its perilous stylistic similarity with Frith’s own words in We, the Tikopia. What was truly wrong with this arrival scene was the very idea of arriving as a foundational event. To begin with, the journey I described in my notes was not my first arrival to Vancouver Island. Before the spring of 2001 I had already visited Victoria once, having arrived from Port Angeles, Washington, via the Black Ball ferry M/V Coho. Certainly that first 1999 trip was rather short, but did it not count at all? And secondly, in all honesty, while that 2001 spring evening arrival was very meaningful, it had nothing to do with fieldwork. The trip was purely personal, and to say I had come to study humans would be nothing but a mis en scene. So, which was my first real ethnographic trip? Was it my arrival on Saltspring Island in the late fall of 2006? Hardly. That was more of an afternoon outing to scout the field for the following week’s scheduled interviews. Was it my arrival in Prince Rupert a couple of months later? I doubt it. That was nothing but a mere quick stopover on my way to Haida Gwaii.

The truth of the matter was, I was starting to realize, that beginning the story by recounting the arrival, or any arrival at all, would be nothing but an empty and pretentious staging. As I continued to fight with my parroting of Firth’s arrival, constantly editing my words to spoof his, scribbling appointment details and ferry departure times onto the margins of that paper hanging loosely off my field journal, the proverbial light bulb suddenly flashed above my head. Rather than focus on the mythical arrival handwritten on the back, I should actually focus on what was printed on the front of that piece of paper: an itinerary. Yes, an itinerary. Not because the confirmation number, billing information, and departure times from Port Hardy showed on the itinerary mattered much, but because what I was doing on the field had everything to do with what an itinerary represents: the ongoing and continuous process of travelling. Therefore no single arrival should matter more than the others. All my arrivals and all my many different departures were not just irrelevant bookends of the fieldwork in between. They were the fieldwork itself.

A mobile ethnography like this, one that views fieldwork not as rooted by the stakes of a tent, but rather driven by the vagaries of the compass and the spirit of wayfinding, could simply not begin with a sedentary allusion. I must admit, at this point, that another feeling infused my ruminations over how to begin this book. As a self-fashioned anthropologist of sorts I have always felt like a particularly defective one. Classically, anthropologists go overseas to "submit others to scientific study," just like Firth did, and then come back. Well, I was technically going "overseas" too, but only for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. And often I was almost always back home for supper. I didn’t feel like the real McKoy. Furthermore, classically speaking, anthropologists study in a country that is foreign to them, a place other than the one in which they were born. Canada is foreign to me, in an odd kind of way. Born in Italy, and raised there till I was 23 by Italian parents, I too could claim to be doing fieldwork "abroad." But by electing to move to Canada for good and call it my home, my claim to a classical anthropological identity as an outsider in a land of local "others" could be dubious at best.

In sum, all in all, I longed for an arrival scene for many reasons, not just because it would be pretty to read, but because I could use it to feel better about my work and about myself. But that double aspiration had a difficult time withstanding my constant self-criticism. If going somewhere and coming back home is what real ethnography is all about, then I was doing plenty of that. My fieldwork, in its "on-the-road-again" feel, was all the more mobile as it troubled the very sedentary lifestyle of the classical ethnographer. So, the idea of composing an ethnography that felt and read like numerous little trips, rather than a long stay between an arrival and a departure, was born. Short chapters taking the reader here and there, accompanying people along a vast trail of multiple ethnographic sites all around "my home," became a virtue (I hope) born out of necessity. In the midst of all this, the fieldwork assumed the character of a quest for a way of life. A way of life that would push me even more in the direction of searching for home and "going native" even more than I had until that point. So there I was (and here I am, still), with no roots, no clear arrival scene to recount, and clearly refusing to depart, wondering how the hell to find the words to really begin this book and how to end it.