The Out of Place Picture

(First published at The Otter, 10 October 2011)

I’d like to share with you an image that breaks my heart a little. It’s a relatively straightforward picture, featuring two women in a boat, as well as a child and dog seated on a makeshift dock. I found the picture in the Archives of Manitoba. Accompanying information indicated the boat was floating in a drainage ditch, confirming the artificial appearance of the watercourse.

AM, Jessop 178, Drainage Ditch, Glen Farm, Woodside, N 3211.

When I found the picture, I was elated. Engaged in writing a (recently published!) book about flooding and drainage in southern Manitoba, I was eager to document the various ways Manitoba’s diverse population encountered surface water. Here were women and children, a welcome contrast to the predominantly male farmers, labourers, engineers, and politicians I most often encountered in historical sources. Here was what seemed to be leisure, a way of engaging with the landscape distinct from the work typically underway in rural ditches and fields.

Over time, elation turned to dismay. I found only one other image that captured a similar situation, a quaint photograph of a woman carrying a large and unwieldy parasol while boating across a wetland. I found very little documentary evidence to shed light on the experiences of women or children (or, for that matter, dogs) in relation to surface water in Manitoba, or on how artificial watercourses functioned as sites of leisure.

When it came time to finalize the images to be included in my book, I wavered. I felt including this image would take the reader to places I, as an historian bound by what evidence I could uncover, simply could not go. What value is there, I wondered, in raising questions I could not even begin to answer?

In the end, I found myself unwilling to cut the picture out of the manuscript. Though it is accompanied by what few other social history tidbits I managed to muster, I recognize it sits awkwardly within a chapter focused on physical labour and political developments and ethnic identities. It marks what I must, regretfully, acknowledge to be the limits of my resourcefulness as a historian. Still, I’m glad the image is there. It might, hopefully, represent a beacon to someone who will find ways to uncover the sorts of information I was unable to find. At the very least, the image reminds the reader that the stories I’ve managed to tell, the arguments I’ve been able to make, represent but a few aspects of the people and places of the past. I think this is a good thing. Ultimately, the decision to include this image seems consistent with an approach to the practice of history with which I am comfortable, in which raising questions ranks alongside providing answers.

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