AFS 2018

For those who have asked, below are links to the paper I gave at this year’s meeting of the American Folklore Society along with the slides and the handout (which was a version of the slides, so you don’t need both). As I catch up with everything on which I have fallen behind, I will post my notes about the conference itself in some fashion.

Here are: the paper, the slides, and the handout for “It’s about Time: How Folk Narratives Manage Time in Discourse.”

Abstract: Concluding his consideration of “Time in Folk-Narrative,” Bill Nicolaisen noted that the nature of human experience is centrally of time and that what marked genres of folk narrative, perhaps as much, or more, than anything else, was their management of time: “What must be stressed, however, is that in contrast to the concepts and realization of an extended present and of narrated time in the folktale, the dramatic comparisons made in the legend are designed to demonstrate the incompatibility of the two time frames, which exist as parallel systems” (318). Much of Nicolaisen’s efforts are focused on a careful compilation of how time is signaled, and thus managed, within the discourse of ten fairy tales drawn randomly from Thompson’s One Hundred Favorite Folktales. This paper revisits and extends Nicolaisen’s work, taking as its central task the careful attention to words used. Where Nicolaisen focused principally on the folktale, with occasional references to legend, this paper, part of a larger examination of legends in the current moment, uses a number of legends taken, first, from oral discourse, and then a number of legends found online. It follows this examination with a look at, what the paper itself argues, is the adjacent genre of the personal anecdote, sometimes also known as the personal experience narrative, in order to determine how a close examination of the management of time, in discourse, might reveal where the two genres converge or diverge, in hopes of finding a better way to model both and reliable discursive cues. Some of the methodologies deployed are computational in nature, beginning with forms of markup first explored by computer scientists Pustejovsky et alum and followed up by recent attempts to automate temporal signals in texts by David Elson. The current work seeks to re-imagine the pioneering work of Bill Nicolaisen, and before him Benjamin Colby, in light of recent developments in computational modeling of narrative with an especial focus on what that means for the study of genre.

Nicolaisen, William. 1978. Time in Folk-Narrative. In Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Centuries, 314-319. Ed. Venetia Newall. Rowman and Littlefield. (Available as a PDF.)

The Shape of Time in Folk Narrative

Caveats and Qualifications

Those of you familiar with my work in computational folkloristics will be surprised with how I begin, and disappointed with how I end. So, fair warning. Those of you here because I used the phrase “folk narrative” in the title of my paper are going to be disappointed because I don’t talk all that much about narrative. Both of these disappointments reveal that I am really at a far earlier stage in this project than I imagined, a fact brought to life by finally setting aside (not enough) time to write this paper. All that noted, I’ll begin with the following observation from the larger project.

We live in an age of data. Everywhere we turn we are, we are told, counted and measured in ways that mostly escapes our ability to comprehend. Every telephone call we make is logged somewhere. If we are driving, every turn we take is logged somewhere. If we are on-line, every link we follow is logged, and every page we scroll is noted. Much of this is, we are told, is for our benefit. Analysis of call logs allows carriers to understand traffic patterns, to use current facilities to their fullest, and to make better plans for future facilities based on actual needs of actual customers. Analysis of traffic patterns allows applications in our cars to offer us better routes, and, we assume, that such information accumulated as a history must surely contribute to better planning for civil engineering. Analysis of search engine and website usage gives us better results: results that are not only ranked in our likely preference but also of a higher quality. And, too, we get advertisements that our tailored to our interests.

It is this latter dimension, of being measured in order to be sold, that makes us, at least some of us, uncomfortable. It feels like we are no longer in control of ourselves, of our fates. Surveillance in the service of our having a choice in our future is one thing. Surveillance in the service of others choosing our future is another matter altogether.

And so it seems almost inevitable that with the rise of data, and the power it promises, or threatens, to have over our lives, that there would be a perceived need for something to balance that power, to limit it in some fashion. Over and against the granularity, the sandpile of bits of data that our lives would seem to be reduced to when run through the necessary grindstone of computer algorithms, we find ourselves wishing for something that understands us, or at least we understand, as a whole, as something that cannot be taken apart and understood as a sum of its parts.
In this, in what seems like the opening act of the data drama that will shape our lives, and our futures, in ways that we cannot yet anticipate—and yet so many individuals and companies our banking, quite literally, on our anticipation—we seem to have stumbled upon, or fallen back upon (however you prefer to imagine it), the strength of stories.

Stories, yeah! To the parapet folklorists, because we know stories!

Or do we?

Part of what I am going to argue today is that we don’t.

Or, to put that another way, folklorists need to cease once and for all using the word story for every damned text we encounter. A lot of them aren’t stories, and those that are are not necessarily as narrative as we would like to think. So, if this paper is anything, it is an exercise in personal hubris, my own failings as an analyst, blamed on disciplinary hubris.

Time and Narrative

At the very outset of his multi-volume Time and Narrative, Paul Ricouer states that “what is ultimately at stake in the case of the structural identity of the narrative function as well as in that of the truth claim of every narrative work is the temporal character of human experience” (3). Steeped in both Hegelian dialect as well as Heideggerian hermeneutics, Ricoeur’s process is to gather, slowly but steadfastly, all those facets of narrative from which he can draw upon to address what he regards as the necessary question which philosophy must ask and which also must be answered: what should I do? As a folklorist, I am not interested in such ethical questions, but, rather ethnographic questions like: what do people think they should do and how do they know it? To do that, I am going to address neither the dialectical nor the hermeneutical dimensions of Ricoeur’s work, but rather a fundamental assertion he makes in the sentences that follow those above, where he notes that:

The world unfolded by every narrative work is always a temporal world. Or, as will often be repeated in the course of this study: time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience. (3, emphasis added)

Ricoeur is not alone in assuming that “time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative”; his is simply one of the larger and better-known treatments of narrative that founds itself on literary texts and, thus, in the process, misses how time is actually alternately imagined, or contained (if you prefer) in discourse. Folklorists are, by and large, no better, no worse in this regard, despite there being a reasonably compelling tradition of inspecting the contents of texts more closely to understand the relationship between them and time.

Time and Folk Narrative

In “The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale,” Bill Nicolaisen noted that folklorists tend to think of the relationship between various genres and time in rather broad terms.1 Such generalizations are themselves not necessarily wrong nor without use. Noting that myths are, in terms William Bascom memorialized, about the time before time or that folktales are about time outside of time provokes our imaginations and the imaginations of the various audiences with which we engage. But when our thinking stops at the provocation, we ignore the very real differences in the way discourse structures time, and thus lose the opportunity to consider how time may or may not be managed differently in different genres, perhaps giving us a better sense not only of the genres themselves but also of how humans imagine time. (And this latter point is especially important when we consider Ricouer’s conflation of time and narrative.) Nicolaisen’s observation is part of his larger turn towards narrative studies in order to understand more precisely how people imagine the places in which they live. As he looked more closely at folktales in particular, with his careful eye for linguistic detail, he realized that “within the outer frame of timelessness, we have an inner frame of sequentially structured time that relies on the day as its basic unit of reference” (417).

Without being familiar with contemporary work in narratology, Nicolaisen constructed a framework for distinguishing between the discourse of a folktale, the actual words used, and the story that the discourse conveys, the events depicted. Focused on matters of time, he noted that there axes at play are narrated time and narration time. Perhaps just as importantly, he observed that rarely are the two times congruous, except when it comes to speech: a match between narrated time and narration time is “most likely to occur in the rendering of dialogue embedded in the story since the storyteller probably takes about as much time narrating it as the characters involved would have taken speaking it” (419-420). In almost all other cases, we will encounter a kind of narrative compression, in which “the time taken to narrate actions [is] much shorter than the actions narrated” (420).2 While certain literary texts may play upon this convention, the convention in oral discourse is fairly well established, and it is a rare text that breaks with our understanding that “the total amount of narration time required to tell a story … is bound to be almost always dis­proportionately shorter than the total time recounted in a story” (420).

With the inclusion of recounted time Nicolaisen introduced a third dimension of time that must be managed in discourse: “the total time encompassed by a story, and this recounted time consists of both narrated and non-narrated por­tions [and] is therefore the sum total of narrated and non-narrated time” (421). To illustrate the relationship, Nicolaisen compares narrated time to recounted time in the first ten texts of Stith Thompson’s One Hundred Favorite Folk­ Tales. (See Figure 1.) His summation of John the Bear (AT 301), the third tale in Thompson, reveals his scheme: “In contrast to a total recounted time of about 16 years, only portions of 19 days are narrated with greatly varying density and detail” (422). That is, the narrated time is the time of those events that are actively, or actually, described in the discourse of the narration. Recounted time includes elapsed time, or compressed time. In some cases this time is specified, but in many cases it is not. Consider for example the unspecified time between two events in Grimms 149, “The Rooster Beam”:

There was once a magician who was standing in the midst of a great crowd of people performing his wonders. He had a rooster brought in, which lifted a heavy beam and carried it as if it were as light as a feather. But a girl was present who had just found a four-leaf clover, and had thus become so wise that she could see through every deception, and she saw that the beam was nothing but a straw. So she called out, “You people, do you not see that it is a straw that the rooster is carrying, and not a beam?” The magic vanished immediately, and the people saw what it was, and drove the sorcerer away in shame and disgrace. He, however, full of inward anger, said, “I will avenge myself.” Some time later the girl’s wedding day arrived. She was all decked out, and went in a great procession across a field to the place where the church was. Suddenly they came to a swollen brook, and there was neither a bridge nor a walkway to cross it. So the bride nimbly lifted up her clothes, and was about to wade through it. She had just stepped into the water when a man near her, and it was the magician, called out mockingly “Aha! What kind of eyes do you have that think they see water?” Then her eyes were opened, and she saw that she was standing with her clothes lifted up in the middle of a field that was blue with flax blossoms. Then all the people saw it too, and they chased her away with ridicule and laughter.

The narrative proceeds through the conjunction of two events separated by an indeterminate, and thus also unimportant to the point of the story, amount of time. All we know is that the wizard has awaited his opportunity to get even. It begins with the kind of frame we expect of folk takes, “there was once”, and having dropped us into that particular temporality, proceeds, as Nicolaisen concluded, in ordinary time. The event concludes with the wizard’s vow, and then with a simple “some time later” we are once again in ordinary time.

But the indeterminacy of time is not necessarily a defining feature of folktales, and it might serve us better to think of it as exaggeration of a more normal discursive move that tellers make in order to move to the focus of a narrative. Across a wide range of oral historical accounts, mostly in the form of anecdotes, but also in a form discussed later, it is quite common foe there to be an initial orientation that then leads to a narrative sequence. The following anecdote is from the Midwest and tells about a particular incident in the life of the teller:

And Joe Natalie was a true old world Italian
And he talked Italian
English, you know, but broken English
And a lot of the kids would go over there and steal an apple or a banana or something, you know, when he wasn’t looking
And I never did think to steal. If I stole something and my grandparents found out, I mean, my butt was … gone
They’d beat me until I couldn’t sit down
So anyway, I was over there looking at bananas and this man came up and grabbed me by the arm
And he said he said you’re the kid who stole the apple
I said I what?
He said you stole an apple. I said I never stole no such thing. He said no last Saturday
I said I have never stole anything in my life
I said if you go ask that man that works over there I usually come up and buy an apple or an orange or something—you’d get a banana for like three cents, an orange for two cents or something

From the opening introduction of a particular historical individual up until the moment the narrator repeats the fact that punishment would certainly follow any wrong-doing on his part, there is no particular series of clauses that are held together by the kind of temporal juncture which Labov and Waletzky define as crucial to a narrative sequence. The phrase “so anyway” acts, and indeed sounds like, “so one day” which is a familiar phrase to anyone who has done fieldwork as a segue into a story. (“So anyway” is familiar as well, but that’s for another time.)

In their pioneering work attending to the strings of clauses that make up any text, Labov and Waletzky distinguish between those clauses that establish the situation, or the current state, as the orientation, and, by and large, they are typically free clauses, clauses that are free to move earlier or later in a sequence of clauses without changing the meaning of the overall sequence. For those familiar with discourse analysis, this is very different from narrative clauses which, by definition within the scope of the kind of simple, mono-episodic personal experience narrative texts which Labov and Waletzky examined, are received as having a one-to-one correspondence with the events they represent. That is, if Action 1 was followed by Action 2 in the representation, then the clauses representing each action occur in the same order in the narration, Clause 1 and Clause 2. While this schema rules out more complicated forms of narration, it covers a surprising range of texts very well.

What the schema leaves out, however, is a rather wide range of materials that are largely under-attended by folklorists, anthropologists, and linguists: those forms of vernacular discourse which seem, from the discourse analysis perspective, to be made up entirely of orientation with no complication. Take for example this attempt to locate an individual mentioned in passing:

You remember Golden’s Market? Let’s say this is the block this is Second Street, this Rogers, this Maple. Well, Golden Market was on this corner and EJ’s bakery was in there, and halfway … there’s a pharmacy in there now, called Value Plus or I don’t know now. But right in there was where that little old lady, in her house, had this little clothing store.

There is literally no narrative in the text. It is all locative, and, if we are honest, a surprising amount of vernacular discourse, even talk about the past, is not, as Ricouer insists, in narrative but in forms better described as locative, expository, or even simply descriptive. (My sense is that place name researchers are very familiar with this.)

In another text that demonstrates how much of talk about the past can be dominated by other modes of discourse, a speaker is in the middle of discussing the many kinds of jobs he has held over the years and is drawn to expand on a particular one:

He was in the excavating business,
so he called me to come up and showed me the job.
And we dug house basements.
And that was when they were remodeling a lot filling stations,
making them super service and that sort of thing,
so I said, yeah, I’ll take it.
So I worked there about two years and a half.
And then we came back to Bloomington.

I would argue that this is rather typical of the many hours of speaking about the past I have recorded in Indiana and in Louisiana. There is narrative, but it is often seemingly limited to sticking together bits of exposition. In the text above, the narrative is really a function of a kind of constructed dialogue: “he called … so I said yeah” which is a fairly widespread narrative trope. If we return to Nicolaisen’s notion of recounted time versus narrative time, we will find that the recounted time is a bit fuzzy, probably something on the order of a little over the time specified in the story itself, which is, according to the second to last clause, two and a half years.

But how are we to understand the narrated time within this text? If we take the dialogue as our narrative kernel or, as Labov and Waletzky would describe it as the narrative N, then how do the other clauses affect our understanding of N? One of the things that becomes quite clear is that those portions of the text that are narrative in nature are, as Nicolaisen observed, within the scope of a day. In the case of the constructed dialogue, the duration is mere seconds. These sharp clear actions are counterposed by long periods of habitual action, which perhaps mimics how the teller himself felt about that period in his life. It’s not entirely clear if recounted time is dimension worth discussing: it would appear that the story specifies that time and leaves it at that. (The same goes for the period of time involved, which would appear to be a kind of general, personal past: that is, “some years ago.”)

One response to these texts might be that they aren’t very good stories to begin with, which seems an odd evaluative perspective for a discipline that attempts to the social science fringe of the humanities. And yet, I would argue, accounts of personal experience are just full of exactly this kind of discourse. In Listening for a Life, Patricia Sawin provides the following account from Bessie Eldreth of her final encounter with a possible revenant. For a long time, she told Sawin, after her husband died there were lights that would flash in her bedroom:

And, uh, it was
For a long time it would kindly
It’d dash me, you know.
But I got till I, when I’d turn off the light I’d close my eyes real tight.
But now, honestly, that light would go down in under the cover with me.
It did.
That light’d
When I’d turn that cover down and after the light was turned off,
That light’d go down under that cover as pretty as I ever saw a light in my life.
And, uh, I had a quilt on my bed that I thought might be the cause of it,
That … that was on his bed when
Before he died.
And I rolled that quilt up and sent it to the dump.
Because I felt like that made that’s the reason.
But I still saw the light.
It didn’t make
It didn’t change a thing.
But the light … for a long time, well for two of three years or longer … probably than that, light would flash up.
But I’ve not seen it now in a good while. (126-127)

If there is a narrative kernel in this text, it is in the two clauses: “I had a quilt on my bed that I thought might be the cause of it … And I rolled that quilt up and sent it to the dump.”

Another example of an encounter with the supernatural, a memorate, this time from my own fieldwork:

One day me and my daddy
My daddy was sick
His stomach kept hurting him, hurting him
Every night he would lay in the bed cramped up so bad
Said there was a big old knot in his stomach
He said he just couldn’t take it
We had to sit on his legs to stretch him out
Stretch his arms out so that cramp would leave his stomach
So mama said one day …
We had an old seventy-one Ford pickup truck
With a purple hood
So one day mama said —
My daddy’s name was Taise —
She said Taise we going to bring you to the treater
I was kind of small
So they brought me with them
And the only thing I can remember, man, is my daddy going in the house with this old lady
And I was still in the truck
Because they wouldn’t let me go in the house
So when he come outside
He throwed up snakes
Out of his stomach
Out of his mouth
I mean six seven eight nine ten
Throwed them up
And when we left from there,
Daddy was fine
Never caught a cramp again.

More than previous examples, the structure of this text is quite clear, with an extensive orientation focused on an ongoing state and then a complication that stutters to begin with two instances of “one day” a bit of constructed dialogue and a digression to remind the audience that the narrator was a child during the time of the narrative. With all that work done, the text transitions into a clear sequence of narrative clauses which actually begin with “And the only thing I remember….”


With little to no time left, I want to point out that, first, clearly Ricoeur was wrong and Nicolaisen was right, but both worked over thirty years ago and we haven’t caught up to the argument they never had. One of the things the emergence of performance studies promised, was a closer look at the texts themselves as manifestations of their context and as manifestations of the intersection between culture and personality. Work by Sawin, by Capps and Ochs, by Shuman, and by Cashman have taken us a certain way down the path but I would argue that it’s time, no pun intended, to roll up our sleeves and “get all linguistic” on texts.

With this small collection of examples, we can first address the fact that while narrative is not the only way that humans account for their temporality. Indeed, even within those texts where it might be considered the structuring modality, it is not necessarily the dominant modality in terms of proportions.


Bascom, William. 1965. The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives. Journal of American Folklore 78(307): 3–20.
Labov, William and Joshua Waletzky. 1967. Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience. In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, 12–44. Ed. June Helm. Seattle: American Ethnological Society.
Laudun, John. 2001. Talk About the Past in a Midwestern Town: “It Was There At That Time.” Midwestern Folklore 27 (2): 41–54.
Müller, Günther. 1968. Morphologische Poetik: Gesammelte Aufsätze. Ed. Elena Müller. Tubingen: Niemeyer.
Nicolaisen, William. 1982. The Structure of Narrated Time in the Folktale. Journées d’Études en Littérature Orale: Analyse des contes, problèmes de méthodes 417–36.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative 1. University of Chicago Press.
Sawin, Patricia. 2004. Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth Through Her Songs and Stories. Utah State University Press.


  1. Later in the essay, Nicolaisen himself articulated his own version of this idea of folk narratives negotiating two, or more, time streams: “Narrative time, or more precisely folk-narrative time, is consequently, once it has been appropriately and understand­ ably signaled, “other” time, time outside the chronological frame­ work which we usually impose on the past to make it accessible and recallable; it is not in this sense true timelessness, non-time or time standing still, but an attractively convenient suspension of historical time” (418). 
  2. Nicolaisen seems to have developed his ideas solely based on the work of Günther Müller, who appears to have focused on the idea of narrative tempo (Müller 1968). While Nicolaisen references Propp elsewhere, he does not explicitly do so in this essay. 

Ask a Folklorist

I think the American Folklore Society [website][] needs to host a section called *Ask a Folklorist* similar to what MIT has done:

MIT's "Ask and Engineer"

MIT’s “Ask and Engineer”

We could even pre-populate it with the kind of FAQs most of us already get. We could do far worse than to become a ready reference. I love Snopes myself, but it is only focused on fact checking, not on any larger sense of meaning.


Pulling Up Holes, Pulling Down Hills

### How People Who Actually Work the Land Understand the Landscape on Which They Work

*Please note that this is the version of the paper from which I worked when presenting at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society: I did not, for example, actually read the conclusion. I would like to thank the members of the audience — all those folks from North Carolina — who gave such rich feedback. I made notes of your questions, but the richness and clarifications you demanded are not yet in this paper. Thank you for your generosity.*

#### Introduction

The cognitive anthropologist Charles Frake once observed that psychologists have a long, historical fascination with navigation because the task is clearly defined and has easily measured goals. By and large, psychologists prefer the confines of investigator-defined tasks and contexts so that they can control for variables. The problem with such an approach, as psychologists themselves discovered (and yet never seem to learn), is that contexts are themselves culturally-defined, or as one of my UL colleagues described it: how does one make claims for universality based on tests administered to a several dozen university undergraduates? One option has been to establish an infrastructure for the replication of psychological research results; another has been to find “performances that can be seen as displays of cognitive ability” that exist in the workaday world in which most of us find ourselves (Frakes 255). While such a description, “performances as displays of cognitive ability,” is redolent for folklorists, it is not entirely sufficient for psychologists who have worried that, in seeking out cognition in the world people actually live in, a task cannot possess sufficient enough precision such that its successful accomplishment is not open to negotiation. (I know: we regard this as precisely the kind of “deep” space for investigation. Here, humanistic depth must be shallowed for the sake of scientific precision, from the point of view of cognitive psychology.)

Navigation, as Frake noted, “provides an especially nice display of cognitive performance” if for no other reason than failure is clear: one either runs aground, is lost at sea, or arrives safely in port (255). Much of the work in psychology has focused on Micronesian navigation, and, as Frake states:

> The lesson to be drawn from these studies is that the islanders’ seafaring exploits do not depend on some uncanny intuitive powers, nor on personality quirks driving people to seek danger, nor on the luck of lost sailors adrift at sea, nor even on rote-learned “local knowledge”. Instead these navigational abilities depend on a profound general knowledge of the sea, the sky and the wind; on a superb understanding of the principles of boat-building and sailing; and on cognitive devices—all in the head—for recording and processing vast quantities of ever changing information. (256)

What Micronesian navigators present is a community of practitioners who engage in a clearly delineated task that is itself based on traditional knowledge. That knowledge is usually conceived of as a model by psychologists (Oatley 538).

Having spent the past five years working with fabricators and farmers in a largely agricultural ecology (but one still with boats in the picture), I have been a regular witness to a wide variety of tasks which have fairly fixed notions of a successful outcome: either a tool or machine works, or it does not; either a field produces a crop, or it does not. Well, it’s not entirely so cut and dry, to use an agricultural metaphor: after all, machines can work well or simply well enough. Cuts in rice fields can produce a range of yields, and those yields themselves are averaged across both a field as well as a farmer’s total acreage in production that year. That noted, it is my belief that there is probably an equal range of sufficient results in Micronesian navigation that allow for a greater range of results than the literature suggests.

Would it be possible, I wondered, to discover a task within my own ethnographic area of inquiry, define its parameters, and determine what it has to contribute to our understanding of human cognition? In this paper, I would like to focus on a single task, water leveling a rice field, to see just what it can tell us. [Not a great transition, but it will have to do to keep things short.]

The following study is based on two different kinds of data. The first consists of dozens of conversations with farmers, usually in impromptu situations, where I either listened to a conversation about sensing or where I was able to follow-up a passing comment about sensing with a question or two to ground the utterance in a fuller, albeit analytical, context. In some instances, when the conversation was taking place already among a group, I was able to step back from the question and follow as the group considered the matter largely among themselves: while they were always aware of my presence — they are not impolite men — they often warmed so much to the discussion that it became theirs. The other kind of data involved my embarking upon a series of what can only be called agricultural ride-alongs. I was able to do so because in most instances farmers use the largest, most powerful tractors for this kind of work, and the larger cabs of these tractors often have a jump seat of at least space for an observer to perch, although not necessarily a comfortable space for the hours one sometimes spends sitting there.

I should also note that because this work is so important and the machines involved so large, powerful, and expensive, the farmers mostly do this work themselves. It is not left to hired hands nor junior family members There is considerable skill involved.

A farmer depends upon his skill to level a field, and it is also the case that his skill is subject to a wider, often quite objective evaluation. Internally, a farmer who does not how to “feel the seat” — as an acute awareness of one’s machinery and the task to which it is addressed is called — spends too much time either looking at gauges in front of him or looking behind him to double-check the state of his plow. Looking at those things distracts him from seeing where he is going, resulting either in inefficient plowing or in very slow going. Externally, any field can be, and usually is, observed by other farmers. Uneven fields reveal themselves by changes in color and height or rice. A mottled field raises questions and comments in nearby equipment sheds, in agricultural supply stores, and after church. Its opposite, a field uniform in color and height, receives appreciative nods and comments.

Such an outcome depends on a profound knowledge of the topography of the landscape, including a sense of the underlying geology, as well as a highly attuned sense of one’s equipment. Mediating the relationship between the equipment and the landscape is a function of a collection of abilities and sensitivities, what Frake terms “a high order of cognitive ability,” that makes it possible for a farmer to know how much dirt he has in his plow, where he is in a field, and how far he has to go from a high spot, a hill, to a low spot, a hole, calculating the overall loss of dirt for the distance that must be travelled between those two points.

#### Defining the Task

The gentle topography and relatively thin layer of topsoil of south Louisiana make it a good terrain for rice, if, unfortunately, not good for much else. Farmers work the land to the best of their abilities, using the tools they have, many of which are, as I have detailed elsewhere (and look for the forthcoming book!), hand-made in nearby fabrication and equipment shops to their specification. One of those pieces of equipment is the water plow, a large blade pulled behind a tractor to grade a field level.

Each portion of a field, a step in a very shallow terrace, is called a cut, and the goal is for each cut to be as level as possible. Should one portion of a cut be higher or lower than the rest, the cut cannot be reliably flooded or drained when the time comes. The difference in height between cuts can be as little as a few inches or as great as a few feet. The difference allows one cut to drain into another until the water reaches the bottom of the field where it drains into a ditch, a coulee, or sometimes back into a canal, where it will get recycled. (During dry periods, water is pumped up from either wells or canals into the top cut.) The flow of water is managed individually either through drains that are opened or closed by hand or through drains that allow a farmer to set how much water to hold on a field. Fields will be filled or drained at various moments in the growing season.

Level cuts within a field are all important to the field’s overall functioning. The traditional way to level a field is to water plow it. Like its name suggests, water plowing is done with the cut “flooded up.” With water anywhere from calf-high to thigh-high, a farmer will drive into a field with a water plow attached to his tractor. Plows run from twenty to thirty feet in width, with the larger plows now possessing wings that can be raised and lowered for transport along area roads. Once in the field, a farmer will make a few rounds to establish the overall nature , or feel, of the cut, where it is high and where it is low. Before the arrival of the laser level, this was done entirely by feeling the way the tractor pulled the plow through the field and then turning to see how much mud and water was in the plow.

In the present moment, most farmers attend to the difference between a stationary laser transmitter stationed on the side of the field and spinning out an invisible, but level, plane of light and a receiver attached to the plow. A console in the cab of the tractor reveals how high or low the plow is to the norm set by the transmitter.

“Zeroed in”, either by feel in the past or a combination of feel and gauge in the present, a farmer begins the job of leveling a field which he cannot see. Already his circuits around have muddied the water. Now he drops the water plow blade into the water and proceeds to pull it this way and that. Sometimes he moves across the width of a cut, and sometimes up and down its length. Sometimes he moves diagonally and sometimes he goes around and around. The entire time he is, yes, keeping an eye on the laser level readout, but he is also feeling his way around the field. The goal of this exercise is to “pull down” unseen hills and “pull up” unseen holes.

The question before us is what cognitive devices are in use as a farmer navigates his way through cut after cut, slowly resolving a natural landscape into a series of artificial and thus highly productive planes. The answer, in our case, is that cognition is not “all in the head.”

[Expansion point here for fuller essay: review of Oatley’s scheme and its application here. Transition from cognitive model to cognitive devices needs to be made.]

#### Embodied Cognition

Viewing the enclosed cab of an eight-wheeled, articulated tractor from the road, one imagines that the operator is, if not quite a disembodied mind dully driving this way and that, then at least so alienated from the interaction between machine and landscape as to rely mostly on visual cues and the scant few sounds that make it past the roar of the engine and the insulation of the glass windows. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having ridden extensively both in these giant tractors while farmers plowed as well as in combines while they harvested rice or soybeans, I can safely attest to the fact of how little they actually pay attention to any and all gauges and readouts that report engine RPM, grain flow, or the height of grain in a hopper. Instead, farmers are constantly “feeling” and “listening” to the machines in which they ensconce themselves in order to get work done.

Recent research in psychology into haptic interfaces has mostly focused on how adding various kinds of vibrotactile cues can aid operators of cars or deep sea divers in processing diverse flows of information. For many, the ability to add a vibrotactile device to a car or to a watch is a way to overcome the visual overload many operators navigating complex environments feel. Ensconced within the tractor cab, we can delineate two distinct kinds of information:

The first has to do with the ground which passes underneath them unseen. Previous plowings of the field or the running of a crawfish boat can often result in ruts being left behind. From the farmer’s perspective, these ruts are undesirable in a rice field, since they can mean low spots where water may get trapped or they may, if long enough, drain the field inappropriately. In either instance, the ruts disrupt the farmer’s ability to control the water level in a field with the kind of granularity preferred. These ruts are felt as small, sudden drops in the body of tractor, and their width is gauged by a concomitant jolt. Most farmers have a very acute sense of the speed of their vehicle and thus typically a fairly good idea of the distance traveled between two moments in time. It also helps that they have had this ability to gauge distances and dimensions reinforced by knowing the width of a rut created by a crawfish boat wheel or by another kind of plow: these two kinds of information, one visual, but in memory, and one tactile, in the present, are combined in the moment of water leveling to afford them a high degree of precision. Depending upon the depth of the rut and the overall fit of the tractor, there may be a concomitant sound made by the tractor, which might also be felt. A tractor with a somewhat loose fitting somewhere, for example, will make a distinctive clunk, which many farmers will listen for, often knowing that the clunk is only prompted by changes in depth of a certain size or kind.

The second set of vibrotactile cues, which are also accompanied by a sonic cue, are produced by the tractor’s engine and reveal to the operator the degree to which the engine is under a load. Farmers typically describe this as feeling or hearing the engine strain, and it is, I confess, one of the more nuanced moments of perception that I have come across in my years of research: there is little to no obvious change in the pitch or the volume of sound these large, diesel engines make. At three hundred fifty horsepower or better, the engines in these tractors are capable of pulling a water plow through the water with relative ease, and it is not unusual for them to be doing so at extremely slow speeds. Because the plows can push so much water in front of them, farmers must work at slow speeds in order to make certain that they do not spill, or slop, water over the small levees that outline a field. During leveling, the water is rich in topsoil, and given the thinness of the layer of topsoil, sometimes only a matter of inches, in the area, any loss is considered needlessly wasteful. Thus, the larger engines are run at what almost seems an idle, heard and felt as a low rumbling. As the plow being pulled picks up water and mud, however, the engine begins to work a bit harder, and farmers listen and feel for that moment when, perhaps, the engine will need to be fed a bit more fuel.

In both instances, the farmer is highly attuned to the tractor. They described this process in two different stages. The first stage occurs when a farmer is just starting off, just learning how to farm, how to work with equipment. As a teenager working with an older family member or friend, typically fathers and sons but sometimes uncles and nephews, a farmer has to learn to “feel the seat” as one young farmer told me. It is a matter of learning how to feel the bottom of a field with the tractors’ tire, the young man noted, and in doing so reached out and down with his arms and spread out his fingers, as if he were imagining himself crawling through the water, feeling with his hands to determine how the land lay.

A farmer learns these things on a particular piece of equipment, and so the second stage occurs when he transitions from one piece of equipment to another, because each piece of equipment has its own feel, not only as a piece of machinery but also as a sensing device. Another farmer who had recently purchased a John Deere tractor after using nothing but Case tractors for twenty years noted that it was going to take a great deal of getting used to, “[the John Deere] tractor runs different, works different.” The same observation occurs when a farmer has gotten used to the feel of a particular brand of equipment and that manufacturer makes a significant change to the drivetrain, the suspension, or some other facet of the machine that requires the farmer to “re-calibrate” their senses.

#### Possible Conclusion

This way of thinking about the relationship between the thinking we do and the things with which we think is described by Edwin Hutchins as “distributed cognition.” An anthropologist, Hutchins has sought to bridge the gap between his own field and psychology, between culture and cognition as objects of study. Conventionally, of course, the two are considered distinct areas of inquiry, but only, as Hutchins observes, because the boundary between inside and outside have been so firmly drawn, which “creates the impression that individual minds operate in isolation and encourages us to mistake the properties of complex sociocultural systems for the properties of individual minds” (355). Hutchins’ argument is that cognitive sciences have over-allocated intelligence to the inside of human subjectivity. The problem with such a view from his, and we can now also say from Heidegger’s, point of view is that it mistakes, potentially, one dimension of a larger system for the system itself.

Hutchins notes that John Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment offers a nice encapsulation of the larger problem. In the thought experiment, Searle sets out the following scenario: he is locked in a room where messages in Chinese are slid under a locked door. He himself has no knowledge of Chinese, but he does have a book which allows him to determine the character sequences and to respond with a correct sequence of characters that he then slips back under the locked door. The outside observer perceives a meaningful reaction, but, given Searle’s role in the communicative instance, was there really any meaning? Searle’s response is not, and he intends the thought experiment as a rejection of the idea that the Turing test could gauge actual intelligence.

Searle intends the thought experiment, Hutchins points out, “as a demonstration that syntax is not sufficient to produce semantics” (361). But in setting up his experiment, what Searle has done is encapsulate a “sociocultural cognitive system.” On his own Searle cannot communicate but as an ensemble, he and the book in the room, can. That is, “the cognitive properties of the person person in the room are not same as the cognitive properties of the room as a whole” (362). Hutchins argues that much of the work done in artificial intelligence and in cognitive psychology consistently focuses on socio-cultural systems but mistakes them for individual minds. He concludes that the attribution to an individual mind of an entire system effects a kind of surgery in which interaction, and our chief means of interacting, our bodies, are removed.

Reduced so, the unhooking of cognition from interaction becomes clearly absurd. Hutchins responds that what we need is to study more cognition as it occurs in the world and study cognition less as a limited set of responses from an individual isolated in a laboratory. He proposes the term “cognitive ethnography.” Returning to some of the language used by Frake in his own description of cognitive psychology experiments, I am struck by the occurrence of performance, not just the use of the word but that it is used in ways folklorists would easily recognize:

We are concerned here not with judgements about the mentality of an age or the wisdom of a culture, but with the cognitive abilities of individual human beings. For evidence we must turn away from assessments of the strangeness of a culture’s beliefs or the weirdness of its symbols to an examination of performances that can be seen as displays of cognitive ability. But what counts as such a performance? Probably most things a human being does should count. The problem for the investigator, and sometimes for the performers them- selves, is to know what the performance is. “What’s happening?” Or, in psychologists’ language: “What is the definition of the task?” (255)

Frake notes that psychologists prefer to define their own tasks and remain anxious about user-defined tasks as being vulnerable to collusion. Folklorists and others who are used to working from the inside out see this less as a vulnerability and more as a matter of openness.

Such an openness to the “task world” allows us to form different understandings of what people do with their minds. But, as we have seen, “mind” must be broadly understood. And, to my mind, we must also necessarily be more open to the disciplines with whom we collaborate. Richard Bauman once noted:

that the enduring importance of the intellectual problems that the philological synthesis was forged to address constitutes a productive basis on which we as folklorists might orient ourselves to our cognate fields and disciplines. In my view, any scholar who is interested in any of the dimensions of interrelationship that link language, literature, culture, society, politics, and history together is potentially my colleague, whatever our degrees and whatever academic departments provide us a home and a living. (17)

Bauman is, of course, referring to the work that was begun as the ethnography of speaking and was later consolidated under the rubric of performance. It was, by the accounts of some of its vanguard practitioners, an attempt to take ideas and issues raised by philosophers like Heidegger and others working in the middle of the twentieth century to re-ignite the investigation of human being and to apply those insights within fields who had traditionally focused on the “other” of modernity. Forty years later, the new philology now has the opportunity to re-join philosophy as it itself has been transformed by studies of cognition across a wide range of fields.

[Dell Hymes was also part of cognitive anthropology at various moments.]

#### Sources

Bauman, Richard. 1996. “Folklore as Transdisciplinary Dialogue.” _Journal of Folklore Research_ 33 (1) (January 1): 15–20.

Frake, Charles O. 1985. “Cognitive Maps of Time and Tide Among Medieval Seafarers.” _Man_ 20 (2). New Series (June 1): 254–270.

Hutchins, Edwin. 1995. _Cognition in the Wild_. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Oatley, Keith G. 1977. “Inference, Navigation, and Cognitive Maps.” In _Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science_, ed. P. N. Johnson-Laird and P. C. Wason, 537–547. Cambridge University Press.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Luciano Fadiga. 1997. “The Space Around Us.” _Science_ 277 (5323) (July 11): 190.

Syntax Highlighting in Word

I am working on my paper for the computational folkloristics panel at AFS this year. My goal is to apply some of the network theory and visualization methods I learned at the NEH Institute on Networks and Networking in the Humanities do the intellectual history of folklore studies. I thought an interesting phenemonenon to tackle would be the emergence of performance studies as a paradigm. That is, what does a paradigm shift look like from the point of view of a network? What did it look like in folklore studies?

To do this work I am interacting with JSTOR’s *Data for Research* program, and I am trying to keep notes as I go. Because this will eventually be something I want to share with others, I am keeping my notes in Word — if only because I can control the presentation much more readily. For the XML with which I am working to be more readable, it could use some syntax highlighting, a feature I count on in my text editor, Textmate, but which is not available in Word … unless, of course, you happen upon on-line sites which will do the work for you.

One such site is [ToHTML]( [PlanetB]( will also do some syntax highlighting.

Traveling to Nashville

Over the last five days I have traveled from my home in Lafayette, Louisiana to Nashville, Tennessee in order to attend the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. A log of my journey is below, but I have to say that thanks to the constant reminders from Leo Laporte on his “This Week in Technology” podcast, to which I subscribe through iTunes, I finally checked out Audible’s selection from audio books. I bought a novel and two nonfiction books and the miles quite literally just flew by. Before I knew it I was in Mississippi, then Alabama, then Tennessee, and then I was in Nashville and already almost to my hotel.

Waypoints for October 12:

  • 09:36 – leave the house.
  • 09:51 – get on Interstate 10 at Louisiana Avenue.
  • 11:56 – leave I-10 for I-59.
  • 12:58 – arrive Hattiesburg.
  • 15:00 – cross into Alabama.
  • 17:08 – arrive northside of Birmingham for overnight stay.

Waypoints for October 13:

  • 07:36 – depart Birmingham.
  • 10:19 – arrive Nashville (I-65 at Wedgewood Avenue).

Emboldened with such an easy passage, I decided to make almost the entire drive back on Saturday afternoon, leaving Nashville a little before three in the afternoon and getting into Baton Rouge around midnight. (I stayed the night with family, and then pressed on to Lafayette the next day.)

  • 14:42 – depart Hilton Hotel.
  • 17:41 – arrive westside of Birmingham (18th/19th Avenue Exit).
  • 23:56 – arrive Baton Rouge.

Notes for AFS Forum on Communications in Folklore

***Note for readers**: this post is currently in process while I am in Boise for the AFS meeting.*

For those who attended the forum at the annual meeting of American Folklore Society in Boise this year, here are a few posts that form the background to my current thinking:

* [In the Era of the Meta-Platform, Content Is King][era] (20 April 2008) is sort of a foundational statement, for me, of what I think the possibilities are more broadly for the humanities.
* In [The Road to Digital Considered][road] (14 August 2008) I discuss …
* In [The Cult of the Author in the New Economy][cult] (8 August 2009) …
* In [The Difference Digital Makes][diff] (29 July 2009) …
* In [One Digital Difference][one] (16 July 2009) …
* In [The Future of Scholarly Publishing from an Individual Perspective][future] (29 January 2009) …


The Road to Digital Considered

*A recent [posting on Ars Technica][at] about the American Chemical Society’s “road to digital” publishing spurred an interesting discussion, but a surprising number of posters fumed about the loss of print. I took a moment to write about the issue, using what little I know about how things work for my own society, the American Folklore Society:*

I, too, enjoy serendipity and have profited immensely in my intellectual and professional development from reading the card behind the one for which I was searching while in the card catalog or from seeing the title of a book on the shelf above the one for which I was looking. That said, that notion of browsing is not really lost in the digital realm. These things are called “browsers” after all and the rise of the multi-tab interface that allows one to open multiple other texts while one stays focused on another speaks directly to the ability to browse easily in the digital realm.

I am the editor of a website for a small scholarly society in the humanities, the American Folklore Society, that is about to make its premiere on October 1. We are deploying this new/additional communication platform in addition to our journal of record, the Journal of American Folklore. JAF already exists in print and digital form: as a paper product produced and shipped by the University of Illinois Press and as an electronic product available through Project Muse (5 most recent years) and through JSTOR. Having had a chance to talk some with the CIO for JSTOR through the Project Bamboo workshops, I have to say that JSTOR is really trying to do this right. And I would bet that they, too, are looking for some better format than PDF that is, in some ways, too heavily focused on print as an eventual outcome. (You would think in this era of XML and XSLT we would be there already, but, alas, we are not.)

Our society is not alone in being somewhat dependent on the revenue generated by subscriptions to the journal. Like any number of scholarly societies, subscriptions are considerably larger than the active members in the field and are largely dependent upon libraries around the world. In some way, libraries subsidize small scholarly societies as well as, perhaps, large ones. Perhaps that is as it should be. The true cost of running a scholarly society, as opposed to a professional society which can probably charge more for membership, can probably never be born by its members — unless, perhaps, they agglomerate into larger and larger groups for economies of scale. E.g., the American Anthropological Association. (Which now has a number of breakaway groups and journals because the views of the center cannot encompass the many views of its many edges.)

At the same time as all this is happening, libraries have been bearing the costs of both print and digital editions of scholarly products like journals. That kind of expansion of costs for, ostensibly, the same product was bearable when money was less of a concern. But it’s a concern now and likely to remain one for a while. And so, libraries now have to begin making choices that perhaps should have been made a long time ago. Not surprisingly, they find digital more cost effective across a number of fronts.

The obvious needs to be said here: digital production in no way inhibits users from printing out materials and reading them the old-fashioned way. It’s just that the cost of doing so, and the hassle of it to some degree, is now directly born by the print user and not by the larger economy. Pay as you go, as it were. With any luck, some of the hassle will get removed as print-on-demand devices become more common and more available so one could download an entire copy of a journal and have it printed and bound — that’s one of the satisfactions of hoisting a book that I don’t know the digital realm will ever replace.

I should be clear: I love books. I love the way they feel, smell, look. I paid my way through undergrad and parts of grad doing graphic design work. I love the printed page. But I’m also a realist, and we’re in serious need of a re-think about how all this goes. I know some will lament the loss of page numbers for citations, but what need the page number when you can search the text for the quotation yourself and get to it faster than flipping through pages and scanning paragraphs?


My Schedule at the American Folklore Society Meeting

The final draft of the program for the 2009 meeting of the American Folklore Society came out last week and a quick search revealed here’s where I’m going to be:

* On Thursday from 1:30 – 3:30, I will be in the panel “Watery Places” to present my paper “The Ethics of Creativity on the Rice Prairies of Louisiana;
* On Friday from 1:30 – 3:30, I will be in the panel “The Future of Communication in Folklore III: New Media” with old friends Jason Jackson, Jon Kay, and Tom Mould; and, finally,
* Just after the previous session, I will be in the “Meet the Editors” panel with Harry Berger and Giovanna P. del Negro and the super-secret new editor(s) of the _Journal of American Folklore_.

Boats That Go on Land and Water (AFS 2007)

## Introduction

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there ranged a variety of debates and discourses around the nation about the wisdom of rebuilding in the areas struck by the 2005 storms. It makes no sense, many argued, to build a city, especially a modern American city, on land so, well, not land. The same argument has been made before about New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana: Too much risk. Too much water. Too little land.

On the second anniversary of the storms, National Geographic reporting on the current state of things in New Orleans led off with the following:

> The sinking city faces rising seas and stronger hurricanes, protected only by dwindling wetlands and flawed levees. Yet people are trickling back to the place they call home, rebuilding in harm’s way. (Bourne 33; emphases in the original)

Those five adjective-noun pairs — “sinking city,” “rising seas” — build to a kind of apocalyptic inevitability that underlines the absurdity — or, alternately, undermines the actuality — of living on, or in, an ambiguous landscape.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the residents of Louisiana would come to imagine the relationship between land and water differently. New Orleans after all was established on a portage point between Bayouk Choupique, today Bayou St. John, and the Mississippi River. The city was founded, in other words, on land understood as a bridge between two waterways. Much of the state’s history is caught up in its need to negotiate on a recurring basis what parts are wet and what are dry.

During the colonial period, land grants, which were measured in lengths of river frontage, typically required land holders not only to build roads but also to build and maintain levees. The colonial authorities were right to worry about levees. The general consensus after Katrina is that the storm itself was not the disaster, the levees breaking is what changed everything for everyone. The Seventeenth Street Canal is now famous. Less well known is “Mister Go,” the common nickname for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), which was dug in 1965 by the Army Core of Engineers through the existing land bridge and barrier islands. MRGO is commonly believed to be the ruin of Saint Bernard Parish. It is also, it should be noted, but one of hundreds of canals, locks, damns, weirs, pumps, drains, and other structures and bodies managed by a wide array of local, super-local, state, and federal agencies.

Closer to home, the Vermilion River that passes through Lafayette actually began through a slow process of coastal erosion, making its way up through the marshes, until, reaching Lafayette, where later a wandering distributary of the Bayou Teche would make the Vermilion into a true, flowing river. The Teche — itself a product of a complex geological history — is now fed by the Bayou Courtableau.

Just a few miles north of Krotz Springs, sitting just a football field’s length from the Atchafalaya River, Ralph Castille and his crew of eight men keep watch on the depth of the Bayou Courtableau. The number 17.64 has an almost magical quality for them. 17.64 is the height above sea level of the bayou at a particular point in its course that it is their job to maintain. When the bayou is in flood stage, there are two massive weirs designed to bleed off the excess water, but when the bayou is low, it’s Castille’s job to crank up one to four 1500HP motors and begin pouring water into the Courtableau. The water backs the bayou up to Bayou Fusilier, which in turn floods into the Bayou Teche. The Teche feeds the Vermilion River via Bayou Fusilier north of Lafayette and via the Ruth Canal south of the city. Both outlets are sometimes necessary when farmers like Keith Luquette start pumping their fields either to flood for planting rice or for growing crawfish.

Luquette’s farm is one of hundreds that cover the Louisiana prairies, which, interestingly enough, were first imagined in terms of the sea. Standing on some of the small mounds on the edge of the prairie, stands of trees seemed like îles, or islands. Conversely, when a patch of prairie was surrounded by trees, it was dubbed an anse, or cove. Driving across the prairies today, one passes through places like Anse LeJeune, Anse Maigre, Point Blue, and Pointe Claire.

It is perhaps no wonder then that when Alan Lomax drove across these prairies in search of the country Mardi Gras he imagined that he was in the midsts, or mists, of marshes silvered with fog. In fact, Lomax was, as the sign for Louisiana 13 reveals as it rolls by, on the highway from Eunice to Mamou, driving through fields freshly flooded in preparation for planting rice.

How, then, to go about trying to understand such a mixed-up, mutable landscape as this? More importantly, how does one go about understanding what the residents of the landscape understand? The obvious answer is that we need to turn to the actions of those residents, the things they say and do, in order to begin to understand how it is they structure the raw material of their physical environment into something like a landscape.

The larger project examines a wider swathe of the archeological record, discussing, for example, the few recorded instances where the land and water ship appears in folktales, or, for example, the variety of legends that always place buried treasure at a tree which is almost always located adjacent to a lake or in a swamp. There are also a number of jokes and a few songs that give us glimpses into the minds of Cajuns and Creoles making their way through the watery world of Louisiana’s landscape.

I have included in the handout a version of AT513b that George Reinecke found printed in the pages of Le Meschacébé, a French language weekly of Saint John Parish. This version was printed in 1878 as the last of a series, all in Creole (unlike the rest of the paper), called “Contes Nègres.” Previous stories in the series were all African animal stories, much like those later published by Alcée Fortier and Joel Chandler Harris. This version of the tale, Reinecke observes, “combines the theme of the male Cinderella suitor for the princess’ hand with three others: the king’s insistence on an amphibious ship, the unexpected but deserved help from a disguised supernatural being, and the presence of skillful helpers, each with a special gift, who allow the suitor to comply with the king’s increasingly difficult demands” (20).

The audience handout is in English, but I have inserted the French form of “a boat that would go on both land and sea” in italics.


In reality, there are a number of boats that can perform the folkloric feat of going on la terre com on la mer. The oldest boat imagined to be capable of doing so if, of course, the pirogue, sometimes said to be a boat that can “glide on dew.” Wood pirogues are still being made in Louisiana, sometimes out of venerable cypress planks and sometimes out of plywood, but there are also pirogues made out of fiberglass and out of aluminum. Pirogues and other wooden water craft have been documented by Malcolm Comeaux and Ray Brassieur.

Pirogues are still used for some hunting and some fishing and of course by naturalists, but they are not the preferred craft when you need to cover a great deal of territory, when you need to move quickly, and/or when you need to carry a load. In those situations, most Louisiana residents turn to power boats. The classic bateau with an outboard motor is very popular in south Louisiana. (My family is no exception; we own three vehicles: a car, a truck, and a boat.) The bateau, or john boat as it is sometimes known, traverses water as shallow as a foot, if carefully handled, but nothing less. In those instances, however, it is still possible to use an air boat.

Air boats were invented soon after airplanes, it seems, with the first documented craft being built by Alexander Graham Bell in 1905. By the 1930s, home-made air boats were in use throughout Florida and Louisiana. Air boats solve the power-to-weight problem in one way, by having the propeller out of the water, but it took some time before engines became light enough that a sufficiently powerful but also sufficiently light enough engine could be coupled with a propeller in the water, transforming the mid-century “put-put” boat into the late-century mud boat.

The classic mud boat has the engine mounted amidships with a long shaft running above the hull and through the transom. The mud boats I grew up riding in usually used Volkswagen Beetle engines because they were both light and fairly uncomplicated, both factors being a dimension of their being air-cooled. The mud boat got its name for being able to power its way through water so shallow as to be effectively mud. The introduction of the Go Devil engine in the early 1980s, and the innovations brought about by the Provost brothers of Pro-Drive in the last decade, changed the nature of the mud boat considerably, shifting the balance of production from home-made craft to three regional manufacturers.

Both the air boat and the mud boat are part of the current project, but for now this brief history will have to suffice.

The third boat capable of going on la terre com on la mer is the modern crawfish boat. The particular form that I will be discussing today is known, to those who build it and those who use it, more simply as “the hydraulic boat.” As the demand for crawfish grew through the sixties and seventies, and as rice production alone became less economically sustainable, area rice farmers began to experiment with ways of mechanizing what was still largely a hand and foot operation. That is, crawfishing rice fields was still a matter of a farmer pulling or pushing a pirogue or bateau, and working the traps as he himself stood knee to hip deep in water. (Probably should explain the geology of rice fields here: 4 to 12 inches of top soil on top of a clay pan.)

I should note that the willingness to embrace new technology or to innovate within an extant technological domain is not new to the area or to the industry. As one observer has noted: “Louisiana rice farming gained prominence, and market share, in the post Civil War period precisely because it was mechanized. Where older rice-growing regions in South Carolina and Georgia sought to remain viable, their labor-intensive practices were difficult to continue when workers were no longer enslaved” (ESC: 44-45). I should also note that the shift to rice agriculture seems to have been largely precipitated by an influx of German immigrants from other parts of the U.S. as well as from Europe. They were mostly assimilated by their Cajun neighbors, but there are some interesting ethnic identity issues that deserve a fuller treatment than we have time for here.

Our experimenting farmers — with names like Zaunbrecher, Frugé, Heinen, Richard, LeJeune, and Frey — tried a a variety of engines, gearings, and forms of power delivery — shafts, belts, chains — in an effort to harness small engines, which operate best at high RPM, to the task of moving a boat slowly through the water. Farmers were modifying standard bateaus in various ways so that they would “crawl” through a rice field/crawfish pond. There seem to have been a number of attempts at various mechanical configurations, almost all of which are only recalled in terms of their “contraption”-like nature. The arrangement that seems to have eventuated out of all of this experimentation involved mounting a small Briggs and Stratton or Honda engine to a Montgomery Ward tiller transmission on the transom of a boat and then transferring the power, usually with a shaft, to a driving wheel — the cleated wheel seems to have been part of the overall configuration from close to the beginning of the craft’s history.

Part bateau, part paddle wheel, part processing plant, the modern crawfish boat is both amazing to behold as an object and a thing of grace when operated by an experienced crawfisherman. The boat’s engine drives a hydraulic pump that turns the great wheel, lifts the wheel boom, turns the boat left and right, and controls the boat’s speed. Sitting behind a tray with sorting holes leading to mesh bags, the crawfisherman dances a water-born, cyborg ballet. Man and machine arc in and out along the line of crawfish traps, with each trap in turn being pulled, dumped, sorted, and rebaited just in time to replace the next trap which is in turn pulled, dumped, sorted, and rebaited.

The dance travels along the line of traps until a section of field is completed. The boat then reveals its amphibian nature as the powerful propelling wheel pushes the craft up a field levee until it noses back down into the next section. When a field is complete, the crawfish boat crawls up onto land and motors its way down the road to the next field, rolling both on the back wheel and on wheels tucked into the front of the hull.


Credit for the invention of the hydraulic boat is usually given to Gerard Olinger of Robert’s Cove. Olinger defers credit to a local farmer who first had the idea of using hydraulics as the only form of power delivery that would survive being immersed in water. Olinger made his first boats in 1983, and they quickly became the standard by which all others were judged. Over the next five years, he was joined by a number of makers.

Kurt Venable in Rayne, Mike Richard in Richey, Dale Hughes in Welch, and Jimmy Abshire in Kaplan, along with Olinger, are the five major makers of the hydraulic boat. (There are a few other builders still building boats and a few others who have come and gone, but that’s for another time.)

Kurt Venable is central both in terms of his location and in terms of being the most prolific of the makers, assembling something on the order of 40 boats a year. Mike Richard makes about 20 boats a year. Dale Hughes about a dozen. Jimmy Abshire and Jared Olinger about a half dozen each.


Each maker has his own “style” of boat, but the basic form of the crawfish boat, since Olinger introduced the front wheels, is fairly well established: the hull has the typical scow bow, flat bottom, square stern, and moderately flared sides of the traditional Louisiana bateau. Indeed, as I have already noted, the first crawfish boats were simply modified versions of the boats most commonly used for inland fishing. However the four-foot wide hulls of the widely available commercial hulls had a tendency to swamp when the boat turned. An immediate adaptation was to raise the sides of the boat near the stern. [I should note that the boat builders and the farmers and operators who are their clients do not use nautical terminology when discussing these craft. There are no sterns, nor transoms, nor keels. There are backs and bottoms.] It was a short-lived modification. Having wearied of reinforcing the commercial hulls which did not hold up well to the weight and thrust of the wheeled drive unit, the boat builders had already begun to build their own hulls, which led to the current hull form which is based on a five-foot wide sheet of aluminum that flares out to the craft’s six foot width. (The overall length of the boat has held constant at fourteen to fifteen feet.)

At the front of the hull, usually about four feet back, are a pair of wheels — typically the kind used on small utility trailers. On a Venable boat, the wheels are set inside wells in the hull. Olinger places his wheels in a bay, giving the front of his boats a very car-like appearance. Hughes and Richard mount their wheels outside the hull with an axle connecting them running through the interior of the hull, with the axle also acting as a stiffener. Both Venable and Olinger prefer to place decks in their boats, with the supports for the deck stiffening the hull.

At the back of the hull sits the massive drive unit, an articulated steel arm that raises and lowers, swings left and right, and holds a cleated steel wheel two to three feet in diameter and usually about one foot wide. Like the hulls, almost every facet of the drive units are fabricated “in shop.” The boat builders buy the following stock items: • the forward wheels (as noted above) • the gasoline engine (usually a Honda or Kohler)1 the battery the two rams, or pistons the hydraulic system components (pump, motor, valves, and hoses — the reservoir, however, is handmade)

Everything else is hand-made through careful combining of pieces of stock aluminum and steel materials. In addition to being available in sheets of various thicknesses, widths, lengths, and finishes aluminum and steel are also available in lengths of various shapes — like angles, channels, and beams — and in lengths of various pipe/tubing configurations — described in terms of shape (round or rectangular), thickness, and hardness.

The two basic parts of the hydraulic crawfish boat are closely denoted by the metals of which they consist: aluminum hulls and steel drive units. Where the two meet is where power gets transfered. This means not only securing the drive unit to the rear, or transom, of the boat, but also making sure that, once secured to the back of the boat, it doesn’t literally rip the back of the boat as it pushes. Mike Richard uses two sets of braces, interestingly one aluminum and one steel, welded or bolted to bars welded to the bottom of the boat.

The steel platform stretched across the boat is where everything, except the battery, that has to do with powering and operating the boat, are housed: the engine and hydraulic pump, the oil reservoir, the valves, and the driver’s seat. Richard is, in fact, known for the openness of his design.


When I first began approaching the boatmakers to ask them about their work, I admit that one of my concerns was how much they would be willing to tell me about their work. My concern was based in part on my experiences with the builder who, it turns out, is most known for his curmudgeonly presentation of self. He was simply the first one I encountered. As I began to work with the other builders, however, I realized that my concern was ill-founded. While each man is fairly certain that he builds the best boat, they all have worked on other’s boats, repairing or modifying them as customers’ needs, wants, and understandings change. And, it turns out, the farmers who are their customers are not only a source of and feedback, as well as their own ideas (which are variously received by the boatmakers) but also a conduit for information about developments by other builders. (Farmers talk. A lot. E.g., Dale Olinger’s “Cove News Network.”)

Front wheels were first put on boats by Jerry Olinger in the early nineties. Olinger had the idea when he realized that the reason hulls were wearing out so fast because farmers were driving the boats from field to field. He placed the wheels so they wold not to interfere with levee crossings — the hull needs to slide over the dirt ridges — but to be useful for riding down the road.

Sometimes the solution to one problem actually solves another problem. One of the complaints about the rear wheels is that they create trenches in the fields — they can create one foot or more drops in the bottom of a field. This has largely seemed an intractable (pardon the pun) problem with various solutions proffered — Olinger has gone to two six-inch wide wheels set two feet apart. About three years ago, Kurt Venable began to weld steel bars onto the edges of his wheels’ cleats. The problem he was trying to solve was how quickly a piece of three-eighths inch thick piece of steels four inches long can get worn down to a nub, sometimes, depending upon the composition of a farmer’s soil, in a single season. It turns out, however, that the reinforced cleats ride a little better on field bottoms and dig a little less. This was, all the builders agree, an unexpected bonus.

The more academic question I am hoping to address in doing this research, apart from having an answer to the question posed by the National Geographic quotation at the start of this essay, is to understand the nature of creativity, especially understanding creativity not in terms of an individual but in terms of a system, a network of individuals. There seems to be a gap in current research into creativity between human science studies that focus on fields and domains and humanistic studies that focus on the exceptional individual. My hope is that this handful of boatmakers will allow me to understand how creativity can be both dispersed and focused within a field, such that all participants are both part of the system and exceptions to it. My hope, in short, is to build a boat … of a kind.