Waking Up In My Own Backyard by Sandra Phinney

Warning! Reading this book will leave you exhausted! I was only a few chapters in when I had to put down the book and wonder aloud: “How does a seventy-year-old manage to do all this in a day?” Let me back up and explain what Sandra Phinney’s Waking Up In My Own Backyard (2017, Pottersfield Press) is all about.

Waking Up and Psychogeography Explained

Basically “Waking Up” came about as an idea to do something different -each day- for 31 days straight. The month of July was chosen and it became known as “The July Project” or TJP for short. However, it was not to be a cross-another-item-off-the-bucket-list type of project. No, this was all about “psychogeography” which I will let the author explain:

I liked what Merlin Coverley had to say. He describes psychogeography as “a means to overcome the processes of ‘banalization’ by which the everyday experiences of our surroundings become drab monotony.” Coverley maintains that if we looked at a city as a site of mystery, and wandered/walked in an area with our blinders off, we’d discover “the true nature that lies beneath the flux of the everyday.” Of course, in my head I substituted the words “backyard,” “village,” and “town” for “city.”

Since Sandra Phinney lives in a small town in Nova Scotia her area of coverage included “going anywhere in Southwest Nova Scotia referred to as the Tri-counties: Shelburne, Yarmouth, and Digby.” [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#0073AA” class=”” size=””]Waking Up In My Own Backyard is chock full of fun trips, explorations and interesting little stories that Sandra Phinney has collected over the years.[/perfectpullquote] This is her “backyard” so to speak. Someone living in a large city may want to stick to a smaller radius. Each chapter of the book is a “day” so the book reads as a combination journal and travelogue. Near the beginning of TJP, she gets a map of Nova Scotia and using a pencil and a compass (remember them from high school?) she draws a circle with a radius of ten kilometres from her home.

[I] discovered it actually covers 315 square kilometres. It covers several rural communities such as Canaan, Quinan, Raynardton (where the Strawberry Festival was), and Belleville (where the snake man lives). Within this prescribed region are seven churches, three community halls, three schools, three fire halls, two B and Bs, a library, and a general store with a license to sell liquor and gas. But there’s more, and this is where it gets interesting.

Indeed, it does get interesting, and this is where the reader will get the most from this book: that even in the rural areas of our world (but definitely in the urban/suburban worlds) there is no shortage of interesting “finds.” Sandra (she tells me not to call her Ms. Phinney!) has a child’s sense of wonder and is interested in everything, whether it is a “tulip tree” a small-town Strawberry Festival, a man who keeps snakes (and unbeknownst to her, very close to where she lives), a Wild Game Evening, driving around Yarmouth after midnight, and so on, Waking Up is chock full of fun trips, explorations and interesting little stories that Sandra has collected over the years. I wondered when she ever found the time to write of her daily experiences, so I asked her about it:

Although my intent was to write every single day, I didn’t manage to pull that off. I think my batting average was about 80 percent. Consequently, some posts showed up the next morning and some were a day or two late. In one instance I think I was a few days late and had to play catch up! And most of the posts were fairly short, accompanied by a few photos. It probably seems like the posts were longer in the book as I covered more ground, wove in additional research and former stories that I had written about etc.

Inside the Durkee Memorial Library

One place she discovered resulted in an amusing story regarding the Durkee Memorial Library in Carleton which was built in 1938. Sandra writes: “The library is an eight-by-five-metre log cabin painted grey with green trim, and sits on an elevated ridge on Route 340 that passes through the village. There are a few well-pruned and maintained maples, oaks, birch, pine, and even a chestnut tree surrounding its sides and back (read more to find reputable tree services). I’ve driven by the library hundreds of times but have only crossed its portals once – some thirty years ago when I borrowed two books and never returned them. One became moldy and I burned it, but the other, The Electric City, by Paul Stehelin, had been thumbed through a lot, so much so that the spine had broken, some pages were loose, and the book was held together with a large rubber band.”

After going through the library (and its museum) and discovering all kinds of things, Sandra turns to Lucille White (the librarian):

“I confessed to Lucille about not returning the books I borrowed over thirty years ago. She laughed, saying, “Happens all the time.” I offered to buy a copy of The Electric City but some kind soul had donated one a couple of years ago. At twenty-five cents late fee per day, I reckon I owed the library about three thousand dollars per book. So I made a modest donation and signed up to volunteer as a small atonement for my sins.”

Your Own Backyard Project

I hope from this brief review, you may get a sense of how wonderful it was to discover Sandra’s “backyard” along with her. You may want to read it a day at a time though, or you will be too drained to do anything!

Hopefully, you will be encouraged to try something similar where you live, if even for a week or a few days. Here are some tips from Sandra for your “psychogeography” backyard project:

  1. Decide what target area is going to be. Could be 10 k or 100 k from your home. Could also be your own town (or county) … or a neighbouring one.
  2. Broadcast far and wide what you plan to do; invite someone to join you.
  3. Solicit suggestions via Facebook, your email contacts, and Listservs.
  4. Ask the locals for their favourite off-the-beaten-track places to visit. They know where the best beaches and bean suppers are, or where to buy funky antiques.
  5. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Make new friends.
  6. Stretch your comfort zone: swim in the nude or pat a python.
  7. Ask people to show you how they do things (like smoke fish, hunt for amethyst, identify stars).
  8. Read the events section in local newspapers, church bulletins and community posters.
  9. Find experts in a field you are interested in and tag along.
  10. Exercise the muscles that make you smile. Practise laughing. Repeat numbers 1-10 until you get the hang of it.

There you go! Have fun “Waking Up In Your Own Backyard!”

Naomi at Consumed by Ink (who is a “Yarmouthian”) says: “What makes Sandra’s book so much fun is her enthusiasm and curiosity. She has a knack for getting to the bottom of things, and she doesn’t shy away from remote places or mosquito-ridden locations.”

More Questions for Sandra

Miramichi Reader: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.

SP: Adult work-history prior to 1999 includes teaching high school and adult education courses, counselling, operating a retail business, and farming. I also did odd jobs off season when I farmed–everything from cutting fish to teaching university courses. Since 1999, when I started my freelance business, my focus has been on writing stories for magazines and trade journals; doing corporate work; and writing books (four in total.) Education-wise, I graduated from UNB in 1965 with a B. P.Ed.; and completed coursework for M. Ed. (Counselling) from Acadia 1974. Have taken numerous courses since starting my writing business, primarily related to writing and photography.

MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.

SP: The person who had the most influence on me as a writer was Dr. Glen Hancock (1919-2011). Glen was a war correspondent. He later taught creative writing at Acadia University and helped to establish the journalism school at Kings College. Glen wrote for many international publications, and was also an editor at Reader’s Digest and MacLean’s in the early years. And he wrote books. When I first started my freelance writing business I didn’t have a clue. I mustered up the courage to ask him if he would mentor me and he agreed. I can’t adequately express my love and appreciation for this gentle and brilliant soul. He taught me many things including the importance of staying out of a story unless I had a good reason to be there.

MR: Do you have a favourite book (or books), one(s) that you like to revisit from time to time?

SP: Yes, “The Tent Dwellers” by Albert Bigelow Paine. The book recounts a trip he made from the United States to NS in 1906 to fish with his buddy Edward (Eddie) Breck. They hired two guides and paddled and fished in what is now known at Kejimkujic and the Tobeatic here in NS. The book was first published in 1908. It’s hilarious, poignant, and one of the most entertaining books I ever read. Paine is a consummate story teller and a brilliant writer. For sure it’s my favourite “travel” book; I’ve read it many times. I also recreated that trip in 2008, to commemorate “The Tent Dwellers” trip. That’s a story for another time.

MR: What are you working on now?

SP: At the moment I have four magazine stories on the go and two newspapers articles. Topics vary from the oldest house in NS to model boat builders and a food story in praise of haddock. I am also doing research on Maud Lewis and interviewing people with first-hand stories for a book I am writing about her. So much has been written about Maud Lewis that I’m finding this a daunting proposition … yet there are many untold stories (and viewpoints) and that is what I’m focusing on. So I am trying to set my fears aside and just keep going.

MR: Finally, what do you like to do when you are not writing or travelling?

SP: I’ve discovered the pleasure of afternoon naps. Haha. Of course, I’m passionate about paddling so I try and get out in my canoe when the weather is fit-even for a short spin on our river-and even in the winter when the river is not iced up. I also teach Tai Chi a couple of times a week. And my husband Barrie MacGregor and I like to walk so we are doing some hiking close to home. And I love spending time with friends and family and I’m doing more of that.

Waking Up In My Own Backyard by Sandra Phinney
Pottersfield Press

5 thoughts on “Waking Up In My Own Backyard by Sandra Phinney”

  1. I’m so excited to read this book! And even more so now that I know everything that’s going to be in it. I spent 8 years of my childhood in Carleton, and remember that library. I’m so happy to know it’s still going.
    This is a fantastic review!

    • Thanks Naomi! Yes, someone from that area would really get the most out of this book. I know there’s similar adventures to be had locally in New Brunswick too. Just gotta get out there!

      • Lovely to see you pop into view Naomi! Thanks for commenting. And I think you’ll get a kick out of reading many things in the book related to Carleton, Deerfield, Raynardton, Quinan etc. It certainly was a pleasure writing about the people and places in our own “backyard.”

  2. Thank you so much for doing this interview James. Truly enjoyed fielding your questions! And, I recently read the book again … and it exhausted me too!

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