Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Barn Owls

This is what a true Barn Owl looks like. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This is what a Great Horned Owl in a Saskatchewan barn looks like. 

I love owls. Owls love barns. I love barns. It was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened: an owl sighting in a barn. When I was growing up, there was an owl living in our barn up on a hilly piece of my dad's land. This barn owl was a legendary creature who lived for many more years than most owls do and was the father of an impressive line of owlets. When I say legendary, I mean that literally. Most of the tales we heard of this barn owl were inventions of my dad, which I only realised relatively recently. There was indeed an owl who lived in that barn for a time, but my dad made up lots of stories about him to keep us kids entertained.

I think my obsession with owls started at that tender age. I love them so much I even considered getting an owl tattooed on my shoulder in a crude simulation of the Greek goddess of wisdom Athene who was often depicted in art with an owl perched on her shoulder. I regularly receive birthday and Christmas gifts with owl motifs, such as jewellry, contact lens cases, phone cases and the like. My spirit animal would definitely be an owl. Nothing gives me more delight than to hear the 'whoo-whoo' of owls late at night outside my window. Owls are regularly associated with barns, so you would think I'd have seen one before now. Though I've seen a fair number of owls in my time, but never one actually IN a barn until just a few days ago.

Last fall during the survey, my dad and I were documenting the barn pictured above. As we got close to measure it, an owl came swooping out, a startling and exciting event. The barn, by the way, is located just a few miles west of my farm in the Gap and is an example of a "cut-down" barn. Cut-down barns are the roof and loft of a barn which has been cut down to create a smaller building. The original ground level is removed. Usually this was done to save a barn that was in poor shape, or to create a building more suitable for storing machinery when the barn was no longer in use. There are several examples of these in my study region.

The other evening, my brother and I were speeding down the Correction Line with my camera in tow en route to a photo opportunity some miles to the north involving a family of foxes. We had been alerted to this by my sister who had just seen them on her way to Regina. As we approached and passed the cut-down barn (in the blink of an eye, of course, since we were in the Le Sabre), I mentioned casually "there's an owl in that barn" and glanced back at it, only to see, you guessed it, an owl. With great excitement and some difficulty (owing to the Le Sabre's inherent speed demon nature), I slowed down, and with great care, reversed at a snail's pace until we were level with the barn. Because of the fox photo hunt, I just so happened to have the telephoto lens all ready to go on my camera. The light wasn't ideal, and the distance was still too great to capture him in detail, but the owl patiently posed for the barest of moments while I got my shots before turning and alighting silently from the window.

If there was ever a Kodak moment, this was it. I think I have to thank Athene for that one. I drive past that barn several times a week, usually so aborbed in other thoughts that I don't even notice it. But for some reason that evening, I remembered the owl sighting from last fall and happened to glance back.

As we have learned, barns in this area aren't used for much anymore. But they do make perfect homes for a whole host of wild creatures, as explored in the post The Dangers of Barn Hunting. Barns are a great habitat for owls since they provide shelter from the elements and a quiet, dark place for them to sleep during the day. Perhaps this owl had just woken up and was surveying the scene before taking off for his nighttime hunting. Or maybe he just knew I was coming and wanted to make sure I had something to write in my blog this week. Owls are always thinking ahead.

The owl prepares to launch.

What's that? A question about my thesis progress? Thanks for the reminder. Did I hit my goal of 33 pages? No. Are we going to talk any more about it? No, we are not. I continue to chip away at it every day and make progress, though not as much progress as I had ambitiously hoped for in my previous post. There are many reasons, chief amongst them procrastination, but we all knew that was going to happen. Perhaps next week I will have more promising news to report. Until then!

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Barn Hunter's Foolproof Guide to Thesis Writing

From prairie vistas...

...to Windows Vista, the Barn Hunter's daily work venue has changed. Just kidding about the Windows Vista thing, I am actually serious about completing this thesis without irreplaceable data loss along the way.

I have already failed my earlier promise to write a weekly post. Last week I was planning to write a post, but all I would have to write about is how I hadn't got started on my thesis yet, and I was too embarrassed to do that. So I did it this week. But, I can also add the happy news that I finally did get started, and even made some real progress. In the meantime, I've also picked up a sweet summer job, found a thesis-writing office (thanks to the lovely Eldene Schmidt), cleaned out two closets and mastered a bun recipe. The Barn Hunter is back in business.

So, first of all, what is a thesis? I could probably use a reminder myself, so I'll peruse the Oxford Dictionary of Current English to see what it has to say.

thesis /thee-siss/ n. 1. a statement or theory put forward to be supported or proved. 2. a long piece of written work involving personal research, written as part of a university degree.

The thing I'm working on now is the second definition, though it must also contain the first definition. A thesis within a thesis. There's a lot of pressure invovled with these things. When I first began gradaute school, I really did not believe I had the ability to pull it off. I'm still a bit doubtful, but now that Ive started, I realise that, as difficult as it is, it's not quite as insurmountable as I had initially imagined. Really, a thesis is just five term papers all mashed together to support one main thesis. That's it. Easy.  I've got the information to do it, now I've just got to do it. And that's the hard part.

I think most graduate students have lofty visions of writing an amazing thesis that will have all professors in the department falling over themselves with praise, and publishing presses beating down the door. It is seen as a sort of culmination, a cherry on top to the work of graduate school. In a way it is, but in another way it's just another exercise to slog through on the way to earning that heavyweight piece of paper that says Master on it. We all want to feel like we have actually mastered something. I'm realising that it's sort of human to feel that way, and we better give up on actually achieving it if we ever want to have some peace of mind.

My friend Teresa has said to me on multiple occasions, "the only good thesis is a done thesis." My former professor and good friend Dr. Allison Fizzard told me just recently that "perfection is the enemy of good." So, I'm learning to let go of my grand visions and simply sit down and start typing away. Which brings me to the point of this whole post: how to write a thesis, barn hunter style.

I have three excellent and brilliant friends working on their theses right now as well. They reached their writing stage before me because my trip to England last year meant my research was pushed back. Thus, I had friends who had already gone through the proposal stage before I did, friends who talked me off the cliff. These are Meghann, PhD candidate, and Noah and Claire, my fellow MA cohort pals.

Like most graduate students, I have a giant case of imposter's syndrome, and spend a lot of my time wondering why they ever let me into graduate school. I've always believed that I don't do things the proper, scholarly way. Watching my friends work on their theses made me even more convinced of that. They do things properly. They have organised notes, they read all their sources beforehand and have very neat post-it notes marking each place they want to cite, they have diligent working habits. I possess none of these skills, and was starting to really panic about it. Then, my supervisor said something along the lines of: "it's your thesis, you can write it however you want." And then the epiphany struck. When it's done, no one will know how I got to that point, so I can just write it as haphazardly as I've written every other academic paper.

And so, without any further ado, here is the Barn Hunter's Foolproof Guide to Thesis Writing

1. Sit and stare into space for at least an hour before doing anything else.
2. Mentally berate yourself for being a failed academic and a mediocre human being.
3. Open your word processor.
4. Fiddle around finding appropriate tunes - usually classical a la Ralph Vaughan Williams and/or Vivaldi mixed in with some flavour of the week rock/pop playlists. 
5. Write like a wild thing possessed by the Furies, urged on by the Muses and guided by Hermes. This will last for approximately twenty minutes.
6. Assess the results: several paragraphs of single spaced drivel.
7. Surf around on the internet mindlessly for no less than one hour.
8. Repeat steps 5 and 6.
9. Emerge into the sunshine for a brisk walk.
10. Repeat steps 5 through 10.

That's my daily agenda. Also, there is to be no chronological progress. Open whichever chapter you feel like writing about, and just start typing. When bored of that particular topic, switch to another chapter.

When writing a thesis, it's important to set goals and deadlines for yourself. Even someone as disogranised as I am needs that bit of structure. When I first began, I had goals of "Chapter ___ complete by _____." But then I realised I wouldn't write like that. I just can't. I have to be disorganised and half crazy for anything good to come out. And so now my goal is simply to write five pages per day/twenty pages per week. I'm aiming for a 150 page thesis, including photos and diagrams, so that means that I should be on course to finish by the end of the summer.

Goal: 20 pages per week
Progress for week of May 12-18th: 13 pages. 

So, yeah, I didn't make it last week. But that's okay! I only actually worked for two full days last week due to some extenuating circumstances, some legitimate and some just me being a procrastinator. I am happy with thirteen pages last week. Next time I post, it should be at least 33 pages. Until then....here's another picture of a barn.

This barn west of Radville is the only barn with an existing silo in my region. It was once used as a feedlot in the 1960s. Photo October 31, 2013.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Return to the Hunting Grounds: Thesis Time

It's been awhile. I apologize for the lengthy silence, but I was busy trying to survive winter in St. John's, my last bit of coursework, and having a bit of fun, too. But I am now returned to my native land, the place where all of my barn hunting adventures began. I have successfully passed my final course and come through the daunting thesis proposal presentation. My next task as a barn hunter is to take all of the goodies I collected and turn them into something halfway comprehensible. Then, if I'm lucky, the good folks at Memorial University will deem it good enough to let me walk away with a Master's degree.

Barn hunting in the field was rarely a lonely task. I often had a sidekick along with me, whether it was Stacy or my dad or my sister. When I was flying solo, I always had people to talk to when I drove into their yards. Even at the archives I had other people to help me out or chat with. But this part of the process is different. I have to go at it alone. I have a lot of frustration, long days and hard work in front of me. The looming spectre of procrastination is hanging over my head, grinning ghoulishly. But perhaps this blog will help make me accountable. I'll endeavour to update it weekly, as I did last fall. It may not be as in-depth as it was before, but I'll try to at least post a few new photos every week, as well as an update on the thesis progress. If I make the process a little bit public, perhaps I'll be able to shame myself into actually doing it.

Right now the birds are chirping and the frogs are singing outside my window. It's still very cold for this time of year (we even had snow yesterday), but spring is coming. When it comes, it will come fast, and it will take all my willpower not to succumb to the urge to gambol through lilac bushes all day long. Some say that writing a thesis can actually be rewarding. That remains to be seen, but one thing I can promise you is that the thesis will get done, somehow or another. I look forward to dragging you along with me.

Until next week, here's a barn photo to tide us all over.

October 29, 2013. Northwest of Ceylon.