Katie Norris

Traces of Life in Suburban Trails


For this ethnographic experiment, I chose a location where I would be motivated to think critically about my surroundings. I have an affinity toward nature and trees and living things that aren’t human; combined with an interest in how the senses can evoke different perceptions, the trails by my house seemed a perfect location. Wild and untamed, yet connected to the heart of a city suburb, Talcy Park is an anomaly in and of itself. By virtue of the fact that my neighborhood sits, quite literally, on top of a sheer slope on the edge of Orleans, there are swaths of undeveloped land that have been adapted into a unique set of trails. There are no formal pathways or signs, just a series of back trodden dirt paths which meander their way in and around the slope. These paths serve as informal back-access routes which connect parts of the suburb which otherwise would not be easily accessible by foot. I use one particular path as a shortcut to the bus station; one quick run down the slope and a twenty-minute walk to Trim station is cut down to five. Having never fully explored these networks for myself, I decided to traverse the trails and record my experiences for this ethnographic exercise.


Through my ethnographic experiments I wanted to describe my experience and observations while hiking in two very different ways. In doing so, I attempt to draw connections between the trail as a space that can both impact and be impacted upon; as well as a shared space of human and non-human life. My first ethnographic description, “Traces of Life on a Nature Hike,” takes a narrative form. A highly reflective piece, I write in the present tense presenting my experiences as small ethnographic vignettes. Not a linear piece, my ethnographic data has been synthesised and organized to best reflect this writing style. The goal of this piece is to explore space and place with the senses in mind. My second ethnography takes the form of raw field notes. This very literal form tells the same narrative as the first ethnography but in a linear way. My notes read as a stream of consciousness and complement the reflective aspect of my first ethnography in its reflexivity. Keeping the purview of this assignment in mind, I have not included all my notes (which, when transcribed, are 5+ pages) rather, I have pulled material from my notes which complement my first ethnography. I have ensured the content reflects approximately one page of typed text (700 words) and have adjusted spelling and aspects of sentence structure as readability required. I have included some photographs as photography was part of my note-taking methodology during my observation. This proved effective as the cold weather during the hike increasingly made writing in extensive detail physically uncomfortable.


Ethnographic Experiment 1: Traces of Life on a Nature Hike

The freezing rain falls, ringing like cut crystal; ting, ting, ting. It coats the undergrowth of the trail in an icy enamel which crunches under the steady rhythm of my footsteps. From the distance, I hear the solitary cry of a bird mingled with the intermittent droning hum of cars as they drive past. The trail I am hiking is set high on the edge of a slope which skirts the peripheries of my suburb. To my right, down the slope, is a busy commuter road; to my left, the silhouettes of houses are visible through the trees. It is late fall and most of the trees have lost their leaves. Their bodies, exposed, stretch upward with long, grey fingers reaching out and tangling with one another in a constellation of thin angular lines. Set against the sky, it's like looking at splintered glass.

There are no other people on the trail with me, but evidence of past activity punctuates the landscape. A can of Red Bull, aluminum sides contorted, is thrown halfway down the slope. A medium-sized Tim Horton’s cup is similarly discarded off the path. Webs of black mold bloom over the remains of a pink terry-cloth towel and a child’s friendship bracelet lies forgotten in the leaves. These objects evoke traces of the people who left them behind and have become part of the landscape. The stump of a tree, sawn down to clear the pathway, has likewise been claimed by a leafy, white-rimmed fungus. In these ways human and non-human lifeforms coexist together in this liminal space of undeveloped land.

I stop for a while and sit by the side of the trail. Closing my eyes, I listen to the landscape. The rustling of leaves and underbrush indicate the presence of wild life. I hear more birds, these ones sound like jackhammers. I open my eyes to a pair of black squirrels streaking across the ground and up a tree. The longer I sit here unmoving the more activity begins to pulsate around me. From my position, I have a wide-angle view of the trail ahead. I am looking down an incline facing a footbridge covered in graffiti. The landscape is tonal in greys and reds; tree trunks juxtaposed against the vibrant forest floor. The fallen leaves, from afar, look only red. Yet, up close they are a kaleidoscope of greens and oranges, yellows and reds. When I cross the footbridge, I stop in the middle and look over the edge. Perched on a gnarled tree root, jutting out from the side of the bank is a red squirrel. It seems ambivalent to my presence, a sign that human presence is common and not of immediate interest. “Hi.” My voice carries through the trees. I am not expecting a reply, so am surprised when the squirrel lets out a shriek; like the squeaking of rusty hinges on an old swing set, and runs off in another direction.

Further on down the trail I walk through a copse of pine trees. They are fragrant with the smell of fresh mint; sharp and sweet. This smell holds a reminiscent quality. With each breath images of a much younger self flash across my mind. Inhale; I’m walking up a dry creek bed-lined by trees, sister trailing behind me. Inhale; I’m crouching at the base of a tree whose low arms extend over me as I grab fistfuls of rust-coloured needles. Inhale; grasping a long branch of pine, I extend my arm over a campfire. The needles sweat with green smoke releasing a sweet vapour before erupting into flames. The burning needles remind me of sparklers, a shake of the branch sends sparks into the fire. Exhale. These flashes of memory superimpose over this present experience and, like the trash thrown over the slope, I leave them behind as ghostly traces which only I am aware that I have left.


Ethnographic Experiment 2: Raw Field Notes

 1:03 pm

It’s freezing rain. Feels bad; sounds nice.

Smells like the woods back home.

Trail is empty; some garbage is scattered around so at least one person, who drank a Red Bull, has been here recently.

At the footbridge alone—no! I see a red squirrel—everything is a shade of red out here; red and grey. Even things that are green look red—its eating—no, it’s moving. I said “hi”

The squirrel is making noise. A horrific shriek. A sound I never would have expected a squirrel would make. It’s like a squeaky swing set.

1:30 pm

The wind is picking up. Why did I wear rain boots? They’re so slippery against the wet leaves. I Have to somehow get my myself over this steep part… I’ve never been this far down the trail before.

More trash: Tim’s cup (medium) new design so no more than a week or so old; pink terry-cloth towel: dirty, covered in mud and mold; a blue trash bag.

Lots and lots of pine trees now; more birdsong as well—who knew the smell of living pine would evoke so many memories of my childhood? Eerie, but also comforting? Even these bird calls sound the same [as the ones at my grandparents’ property].

I like this silence—it’s so loud! I walk everywhere with my own music playing in my ears. In fact, not doing so makes walking tedious. But I like this—even though my feet are slowly freezing.

Is this how I’m supposed to be writing my field notes? For everything I see, I feel about one-hundred more thoughts come into my head and I’m trying to cram it all down. I don’t want to forget how I’m feeling right now.

            1:40 pm

Okay. I’m frozen (standing still) in the middle of the trail, about 3 ½ - 4 m away from me is a chipmunk! It looks about as cold as I feel curled up on the end of a log. I want to get closer so I can see it better but I know I’ll scare him.

            1:45 pm

 Chipmunk—also red—is gone. Free to continue down the trail

Another footbridge! –holy slippery bridge, just fell. I’m fine.

There’s a tree that looks like it’s literally been torn apart. (I love trees!) Zoomed in with my camera and can see that the tree has been split in two; the upper half is resting on its mangled trunk. How does that even happen?

*should note here that everything I see and write about is having a [corresponding] photo taken of it.*

Interesting point: what I see very clearly in my minds eye doesn’t translate in my photos. What I mean is, when looking at this tree in real life, my mind filters out all the inane detail. However, when I go to take a photo, I’m frustrated with the results because it’s hard to pick out “the tree.” When I go back through my photos at home I’m going to notice things that I’m ignoring now…interesting.

Woah. Beautiful birch tree. My favourite kind and the first I’ve come across. Once again my camera isn’t justifying what I see

Have stumbled upon what seems to be the haven of the squirrels (grey and black ones) and I hear—WOAH. Beautiful red squirrel just jumped in front of me. It’s looking at me. (it’s so close to me). It’s moved onto a nearby log and is eating… a leaf? Squirrels do that? It isn’t responding to my voice—oh, it just ran into a clump of fallen wood.

            2:10 pm

I like the sound of my boots against the leaves.

Just saw a beautiful fungus growing on a stump… I feel kind of like a fungus.

            2:30 pm

Never-ending trail is evermore slippery; I don’t have time to walk around the whole outskirts of Orleans—spoke to soon. Trail taking a steep decline, is separating into three branches. The path is gone, everything covered in leaves. Steep and slippery—turning back home.

Rain is more and more oppressive.

Almost stepped on a rotting friendship bracelet.

I can no longer feel my feet, making my walk home comically unbalanced.

Why do “walks back” always seem so much longer? Interesting though the different things I’m noticing by walking in a different direction.

Remember the sound of crunching pinecones

Bridge graffiti: it’s like a message board for teens as people have written messages in response to different graffiti marks (I don’t understand what any of the graffiti means).

Came across the first person [I’ve met during my hike]. Woman—early 50s—walking a puppy. She made puppy sit in front of me without jumping at me— “I want him to get used to people, we went to puppy school today.”



With these two ethnographies, I wanted to explore forms of writing I am not completely comfortable in creating or sharing. The ethnographies we read in class prompted me towards experimentation with creative forms of ethnography as those were the ones I most enjoyed reading. Anna Tsing’s and Lisa Stevenson’s evocative and poetic approaches to writing influenced the writing of my first ethnography, as I attempted to develop my own version of their slow and thoughtful style. This has taught me that ethnographic style is as much a craft as is it a tool. I am comfortable writing traditional academic-styled texts; however, this creative approach took far longer to execute than I anticipated as using language to convey more than “just the facts” of my observations turned out to be quite a challenge. This exercise has reinforced my understanding of ethnographic writing as a powerful tool of intent. An ethnographer uses language to create a specific tone and style which conveys their ethnographic material in a specific way. The ethnographies read in class are testament to this as each author has made deliberate choices in their writing to convey their material in a specific way to readers. What I appreciate about my two ethnographies is how the shift in my approach and point-of-view conveys differently the same experience on the basis of which I wrote. For example, in my first ethnography, I recount sitting, something not recorded in my field notes. This is because most of my field notes were written while sitting and therefore I didn’t see the need to record this fact. This omission however, changes the overall tone of my two ethnographies. The raw field notes move quickly and are continually driving forward; contrasted by my first ethnography which reads slow and reflective. The reality is somewhere in between, and this highlights ethnography’s partial nature based upon what details are being brought into relief and which details are omitted. Writing my field notes, verses writing from my field notes coloured the way I wrote about my experience. In closing, I have a greater appreciation for the partial nature of ethnography and the power it wields in representing data.