Waking Up in My Own Backyard by Sandra Phinney

In March 2015, Sandra Phinney was reading a blog post by Melanie Chambers that explained her summer plans to explore her city of Toronto as a tourist. Sandra contacted her to let her know she was inspired to do the same in her home town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. And that’s how The July Project was born – Melanie and Sandra agreed to “tour” their respective home towns together for 30 consecutive days in July. An idea that Sandra says would “alter the course of my summer – perhaps the rest of my life”.

Each chapter of the book recounts one day of The July Project, and she fills each day with adventure, history, stories, and reflection. As a Yarmouthian myself, I had so much fun reading her stories of the places she went, the people she met, and the history of the area. Some of which I knew, and some I didn’t. However, whether you are from the area or not, I think Sandra’s book is inspiring for anyone – and a good introduction to a small part of the world.

So, what did Sandra do? I would like to list everything, day by day, but I don’t want to give the whole book away. Although, this is the type of book that one can flip through over and over again. In fact, I plan to make a list of all the things I haven’t done yet, starting with the hidden swimming hole where Sandra went skinny dipping.

Things Sandra did:

  • She hung out with her grandchildren, making rappie pie and taking them to the library (named for Izaak Walton Killam who was born in Yarmouth in 1885).
  • She also made a short trip to the Durkee Memorial Library in Carleton, where she confessed to borrowing two books from the library 30 years ago and never returning. (I lived in Carleton as a child and have vague memories of the Carleton library… I was happy to hear it was still going! Look how cute it is.)
  • A trip to McNutt’s Island, which has a very cool history.
  • Rockhounding with my old high school music teacher, who now makes beautiful jewelry out of agate.
  • Explored the communities of Weymouth, Digby, and Shelburne, the French Shore, as well as Yarmouth. She visited their churches, museums, cemeteries, community halls and beaches. She went to their bean suppers, historical “teas”, and musical concerts.
  • A trip to Cape Forchu to visit my favourite lighthouse. I spent many happy hours of my life climbing around on those rocks. When I take my own kids there, though, it terrifies me to let them climb!

I let them climb on the big chair instead. (2012)

Cape Forchu Winter 1997 (I cut my yet-to-be husband out of the picture.)

  • Went to the Acadian Interpretive Centre on the French Shore, and the the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown.
  • Embarked on a three day canoe trip in Quinan. (“Wildlife photographer Peter Dombrovskis once said, “When you go out there, you don’t get away from it all. You get back to it all. You come home to what’s important. You come home to yourself.”)

Our own 3 hour canoe trip. (My husband and son MacGyvered us a canoe catamaran!)

  • Toured the Historical homes and buildings of the town of Yarmouth. (Of this, I am definitely envious.) And, of course, the best part about touring houses is hearing all the stories that go with them!
  • Attended the UFO Festival in Shag Harbour. (Read about the UFO Incident here.)
  • Visited several cemeteries, including the Hebron Baptist Church Cemetery where I used to play Hide-and-Seek in the dark. (“A place without a cemetery is like a place without a memory.” — Deborah Trask)

Our house across from the Hebron Cemetery. (1992)

Things I learned from Sandra’s book:

  • There’s a “Bologna Club” in Pubnico that has been meeting for over 35 years. Once a year, on a day between Christmas and New Year’s, the Bologna Club meets in the woods. They fry bologna over a fire and tell stories. They have only one rule: no more than 12 members allowed. So far, the original 12 members are all still alive!
  • There is a book store in Digby called Crooked Timber Books. I have obviously not spent enough time in Digby.
  • In the 1960s, Shirley the Elephant came to Yarmouth on a circus boat. Read about her remarkable story here, as told in an article by Sandra Phinney.
  • Église Sainte-Marie, built in 1903-1905 in Church Point, is the largest wooden church in North America.
  • I first heard of Sara Corning when I read Sandra’s article about her a few months ago. If you’re interested in learning about amazing women, be sure to read about her!

I know what you’re thinking… you’re thinking I’ve just given away the whole book. But there’s so much more… I promise!

Another big chair, on the French Shore at Mavillette. (2011)

Things I learned about Sandra:

  • She owns 4 canoes, which she has named Cleo, Clementine, Willard Hewe, and Stupid Canoe. (I think we could be friends.)
  • She likes to skinny dip. (Yes, we could definitely be friends.)
  • The Tent Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine is one of her favourite books. (Something I learned from reading the interview with Sandra Phinney at The Miramichi Reader.)
  • She likes to shop at Frenchy’s, and gives us a little history lesson on how Frenchy’s came to be.
  • She likes to make Rappie Pie. Yum!
  • Her children went to the same elementary school I did.
  • She has an appreciation for the groups of volunteers out there that make things happen; from the church teas and concerts to the preservation of the lighthouse and heritage properties.
  • She is working on a book about Maud Lewis. When she was young, her mother used to take them to Digby to skate, and on the way back they would stop at Maud’s house in Marshalltown (“It was only three and a half metres by three and a half metres, but I thought it was magical. It had lots of flowers, birds, and butterflies painted in bold, bright colours on the front door and window.”) where her mother would buy a painting for $2. She later learned that… “at the time (the early 1950s), many people bought Maud’s paintings to help her out. That’s why my mother visited. In fact, back then, Maud’s paintings were considered primitive and child-like and were not valued as “art”. Her paintings were either tacked onto our bedroom walls or were used to start fires in the big living-room fireplace.” (Gasp!!!)

Titled “Bringing It Back to Marshalltown”, Hooked Rug by Laura Kenney

Titled “Maud’s View”, Hooked Rug by Laura Kenney

A few favourite lines…

Doing different things is not the same as approaching things differently.

Some homes had been abandoned – as if people walked out of the front door one day and simply never returned. I felt a sense of sadness and wondered, “If these old homes could talk, what would there stories be?”

… the dismal sound of her foghorn sounded sweeter than a choir of angels. — Captain Lezin Leo Mallett

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. I love her appreciation for nature and for her community, its diversity and rich heritage. Her book is a reminder of all the stuff I still don’t know or haven’t experienced in my own province, and an inspiration to seek it out. Thank you, Sandra!


37 thoughts on “Waking Up in My Own Backyard by Sandra Phinney

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I can see how delightful it wold be to rediscover your local area through someone else’s eyes. That always happened for us to some extent when we hosted extended family while I was growing up and took them into Washington, D.C. to see the monuments and museums we never bothered to visit on our own time! (I’m intrigued by this rappie pie…)

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, you would love the rappie pie… I’d tell you that you should make it, but it’s time consuming and I haven’t even made it myself. (But, also, I don’t have to… it’s easy enough to find around here.) If you’re ever in a cooking mood, though, it would be worth it!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s so much fun! I wanted to haul out ALL the pictures, but I restrained myself. I was really happy to have found the one of our old house, though, because it has since burned down. 😦

    • Naomi says:

      I think it would do us all some good to dig into the history of our own towns, neighbourhoods, etc. And to get to know our neighbours a little better. Even the ones that are no longer alive! 🙂

  2. Karissa says:

    What a fun project! I hope to visit the east coast one day. But I also live in a beautiful spot that people love to visit so I have lots of summer plans to enjoy my own area!

    • Naomi says:

      I feel the same. I hope to visit lots of places someday, but so far I’ve been content to stay close to home – our excursions change, too, as the kids get older!

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I love this idea! What a wonderful project, I wish there was something like that in Calgary (although, if I searched it out enough, there probably is) but it wouldn’t be as personable as this, i don’t think. Also, did I read this right, is it your birthday today? Facebook told me!!!!

  4. madamebibilophile says:

    This sounds such a good read, both for the tales themselves and as inspiration – as a lifelong Londoner I’m very aware that I could benefit from looking at things anew and being a tourist in my home city!

    • Naomi says:

      Imagine all the things to do in London! Even my daughter has a list for London… at the top is the Harry Potter museum (is that what it’s called? Seems funny to call it as museum…)!

      • madamebibilophile says:

        There are so many things to do in London, it’s ridiculous! The Harry Potter thing (I’m not sure what it’s called I think it might be Experience or Studio Tour) isn’t in London, it’s in Watford which is in Hertfordshire, about 15-20 miles outside London (but they call it Warner Bros Studio London, hence the confusion!). I hope your daughter enjoys it – a friend of mine took her kids and they loved it 🙂

  5. whatmeread says:

    Sounds like something almost anyone could emulate, anywhere they live. If they live in a very small town like I do now, it could be extended to a county or area.

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! Since I was little, and mostly in Keji (which is a National park here in NS, and my favourite place to camp) and PEI. Wasn’t Anne of Green Gables a skinny-dippist? 😉
      Oh, and once down south, but that wasn’t as much fun because it was dark and the whole time I was scared of coming up against a long-spined urchin!
      It’s mostly in my past… 🙂

  6. Alex says:

    I stumbled on your post and blog from GTL, and, well, am delighted I did because, your post about Sandra and her book have inspired my own The July Project, which I shall be blogging about tomorrow. And yes, me and mine are about to do a month-long tourist thing of Quebec City.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    What a fantastic idea for a book! And I love that little library. Cute indeed. And I wonder what is with all those giant chairs. Hee hee. It looks like you’ve inspired (via the author) a lot of freshly inspired tourists to check out their backyards now too. And it’s the perfect time of year to play tourist.

    • Naomi says:

      It was definitely good timing to read (and write about) this book!
      Do you have giant chairs in ON? They seemed to show up here all of a sudden a few years ago. Kids love them!

      • buriedinprint says:

        I don’t think so, but maybe I’m just looking in all the wrong places! 🙂

  8. DoingDewey says:

    I haven’t ever done a thirty day project, but I like the idea! It seems like a good amount of time to make a lasting change while still being reasonable 🙂

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