Newfoundland root cellar

Root Cellar by Rueben Strayer. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

To be brutally honest, I actually don’t believe in sustainability at all. I confess! The trend currently identified as “sustainability” would simply be called using common sense if either of my grandmothers were to offer their posthumous opinions. While it is true that new technologies and radical innovations might sell this newfound spirit of practicality, the core of sustainability is old – so very old.

Indeed, the ephemeral trends, fleeting styles and mercurial whims of public interest appear remarkably cyclical when design is viewed chronologically. History truly does repeat itself – again and again and again.

Both of my grandmothers were practical women who grew up on small family farms (one in Kentucky and other in Austria) and each of these plucky women preferred things that would last, were priced right and were neither wasteful nor stupid. Trendy…right? 100-mile locavore diets? What the hell else were their options, for God’s sake?

We need to remind ourselves that humankind can be remarkably resourceful and practical when confronted with hardships - like living on rocky soil, being pounded by harsh winters and cursed by a severe paucity of food sources, for example.

Canada’s mythic national identity is built upon idealizing the Great White North as a land of hardships, brutal winters and human (mostly white settler) perseverance over nature. While this is based on a very flawed construction this hardiness is built into the mythic character of Canada as an idea.

Accessible grocery stores are scarce in many communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, as are basic stocks of fresh fruits and vegetables. Newfoundland and Labrador has the lowest rate of meeting the minimum standards of consuming five fruits or vegetables a day of any Canadian province. Even most of the fish consumed is not local.

As Newfoundland and Labrador increase dependence on imported food and rely more heavily on global food distribution networks, the tendency is to rely less and less on local resources altogether and just forget the old days of struggling to survive. As each new generation becomes more comfortable with how food magically appears on store shelves, the desire to look toward one’s own local (albeit limited) resources will fade away into folklore.

However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, concerns about food security and a desire for decreased dependence on external food distribution systems have people looking for sustainable and healthy local food alternatives to ensure survival, increase autonomy and restore identity. And as my grandmothers would advise, these resourceful folks are finding that sometimes the answers to the most difficult questions are in your own back yard.

And that’s where many of Newfoundland and Labrador’s resourceful residents have an ace-in–the-hole just waiting to be rediscovered: the root cellar. Renewed interest in this particular vernacular design is reviving a 200-year-old cultural tradition – and just may be able to ensure future food security.

People living in cold climates from Riga to Fargo have depended upon root cellars to store food at low temperatures and maintain low humidity levels for centuries. It’s classic old tech – and worth unearthing. Digging down keeps food from freezing in the winter or spoiling in the summer and local idiosyncrasies determined by available materials and quirky microclimates (as well as averting native vermin) all are factored into the form and function of each of these root cellars. This is a tradition that is truly rooted in place.

A classic root cellar would usually be stocked with carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions and beets harvested in the fall and then tucked away for the hard winter to come. In Newfoundland and Labrador, salted fish, berry jams and salted meats might also fill up the underground stockroom.

The root cellars in Twillingate, Newfoundland, in particular, are experiencing a revival of late. Twillingate resident Otto Sansome has photographed and archived 232 examples of Newfoundland and Labrador’s classic root cellars, typically located on the east coast. They are a draw for tourists, too. These root cellars resemble the Viking settlements bermed into the side of grassy rock-covered knolls that feature prominently in the Newfoundland and Labrador of our collective imagination. 

Sansome’s archival work is also now part of Memorial University's digital archives. In 2011, a Memorial University folklore student, Crystal Braye, continued this research and worked with Wilma Hartmann at the Anchor Inn Hotel on a project to collect narrative information about each root cellar – adding the human stories that breathe life into these structures. Elliston, Newfoundland can now proudly claim the title "the Root Cellar Capital of the World" following all of this renewed interest and productive research.

The “root cellar revival,” as coined by Canadian Geographic, is more than a quirky trend – it’s also a sign of rising awareness about how past practices and modern food security can meet. The Food Security Network in Newfoundland has chosen the Root Cellar as a symbol of Newfoundland & Labrador’s unique agricultural heritage, and is advocating increased food self-sufficiency through its Root Cellars Rock project.

Root Cellars Rock is meant to inspire the creation of a local food system that provides nourishing food produced in a sustainable manner for all residents of the province. The project is geared towards supporting the people who work to provide local food, enhancing individuals’ food skills and building community capacity for increased self-sufficiency. Individuals are encouraged to take an active role in community food initiatives and build provincial awareness for their cause. And with 1226 Facebook “likes,” there seems to be some serious appeal for the project in the province.

The idea of relearning how to grow, harvest and store food using technologies that are hundreds of years old – and unlearning how to buy a Big Mac – is pretty appealing and wickedly resourceful. Food security is a truly sticky wicket and asking how our grandparents survived with even fewer resources is not a bad place to start. In the end, architectural preservation wins as well. Rock on Newfoundland and Labrador!

Join the renaissance! Here are some resources for building your own root cellar:

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

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