Thank You!

Feb. 1st, 2013 12:45 pm
bjarvis: (Default)
Thanks to all for the birthday well-wishes. Because of work commitments and mild case of the sniffles, I haven't exactly been in much of a celebratory mood but am looking forward to a birthday dinner with the guys tonight and/or tomorrow evening.

I'm now 46, which is turning out to be a pretty good age to be. Many kids I grew up with didn't reach voting age so I consider myself lucky. I've had a few health stumbles over the past few decades but they've been relatively minor and easily treated with current medical technology: we couldn't have said such a thing only a century ago.

I'm still happily employed in an industry which didn't exist 30 years ago. I've lived through two major recessions and a couple of minor ones but escaped largely unscathed. Since I reached the age of majority, the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism have vanished, the cold war ended but we've since been in two Middle East wars and a number of smaller clashes around the planet. The world has changed multiple times over, sometimes for the worse. 30 years ago, I wondered if my generation could survive the growing nuclear stockpiles, but I'm now vastly more worried about damage done to the world by corporate malfeasance.

30 years ago, we were awestruck by images from Voyager 1 & 2 but the launch of Galileo probe was delayed by the Challenger disaster. Now we eagerly await images from New Horizons of Pluto, have multiple satellites orbiting Mars and three on its surface, sent probes into comets and have counted hundred of extra-solar planets. 46 years ago, the year I was born, man wouldn't walk on the moon for another 2.5 years.

It's been a good run thus far but at 46 I'm looking more often towards preparation for my retirement at (hopefully) age 60. Well, that and wondering how I'm going to get done all the things I have on my calendar for the next few months.
bjarvis: (Default)
Rural community life is sometimes every bit as dark as one suspects. Not The Lottery dark, but close.

The elementary school in Charlton which nearly all of my siblings and I would attend was formally named "Charlton Consolidated School." While I was an inmate a student there, I didn't fully understand what the name meant. During my teens when I worked two summers at the local history museum in Englehart, I learned that it was built in 1924 after the Great Fire to become a single centralized public school, gradually absorbing the many one-room schoolhouses which were scattered across multiple townships and Charlton itself.

Further, I learned that nearly all of the teachers I had in that school during the 1970s were themselves teachers in those one-room schoolhouses.

In 1970 or so, I knew of at least two of the original schoolhouses which escaped both the Great Fire and being torn down. One was on the home plot of friends of ours in Hilliard township and long-since converted into a garage and storage barn. The other was the Brentha School on Brentha Road, a one acre lot about 2.5 miles from our farm. The building was essentially intact although heavily weathered; the former playground itself had been left to grow wild.

I now change the names to protect the innocent, guilty and unindicted...

The acre lot and building were carved out of a large field owned by one Mr Frederick, a cranky old man who lived a half-mile further down Brentha Road. Among antisocial loners in rural backwoods nowhere, he was exceptional. Disputes with neighbours were many and legendary: any livestock which might happen to wander onto his property were claimed as his own and Frederick wasn't shy about using a gun to demonstrate how seriously he was willing to protect his peculiar interpretation of property rights. In the summer of 1971, the Marten family's dog was shot & killed for having wandered onto the wrong side of the property line chasing a groundhog.

Mr Frederick was not well liked.

He also had his eye on that schoolhouse. After all, from his point of view, that acre on which it was located was intrinsically part of his land and its continued severance was an affront to his lawful rights.

The school board, however, owned the title to that acre. If the board wished to dispose of property, provincial law required the board first to make it available to community not-for-profit groups; if there were no takers, it could be offered for private sale via public auction. In late 1971, the school board asked for expressions of interest from the public on the disposal of the Brentha School property.

By early spring, there were two finalists: Mr Frederick, claiming the land was always truly his and demanding the board return it to him, and the Sunday Creek Women's Institute, a group of 25-30 local farm women who sought to preserve the building as local history and make it available as a community hall. Being a not-for-profit, the Women's Institute was awarded the property for $1.

I was too young still for kindergarten in 1972 so I accompanied Mom to the schoolhouse lot that spring. She and a dozen other women returned day after day, clearing away the dust and litter inside the building, cleaning the windows, washing the walls, mowing the grass, changing the locks and performing other maintenance. The building didn't have electricity yet --the lines and internal wiring would have to be repaired and upgraded before it could be restored-- so all work was done as long as there was daylight. After 2-3 weeks of work, an abandoned building and overgrown lot began to look like a usable public building. Mom and the other ladies were aglow with what they accomplished: it was entirely their work, not a single husband was involved in their project.

Mr Frederick continued to express his displeasure at what he considered the illegal misappropriation of his personal property. Nearly every day, he drove his tractor and manure spreader the half-mile from his barn to the edge of the fence to distribute a fresh layer, double on the upwind side. Of course, if any manure should accidentally spray across the fence --perhaps onto parked cars-- well, too bad. In his own peculiar sense of honour, he couldn't directly confront the ladies but he was happy to make life as difficult as possible for them.

His protest was utterly ineffective. These were farm women: the smell of manure wasn't especially unusual in their lives.

A few times we returned to the schoolhouse to find windows shattered and bullet holes in the walls. Only the eastern windows, the ones with a view to Frederick's farm, were broken.

Late one afternoon, Mom, the ladies and I closed up the building, packed the tools and equipment into the cars and headed for home. We had dinner per usual, watched some television and went to bed.

The following morning, Mom loaded boxes of tools and cleaning materials into the car, strapped me into the passenger seat with a box on my lap and we headed to the school.

But it wasn't there anymore.

A half-dozen other the women arrived before us. Most were just staring bewildered at the black rubble where the building had burned overnight. The grass over half the lot was blacked. Wisps of smoke rose slowly from a few larger pieces of charred wood.

Mom made me stay in the car while she talked to her friends. A couple covered their mouths with their hands as they cried. Mrs Wilson had a look of pure fury. Mrs. Madsen walked around the building foundation, looking for anything that might be left in the ruins. Mom returned and leaned against the car, her head lowered. She was crying. After a full minute, she took a deep breath, stood fully erect and pounded the roof the car with both fists, staring tight-lipped at the house of Mr Frederick a half-mile down the road. The other women turned around sharply at Mom's sudden outburst and all followed her stare to the Frederick house.

For the first time in my life, my mother scared me. And I could see they were all of the same mind: something must be done.

In the following months, the situation changed slowly. The fire marshall declared it was an electrical fire from poor maintenance. The fire marshall apparently didn't think it suspicious that the building had no electricity, but then again, the fire marshall was Frederick's brother.

The building itself wasn't yet insured. They couldn't get a policy until it had electricity and a functioning water system so there were no proceeds from the fire.

By the end of the summer, the women opted to return the title to the school board who then awarded it for some amount of money to the only other participant in the original call for participation: Mr. Frederick.

Within a week, the remains of the fence was torn down, the playground was plowed under and the remaining rubble was cleared away. Only a sharply leaning ancient telephone pole remained on the acre to show it was once separate from the rest of the field.

In the late fall, after I had started kindergarten, I remember the telephone ringing late one night. Having a party line, all our friends & family knew never to call after 10pm unless it was an emergency. To receive a call at 2-3am meant it must have been dire.

I stumbled down the stairs. Mom and Dad were talking in the living room. Frederick's farm house was on fire. They both spoke about it calmly, as though they were describing a movie they saw last week or a newscast they heard that morning. Dad ushered my brother and I back to bed while Mom got dressed. Dad sat with us quietly as I heard the car engine start and the sound fade as it rolled down the driveway to the road.

Mom was sitting in the kitchen still fully dressed when we came downstairs to prepare for school. I asked where she had gone last night. She said that Mr Frederick's house burned down last night.

"Did you go to help?" I asked.

"No," she said. "Just to watch."

I think she smiled slightly.
bjarvis: (Default)
Rural community life is sometimes every bit as dark as one suspects. Not The Lottery dark, but close.

The elementary school in Charlton which nearly all of my siblings and I would attend was formally named "Charlton Consolidated School." While I was an inmate a student there, I didn't fully understand what the name meant. During my teens when I worked two summers at the local history museum in Englehart, I learned that it was built in 1924 after the Great Fire to become a single centralized public school, gradually absorbing the many one-room schoolhouses which were scattered across multiple townships and Charlton itself.

Further, I learned that nearly all of the teachers I had in that school during the 1970s were themselves teachers in those one-room schoolhouses.

In 1970 or so, I knew of at least two of the original schoolhouses which escaped both the Great Fire and being torn down. One was on the home plot of friends of ours in Hilliard township and long-since converted into a garage and storage barn. The other was the Brentha School on Brentha Road, a one acre lot about 2.5 miles from our farm. The building was essentially intact although heavily weathered; the former playground itself had been left to grow wild.

I now change the names to protect the innocent, guilty and unindicted...

The acre lot and building were carved out of a large field owned by one Mr Frederick, a cranky old man who lived a half-mile further down Brentha Road. Among antisocial loners in rural backwoods nowhere, he was exceptional. Disputes with neighbours were many and legendary: any livestock which might happen to wander onto his property were claimed as his own and Frederick wasn't shy about using a gun to demonstrate how seriously he was willing to protect his peculiar interpretation of property rights. In the summer of 1971, the Marten family's dog was shot & killed for having wandered onto the wrong side of the property line chasing a groundhog.

Mr Frederick was not well liked.

He also had his eye on that schoolhouse. After all, from his point of view, that acre on which it was located was intrinsically part of his land and its continued severance was an affront to his lawful rights.

The school board, however, owned the title to that acre. If the board wished to dispose of property, provincial law required the board first to make it available to community not-for-profit groups; if there were no takers, it could be offered for private sale via public auction. In late 1971, the school board asked for expressions of interest from the public on the disposal of the Brentha School property.

By early spring, there were two finalists: Mr Frederick, claiming the land was always truly his and demanding the board return it to him, and the Sunday Creek Women's Institute, a group of 25-30 local farm women who sought to preserve the building as local history and make it available as a community hall. Being a not-for-profit, the Women's Institute was awarded the property for $1.

I was too young still for kindergarten in 1972 so I accompanied Mom to the schoolhouse lot that spring. She and a dozen other women returned day after day, clearing away the dust and litter inside the building, cleaning the windows, washing the walls, mowing the grass, changing the locks and performing other maintenance. The building didn't have electricity yet --the lines and internal wiring would have to be repaired and upgraded before it could be restored-- so all work was done as long as there was daylight. After 2-3 weeks of work, an abandoned building and overgrown lot began to look like a usable public building. Mom and the other ladies were aglow with what they accomplished: it was entirely their work, not a single husband was involved in their project.

Mr Frederick continued to express his displeasure at what he considered the illegal misappropriation of his personal property. Nearly every day, he drove his tractor and manure spreader the half-mile from his barn to the edge of the fence to distribute a fresh layer, double on the upwind side. Of course, if any manure should accidentally spray across the fence --perhaps onto parked cars-- well, too bad. In his own peculiar sense of honour, he couldn't directly confront the ladies but he was happy to make life as difficult as possible for them.

His protest was utterly ineffective. These were farm women: the smell of manure wasn't especially unusual in their lives.

A few times we returned to the schoolhouse to find windows shattered and bullet holes in the walls. Only the eastern windows, the ones with a view to Frederick's farm, were broken.

Late one afternoon, Mom, the ladies and I closed up the building, packed the tools and equipment into the cars and headed for home. We had dinner per usual, watched some television and went to bed.

The following morning, Mom loaded boxes of tools and cleaning materials into the car, strapped me into the passenger seat with a box on my lap and we headed to the school.

But it wasn't there anymore.

A half-dozen other the women arrived before us. Most were just staring bewildered at the black rubble where the building had burned overnight. The grass over half the lot was blacked. Wisps of smoke rose slowly from a few larger pieces of charred wood.

Mom made me stay in the car while she talked to her friends. A couple covered their mouths with their hands as they cried. Mrs Wilson had a look of pure fury. Mrs. Madsen walked around the building foundation, looking for anything that might be left in the ruins. Mom returned and leaned against the car, her head lowered. She was crying. After a full minute, she took a deep breath, stood fully erect and pounded the roof the car with both fists, staring tight-lipped at the house of Mr Frederick a half-mile down the road. The other women turned around sharply at Mom's sudden outburst and all followed her stare to the Frederick house.

For the first time in my life, my mother scared me. And I could see they were all of the same mind: something must be done.

In the following months, the situation changed slowly. The fire marshall declared it was an electrical fire from poor maintenance. The fire marshall apparently didn't think it suspicious that the building had no electricity, but then again, the fire marshall was Frederick's brother.

The building itself wasn't yet insured. They couldn't get a policy until it had electricity and a functioning water system so there were no proceeds from the fire.

By the end of the summer, the women opted to return the title to the school board who then awarded it for some amount of money to the only other participant in the original call for participation: Mr. Frederick.

Within a week, the remains of the fence was torn down, the playground was plowed under and the remaining rubble was cleared away. Only a sharply leaning ancient telephone pole remained on the acre to show it was once separate from the rest of the field.

In the late fall, after I had started kindergarten, I remember the telephone ringing late one night. Having a party line, all our friends & family knew never to call after 10pm unless it was an emergency. To receive a call at 2-3am meant it must have been dire.

I stumbled down the stairs. Mom and Dad were talking in the living room. Frederick's farm house was on fire. They both spoke about it calmly, as though they were describing a movie they saw last week or a newscast they heard that morning. Dad ushered my brother and I back to bed while Mom got dressed. Dad sat with us quietly as I heard the car engine start and the sound fade as it rolled down the driveway to the road.

Mom was sitting in the kitchen still fully dressed when we came downstairs to prepare for school. I asked where she had gone last night. She said that Mr Frederick's house burned down last night.

"Did you go to help?" I asked.

"No," she said. "Just to watch."

I think she smiled slightly.
bjarvis: (Default)
A community's culture is a mélange of a number of different factors: language, customs, religion, education, personal interconnections, social hierarchy and such. I have frequently said I don't understand much about the local culture around me here in the suburbs of Washington DC. The more I think about the past however, the less I think I ever had a clue what the hell was going on in the very community in which I was raised.

My religious upbringing was relatively confused. Dad almost never stepped foot in a church in his life but Mom was persuaded that she needed her children to get some form of religion. I still haven't figured out if it was because she thought we needed it, because she thought she was obliged as a parent and community member to do this or because she just wanted to dress up and get out of the house from time to time.

Charlton (pop 160) had no fewer than five churches: Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Church of Canada. Dad's family was nominally Anglican while Mom's was nominally UCC but we began our religious life in the local Pentecostal church. Go figure.

I suspect it was largely because Mom's closest friend was Roberta Booker, wife of the Pentecostal minister, Bob Booker. I also have a strong suspicion that the Pentecostals were simply more welcoming to relatively new arrivals: St. Paul's, the United Church which one might think the more obvious choice, was dominated by large and long established families. It's not that they were disparaging of new members, but new arrivals tend to be chased back south again after the first bad winter. One can save a lot of time & energy by waiting 5-10 years to welcome folks to the neighbourhood. Some religions deny darwinism, some accept it, but St. Paul's embraced it an unofficial membership policy.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were other explanations for Mom's choices but Mom's decisions frequently defy logic. The moment I recognized and simply accepted her peculiar brand of irrationality was the moment my migraines stopped.

We attended that small Pentecostal church for at least three years, until I was about 7. Eventually, the congregation merged with the vastly larger one in neighbouring Englehart with their relatively huge new mega-church building. It wasn't much of a mega-church by today's standards of 50,000+ congregants, but the new building with seating for several hundred was larger than any other in town except for the schools, hockey arena and curling rink. It was prominently located along the nearby highway, angled for maximum visibility to the passers-by. I don't recall them having any social or charity programs but no expense was spared on the exterior building lighting, billboards and landscaping. Bob & Roberta briefly attended the new facility as congregants but moved away shortly thereafter. We never went.

If there was a golden age in my religious life, this was it: I think there were nearly seven solid years in which I had my Sundays to myself. After all, what was the point of a day of rest when one had to work harder than the other six days getting dressed and made presentable just to make an appearance for a 60-90 minute community service?

It didn't help that I harbored a dark secret: I didn't believe any of it.

Creating a universe in seven days? Creating a woman out of a rib? Spontaneously creating enough water to destroy a planet with floods but then conveniently zapping the same water out of existence again? A deity who loves us unconditionally but routinely commits genocide? A deity and his virgin-born son who are actually three entities? And it's all going to end in a planetary deity-endorsed catastrophe?

It might have been easier to accept in small sips but I gulped it down in my usual all-in fashion: unfortunately, the entire package, inconsistencies and all, struck me as too much to swallow. It didn't help that so much was accompanied by "don't ask such questions," "because I said so" and "because it is." A child's embryonic cynicism is watered and fertilized on such statements. In my mind, both the message and the messengers were tainted and I soon developed my own personal, most horrific insult: the sources were unreliable.

Reliable sources are able to say "I don't know," "let's think this through," and "let's look it up together." Reliable sources know there is a difference between questioning the material & conclusions and questioning the character of the person offering it. Unreliable sources conflate the message and their personal role, dismiss the question or the questioner, use intellectual hand-waving to distract attention from the issue and use their authority to avoid dealing directly with the problem. In the fairy tale, it was a child who declared the emperor had no clothes. I wasn't brave enough to say it --all actions have consequences-- but it was clear to my young eyes the emperor was buck naked.

And ultimately, my next lesson in religion was that it didn't really matter what I believed so long as I went through the motions of the public ceremony and didn't rock the metaphoric boat. The effect this revelation had my escalating cynicism is left as an exercise to the reader.

Religion also didn't matter in other ways in our tiny little rural world. Sure, some families said grace before meals. A few went to evening services beyond their usual Sunday morning service. Religion and prayer, however, were not going to put food on the table or keep a roof over one's head: practical matters had to be dealt with by real-world effort, not hymns and sermons.

Each local denomination worked well with the others. On occasion, services for one denomination would be held at the church of another while their own was undergoing renovation or repair. I often wondered why they bothered having separate churches and services at all since they all appeared to believe the same thing. Children miss the subtle nuances of different slivers of the same general faith although I still am amazed how such minute details have been allowed to create such intense and long-standing fissures.

The most devout lot in our general community were the Jehovah Witnesses. I knew they were radically different in their religious views: the two or three JW kids would leave the classroom during the morning prayer and national anthem. Where did they go? Did they just hang out in the hallway for a few minutes or did they have some special but brief class elsewhere in the building? What earned them the special status? A child's mind incessantly toils on such grave matters.

If there was any sort of societal split, it was linguistic but even that wasn't much of a barrier.

About one third of the District of Temiskaming, our regional association of 17 townships, spoke french as their primary language, the rest english. This isn't an even distribution, however: languages tended to clump by towns. Englehart and Charlton were nearly exclusively english; Earlton and Belle Vallee were nearly exclusively french. Hailebury and Cobalt were english but New Liskeard and Thornloe were mixed.

Still, the language variations didn't really matter. English was effectively the primary language of business because of the larger numbers although smart businesses ensured they could do commerce in each. Government publications and services were available in both, although some offices employed a three-way telephone call to bring a government interpreter into the conversation.

My parents spoke only english but I learned french in elementary school from grade one onwards. Being ever the nerd, I also took french immersion in grade six --all courses except english & music taught in french-- and had intensive french courses from grades seven through 13 rather than the usual french-lite classes most others took. My brother and I were occasionally used as interpreters by our parents but it was a mercifully rare event: while I can speak the language, I'm still all too aware of my imperfect understanding and stumbling speaking ability. My english skills are above average and is unfortunately a constant reminder that my abilities in french aren't of the same proficiency, nor are ever likely to be. I don't deal well with intellectual failure.

Social outlets were few. By the time we were in elementary school, my brother and I could have joined the township's 4H club but after a couple of meetings, we let it go. Again, it was populated and maintained by the established families who hadn't yet warmed up to the new arrivals. I overheard at least one mother tell her children not to bother with us because we'd be move away soon... After all, we had only just moved in five years previous.

The ultimate reason for not continuing with 4H was simply that I hated farming with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns: farming brought us to this isolated place, farming brought us to poverty, farming make us the daily playthings of banks and markets. The idea of discussing the joy of farming during our spare time away from actually doing it made me nauseous.

The Englehart kids had a boy scout troop but we laughed that off immediately: they went into the wilderness for weekend adventures but we lived in that same wilderness every day. I already knew a thousand ways to die out there; intentionally wandering into the hunting ranges of wolf packs and bears just didn't strike me as a fun time. Here's a tip, however: if you don't know who the group has singled out to be left behind as a distraction while the others escape, it's probably you.

Mom had her monthly Women's Institute meetings. Honestly, I have no idea what the WI was about or what they did. As near as I could tell, it was a regular get-together at a member's house of the area women, away from their husbands, children and responsibilities, to simply chat and bond over tea and sandwiches. And that alone seems sensible and practical enough to justify the practice in my ever-so-humble opinion.

There were two WI groups in our township. The Dack Women's Institute group met in the northern part of the township; Mom's group, the Sunday Creek Women's Institute, was in our immediate neighbourhood. As near as I know, each had 25-30 members. I wish I could say more as they dominated my mother's social life and fostered her social connections but that's all I have. Some day, I'll ask Mom for more details but if she starts talking about conspiracies, secret ceremonies and special handshakes, I'll probably just have her committed.

Dad's social life? Good question. Dad has always been a relatively quiet, private individual; I still know very little about him. He had a couple of friends in the general area whom he would visit for a few beers. He also went to the Commercial Tavern in Englehart to meet with the guys. I wasn't privy to any of this. Even after reaching the legal drinking age (19 in Ontario), I never stepped foot in the local tavern or accompanied Dad on any his bonding visits. It just wasn't his way, or mine. I didn't pry and we both intuitively knew that his idea of a night on the town and mine --as well as that of his friends-- were almost entirely mutually exclusive.

Let's summarize: realistic social bonds take nearly a decade to form, my parents had their periodic distractions and I didn't really fit in anywhere. Sounds like a great time, doesn't it?
bjarvis: (Default)
A community's culture is a mélange of a number of different factors: language, customs, religion, education, personal interconnections, social hierarchy and such. I have frequently said I don't understand much about the local culture around me here in the suburbs of Washington DC. The more I think about the past however, the less I think I ever had a clue what the hell was going on in the very community in which I was raised.

My religious upbringing was relatively confused. Dad almost never stepped foot in a church in his life but Mom was persuaded that she needed her children to get some form of religion. I still haven't figured out if it was because she thought we needed it, because she thought she was obliged as a parent and community member to do this or because she just wanted to dress up and get out of the house from time to time.

Charlton (pop 160) had no fewer than five churches: Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Church of Canada. Dad's family was nominally Anglican while Mom's was nominally UCC but we began our religious life in the local Pentecostal church. Go figure.

I suspect it was largely because Mom's closest friend was Roberta Booker, wife of the Pentecostal minister, Bob Booker. I also have a strong suspicion that the Pentecostals were simply more welcoming to relatively new arrivals: St. Paul's, the United Church which one might think the more obvious choice, was dominated by large and long established families. It's not that they were disparaging of new members, but new arrivals tend to be chased back south again after the first bad winter. One can save a lot of time & energy by waiting 5-10 years to welcome folks to the neighbourhood. Some religions deny darwinism, some accept it, but St. Paul's embraced it an unofficial membership policy.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were other explanations for Mom's choices but Mom's decisions frequently defy logic. The moment I recognized and simply accepted her peculiar brand of irrationality was the moment my migraines stopped.

We attended that small Pentecostal church for at least three years, until I was about 7. Eventually, the congregation merged with the vastly larger one in neighbouring Englehart with their relatively huge new mega-church building. It wasn't much of a mega-church by today's standards of 50,000+ congregants, but the new building with seating for several hundred was larger than any other in town except for the schools, hockey arena and curling rink. It was prominently located along the nearby highway, angled for maximum visibility to the passers-by. I don't recall them having any social or charity programs but no expense was spared on the exterior building lighting, billboards and landscaping. Bob & Roberta briefly attended the new facility as congregants but moved away shortly thereafter. We never went.

If there was a golden age in my religious life, this was it: I think there were nearly seven solid years in which I had my Sundays to myself. After all, what was the point of a day of rest when one had to work harder than the other six days getting dressed and made presentable just to make an appearance for a 60-90 minute community service?

It didn't help that I harbored a dark secret: I didn't believe any of it.

Creating a universe in seven days? Creating a woman out of a rib? Spontaneously creating enough water to destroy a planet with floods but then conveniently zapping the same water out of existence again? A deity who loves us unconditionally but routinely commits genocide? A deity and his virgin-born son who are actually three entities? And it's all going to end in a planetary deity-endorsed catastrophe?

It might have been easier to accept in small sips but I gulped it down in my usual all-in fashion: unfortunately, the entire package, inconsistencies and all, struck me as too much to swallow. It didn't help that so much was accompanied by "don't ask such questions," "because I said so" and "because it is." A child's embryonic cynicism is watered and fertilized on such statements. In my mind, both the message and the messengers were tainted and I soon developed my own personal, most horrific insult: the sources were unreliable.

Reliable sources are able to say "I don't know," "let's think this through," and "let's look it up together." Reliable sources know there is a difference between questioning the material & conclusions and questioning the character of the person offering it. Unreliable sources conflate the message and their personal role, dismiss the question or the questioner, use intellectual hand-waving to distract attention from the issue and use their authority to avoid dealing directly with the problem. In the fairy tale, it was a child who declared the emperor had no clothes. I wasn't brave enough to say it --all actions have consequences-- but it was clear to my young eyes the emperor was buck naked.

And ultimately, my next lesson in religion was that it didn't really matter what I believed so long as I went through the motions of the public ceremony and didn't rock the metaphoric boat. The effect this revelation had my escalating cynicism is left as an exercise to the reader.

Religion also didn't matter in other ways in our tiny little rural world. Sure, some families said grace before meals. A few went to evening services beyond their usual Sunday morning service. Religion and prayer, however, were not going to put food on the table or keep a roof over one's head: practical matters had to be dealt with by real-world effort, not hymns and sermons.

Each local denomination worked well with the others. On occasion, services for one denomination would be held at the church of another while their own was undergoing renovation or repair. I often wondered why they bothered having separate churches and services at all since they all appeared to believe the same thing. Children miss the subtle nuances of different slivers of the same general faith although I still am amazed how such minute details have been allowed to create such intense and long-standing fissures.

The most devout lot in our general community were the Jehovah Witnesses. I knew they were radically different in their religious views: the two or three JW kids would leave the classroom during the morning prayer and national anthem. Where did they go? Did they just hang out in the hallway for a few minutes or did they have some special but brief class elsewhere in the building? What earned them the special status? A child's mind incessantly toils on such grave matters.

If there was any sort of societal split, it was linguistic but even that wasn't much of a barrier.

About one third of the District of Temiskaming, our regional association of 17 townships, spoke french as their primary language, the rest english. This isn't an even distribution, however: languages tended to clump by towns. Englehart and Charlton were nearly exclusively english; Earlton and Belle Vallee were nearly exclusively french. Hailebury and Cobalt were english but New Liskeard and Thornloe were mixed.

Still, the language variations didn't really matter. English was effectively the primary language of business because of the larger numbers although smart businesses ensured they could do commerce in each. Government publications and services were available in both, although some offices employed a three-way telephone call to bring a government interpreter into the conversation.

My parents spoke only english but I learned french in elementary school from grade one onwards. Being ever the nerd, I also took french immersion in grade six --all courses except english & music taught in french-- and had intensive french courses from grades seven through 13 rather than the usual french-lite classes most others took. My brother and I were occasionally used as interpreters by our parents but it was a mercifully rare event: while I can speak the language, I'm still all too aware of my imperfect understanding and stumbling speaking ability. My english skills are above average and is unfortunately a constant reminder that my abilities in french aren't of the same proficiency, nor are ever likely to be. I don't deal well with intellectual failure.

Social outlets were few. By the time we were in elementary school, my brother and I could have joined the township's 4H club but after a couple of meetings, we let it go. Again, it was populated and maintained by the established families who hadn't yet warmed up to the new arrivals. I overheard at least one mother tell her children not to bother with us because we'd be move away soon... After all, we had only just moved in five years previous.

The ultimate reason for not continuing with 4H was simply that I hated farming with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns: farming brought us to this isolated place, farming brought us to poverty, farming make us the daily playthings of banks and markets. The idea of discussing the joy of farming during our spare time away from actually doing it made me nauseous.

The Englehart kids had a boy scout troop but we laughed that off immediately: they went into the wilderness for weekend adventures but we lived in that same wilderness every day. I already knew a thousand ways to die out there; intentionally wandering into the hunting ranges of wolf packs and bears just didn't strike me as a fun time. Here's a tip, however: if you don't know who the group has singled out to be left behind as a distraction while the others escape, it's probably you.

Mom had her monthly Women's Institute meetings. Honestly, I have no idea what the WI was about or what they did. As near as I could tell, it was a regular get-together at a member's house of the area women, away from their husbands, children and responsibilities, to simply chat and bond over tea and sandwiches. And that alone seems sensible and practical enough to justify the practice in my ever-so-humble opinion.

There were two WI groups in our township. The Dack Women's Institute group met in the northern part of the township; Mom's group, the Sunday Creek Women's Institute, was in our immediate neighbourhood. As near as I know, each had 25-30 members. I wish I could say more as they dominated my mother's social life and fostered her social connections but that's all I have. Some day, I'll ask Mom for more details but if she starts talking about conspiracies, secret ceremonies and special handshakes, I'll probably just have her committed.

Dad's social life? Good question. Dad has always been a relatively quiet, private individual; I still know very little about him. He had a couple of friends in the general area whom he would visit for a few beers. He also went to the Commercial Tavern in Englehart to meet with the guys. I wasn't privy to any of this. Even after reaching the legal drinking age (19 in Ontario), I never stepped foot in the local tavern or accompanied Dad on any his bonding visits. It just wasn't his way, or mine. I didn't pry and we both intuitively knew that his idea of a night on the town and mine --as well as that of his friends-- were almost entirely mutually exclusive.

Let's summarize: realistic social bonds take nearly a decade to form, my parents had their periodic distractions and I didn't really fit in anywhere. Sounds like a great time, doesn't it?
bjarvis: (Default)
Nearly every aspect about our lives is a function of geography: where we are, where we want to be and how we can get from one to the other. To grow up in northern Ontario is to know exactly where you are: god-forsaken, isolated nowhere. It also informs where you want to go --anywhere but here-- and how to get there --by any means available.

I mentioned previously the region is essentially an ancient lake bed from the last ice age. Glaciers smoothed the ancient basalt rock formations to low bumps and the ancient lake silt filled in the depressions to leave the modern land surface effectively flat. There are four exceptions in our immediately area, however.

The alluvial clay soil erodes easily so even small and comparatively young creeks and rivers have cut deep, narrow river valleys. The general flatness and the impermiability of the basalt bedrock also means there are rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds everywhere. My five mile long school bus ride to our local elementary school crossed no fewer than three creeks, several more if we took the scenic route.

The major lake of the area is named Long Lake: 22 miles long, 200 feet across, 60 feet deep. I know nothing about the geological origins of this particular lake. It figures highly in my memories however because the south-east end divides the village of Charlton (pop. 160) in two. The halves are linked by a single road over three steel-reinforced concrete single lane bridges constructed in 1954 over three parallel sets of waterfalls which then immediately merge to form the headwaters of the Englehart River. When you say you're heading to the lake or to the beach, this is where you're going.

About ten miles to the southwest of our farm is a formation known as Sand Ridge, named such by our creative forefathers because it is a colossal ridge formed entirely of coarse orange sand. Having access to 100 billion tons of sand is a very good thing indeed when one has icy roads in winter. The sandy soil also produces the best blueberries in the area, huge and juicy if there is sufficient rainfall. The berries in turn attract the largest well-fed brown bears I have ever seen. One learns to pick berries in teams with at least one person with reasonably good eyesight constantly acting as a look-out.

The only other interesting geological feature is a shallow rift valley, an elongated basin created when the land on each side rebounded along fault lines after the weight of mile-deep ice was lifted 12,000 years ago. The town of Englehart (pop. 1200) sits in the middle of the basin; Highway 11, our major north-south escape route to civilization runs the length of it. If frostbite and hypothermia aren't sufficiently attractive winter activities to entice you to visit, go just to see the spectacular icicles and ice falls along the basalt cliffs of Highway 560 just as it runs along the fault line at the edge of the basin. Ground water seeps all year round from top onto the rock face where it freezes and melts in the sunlight, creating towering ice formations 100 feet high, tinted by the minerals in the groundwater and dazzling in the morning sun. If you're very lucky in the spring, you might see massive ice formations peel away from the rock face and crash to the ground, shaking everything around as tons of ice shatter on the boulders. Just don't stand too close.

Our farm was located near the geographic center of Dack Township, a nearly 100% rural expanse with a population of less than 500 people but perhaps 2,500 cows --god help us all when the cows start voting as a single political bloc. Charlton and the lake were in the north-west corner, five miles away; Englehart was in the north-east corner, eight miles.

Townships are interesting entities. There are no counties in northern Ontario --those are a southern Ontario feature; I have no idea why this is but there are probably historical and political reasons. For this discussion, just think county and you'll get the picture.

Townships come in two flavours: organized and unorganized. The organized townships are formally incorporated, have their own elected officials (a reeve [mayor] and councillors) and run their own affairs. Unorganized townships have no such privileges: they are effectively just place names on a map created for the purposes of sorting & identification by the provincial government. The services there are provided by the provincial system --but typically only when the province gets around to them after they've addressed higher priority areas. An organized township would have its snowplows out clearing the roads immediately after a heavy snowfall; an unorganized township may have to wait a few days, a week or more.

Why do I mention this? There's a social status involved here.
Dack Township (mine): Organized.
Evantural Township: Organized.
Hilliard Township: Organized.
Chamberlain Township: Organized.
Savard Township: Unorganized.

To say that Savard Township was looked down upon by its neighbours understates the situation in the same way that World War II could be described as a minor skirmish. As the child of newly arrived would-be farmers, my social standing was only slightly higher than algae in the food chain of rural society but I could still claim a status over my counterparts in Savard.

When you're a nearly microscopic fish in an equally microscopic pond, one latches desperately onto anything for the illusion of status. Excusable in children, pathetic in adults.

Of course, status also comes from lineage. My family were new arrivals so we had claim to any sort of children-of-the-original-settlers ancestry. My parents were already married and my brother and I were years below respectable marrying age --even in this area-- so there was no possibility of marrying into the right family tree.

Even these progenitor families were more fiction than reality. Nearly the entire region was destroyed in an immense forest fire in the fall of 1922; everything there now basically started from this new 1922 baseline. The settlement years prior to the fire became fanciful myths of a great golden age of prosperity. Pure fiction, but it's a fiction many an old family has woven into their identity and god help the scoundrel who tries involving facts, records or reality.

And finally, status comes from one's financial means and career choices. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and such were probably at the top but since I hadn't met any until I was in high school, who can say? Government bureaucrats were envied for their job stability and regular hours but that was all.

Among the people I met daily, the miners and railway workers were at the top of the food chain. They were well-paid by our standards, had steady work and generally had free time and disposable income for things like vacations, a second vehicle, recreational vehicles and satellite television. At the bottom were farmers, barely making a small living working seven days per week, whose pitiful fortunes were entirely tied to the whims of the weather, market prices and how long one got on with the local banker who would decide whether or not to finance the purchase of seed, fertilizer, equipment, livestock or such, or whether to order repossession of such items when a payment was missed.

My grade 1 class photo nicely illustrated the differences in means. In a class of 25 or so, a handful were properly scrubbed & neatly presented with clean clothes and new shoes. The rest of us were a scraggly lot in ill-fitting, patched hand-me-down clothes, shoes with holes and a general appearance of sad desperation.

When one lives at the bottom long enough, one either becomes fatalistically accustomed to the view or one becomes more determined day by day to escape.

One also begins to question the intelligence and sanity of one's parents who brought them to this hopelessness. I can forgive general naivete about the harshness of the region and the myopia brought on by the excitement of following their dream, but it takes a bewildering display of foolishness and denial to avoid creating a vaguely realistic business plan.

At the age of four, I learned the following lessons alongside my alphabet and numbers:
  1. Who you are matters.
  2. Who other people say you are matters, even if they're wrong.
  3. People lie, especially about themselves. Especially if they have something to lose.
  4. Always have a Plan B.
  5. My parents were idiots, albeit well-meaning and loving idiots. My older brother too.
  6. I was going to be different. Somehow, I was going to be smarter, successful and resourceful. Above all else, I would leave this god-awful mess behind as soon as possible. Sadly, I also knew enough math at age four to realize that it would take at least 14 years until my 18th birthday, an utter eternity to a child. *sigh*
bjarvis: (Default)
Nearly every aspect about our lives is a function of geography: where we are, where we want to be and how we can get from one to the other. To grow up in northern Ontario is to know exactly where you are: god-forsaken, isolated nowhere. It also informs where you want to go --anywhere but here-- and how to get there --by any means available.

I mentioned previously the region is essentially an ancient lake bed from the last ice age. Glaciers smoothed the ancient basalt rock formations to low bumps and the ancient lake silt filled in the depressions to leave the modern land surface effectively flat. There are four exceptions in our immediately area, however.

The alluvial clay soil erodes easily so even small and comparatively young creeks and rivers have cut deep, narrow river valleys. The general flatness and the impermiability of the basalt bedrock also means there are rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds everywhere. My five mile long school bus ride to our local elementary school crossed no fewer than three creeks, several more if we took the scenic route.

The major lake of the area is named Long Lake: 22 miles long, 200 feet across, 60 feet deep. I know nothing about the geological origins of this particular lake. It figures highly in my memories however because the south-east end divides the village of Charlton (pop. 160) in two. The halves are linked by a single road over three steel-reinforced concrete single lane bridges constructed in 1954 over three parallel sets of waterfalls which then immediately merge to form the headwaters of the Englehart River. When you say you're heading to the lake or to the beach, this is where you're going.

About ten miles to the southwest of our farm is a formation known as Sand Ridge, named such by our creative forefathers because it is a colossal ridge formed entirely of coarse orange sand. Having access to 100 billion tons of sand is a very good thing indeed when one has icy roads in winter. The sandy soil also produces the best blueberries in the area, huge and juicy if there is sufficient rainfall. The berries in turn attract the largest well-fed brown bears I have ever seen. One learns to pick berries in teams with at least one person with reasonably good eyesight constantly acting as a look-out.

The only other interesting geological feature is a shallow rift valley, an elongated basin created when the land on each side rebounded along fault lines after the weight of mile-deep ice was lifted 12,000 years ago. The town of Englehart (pop. 1200) sits in the middle of the basin; Highway 11, our major north-south escape route to civilization runs the length of it. If frostbite and hypothermia aren't sufficiently attractive winter activities to entice you to visit, go just to see the spectacular icicles and ice falls along the basalt cliffs of Highway 560 just as it runs along the fault line at the edge of the basin. Ground water seeps all year round from top onto the rock face where it freezes and melts in the sunlight, creating towering ice formations 100 feet high, tinted by the minerals in the groundwater and dazzling in the morning sun. If you're very lucky in the spring, you might see massive ice formations peel away from the rock face and crash to the ground, shaking everything around as tons of ice shatter on the boulders. Just don't stand too close.

Our farm was located near the geographic center of Dack Township, a nearly 100% rural expanse with a population of less than 500 people but perhaps 2,500 cows --god help us all when the cows start voting as a single political bloc. Charlton and the lake were in the north-west corner, five miles away; Englehart was in the north-east corner, eight miles.

Townships are interesting entities. There are no counties in northern Ontario --those are a southern Ontario feature; I have no idea why this is but there are probably historical and political reasons. For this discussion, just think county and you'll get the picture.

Townships come in two flavours: organized and unorganized. The organized townships are formally incorporated, have their own elected officials (a reeve [mayor] and councillors) and run their own affairs. Unorganized townships have no such privileges: they are effectively just place names on a map created for the purposes of sorting & identification by the provincial government. The services there are provided by the provincial system --but typically only when the province gets around to them after they've addressed higher priority areas. An organized township would have its snowplows out clearing the roads immediately after a heavy snowfall; an unorganized township may have to wait a few days, a week or more.

Why do I mention this? There's a social status involved here.
Dack Township (mine): Organized.
Evantural Township: Organized.
Hilliard Township: Organized.
Chamberlain Township: Organized.
Savard Township: Unorganized.

To say that Savard Township was looked down upon by its neighbours understates the situation in the same way that World War II could be described as a minor skirmish. As the child of newly arrived would-be farmers, my social standing was only slightly higher than algae in the food chain of rural society but I could still claim a status over my counterparts in Savard.

When you're a nearly microscopic fish in an equally microscopic pond, one latches desperately onto anything for the illusion of status. Excusable in children, pathetic in adults.

Of course, status also comes from lineage. My family were new arrivals so we had claim to any sort of children-of-the-original-settlers ancestry. My parents were already married and my brother and I were years below respectable marrying age --even in this area-- so there was no possibility of marrying into the right family tree.

Even these progenitor families were more fiction than reality. Nearly the entire region was destroyed in an immense forest fire in the fall of 1922; everything there now basically started from this new 1922 baseline. The settlement years prior to the fire became fanciful myths of a great golden age of prosperity. Pure fiction, but it's a fiction many an old family has woven into their identity and god help the scoundrel who tries involving facts, records or reality.

And finally, status comes from one's financial means and career choices. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and such were probably at the top but since I hadn't met any until I was in high school, who can say? Government bureaucrats were envied for their job stability and regular hours but that was all.

Among the people I met daily, the miners and railway workers were at the top of the food chain. They were well-paid by our standards, had steady work and generally had free time and disposable income for things like vacations, a second vehicle, recreational vehicles and satellite television. At the bottom were farmers, barely making a small living working seven days per week, whose pitiful fortunes were entirely tied to the whims of the weather, market prices and how long one got on with the local banker who would decide whether or not to finance the purchase of seed, fertilizer, equipment, livestock or such, or whether to order repossession of such items when a payment was missed.

My grade 1 class photo nicely illustrated the differences in means. In a class of 25 or so, a handful were properly scrubbed & neatly presented with clean clothes and new shoes. The rest of us were a scraggly lot in ill-fitting, patched hand-me-down clothes, shoes with holes and a general appearance of sad desperation.

When one lives at the bottom long enough, one either becomes fatalistically accustomed to the view or one becomes more determined day by day to escape.

One also begins to question the intelligence and sanity of one's parents who brought them to this hopelessness. I can forgive general naivete about the harshness of the region and the myopia brought on by the excitement of following their dream, but it takes a bewildering display of foolishness and denial to avoid creating a vaguely realistic business plan.

At the age of four, I learned the following lessons alongside my alphabet and numbers:
  1. Who you are matters.
  2. Who other people say you are matters, even if they're wrong.
  3. People lie, especially about themselves. Especially if they have something to lose.
  4. Always have a Plan B.
  5. My parents were idiots, albeit well-meaning and loving idiots. My older brother too.
  6. I was going to be different. Somehow, I was going to be smarter, successful and resourceful. Above all else, I would leave this god-awful mess behind as soon as possible. Sadly, I also knew enough math at age four to realize that it would take at least 14 years until my 18th birthday, an utter eternity to a child. *sigh*
bjarvis: (Default)
My first meaningful memory dates back to when I was not quite three years of age. Truthfully, I can't really say if it was a real memory or one I've constructed in hindsight over the intervening 41 years but it's my autobiography so I'll assert my privilege that it was indeed a real memory: I was in the back seat of a car, driving down a country road, looking across an acre of space eastward at a white stucco farmhouse, a grove of birch trees to its left.

We moved into that farmhouse in November of 1969.

My memory includes green leaves and thick waving grass, neither of which could have existed in northern Ontario in November so I'll give some credit to the possibility that the memory is indeed manufactured. Or I could argue I must have remembered a prior visit when my parents were closing first visiting the place they would purchase earlier in the year. My story, my memory, deal with it.

Let me draw you a more detailed picture of this environment which made me me.

We were then a family of four: my mother, 24, my father, 27, my older brother, 4, and me, nearly 3. We had lived in a small community in southern Ontario named Ayr, on Swan Street. The town is still there, still mostly irrelevant, next door to Princeton, Paris, Drumbo, Roseville and practically nothing else of consequence, 45 minutes west of Kitchener/Waterloo which is itself about 90 minutes west of Toronto. Small town folks were we, and largely still.

Dad had been raised in a farming family; he and his new family had an urge to return to the land. Alas, the only place they could afford --as well as escape from their own extended families-- was 400 miles north off the edge of the map and next to scribbling saying Here be dragons polar bears.

I was not consulted on this move.

The farm itself was 160 acres in size, 40 acres of which were rock and forest. We were to be only the second family to have ever formally owned the place: it was hacked out of the wilderness by Art & Muriel Lamb in the mid 1910's. We bought it from them with a private mortgage when they retired and moved into Englehart, a nearby town.

Want to see it? Google maps' satellite image shows it here, on the east side of Mill Creek Road. The shot is in winter: one can tell by the white snow and the long shadows of midday. The large black block in the bottom is the barn and its shadow; the other big black block above that is the house and its shadow. This wasn't the view in 1969, however.

Back in my early childhood, the farmhouse was, as I mentioned a white stucco sided home. There was a porch along the east wall, a large kitchen and living room on the first floor and three bedrooms upstairs with two closets between them. There was a root cellar accessible off the kitchen but we never used it; as a child, I spent hours imagining by turns the wonders or horrors that might be hidden there. The house had running cold water but no hot water. A bathroom? That was the outhouse on the other side of the yard to the east. Heat? A fuel oil burner in the living room, warm air circulating by convection. The bedroom furthest from the stairs was always the coldest in winter because of it.

We had a telephone though, a party line: if the phone rang a single short ring, it was for Syd & Doris Walton two miles down the road; two long rings and it was for us. The local operator lived a few miles away on another farm.

There were two small garages on the farm. We grew up calling one the car garage and the other the tractor garage simply because that's what we initially housed in each. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I learned the so-called tractor garage was actually the original permanent house, first constructed immediately after the region was destroyed by the great forest fire of 1922.

There was a large barn beside the car garage. It was referred to as the old barn, and one only had to glance at it to see why. It leaned precariously to the south, the roof line sagging severely midway along its length, the entire structure frozen in a slow-motion collapse under its own weight. The old barn was covered in wooden shingles, many missing. the quad-pane windows misaligned in their frames and occasionally broken or entirely absent. My brother and I were absolutely forbidden to go into the barn so naturally we did as often as we could. We recognized the dusty old horse yokes, ancient decaying saddle gear, hitching posts and the like. They had been out of service in most of western civilization by 50+ years but only by a decade or two in our area.

There were two other large sheds for housing farming equipment to the east of the old barn, one I can no longer picture or describe, the other built as a log cabin, long & wide, open at the south end, roofed with sheets of metal.

There was a veritable graveyard of ancient rusting farm implements in the area between these buildings. Look at films of the 1930s depression, the films of the dust bowl farms: those were the pieces sinking into the soil, hidden in tall grass in summer and buried in snow in winter.

There was a grainery immediately adjacent to the new barn, the one still standing. I know my father moved it there from another location on the farm but I don't remember where, when or how.

The barn's original layout had a series of cattle stalls for twenty cows at one end and a hay loft above. The west interior had an open access to the hayloft and rolling doors on the north & south sides to allow hay wagons to roll in, unload and roll out again efficiently. As a three year old child, looking up from the floor to the ceiling of the barn, it seemed cathedral-like, impossibly high and vast.

The farm was a beef operation when owned & run by the Lambs; my parents fancied turning it into a dairy farm. Almost as soon as spring arrived in 1970, Dad built a milk house on the west end of the barn to house the vacuum pressure system which would run the milking machines as well as the milk tank & refrigeration system. Within another year, the single lane from the road to the house was expanded into loop to allow the milk truck to drive past the house to the barn and back down to the road again. Dad extended the floor of the hay loft the full length of the barn and built an insanely long conveyor system powered by a small electric motor which would carry bales of hay from a wagon up a 45 degree slope to the top of the barn, run along the interior of the barn to the far end and then simply drop them into a growing irregular pyramid of hay. It was not efficient storage by any stretch, but it was a system which allowed one to unload a wagon single-handedly. That became especially important as Mom became pregnant with child #3 in the early winter, late in 1970.

I've mentioned hay multiple times, largely because that's all one could reasonably grow. The soil isn't especially rich: it's mostly clay alluvials, left from an ancient lake created 12,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated and then briefly paused. Silt accumulated as the lake water was trapped between the terminal moraines 100 miles to the south and the edge of the glaciers another 30 miles to the north. Take a core sample of the soil below two feet in depth and you can see distinct horizontal light & dark bands, dark from organics-laden summer silt, light from winter. Nowadays, the area is referred to as the Little Clay Belt, our very own piece of a geological oddity marking the last time anything even vaguely exciting ever happened there. Step out of this spot of clay and all you'll find are shallow alkali bogs in occasional depressions of smoothed basalt worn flat by innumerable ice ages.

Snow falls in mid-October and one can reasonably expect it to stay until mid-April. Even when the snow is gone, the deeply frozen soil will prevent the melt water from seeping into the ground and the relatively flat land prevents it from flowing away, giving us 120 acres of clay mud until early May. Combined, this makes the growing season effectively five months before frosts kill the above-ground vegetation, sometimes less. Wheat, corn and other such crops require a longer season. The local grasses, however, make the most of the short summer so hay is the best crop one can reasonably expect. Presuming, of course, that the cut grass has time to dry between rainfalls. Without three continuous dry days, the hay will be consumed with mildew, rendering it inedible to cows. Bale it sooner when it is wet and one risks a barn fire from the heat generated by anaerobic decomposition in the compressed bales.

In life, timing is life & death. In farming, it's more important than that.

On a good day, though, you could stand in the middle of the southern field, hearing only the chirp of grasshoppers and the wind rustling the waist-high grass, feeling the sunlight on your face with an unhindered view of blue skies and white clouds to the horizon in every direction. On a good night, the milky way and the moon both shone so brightly they cast competing shadows on the ground. With the fireflies in summer, a young boy could pretend there was no ground at all, just the night sky in a continuous protective sphere in all directions. The night sky in winter brought the aurora along the northern horizon, slowly shifting cascades of red and green, so hypnotic you never wanted to stop watching, telling yourself you would only watch another minute or two even as your fingers and toes lost sensation from the cold. These unearthly lights were worth the knife-like pain and tingling when warmth later returned to frost-bitten limbs. Some minor injury was a small price to witness first-hand such mystery.

That's the setting of my first real years of life: a primitive farm, a small family, an extreme climate, twenty cows and an infinite sky.

The old barn, the tractor garage, the grainery, the two utility sheds and even the white stucco-sided house are all gone now. Each has a story, but I'll save those for another installment.
bjarvis: (Default)
My first meaningful memory dates back to when I was not quite three years of age. Truthfully, I can't really say if it was a real memory or one I've constructed in hindsight over the intervening 41 years but it's my autobiography so I'll assert my privilege that it was indeed a real memory: I was in the back seat of a car, driving down a country road, looking across an acre of space eastward at a white stucco farmhouse, a grove of birch trees to its left.

We moved into that farmhouse in November of 1969.

My memory includes green leaves and thick waving grass, neither of which could have existed in northern Ontario in November so I'll give some credit to the possibility that the memory is indeed manufactured. Or I could argue I must have remembered a prior visit when my parents were closing first visiting the place they would purchase earlier in the year. My story, my memory, deal with it.

Let me draw you a more detailed picture of this environment which made me me.

We were then a family of four: my mother, 24, my father, 27, my older brother, 4, and me, nearly 3. We had lived in a small community in southern Ontario named Ayr, on Swan Street. The town is still there, still mostly irrelevant, next door to Princeton, Paris, Drumbo, Roseville and practically nothing else of consequence, 45 minutes west of Kitchener/Waterloo which is itself about 90 minutes west of Toronto. Small town folks were we, and largely still.

Dad had been raised in a farming family; he and his new family had an urge to return to the land. Alas, the only place they could afford --as well as escape from their own extended families-- was 400 miles north off the edge of the map and next to scribbling saying Here be dragons polar bears.

I was not consulted on this move.

The farm itself was 160 acres in size, 40 acres of which were rock and forest. We were to be only the second family to have ever formally owned the place: it was hacked out of the wilderness by Art & Muriel Lamb in the mid 1910's. We bought it from them with a private mortgage when they retired and moved into Englehart, a nearby town.

Want to see it? Google maps' satellite image shows it here, on the east side of Mill Creek Road. The shot is in winter: one can tell by the white snow and the long shadows of midday. The large black block in the bottom is the barn and its shadow; the other big black block above that is the house and its shadow. This wasn't the view in 1969, however.

Back in my early childhood, the farmhouse was, as I mentioned a white stucco sided home. There was a porch along the east wall, a large kitchen and living room on the first floor and three bedrooms upstairs with two closets between them. There was a root cellar accessible off the kitchen but we never used it; as a child, I spent hours imagining by turns the wonders or horrors that might be hidden there. The house had running cold water but no hot water. A bathroom? That was the outhouse on the other side of the yard to the east. Heat? A fuel oil burner in the living room, warm air circulating by convection. The bedroom furthest from the stairs was always the coldest in winter because of it.

We had a telephone though, a party line: if the phone rang a single short ring, it was for Syd & Doris Walton two miles down the road; two long rings and it was for us. The local operator lived a few miles away on another farm.

There were two small garages on the farm. We grew up calling one the car garage and the other the tractor garage simply because that's what we initially housed in each. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I learned the so-called tractor garage was actually the original permanent house, first constructed immediately after the region was destroyed by the great forest fire of 1922.

There was a large barn beside the car garage. It was referred to as the old barn, and one only had to glance at it to see why. It leaned precariously to the south, the roof line sagging severely midway along its length, the entire structure frozen in a slow-motion collapse under its own weight. The old barn was covered in wooden shingles, many missing. the quad-pane windows misaligned in their frames and occasionally broken or entirely absent. My brother and I were absolutely forbidden to go into the barn so naturally we did as often as we could. We recognized the dusty old horse yokes, ancient decaying saddle gear, hitching posts and the like. They had been out of service in most of western civilization by 50+ years but only by a decade or two in our area.

There were two other large sheds for housing farming equipment to the east of the old barn, one I can no longer picture or describe, the other built as a log cabin, long & wide, open at the south end, roofed with sheets of metal.

There was a veritable graveyard of ancient rusting farm implements in the area between these buildings. Look at films of the 1930s depression, the films of the dust bowl farms: those were the pieces sinking into the soil, hidden in tall grass in summer and buried in snow in winter.

There was a grainery immediately adjacent to the new barn, the one still standing. I know my father moved it there from another location on the farm but I don't remember where, when or how.

The barn's original layout had a series of cattle stalls for twenty cows at one end and a hay loft above. The west interior had an open access to the hayloft and rolling doors on the north & south sides to allow hay wagons to roll in, unload and roll out again efficiently. As a three year old child, looking up from the floor to the ceiling of the barn, it seemed cathedral-like, impossibly high and vast.

The farm was a beef operation when owned & run by the Lambs; my parents fancied turning it into a dairy farm. Almost as soon as spring arrived in 1970, Dad built a milk house on the west end of the barn to house the vacuum pressure system which would run the milking machines as well as the milk tank & refrigeration system. Within another year, the single lane from the road to the house was expanded into loop to allow the milk truck to drive past the house to the barn and back down to the road again. Dad extended the floor of the hay loft the full length of the barn and built an insanely long conveyor system powered by a small electric motor which would carry bales of hay from a wagon up a 45 degree slope to the top of the barn, run along the interior of the barn to the far end and then simply drop them into a growing irregular pyramid of hay. It was not efficient storage by any stretch, but it was a system which allowed one to unload a wagon single-handedly. That became especially important as Mom became pregnant with child #3 in the early winter, late in 1970.

I've mentioned hay multiple times, largely because that's all one could reasonably grow. The soil isn't especially rich: it's mostly clay alluvials, left from an ancient lake created 12,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated and then briefly paused. Silt accumulated as the lake water was trapped between the terminal moraines 100 miles to the south and the edge of the glaciers another 30 miles to the north. Take a core sample of the soil below two feet in depth and you can see distinct horizontal light & dark bands, dark from organics-laden summer silt, light from winter. Nowadays, the area is referred to as the Little Clay Belt, our very own piece of a geological oddity marking the last time anything even vaguely exciting ever happened there. Step out of this spot of clay and all you'll find are shallow alkali bogs in occasional depressions of smoothed basalt worn flat by innumerable ice ages.

Snow falls in mid-October and one can reasonably expect it to stay until mid-April. Even when the snow is gone, the deeply frozen soil will prevent the melt water from seeping into the ground and the relatively flat land prevents it from flowing away, giving us 120 acres of clay mud until early May. Combined, this makes the growing season effectively five months before frosts kill the above-ground vegetation, sometimes less. Wheat, corn and other such crops require a longer season. The local grasses, however, make the most of the short summer so hay is the best crop one can reasonably expect. Presuming, of course, that the cut grass has time to dry between rainfalls. Without three continuous dry days, the hay will be consumed with mildew, rendering it inedible to cows. Bale it sooner when it is wet and one risks a barn fire from the heat generated by anaerobic decomposition in the compressed bales.

In life, timing is life & death. In farming, it's more important than that.

On a good day, though, you could stand in the middle of the southern field, hearing only the chirp of grasshoppers and the wind rustling the waist-high grass, feeling the sunlight on your face with an unhindered view of blue skies and white clouds to the horizon in every direction. On a good night, the milky way and the moon both shone so brightly they cast competing shadows on the ground. With the fireflies in summer, a young boy could pretend there was no ground at all, just the night sky in a continuous protective sphere in all directions. The night sky in winter brought the aurora along the northern horizon, slowly shifting cascades of red and green, so hypnotic you never wanted to stop watching, telling yourself you would only watch another minute or two even as your fingers and toes lost sensation from the cold. These unearthly lights were worth the knife-like pain and tingling when warmth later returned to frost-bitten limbs. Some minor injury was a small price to witness first-hand such mystery.

That's the setting of my first real years of life: a primitive farm, a small family, an extreme climate, twenty cows and an infinite sky.

The old barn, the tractor garage, the grainery, the two utility sheds and even the white stucco-sided house are all gone now. Each has a story, but I'll save those for another installment.

July 2017

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