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.