Out & Back
Pancho and dg on the Farm, November 2021
Here’s the view from the bunker driveway in Vermont as I set out on my first trip to the Farm in Ontario since COVID hit. Trip much delayed due to a) apprehensions of infection (aka fear of other people; COVID has been a blessing to anthrophobes) and b) quarantine anxiety, going and returning. I actually bought my first smartphone (don’t laugh) so I could download the ArriveCAN app, which seemed a prerequisite for crossing the border, as did vaccinations, a booster shot, and a PCR test (free at the drive-through site behind Burger King in Berlin). Pancho needed none of this, but whimpered anxiously in my ear the whole way just because he is that kind of dog.
Drive uneventful via Montreal (memories of the overnight copy desk at the Montreal Star, readings at the Word bookstore, the West End Literary Society meetings at the Henri Richard Tavern, a transvestite bar called the Saguenay on the Main) and Kingston (memories of getting into a fist fight at a literary conference, David Helwig’s hospitality), and Toronto (York University, the North York Achilles Club, the Royal Ontario Museum, seeing The Mouse That Roared and Auntie Mame with my mother in the old Loew’s theatre when I was a boy).
I’d been storing what I might euphemize as my archives in the barn. Boxes of very bad manuscripts (the worst I burned in the backyard one summer evening, my mother warming herself against the flames and tut-tutting me, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”), letters from old girlfriends, my hockey gear, every piece of artwork produced by my sons from age 0 to 15, 18 computers, etc. All this had to be moved to a rented storage unit on the edge of town, actually situated on my high school girlfriend’s former farm (many, many memories). I won’t say it was the Augean stables or that I performed herculean labours, but don’t let me stop you from imagining such. I found many dead mice. We obviously need a barn cat.
That part of the barn had in fact once been a stable for the cows, which I only just remember from my childhood. Later it was converted into a striproom for steaming, grading and packing tobacco. Lately, as I say, it served as a special purpose archival storage centre for valuable literary documents upon which many generations of mice raised their young.
The other big project was cleaning the pond drain. We have a spring fed irrigation pond at the edge of the woods, a large oval with a tree-laden dam at the back and an outlet pipe that feeds into a swamp, the source of a creek that flows north and then accomplishes a wide circle before heading toward Lake Erie. Since time immemorial the outlet pipe has gotten clogged (it’s always been inviting to beavers), at which point the entire pond threatens to sweep itself away. So I am forever going back there to check. Five or six years ago, the old drainage pipe my father had put in crumbled with rust and I had a Waterford excavator come and replace it. It turns out that the excavator, a really amiable man whom I enjoyed talking to, had also built the storage rental unit on my high school girlfriend’s former farm, now housing the Glover Archives. It makes you feel positively Hindu the way everything connects in Waterford.
The new drainage pipe was plugged, the water level higher than I had ever seen it. The pipe has grated gates at either end, but these were clear. The blockage was deep inside and inscrutable. My brother, the doctor, was there and did not mind standing up to his waist in freezing water. We eventually worked out that some (as yet unidentified) plant had grown up alongside the outlet, which runs 4-5 metres in the open before it empties into the swamp. There are tiny trickle holes in the pipe, and the plant had sent roots through these holes. The roots had linked and tangled inside the pipe creating a plug about a metre long. We fashioned a lengthy ram and a cut-down sapling with a hooked branch and eventually worked the plug out. It came with an incredible rush, with water spouting out of the trickle holes.
Here is a video still of me hooking debris out of the pipe. Note the primitive tools: sledge hammer, ramboard, and hooked treetrunk in my hand. Like many primates, I am able to fashion tools without going to the hardware store.
Thus have humans forever struggled for survival with the indifferent forces of nature.
My doctor-brother and I walked the woods, too. A year ago we did one of those 15-year timber cuts. The ash and the beech trees were dying; the canopy needed to be opened up. But I had not seen the place since the cutting. As usual, it seemed amazingly open. I was used to the shaded forest floor where nothing much grew, all dried leaves, moss and pine needles. Now suddenly the woodlot is jungly with clumps of pokeweed (aka American nightshade) everywhere. My brother’s blond dog came out with purple spots. I am not sure what to think of this. We’re also getting pokeweed in the soybeans, which is a disaster because it discolors the beans and makes them difficult to market.
Packing up more archival material in the house, I found my mother’s copy of Frederick Philip Grove’s 1939 novel Two Generations. This was printed in a limited edition of 500 copies, and the Groves gave one to my mother. Grove had tutored her in French when she was a girl, and they had remained friends. In later years, my mother used to drive Mrs. Grove to University Women’s Club meetings. Grove, as you may or may not know, was a mysterious and sly protector of his own legend. He was the model for the character Felix Volkbein in Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood.
And I dug out the silver hot water jug my mother always said was given to my great-great-great-grandfather by Sir Walter Scott. This is an old family legend, and I won’t go into the details here (I am working on a book). But the last time I was on the farm I hadn’t yet figured out how to decode the makers’ marks. This time I had educated myself. The jug was made in London in 1788 of Sterling silver by a smith named Charles Hougham. This was encouraging. I had always feared that I’d find out it didn’t fit the story even circumstantially. It is a lovely thing: cane-wrapped handle, baluster-shape, with a chased rose pattern, and a hinged dome and finial.
I also had dinner one evening with my high school sweetheart (see above) and her husband, spent a pleasant hour chatting with the wife of the excavator (see above) who superintends the storage rental units, talked away an amiable evening with the poet who took over my mother’s last chickens (and contributed to the magazine), and had dinner at Hoy’s in Simcoe with Bob and Stan, two old friends and neighbours. Bob grew up on a farm just south of us; we used to play chess afternoons after school in the two-room schoolhouse we attended. Stan and I were on the same Optimist Club peewee softball team. I played third base, he was shortstop. Somehow we won a trophy, which I still have (it is with the archives).