Monday, May 31, 2010


“By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.” Wendell Berry


On many days, the farm is a busy place. People come to garden, to pick vegetables, to help with the harvest, with wood, or apple juice making or butchering. Some of the time I am outside and often, I stay in the house and produce coffee and cake and soup and juice. I don’t mind a traditional role as long as it’s an occasional choice.
The conversation is always about people we know and gardens and dogs and weather. Rarely do larger events intrude. I love the sense of neighbourhood, of community, and I understand the limits that this kind of community includes. This isn't about political or cultural sharing; this is about the work.
But living at the farm also includes an uneasy geographical proximity to people with whom I have nothing in common so that geographical proximity breeds an odd contradiction. A truly ironic example of this happend on the first long weekend in May. I was inside listening to a special on CBC radio on the rapidly melting ice sheet in Greenland and the implications of this for the world’s oceasn. When I went outside, all I could hear was machine noise; weed whackers, lawnmowers, boats, seadoos, chain saws, and long lines of motorcyles and RV’s on the highway. The summer people (who are not neighbours) had arrived.

Once rural community was built on a gift economy. When we were kids, and people came to visit our parents, no one ever left without something, a box of apples, a bottle of wine, or some cookies. Neighbours shared work, food, news, and help. This is still true but now not all people who live nearby are actually neighbours.
Good neighbours are the people who show up when your house is on fire, or the forest is on fire, if your pigs get out, or your dog is sick or you need a ride to town. They come to dinner or just for coffee; something they only come occasionally, but you’re are always glad to see them. Good neighbours invite you over for coffee when you need it; their kids play with your kids; they plow your driveway after a big snow, give you their many different colours of iris corms, or their abundance of whatever they have, vegetables or apples or salad greens.
And of course, geographical neighbours can also be the people whose kids roar up and down the nearest road in their ATVs, who have dogs that bark all night or get off the leash and come over and kill chickens; neighbours who have parties, let off fireworks at night when you are in a sound sleep, spray Roundup in the creek that goes through your pasture where you are raising organic beef, use up all the water in the creek in mid summer when it is most dry, light fires despite a ban, they build fences that are five or ten or fifteen feet in on your land. Such neighbours can be an infernal nuisance.
Neighbours is a contradictory word; community is a warm and fuzzy word but often contains the same contradictions. A community is always close-knit in a crisis because crisis creates community. So does hunger and fear, birth and death, joy and grief. Marriage unites a community but so does gossip, and hatred and love. Rural community was always built on sharing, survival, and necessity and underneath the ephemeral chatter of the present day industrialized suburban nonsense, those bonds still, and always will, exist.
In a future that is looking increasingly difficult for humanity, the gifts of family, neighourhood, community and clanship will begin to resume the kind of importance they have traditionally always had.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dealing with the Mob by K.L.Kivi

The ravens were flying in from all directions, drawn by raucous squawking in the forest. From out on the Slocan Pool, idly bobbing in our canoe in the sunlight and pre-freshet current of the Kootenay River, the commotion seemed incongruent. What could possibly be the cause of such a conflagration? Each black bird that flew over bee-lined it to the spot on the hillslope in front of us with such a sense of determination, that it was clear that this was no simple Sunday corvid picnic. And each bird’s arrival upped the ante, indignation emphatic and volume pumped until the happening on the hill fully captivated us as well.

As we paddled into the bay below the hillslope, we kept our eyes on a clump of Douglas Firs a few hundred metres above. Every few minutes, the ravens would erupt in a frenzy of feathers, black sparks against the blue sky. I was already guessing at the motivation of the ravens when a deep hooting confirmed my suspicions: they were mobbing an owl. Hoooooo. Hoo-Hoo, Hooo. Hooo. From the throaty depth of the call and its pattern, I knew this was no mere Barred owl.

Mo and I looked at each other, obviously thinking the same thing: let’s go see. We landed and pulled the canoe up onto the fresh greenery that was sprouting there. I was about to examine the plants along the shore when the ravens erupted again, this time flying quickly to a neighbouring clump of evergreens.

The poor owl, I thought, but didn’t say it. Ravens mob owls for a reason.

We hesitated not because of what we might find but because the slope in front of us was so steep and gnarly with fallen limbs and trees. Plus, we were exhausted from a week of the hard physical labour spring inevitably demands. Still, we couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing the owl and ravens close up. We bushwhacked up slope until we stumbled on a well-trod deer trail. The trail zigzagged up, bringing us right to the clump of tall, girthy trees where the ravens had now been keeping up their raucous vigil for at least 20 minutes. The black birds were obvious to see, all motion and noise but we had to peer diligently into the trees, shifting our position a few times, before we finally spotted the large, buffy shape of the owl. A big one!

“It’s a Great horned owl!” Mo whispered. I trained my binoculars on it. I’d never seen a Great horned owl with such a bright rusty colour around its eyes and such distinctive black ear tufts and parentheses around its face. I was in the process of trying to convince myself that we founded something rare, like a Long-eared owl. It wasn’t.

The owl was sitting, seemingly fairly calmly, a foot from the fat trunk of the fir. Apart from the distinctive full swivel of its head as it kept an eye on us as well as the ravens in the branches around it, the big bird was still. This type of mobbing a is regular, perhaps even weekly occurrence in the life of a predatory bird. What did the Great horned owl make of it? Every few minutes, an individual raven would break free of the mob and actually fly at the owl who would fluff its feathers and shake, as if to discourage some pesky insect. Occasionally, it would give its series of low hoots. A quick look in my bird book revealed that they were fairly well matched in size and weight if not in weapons of claw and bill. The ravens, however, had the advantage of numbers.

My initial pity for the owl was subsiding as I thought about what the ravens were doing. I was assuming that their behaviour was an act of protecting their nestlings or even retaliation for a recent attack but was there something going on here that I couldn’t guess at? Is there such thing as raven principles? A code of behaviour that harkens to solidarity in the face of historic enemies? For example, if the ravens were social and environmental activists protesting a G8 summit, would I even pause to wonder how Stephen Harper or other world wrecking leaders were feeling?

We edged closer. Clearly, the owl was as concerned about our presence as it was about its familiar foes, the ravens. It swooped off its limb in a graceful arc into an adjacent clump of firs. The ravens followed. We went back down slope. By the time we were back out on the Slocan Pool, the mob was calming. Had they made their point? The owl continued to be owl, predatory bird of the forest and the ravens continued to be its potential prey. No one was injured in the making of this film.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the intra-species human analogy I made earlier. As much care is needed in animal-morphizing as in anthropomorphizing. Using animal behaviour to justify human interactions can occasionally lead those of interested in what is "natural" seriously off course sometimes. The conflict between ravens and owls is one based in survival. The conflicts between the military industrial consumer complex and the citizens of the world are a different story altogether.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Owning and Being: by Luanne Armstrong

Owning and Being Owned:

I am feeling a bit domesticated these days. My house is not really my house; it’s the farm-house and therefore, all kinds of people wander in and out on a daily basis. My family, my friends, visitors, and various dogs; many days, the teapot fills and empties and is filled again. So therefore, I feel it somewhat behooves me to keep the place at least minimally tidy and in working order; consequently I have new drapes, courtesy of my friend, Yvette, a new floor, courtesy of my brother and sister-in-law, and a new lawn mower, courtesy of my son. All a bit amazing to watch!
I have never been a house person. As a child, for me to be given a choice between being outdoors and in was no choice at all. I was almost always outside. The house was a place to eat and sleep and read. My mother looked after the house. Talk of decorating and renovating was an immediate excuse to flee.
But – I have this house. The house seems to always want things, drapes and flooring and cleaning and furniture. Occasionally, on my way home from buying groceries and chicken feed, I wander into the local hardware store and wander, lost and marveling, up and down the aisles. What a lot of stuff one can buy for a house. I stand, marveling, in front of the appliances, coffee maker, blenders and food processors. I can’t believe I am doing this. I hate stuff. I am an anti-consumer. But there I am, staring at stuff. The house is making me do it.
Louis, who is nine, is coming to the farm again for the summer. Lately, he has been talking about a TV show he watches, in which a group of kids are attempting to survive in the wilderness. We have decided we will play survivor on the beach this summer. At night, as he goes to sleep, we have conversations about what we can take with us. Are sleeping bags okay? Yes, he decides. Can I take my Swiss Army knife? A pot, teabags, salt and butter?
I know where this leads. I’ve packed up many a picnic for the beach. The amount of stuff needed to produce just one meal is formidable.
When I was a kid, I loved the idea of surviving outside. I had many and various hideouts on the mountain above the farm. Often, especially in the spring or fall, I would take some matches, a can of beans out of the pantry and my trusty hatchet, and head up there just for the sheer delight of making lunch on my own. There were two books in particular that I loved and read over and over; Two Little Savages, by Ernest Thompson Seton, and My Side of the Mountain, by Julie Craighead George, which were about kids who lived in the woods and did it well. I never quite lived outside, but I always liked to think that I could, if I had to.
But at sixty, a teacher and writer, I find myself stuck in the house far more than I would like. And I am completely amazed to find that I am actually learning to care for this house; learning how much time and energy and stuff it takes to keep a modern house functioning. And this isn’t a big middle class house. This is a small log house on a farm, with a woodstove.
And outside -- lawn, garden, mowing, pruning trimming. Yikes.

I have often said and it is true, that I belong to this place where I live, far more than it belongs to me. It has mothered and fathered me and made me what I am and for that, I am always utterly grateful. But belonging to a place, versus owning a place; belonging to a place versus being owned by a place; or being owned by possessions, being possessed by my sense of ownership, versus simply having enough things to function comfortably, are very, very different ideas and states of being.
I don’t want to own this place, but more than that, I don’t want my sense of connection to be transformed into one where the place owns me. It is a gift from fate that I have the chance to be here in this beauty; to share the gift of the non-human lives around me, to balance my choice to be here with the care that I give the house and the garden in order to maintain them in beauty as well. It’s an enormous and important distinction, a whole universe of value, between belonging, and owning.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

more about lost by Luanne Armstrong


Apparently, one of the natural reactions to the death of a loved one is to feel as if you should go looking for them. I think about this, driving to town for groceries. I think, “I should go see my mom,” and then I think, oh no, I lost her. Where did she go?
What an odd expression for death. We lose our loved ones, they don’t just die, they are lost to us, we can’t find them, they’re not so much dead as wandering in some unknown and unfathomable wilderness and the wilderness itself is lost.
I think about this, wandering the farm. So much is lost, so much is present, so much is being created for the future. It’s always in process.
I walk by the dog graveyard. After I lost my old dog, I had a clear and comforting vision of him running with the other ‘lost dogs’, running and barking at the coyotes, as he used to do, and happy to be out of his crippled body and into one that let him be free. It was comforting because his ghost didn’t hang around, whimpering and scratching at the door, as he did when he began to grow deaf and then blind and then panicky if his head wasn’t right by my foot. Dead, he didn’t seem to need me at all.
When I walk by the chicken shed my father built, I think of my dad and his endless work, and now my father is ‘lost’ too, although his voice stays in my head and his influence still shapes the whole family.
The old paths in the pasture are still faintly there, lost here as well, my childhood, there is the rock where I used to lead Lady, my stubborn barely trained first horse, so I could leap on her back and we could pretend to lead galloping cavalry charges up the hill. Lost now to the new pond and trees is the big rock that was once an elephant I could ride on, or a castle or even a spaceship. Wandering the pasture is always an exercise in nostalgia.
The difficulty with staying in one place for so long is this overlaying of the past and the present; when our dad died and my brother and I began rebuilding the farm, we agreed that it was hard for us to see what could be changed, because of these layers of memory, this sense of what our grandfather and our father had laid down as templates. Although it’s easier for my brother; his giant machines can wipe out years of memories in a few moments but both he and I see things as they were as well as how they are and that can be more than a little confusing sometimes for outsiders.
Walking here, I am always a little bit lost in time. Some days I walk with my mother at my shoulder. Every day, she and I walked to the lake together and home again for tea. Now, I walk with my grandchildren, who will make their own memories in whatever form they want. It is odd for me to think that they will not know my parents, who are still so present for me, and how easily lost are the stories and memories and history even of this place, where I work at maintaining our history, and where every family dinner is an occasion for the same stories to be recounted over and over, each time with a new layer added.
But that’s why I am a writer and that is the gift of this great circular grief and joy of lost and found, lost loved ones, found memories, found stories, levels and layers and the ground of history.