A couple of months back Lisa B. Pot caught my attention when she wrote her column about human geography, the sense of place we develop because of our surroundings and the experiences of living in those surroundings.
About the same time as her column appeared, I had pulled off my bookshelf an old copy of Never Sleep Three in a Bed by prairie-born writer Max Braithwaite. Though not a typical farm kid, he spent his early years in the small southeastern Saskatchewan village of Nokomis, which meant he spent a lot of time wandering the open lands outside the village. Later, when times got hard in the Depression, his lawyer father move the family north to Prince Albert. I’m not sure if it’s what geographers had in mind, but for me the following passage by Braithwaite beautifully describes the effect our surroundings can have on our lives.
“Unknown to our parents – to ourselves even – we developed new ways. Ways fashioned by the flat prairies, the black soil, the constant winds, the bone-dry summers and the mean winters. Fashioned, too, by the one-crop economy. A fatalism, and acceptance that nature gave us. If it rained we were prosperous; if it didn’t we were poor. Not just the farmers, but everyone else who worked for them. And who could affect the amount of rainfall by a single drop?
“A new race of Canadians we were. Not the fur traders or the Metis, but the solid dirt farmer. All the fatalism, sardonic humour, wildness, stubbornness – or strength of character, whichever you prefer – yes, and the paranoia, too, all these began in Nokomis, and towns like it, with the Braitwaites and families like them. This country made us, and wherever we go or whatever we do, we can’t ever be quite the same as other Canadians.”
When I look back at my own roots, I see that many of the attitudes that directed my life were laid down while growing up in the hard-scrabble days of the 1950s on a Bruce County farm. Though my parents did their best to hide it, I could feel the tension of being short of money as my war veteran father tried to establish himself as a land-owning farmer. Eventually hardships were piled on hardships and he had to take a factory job.
My neighbour, and best friend, returned to the area a few years back, drawn by the sort of bond to his childhood experiences that Braithwaite writes about. We regularly exchange e-mail reminiscences about memories that are precious to us, and nobody else.
And that’s something that changes who we rural people are. Obviously farm kids growing up on prospering farms in the 1950s will have different experiences than my friend and I. Similarly, changing farm life for succeeding generation will shape each generation slightly differently than previous generations.Young people who grow up driving massive, efficient, farm equipment are bound to have different ideas than my generation that farmed with small tractors. Those who worked in large, single-species barns can’t be expected to share much with typical mixed farms of the past.
And yet, generation after generation farmers face the same challenges: bad weather that can suddenly turn a bumper crop into an economic disaster; new diseases that can devastate a herd; the whims of the market that can see farmers lose thousands of dollars in the time it takes to get the crop through the combine and delivered to the elevator.
One of the great challenges of modern society is the growing divide in understanding between rural and urban Canadians. Our experiences are so different that we’re bound to think differently. What’s required is for people from both backgrounds to try to understand the other’s experiences and attitudes.◊