Sunday, 22 September 2013


We have baby chickens that arrived last week and are sitting comfortably under a heat lamp, in a cardboard box that is set up as what would, in the world of chickens, amount to a luxury spa. These birds are pampered. As first time chicken minders, we are vigilant. We check on them every few hours to make sure their water containers are topped up. We keep them well fed with organic feed and sand (it helps them digest) and we keep their room as clean as is humanly possible (they are worse than the grossest rock band in that regard). We've even been bringing the box out in the afternoon so that they get some real sun and fresh air (and to give the heat lamp some respite).

Fall is a challenging time to start chickens, especially with our fickle weather patters. Within a span of three days last week, we went from heat advisories to frost advisories. A month from now, the birds will be living in a barn in the stall next to the pigs. They will not be crowded into a warehouse like those in bigger commercial chickens operations. But they will have to be tough birds.

As we tend to our domesticated animals there are all kinds of wildlife living their wild lives. The land we have has not been sprayed with chemicals in years, perhaps never has been. We have unimproved hay fields and woodland and a lot of brush. Every step on a walk through the grass seems to summon a frog's leap. The other day I was walking along a path and came upon a grass snake with half a frog sticking out of its mouth. The rest was bulging in his neck as he slowly swallowed it.

There are also lot of wasps and hornets around. Frogs and snakes don't bother me, but furry yellow insects that fly and sting and don't even pollinate do.  Recently, I woke up in the night, to a sound I couldn't identify. It was the faint whir of the traffic on the highway which I couldn't help mistake, in my semi-conscious state, for the whir of hornets presumably nesting outside the window. I spent the next while wishing they would disappear. Go away! I thought, as I drifted back into a fitful sleep.

It has been almost a month since the move. Among farmers in this area, I don't hear talk about Toronto so much as southwestern Ontario, as in, "well, we couldn't compete with the greenhouse operations in southwestern Ontario" or "we just don't have the kinds of soil they have in southwestern Ontario (or population density or climate, etc.)."  I, however, am far more aware of the difference between rural and urban life, Toronto and South Frontenac Township.  At times I get nostalgic for the bustle of the streets, a workplace with friendly kitchen banter and the constancy of social interaction that the city offers. I got an email from my old TO badminton club informing us all that the club was full and that it would be a busy fall for Wednesday night play. It got me itching to stop in, see the gang, play a few matches before walking back to the subway.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


We bought two weaner pigs last week from a permaculturalist a few kilometres away. When the two were culled from the herd of a dozen or so, the squeal was deafening. The first couple of days they darted when I came near them and looked at me with what appeared to be resentment. Pigs are smart, sensitive animals, but not in the same ways that dogs are. They do not respond to a call and they don't show emotion. The pigs like to dig, eat, sleep and oink.  Their intelligence, in my experience, manifests in demonstrations of rebellion.

The third day we had them, we came home from a farm auction after having been gone a few hours and found the door to their pen wide open. They were nowhere in sight. The rain had started as I hurried around the perimeter of our property, looking and listening, treading through prickly brush at some points, exploring spots I didn't think I would ever bother exploring. I ended up back at the house where XB was waiting, having given up searching. We visited our neighbour, an older lady who was friendly and who said she hadn't seen any pigs, and hadn't noticed any unusual cars driving up (we thought they might have been stolen). In fact, bewildered by how the door could have been opened, we became so sure they had been swiped, that we called a friend for advice on what to do in cases of animal theft. He didn't pick up, nor did the staff at the feed store. We thought about reporting it to the police but decided to hold off, thank God.

While we stood in the kitchen with no appetite, chopping vegetables for lunch, XB noticed something odd. “That wasp nest that was on the back deck, it's gone.” We couldn't imagine that it would have blown away, given that it was a calm day, or that the wasps would have flown away with their next. Nor could we imagine that anyone would want to steal two pigs and a wasp nest. It was then that we saw two piglets dart across the path from one patch of woods to another.

These pigs can run, but they get distracted every few dozen feet with roots they can't resist digging up.  We scrambled out and XB went in on their left and I from behind, both of us a rake in hand. We found them quickly and began our effort to herd them back the several hundred metres to their pen, a task that would only work if the two of us worked out a strategy. When they walked towards me, I backed off a bit so they wouldn't dart past. Then XB would come behind them and steer them towards the edge of the forest and then our roles would switch. We carried on with this pattern until after a half hour they were back inside. Along the way, they would repeatedly run off into another patch of woods, delaying the inevitable capture.  Whenever they did this, they would first huddle together, as if to discuss their own footballesque play, and then would wander on but in a more skittish fashion.  Then they would dart in different directions, as if to fake us out.  Eventually they would find a safe spot in a patch of bramble and we would have to wait them out.  They are rebellious.  My assumption is they ate the wasp nest on their jaunt, just to be extra cheeky.

Since then we have been pasturing them at mealtime. They eat their hog mix and apples that fall from our tree and dig the earth while we watch. It's a bit like the supervised hour that inmates get outside. They remain unnamed and, as cute as they are, I have not become so attached to them that I won't be able to bear their being hauled away for slaughter. They don't have idiosyncrasies that I can detect that would endear me to them. But I hated the thought that they had been kidnapped or hit by a car or shot by a neighbor who saw them digging up their garden. Though they are just pigs that eat, sleep and escape when they can, they do bring out a protective impulse. Furthermore, they are our first attempt at raising farm animals, and I would be a boost of confidence to be able to raise them right and see two healthily fattened pigs a few months from now.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Leaving TO, Becoming Rural Folk

We loaded up a 24-foot Uhaul truck and, with it filled to the brim, bolted to the 401 in hopes that we would beat rush hour. We got caught up in accident traffic just the same and that had us lumbering along for the first hour of the drive before the frenzied pace began, the truck swaying in the current of passing semis, until soon we reached the more leisurely stretch toward Frontenac. We got in around sunset, unloaded what we could until sometime around midnight, at which point we called it a day.

We woke up the next morning rural folk. The sunrises are generally beautiful here.  But we did not take a leisurely breakfast on the porch that first morning. We got back to unpacking. And hammering nails, and calling farmers and feed dealers and custom ploughers.

After a long second day of unloading countless boxes, the burden of a hectic urban routine fading, the stillness struck me and a fear set in. It was mostly neuroses, but it went deep. The question “What on earth am I doing?” which I'd asked myself in a flippant tone many times before the move, suddenly weighed a ton. Bell (the phone company) revealed, after bouncing us from department to department and giving contradictory information, that, though they had confirmed weeks before that they would be installing our internet connection at the new residence, it turned out they didn't actually offer service where we were now.

I read Thomas Pollack's War in the Country recently, which reveals much about the divisions between rural and urban Canada and the fact that the “country” is increasingly forgotten because it is seen as dying and irrelevant. This news furthered the revelation that only cities matter (I should point out that since then I have been recommended a few providers that are quite competitive and widely used where I am. It's not really out of range of the internet.)

But the fear of having grossly miscalculated on my life change still creeps in every day. For a little while that evening, I felt a dread at the image of myself 10 years from now – a sloppy yokel with junk piling up in the yard. 

Despite the general anxiety of living in a new place (which, in my experience, tends to be full of exaggeration and worst-case scenario creation) we are in a community that seems to value community. While we are in a politically conservative rural riding, where anti-government and anti-urban sentiment are not uncommon, and a smattering of xenophobia and homophobia exists, people here are mostly friendly, approachable and laid-back. There is a spirit of the back-to-the-lander movement, though nobody likes that term except me.

It's a place where, if you go up and knock on a stranger's door because someone told you she would be a good resource for learning about raising sheep, you will be greeted with only mild caution and then within seconds a warm conversation will have begun and before you know it, she will have given an hour of her time to explain her methods and happily put you in touch with several friends who can help further. And then the friends recommend more contacts. And suddenly you have learned a great deal about sheep and you sense that soon enough you will have landed a small herd because someone will connect you to a breeder who has none at the moment but who knows someone who does and will be happy to connect you.

I am encouraged to see signs of community. In the evenings, of course, I am reminded of the fact that I'm far from the distractions of the city.  I'm far from grocery stores, coffee shops, pubs, neon. The traffic zips by on the highway a few hundred metres away in one long strand and otherwise, it is quiet.