Spring daffodils in the dooryard
This human life is not now, and has never been, what Thomas Hobbes claimed was the life of early men: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” We are the only creatures who can choose the life we lead. We can even choose to behave like beasts. But that’s our choice, not our destiny. Human life is not, finally, a tragedy. It is, as the Italian poet Dante saw so clearly, a (Divine) Comedy, even if this is not always apparent here below.
Our coming here was a blessing. Often in the city I would come in the door from the University in the evening just as my wife was going out the door to a meeting. There was never enough time to talk over the various problems that arose. Here we all had to work together and everyone had real jobs to do and jobs that had to be done daily, whether it was mucking out the barn or feeding the pigs or picking up eggs or helping in the hayfield or the garden or milking the cow or getting in the firewood for the winter.
Even the austerity of living, for the first few years, in a house with no bathroom, no hot water beyond the kitchen sink, no heat but what could be supplied by several wood stoves, no storm windows, no insulation - even that was a blessing. It was a blessing because it allowed us, willy-nilly, to be closer to the great world around us, to experience it directly, and to know its rhythms in a way that no amount of book-learning could have supplied.
Over and over, Spring follows Winter, morning milking follows evening milking. Autumn's "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," poignantly brief this far north, gives way to October's flash and fire, to be succeeded in turn by the more subtle splendour of November's dark palette.
Even in the sky above us the constellations wheel and change and return again. Glittering Orion, winter's hero, mentioned in the Book of Job, slowly processes into the west, followed by his faithful dogs, Sirius and Procyon, while Leo, the lion, waking from a winter hibernation, stalks behind them, to be followed in turn by bright Arcturus, the ‘watcher of the bear,’ in the constellation Boötes. And with the turning of the stars the seasons come and go with apparent monotonous regularity, as they have ever done, and yet they are never the same.
Within the apparent change is the stillness which comes from that source "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." There is, indeed, no new thing under the sun. In spite of our age's proud insistence upon being constantly titillated with "some new thing" (already an old habit in the time of St Paul), in the country it is still possible to realise that what is to be discovered is presented over and over. The veils are very thin. Through them a voice speaks softly but emphatically: "There. Did you see the point that time?"
In the course of a life that has increasingly seemed to be sailing against the wind of the world’s wisdom we have struggled to see as clearly as possible what was before our eyes. Most of the time we found ourselves standing in our own light. Perhaps, once or twice, we did catch glimpses.
In what I have written I have said very little about the family of children, home-made and adopted, who clustered around our table when small and now are grown and on their own. To all of them, but especially to my wife, I owe most of the stability and sense of order that my own orienteering, in search of a truth beyond any of the images the modern world likes to dress it in, would have cast recklessly away. But for her and her calm grounding in the very soil of being, this often stressful putting forth of tendrils toward the unseen would have been rootless indeed.
Here then will we begin the story: only adding thus much to that which hath been said, that it is a foolish thing to make a long prologue, and to be short in the story itself. II Maccabees, 2:32
The modern world wants to understand itself in terms drawn to a large extent from the dismal science of economics and from a materialistic scientism. Even in the country those boundaries seem inescapable. One cannot speak of oneself as a farmer if one does not "make a living" from the farm. What’s more, we are schooled to see our world through narrow slits of "survival of the fittest" and the operation of random chance, and we see through those slits a purposeless field to be explored for our benefit, a field neutral at best, hostile at worst.
We do not “make our living” from this place, we live here. We have had to find other ways to bring in the money no-one in this day can do entirely without. Although our methods have been rather other than the ones bank managers and financial counsellors are used to, we have been able to some extent to live a life that has also avoided many of the constraints the modern world imposes on its votaries. I have no idea how we achieved that, except that we have been fortunate in finding sympathetic advisors in the mysterious world of business even though they experienced some difficulty in understanding what we were doing.
When we left the city, with two homemade and four adopted children, we had a big house in a good part of town, ate regularly, and were quite comfortable, but according to the proclaimed standards of the city’s Social Services we were, as a family of eight, living below the poverty line. I guess we have continued living that paradox.
In spite of our odd ways or maybe because of them, we are continually discovering wonders, like the way the seasons unfold themselves along the year, or, at another level, the way water will pursue its own agenda in re-arranging a stream-bed across a bit of interval land--whether you agree or not.
Most of what we have done is very small scale. What we have is food that is as free as we can contrive it to be of chemicals and poisons, and animals who, while they had their role in the domestic scheme, were not "steamed up," pushed, regimented, or numbered. They did respond to care, they did, all of them--right down to the ducks--turn out to have their own personalities, and if they were occasionally infuriating, well, I have my off days too.
That great saint of the early Church, St Augustine of Hippo, commenting on the miracle of the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana pointed out that we live among daily miracles. "The greater power is in the creation and governance of the heavens and the earth and the fact that rain water is daily changed by means of grapevines into wine and that from a little seed fruits are created. But because these things happen naturally they seem unimportant...."
Eight centuries before Augustine, the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes wrote: "There is nothing new under the sun." It reads like a condemnation, but it is really an affirmation, though perhaps one more apparent in the life of the countryman than in the life of his urban counterpart. We are offered over and over again the same experience, and the same opportunity to see through that experience to the meaning that lies behind it and informs it.
What comes may be good or bad, or (most often), neither one nor the other. We have had our share of ups and downs here. A few years after we moved here we lost all but one of our small herd of cows to a stroke of lightning. That was a dark day!
Closer to home, bringing up the children we had gathered around us has been a turbulent experience. The Roman poet Lucretius said that "having children is giving hostages to Fortune." He had a point. One of the children we adopted we had finally to admit we could not handle and that failure darkened our life for a long time and will always be a matter of regret. The others are now all grown up and out on their own. The storms and stresses of their growing up were real, but the joys were, and are, real as well. The problems they face now are real but gradually we find the ground of our relationship amid the stresses and strains of difficult times.
And in spite of times of storms and stresses , we remember, looking back, many good days when it seemed a kindly God, all unawares, had calmed the rough waters of life's tempestuous sea.
These pieces are a heart's tribute to a place. No map will point to this place or take notice of its existence. For the lawyers who drew up the deed, for tax collectors, for Canada Post, what we purchased was a space not a place - a space between other spaces, filling in a gap in a jig-saw puzzle of property identification numbers and co-ordinates, not a place with slopes and fields and alder patches, a house, barn, and outbuildings, and more than a century of history before we came here. A small place of some 70 acres “more or less,” in southern New Brunswick, in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, this has been our home for more than 30 years, and its particularities, which drew us when we first set eyes on it, still contain wonders. Real places can only be known by heart.
For the last 25 of the years we have lived here I have written a weekly column for our local newspaper. Much of the material in the chapters that follow is drawn from those columns. Originally called “A Letter from Home” because I thought of the pieces as an appealing alternative to the letters I should have written (but didn’t) to those of our children by then away at school, the weekly attempt to chronicle the little events that are the heart of what we call ‘daily life’ has, as the years have flown away, become a series of bench-marks or surveyor’s stakes to record the contours of that life, its dreaming hills and fertile valleys, icy chasms and swift-flowing streams.
We did not always live here. Coming to Canada from the States in 1962 to do graduate work at the Pontifical Institute of Mediæval Studies in Toronto, I eventually found myself teaching Mediæval English at the University. In 1972, during a year's sabbatical in England, working in the Duke Humfrey Room of the old Bodleian Library in Oxford, my intellectual world wrinkled like a distant scene viewed through a heat-haze and transformed itself. The texts I was working with, I began to see, were not literature in the sense of that word we are accustomed to. They all pointed to a truth that lay beyond themselves, a truth that could not be expressed in so many words but could only be approached by using all the resources of language to move beyond language and the confines of the material world language knows. And the truth they were pointing to was neither emotional nor sentimental; it had the clarity, the precision, the hardness, of a diamond.
When, on another sabbatical, we came down to this farm we had purchased as a summer get-away, although I did not admit it even to myself, I had left the University behind. There was no way to follow the signs without walking the path. And so I applied for ordination as an Anglican priest and served in a small parish for some years and taught part-time for various colleges in the area. The years were occasionally glorious and sometimes terrible in about equal proportions, but it is only gradually, in the passage of years with their bright moments and dark, that we have the chance to know life itself and its hidden sources.