Our coming here was an event that in the world’s terms was sheer inadvertence. But the world’s inadvertence may be one of the masks of divine providence. Or it may not. Much that has been claimed for providence is simply self-will decked out in fancy clothing so as to deceive even the claimant. “Look before you leap” may be folk wisdom but it is wisdom still. “Time will tell” likewise carries a warning to be ignored at one’s peril. In our case I claim no wisdom, no entitlement, no sense of inevitability, before the event. More than 30 years after the event, though, all I have to account for our good fortune is - providence.
We buy a small farm, not knowing the consequences
"All that piece or parcel of land situate in the Parish of ______, County of _____ and Province of New Brunswick, described and bounded as follows, viz.: Beginning at the southwest angle of lot No. five granted to Isaac Bunnell and running northeasterly fifteen chains to a stake, ...the same containing sixty four acres more or less." So runs "Schedule A" of what the lawyers call an Indenture, "made this 15th day of October in the year One Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventy Five" by means of which and "in consideration of a sum of lawful money of Canada well and truly paid" my wife and I became the owners of this small farm we had first seen two months before on the evening of what was only our second day ever in the Province.
We were on our way to a local dump when we drove past with friends from Ontario who now lived nearby. Hardly the beginning one would pick for momentous events. But momentous events choose their own beginnings, which we can see only after the fact - or else we would know in advance how every story was going to turn out.
We had come down from Upper Canada to find out why our friends, who otherwise seemed sensible people, had come down for a visit to friends of theirs the summer before and had bought a farm.
As we drove past this place, a beautiful sunset backlit house and barn and the whole hillside, as well as a 'For Sale' sign. We slowed to look at the house nestled into the shoulder of the hill, with its poplars in front, and the small but sturdy barn, its ridge steady and straight, with no hint of the sway back that seemed to afflict so many of the small barns we had seen.
We looked away down the valley, past the small garage which sat close to the road at the bottom of the driveway, across tidy fields and the dark greens of the woods. It was a beautiful time of day, the view was beautiful, but I think we must have been like explorers who come over a ridge and look out on country as yet unsung. It is only much later that this expanse, great or small, takes on known contours, acquires history and meaning, fits into the fabric of the life around it, with its sorrows and its joys.
My wife and I had driven down to New Brunswick from Toronto, where we had lived for more than a dozen years. We had never intended to live in the city. Neither of us was a city person, but the fact of the matter was, we had lived in Toronto almost all of our married life and all our children had grown up there.
The next day we went to have a closer look at what was still just a piece of property. By noon the day after that, the "property" had become a real place which spoke to us, even though we could not yet hear the words clearly. We had made an offer and it had been accepted. That was a Thursday. Saturday morning we climbed back into the car for the thousand mile journey back to Toronto, hardly realising that this mad escapade had altered the tenor of our life entirely.
We had not just acquired a house without indoor plumbing except for running cold water to the kitchen sink, rudimentary electrical service, and no heating but a wood stove. We had also acquired a barn, a granary, a drive shed and attached chicken coops, and two dug wells. But there was much more to it than that. Without knowing it, we had found our home.
Friends in Toronto were generally polite but mostly uncomprehending. The wife of a colleague, whose family owned a farm near Gagetown, helped to put the whole thing in focus, at least as far as Toronto was concerned: "It's a pity you bought on the wrong side of the Saint John River," she said.
Now, when our ground shakes even at this distance and we hear a rumble as of distant thunder from the cannon fire at C.F.B. Gagetown, on the "right" side of the river, I reflect that wrong and right, short of the heavenly kingdom, may be subject to interpretation.
There are people who have a great gift for being certain about things. My colleague's wife was certain about which was the wrong and which was the right side of the river. Other friends have been certain about all kinds of other things, from the right way to bring up children to where truth was to be found. We bought this place, not knowing for sure what we were setting in train. Only by degrees have we discovered meaning in what seemed only an impulse.
Somehow, I like it better that way. A good story always has some mystery in it.
20 November 1990
Keirstead Farm, as it was, 1977
An emerald is as green as grass,
A ruby red as blood,
A sapphire shines as blue as heaven,
But a flint lies in the mud.
A diamond is a brilliant stone
To catch the world's desire,
An opal holds a fiery light,
But a flint holds fire.
--Christina Rossetti, “Precious Stones”
Only that day dawns to which we are awake.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It is early on a summer morning. I stand looking down the fields through a bedroom window at a day already well celebrated with birdsong and the arrival of the sun again over Sharps Hill on the far side of the valley.
This farm is long and narrow. The house and barn nestle into a slight fold in the rise of land on this side of the valley. Behind me, behind the house and the old drive shed and the vegetable garden, stands our big maple tree, overlooking the whole farm as though it were the echo in a later and lesser time of the cedar planted "in the mountain of the height of Israel" of Ezekiel 17. As Ezekiel says of his visionary cedar, we can say of our maple: "in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell."
Beyond the big maple the night pasture slopes up and then slips over the rise to fall quite steeply into the valley of the small stream that is our boundary there. Beyond the stream, Gibbon Mountain, which really was a mountain once, unimaginable millions of years ago when huge dragon flies and early reptiles lived here in what were then dense humid equatorial forests of huge ferns, now rises only a few hundred feet more to serve as the backdrop to our life here.
Below the house and barn, looking toward the valley in front of us, the home field stops at the road which was dirt for the first ten years we lived here. Below the road, our hayfield, bounded on either side by woods, slopes down to the same brook that rises behind the night pasture, the brook that holds this place in a long, affectionate s-shaped curve, crossing from left to right at the bottom of the first meadow and then running out of sight past the second meadow, now largely grown up in alder bushes, then, in a deepening valley, past the distant third meadow we call Babylon, in tribute to an English field name for ‘remote land beyond the river’ and to the nursery rhyme,
How many miles to Babylon?
Four-score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light
You can get there by candle-light.
Babylon is mostly grown up now, but for years after we came it was still open because it is a dome of sand left behind at the passing of the glaciers a mere ten thousand years or so ago.
Curling around the ruins of a huge elm tree which was still flourishing when we came but succumbed to the elm disease a few years later, the stream veers off at the foot of the woods beyond Babylon. We have found in that woods piles of rock which indicate that it too was once cleared for cultivation.
As our stream turns quietly to the south-east, not far from the traces of the cellar hole over which the first house on the property was raised, a double one, for two brothers and their families, it passes beyond our land to wander through the woods until it meets the Millstream some two and a half miles away as the crow flies.
It is the Millstream toward which I look this morning as I do most mornings in the summer. Although we can't see the stream itself because of the intervening woods, we know where it is. On a morning like this, when the sun gleams as if newly burnished in a cloudless sky, we look to see a fog cloud below us, over the Millstream, the sign of fair weather: "Fog in the holler brings horses to the collar," as the old-timers say hereabouts.
We have not always lived here. In fact, we never in our wildest dreams could have predicted that this country we had never visited would come to be our home.
Home is where the heart is
Home. I would be hard put to it to say which one of the many places we lived when I was growing up would qualify for that term. Certainly 440 Salem Drive, outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., was home for ten years, until I went away to college and my father took up a new position in up-state New York. Certainly we had lived in a number of small towns in south-western Pennsylvania for most of my childhood, and I spent part of each summer with a great aunt and uncle in the Lehigh Valley of south-eastern Pennsylvania. Which, of all those places, was "home"?
And then, after the rather rootless existence of college life, another aspect of home came into being with marriage and a family. My wife and I never thought of ourselves as very restless people and yet, in the course of 25 years of marriage we lived in two or three houses in Tidewater, Virginia, five places in Toronto, and now a small farm in southern New Brunswick, with a year out along the way to live in England. Can we call one of all those places home?
I suppose something of all those places goes to make up that elusive idea called home, just as our experience of all the people we have met goes to make up our understanding of that thing called "man." Sometimes a moment, or a room, or a tiny event comes flooding back through the gates of memory and makes you realize that part of your life which you had all but forgotten is in fact still somehow present, still living on, waiting for the right thing to set it free, to make it dance before you as if the years between had never been.
I was too young to have been directly involved in that terrible struggle called the Second World War, but one fragment of home that comes flooding back to me was of my father, just home from work, with his chair pulled up to the big radio in the livingroom (it must have been the winter, because I remember the windows as dark as the darkness gathering in the outside world) and the year may have been 1938 or 39, but I can still feel the strain and worry even though at the time I was only three or four. Home seemed a very peaceful and sheltered place, my parents' presence very comforting, and yet even then I think I sensed how terribly tenuous, how fragile, all that was.
How many things have faded into memory since those times, how many "homes" that one was "never going to forget" have somehow slipped away until they are only shadowy presences at best. "Home is where the heart is", as the the folk-saying has it. Are many of those places, shadowy or vivid, present or past or yet to come, any less "where the heart is" than where we find ourselves right now?
Maybe you remember the old riddle, which appears in the New Testament as well in ancient India, of the eldest of seven brothers who marries a wife but dies without having begotten any children. In the ancient way, the next brother then marries the wife so as to raise up children for his brother, but he too dies without issue. In like fashion, the other brothers in turn are married to the wife and all die. The wife herself at last is gathered to her ancestors. The question is, of course, given a special twist in the Bible, but the sense is the same wherever the story is told: when the brothers and the wife are miraculously restored to life whose wife is she?
Home is as hard to pin down, to extricate from all the experiences one has had in the course of a life, as is the legality of the wife of the seven brothers. And perhaps finally, it is not just home that is made up of many different places, but, even for those of us who have lived in one place all our lives, we are many different people, and what meant home to us as children, may not be the same thing as what means home to us just starting out in the world or when we come to have children or grandchildren of our own.
Most of us have never had to suffer the horrors of war and the dislocation forced upon many by war or natural disaster. We have been very fortunate indeed. And yet, from talking to people who have lived through such experiences, I know that such things only sharpen that sense of home. Home is where the heart is - yes - and who can set up barriers to shut in the heart?
28 August 1985