Authors: Barbara McLean
For Thomas, Clare and Angus for roads taken.
And remembering J.B.
MY FARM IS IN GREY COUNTY.
A hawk circling improbably high above southern Ontario sees a land mass bordered on the north by Georgian Bay, the west by Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair, the south by Lake Erie, and the east by Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe. Facing west, the hawk sees the shape of an animal in the land below, the tail heading up the Bruce Peninsula, the feet treading on Niagara Falls and Haliburton, the forehead etched by the St. Clair River, and the trunk, for this is clearly an elephant, nuzzling the cities of Windsor and Detroit.
As the hawk’s spirals tighten, his path circles south central Ontario, and he skirts the flank of the elephant. His elevation decreases, and he is visible overhead from my farm, first as a speck and then recognizable, his tail fanned out, his belly streaked and his wings tipped dark. He catches good thermals over the Dundalk Plain.
When he dives for a deer mouse in my hayfield, the hawk lands, briefly, over the womb of the elephant. It is a vast open space, isolated from other farms and cushioned by soft hills and gentle valleys. It is where we came to incubate as a couple and apprentice to be stewards of the land.
WE ARRIVED HERE
in our early twenties by way of the city. Thomas was right out of medical school and keen to start a country practice in the nearby town of Murphy’s Mill. I would take on the house, the land, the creation of a life in the country. The area had been designated as medically under-serviced, and the province guaranteed an income if we stayed for four years. The land provided rich soil to extend roots, dig in and stay. Murphy’s Mill is treed and spired, a road winding in from the south like a Carrington painting or a Maud Lewis. A farming town with feed stores and equipment dealers, it is far enough from the city to have a life of its own.
It was autumn when we first saw it. The maples had sucked in their sap and turned. Fuchsia and gold, vermilion and amber against the deep greens of pines and cedars. We were shown property throughout the area surrounding Murphy’s Mill, toward Lewiston and Adieu, to Coppice and Nunn, Trustful and Beeton, but we settled on a farm near the village of Alderney.
At the time I didn’t know we would need it: community. My quest was for land, a house, a barn, hills
and grass and rocks we could call our own, shape into something with our hands, our strong backs and our dreams. The rest seemed peripheral, irrelevant, separate. My focus was small, personal, tight.
I saw a picture first. In the realtor’s window. An old brick farmhouse set in a grove of thick lilac and maple. The photo was blurry but revealing, like a silhouette of grandeur superimposed on a double negative. Old Ontario cottage style, local brick, centre dormer with failing gingerbread trim, solid front door, stone steps askew, ancient gardens overgrown. Twenty-three acres—ten workable—house, barn and drive shed. Unimproved, affordable.
I crossed my fingers. Both hands. The middle digits stretching outward over the next two. My reflex for luck or for lying. I can tuck them up into fists so nobody sees, as I did at my wedding, fearful of pledging medieval and unkeepable vows.
By the time we got close to the house I was disoriented from a rabbit-chase ride through the country, viewing every farm-for-sale from the back seat of the car. But emerging from the canopied concession, over the dusty railway tracks marked with a white X and up the esker, I caught a glimpse of the nineteenth century on the far hill.
From the high land to the west was a clear view of the house, perched alone across the valley. The cedars were lower then, and the house profiled south, its top
window peaked by dormer angles, its brick bleached austere against the rich colours of October maples front and back. I remember the barn, which was a step behind, bashful, of serviceable grey weathered board. Its roof fugued the perfect pitch of the house.
I locked my eyes on the farmstead until trees intervened. Roadside elm and aspen tangled with grapevine, elderberry and chokecherry, and the tamarack rose from the marsh. At the hill’s crest the house came into view again, solid now, straight-eyed to the road. Two first floor windows stared, equidistant from the central entrance beneath the dormer. A square-shouldered house, tattered, battered, in want of attention, poor but proud.
The autumn lilacs crowded around both sides of the house and tapered off down the fencerows. Fair trees of lilacs, almost as high as the house itself. And apple trees as old as the bricks of the house filled the front orchard, their meadow ploughed around them, brown earth after a harvest of mangels. The ploughshare had reprieved the perennials. They sprouted stubbornly from the grass and weeds. A wash of rosehips dripped off untrimmed bushes.
The house looked untouched. No aluminum doors, aerials, angel stone. No dog barking or sleeping. No swing. The side door, off its hinges, angled into a decrepit back kitchen. There were treacherous holes in the floor, and grey and maroon flowered
linoleum covered the stronger boards. One wall was plastered and wainscotted in wide beaded pine—remnants of former care in a space for warm-weather preserving, churning and feasting. The few windows were opaque with grime, cobwebs and fragments of curtain so worn they would tear if ten flies landed on them.