Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:40

Letters from a Conservative Farmer - A Life in Diaries

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer - A Life in Diaries

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. -Robert Frost "Mowing"

Ever since 1969 we have kept a record of our activities in desk diaries, booklets with days of the week on each page, no space for ruminations but enough for telegraphic notes, e.g., this entry for January 1, 1992:

Blizzard. Writing. Laundry. Terrible wind broke storm windows, blew tin sheet off barn roof.

We both kept diaries, but since we shall be examining mine for 1992, it will mainly be about my activities. To make sense of the diary and to transform its brevities into continuous narratives, I shall sort actions by their frequency, starting in the vicinity of the house and working outwards.

Writing is obvious - I wrote nearly every evening except during haying time, when I was too tired. We had no washing machine, so each family member did his or her own laundry, using the soft soap I made every spring by seeping rainwater through a barrel of hardwood ashes and then cooking the resulting potash lye with fat, and scrubbing the clothes on a scrub board. I also did the towels and with some help, the sheets. I made hard soap in the fall with commercial lye. Laundry was a chore due about every 10 days. I made butter once a week, cleaned the privy twice a week, and washed and waxed the kitchen floor once a month (I am proud to say that Jo Ann has never washed a floor since our marriage). I scrubbed the porch, made of wide hemlock boards three inches thick from trees cut in our woods, and painted it with a mixture of turpentine and linseed oil, every spring. In November I put up storm windows and piled eel grass and spruce boughs around the house to a height of three feet to catch snow and insulate the house. For guests in our log cabins (and of course for ourselves), several times in the summer I went down to the icehouse beside the pond, dug a block of ice out of the sawdust, carried it up to the house and used it with rock salt to make six quarts of ice cream. The ice didn't grow in the ice house; we had to cut it out of the pond and store it in the sawdust, a strenuous one day job in January or February when the ice was at least 1 foot thick, the hardest job I have ever done because once the ice is cut (hard enough) it had to be hustled into the house where Jo Ann packed it away.

Then there was the regular round of horticulture. We had an excellent hotbed heated by fermenting horse manure: a meat case eight feet long, heavy glass window in front, sliding doors in back, a relic from a bankrupt butcher shop, and there in April I planted early seeds - tomato, pepper, cole crops, cucumbers, melons. Peas were planted along a wire fence in May, and the raised beds were planted in June.

We ran a small nursery for several years, and we sold rose, currant, and gooseberry plants until the end in 2001. In 1992 we raised tomato plants for a few friends. I layered black currant and gooseberry plants in April to grow plants for sale, and by August we were picking both black and red currants and gooseberries. A little later we began picking our high bush blueberries. September saw us picking elderberries, plums, and apples. Of the 12 apple trees near the house (we had others elsewhere) only five were any good; the rest were zealously harvested for the pigs. The last act for all the berries and roses was pruning, manuring, and mulching in November.

What else were habitual tasks? Woods work, of course. From January into April we felled softwoods - pine, spruce, hemlock, balsam - for lumber, and beech, ash, yellow birch, hard and soft maple for firewood, and hornbeam for handles, wagon poles, and shafts. Everything was cut to length in the woods and hauled home where the firewood was split and stacked in the sun to dry before being moved into the woodshed in November. Fence posts and rails were cut in April and May.

Slaughtering went on all the time (peaking in November), both for ourselves and customers, but we ate meat seasonally: chicken from June to October, fresh pork in fall, ham winter and spring, beef winter, bacon year 'round. I had my custom curing and smoking business, so I was often busy processing salmon, lake trout, herring, and mackerel, as well as bacons and hams. In the past country people were really frugal, so we had no trouble selling old hens in the fall. Year after year the same old couples would come to buy them for soup, $1 on the hoof, $2 dressed.

Grading the half-mile lane was a dreaded chore I had to do about once a month from May through October, because I was never able, because of the resistant clay, to do a fully satisfactory job, and it was hard work for the horses. To relieve them I once hitched three abreast, and they went so fast that the grader just bounced from one hump to another while I hung onto the reins for dear life. I made the grader from two old railroad ties bolted together at an angle, faced with discarded grader blades.

The care of the horses was ongoing in the sense that I had always to watch out for ailments and injuries (fortunately rare), and I had to shoe them periodically (with all that that entails). In April I trimmed their manes and tails. They were always busy, skidding, and hauling in the woods, plowing in November, discing in May, mowing, teddering, and hauling hay in summer, bringing firewood from the woodshed to the house once a week through the winter, taking us to town or to the sawmill, hauling logs, lumber, and sawdust.

From May into October we swam in our pond nearly every day, twice a day during haying.

Manure was spread with dung forks twice a week from the time the cows and horses were confined to the stables in November until they went out to pasture in late April. During the summer we cleaned the pig pens every noon, and when the horses were kept in during horsefly time in July, the stables too, wheelbarrowing the manure to a 10 foot by 16 foot log enclosure in the barnyard where it was covered with old hay or sawdust (preventing flies from laying eggs) until November when I forked it over. Next April the rotted compost was used to refresh our six raised beds measuring 1800 square feet.

From spring til late fall we sought mushrooms in the fields and woods, and in October we walked three miles to a lagoon on the Bras d'Or Lake where we picked wild cranberries.

More than the regular round of chores went on, of course. We sold farm products and rented our two log cabins to guests, so there was a procession of people, customers, and guests and friends, passing through, and one of the difficulties in reading the diaries is to remember those people, to attach faces and actions to names and faces: "August 13. John Gillis brought pump." Who was he? What pump was that? Even Jo Ann, with a better memory for people than I, can't solve that. It will pester me, I know.

It amazes me, looking at the record, to see how many people come to our farm, for it was far from anywhere at the end of a wretched road (graded only once a year), through an unpeopled lonely land, its farmsteads rapidly reverting to wilderness. But by then we were virtually the only source on the island for homemade butter and cheese and curds, for buttermilk and sour cream (very popular with Indians), home-cured bacon and ham and fish, and mid-August, ripe tomatoes (before our appearance the only ripe tomato a Cape Bretoner ever saw was in a store), so the old people and Indians were regular visitors. And we had friends all over the Island, as well as people who met Jo Ann at craft sales. I marvel at their intrepidity and only wish I could remember them all.

Although it is obvious that the recurring chores done by only two people (with the aid of horses) took much time and effort, their very regularity and repetition gave us time to think, and many were the long discussions we had together as we milked the cows or loaded the haywagon or spread manure. The work satisfied our desire to maintain our beautiful farm, and its familiar rhythms, practiced for so many years, were in themselves a pleasure.

One thing we did that summer that was unique in our experience. A neighbor who knew we did a lot of canning, brought us a big salmon and asked us to cure, smoke, and can it for him. To give you an idea of its size, we used 10-quart jars.

A writer is supposed to present the whole experience, but I have not done that here, I have not filled the spaces between stark notes of tasks to describe thoughts and feelings which would have to be, 14 years later, no more than generic clichs. I wonder if my readers are bored or puzzled, thinking it a rather humdrum account. I hope not. This record must stand as actions, and of course this is only the barest sketch; we did much more, canning and preserving, for instance. Reread it and you will see its fascination as task succeeds task in the seasonal round, and whether we like it or not (the feelings and thoughts I have left out), we must take up each burden in turn, and that toil shapes our minds as well as bodies; so we are prepared for the trials and rewards of aging, granting us the strength to sweeten our lives with a continual harvest which, in words, we share with our readers.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. *

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