Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:52

Letter From a Conservative Farmer: Cape Breton: A Dying Folk Culture

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Letter From a Conservative Farmer: Cape Breton: A Dying Folk Culture

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..

A reader writes, mildly rebuking me for ignoring the beauty ensuing when neglected farmlands revert to their natural state. The implied condescension is trivial, but the insensitivity to the farmer's viewpoint is disappointing. Have I so obviously failed in these "Letters" to show the farmer's cherishing of the land, of its metes and bounds, its cultivated edges staunchly standing against the chaotic tapestry of the wild natural world? No farmer can look upon the reversion of cultivated land with equanimity: he knows at what cost it was won.

I have lived in melancholy landscapes, decaying pastoral communities in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont, but none was so devastating as Cape Breton because it had been going on for so long (80 years when we arrived) and it was so definitely irrevocable.

Although there were some Micmac Indians on the island, as well as a couple of settlements of Acadians - French who had been banished from Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century - the main settlement was accomplished, in the first half of the 19th century, by Scots, mostly from the Highlands and the Hebrides, the Western Isles. They received grants of land, and in time thousands of small farms dotted the island, subsistence farms where the labors of every member of the large families managed to feed and clothe themselves with little surplus. I have known men born in the 1920s and '30s who never saw money in their youth. Every inch of the land was used; even the grass beside the road was harvested, as I have seen in old photographs. As I wrote in a previous "Letter," "The Backlands":

By 1890, at the height of whatever agricultural prosperity Cape Breton was destined to know, there were ten small subsistence farms in the Backlands. . . . It was a life sustainable only so long as there were no better prospects within reach, and by the end of the century those prospects were getting closer. Sons were leaving to work in the new steel mill in Sydney or they took ship to Boston for factory work, and their sisters joined them to become maids, nurses, seamstresses. As soon as this exodus began - and bear in mind that these sons and daughters would be the most resourceful, the ones with the most initiative - the little farms were doomed.

Those left on the farms in the 1890s died in the 1940s and '50s, and then the whole edifice collapsed. It finished off the Backlands, a three-mile stretch in the middle of the neck of the peninsula where there had once been ten farms. As late as the 1940s there were three farms visible from our doorstep. Now they were so overgrown only an experienced eye could see where there had once been fields.

What was more interesting to us, however, was the life still lived around us outside the Backlands, a few miles away but still our neighbors. They had hung on to their farms because the men worked at the gypsum quarry eight miles down the peninsula, an enterprise founded in the 1950s. The actual farming was desultory: a cow or two, perhaps a horse, a pig, a dozen hens, butter might still be made. The storekeeper shipped one thousand pounds of butter each year to Newfoundland, all collected in the area, and that sounds like a lot, but in fact only takes four people making five pounds a week (I regularly made more than that). Most of the men, all in their 50s or early 60s, kept their distance from us, but a couple were friendly. Most of the women were deeply suspicious, to be expected in backwoods rural areas where, unlike their men, they don't get away from the household much, so don't learn a measure of tolerance by mingling with others.

Making friends in a folk culture is crucial. In a modern contractual society, a storekeeper doesn't care who you are - your money's as good as the next man's - but in Cape Breton we could not buy locally some things we needed and the storekeepers would not order them. Finally we had to go to the city of Sydney to make our purchases from wholesalers. But within a couple of years we made enough friends in the city and countryside to be admitted within the cultural circle, and then not enough could be done for us: a broken plow point? No problem - forge a new one at the steel plant, no charge. Say the word and the deed was done.

The social organization of the Highland Scots, based on clans (only a slight advance from tribalism) was relatively primitive in the 19th century. When the emigrants landed in Cape Breton, they settled largely by clans. At the end of the peninsula fifteen miles west of us, nearly everyone was a MacNeil, Roman Catholics from the Isle of Barra, while it was all Protestant Mathesons and MacDonalds our way. There was no social mixing. A Protestant-Catholic marriage was regarded as a "mixed marriage." Some of these neighbors, living only fifteen miles apart all their lives, met for the first time on the neutral ground of our kitchen.

Clannishness narrowed the horizons of those lives, made them more than usually (for backwoods dwellers) suspicious, not only of strangers but of any innovation. How often have I heard Cape Bretoners say, "It was good enough for my grandfather and father, it's good enough for me!"? Nor was this only rhetoric: when I successfully introduced birdsfoot trefoil as an excellent forage crop for heavy clay soils, they spoke the formula and stuck to their old (and inadequate) forage. Of course, as subsistence farmers they had never felt the driving force of market demand, the great agricultural modernizer.

I do not know when Cape Bretoners first began to feel inferior relative to the modern world (for all I know it might've been a Highland heritage), but by the 1950s, when the island was joined to the mainland by a causeway, electricity was extended to the countryside, and many roads, including the TransCanada Highway, were paved, the forces of modernism - radio and TV, for example - were pervasive on the island, and the local sense of inferiority was expressed in fierce resentment of imagined slights from outsiders, and bragging about their own accomplishments. Like many Canadians, they already felt inferior to Americans. We knew all this, but nevertheless we were amazed when the Halifax publication of Jo Ann's first book, The Old Fashioned Fruit Garden, was noticed in the Sydney newspaper and she received several anonymous hate letters: who was she to tell accomplished Cape Bretoners how to grow and preserve fruit? They didn't need instruction from dirty draft dodgers (I was a 38-year-old father of four when we moved to Cape Breton)! After every succeeding book she received letters like that, but the strongest reaction came when, on a lecture tour, she mentioned to a Boston Globe interviewer that we used a privy, our water came from a hand pump in the kitchen, and we had neither a motor vehicle nor a phone. She received voluminous vitriolic denunciations, our mail driver refused any more to deliver eggs to our customers, and the head of the Cape Breton Agricultural Society published a denunciation of us on the front page of an island newspaper.

Clannishness, defensiveness, and ignorance determined ideas about us. We were regarded, even by our customers and friends, as quixotic eccentrics, but that was nothing new. But all sorts of bizarre stories, especially about our sources of income, astonished us. It could not be believed that we, obviously educated and cultured, were not wealthy, that we earned our living entirely from the farm. The most persistent theory was that we were drug dealers and that we grew "the best marijuana on the island" (I quote). This was believed by men with whom I worked in the woods for many years, who knew us well and ate many a meal at our table.

Nevertheless, we owe a great debt to Cape Breton. I count it a rare privilege to have known those people and that culture, even in its senescence (it was completely gone by the time we left; the countryside emptied out and there were no more neighbors). And the kind of arduous farming life that land and that climate forced on us was a tremendous learning and toughening experience from which we are still benefiting. Best of all, the friendships we made there were heartfelt and enduring. Any friends made in that grudging environment with its long cold dark winters, terrible winds off the North Atlantic, and desperate expedients of survival were bound to be friends indeed, and they are still friends, a dozen years after we left. Never again will we make such friends.

One other thing: although we knew some wealthy Cape Bretoners, there was very little class feeling because nearly everyone on the island was immediately or within memory a product of that sparse rural experience. It is only since we moved back to the U.S. that we have rediscovered the snobbery and bitterness of class antagonisms. *

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