My Three Roommates: Dark

As mentioned in my previous post in this series, I have three roommates who are far from welcome, Cold, Dark, and Lonliness. Last time, I discussed Cold, today, I would like to introduce you to Dark.

We, as humans, tend to try and avoid darkness. It is, most likely, an evolutionary behaviour since our eyes are terrible at seeing in the dark. We prefer daylight. It allows us to avoid unpleasant surprises that may result in death or injury, whether that is a sabre-toothed wolf hunting our early brethren, or simply a hole in the path that we fail to see while dragging a load of wood in a toboggan to our camp… something that has personally happened to me many times. All in all, our preference for light is fairly understandable.

We surround ourselves with light, as much as we can. From a simple campfire or handheld torch, to gas lamps and through to modern electrical light bulbs, we try out very best to overcome the darkness. It is not rare to drive through either a city or a rural area at night, and see a building fully lit, every window beaming the soft yellow glow of electricity, whether somebody is there or not. While I believe this is a massive waste of electricity and a prime example of human folly, I also understand it. We are afraid of the dark.

In our modern cities, light pollution has effectively cut us off from the stars above. Entire generations of children have never seen the night sky, have never learned the constellations, have never celebrated under a full moon, or been awed by shooting stars or the northern lights.

Living in a tent, I do not have to worry too much about light pollution. Russet House is far enough away that even if they were to turn on every light, a fact that is unlikely as they are very frugal about their power usage, it would not impact me in the slightest. Walking to my tent at night, I can see one neighbour’s halogen security light shining through the trees, and I am also aware of a glow in the sky to my south from what I presume to be another neighbour not too far from me. All in all, I am free to enjoy the stars throughout the evening.

And I do enjoy the night. I do enjoy darkness. I have yet to light my pathway going to my camp, even though it has caused me to stumble a few times as mentioned above. As Wendell Berry says, “To know the dark, go dark.” Darkness provides the world with another layer, another way of seeing and experiencing. Trees, snow, buildings, tents, everything is subtly different when lit by a thin crescent moon on a hazy night. And there are few things more wonderful than standing in the middle of an open snowy field, lit by the Full Snow Moon of February, and simply marveling.

But I must also be honest, at times, the Dark makes tent living especially difficult. When one lives in a tent, the Dark disallows much work to be done, even though the body and mind are still fit for doing it. It is difficult to read, to write, or to even see inside the tent. It is unsafe to do much axe-work, though I will admit, I have chopped more than my safe share of firewood by headlamp (I had a rule prior to this year to never cut wood after the sun has gone down. This is a personal rule I am very ashamed to have broken many times in the past two months).

As well, there are times where the Dark can be oppressive. It, like its brethren Cold, is always there in a tent. No matter how much light I have around me, Dark is always there, biding its time until its temporary banishment is over and it can return.

I have assembled, while living in the tent, a number of tools to help me with the banishment of Dark. I have a headlamp that I wear all evening, and an overhead LED light, both of which are more than adequate to light the room while their batteries are strong and fresh. In the cold however, this does not seem to last too long. As this winter has continued longer than most locals expected and has been much colder than anybody has ever remembered it being, batteries have been a bit of a struggle for me.

I tried Kerosene lamps. They give off a nice soft glow and work well with the romantic “pioneer” motif that I have going. Had I spent money on good lamps, they would probably work well too. Sadly, I sprang for the World Famous brand lamps from Canadian Tire. I feel confident giving a review on them. They’re absolutely terrible. I purchased two, thinking I could hang one on each end of the tent, providing me with wonderful light to play my harmonicas and wax poetically by. They both broke through regular use in a matter of weeks days. I should clarify, technically they DO work. They also give off terrible black smoke, flare up (picture having a lantern fully engulfed in fire hanging just a foot or so below the peak of your cotton tent), and leak Kerosene terribly. Living in a tent, I am learning to be content with the risk of fire, but these firebombs were just too much for me. They are now sitting patiently in storage, waiting for me to figure out what to do with them.

Candles are nice. They work well, give off a nice glow, can adapt to my lighting needs (many are lit when I’m entertaining, few are lit when I’m reading by myself) and are quite reliable. That said, they tent to melt quicker than I would like and are a constant expense.

Depending on the evening, I primarily use both candles and my headlamp, though recently, with the warmer summer temperatures, I have also put new batteries in the LED light, making the tent exceptionally bright, at least until the batteries fade out.

As another blessing, tonight is the night to change the clocks ahead. Though this means I will once again be waking up in the darkness, it also means that I will have an extra hour of the day after class with which to chop some wood and do my chores. Or at the very least, it will allow me to see the holes in the path before I fall into them. Hopefully.

I will be blogging little over the next week as Adar will be in town, though I do have a couple of small posts that will be coming out.

Sincerely,

Adam

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Hiatus

I would like to apologize and explain my recent hiatus from this blog.

A couple of weeks ago, I was house- and horse-sitting at Garry Lean’s house. Between working on my classes and working with the horses, I simply was not able to spend any time on the blog. That weekend, I was also house- and farm-sitting at Russet House, leaving me little time to do anything between all the chores that needed to be done.

This past week has been a barrage of school assignments. I’m actually getting somewhat ahead, in preparation for Adar’s visit for the next ten days. Luckily, I now have every assignment that needs to be done during her visit finished, which will allow me to relax a little bit.

So, some of the highlights over the past couple of weeks…

1) I drove tractors! I ploughed the laneway at Russet House farm while Brian and Sylvia were away, and also drove them at Baxter Farms, run by Glenn Baxter who is the local tractor mechanic around here. I know this is a simple thing, but it was really a big accomplishment for me to begin my tractor learning.

2) I’m writing a crop plan. We are taking Market Gardening and Greenhouse Operations with Mark Trealot and the primary assignment in this course is to create a crop plan, which is the key piece of planning that every vegetable farmer goes through every year. It’s a lot of work, but saves a tonne of stress during the actual planting year. It’s nice to be able to look on a sheet of paper in mid-July and have it written out what you need to do, when your mind and body are already exhausted from all the stress of farming.

3) I’m learning about seed genetics. This is a really confusing subject for a number of reasons. First, there is a lot of biology involved which was never my strong suit to begin with. Secondly (and much worse), there is a LOT of misinformation out there. Seed genetics are closely tied to a lot of controversial topics in farming (GMOs, hybrids, etc.) and both sides of the controversy are very guilty of not giving honest information, which makes it very difficult to wade through it to determine how I feel about it all. I went to a Seed Saving course a couple of weekends ago which helped a lot, though admittedly it was talking to one of my instructors, Sue Chan, who was helping organize the event, who really made a difference. She’s AMAZING at explaining tougher topics.

4) It’s getting warmer! The tarp over my tent is a dark green on the side facing up, and with the changing sun, it is really heating up the tent. In fact, when I come home after school, my water, which will typically freeze solid overnight, is usually melted. I’m not sure how warm it gets during the day inside… but it is definitely above 0° C. Beautiful! I’ll have to turn the tarp over in the heat of the summer so the white side is up, but for now, this is perfect.

That’s all for now… I’ll have another post hopefully coming out tomorrow and then one on Wednesday…

Sincerely,

Adam

A sad beginning…

Hello friends,

As many of you know, more and more I have become interested in learning how to better live in my place, wherever that is and whatever that means. This blog is my attempt to learn how to answer those two questions, and to share some of those  lessons with you. Two notes before I begin.

1) In no way am I an expert on how to live well in my place. I am merely trying to learn how to do so, fumbling as I go, frequently making mistakes and only occasionally achieving anything that could confused with success. Furthermore, I not only highly doubt that I will ever be an expert, I highly doubt that anybody can ever truly become an expert.

2) I have made a promise to myself that this blog will not ever turn into a place where I air my rants. Not that I can’t rant mind you. Those of you who know me know that I am perfectly capable of ranting with the most cantankerous of old coots. But I really don’t want this to be the place where I air my rants. Instead, this will be an experiment in seeing how how close to the line I can get. It is up to you to hold me accountable.

So having now written that preamble, I will begin.

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At the moment, due to the circumstances of teacher’s college, I currently find myself living in the small town of Palmerston, Ontario, about an hour north of Guelph, where I am working as a student teacher at a small, integrated environmental leadership program. While I won’t gush too much about this placement (it’s absolutely incredible), it has, within a week and a half, already afforded me with a tremendous amount of material for sharing in regards to issues of place, especially as those issues revolve around sustainability in agriculture. Over the next little while, I will share many stories, most, extremely positive, about things that I am learning, encouragements that I am receiving, and moments that I am experiencing. Today however, I want to share a story that is somewhat saddening.

Today, my class went to an agricultural career fair, of which I am sure to speak more of in future posts. There were many speakers and organizations present, from research organizations to equipment dealers to conservation groups and so on, all highlighting the incredible job potential currently existing in agriculture*.

One of the speakers was the owner of a local tractor dealership. He shared about the movement towards bigger tractors, how, for example, ten years ago a tractor may have had 15,000 hp and a highway speed of 40 km/h, while today, the tractors have 150,000 to 300,000 hp, and he’s seeing some with a highway speed of 60 km/h. It should be noted that I didn’t quite catch the exact horsepower numbers due to his accent (more on that later), and, since I’m am not even remotely knowledgeable about horsepower and have no real idea as to how much power those figures represent, I’m not sure if they’re accurate or even make much sense. The point, however, still stands that today’s tractors are notably more powerful then they were only ten years ago.

He then mentioned something that was very interesting, something that stood out for me, especially coming from somebody whose trade comes from selling those more powerful (and, I would posit, more expensive) tractors.  “The way we’re heading is to bigger farms; is this right? No, but it seems to be the way that the industry is going.” He then mentioned that expectations were that farmers would need to farm three times the amount of land that they currently farm, though he wasn’t clear on why this was expected. I have my theories, but I will hold them to myself for now.

Three things stood out for me. The first was his tone. Though obviously you cannot hear it yourself, he seemed saddened by this trend. Or at least that is what I heard (it may have been my own bias detecting this inflection however). The second thing was his question to the audience. “Is this right?” Followed quickly by his answer, “No.” The third thing was his belief that this process was inevitable, a topic which I will let alone for another day.

Here was a tractor salesperson, dealing with quarter-million dollar tractors, who genuinely appeared saddened at the loss of small, family farms. I couldn’t help but want to find out more.

During the break, I approached him and first of all, asked him about his accent. I usually have a fairly good ear for accents, yet was completely unable to figure out where his was from. He smiled and told me that it was Pennsylvanian Dutch, which is not unusual I suppose for this area due to the large number of Old-Order Mennonites that live and farm nearby.

We then began talking tractors, though only in the most general sense since, as mentioned before, I am a complete neophyte with anything to do with tractors. I mentioned that, from the substance of his talk, it seemed that tractors had really gotten powerful.

He responded  by mentioning the following**, “Sometimes, I think that the technology is moving too quickly.  I mean seriously, I wonder where it’s going to stop. Right now, you have a tractor that all you have to do is press a button, and the tractor knows exactly how deep to plough, when to turn, and so on. All you have to do it push a button!” Keep in mind that his description of what the tractor does was much more detailed than mine, but the essence was the same. With the push of a button, you could now run a tractor.

Again, he seemed saddened by this change, which, considering that he could only profit by the large scale adoption of this new technology, I found interesting.

Compare this with the presentation by the speaker representing the 4H organization. “Technology is so cool nowadays! Farmers can now sit back and play Angry Birds [on their smart phones] while the tractor does all the work!

It reminds me of a quote from a letter that Wendell Berry wrote to Wes Jackson many years ago, a quote which is one of Jackson’s favourites and can be found in the book Wendell Berry: Life and Work and also, I believe, in the book Consulting the Genius of Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture:

As one who has farmed with both tractors and teams [of horses and/or mules], I would insist (to you; I would be more cautious, at present, in a public statement) that with the use of a tractor certain vital excitements, pleasures, and sensitivities are lost. How much numb metal can we put between ourselves and our land and still know where we are and what we are doing? Working with a tractor is damned dulling and boring. It is like making love in boxing gloves.

Sincerely,

Adam

* It should be noted that by agriculture, the speakers were including everything from farm to fork, including food processing and food sales. According to the career fair, agriculture is a very broad industry.

** I should mention that all quotes contained within this post have been edited by my memory of it. I did however write his first quote down as he was speaking, and also the quote of the 4H representative found below, as he was speaking, so they are much more likely to be accurate. For this quote, I was unable to take notes at the time, as this was a personal conversation and I didn’t want to be rude.