A Feeling of History

The other night I attended a meeting of the National Farmers Union. It was at a farm near Yarker, south of here. I find the drive to Yarker a step back in time and it’s all quite surreal.

Before we moved to Tamworth I read a great book by Michael Ondaatje called “In the Skin of a Lion.” He wrote it before he wrote “The English Patient” while he was living near Yarker.  Part of it is set in the area south of my house, probably not too long after our house was built in 1888, and it follows the path of trees cut in our area as they are floated down the Napanee River. The main character in the book is the guy who places the explosive charges to free up logs when they become jammed.  It’s a great book and I buy it every time I find it secondhand because I give them to everyone we meet who moves into this area. Even  “The Tamworth Hotel” makes an appearance in the book, which has always created this sense of history in the community that I live in.

As I drove south of here that night through Enterprise and Moscow and Colebrook and Yarker, I thought of what it was like a hundred year ago and the life people lived compared to now.  I look at the land that was cleared through backbreaking labor that is now plowed and harvested with diesel fuel. There is a dam in Colebrook and I noticed the water for a good distance south of the dam was very foamy. I wondered whether the foam was caused by detergents or something in the water that was making the foam last that long, and how the quality of that water has changed in the 100 years.

Colebrook figures prominently in a book by Stan Dragland called “The Drowned Lands” which happens when a flood rages down the Napanee River about the same time. The water came from a dam holding back melt water in Fifth Depot Lake, which was blown up. This is the lake where Michelle and I swim during heat waves. Our friends Sandy and Ellen live on the property where the water drains out. Our friends Don and Debbie own the land where the dam was blown up. Don keeps offering to take me up and show me what’s left of the dam, but I’ve been too busy, or it’s hunting season and so it hasn’t happened yet. This fall, I will do it!

As I drove through Yarker I kept expecting to see a horse and buggy and people in heavy dark clothing. I think this is helped by the artwork on the outside of “The Waterfall Tearoom” done by our friends Carolyn and Hans of Bon Eco Design (www.bon-eco.com). It shows men struggling to get logs over the waterfall during the log drive.  I think it’s a brilliant piece and I think it speaks to the fact that our community likes to remember and celebrate its history. This is very important.

59http://www.bon-eco.com

As I drive around I wonder at the miracle of the time I live in. How I can get from Colebrook to Yarker in 5 minutes in a shiny metal fossil-fuel-powered “box,” a distance that would probably have taken an hour by horse. The trip from Yarker to Enterprise, which took me 20 minutes, would have been a day long event depending on the condition of the roads for those horse and buggies. The mind boggles.

I also think about what my forefathers and mothers were thinking about so long ago. They were not thinking about their retirement, or a pension, or the state of our universal healthcare system. They were thinking about today. The next meal. The next job. That summer’s crop. Would the potatoes in the root cellar last the winter? Would they have enough milk to sell so they could purchase a few luxuries, like some sugar? It really is quite amazing when you think of how far we have traveled as a species in such a short time.

They were also not thinking about species extinction, or invader species, or the reality of a warming climate and melting ice caps. We have removed ourselves from the day-to-day mundane worries that humans have dealt with through history, and created a much different challenge. The fossil fuels that we unlocked have had a consequence.  They took that ancient stored sunlight and released the carbon that was stored in them harmlessly in the ground into the atmosphere.  And now we’re doing it on such a large scale, across the planet, that we are imperiling our ability to keep living the way we are today.

There are solutions. Our house is pretty close to being zero-carbon now. Michelle likes to tease me some days but we really aren’t living all “little house on the prairie.” Electricity pumps our water, keeps our food cool, makes our house bright at night and increasingly cooks our food in the sunnier months. I love our life here, and it feels right to only be using energy that we create from the resources that fall on our property for free, the sun and the wind.

Driving to Yarker I used a tremendous amount of fossil fuels and I do not take that lightly. I rationalize this carbon as an investment in getting more people to support The Green Party which advocates a price on carbon, so we can all take another look our relationship to transportation. I would rather have not burned that fossil fuel. I would rather have stayed home and worked on separating seedlings, which is about all I have the energy to do after a day of planting. But I did it because the Green Party has this vision of us continuing to live on this planet and reducing our impact while we’re here. The people that farmed and lived in this area 100 years ago did not shy away from hard work. In fact that was all they knew. They did not shy away from challenges, like moving a winter’s worth of felled trees down a narrow, rushing river.

Thinking about Yarker in the 1890s reminds me that we have an obligation to those people to not shy away from the challenges we face. They have passed a torch to us, of wanting a better life for their children. We must keep that torch alight, but we must do it without putting more carbon into the atmosphere while we’re at it. We have the technology; all that’s missing is the political will to do it. And yes, that’s a really cheesy analogy, I agree, but it’s early and I’m tired and I have a long day of bending over in my fields planting onions, so it’s the best I can come up with this early in the morning.

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Note from Michelle: Here are the two books that Cam mentioned in this post. Don’t forget to use the links to amazon (top righthand corner) whenever you shop there. We receive a small commission on your purchases (no matter what you buy) which helps us to pay for this blog (hosting, domain renewal, etc.)

2 Responses to “A Feeling of History”

  • alex:

    Hi Cam,
    The foam and the brown tint in the Napanee river water shed is likely due to natural sources.
    http://www.michigan.gov/documents/deq/deq-oea-nop-foam_378415_7.pdf
    You live at the very top of this water shed. Some of your run-off probably flows by our place on Carman creek. There is very little human influence between our lands, yet we frequently see the foam. We also see an abundance of wildlife, and feel very fortunate to live in a fairly biologically health corner of southern Ontario. Our environmental problems are frequently less easily seen than foam.

    The Green Party has a lot of natural ‘signs’ in people’s yards right now. 🙂
    Alex

  • sista:

    Good post Cam. However, in a way people haven’t changed much. I find that most people now days are not thinking of things like species extinction,global warming, or their impact on the environment when they drive their cars. They don’t even think about what it is they are putting in their mouths for sustenance. They are still worrying about the day to day biz of living. Can I make that mortgage payment, buy enough groceries for the family, pay the doctor bills. Unfortunately if they didn’t have to worry about that perhaps then they would pay attention to the bigger picture(s) of environment. I can’t help but believe this is intentional. If the wealthy (people, politicians, corporations)can keep the little guys attention on daily sustenance they wont have time to protest the condition of our world until it is too late. This is a sad state of affairs but something that is worth thinking about. If the Green party is ever going to make a difference in the environment it needs the help of the masses. To get the attention of the masses, the masses need the time from keeping their worlds together to be able to think about it, then do something about it.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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