The Three Sisters − everything I know about literature I learned on the farm
In a number of Indigenous communities, corn, squash and bean are called the “Three Sisters.” When planted side by side, these three crops help each other during growth, resulting in better yields at harvest.
1. Enough work for my health
I was born a fifth generation John on a centennial family farm in Kent County, southwestern Ontario. Like many sons of my generation, I left home in 1970 at age seventeen never to return to live on the land again.
A single generation before me, my mother was one of three daughters born on a farm near Mull Crossing. In addition to working in the house along with their mother, she and her sisters also toiled at the barn and laboured in the fields. All three sisters grew up to marry farmers, leaving home to live on farms within an hour’s drive from the home farm. Indeed, in her diary my mother wrote of her dreams “I always wanted to marry a farmer and live in the country. I had a wonderful life.” How different she was from me.
My paternal grandfather farmed two hundred acres a mile from the village of Highgate. In 1950 as a man in his seventies, he was inducted into the Kent County Agricultural Hall of Fame. Having given over the responsibility of farming to his two sons, he is quoted at the ceremony as having said, “I don’t get enough work for my health.” By that time my Uncle John, a lifelong bachelor had come home from the war to join his brother, my father George in taking over the management of the land. Grandpa lived with us on the farm until his passing in 1965. My father and my Uncle John were also inducted into the Kent County Agricultural Hall of Fame for their contribution to animal husbandry, notably the breeding of a world-class flock of Lincoln longwool sheep, and purebred Shorthorn cattle. The farm was sold in 2008 to a man with so much land he has acquired a pilot’s license and purchased a plane in order to fly over his considerable holdings. By the time of the purchase of our farm he had acquired well over six thousand acres in cultivation. He had no plan of living in the house, and within two years he would tear out all the fences, knock down the silo and level the barns. What was once ‘the farm on the hill I call home,” a picturesque variety of buildings set upon what passes for a hill in Orford Township, has become cash cropped land. No longer sheep in the meadows and cows on the pasture and hogs in the wallow, no livestock, only soybeans and corn.
When he was a young man, my grandfather took Dad aside and said to him, “George, what walks off this land pays for this land. You’ll never make a go of it trying to earn your living on corn.”
By the year 2008, agriculture has disappeared to be replaced by agribusiness and for the most part the tradition of the family farm has been erased from the culture.
II. all of our sons are leaving the land
I live in a lake house overlooking Long Point Bay in the town of Port Dover, a once-upon-a-time commercial fishing port with bragging rights as the largest active fresh water fishing port in the world. Once upon a while ago Dover had been the town where you came to get into a fight on Saturday night. Now it’s more of a retirement community complete with gated neighbourhoods, and well-healed citizens who rather than drinking beer and scoffing perch, demanding crepes and eggs Benedict for breakfast, cocktails at four and dining fashionably late watching the summer sun set over the harbour from the poopdeck of their fifty foot yachts. It is fast becoming what I call Burlington on the Lynn.
Located on Lake Erie roughly one hundred kilometers west of the mouth of the Niagara River, Port Dover is the final resting place of Raymond Knister, Canada’s first important modern poet in English. In May,1899, just before the turn of the century, John Raymond Knister was born to farmer Robert in Ruscom Station, twenty minutes by car north of Leamington. Raymond Knister died tragically young from a swimming accident in Lake St. Clair. After the drowning his body was brought to Port Dover by his wife, a Dover girl of the locally famous shipbuilding Gamble family, to be buried in the Port Dover Cemetery. The Knisters had one child, Imogen, born in Port Dover during the year they lived here. Knister’s studies at Victoria College, University of Toronto where he was enrolled as a student of English literature, were interrupted by pneumonia brought on by the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. He was brought home to convalesce on his father’s farm near Cedar Springs, peach country located in my own home county of Kent. During his late teens and early twenties he wrote most of the poems upon which is reputation as Canada’s first modern poet in English is based. Many of those poems can be found in his book Windfalls for Cider, published by Black Moss Press in 1983 with a forward by James Reaney, also a major poet raised on a farm in southwestern Ontario.
As with my own father and uncle and grandfather, Raymond’s father Robert was inducted into the local agricultural hall of fame in Chatham for his contribution to horse breeding.
One of the stories told me by his daughter Imogen tells of the occasion when his father was the first farmer to ship peaches by train across the country to market. All the peaches rotted because they were being transported in the days before refrigeration. The Cedar Springs region is still celebrated for the quality and variety of peach orchards.
As it was with James Reaney, and as it is with me, Knister left the farm to pursue a career in writing. I am proud to acknowledge that Raymond Knister and the celebrated 19th century poet Archibald Lampman and I all came of age in farm country within a half an hour’s drive by car from one another. Lampman was raised in a manse in the village of Morpeth. Knister wrote his first poems on his father’s farm near Cedar Springs. And I was born and raised on a farm near the village of Highgate. All of us were rural lads, yet none of us stayed. And just as we were so changed by learning, the farms on which we were raised have vanished into factory farming, big machinery − big business.
III … agronomics − the business of farming
There’s a joke I made up that I sometimes tell. It’s one of those question and answer jokes.
Question: How do you ruin a farm?
Answer: Send your children to school.
Two farmers were talking. One farmer said to the other farmer, “You know George, I just won a million-dollar lottery.”
“What’ll you do with the money, Bill?”
“I think I’ll just keep on farming till the money’s all gone.”
My grandfather Herb used to say, “You can measure a man’s intelligence by how long it takes him in conversation before he starts to talk about money.”
My father once said to me at the supper table, “Johnny, I bought us a twenty thousand dollar dog today. I traded two ten-thousand dollar cats for him.”
There is a true story concerning a professor of agricultural economics teaching at the local college. He went broke three times farming before giving up and becoming a teacher of agricultural economics.
IV … the walker and the rider
English poet John Clare was born a ploughman’s son during what were called ‘the closures’. When he was a boy the region of England where he was raised involved a gentle relationship between agriculture and the land. The streams meandered freely, the hundred-year oak trees spread their shade, the crooked roads followed the lay of the land, the swamps sang with wildlife and during the lazy time of the year young John Clare might lie daydreaming among dragonflies and foxes, sleeping in the drop of acorns, listening to the song of streams, and waiting for the slow plod of horses jangling their bell collars as they approached. Then the roads were straightened, the old trees felled, the swamps drained, the ditches dug, and the symmetry of the grid was imposed on the land by the scientific method of the new generation. And what was gained in harvest was lost in mindfulness and placid country became industrious farming.
When I edited the anthology called Following the Plough, I made note of the changes experienced by John Clare, born into the rhythms of pre-industrial age when the harmony between agricultural activity and nature was gentler. I also gave a thought to the fact that there was a time when the farmer followed the plough, and then there came a time when the plough followed the man. That shift in perspective between watching the furrow unfold before you as you walked behind the horse-drawn walking plough, and the way the furrow came to be as you rode the plough turning the land as the furrow appeared in your wake.
The walker became the rider, the man veering round the old oak then turning at the fences, became the man riding in an air-conditioned cab drawing a twelve furrow plow, crushing the worms along the way and rolling the earth in his path at an acre a strike.
V … plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …
whisper these words …
be the breeze that bends the bough
of the tree no longer there
At a reunion of my mother’s family held on the farm where she was born, my mother and I took a drive around the squared mile from her home farm through Mull Crossing, along the first concession, then home again. As we drove in search of landmarks of her childhood our conversation became increasingly troubled. There is where the half-way tree once stood, and there was where the church I attended on Sunday used to be, and on that bare corner was where I went to school, that empty lot, that windowless house, those collapsing barns, that pile of stone, those crushed-down fences, that broken windmill, that rubble, that vacant yard, that fallow field, oh dear, nothing remains of what I once knew …
And this is what has become of what we might call ‘the slow to change country of her youth’ a strip of new houses, a fallen-in barn, a place where no one lives, a yard where no dog barks and no children play and no one walks … and a combine working past midnight with its ghost light lamping the dust that it raises as though the wheat harvest were the chaff of the past rising like the spirits of our ancestors, a good yield − the ghost of the grains of our grandfathers, our progenitors, our mother’s grandmother’s eidolons … and the poet James Reaney, and the poet Raymond Knister, and the poet John Clare going back to the first stick poking a hole in the earth for a seed in the valley of two rivers and from there to Adam and Eve at the gates of Eden.
VI … what have we lost and what have we gained …
When my father and I were at Jamestown visiting the site of the first English settlement in North America we listened while the curator told the story of the three sisters, and how this evolved over time until Thomas Jefferson applied the concept of crop rotation learned from the application of the principles of scientific farming. Responding to the notion that Jefferson was one of the first American agronomists to follow the teachings of science, my father expressed skepticism, “I don’t believe it. How could they not have known the need?” I mentioned the wheel, algebra, salt peter, the concept of zero, and the fact that in the refining of oil for oil lamps an entire generation simply threw away the pesky byproduct because they did not see any purpose to this waste product − what we now call ‘gasoline’.
So, what have we lost and what have we gained, I wonder. The land on which I was raised was sold and like John Clare, the English poet born on the cusp of the closures, lost the art of dreaming.
VII … poets on the farm …
It has been the same before
Soil glistens, the furrow rolls, sleet shifts, brightens.
Raymond Knister from Boy Remembers the Field
As a child I dreamt of tomorrow.
Of the word ‘tomorrow’ itself.
The word was a man in a tall black hat
Who walked in black clothes through
Green fields of quiet rain that
Beneath gray cloudfields grew.
James Reaney from The Tall Black Hat
We are born, we are reared, and we linger
A various space and die;
We dream and are bright and happy
But we cannot answer why.
Archibald Lampman from The Sweetness of Life
… opening of fruit opening
to the sweet marrow
of the seed −
from what was, from
what could have been.
What is left
is what is.
Wendell Barry from The Broken Ground
How we learn
if we live long lives
about the rhythms of a lifetime −
and I add to urgent
and important things, necessity
and make of this
a wise enough completion
to satisfy, at least for now …
…as then I know
my father must sell the sheep
a hundred years
since they came here first
and ‘all things come to an end’ he says
and I feel
his sadness …
John B. Lee from Urgent Things
… reminding how love is
like knocking the clay from the plough
flies from the tread of the wheel
when the tractor comes home in the dark…
John B. Lee from When Love is Like Knocking the Clay from the Plough
Muse of the fields, oft have I said farewell
To thee …
John Clare from The Rural Muse
VIII … so many hours must I tend my flock …
There is a story concerning how a young James Reaney lost his copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost while working in the field. For his part, as a teenager on his father’s farm, Raymond Knister had created a reading list of a thousand books he intended to read as part of a self-imposed apprenticeship for his life as a writer. My Uncle John, though a shepherd, would recite entire passages of Virgil’s Georgics and he also favoured these lines from Shakespeare which he could speak from memory with the authority of a professional actor:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks before the poor fools will ean;
So many weeks ere I shall shear the fleece;
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! How sweet! How lovely!
Henry VI, III, iii, lines 30-40
IX … talk farmer …
Talk farmer …” my mother chastens me in conversation, for though I have been to school I’m still her wayward son and what shall I say —shall I say clevis and gambrel, sheaf and stook? Shall I limit my earth to the matter of mud, the matter of water and loam, or lambing in April, or driving a spile in the bloat of a cow or the bark of maple in spring? What shall I tell her concerning the Georgics of Virgil, the shearing of ewes, the keeping of bees, of Piers and his plough, of Jefferson’s science, of the three sisters of the Iroquois, of the poet John Clare who wept at the closures? What shall I say of the Eclogues of Spenser or the pastoral beauty of Eden and Eve, of her murdering son and the land where he roamed, how David the King was a poet with his lyre and his psalms, how he sang among sheep, how Wendell Berry walks on Sunday with his pencil to the page, how Robert Frost came appling out of orchards blunt and rubbling at his dry stone wall, how James Reaney lost his Milton in a furrow, how his father pierced a gassy rumen of a bloated cow with a fountain pen, how Raymond Knister came to wintering after horses writing “the horses will steam when the sun comes,” and how I listen for such lines, how I learned my Greek on road shoulders, my mind much like a stoneboat with a single earth-heaved stone, how I came to Latin in a cowflap, Latin fallen from the paper cows of Rome, how I told myself such stories with a clay clod in my hand I might have been Prometheus with my breath of ancient words while the ashes of my forehead burned like burning land.
Oh Mother mine. You break my heart. I am talking farmer. The farmer I know—my grandfather Lee who read Spinoza and Einstein, my Uncle John who quoted Virgil at the barn, my father who spoke of small talk as he traced a lesson at the table. “I’m talking farmer, Mom. Just listen for a moment and you’ll hear.”
Pleased in his loneliness he often lies
Telling glad stories to his dog
from “The Shepherd Boy,” by John Clare