Culture & Conversation

The Righteous Farm

Of all the regrettable solitudes that Canada contains, one of the saddest is our overall ignorance, here in Quebec, of what’s being written in British Columbia. Of course there are some exceptions, but very few of us, for example, know the work of Brian Brett. Yet his Uproar’s Your Only Music is the most astonishing chronicle I’ve read about growing up caught between the two genders, a book that manages to be both frank and discreet.

His recent bagging of the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize, worth $25,000, should bring Brett to prominence, even in our part of the country. Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life is a worthy winner.

Brett, a poet and fiction writer, also runs a small farm with his wife Sharon on Salt Spring Island, a short ferry ride from Victoria, B.C. He’s one of those rare and happy souls: he truly likes what he does for a living. “The blessing of a small farm is that it’s not a job – like food or poetry, it’s a calling,” he writes. “Trauma Farm” is his nickname for his acreage because it’s always one damned thing after another, often with tragic-comic results (depending on whether you’re predator or prey): raccoons marauding through the henhouse, ravens swooping down on the newborn lambs, and the much quieter acts of predation in the garden.

This story of farm life is sometimes comical and always informative – but never romantic. There is little room for the romance of country life when you’re in the midst of running a farm — and an organic farm at that. Most of all, Brett’s book is the story of food and the land it’s grown on, and what has happened to both in the era of agribusiness. Brett has understood over time that all the solutions to the problems nature poses are to be found in nature itself. You’ve got tent caterpillars on your fruit trees? Encourage the wasps to come and clear out the pests instead of reaching for the insecticide. This book is ecological in the truest sense insofar as it teaches us, in a very practical way, how balance works in nature, and how it can work even on a human construction like a small farm.

I suspect one of the reasons Brett’s book won the non-fiction prize, besides his lively, humorous writing and steadfast ecological message, is the way he delivers knowledge about the everyday workings of a farm. That chicken you’re about to eat (organic or not, depending on your budget) – how did it end up being a source of protein for humans? Chickens, Brett tells us, were first domesticated to be fighting birds. And did you know that free-range fowl cook faster because their denser flesh conducts heat better? Information and tall tales alternate in just the right doses. In the end, Brett is a spiritual farmer, as befits a farmer who’s also a poet. While chopping wood, he thinks of Aldous Huxley’s comment: “It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine.” Sounds good to me.

DAVID HOMEL is a Montreal-based novelist and translator. His new novel with Cormorant will be out this year.

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