Speaking of the back field and the nature of heritage

It’s been 40 years since I came here to help the late Wilma Butchart and her son Cliff bring in the hay from that beautiful back field that reached out to the depth of their old farm lot, with the mature hardwood forest on either side.

Wilma and Cliff were the first Hope Ness residents we met in the late spring of 1979 when my then wife, Colleen, and I moved up from Toronto to Hope Ness. They welcomed us in the traditional way, with a gift of home-cooked goodness, a generous smile, and kind words. We became friends, and thanks to Wilma and Cliff we learned a lot about the history of Hope Ness, especially the Dow Chemical ‘takeover’ in the mid-1960s. (I have written previously about that in Finding Hope Ness at this link.)

Hope Ness was saved from the terrible fate of being turned into a huge quarry when Dow decided not to go through with its plans, and the Ontario government ended up owning the 2,000 acres (810 hectares) Dow had bought for a measly $5,000 acres per 100-acre farm. But most of the homes and barns had already been demolished, except for the Butchart farm, where Dow had set up its on-site base of operations. Wilma and Cliff continued to live there as tenants when the province took over ownership. Eventually, they managed to get title back to the house, barn other out-buildings, and 5.9 acres. They were also able to continue cutting and taking the hay off the back field to feed their livestock. That permit stopped seven years ago when Cliff passed away. Coincidentally, the province decided about the same time to stop issuing any more such permits on its Hope Ness land. That includes the Hope Bay Nature Reserve which surrounds the former Butchart home and property which I now own, and where I live.

I keep the hay cut on the small part of the back field I own. Beyond that I can see the new tree growth is now well underway. Already, that part where the forests on either side were nearest has begun to close, like a door on the past.

I remember being out there with them, Wilma driving the same Massey-Ferguson 65 tractor I’m still trying my best to keep in good shape, me tossing the bales up onto the hay wagon, and Cliff building the load. And so it went, back and forth to the barn to unload, for several days.

Invariably now, as I stand beside the barn and look out from there over that field as the trees and other seasonal-wetland vegetation take it over again, I also think about the years of back-breaking work that went into clearing that land. And also, the intense work that went into digging wells to help drain it, as often happened in those days. The most remarkable, where the back field begins, is a 20-ft deep well, carefully and expertly walled with stone and cement. That well also served as the main source of water for the house and pasturing livestock. It seems almost unimaginable, and yet I can see it after all in my mind’s eye: the men down below in the darkness, rocks and soil being hauled up by others. By the end of the spring run-off that well is always full to the brim. I use it to water my market garden as needed, which is often, this dry 2022 season especially.

The first house, later used for livestock.

All that work began in Hope Ness after 1880 when the first owner, John Heath, bought the 100-acre lot for “one hundred dollars,” according to the Crown Patent. Other Hope Ness settlers arrived about the same time from down south, or from ‘the old country.’ They had hopes; they had dreams; they worked their hearts out. For some it was too much to bear. Others stayed and survived, with more hard work that we nowadays can hardly fathom. Eventually, by the time the man from Dow showed up that fateful day, there was “a farm on every hundred acres,” as I heard it said in the summer of 1979. And even then, it was still a hard-scrabble, subsistence way of life. So, $5,000 must have seemed like a lot of ‘cash money,’ and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance for something better.

I do know that Wilma Butchart (Tucker), born and raised in Hope Ness, never wanted to leave. She loved this land, and the walk through what she called “the Cathedral Woods” to the lookout over Hope Bay, and Georgian Bay beyond. It was her refuge, her special, even sacred, place.

As a child and young woman born and raised on the nearby Tucker homestead, she loved to walk through the woods. She told me of seeing First Nation people from their nearby Nawash community across Hope Bay gathering edibles and natural remedies in those same woods. She spoke respectfully of that experience. I’m sure she would have joined them, being who she was. And she certainly would not have thought it amiss in any way; on the contrary, she would have welcomed them.

As I look out across that field, I wonder also how much time it takes to have a true heritage, a feeling for a place, the land, the waters, that goes so deep it becomes an essential part of one’s being. Less than 100 years of non-Indigenous settlement had passed since 1880 by the time Dow showed up in the mid-1960s; and little more than 100 years since the Treaty of 1854 that opened the Saugeen Peninsula for settlement was signed under controversial circumstances. The era of settlement is not “since time immemorial,” it is fair enough to say.

And what of me? Am I, who wasn’t even born here, entitled to feel that I truly belong here, this place where I feel so much at home, which I love, as if it was always meant to be? Or is that a foolish thing to say, let alone think under all the circumstances?

I ask these questions sincerely, without any underhand motive. It’s just a question, from my heart to other hearts who know what it means to love their heritage.

Corn, squash and beans growing in the front field, August, 2022.

4 thoughts on “Speaking of the back field and the nature of heritage

  1. Phil, this is one of the most beautiful writings that you have ever shared. Your love and soul shines through out this piece. It is so wonderful to have the history of your place on this earth written down and all the special memories of Wilma and Cliff. I have a similar feeling about my little place under the escarpment here in Owen Sound. It took a long time but I have finally found ‘home’ and I do love it. I also know that the history of the original part of the house goes back well into the 1800’s and may have had a small field for a cow or two and a bunch of chickens… not unusual for a small holding in the young town of Owen Sound.

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  2. What a beautiful piece of writing. I wish the rest of the country could read it. Some of us never quite feel the sense of belonging we assume other people have. But from where I stand (read) I’d say you wrestled with that angel and earned the blessing.

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    • Thank you, Gail. Because of where I am, and how the land was taken under duress from the Saugeen Ojibway not that long ago I have indeed wrestled with how to reconcile that with my being here, let alone my deep feelings for this special place where I feel so much at home; and knowing, as well, how hard the ‘settlers’ worked, and how much in particular Wilma Butchart Tucker loved this place. I think I have concluded though that the tragedy and injustice suffered by the Saugeen First Nations stands above all else.

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