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.

The Hawk is watching

I saw it again this morning as the dogs and I came back from our after-breakfast walk. Had it been watching us from above, I wonder only now? We had just turned down into our long driveway and there it was, slowly, silently, with a seemingly effortless motion of its wings flying easily through the light drizzle over the front field just off to our right. It flew ahead of us, heading northwest toward the big maples and beyond toward the forest, out of sight.

I knew right away it was the same great bird, a hawk, I had seen a few days before. That was also during our walk, but just as we were about to step through the back door. Something made me look up, and there it was circling overhead, also at about treetop height.

That was a blustery, variably cloud and sun morning, a strong wind from the west making the still leaf-laden branches roar. The bird was not moving its wings; it didn’t have to: the wind let it soar, its outstretched, perfectly aerodynamic wings sensitive to every nuance of the air.

There was joy in what the bird was doing, and, inadvertently perhaps, or deliberately, showing me. And so, I imagined it might be a sort of dance, slow and elegant, and – what’s the word? – dignified comes to mind now.  I mean no offence at all to the Ravens who made their home-nest in the barn this past spring, none at all: I love them, and hope they stay, helping in their way to keep the old barn standing. They soar too, with an occasional flapping, and a raucous “croak” now and then back and forth in their social, family way.

A recent view here at Cathedral Drive Farm in early September, 2020, the forest trees still laden with leaves. A family of ravens gain entry to the barn through that space below the roof to the right. They were still spending most of their time in the forest when this photo was taken by a friend; but I hope they will nest again next spring in the barn where they have made an impressive, and very big, nest.

But the hawk was silent and alone as it wheeled and soared in the wind, working its way slowly west and carefully searching the land below for anything of interest..

So, now I count the hawk as my friend, and the Ravens too. And the bear I saw cross the trail several hundred yards in front of me this summer, and the other unnamed creatures who make their presence known one way or another in the forest and the tall grass in the nature-reserve. regenerating fields. And even here – where I keep a portion of the land tilled for gardening, but let the milkweed live on its own terms for the sake of the Monarchs when they come back again next year – life thrives.

Next year I will scatter even more buckwheat for the bees and other pollinators that have found a happy refuge far from vast fields of mono-cropping.

And so, I am surrounded in sky and land and live with many friends.

I hope that’s what brings the Hawk here, good feelings rising from below.

Tomorrow morning when the dogs and I go on our morning rock to the touchstone, I will put my hand on it and pray that I will never again in any way betray that trust.

Surrounded by wildlife in Hope Ness

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white-tailed deer have been feasting on my sweet peas

I noted with more than passing interest the news that black bear have been making appearances and causing problems in the Shallow Lake area, brazenly killing and eating chickens close to homes, and breaking into wooden garbage containers at Sauble Beach.

There certainly are black bear up here in heavily-wooded Hope Ness, on the Georgian Bay side of the Bruce Peninsula, where I live. I saw a big one from a safe distance crossing the Hope Ness Road out by Bruce County Road 9 a week or two ago just after setting out for a trip to Owen Sound. Most of my  neighbours live out there, compared to where I am at the end of Cathedral Drive. That’s a “No Exit” road that leads to the Hope Bay Forest and a fairly popular section of The Bruce Trail through the mature hardwoods to a wonderful lookout from the Niagara Escarpment cliffs above Hope Bay. Continue reading

Living in hope, finding a way

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A lovely old garden shed  on the “to do” list needs some TLC

I live in Hope.

I do that literally, as in I live in Hope Ness. I also live in hope of learning how to tap into the special spirit of Hope Ness so at this late stage in my life I can finally do justice to it, and life.

About time; it’s been 37 years since that wonderful, hopeful moment when I came out of the woods, around a curve in the then still-gravel county road and was stopped in my tracks by a place that called out “home” to me.

There were more twists and turns, more ups and downs over the years; here sometimes, sometimes not. But hope and stubborn perseverance have seen me through, and I’m here to stay for good now in Hope Ness, at the place I have come to call Cathedral Drive Farm, beside the Hope Bay Nature Reserve, the Hope Bay Forest, and Hope Bay itself, of course.

Continue reading