Back to the Land

In the spring of 1974, my brother’s family and I packed our lives into wooden crates and drove to the east coast of Canada to escape the clutches of capitalism and corporate control. We bought 93 acres of land on the Cabot Trail and proceeded to homestead on what we dubbed, “Sunnyhill Farm”. The land had not been worked for some 50 years and there was much to learn for two factory workers. But soon we grew our own vegetables, kept cattle, pigs and chickens.

To give milk, the cows had to be bred. Once a year, the AI (back then AI stood for Artificial Insemination) man arrived with his selection of bull semen stored in dry ice. “What will it be this year?” he would ask. We made our own hay and to balance compassion with necessity I decided to feed our steers and heifers over one winter so they could enjoy two summers in the field. In the fall of the second year I put a 303 caliber bullet through their skull. We did our butchering and filled our freezer with meat and vegetables to feed the family all winter.

Being self sufficient wasn’t as easy as we had imagined while sipping wine from a communal jug that was passed around “the Hall” at 19 Huron Street in Toronto. We used to go there to hang out with the hippies and rant about the injustice of it all and how we could start a new community that walks away from capitalism and greed. The Hall, was a community centre linking a number of groups including American draft dodgers, members of the gay community, and those interested in communal living arrangements. For us it was a jumping off point. (You can read more about that time here.)

Although the first summer on the farm was lonely, that winter a dozen or more families that were on the same adventure, emerged once the harvest was processed and the snow set in. And so the conversations about social change that were familiar from The Hall, continued late into the nights. In the end though we all bought our animal feed from the local co-op farm store and ended up relying on jobs as carpenters, gardeners and caretakers for the well to do who spent their summers in Cape Breton.

I landed a job working for the Alexander Graham Bell estate and it was Mabel Grosvenor who sponsored me when I discovered that my immigration papers were messed up and I had to re-immigrate to Canada all over again. It was J.K. Morrison, who in 1975 had been the estate gardener for over fifty years, that first introduced me to the value of greenhouses and the joy of raising seedlings from seeds. Work generally was stretched to fill the day and when I would get antsy, they would send me to the kindling barn. Only half in jest, I would be reprimanded occasionally as I left them leaning on their shovels while having a smoke: “Oh, and don’t work so hard, you make us look lazy.”

Being given 24 hours to leave the country, and having to return to work in the city of Los Angeles for a year, only helped to underscore the fallacy of escaping the clutches of our society’s norms. Even if I hadn’t been ripped out of my chosen lifestyle by a technicality, going back to the land in its purest form would mean completely abandoning the benefits of technology. At the most basic level, the rusted hay rake and mower we salvaged from a neighbour’s field were made of steel that was smelted in a blast furnace powered by coke extracted from coal. Our cattle feed, flour and oats all came from grain shipped thousands of miles to our farm in Cape Breton.

Our survival was intertwined with civilization.

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