by Bob Worcester
“Let’s visit the old farm,” said my sister as we breezed along the four lane freeway. We had spent a day kayaking the crystal clear Pine River in northern Minnesota and were about an hour’s side trip away from the grandparents’ old farm we visited often as children. Trygve, my nephew, was vaguely aware the farm was in the vicinity and was willing to postpone a reunion with his friends to touch down for an afternoon on a corner of our family history. It had been many years since I had last returned to that old home place with my new wife. It was a place rich in memories for me and though the landscape of childhood memories was vivid, I was not sure what I would find a generation later.
Sis and I found the turnoff to the now paved county road that was dusty with gravel and potholes in my memory. A few miles down the road the white farm house appeared right where it should be, the barn and some old out buildings were still standing. Arrivals then had always been marked by laughter, hugs, dogs, the warm smell of hay fields and barnyards but now the buildings were empty and the only sound was wind rustling through the grass and leaves. The farm had been sold to the neighbour’s boy who used it now for storage and the extra alfalfa to supplement his own farm just down the road. Still in the afternoon sunshine it looked much as I remembered though some essentials were missing. The rope swing was gone and the fire pit where we often ate outdoors had grown over. The bird feeder no longer hosted blue jays, chickadees and wood peckers that I watched before the hypnotic stare of television stole attention away from these marvels.
I pointed out to Tryg where the garden had grown a lush with beans, carrots, cucumbers and corn. We found the place where before he was born chickens roosted and farm animals were called and fed. He was interested but puzzled. The time before his time was as hard for him to imagine as was the time after our time hard for us to comprehend. The horizon of hills and tree lines was much as remembered except that a new house was now visible where woods had once formed the southern border of the farm; to the north pine woods had reclaimed what had once been a field of hay. I half expected my grandma to come out and offer us fresh milk and cookies as she often had a lifetime ago. Instead, the neighbour’s boy drove up on his tractor and once assured that we had business there relaxed into reminiscence. “I knew your dad,” he said, “I grew up just down the road.” He was now a war veteran my age who had returned to a simpler life of backwoods farming, I envied his intimacy with this land that I had only visited on weeks during summer vacation and was visiting now after decades absence. “Can we look around?” I asked, aware of his property rights. “Sure,” he said, “just be careful of the electric fences.”
“Let’s go down to the river,” I suggested. It loomed large in my mind as the eastern boundary to the land I was allowed to explore freely as a child. A short walk across a hay field and a careful traverse of the new electric fence brought us to the bank of the Little Sandy River. Now it looked more mud than sand and its coffee coloured water was only a few metres wide and not more than waist deep. Across the river that had required a small boat to cross was the unfarmed wilderness of dark woods and forest creatures. There was the old oak where a bear had been treed by my grandfather, the place where an arrowhead had been found, and a cow path where I once came face-to-face with a quizzical fox. In the past 50 years I had crossed oceans, waded mountain streams much wider and deeper than the Little Sandy but here was where I had caught my first bullhead and imagined voyages rowing downstream to the Mississippi and the lakes we had trolled each summer for northern pike. As a child I could not imagine what lay beyond the woods on the far side of the river but now I had flown across the continent and knew from 30,000 feet what a small and unremarkable part of the world this northern woodland was. It was, however, the world my grandparents had filled with memories. My grandma knew the names of each wild flower and edible plant, just as grandpa knew and had named each of his farm animals. Grandma delighted in picnic trips a few miles to a lake or lookout. It was world enough for her and I can only remember her happy in it.
My own grandchildren may revisit our cabin in Howe Sound someday and wonder how we could have spent so many summers contented there. They may muse then as I do now about how quickly generations pass, about what changes and what does not. I can imagine my father fishing in the Little Sandy as a boy with a worm and a bobber, just as I have seen my son fly fishing in his rivers in British Columbia. I was shaped by these old woods and fields and by the freedom to roam around them unhindered. Now my grandchildren are beginning to roam their woods in Nova Scotia to find foxglove and lady slippers, turtles and chickadees.
At the old farm I do not see that changes have much improved it. The paved roads are not as dusty; one can drive up from the city now in a couple hours on a four-lane freeway but of course not many would. I am glad to have added mountains, coastal forests and sea islands to my store of memories. I am glad some of the memories have passed on another generation or two but the particulars of this old farm, the smells and sounds remain vividly my own.
We leave the farm as the shadows grow feeling renewed but sad for the sweet passing of time and loved ones. What was once a home has now become a story to tell the grandchildren. We stop nearby in the town cemetery to pay respects to the cold granite stones that mark what became of Hazel and Harold. It’s fitting that we return to the land we loved, fitting that we added a generation to the top soil that now grows new things. We grow ourselves from that soil and unfold in our own springtime for a season. We are a species that adds our experience to the experience of others in our stories and songs. Our stories may be unique yet they may also resonate for a moment in time with the experience of others until they fade finally to the long silence of the slowly flowing river and the deep starry sky.