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Books Review: Trauma Farm, by Brian Brett; The War in the Country, by Thomas F. Pawlick

Reviewed here: Trauma Farm, by Brian Brett; The War in the Country, by Thomas F. Pawlick

When I moved to the country a few years ago, friends and family told me that I was deluded. There was nothing in rural Canada but hicks in plaid shirts and baseball caps, they said. No culture. No shopping. And certainly no cappuccinos.

I had spent years writing articles, books and TV documentaries on the subjects of food, agricultural production and a life in tune with nature. But I had apparently failed to convince those close to me. I was therefore delighted to see two new books that I felt would shore up my arguments for the beauty and the essential value of rural life in modern Canada. Both books, after all, dared to use words like "farm" and "rural" in their titles - usually the kiss of death in our urbanized world.

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Now that's not to say people in Canada don't have an interest in food itself. There is a growing awareness about how the cheap, fattening and often less nutritious food found in the developed world is produced. Writers such as Michael Pollan, Raj Patel and Eric Schlosser have written persuasively about factory farms, long-distance shipping, artificial flavourings, global marketplaces and rising rates of obesity that are part of the industrial food system. Although these writers explored the fact that smaller family farms have disappeared in the wake of industrialized agriculture, the vast majority of urbanized readers have little connection with that diminished but still important way of life.

In The War in the Country , Thomas Pawlick champions the fate of rural Canada with the hopes of educating readers in the city. He bluntly writes that the rural world is undergoing a "Great Dying," a term that is usually used to describe the mass disappearance of endangered plant and animal species. Less than 1 per cent of Canadians now list themselves as actual farmers; more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in large towns or cities. Pawlick says the countryside is losing its people because of a belief in the big-is-better philosophy of conventional agriculture. Since the 1930s, small farms have increasingly been amalgamated into large, industrialized operations. But now government regulations and taxation policies continue to target the small operator.

Pawlick focuses his attention on Eastern Ontario, where he currently has a farm acreage. He chronicles the often-aggravating stories of those who are satisfied with a simple life but are hounded by a system that values efficiencies of scale. He tells the story of the butcher who runs a small, artisan operation, but is confronted with regulations designed for 2,000-carcasses-a-day mega-slaughterhouses. And the young farmer who would like to start a small herd of dairy cows, but comes up against a supply-management system that encourages big factory operations. And the farm family that faces the arrival of a stinky, 1,000-hog-plus factory farm right next door.

In telling the stories of a beleaguered countryside, Pawlick acknowledges that rural Canadians have little political clout to make change. He writes about the pockets of resistance against the conventional thinking, but recognizes that a broader alliance including urbanites is needed if the War in the Country is to be won.

Pawlick is an earnest proselytizer. He comes by his credentials honestly: He was part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, worked for Harrowsmith magazine in its formative years, and acted as chief editor for six years for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Ceres magazine. This is the final book of a group of three that developed out of a university research project; the first, The Invisible Farm , attempted to teach journalists about things agricultural. The second, The End of Food , ventured into the terrain explored by Pollan.

This third book, unfortunately, falls short of Pawlick's aspirations. He veers close to suggesting a conspiracy theory when he says federal and provincial regulations are designed to eliminate small farmers and small businesses in favour of larger conventional operations. He writes, "The goal appears to be simple and brutal: to clear most rural lands of their inhabitants (save for a few suburban transplanted enclaves)." That may be true, but it would have been nice if Pawlick had followed standard journalistic practices and interviewed someone from the government. (Maybe there is some passing reference, but there is no index to consult.) Pawlick chooses to let the players in his anecdotes talk at length, without any editing. He shows admirable skill with the tape recorder, less of his own writing chops.

The more persuasive of these two books is poet Brian Brett's Trauma Farm . It is billed as a memoir of Brett's life on a small, mixed farm on Saltspring Island. (Saltspring is the Eden of which Pawlick dreams; farms here are all small holdings, most of them organic.) Brett freely admits his affectionately dubbed Trauma Farm is a subsistence operation, supported in part by his (ahem) poetry gig.

Trauma Farm is not your standard memoir that follows a chronological timeline. Nor is it a rural story populated with quaint country characters à la Wingfield Farm . Rather, Brett distills 18 years of experience and observations of rural life into a single day. And setting the tone for this often raucous book, he begins that day with a predawn, moonlit walk clad only in gumboots.

Brett hangs meditations of farm life, observations on biology and botany, and musings about the modern world on this Joycean structure. His writing is so vivid, the observations so telling, that a reader can virtually feel the smooth heft of a collected egg in the palm of a hand or hear the goofy, honking dawn call of the peacock. "The world is a constant astonishment," he writes. "Rain in a storm - each drop pounding so hard against the pond surface that the water reaches back up like a fist threatening the sky."

The daily tasks of life on his mixed farm propel Brett into passionate rants against the modern industrial food system and a society increasingly divorced from the natural world. A trip to his chicken coop leads to an indictment of the modern, battery-cage barns that house thousands, maybe millions, of runty hens. The view of his sheep on pasture reminds him of the thousands of cattle crowded into feedlots and fed pellets laced with bones, feathers, blood, fish, enzymes, oil, antibiotics and, possibly, contaminants.

Like Pawlick, Brett believes producers like himself are endangered. "The small farm is a dying anachronism in our age, but it is here some of us are taking a rebel stand," he declares. He writes that modern mythology of agribusiness is mistaken in believing it can control the complexity of the planet. Only by returning to traditional knowledge that grew good food for thousands of years can humans live in sync with the natural world.

We may live in the age of information, Brett writes, but many people know little about the plants and animals around them. The farm, he says, used to be the bridge between wilderness and civilization. It has become a lonely preserve for living with what remains of the natural landscape. The nature that Brett extols is not a romanticized movie version but a complex, life-and-death tangle that simultaneously delivers beauty, laughter and terror. It is a natural world that speaks to all, even the rap-playing, ever-so-modern pack of friends of Brett's 19-year-old son, who stop to watch two ospreys hunting for lunch, to "witness what was disappearing."

Brett's wise and witty meditation on farm life makes a compelling case for a simpler existence in a rural world. Along with Pawlick's more earnest, journalistic treatment, there surely is convincing ammunition in these two books to persuade urbanites that there is value to living outside the city.

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Ingeborg Boyens lives on a century farm near Woodlands, Man.

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