Originally published in The Globe & Mail, Spring 2004
I don’t like it, this “death of the barn” thing that seems to be gaining momentum.
To a central Ontario farm boy like myself, it all made perfect sense. This little play world was a microcosm of my own and not some nostalgic icon. It was as real as the scene outside the windows of my childhood.
But that was generation ago and the days of the family farm’s presence in the landscape - and in the memory - have faded.
The pink granite corner stone on the leeward, downhill side of our old timber barn, laid by my great-grandfather George, reads simply “June 10, 1904". The central pivot of a whole community’s hard-won working life, it is a typical Ontario bank barn, snuggled hard into the hill, sited with uncanny intuition , elegant in its rugged simplicity. Great Uncle Frank, who long ago moved off to California, left his mark in wet concrete while forming a water trough in 1918. There are carvings, now weathered into hieroglyphic gibberish on select boards. We have old photos of barn-raising day…women in billowy white laying out long trestle tables for the barn-raising bee…a sepia print of swaggering, timber-top bravado played out against the raw sky…
The timber beams, posts and purlins are as sound as ever, seasoned for a century, wicked dry with the silica-sack effect of a rotating volume of tinder dry hay. But the hemlock and pine barn boards worry me: they start to loosen one afternoon in a January blast, vibrating like reeds. Then it’s a short downhill ride to a loose-tooth flapping, then a squeaking full yawn as they peel away and spin slowly to earth. Hard to put back, those old barn-boards…they never fit as well as they did in 1904.
Yet we keep putting them back; keep re-nailing, fingers lightly touching the old holes once made by square nails. The gun-metal grey wood grain is deep and sinuous, ridged and rippled by sun and wind.
Those old walls could tell stories, if only we had the right ears to hear. Uncle Bob fainting in the pig-sty and almost eaten alive. Clandestine romantic meetings, tearful prayers. But it takes patience and silence to hear these enchanting whispers, two things we are finding it harder and harder to come by.
Instead, I turn to the glossy new shelter magazine that tells me that for 2004, old timber barns are the “super-sized folk art must-haves” for the wealthy weekend country squire. I don’t know if our barn, or the dwindling numbers of its weathered colleagues, can survive as folk-art must-haves , let alone as trophies for country squires.
The barn survived tornadoes, Hurricane Hazel, grass fires and the vagaries of agricultural fashion. But will it survive the onward march of progress that even now is a distant dull rumble down the side road? Or will I one day have to fumble through my attic boxes for that tiny enameled steel barn, set it on the kitchen table and explain to my little Sam the ancient writing on the miniature gable wall: “Grampas’ Farm...”
For now, though, there’s a birthday cake to bake and a cornerstone, soft pink in the June sunset, to be polished and photographed. And honoured.