Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Barn at 100

       Originally published in The Globe & Mail, Spring 2004
            I hate those birthday parties – the ones to which you are obliged to attend ; the ones where you are never quite sure if the celebrant really wants to celebrate…or forget. I’m going to a party like that on June 10th. It’s a party for my family’s old timber barn.
A century worth of the scars of endurance. The old barn is a survivor, and that’s good; that’s worth celebrating. But it lives on into graceful old age in the dim twilight days of the Ontario barn. It is the cancer survivor whose friends have all succumbed. It is the old soldier the rest of whose regiment has long since departed. 
I don’t like it, this “death of the barn” thing that seems to be gaining momentum.
So I try not to look at the bigger picture, I reminisce, I retreat into the past.
            I had a toy farm when I was a child; a miniature homestead in enameled steel  -   barn, livestock  and little brick farmhouse. Emblazoned on the barn’s tiny gable was a title that for generations has evoked vivid recollections: “Grampa’s Farm.”
            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.
            When my father was a child, he would count 27 timber barns on the six mile drive to town. 27 barns meant 27 family farms. Today, not a single one stands along that old route and the pasture landscape of the 1940's has given way to a parade of big box stores, curb-appeal country homes and the steel insta-barns of weekend horse ranchers.
            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.


David Gillett

No comments:

Post a Comment