A Death in the Country

Rural Ontario, 2013/14. I witnessed the slow death of a beautiful piece of rural history. As an historian and adoptee, I loath the destruction of old things, the loss of the past. That’s why I was there … to document its last days.

It was erected around 1860 as the voices of secession and abolition were reaching a fevered pitch south of the border. Those who could escape, fled in fear underground to places just like this in hopes of building a safer future.

Those who settled this area some 20 years prior to that had been escaping something quite different, but with the same results as the American Civil War — death. These immigrants came from Ireland in the initial waves of the Great Famine. There was death and starvation all around them. Those that could escape, boarded ships and risked the trans-Atlantic journey to the unknown. Like most immigrants, they had some tenuous links to the new land, and gathered in the same vicinity – strength in numbers. They cleared the land of bush and rocks, built there houses and barns, fought wild animals and Indians, who were slowly being pushed further northwest against Lake Huron and up into the Bruce Peninsula.

This is southern Ontario farm country. This particular lot is blessed with hundreds of acres of forest. Even today, deer, coyotes and wolves routinely traipse through. The Scottish family who originally bought the lot in the 1850s, had handed it down to each successive generation until finally, in the early 1990s, the owner sold it to the current family. Like so many rural stories, this is one of painful decisions and stark realities. From Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to today, it has been a story of a low slow erosion of the agricultural world.

I grew up in this area, but closer to the city. I spent my childhood working and playing on my neighbour’s farm – doing my chores, harvesting the wheat and corn, milking the cows, shovelling the pig’s manure, feeding those scary chickens. It was an idyllic childhood experience — I was so lucky. Looking back after so many years and so many jobs and experiences in my life, it formed my work ethic and love of food and nature. It is also — gone. No longer able to make a living from the few livestock he actually owned and was not just tending for the food corporations, his sons and daughter not interested in carrying on the hardscrabble life of a farmer, he sold to the corporation or to developers, and quietly moved into the city to live out his days. Recalling those carefree days brings a tear to my eye, but at least I was lucky enough to know that world. My sons will not.

About halfway between where I spent my days on the farm and where the rural death took place stands the village of Lucan. It was in this ‘Irish’ village 20 years after the house and the barn were built, that the town gathered to murder and burn the ‘Black’ Donnellys out of existence.

As an adoptee whose birth name was Donnelly, this event has special significance. It is the stuff of local legend. Every Hallow’een night, teens from London and area would creep into the graveyard where they were supposedly buried to spend the night — a rite of passage in an age when boys were left to their own devices to become men.

Just as all evidence of that murderous night have been physically erased, so too will this structure be demolished and razed to the ground … not to bury a village’s guilt from sight … but simply because it is no longer an economically viable structure.

Rural life is a world bound by practicality, not nostalgia. Cash crops and massive feedlots that poison the rivers and streams, and pollute the air for miles and miles around rule the day, and with multinational corporations willing to make these guys millionaires after decades of back-breaking labour, a structure not making any money is just in the way.

For those of us who drive by and swoon at the purity of idyllic rural settings as we live our urban lives faster and faster and faster, this is a tragedy, a sign of a world gone awry. These settings destined for the mists of nostalgia.

But, as the demolition crew rips away one nostalgic barn board at a time, what is slowly revealed is that this is nothing more than a structure. A structure built by human hands with a practical purpose — to produce a useful commodity.

As an artist, I  see that with its beautiful skin ripped off, this is a skeleton – just lumber and concrete.

What couldn’t be repurposed was bulldozed into a neatish pile and set ablaze. Fire is a barn’s most feared enemy. It fought angrily for two days, but the fire tirelessly attacked its muscles, its sturdy legs, until it was no longer able to fight back. With its enemy weakened, the flames licked and spat at every part of its body. Finally, the flames turned to embers, and then to ash. Now only the concrete foundations were left, a ruin that outlined where the original family had first started constructing it over 150 years ago. Then, within day of being razed to the ground, the bulldozer demolished even that visible reminder … its existence erased forever.


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