At the age of twenty-four, Barbara McLean and her husband, Thomas, decided to make their home in the country, near a village called Alderney in Grey County, Ontario. Together they became homeowners, farmers and, eventually, parents. They called their farm Lambsquarters, and they remain there today, twenty-six years later.
Life on a farm is a cycle of neverending work and discovery. Barbara and her family develop close relationships with every living thing: the hearty lambs and the fragile ones, the pumpkins and the potatoes and the hollyhocks in the barnyard, a family of bluebirds with problems of its own. What at first seems an intensely independent act having one’s own land and space becomes more meaningful once it becomes possible to connect with the larger community. Strong bonds are formed with neighbours who share both in grief and in celebration.
In striking portraits that are intensely intimate and yet reverberate with the universal hum of life, Barbara McLean describes the beauty, pain and wonder of the very essence of her surroundings and all who share them. We accompany her on a life’s journey, from a somewhat daunted dweller of a ramshackle farmhouse to a true inhabitant of a place.
Lambsquarters is for everyone who has dreamed of reconnecting with the land, as well as for those already well acquainted with rubber boots, chicken manure and the long trajectories of the rural school bus.
|Publisher:||Random House of Canada, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Barbara McLean holds a Ph.D. in English literature, which she acquired while she and her husband, a country doctor, were running Lambsquarters and raising their two children. She is currently at work on a novel.
Read an Excerpt
My farm is in Grey County. A hawk circling improbably high above southern Ontario sees a land mass bordered on the north by Georgian Bay, the west by Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair, the south by Lake Erie, and the east by Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe. Facing west, the hawk sees the shape of an animal in the land below, the tail heading up the Bruce Peninsula, the feet treading on Niagara Falls and Haliburton, the forehead etched by the St. Clair River, and the trunk, for this is clearly an elephant, nuzzling the cities of Windsor and Detroit.
As the hawk’s spirals tighten, his path circles south central Ontario, and he skirts the flank of the elephant. His elevation decreases, and he is visible overhead from my farm, first as a speck and then recognizable, his tail fanned out, his belly streaked and his wings tipped dark. He catches good thermals over the Dundalk Plain.
When he dives for a deer mouse in my hayfield, the hawk lands, briefly, over the womb of the elephant. It is a vast open space, isolated from other farms and cushioned by soft hills and gentle valleys. It is where we came to incubate as a couple and apprentice to be stewards of the land.
We arrived here in our early twenties by way of the city. Thomas was right out of medical school and keen to start a country practice in the nearby town of Murphy’s Mill. I would take on the house, the land, the creation of a life in the country. The area had been designated as medically under-serviced, and the province guaranteed an income if we stayed for four years. The land provided rich soil to extend roots, dig in and stay. Murphy’s Mill is treed and spired, a road winding in from the south like a Carrington painting or a Maud Lewis. A farming town with feed stores and equipment dealers, it is far enough from the city to have a life of its own.
It was autumn when we first saw it. The maples had sucked in their sap and turned. Fuchsia and gold, vermilion and amber against the deep greens of pines and cedars. We were shown property throughout the area surrounding Murphy’s Mill, toward Lewiston and Adieu, to Coppice and Nunn, Trustful and Beeton, but we settled on a farm near the village of Alderney.
At the time I didn’t know we would need it: community. My quest was for land, a house, a barn, hills and grass and rocks we could call our own, shape into something with our hands, our strong backs and our dreams. The rest seemed peripheral, irrelevant, separate. My focus was small, personal, tight.
I saw a picture first. In the realtor’s window. An old brick farmhouse set in a grove of thick lilac and maple. The photo was blurry but revealing, like a silhouette of grandeur superimposed on a double negative. Old Ontario cottage style, local brick, centre dormer with failing gingerbread trim, solid front door, stone steps askew, ancient gardens overgrown. Twenty-three acres ten workable house, barn and drive shed. Unimproved, affordable.
I crossed my fingers. Both hands. The middle digits stretching outward over the next two. My reflex for luck or for lying. I can tuck them up into fists so nobody sees, as I did at my wedding, fearful of pledging medieval and unkeepable vows.
By the time we got close to the house I was disoriented from a rabbit-chase ride through the country, viewing every farm-for-sale from the back seat of the car. But emerging from the canopied concession, over the dusty railway tracks marked with a white X and up the esker, I caught a glimpse of the nineteenth century on the far hill.
From the high land to the west was a clear view of the house, perched alone across the valley. The cedars were lower then, and the house profiled south, its top window peaked by dormer angles, its brick bleached austere against the rich colours of October maples front and back. I remember the barn, which was a step behind, bashful, of serviceable grey weathered board. Its roof fugued the perfect pitch of the house.
I locked my eyes on the farmstead until trees intervened. Roadside elm and aspen tangled with grapevine, elderberry and chokecherry, and the tamarack rose from the marsh. At the hill’s crest the house came into view again, solid now, straight-eyed to the road. Two first floor windows stared, equidistant from the central entrance beneath the dormer. A square-shouldered house, tattered, battered, in want of attention, poor but proud.
The autumn lilacs crowded around both sides of the house and tapered off down the fencerows. Fair trees of lilacs, almost as high as the house itself. And apple trees as old as the bricks of the house filled the front orchard, their meadow ploughed around them, brown earth after a harvest of mangels. The ploughshare had reprieved the perennials. They sprouted stubbornly from the grass and weeds. A wash of rosehips dripped off untrimmed bushes.
The house looked untouched. No aluminum doors, aerials, angel stone. No dog barking or sleeping. No swing. The side door, off its hinges, angled into a decrepit back kitchen. There were treacherous holes in the floor, and grey and maroon flowered linoleum covered the stronger boards. One wall was plastered and wainscotted in wide beaded pine remnants of former care in a space for warm-weather preserving, churning and feasting. The few windows were opaque with grime, cobwebs and fragments of curtain so worn they would tear if ten flies landed on them.
Inside the house proper, things improved and worsened. Intact floors, walls and ceilings flashed the paint and debris of the reclusive former tenant in a skirmish of odour and pattern, colour and dirt. His shelter? Two rooms: the kitchen, a complete winter bedsit with woodstove, and one tiny upper bedroom for summer sleeping.
A pantry offered a shallow enamel sink that had once been white, a cold water tap from the well, and a hand pump connected to the cellar cistern, which filled with rainwater through a downspout from the roof. That was the water supply in the house. Well, there was a toilet in the upstairs hall too. But no basin there, no hot water tank, no shower or bath. There was electricity. The house had been wired in the 1940s and had just enough power for the few light bulbs dangling bare from the ceilings. Forty amps for house and barn.
Treacherous oil-burning stoves were rusting away in the living room and back kitchen, but the only reliable heat radiated from the wood cookstove. White and black, with a reservoir, its pipes going straight through the ceiling to the occupied bedroom, and bending through the wall to finger heat into the next room, and out a buttressed chimney. Each downstairs ceiling had chimney and heat holes so that pipes could meander throughout the house, and heat could rise through intricate iron plates over what our then unborn children would come to call their holler holes.
The parlour was wedged shut. Disuse had warped the doors and roller-coastered the floor. The boards had heaved like rocks from frost, swelled from damp, buckled from humidity and were now resigned to abject neglect. Like the other unused rooms, the parlour was empty. No furniture to disimagine, no camouflage to interpret, no fancy dressing, just bare walls, floor, ceiling, and puttyless windows blotted out with homemade storms of plastic and wood, trapping millions of flies and years of dust. The place was almost derelict. A brick tent. With outbuildings.
At the barn, boards were loose, soffits missing and roof panels lifting, but the weather was still on the outside. Two lofts with ladders, ropes and pulleys for ancient hayloads, hinged doors toeing in, and a granary lined in tin. The stable was a warren of rabbit pens stacked on rugged cattle stanchions, and the chains of former Jerseys and Holsteins who once gave up their milk. Their spirits seemed to linger, lying heavy and still.
A privy, its trench filled in, its seat gone, hadn’t even a half-moon in its door. It leaned against the drive-shed, a long low building with iron bars hooking the front to the back, a pole frame and a dirt floor. It housed an implement I couldn’t name then, painted red, picked out in black and gold a seed drill, I know now as well as tanks and barrels, spiles and sap buckets that were battered and worn and mended with lead. Beyond the drive-shed, forming its end wall, was the pioneer shelter. A log house, rotting, its chinking shattering and shrinking, falling to the ground.
I saw no rot that day. I breathed in only the air of possibility, of recovery, of stability and future. The rusty roof, the missing glass, the tilts and angles of slipping foundations and ill-fitting hardware misted out of focus behind the vast sense of impending connection and claim from, and for, this place.
From the first moment it became clear. Together, Thomas and I would become stewards and careful guardians of a property that dreams are made on. Its history was a vast effort of human hope, labour, tenacity, frustration and love. Woods and fields, hills and valleys, swamp and dry land were to be protected and nurtured in our naive hands. It would be our first and only foreseeable home, where we would learn about each other, about farming, about everything that would make us who we are. We didn’t know then that we would conceive our children here and raise them with lambs and chicks and flowers, and fruit from trees that were planted before any of us drew breath. We only knew we wanted to turn this shell into a home and make it ours.
Table of ContentsLanding
Hen and Egg
Plough and Harvest