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Why the chicken crossed the street, and which came first, the chicken or the egg (to get away from the farmer and, no, the farmer, respectively) find their poignant answers here in the mists of half-magic Grey County, the headwaters of the Saugeen, Mud, and Grand, equidistant from the big spans of Erie, Huron, and Ontario.
The rivers here are small because the lakes are big. The Greats are like heavy planets that suck the creeks into their gravity wells before they can become proper rivers. Only the mid-sized Grand, suspended uniformly between the three big lakes, manages to elude each for long enough to become a real river before Erie claims it.
Along the American side of the watershed, if you travel the thirteen hundred miles from the Atlantic to the mid-west staying true to the line of stone erratics suggesting the farthest southern reach of the old glaciers, the rivers with hefty hydraulics diminish as you wester. Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna—big rivers. Even the Allegheny and the Monongahela. But past the Ohio the river names are hard to remember. The river courses are drier through Indiana, drier still in Illinois. By western Illinois, there is nothing but dry country. Head just a little farther west, though, and you suddenly come to the biggest river in the whole continent, so big any schoolchild can spell it. What continental drifter has not had his hard gladdened by this strange turn of water events?
This sense that things get worse for water before they get better gives me hope as I drift through remnants of cedar forest along the roof, or perhaps the dropped ceiling, of southern Ontario. The headwaters. Such as they are, such as they will become.
Windy here. The area is not quite as windswept as the three ivory towers across from our house in the big city, apartment buildings known locally as the wind tunnel. That urban configuration would be my choice for placing giant windmills at which I could tilt mentally as I cycled in the neighborhood, but the powers that be have put their erections here on the altiplano back from the lip of the Caledon escarpment. Our society has been pushing for windpower for decades to replace fuel made from compacted dinosaurs and their food, but now that it’s here I doubt that windpower in this form will be replacing anything. The vast whirly peace symbols quietly, and rather elegantly, surrender their portion into a grid unlikely to relinquish anything at all.
Windpower adds another revenue stream to the traditional power companies. That it probably isn’t replacing anything can be seen right here on our host’s farm, where yet another set of hydro towers for passing electricity to the city will be smashing its way through the midsection of this hundred-acre holding. The power company doesn’t ask politely—doesn’t ask at all. But it throws enough cash along the line to mute criticism.
Thus another five-acre parallelogram of evergreens in farm/headwaters territory isn’t going to make it. Losing its ever, and its green, altogether.
The boys and I crawl on hands and knees through the unredeemed copse. The doomed vestigial forest is a thick weave of cedar red-rooted to earth so black my home compost heaps are mentally diminished in comparison. There must be fifty moderately varied microclimates in this little patch near where the first set of H.G. Wells-style towers stands humpshouldered clutching its zinging and crackling wires in monster hands.
Mental note filed under ‘activities for old age’ or ‘periods of diminished strength’: crawl slowly through cedar bogs.
In the hush of the forest, effulgent spotlights of sun illuminate dioramas of lush mosses and ferns, this latter mudrooted here and wordrooted abroad in Latin’s felix: happy. Ants with which and whom I’m unfamiliar build big grassy barrows to stay above the wet earth, and maintain each grave-sized mound free of trees. Circling each mound at the base is a moat, and the mound is like the bailey castles of the ancient motte-and-bailey days before stone.
A porcupine in the branch of a sapling remains so still as I circle him I think he must be dead, till I see his dark gloved hand tighten on a branch. There are no deer ticks in these parts, as there would be in New York, and few mosquitoes. For the pilgrim on his knees creeping through the tiny apertures from diorama to diorama, it is a place of boggy gladness. Are ours the last human eyes to see all this beauty before the woodcutters come to slay it? I hum banjo postludes from Deliverance.
In the Saugeen at the back of the property, the boys and the dogs frolic, catch crayfish. This bend in the river is the very picture of paradise, but only that, since the farmers have been systematically poisoning the water, as if answering the question, “where do farm subsidies go?”
The fish have all kinds of cancers, says my host. You wouldn’t want to eat them.
Underscoring the folly, a new farmer has just bought the place across the road, and has immediately set to work obliterating anything of beauty or worth on the property. The complex lifeways of the hedgerows have been wrenched aside to spare the farmer the bother of turning his steering wheel while dumping caustic chemicals on the mudscape he has just created. In the first rain the topsoil will ooze down into the river. Pickup trucks play roadrunner on dustways leaving three-story-high rooster tails, and the farmer worries the dirt in the fields so that still more dust lofts, though it rained only yesterday. The man and his scurrying tribe could not, unfortunately, be accused of laziness.
The good, solid, hard-working habits of farmers are their worst trait, since every hour of such work is in the service of casual cruelty. Woodcutters savage the forest once every other generation, but a farmer keeps his clearcut so beleaguered it has no time to scab, let alone heal.
This is chicken battery country, or Auschwitz, which is the closest translation of the chicken word for ‘land of incarceration and torture’. The farmer is so accustomed to driving his tractor and cutting machines over animals who have the temerity to attempt to remain in their own habitats that he mistakes the natural horror of the non-farmer at his brutality—mine, say—for sentimentality. Is such a man rustic? I assure you there is nothing rustic or picturesque about the prefab deathcamps he sets up for tens of thousands of creatures at a whack who cannot escape his contempt for life. Perhaps the inmates of these prison complexes are effigies of the apartment dwellers in cities taxed to pay for his cruelty.
No one really loves charity. Certainly not the recipient. Charity robs a man of his autonomy. No wonder the farmer, the bulk of whose operation runs on subsidy, despises the city dweller who keeps him in nitrogen and malathion or whatever the latest pesticide is.
Have you ever noticed how little to eat there is on a farm? If it’s a variety of succulent vegetables you want, look elsewhere.
Readers might object that organic farmers on small farms cannot be held to the criticisms presented here. Very true. Yet in most places we do not use the simple word “farmer” for such folks, but must add adjectives to indicate that the person does not do what most farmers do—poison, and poison on a large scale. Small, organic farmer. Let this article apply, then, wherever we must append adjectives to save the farmer from himself, and society from farmers. The rivers must fend for themselves, and the lowest of the low, drifters and river-runners and children and below them, mere animals, must find what pleasures they can amidst the dreck.
Agriculture is a six-billion-dollar industry in Ontario, according to Tom Sawyer, “institute manager for the fertilizer institute,” whatever that is—my faithful readers will know that I include the statistic mostly as an excuse to invoke the poetry of the man’s name. Poetry, did I say? Even the Ministry of the Environment doesn’t bother to romanticize the ag business on its website, where farming is called “Agriculture Industry” and is right up there, under the general rubric “Land,” with my old vocational stomping grounds as a grave digger—cemeteries. I’ve dropped many a preservative-filled corpse beneath the sod of New England, so I have my own ghosts to attend to, I assure you.
The new 2010 Pesticide Act is nicely and exhaustively/ingly worded to obfuscate, as any good government document is required to do, though here at seewalk-the-ungooglable it is our considered opinion that the strictures could be summarized succinctly—stay awake for long sentence, please—could be summarized succinctly with the sort of economy of word usage for which we are not otherwise known by deploying a statement of the order, “stop putting your fucking poisons in the river and groundwater and air you stupid selfish fucking dickheads,” and still have space on the website for pictures of porcupines and such. As my contacts in Grey County tell me, it doesn’t really matter what the government says anyway. The farmers are just going to go on doing what they’ve always done.
The obfuscation in the new Pesticide Act—let’s not dignify it with caps, hmm?—in the new pesticide act, does just what it needs to do, which is to give farmers all the moral license they need to score their bug juice elsewhere. AGCare president and “cash cropper” Bill Allison has certainly caught the spirit of the thing in advocating (as far as I can tell) the practice of smuggling, out of the U.S., poisons banned in Ontario. Let’s not call it smuggling, he says, “we should call them pre-registered pesticides.” Pre-registered. Heh heh. You could almost like the guy.
Remember my article on how to kick the shit out of a writer if you’re a Homeland Secor dude a couple of months back, featuring writer Peter Watts in the fetal position? Remember what I said about that dark bridge about which many a Sarnian tale could be leaked? That’s the same bridge upon which so many of these poisons are born or, from a nation-state point of view, through which so many poisons are ingested. Check out Farm and Country News for all the gripes. Speaking of corps (no retired grave digger is ever far from his memories), CounterPunch names the names: get a nice peek at Bill Allison by scrolling just once here at Agricorp. Pre-registered. Heh heh. Liam, ten now if he’s a day, comes in as I write that sentence three days after he’s romped in the Saugeen, and says he feels like throwing up. Probably a coincidence, but who needs it? Hasten, Jason, get the basin, my dad used to say. Oops, slop, get the mop.
Not that we need any more evidence that government and big corps are indistinguishable, but check out the first line in Agricorp’s “About Us” section: “As an agency of the Ontario government, Agricorp…” Apparently we all just need to learn how to corporate with each other.
Trusting governments to do anything but lie and cheat brought us to Walkerton, the farm community near my host’s farm that is famous for killing off at least seven people from dumping human slurry on farm fields rather than putting it, as any sane person would, deep in our humanure piles. People in Toronto who’ve forgotten how to dig a hole, please flush moderately hard, it’s a moderate distance to Walkerton. Hmm, it’s 2010, where does all that Toronto shit go?
Governments exact enough tribute—steal, is the word we’d use for anyone else—in the form of taxes that they can then get scientists to run dumbass studies about anything. Compare this 1989 study claiming that scientists couldn’t finds malathion in 445 samples from three Ontario river basins. Did we believe them at the time? Turns out the malathion showed up here, in a land far, far away, where the funding scheme was different. A sort of mental migration. Dump a bunch of poison in a river, and it doesn’t and does “show up,” depending, or perhaps it sort of magically drifts, with something akin to poetic license, without the poetry.
Do we need any more studies to prove that stuff designed to kill, kills?
The headwaters don’t have to be cancerland (look here for Nick Mole’s info—that’s right, Mole—on skin cancer and farm pesticides). If we’re so eager to destroy rivers—and Canada as a nation-state is marked by nothing so much as this eagerness—why not divide each river into a half for polluting and enjoying that and a half for not polluting and for enjoying that? I speak here in the spirit of compromise.
The farmers can all go live on the downstream half and indulge themselves in the fruits of their labors. Just as youth is so often wasted on the young, farmland is wasted on farmers. The visual harmonies of Grey County are intact enough that a memory of beauty hovers over the blight. Everywhere you look, the land is making a desperate attempt to live, to come back, to flourish, and to increase biological complexity, and everywhere the farmers with their expensive-looking machines are smashing, suppressing, poisoning and—perhaps worst of all—diminishing biological complexity. The loss to the semiosphere, to the motherdome of clusters of biological information, is incalculable. Infinite variety is greying, as the British and Canadians spell it, greying down, greying out. We have made a Grey County of all the world.
The solutions are simple and obvious, and have nothing to do with “searching for new solutions in a complex world” and all that governmental corporate faux-complexity nonsense. Nothing much needs to be done, at first. Just stop doing. Turn off the spigot. Stop smashing the earth. Stop cutting so many trees. When you get hungry, then do. Plant vegetables. Eat a rabbit that’s had a happy life. If the taxman comes, get together with other farmers who are doing the right thing and discourage him. Stop taking his money and he’ll have less lust for yours.
Let the roads go. The last thing any of us need is a transportation infrastructure. That naïve nonsense is why you can look out over Toronto and see, not a garden city with garden rooftops, but endless miles of tar roofs from oil wells. Rooftops, inspired by an idea from driving! If we stop patching potholes today, we’ll have exactly the transition period we need —a couple of years—before the roads return nicely to nature, or to the paths of wandering pilgrims. And does anyone really need any advice from an outsider about what to do with those appalling chicken gulags?
The farmers who are land-rich can take in people who need to grow vegetables. The ones who aren’t can grow them. Always, of course, we need to cut our addiction to “leaders,” as if there were someone in the Chesapeake or Ottawa River watersheds who could tell us how to grow better vegetables or to overwinter during the first hard frosties that will be out there before we get our passive solar up and running.
We all know what needs to be done. Every time we shit in the porcelain bowls of drinking water in our bathrooms and half-pretend that we don’t know it ends up eventually on farm fields and then, by the logic of a retribution of which the predestinarian Puritans would have been proud, back in our drinking water, we know. Utopia is already inside us. We can relax and let it out.
DAVID Ker THOMSON served honorably in uniform in the years following Vietnam at a Papa Gino’s in Billerica, Massachusetts. He later served honorably in uniform at a McDonald’s in Bedford, Massachusetts, a tour of duty that ended in the consumption of a tainted Egg McMuffin. He became sick and had several honorable discharges on the day he left fast food forever. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org