There’s a lot to read in a weekly newspaper. At first bounce, you wouldn’t think there was anything much to say about a town like Larkspur. And yet my staff and I manage to squeeze ten thousand words a week into every issue of the Free Press and Economist
. Forty thousand words a month. About eight fair-sized novels every year, I guess.
Of course, you couldn’t find anyone to publish novels like this. That’s because we’re dealing with the public side of life in the community; only those sanded and polished and varnished facts that can be printed safely without leading to anything more controversial than a brick through the front office window. Nothing is said about the darker side of Larkspur life . . . although we look hopefully every week in the police report. No. You have to go to the city papers for the juicy stuff. Nowhere in this slag-heap of words will you find the Larkspur resident unclothed, so to speak . . . although I see the Turnip Festival Queen sure made a stab at it this week.
The closest we come, I suppose, would be Walt Wingfield and his Letters from Wingfield Farm. Generally speaking, if you asked my advice on how to run a weekly newspaper I’d say avoid unsolicited contributions. Every crackpot within fifteen miles wants to get something in the paper. But in my case, some of my best material came to me just that way. Walt Wingfield is an ex–chairman-of-the-board–turned– farmer. He used to be chairman and chief executive officer of MacFeeters, Bartlett and Hendrie . . . the big brokerage house down on Bay Street. Well, one day about a year ago, he gave up his six-figure income and bought a hundred acre farm out on the Seventh Concession of Persephone Township. He said he wanted to make a stand, to simplify his life.
He’d taken on a tough job. If you look at a climate-and soil map for this part of Southern Ontario you’ll see a small circular zone marked “4a.” That is Persephone Township. “Pursefoan” in the native dialect. It enjoys the same climate and growing conditions as Churchill, Manitoba. It is a land of sand hills, cedar swamp, feldspar outcroppings and about half an inch of topsoil.
The day he arrived in town, Walt stopped by the office to buy a subscription and we had a chat. I could see what he was doing was very important to him. He wanted more of an audience than just his ducks and chickens. He suggested my readers might be interested in a weekly progress report. I listened to him, without telling him yes or no, because I wanted to think about it. He didn’t press me for an answer, which surprised me because you know how city people always want to know everything right now.
Then, one day about a week later, I was clearing up at the back after we’d closed and I looked up to see Walt pushing an envelope through the mail-slot. The transformation was remarkable. Gone was the three-piece pin-striped suit and in its place was the “After Dawn” look by Co-op: blue denim bib overalls, a Korean tartan flannelette shirt, brand-new work boots and a green forage hat.
I opened the envelope and found a letter that turned out to be the first in a series of missives that now form a kind of farm diary for Walt’s first year out on the Seventh Concession.
I was delighted to meet you on my first day in Larkspur last week and I enjoyed our chat thoroughly. You may remember my telling you I’ve taken over the old Fisher place at R.R. #1, Larkspur, on the Seventh Concession. I’ve taken a leave of absence from my firm in Toronto in order to try this experiment in farming, which has long been on my mind.
At my age there isn’t really much time left for a man to explore some of the things he might have done or been. I’ve enjoyed some success in the world of finance, for which I’m grateful, but, still, I have a deep and unswerving conviction that a man may pursue his life and satisfy his wants with far less brouhaha than I have experienced so far. Persephone Township is the place to prove it.
The Fishers had their auction last Saturday. I watched as the neighbourhood descended on the place and picked it clean. After it was over, and the Fishers had driven off to their new place in town, the auctioneer walked over the property with me. His name is Freddy. He’s an interesting chap, friendly and outgoing, and seems to be well-regarded as an auctioneer despite a very noticeable stammer, which brings his sales to a complete halt from time to time. He runs a beef and dairy operation on the farm next door; plants corn, grain, potatoes, turnips; does auction sales, some blacksmithing, small auto repairs and real estate. It’s what I believe is called mixed farming. As we walked, Freddy and I talked about the farm and my plans for the summer. Although the sun is warm and some green is starting to show through the dead grass, the ground is still spongy, muddy and wet. We stopped beside an old haywagon parked out behind the barn.
“That’ll come in handy,” I said.
Freddy pushed his eyebrows up and stared at the sky.
“Well, now, Walt, maybe I should have mentioned this before, b-b-but I lent that wagon to old Fisher last summer. You’re welcome to the loan of it, if you like.”
We walked on.
“What’s this? A perfectly serviceable old hay-rake. I’m glad that wasn’t sold at the auction.”
“Well, now, there again, Walt, that belongs to The Squire across the road. I asked him to take it away before the auction b-b-but. . . .”
I explained that the first thing I was going to need was some cedar posts for a fence.
“By golly, Walt, old Fisher bought some cedar posts off me last fall and n-n-never picked them up. I guess they belong to you now.”
“Is there anything else of mine in the neighbourhood?” I asked.
Over the next couple of days I lost the hay-wagon and the rake but I had returned to me: fifty cedar posts, a cream separator, a cultivator, a set of harrows, five bags of cement, a load of corn and a horse. The horse is a mare named Dolly or something, but I have named her Feedbin since that is where she can most often be found. She’s a spirited creature and seems to have been a racehorse at some time or other, because she can turn only to the left. Consequently, I make a perfect spectacle of myself, riding into Larkspur. Freddy has been no help at all about this.
“You’ll get used to her,” was all he could offer. “Besides, you’re not going to be using her much!”
That is where he is wrong, for I propose to teach this horse to pull a plough. As I explained to Freddy, when you drive loud machinery, you miss a great deal of what nature has to offer. You can’t hear the rich pageantry of life in the hedgerows if you insist on riding around the fields on a noisy tractor. Of course, Freddy couldn’t understand this. But he has been extremely helpful none the less. He put out the word and now all the old horse-drawn implements on the Seventh Concession have been pulled out of driving sheds and left in a pile at my gate. With a few small repairs they’ll be as good as new.
I’m not fooling around here. I’ve never been more serious in my life. I propose to be as good at this farming game as my neighbours, but, at the same time, I plan to preserve some of the old ways. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually, the neighbourhood will come to think of me in much the same light as Montaigne and Thoreau were thought of in their communities—gentlemen farmers, rich in barnyard philosophy.
I see myself driving into town in the carriage often enough that they’ll feel obliged to put up a hitching post in front of the General Store. Won’t that be something?
Walt May 2
I struck the first snag in the livestock department while doing chores this morning. One of my new ducks stood apart from the rest of the flock, rocking uneasily back and forth on his heels, as if someone were trying to push him off balance. When I approached he quacked and fell over, struggled to his feet and went back to wobbling precariously back and forth. All was clearly not well. After chores, I picked him up and started down the lane for the farm across the road. It seemed an excellent opportunity to meet the neighbours for the first time. By giving them an opportunity to show their expertise and offer advice, I hoped to win new friends . . . and cure the duck.
As it turned out I met my neighbour in the road, a man known in the community as The Squire. He is an elderly man, round-shouldered and bent over from many years of hard work. He was wearing a shabby pair of patched hound’s-tooth trousers, which might have been fashionable for a few weeks in the 1960s, and a long-sleeved shirt with pink flamingos on it. He was busy snatching handfuls of bird’s nest out of the mailbox and arguing with a squadron of blackbirds hovering a few feet above his head.
“Good morning. I’m Walt Wingfield.”
He looked up sharply and peered at me as if the morning sun hurt his eyes.
His attention returned to the mailbox. I made another attempt to start conversation.
“I’ve taken over the old Fisher place. Lovely morning. Have you lived in the area all your life?”
He thought about this for a moment, peered at me again and said, “Not yet.”
I laughed politely and carried on. “I seem to be having a problem with this duck. It doesn’t seem to be able to keep its balance. A very bad case of the wobbles, you might say.”
That got his attention. The Squire straightened up and examined the duck more closely.
“Wobbles?” he said. “You’ve kept ducks before, have you?”
I hadn’t, but as long as he thought so I wasn’t going to persuade him otherwise. “So you think it’s the wobbles too, do you?” I asked.
“Well, now that we know it’s the wobbles, what happens next?”
“They generally die.”
“Yes, but isn’t there something we could do before it dies?”
“You could hit it over the head and throw it in the ditch. That’d save you carryin’ it back to the barn.”
“I mean, couldn’t we call the vet?”
“You could do that.”
“What’s the matter? Is that terribly expensive?”
“No, no. If you got time to carry a duck around I reckon you can afford a vet for him.”
The Squire turned and shuffled his way back up his lane. Our conversation was apparently over.
“Appreciate the advice, thanks,” I called after him.
I picked the duck up and took him back to the house, set him on the verandah and went inside to phone the vet in Larkspur. The vet dismissed our diagnosis about the wobbles and said that it sounded more like coccidiosis. He told me to separate the sick ones from the rest of the flock and then add four milligrams of sulphur dioxisol to a litre of drinking-water. I wrote all this down and then asked him what to do with the sick one. His manner changed abruptly and became quite patronizing.
“Oh, is this a small child’s pet?” he asked.
“No,” I said warmly. “I’m trying to raise ducks for a living.”
“I see. Well, give it plenty of water, keep it warm and call me tomorrow if there’s any change.” He rang off before I could question him further.
I went back out to the verandah to my patient. He was lying on his side now, describing wide arcs across the cement with his foot. I ran back inside and phoned Freddy. You have to hold the receiver down when you dial Freddy’s number because we’re on the same party line. The phone rang and rang and finally stopped after the tenth ring. I lifted the receiver and heard Freddy’s bright “Hyello.”
“Freddy, do you know anything about ducks? I have a very sick duck here.”
“Now, Walt,” he said soothingly, “don’t you worry about your poultry. Leastways, not until it’s lyin' on its side and kickin’ at the air like.”
“But Freddy, that’s exactly what he was doing just a minute ago.”
“Is that right? Well, you run back down there and I’ll bet you he’s quit that by now. They generally give that up after a bit . . .”
“But Freddy. Something’s got to be done. I’m really worried.”
“Walter!” he said sternly. “Throw that duck out and get some work done. The forenoon’s half gone and you should be ploughin’.”
I heard a click and realized Freddy had hung up. I went back out to the verandah and found the duck, stretched out and very still. He was dead. I lifted him up gently, took him down to the apple tree beside the barn and buried him there in a short service attended by a few of his friends, the farm’s first casualty.
Excerpted from Wingfield's World by Dan Needles. Copyright © 2011 by Dan Needles. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.