By Greg Clark, January 19, 1946
“We never should have come,” declared Jimmie Frise, surveying the bleak January fields.
“Mid-January,” I asserted, “is the best jack rabbit month of all. The snow forces them down into the creek bottoms. You can jump them more easily, and see them better.”
“But where are they?” protested Jim. “We’ve walked three creek beds; I bet 10 miles! And never seen a jack.”
“This neighborhood has probably been shot over,” I suggested.
“Shot out,” corrected Jim. “As a matter of fact, I don’t recollect having seen a living thing in the past four hours. Not a chickadee, even.”
“Around all big cities,” I submitted, as we walked down the slushy country sideroad towards our car, “there is a sort of belt of desolation. It is neither rural nor suburban. It is too far out from the city to be developed as a suburb. But too expensive, because of real estate speculators, to be farmed as an ordinary farm. We’re probably in the middle of this belt of desolation right now.”
“Market gardeners,” said Jim, “could reap a fortune, this close to a city.”
“The soil out here.” I pointed out, “isn’t market garden soil. These used to be good general purpose farms. But as the city drew nearer, year by year, the owners of the farms began to get itchy. Instead of thinking about farming. they began thinking about how much their farm was worth. A farmer should never waste time speculating over such things. He should devote himself to proving how much his farm is worth by how much it produces.”
“You’re quite an economist,” admired Jimmie. “Did you ever live on a farm?”
“All my ancestors did,” I explained. “Nobody knows more about farming than those who quit it.”
“Those who are still farming.” inquired Jim, “haven’t yet found out about it, or they wouldn’t be doing it, eh?”
“Precisely.” I agreed. “If farming was any good, how would we ever populate cities with hundreds of thousands of dopes working like fools for a risky wage and in eternal anxiety of losing their jobs?”
“That’s hardly a fair description of city people,” protested Jim.
“Oh, some city people are prosperous,” I admitted. “But their prosperity comes from living off all the dopes in cities, the ones who shouldn’t be in cities at all.”
“Why shouldn’t they be?” demanded Jim.
“Because they aren’t making the grade,” I explained. “Because they are living from hand to mouth. Because they are living in perpetual anxiety and frequent distress.”
“Where should they be?” inquired Jim.
“In towns, or better, in villages. I asserted. “Where living is cheaper, in all things; where people without much competition in their make-up can get along very happily on very small incomes.”
“You make me laugh,” declared Jim bitterly. “It’s the people without much competition in their make-up who can’t make the grade on farms and in villages, who come to the city in order to survive. In big cities, there are thousands of jobs. A man who is no good can take a job and lose it; take another job and lose it, and so on, year after year; always in and out of jobs. But the times he is in, he can make enough to just get by. Whereas, a guy that is no good, in a village would starve to death.”
“That’s an interesting angle on cities,” I confessed.
“Sure,” cried Jim. “Cities are the great gathering places of the cast-offs of the farms and villages. But, as you find gulls flying over schools of herring, so you find large numbers of smart people also in cities-smart people who live off the multitude, just the way gulls live off the herring schools.”
“A smart fellow,” I suggested, “isn’t smart enough to live off farmers and villagers?”
“Certainly not,” said Jim. “To get rich, you’ve got to go where large numbers of people are gathered. It is their money you get rich on. Money isn’t something you dig out of the ground. Money is something that changes hands. A rich man rarely gets rich by taking the riches off another rich man. He gets rich by taking the dimes, quarters, hall-dollars and dollars off very large numbers of very small people.”
“Foolish small people?” I inquired.
“Well, foolish enough to have left the farm and the village,” explained Jim.
We had parked our car in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse just off the country sideroad. As we walked up the farm lane in the slushy, bleak afternoon, we were both impressed by the forbidding aspect of the broken and desolate farm house. Its windows were all gaping, its doors gone. Broken rain barrels, relics of old and decrepit farm implements, lay about in the snow. Already, the ever-invading shrubbery, the advance guard of the bush, had taken root in the very dooryard of the farmhouse. In another 10 years, the bush would have reconquered this farm.
“It’s a melancholy spectacle,” I sighed.
“Probably four generations lived in that house,” surmised Jim, pausing. “This close to the city, I bet three of those generations really flourished. Probably the first generation used to cart their produce down to the village of York before it was Toronto. The next two generations no doubt were rich farmers, of the Victorian age, when all our farmer relations were our rich relations. Remember?”
“When I was a small kid,” I agreed, “the big excitement was to be invited out to visit our rich relatives on the farms. We had to put on our best face whenever our rich country relations honored us with a visit in the city.”
“That was the golden age of farming,” said Jim. “Then, about 1890 something silly happened. Maybe it was indoor plumbing. Maybe it was the invention of electricity. Maybe it was merely paved streets. But suddenly, something happened that made cities so fundamentally different from the country, that the inhabitants of the two spheres — the farm and the city — drew miles apart. Then cities began to double and treble and quadruple in size. All you have to do is drive through the country and look at the big farm houses. There isn’t a big NEW farmhouse in the whole country. All the big ones, the big red brick farmhouses with curly-cue wood work on the gables, were built before 1890. Our rich country relatives began to dwindle. …”
“I bet the last occupant of this house here,” I stated, “sold it out, not as a farm, but as potential city land. The city had come close enough that on winter nights you could see its dull glare in the sky. When that happened, the farmer could no longer keep his mind on cattle and barns, plowing and seeding. That glare in the sky troubled his sleep every night. He imagined he could hear the tramp of the million feet of cities. So instead of $4,000, some speculator offered him $6,000. And that was the end of another farm.”
Surrender to the City
“I think the glare of the city lights at night,” put in Jim, as we walked slowly towards the house, “upset more than the farmer. How about his kids? How can you keep young people happy on a farm with those lights illumining the sky almost overhead?”
“Look, Jim!” I exclaimed. “Birds!”
Several small birds flew from around the dilapidated barn to greet us.
“Pawff,” scoffed Jim. “They’re just house sparrows; squidgers.”
“The first city slickers to move in,” I remarked.
“They seem glad to see us,” mused Jim.
We walked around the house, looking in the broken windows, the gaping doorways.
“Jim,” I cried. “Those sparrows have given me an idea. They’ve got the right answer. As the farmers give up their farms, surrendering to the city, why shouldn’t city people, weary of the city, move into the abandoned farm?”
“Only rich city guys can afford suburban farms,” said Jim.
“I don’t mean showplaces,” I pursued. “I mean just plain farms. A farm the size of this one could be cut up into maybe 10 small 10 acre lots. It would be no trick to interest 10 city people, fed up with the eternal and unprofitable grind, to invest their small capital in buying this farm for $6,000, divided among them; and then each family a little bungalow, like these national housing bungalows…”
“This would be just a suburb?” said Jim.
“No, they could raise chickens,” I explained, “vegetables, market garden crops, berry crops, little specialized orchards. The Veterans Land Act is organizing things like this for ex-servicemen and women. Small holdings, they call them.”
“But the men would work in the city?” demanded Jim.
“It’s only an hour’s drive from the city.” I insisted. “Out of the 10 neighbors, two or three would own motor cars, for commuting. What’s the difference between riding three-quarters of an hour every night and morning in a stuffy street car between a suburb and your job, and riding one hour, most of it on country highways…?”
“Small holdings!” muttered Jim. “Say!”
“What the cities did to the country. 50 years ago,” I exulted, “employing indoor toilets, hot and cold running water, electricity, theatres and paved streets, the country can now do to the cities, using motor cars, highways, radio, and modern specialized production of garden crops.”
“A guy,” meditated Jimmie, “could make money, buying up abandoned farms in these desolation belts, dividing them into small holdings and building little bungalows…”
“Once the veterans show it can be done.” I answered, “some trust company will grab on to the idea.”
Jimmie walked around the wrecked house, and gazed craftily over the bleak fields, already high with the invading brush wood.
“In our gang,” he supposed, “who have we got that we could form a little community of ten? Skipper? He’d make a wonderful general factotum. He can repair anything. He can make harness, he’s an expert carpenter. Then there’s Bumpy. I bet he could run a greenhouse, for flowers. And Art: he could have vines. And Bill-goats. What would you specialize in?”
“I’d keep prize chickens,” I decided. “Game chickens. I’ve always wanted to keep game roosters, for the hackles, for tying my own trout flies…”
“There’s no profit,” cut in Jim coldly, “in game chickens.”
“What would you do with a small holding?” I asked.
“I’d have the back of the 10 acres all berry bushes.” declared Jim. “raspberry canes, red and black currants. Then, next towards the front of the lot, tomatoes, cabbages. celery beds. Next, some hen houses, enough for about 100 White Leghorns. And in a small, tidy stable, three Jerseys, that I could let out to pasture nearby…”
“A miniature mixed farm,” I applauded.
“I’d have my job in town,” announced Jim warmly, “my hours 10 to 4. I’d drive in and out with you or some other member of the small holding community. I’d have the pleasant evenings and early mornings tending my hens, my vegetables and berry bushes in season. I’d have my cows to milk. From them, I would have much of the fresh food we’d need, and a profit over the year, from milk, eggs and surplus crops, of a few hundred dollars…”
I listened to Jim’s rhapsody and gazed with him over the horrible spectacle of this desolate and ruined farm. It was one of those sloppy thawing days of January, slush, dribble and mud. I shivered.
“Cities,” boomed Jim, as though he were preaching a sermon, “have come to the end of their tether. The first thing the atomic age ushers in is the end of cities. No one is going to waste an atomic bomb on a small holding. It won’t be the suburbs of the world the atom busters of next year will aim at.”
The Atomic Bomb Says So
“A hundred things, in the past 50 years,” I admitted, “are in league to destroy cities. The motor car, the telephone, the highway, radio, all have combined to steal away some advantage of the city. Now comes the atomic bomb to make it foolish to live in cities.”
“The most powerful nation in the world today,” asserted Jim, “is the country with the most villages and the fewest cities. The atomic bomb says so.”
“Jim,” I asked, “as a farmer born, what do you think this old farm is worth?”
“Well, let’s see,” figured Jim. “The buildings aren’t worth anything. In fact, they’re a debit. They detract from the value of the land. If it’s 100 acres, I should think we could get it for about $3,000.”
Jim walked around the back, inspecting.
“There’s a lot of good stone,” he said. “She’s nice and rolling. There’s a good woodlot, fair in the middle. And here’s a well…”
We walked over and examined the well. The ancient pump had fallen askew and there were only a few old planks laid over the head of the well. Jim stepped up cautiously and looked into it.
“A dandy,” he cried. “Full up. That means there is a fine water level under the farm, plenty of irrigation where it is most needed — in the ground.”
I stopped closer and peeped down, too. Eight feet below, the water mirrored my face in the dark and forbidding depths.
“How deep would it be?” I asked, drawing back nervously.
“Hard to say,” said Jim. “Maybe 40 feet. It looks like a good deep well.”
“Would it be spring water?” I inquired. “Pure spring water?”
“Bound to be,” said Jimmie. “See the beautiful stone work on the lining of the well.”
I took another peep.
“See the…” said Jim. At which instant the plank on which I had set one foot suddenly collapsed as if it were made of peanut brittle; one end flew back from under my feet, and as I flung forward and down, Jim made a wild clutch and caught my muffler in his left hand.
“Hold on!” roared Jim.
“Youp…” I said; but then my wind was cut off.
I grabbed Jim’s wrist in a desperate and vain attempt to get some slack into the muffler. But this made Jim topple slightly towards the bottomless pit below me. He braced himself with his other arm. I waved my hands frantically, and envisioned my face slowly turning purple, then indigo.
“Wells Don’t Freeze”
“Greg,” I could hear Jim’s voice as though through a giant machine shop.
“Greg, I’ll have to let go! If I try to pull you up, I’ll slip in myself. If I hold on, I’ll strangle you. So, quick, I’ll let go and then find a pole or a plank …”
With my last fading consciousness, I waved my arms wildly in a gesture of agreement, of consent.
“Grab hold of the pump pipe,” were Jim’s last words.
With tears bursting his eyes, he let go.
Reluctantly, I am sure.
My feet had been suspended about a foot above the water. Between Jim’s arm, my scarf and my five feet three, we made nearly seven feet. When Jim let go. I felt my feet skid violently from under me. And then I found myself sitting in two inches of water. Under the water was ice. I pried my muffler loose, grabbed the rusty pipe, and let out a wild yell:
“Coming!” roared Jim, and the end of an old plank came shooting down the well. Then Jim’s agitated face appeared.
“It’s ice!” I said softly, for fear of breaking it.
“Ice?” gasped Jim.
“Ice, I don’t know how thick.” I whispered, cautiously clasping the plank with both arms, wrapping my arms around it in a slow, eternal sort of embrace.
“But it can’t be ice!” cried Jimmie.
I felt it softly. “It is ice.” I replied, getting to my knees but holding grimly to the plank.
“But wells don’t freeze!” protested Jim indignantly. “It can’t be ice.”
I attempted to crawl up the plank.
“Wait a minute,” advised Jim. “Hold on.”
And after a minute, he returned with another and heavier plank. By manoeuvring the two planks in relation to the rusty old pump pipe, we got a sort of eternal triangle figured out, and up this I hinched and hunched until Jim could get a grip on the slack of my shoulder. From there on it was easy.
I walked quickly back 10 paces and shook myself. Except for the seat of my pants and my knees, I was dry. Jim was industriously jabbing down into the well with the lighter of the two planks.
“Come on,” I commanded, “let’s get the heck out of here. I’m dying.”
“But it can’t be ice!” cried Jim fanatically.
“Jim!” I uttered loud and firm. “I ought to know!”
At that moment, a car came along the road and slackened speed as the driver sighted us.
“Anything amiss?” called the man in the car. He was evidently a farmer.
“Is it possible,” called back Jim. “that there’s ice in this well?”
“Probably is,” replied the farmer. “A little seepage water on top of the fill.”
“Fill?” called Jim.
“I started to fill that well up, for safety’s sake,” said the farmer, “but I never did get around to finishing it.”
“It should be full of seepage.” protested Jim.
“Not this land,” laughed the farmer. “Driest section in the county. The wells all went dry half a century ago.”
I started for the car. Jim followed. The farmer drove on.
“I guess,” I submitted, clammily, “when you see an old abandoned farm, it’s best to pass right by.”
“Don’t even wonder,” agreed Jim.