By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 11, 1937.
“What I like about the country,” declared Jimmie Frise, “is the people.”
“All the scallywags,” I explained, “have been chased out of the country and have gone and hidden in the cities.”
“Well,” said Jim, “that may be a little broad. But it covers the situation. For instance, a young man grows up on the farm and turns out to be a little too bright for the country.”
“It’s the same thing,” I defined. “What does too bright usually mean?”
“Thousands of the finest people in cities,” stated Jim, “have come from the farms.”
“And thousands of the cities’ worst rascals, too,” I insisted. “Let’s be fair.”
“At any rate,” argued Jim, as we drove eagerly out into the wintry farm country, “we are agreed on one thing – there is a process of selection going on, as between city and country, that is leaving a mighty decent lot of pleasant, gentle people in the country. They are not the ambitious type. Not the grasping and grafting type.”
“Gumption is the word,” I interrupted. “If anybody has any gumption, they pack up and go to the city. And gumption covers a multitude of qualities, from the kind a young fellow has who becomes one of our greatest surgeons or ministers, to the kind of fellow who wants to skin widows and orphans alive.”
“Well,” explained Jim, “a man couldn’t become a great surgeon living on a lonely farm. You’ve got to give a man a terrible lot of sick and diseased people, before he can become a great physician. And as for widows and orphans, they are few and far between in the country, with plenty of people watching them all the time. A fellow couldn’t work up a real business skinning widows and orphans out here.”
“It’s curious,” I remarked, that there is really no counter-flow of people from the cities.”
“It’s on account of the plumbing, pure and simple,” said Jim. “Once accustom people to hot and cold water and indoor plumbing generally, and you can never get them back to the outside pump. There are in cities, tens of thousands, yes, perhaps millions of people who are living in misery and degradation, jobless, homeless, who would be happy as kings living on farms, working the slow, patient life, amidst the cattle and the land. But they prefer to live in degradation, with hot and cold laid on, rather than risk having to dig a path in the snow.”
“Some day,” I predicted, “cities will have walls again. So many are becoming dependent in cities, that taxes will presently be unable to bear the strain. Then the cities will build walls around themselves. And to get inside, you’ll have to have a passport, identifying you either as a citizen or as a business man on business bent. For every country man wanting to move in, arrangements will have to be made for a city man to move out. Suppose a bright young man on the farm has the makings of a distinguished banker. Before he can get into a city he will have to arrange with his parents or relatives or the county council to accept a young city man to come and live in the country.”
Looking for Jack-rabbits
“It sounds Chinese,” said Jim.
“I shouldn’t wonder,” I admitted. “The Chinese figured these things out thousands of years ago. Then they let the white men in, and now look at China. There is something essentially silly about white men, don’t you think?”
“I often get that notion,” agreed Jim, “hearing them talk.”
“Sooner or later,” I declared, “the country has got to cease producing bright young men.”
“Of course,” suggested Jim. “we’re forgetting that there is a certain flow of city men back into the country. I mean the retired bankers and big shots who buy swell big farms.”
“A lovely trade that is,” I agreed. “Imagine a pleasant comfortable township having a big shot suddenly come and buy 400 acres. A big shot used to having his own way and wangling everything he wanted by the methods familiar to all big shots.”
“Well,” said Jim, “the reeve and council and the various committees and the church wardens and managers, in that case, will appreciate the feelings of city men when some son of the soil rises in their midst and becomes general manager.”
“Fortunately,” I pointed out, these city big shots only come out to the country in their old age. It isn’t for long. Their children never dream of keeping the farm on. It comes back, after a little while, into the kindly arms of the country once more.”
“At a nice bargain,” said Jim.
“Where,” I inquired, looking out over the wintry fields heaving away to the frosty skyline, “were you figuring we’d start looking for jack-rabbits?”
“It’s only three or four concessions up,” said Jim. giving the car the gas. “I was talking to some kids that were on their way home from school, and they said nobody ever hunts around here. And I saw three jack-rabbits in about one mile.”
So we sat and watched the country wheel by, the huddled little farm homes, lost amidst the wide barren fields which, in summer, they seem to dominate. How curious it is that in summer a farmhouse seems to own its landscape. And in winter, the same farmhouse seems to own nothing.
As we rolled, we kept a wary eye for the big brown hares which in Ontario go by the mistaken name of jack-rabbits. They are the true European hare, a great big foreign hare that stays brown all year round, and goes to 12 and 15 pounds in weight commonly, and three or four pounds greater than that on occasion. It was introduced, as far as anybody can discover, during the war, when a breeder of them, down near Brantford, had a large pen of them washed away in a flood. From that 50 or so hares, they have multiplied to hundreds of thousands and have spread all over central Ontario and provide game for hunters by the tens of thousands. There are 80,000 gun licenses sold in Ontario, and about 50,000 of that number generally point at a jack-rabbit, so called, at least a few times in November and December. Jim’s and mine are two of them.
“This,” said Jim, as we came over a rise, “looks like the spot.”
Fence-Climbing and Clod-Hopping
Fields of stubble, fields of plow and green patches of winter wheat lifting away for rolling miles looked like the terrain favored by the big jacks. We saw some patches where the hares had scratched the frosty earth around the winter wheat. Parking the car on the ditch shoulder, we dismounted, set up guns and started for the pleasant game of fence-climbing and clod-hopping which is jack hunting. Separating the width of a field, and moving slowly and watchfully for the sudden springing and skedaddling big hares, we did four fences when we spied, coming towards us, a burly big figure of a man with a gun over his arm and a hound running forlornly beside him. Jim crossed the field to me.
“Here’s somebody,” said Jim, “can tell us where the jacks are. Whenever you see a man with a hound in the country, you know he isn’t feeding a hound for nothing. A hound is a one-purpose dog. It can’t fetch cattle. It won’t guard the house, being away hunting most of the time. See a hound, in the country, and you’ve got a man with an eye to rabbits, foxes, and coons.”
We went forward and met the stranger.
“Howdy,” he called cheerfully. “A nice day for scent, and not a rabbit in the county.”
We all leaned our guns up against the fence in the approved country fashion and prepared for a little conversation.
“I came past here a month ago,” said Jim, “and saw three jacks in the fields just as I passed by. I thought this particular stretch would be crawling with them.”
“Them three,” said the stranger, “must have been the three I got at the start of the season, me and Lightning here. If there is a rabbit in the township, Lightning will find him and tell the whole world, day and night, day after day until somebody comes and shoots it to keep him quiet. All I do is keep coming out to shut Lightning up. The township protests about him all the time, so I got to keep coming out and shoot rabbits.”
“They must be kind of scarce around here, then?” Jim asked.
“A rabbit,” said the stranger, whose name was Mr. Jackson, “is very ill-informed to come into this township. But I know a spot about seven miles north of here. Man, oh man.”
“Seven miles is nothing,” said Jim. “In a car.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Jackson, sadly, “but a car is exactly what I haven’t got. Perhaps it’s a blessing or there wouldn’t be any game in the whole county.”
“Listen,” said Jim, “we’d be only too delighted to have somebody show us where the shooting is, if you can spare the time. Our car is only out at the road there.”
“Time?” said Mr. Jackson. “What is time?”
“Let’s go,” said Jim and I together.
And with guns and hound eagerly sensing sport, we walked rapidly back out the road and got in the car. Mr. Jackson easing himself luxuriously in the back seat with Lightning.
“Straight ahead, until I tell you the turn,” said Mr. Jackson.
It was a trifle more than seven miles, as a matter of fact. But country people have only a vague idea of distance. It was thirteen miles, and about eleven of it over pretty tough side roads that got wilder and more rocky and cedar swampy with every mile.
“This looks more like snowshoe rabbit country than jacks,” said Jim, as we cautiously negotiated one of the several narrow steep inclines on a road that got swampier and more cedary.
“Them jacks,” said Mr. Jackson, “are everywhere.”
And guiding us left and right and north and west, we came at last to our destination, which was an abandoned farm with cedar swamps encroaching close about its crooked fields, an orchard lifting forsaken arms, and the rest of it scattered patches of brush stealing back, the advance guard of the eternal and ever-conquering wilderness that will haunt mankind to the utter end.
“Where do we hunt here?” I inquired a little doubtfully, for I like my jacks jumping neat out of stubble, at about 20 yards.
“I tell you, boys,” said Mr. Jackson eagerly. “I’ll just head into that cedar swamp with Lightning and you two spread out and scuffle them meadows good. It’s full of jacks. One day last winter, I got ten jacks in an afternoon, right here. Between here and the next cross roads.”
“Won’t you come with us?” Jim inquired. “There’ll be no shooting down there unless it’s white snowshoe rabbits.”
“No, no,” insisted Mr. Jackson. “It’s jacks you’re after. Go get ’em. Lightning and I will amuse ourselves down there. I’m not as handy on my legs as I used to be.”
So Jim and I scuffled off into the fields, and scuffle it was. Weeds and burrs, thickets of alder and willow, swampy patches rough and frozen into nasty nubbles, and not a sign of a jack by the time we got to the farthest end of the clearing and came to a bush.
In all the hundred acres, no life stirred, no chickadee, no squirrel. In these old abandoned farms there is a hush that both scares and heals. Jimmie and I stood by the remains of the rail fence, now fallen and already returning to the reaching earth, and harked. Men had come here, and destroyed the hard covering that had succeeded in taking hold on this thin soil, over these rocks. But none of man’s delicate creations had roots enough to take hold in their turn. Now, after many years, the harsh advance agents of nature, the weeds, the briars, the willows, were slowly getting their grip into it again. The men and women who had come here lived in hope and pride. They left only a scar. And even the little winter birds could find nothing to eat in it.
“It’s kind of eerie,” murmured Jim.
“All the big companies,” I replied bravely, to scare away the ghosts, “all the big corporations, all the great churches, halls, all the long handsome streets, will be like this some day.”
“This time of year,” said Jim, “it gets gray and gloomy early in the afternoon.”
“Little or big,” I declared, “it all works out the same in the end. Men come in, so proud and loaded with seed…”
“We’ll head up the road,” said Jim. “There will be more farms beyond.”
We heard Lightning suddenly begin baying, and almost immediately the sound of shot.
“The old boy,” said Jim, “is getting swamp hare. What do you say we go back and have a day at the white bunnies?”
“Aw,” I said, “my children won’t speak to me for several days after I bring home a white hare. Let’s go after the big boys.”
And we had got half a mile up the road, seeing nothing but rough clearings and no open fields in sight, when we heard a car horn blowing steadily, in long signals.
“That sounds like my horn,” said Jim.
“Maybe the old boy has struck good hunting,” I said. “Let’s go back.”
So we retraced our steps down the rutted frozen swamp road and came to the car, where Mr. Jackson was sitting, feet up, and pipe going with Lightning in beside him.
“Mmmfff, mfff, mfff,” said Jim, as we neared the car.
“Ooooffff,” we both said, as the car door opened.
Couldn’t Breathe in a City
“Got him,” said Mr. Jackson, comfortably, patting an old red handkerchief on the seat beside him. “Lightning and me.”.
“So it seems,” said Jim, standing back. “A skunk?”
“We first spotted him,” said Mr. Jackson, excitedly, “three weeks ago, in this very swamp. But he got into a stone pile. Neither of us has had our proper rest since, worrying about this skunk. One dollar that skin’s worth.”
Mr. Jackson patted the red handkerchief, which bundled something flabby and terrible within.
“One dollar,” said Jim breathing out.
“Common skins,” said Mr. Jackson, “are worth 60 cents. But this here one, it’s the biggest I see in years, and beautifully marked. Wait till I show you.”
“No, no,” cried Jim. “Let it lay.”
Jim looked at me and I at Jim, in one of those instantaneous glances that make plans and settle questions without a word being said. We got in. We drove Mr. Jackson home, back all the winding, steep back roads, while he sat comfortably in rear, chatting pleasantly, and fondling Lightning who whoofed deliciously from time to time.
“Tell me, Mr. Jackson,” I inquired in the midst of his reminiscences, “are you a native of this part of the province?”
“No, sir,” said Mr. Jackson sitting forward happily. “I’m not. You wouldn’t take me for a city-bred man, now, would you?”
“There is something about you…” I said, turning to look at him and also to lean a little farther away.
“Well, sir,” said he, expansively. “I was born and raised in the city but I couldn’t stick it. I can’t go cities or towns. I feel as if I couldn’t breathe in a city. So I up and left it, as a young man. I shook the dust of cities off my feet as soon as I was old enough to be my own boss.”
We drove Mr. Jackson right to his door, and a little old shanty it was.
“Not much to look at,” he said heartily, as he and Lightning got out with their package. “But it’s all I ask.”
He thanked us profusely, regretting we had seen no jacks, on such a lucky day, at that.
“And by the way,” he said, as he slammed the door and stepped up to shake hands through the front windows, “if you notice any little smell of skunk in the car, though I don’t notice it myself, just use vinegar. A quart of raw vinegar, slosh it around. It’ll kill the slightest trace of it.”
“Thank YOU,” we assured him.
“Thank YOU,” he corrected, as we geared away.
“It’s getting a little late,” I informed Jim.
“Well,” said Jim, “we always seem to get something when we go hunting.”
“Let’s stop,” I suggested, “at the next corner and get a quart of vinegar.”
Editor’s Note: A clod-hopper, originally meant someone who walks over ploughed land. Later it took on the meaning of a country bumpkin, or the heavy boots worn by a country labourer.
This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise (1977).