1.24.2011

TRAUMA FARM: A REBEL HISTORY OF RURAL LIFE - Brian Brett

Trauma Farm is a book about some of the biggest issues facing us in a world of increasing globalization and corporatization. Written by a poet, who also happens to be a rural farmer, it discusses the struggles that are being faced by small-scale, non-corporate farmers throughout North America as they see their livelihoods threatened by the corporate behemoths with whom they simply cannot compete. It also discusses the frustration Brett feels at the regulations that are being instituted by governments that favour agri-business while making things increasingly more difficult for small-scale farmers. Aside from the subsistence issues, agri-business means worse living environments for animals, more chemicals in our food, and the loss of valuable local knowledge that has historically been passed on from one generation to the next.
For many of us who live in the city, it’s easy to forget that for every meal we eat, there are people out there who have toiled in fields, under hot sun or in the rain to bring us the fresh fruit, vegetables and even meat that we consume. We have seen an increasing awareness in recent years of the need to consider the impact that we, as consumers, have on the economic environment, and in turn on the environment and the livelihoods of smaller farms. People have even come up with a name for those who make the effort to support smaller farmers in their own geographical areas: locavores.
This book takes this issue down to the level of one household and humanizes it in a way that the news rarely does. Brett’s farm, affectionately dubbed “Trauma Farm,” is on a small island just off the west coast of British Columbia called Salt Spring Island. This also happens to be where I grew up. It is an idyllic place in many ways. It has a population of around 10,000 people, but when you live there it feels like you know everyone. It is a haven for artists, musicians and others with a creative bent, as well as for those who enjoy living a quieter, slower pace of life closer to the land. You will rarely find a more varied, more socially conscientious, more informed or interesting community.
Every Saturday during the summer the town heads en masse to the downtown artisan’s market where you can purchase everything from fresh produce to one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork to clothing and handmade cosmetics. My parents moved us there when I was five years old to escape the pressures and fast-paced life of the city, and growing up in such a small community provided a sense of safety and serenity that I still miss, even though I’ve been living in the city for over a decade.
Brett talks of the experience he and his family went through when they were establishing the farm and of the difficulties they’ve had to face. He himself has dealt with serious health complications for much of his life that have made it difficult for him to function at times. But he also provides a peek into island life as I knew it. His book is full of amusing anecdotes, delicious food, eccentric and interesting folks and a sense of joy that comes from knowing his place in the world. My favourite story involves a midnight walk in nothing but galoshes and an encounter with a none-too-friendly cougar.
I love reading travel books and disappearing into an adventure or a place that feels entirely different from how my own stressful city existence and day-to-day grind can feel. This book provides that sense of escape and serenity, but in a different way, since it’s not a foreign country; it’s right in our own backyard. I’d recommend spending a weekend wandering through Brett’s world if you’re feeling like city life is getting you down. It might also provoke some serious consideration of how our consumer habits affect people like Brett. Who knows, if you’re in the neighbourhood, you might even head over to Salt Spring and check it out for yourself.

1.15.2011

INCONTINENT ON THE CONTINENT: MY MOTHER, HER WALKER, AND OUR GRAND TOUR OF ITALY - Jane Christmas


I love reading travel memoirs. As a student I can’t afford to gallivant, fancy-free about the world experiencing new cultures and gathering exciting and amusing anecdotes. So I like to read the stories of those who do. Some of my favourite books involve travels in France and Italy – for some reason the cultures of those two countries draw me in and make me long to be there.
Jane Christmas’s book, Incontinent on the Continent, is a little bit different from the travel books I am usually drawn to. Rather than being the story of a journey to a foreign land, this is the story of a daughter trying to reconnect with her aging mother and repair the mother-daughter bond the only way she knows how - by taking her mother on a long-awaited journey to Italy.
The book describes the cities and towns they travel through, but it focuses on how the country becomes a vehicle through which the pair can see one another in a way they never have. They begin to learn about one another’s interests, memories, views on life and dreams. Jane begins to see how her mother has changed over the years and how her medical conditions have transformed her from an energetic, active, capable woman into someone who is fragile and delicate. This is a transformation we all experience as first our grandparents and then our parents get older, and one that we all try to deny for as long as we can. Sooner or later, however, it simply can’t be ignored. For Jane, the pivotal moment comes when she realizes that her mother seems to be spilling more of her pills on the floor and down the sink than she is managing to take. It’s a moment of realizing that the mother who took care of her as a child is perhaps no longer able to fully care for herself.
Of course, despite the bonding that the two experience and the concern Jane experiences for her mother’s health, taking a mother-daughter team who have never gotten along very well and placing them in new surroundings doesn’t magically remove all the reasons they didn’t get along in the first place. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes about Jane’s mother creating drama at the airport, complaining about pretty much everything and constantly commenting on hairstyles that she thinks would be much better for Jane than the one she’s got.
These disparate elements in the book combine to create a picture of the relationships many of us experience with family members over the course of our lives. You can’t pick your family, but you love them anyway. Navigating relationships with people who you love dearly but at times simply can’t stand can be one of the most emotionally draining experiences of adult life. But in the end we find a way to love them in spite of (and occasionally because of) all the idiosyncrasies and irritating habits. That’s what makes them who they are. It’s also what makes us who we are.
I enjoyed this book. It’s entertaining, amusing, insightful and evocative. Christmas has a knack for describing the physical and emotional scenery of her journey and drawing the reader into her experiences and her relationship and bringing you along on the trip with her. Reading about her own struggles to create a meaningful bond with her mother before it’s too late will make readers pause to examine their own familial relationships, and perhaps take the time to reconnect with their own families.

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