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Fall 2004 – Old Ideas, New Breed

The tent was pitched and I had towelled off from a swim when I realized that this year?s camping trip—a late-summer sortie to Salt Spring Island—was the ideal circumstance to consider a new book on rural life. We—family, dogs, friends—were camped in Ruckle Provincial Park, several hundred acres of apple orchards, sheep paddocks and fields, set in a little seaside valley, whose central feature is an intact and functioning small farm. The book I?d bought along, Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life, is about a new breed of environmentally conscientious citizen who, by escaping cities for a simpler, more responsible life in the country, is transforming rural culture.

The farm at Ruckle Park belongs to an oeuvre of tidy, mixed farm that bound settlers to the early Canadian landscape. Think Cowichan Valley, parts of Huron County and Newmarket, Ontario; the verdant Annapolis Valley. Such farms have long been out of favour with the production-minded professors at agriculture faculties who preach the gospels of single-crop farms and factory production techniques. Yet such small farms still exist in great numbers and have proved to be as resilient as the walking cane, as viable as the bicycle.

Ruckle Farm?s is a classic tale, beautifully wrought, of land won with double-headed ax from the wilderness. Sinewy, bearded Henry Ruckle, an Irishman, who had transited through Ontario and California, took up the land in the 1870s. He cleared, planted, fenced, grew stunning apples as big as an infant?s head. A note on a kiosk under the skeletal arms of an ancient pear tree noted that the farm?s demise had begun in the mid 1900s, when irrigated orchards in Ontario and BC had removed the market for then-famous Salt Spring Island fruit. The founding family had finally sold the land for park in the early 1970s—but kept tenancy rights. Still, the deeper themes—pioneer tenacity, the rewards of working towards a self-reliant life—were as clear as the fence lines.

I studied Rural Renaissance in the shade of a wind-bent evergreen, electric fly zapper close to hand. A strange book—it?s part philosophy, how-to and journal—it is the literary version of one of those last-night-camping meals when everyone pitches their remainders into a great skillet. The book?s genealogy includes Scott and Helen Nearing?s Calvinist The Good Life on one side and non-denominational hippie idealism on the other. It may be the first back-to-the-land text of the new millennium.

Authors John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist are former 32nd floor advertising fast-trackers who bailed for what they are convinced is a more responsible life in the country. The point of the book is that a new movement of people to the country is having a huge effect on traditional rural culture. The so-called Cultural Creatives (where do they get these names from? the same people who name designer yogurt?) are moving into rural US and Canada in massive numbers and reconfiguring the withering local farm culture from crop- and livestock-based to a more vibrant lifestyle-base. By some estimates, they number 40-50 million in North America. In the words of Bill McKibben, celebrated author who wrote the introduction, Cultural Creatives “tend to be artistic, spiritual (but non-denominational), socially tolerant, interested in community and concerned about the environment.” They are also, like Henry Ruckle, sold on self-reliance. Henry fed himself; the creatives feed their laptops via the solar panel mounted on the greenhouse. What follows, in 255 sometimes neurotically earnest pages, is a Liberal Idiots Guide to the Good Country Life: not just information on digging a well, but digging a well responsibly; not just advice on egg layers, but where to get heritage breeds. It’s not good enough to live quietly on the land; you have to do so in a way that harms neither endangered toad nor Third World factory child labourer.

My first thought was: I sure hope these people don’t move in beside me! I like to torch an old tire when burning brush and I’ll bet grandmother’s writing desk that they’d find that objectionable. My second thought was some well diggers (and carpenters, firewood cutters, and contract farmers) are going to make a lot of money off this gang. Cultural creatives, apparently, are university educated and when they move to the country they often bring with them lucrative contracts—in financial analysis, health sciences, public relations. I could see the boys at Wilf’s Antique Farm Equipment rubbing their hands greedily.

Yet for all the icky, preachy vegan sidebars and useful Internet URLs, Rural Renaissance has at its core (and it?s a nasty pleasure to write this) some meat. Cities, the authors say, are no longer the only source of great opportunity. The country—small farms as well as rural properties—offer people a chance to (take your pick) be partially self-sufficient, work from home, raise kids in a safe, healthy setting. That may not sound like news for those of us who are well set in the country, but in some places silence is in such short supply that folks will actually pay to spend a weekend in a country B&B sucking it in. What?s more, the authors suggest, the route to rural self-renewal may not be through the offices of any farm organization, or sponsored government programs, but rather through a conscious effort to live responsibly. Buy from your neighbour not a box store. Be happier with less. The seeds of a revived rural economy may have been in our jean pockets all along.

We left Ruckle Park at mid-day, hell-bent for the ferry. As I gunned along the road that bisected the farm’s fields, I recalled an excerpt from Henry Ruckle’s journal. Such land offered great opportunity for those who would take it, he said, but they must be prepared for an almost overwhelming battle against the forest. And in the sense of taking on a great battle—in the Cultural Creatives’ case, the battle against the myths of urbanity and rural conservatism—the authors of Rural Renaissance and the farm at Ruckle Park seem to be brethren texts.