Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – May 3, 2004
Stone Walls & Split Rail Fences
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – May 3, 2004 – There is something incredibly tactile about stone and wood. A part of our world, simple, not-man made. Solid, real, lasting and comforting. I have antique furniture in my home and stone walkways and retaining walls in my gardens. I feel connected to these strong, natural materials.
When I was a child I used to go for long, Sunday summer afternoon drives in the country with my parents. Inevitably, my father wore a brown velvet blazer that my mother had made for him, with his best slacks. He looked quite dapper. My mother would don a pretty dress, sometimes a hat, and always a cotton sweater thrown around her shoulders. I either sat in the back seat by myself so I could scoot from side to side, or up front between my parents. My brothers usually begged off and spent those afternoons at the homes of friends. They missed some great drives.
We often headed down the main street of Owen Sound and then flipped a coin to see if we would drive down the east or west side of the harbour. From there we would just meander and see where the day took us. We usually had a picnic basket and Charlie always had his camera. He used a 4 x 5 inch format Speed Graphic camera. He developed the negatives at home and printed his own photographs.
One of my prized possessions is a picture he took of an old deserted farm house, shot during a gathering storm. The clouds are dark and brooding, but the sun is still breaking through the afternoon sky, casting light on the old house. That picture was taken on an afternoon just like this, but I have no idea where it was or when he took it. He gave it to me one year for Christmas.
Whenever I look at this picture, I wonder about the history of that house and the people who lived there, before its slow fall into disgrace and ruin, and I’m thankful for Charlie’s perspective of the landscape and his keen eye for composition. I feel his sense of the scene whenever I look at the photograph. I see and appreciate what his eye first saw that day. I know why he stopped. The house spoke to him and he heard its message.
The lands around Owen Sound were once dotted with working farms. Many of these properties still had the old stone and split rail fences surrounding them, that were put up by the first owners. Rocks were cleared from the land and carried over to the sides of the fields, then used as fences to corral cattle and sheep, or to define planting area for crops. Sometimes the fences were a mixture of stone and wood. I loved how the split rail fences zig-zagged haphazardly around the fields, held in place at the ends by wire.
We often stopped beside these weathered, old fences for our picnic lunch. My father would spread out a blanket and my mother would open up the old wicker picnic basket. Out would come glass plates, real knives and forks, tumblers and mugs. Delicious cold chicken sandwiches, celery and carrot sticks, apples and bananas and a couple of thermoses, one for tea, the other apple juice. Sometimes my mother’s famous apple pie appeared as a last minute treat. Never since then – the best apple pie – bar none – ever!
We would sit and talk about the farm houses, the barns and fences and try to imagine the lives of the families who had lived there over the years. My stories usually centred on an imaginary little girl who had a dog and a pony. My parents would chat about the back-breaking work of clearing the land and carrying the stones to the side of the field, or heaving them up onto horse drawn wagons to be delivered to their final resting places.
I’m sure some of those early families sweated on these lands all their lives and hardly broke even. We imagined them felling the trees and then cutting them into the proper lengths for the split rail fences. Perhaps the knowledge that it was “their” farm gave them the determination to keep working against harsh odds.
I have incredibly happy memories of those Sunday afternoon outings with my parents, and some wonderful pictures of us sitting on stone walls and split rail fences. There is something substantial and sure about fences. Many of them now have grass, vines and wild flowers growing up around them. Still, they provide a protective barrier against the outside world.
Safety is sure to be found inside. That, of course is the romantic view. Walls and fences can be used to keep people out, but also to hold them in. That’s a topic for another time. But regardless of the nature of the fence, its existence promises a certain order and security. I like to think that my ‘Sunday afternoon fences’ of many years ago, those of the picnics, the family photos and casual conversations protected what was good and decent about the lives of the people who lived behind them.