Trade Customers click here
← Back to Book Main Page

Table of Contents and Tom Henry's Preface:

Preface: Welcome to the Bone Yard

Part One: Fall of the Leaf
Chicken Leg, Dog Leg
Make Dirt, Not War
My Brother Hugh
The Ideal Dog
Crash Course in Chicken Lore
More Than Plenty
Dignity on a Dirty Job
Moving to the Country
Weather Lore
Magnificent Busts
Good Junk
On the Wild Side

Part Two: Winter Rains
Country News
A Chicken Never Dies
The Happy Valley Line
Scowling at the Woodpile
No Sensible Child
Seasonal Disasters
The Colour of January
Censored Seeds
Losing Cool
The Horse Lobby
The Kids Will Be All Right

Part Three: Seed Time
Real Farmer
Accounting for the Woodpile
Befriending Kids
The Five-Dollar Barn Cat
Higher Education
My Brief Career as an Editor
A Veteran Greenhorn
The Law of Compensation
Humane Trap
Meaningful Measurements
Shearing the Apple Tree
Lost in the Hay Field
Where They Want Us

Part Four: Dog Days
The Parable the Chicken
Frank, Joe, WAC Me
Machinery Grotesque
Learning a New Tool
Wanted: A Five-Acre Idea
Working the Water
The Perfect Meal
Country Kitsch
Unto the Shadow
The Observer Effect
Local Geography
View Lot


Behind our cabin, between the chicken coop and the woodshed, is a rocky, oil-blackened patch of ground approximately the size of a twocar garage. It is tufted with grass around the edges so it resembles a monk's tonsure, and it is home to a variety of tools: the chain saws and chopping block, the axes (one for falling, two for splitting), assorted oil and gas tanks, a peavey, 150 feet of blue 2-inch polyester line, coiled, plus a half dozen potato plants, holidaying volunteers from the nearby compost. Every farm has an area like this one. Since Lorna and I and our five-year-old daughter Lily moved here four years ago, we've called ours the bone yard.

The bone yard is where the chickens are beheaded, where the gnarly, knotted chunks of wood that resist splitting are laid up for further study. It's where kids slip away to do bad things to the cat, where dads wander to pee, smoke and think about what to do with those kids. It is, in the broadest sense, a working area.

I like the bone yard. I go there every morning. Lily and I get up at 6:30 and I make her toast with peanut butter and cut off the crusts. Then I carry the crusts to the chickens. While they scurry about, I perch on the splitting block and listen. Chicken squawks and thrush songs on one side, toilet flushes and toy truck sounds on the other. It's an outdoor version of the music lover's "sweet spot," that point in a hall where the sounds meet in equilibrium.

I also write from the bone yard. It works like this. When I feed the chickens I see my axes. The axes remind me of cutting firewood, which I do for several months every fall, for a landowner named Wayne. For each cord I cut, Wayne pays me $60. Last time I worked for Wayne, he and I had lunch, on a stump, in the rain. As the water matted our hair and softened our sandwiches he told me about an old farmer who had died recently. The farmer had doubled as the local livestock slaughterer, and on his deathbed he had grasped his wife's hand with his bony fingers and said, "Thank God for one thing. I'm not going to have to kill any more animals."

You won't find material like that in a library. I would have cut two cords to get that story. The money was just a perk.

Behind the axes, in an unpainted plywood toolbox, is an empty plastic vinegar bottle. I fill it with drinking water and take it with me when I work. One of my first jobs after moving to Metchosin was haying. Every day and all day from mid-May to the end of June I pitched bales from field to wagon, wagon to barn. It was simple work, done in open fields in the sunshine. Between loads I would take long drafts of water from the vinegar bottle, always taking care to pour some in my hand for the farm dog, a Dalmatian-Lab bitch named Sam - whose company I appreciated all the more because our landlord does not permit us to have a dog.

That water was so good, and Sam and I enjoyed it so deeply, I could not stop thinking about it. Even after work, while I was lying on my living room couch, too exhausted to strip off my sweat-stained work clothes, water coursed through my mind. One night after haying, I made some notes on foolscap about water, and work, and Sam. I put the notes together and sent them to a Vancouver newspaper. The newspaper published the story on a Saturday. On Tuesday a CBC Radio producer phoned. Would I be interested in doing a short series of similar pieces for broadcast? The producer suggested I do one story a week for several weeks. I said sure. That series, known as CBC's Country Life column, ran for three years and yielded two books, the second of which you hold in your hands. The vinegar bottle is my reservoir.

The bone yard also reminds me of the way I don't want to write. Before moving to the country I lived in Victoria. I worked for a zealous city magazine, covering, among other beats, the legislature. I zipped about, buglike, with a hand-held tape recorder thrust out at arm's length. I worried nonstop about the batteries in the tape recorder running low. I wore a tie and striped shirts manufactured from material that made me stink. After two years of less-than-zealous performance, I was fired. Lorna and I rented a moving truck with a hole in the muffler and moved to Metchosin. I promised myself I would never again write a serious word about politics.

Then, one night during the last municipal election, a friend knocked at my door. Was I interested in some writing work? We got in his truck and drove to a neighbour's home. The neighbour is a developer. Around this community, perched on the fast-metastasizing edges of Greater Victoria, developers are regarded with an enthusiasm usually reserved for anthrax or root rot. This developer, an acquaintance of my friend's, was running for local council. He wanted me to write out the lumps in the wording of his pitch. Normally I would have rejected such work. But there I was, in another man's kitchen, eating his cookies, listening to his wife laughing with their son. It seemed to me we already had a compact, if not an actual contract. Furthermore, I had ducked last month's rent, and prospects for achieving the next month's rent were poor. Circumstances had massed against me. I pulled a pen from my pocket and set to work.

The next day, while lying on my back in the bone yard and greasing my truck, I wondered what the hell had got into me. I wasn't just writing about politics, I was writing politics. The rocks in my back and the grit falling in my eyes were hard reminders, like a teacher's swat across the head, of what I should - and shouldn't - be doing.

About halfway along the length of the bone yard the ground breaks away to a fern-strewn ravine. Clumps of grass grow thick and high, forming a green shag dense enough to conceal hen's eggs, screwdrivers, a child's favourite golf ball. It's healthy in a rough, true sort of way. There is no distinction between nature and man, no false dichotomies.

This, for me, is the most important aspect of the bone yard. Truth is a maligned concept, but I believe (perhaps innocently) it has a resonance, a sweet spot hard to find and impossible to counterfeit. A writer may describe brilliantly (for example) the Malaysian rain forests, but until she tells me how it felt to bark her shin on a jungle hardwood, or defecate among the foliage, her work will always ring of tin. I wonder: who was in that jungle anyway - a tape recorder, or a living, breathing, crapping person?

True writing is rare. I've found it in the books of Roderick Haig-Brown, a leather-skinned, beak-nosed Englishman who moved to Campbell River in the early part of this century. Haig-Brown took as his inspiration the natural history of West Coast streams and rivers, and the salmon that inhabit them. He wrote forthrightly and beautifully about hunting and fishing. He was a master with a fly rod and with the English language; his sentences reel and flow with semicolons and cadences. His words sound good.

At one time I attempted to write facsimiles of HaigBrown's work. I clipped a picture of him from an old magazine and tacked it to the wall above my desk. In the picture, HaigBrown was seated in a high-backed chair in his study, sucking a pipe and looking thoughtfully out the window at the Campbell River. I would sit in my chair, look at the picture and try to have the same thoughts, complete with semicolons. I even flirted with a pipe, hoping the sucking action might jump-start the style. It didn't; my stories were as dry and unpalatable as wind-burned hay.

The picture now resides in a bottom drawer. I'd be lost in a high-backed chair. There's only one place that lets me know where I am: between the chicken coop and the woodshed.

Welcome to the bone yard.