Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan
Dispatches from the 148 by Fred Ryan
As several friends and I were driving recently, one passenger noticed that all four of us had been part of the “back-to-the-landers” movement in the Pontiac in the 1970-80s. He was glum about it. “We didn’t re-invent any wheels …. all pretty naive!” Naive, yes, but inventing wheels was never the plan when my wife and I bought an abandoned farm on the Coulonge River in 1972.
We had saved for the investment, aided mightily by our families. It took us a year to find a beautiful farm, one with a solid square timbered farmhouse. We put in water and indoor plumbing before the early snows of 1972 blew down the Coulonge River at our encampment.
Our ambitions were simple: create a home and raise a family. No re-inventions, but we were both convinced we wanted to raise our children, where the kids could grow up familiar with livestock and with actual responsibilities. This was a positive ambition.
My passenger didn’t have our story right. We weren’t Luddites, not seeking to do everything by hand. No, but we had read about—and observed – the effects of modern urban living, entire streets with one tree, street lights blazing all night long. Kids, raves, drugs and drinking – re-inventing which wheel?
Perhaps, we were re-inventing uses for the wheel … we were terribly young. Around us we saw a society tearing itself up with the Vietnam War (hence, so many American draft resistors arriving here). Racism (Indigenous peoples, immigrants), chauvinism, jingoistic responses with Reds around every corner to any attempt at change and community-building – we listened to Bob Dylan and pretty well accepted the social critique rallying around him and the counter-culture movement. We intended to live our critique of society, and break out of the complaining mindset (still so persuasive). This was not a retreat but an exciting and positive move, we felt, an attempt to put our ideas into action at least on the family level and to rely on our own efforts as much as we could, rather than stay plugged into all that we found so uncomfortable in society. Naive? Certainly, and maybe even misguided in the sense that our efforts might have carried further had we joined with others to participate in re-building our communities together.
Back-to-the-land movements have had a long history, around the world. The Vietnam War era held one of these movements, and it will be part of our history, certainly in our Pontiac, and surely right across Canada and the US. It took planning and courage, not foolhardiness, to strike off, and
not follow the usual career paths of the time. And these people did bring new energies, ideas and ambitions to the Pontiac – even if many retreated and others eventually re-joined the mainstream. That broader movement brought the Pontiac new teachers, artists, musicians, business entrepreneurs, nurses – even several doctors. The Pontiac economy received a modest boost.
That movement did not die, it evolved. We would certainly have been fools if we expected we could change the social and economic forces at work in Canadian society, so we opted to do the best with what we had – ourselves, and our little families. My upbringing had given me summer work at my uncle’s beef farm, and we knew enough about the bush to work the old place winter and summer – and make a living. We did that. It wasn’t a great living, but we both remain proud of what we were able to accomplish. And our kids? You’d have to ask them, but for us, the next generation’s individuals – now in mid-life – have already demonstrated that
if we reinvented anything, it was much less tangible than a wheel. Maybe just a deepened family life. And how many things in life are more rewarding than that?