Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Varieties of Religious Experience, Part II
Next spring Angus R. turned up. I had a question for him.
“Someone told me you once built a sawmill by yourself — is that true?”
“Well, gosh, yes I guess I did, yes.”
“Not quite, no. I bought the pulleys, and maybe one or two other things.”
“How’d you do it?”
“Oh, gosh, that’s a long story, don’t you know, yes, that would take a long time to tell.”
Angus R. was sitting on the chest just inside the kitchen door, pork pie hat held carefully on his knee. He looked thoughtfully at me for a long moment.
“I’m not sure this is quite right, don’t you know, but I’ll make a bargain, yes, a bargain. I’ll make a bargain with you. I’ll tell you about the sawmill for as long as you like, yes, and then you let me give you Bible talk for just as long.”
He smiled broadly, his little eyes disappearing among the wrinkles.
“It’s a deal. Come sit down at the table and have a cup of warm milk. Then tell me all about the sawmill.”
It was not so easy, though. Angus R. couldn’t manage a connected narrative so I had to question him, and that took time.
“One hour and twenty-five minutes, yes, that’s how long it was, yes, and the next time I come I’m going to give you a Bible talk, don’t you know, a Bible talk, for one hour and twenty-five minutes, yes. Don’t you forget!”
He was exultant.
When we moved to the farm, there was an ancient lilac bush by the kitchen door, a rhubarb plant stranded in the weeds, and a clump of daylilies near the porch — not much to begin with, but we went to work, and within two years there were flower and vegetable gardens, shrubs, fruit trees, and bushes all around the house. Among the flowers, Jo Ann planted herbs, and before long she was selling herbs, and herb teas, and as she grew more, she learned more, and soon she was writing articles for an herb magazine back in the States, and that led to more curiosity, more study, and greater knowledge. One day, reading a compilation of old herbals, she chanced on the remark that on one knew what the bitter herbs of Passover were. She was astonished. She knew what they were, and so must everyone who had ever taken part in a Seder — they were, or rather it was, horseradish. As soon as she said it to herself, she knew that something was wrong beyond the plural-singular problem, because horseradish lacked the essential quality of bitterness. She had never thought about it before. Now began a quest to identify the bitter herbs, and because of her remote situation, it took her more than a year, studying Middle Eastern flora, Jewish ritual, folklore and history, even the Talmud, and she corresponded with herbalists and rabbis, and finally with botanists in Israel. It fascinated her, and when she and I worked together in the woods, or spread manure on the snowy fields, or milked the cows in the lantern-lit stable, she told me what she was learning. Of course I was interested, but I was a little uneasy, too. I asked her, in a puzzled way, “Does this mean you’re going to be Jewish?”
She smiled. “I’m already Jewish.”
“Yes, but I mean religious Jewish.”
She kissed me and said, “Don’t worry, dear; we’ll still have ham and bacon.”
That spring we celebrated Passover with a Seder, the first since Jo Ann was a girl. Although it was a dark and huddled affair — not enough candles, the Maxwell House Haggadah was unfamiliar, and I was impatient throughout (“When do we eat?”) — she began to think, as soon as it was over, of how she would do a better job next year.
Angus R’s religious talk, when he finally came to collect his time on a rainy Sunday morning, turned out, despite a nearly disastrous beginning, to be an occasion of great enlightenment. He began well, but as with the sawmill story, he was soon lost in a jumble of unrelated sentences, straining with desire to impart the knowledge he felt but could only incoherently speak. I tactfully relieved him the same way as before: I asked questions. It was much more difficult to find out what Angus R. knew about the Privilege of Holiness (“For we which have believed do enter into rest.” Hebrews 4:3) than sawmills because both of us were used to the language of the material world, and neither of us knew much about holiness. But we worked at it together; Angus R. relaxed and in the end he was rather pleased with himself.
It was noon, and Angus R. stayed for lunch. As I was reaching for my glass of milk, Angus R. said, with his broadest smile, “Should I say the grace?”
“You say grace?” I asked holding my glass.
“Well, I’m no animal!” he exclaimed. Bowing his head, clasping his hands on the table, he said, “Let us now give thanks for the food we are about to receive, in the name of the Creator.”
I watched him in silence. Jo Ann said, “Amen.” Angus R. smiled.
After he left, Jo Ann said, “Jews have a name for holiness — ‘kidusha,’ the Law of Sanctity.” She went to her desk. “Look at this. I thought of it when he said ‘I’m no animal!’” She pointed to a passage:
“Judaism attempts to elevate to the God-like those activities that people and animals do alike. The more we share an act with animals, the more laws there are in Judaism to sanctify it, elevate it, to the God-like. . . . Eating should be an act of kidusha. . . . Does an animal thank God . . . before eating?”
I sat down and read the whole article, and when I gave it back, said, “Very interesting. I learned more from it than from that hour and a half with Angus R.”
One evening a couple of weeks later, when we were milking, Jo Ann announced that she thought she’d go to the Yom Kippur services at the temple in Sydney.
I was astonished. “Why?”
“It’s the holiest day of the year for Jews, the Day of Atonement, and I haven’t been to a service since before we were married. I’d just like to go.”
I felt my heart beating, chest tightening, blood mounting to my head. Relax. Relax. I took deep breaths. Speaking slowly, casually, I said:
“We’ll have to make arrangements for a ride, or maybe you can take the train the night before.”
We discussed, canvassing possibilities, and there it ended. But not for me. I wondered about myself, about the jealousy and self-pity that had almost overwhelmed me. Didn’t I admire and respect religious people? Didn’t I admire Jo Ann’s interest in Jewishness, and didn’t I recognize that she had thereby enriched my own life? Yes, yes, and I liked her independence of mind, too, the way she had mulled over Yom Kippur and made up her mind about it. I could not oppose her; I knew it meant too much to her, and then where would I be? I might lose her love. Reasoning with myself took me only so far — I was still upset, uneasy at the unsettling of the old dispensation.
Jo Ann got a ride back with an old man she’d met in the synagogue who, back in the 1920s and ’30s, had been a peddler with a horse and wagon, and he’d slept in this house more than once.
“It’s vild now,” he said sadly, waving inclusively at the woods. Completely gone to vild. They was farms all along the Backlands road. Now nothing but forest. Not brush in the fields, forest.”
“Just since we’ve been here the Backlands have emptied. The bootlegger at the Cove was the last to go, and now there’s hardly any traffic at all, just what comes here.”
The man smiled. “There was a bootlegger at the Cove fifty years ago, too.” He talked about the vanished farms, enumerating each one with a vivid sketch of the people, and he hadn’t finished when Jo Ann called us in for tea and cake.
When the old man sat down, he looked reflectively at the table for a moment. “You know something? Wherever I went in those days, all over the island, around the Trail, over in Richmond Country, wherever I went people invited me in for a meal. You know Cape Bretoners never turn away a hungry man. And every place I ate, the people said grace. Everywhere! It was unheard of not to say grace in those days. Now — a thing of the past. People were different then,” he finished wistfully.
I looked at Jo Ann. “We say grace,” I said. Jo Ann’s eyes widened. I bowed my head and clasped my hands on the table. “Let us now give thanks for the food we are about to receive, in the name of the Creator.” Both Jo Ann and the old man said “Amen.”
Time moves swiftly for modern man in briefer and briefer units firmly marked by unambiguous signals in a precise procession of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. The deep rhythms are there but overlain by so many counter-rhythms, so many more obvious and clamorous noises, that they are ignored. We, too, had our minutes and hours, but embedded as they were in the deliberate wheel of nature’s round, they lost most of their imperious character. Time moved just as swiftly for us as for townsmen but we thought of it in longer and vaguer units, and within those spans, conducive to a reflective life, all manner of possibilities could come to pass, could ripen into conviction from surmise, could be pondered and rejected or set aside or, finally, accepted as part of a natural continuum. Events, remarks, incidents dwelt in our minds to be thought about, turned this way and that until they became part of us or faded away like the last reverberations of a sound.
One Sunday afternoon in the following July, I was hauling a wagon load of sawdust from the mill on the other side of town, and as I entered the deserted winding street I heard a strange, booming voice echoing unintelligibly over the housetops. What could it be? When the horses swept around the last curve, I saw someone standing at a microphone in front of the post office. The team slowed to a walk on the grade, and now I could distinguish the words.
“ . . . sun was burning me up. It was hazy, and the sky was milky, and I looked up — the sky was as brass, and I fell on my knees . . .”
Fred was standing in front of the mike, Betty was by his side. Two men from the old folks’ home were sitting on a bench next to the post office. A sign was propped against the curb: “GOD IS LOVE.” As I slowly passed, I raised my cap and smiled at the MacIsaacs, but they looked through me. One of the old men raised his hand and faintly waved. The voice bloomed on over the still and lifeless town.
We were looking forward to a quiet day, but there were customers in the afternoon, and then Angus R. appeared. We hadn’t seen him for a long time, and we were worried: We had heard that he was no longer a Witness; he had quit or been expelled — something like that.
We were relieved to find him the same as ever, sitting squarely on the chest beside the door in his shiny black suit, pork pie hat on his knee, smiling, talking in his nervous way.
Jo Ann, who had had this on her mind for years, said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but there’s a problem with your tie.”
“Well, gosh, I. . . .”
“There’s a moth hole in the middle of the knot, so it looks like you spilled milk there.”
“Oh, my,” he said, unsnapping the ready-made tie and looking at it with surprise.
“Here: I can fix it.” She got a bottle of indelible ink and made the hole invisible.
Angus R was so amazed and delighted — he kept peering at the tie in the mirror — that he was persuaded to stay for supper. As we sat down, I said, “I’ll say the grace. It’s yours, Angus. We like it so much we took it over.”
When the “Amens” had been said, Angus R. tucked his napkin into his collar and said, “Well, yes, isn’t this nice, don’t you know. We have a Jew (nodding to Jo Ann) a Christian (tapping the napkin) and, and Mr. Gardner.” We laughed and laughed, and Angus R. beamed, scrunching up his eyes in a mass of wrinkles.
“Whatever we are, we believe in one God, yes. As the Lord God said to Jacob — Genesis 28:14 — ‘and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth; and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of earth be blessed.’”
When, as she was going to bed, Jo Ann kissed me, I asked her if she’d had enough of Christianity lately?
“How could I ever object to Angus R.? Especially after his performance tonight. That was perfect!” she kissed me again and left me to my pipe.
I sat on at the kitchen table, my feet propped on a chair, thinking about the day. After a few minutes, I fetched the large Bible, kept now on a shelf over the flour barrel. Genesis 28:14. Oh, the Jacob’s Ladder incident. I read the chapter, and then another, and then some more before I knocked the ashes from my pipe into the stove and went outside. A beautiful night, I thought, watching the moon rising, just clearing the trees, as I walked out to the compost heap behind the privy. Peering at the brush along the pasture fence, I wished I’d brought the flashlight; two nights ago I had seen a wildcat, its eyes shining fiercely red in the beam before its ghostly gray form vanished in the woods. There were always wildcats in the woods, but I had never seen one near the buildings before. The next day I moved the turkeys from their open pen into the shed.
The place was going back to the “vild,” as the old man had said. I had seen moose tracks by the pond a few weeks ago; a bear had been shot at the cove. I couldn’t see the Backlands road from the porch anymore, not even the train, only the reflection of its headlight above the trees. Much was made of tropical jungles inexorably obliterating the works of man, like those Mayan cities, but the North has its jungles, too — not so dramatic, but no less certain.
Walking back, looking up at the stars, I thought of Jacob’s Ladder, and then of God, the stars, Leviathan, and the love spoken only in the heart.
The moon shone down on the farm. There was the farmhouse, its tin roof shining, and there was the dog lying on a grain bag on the porch, his head on his paws. The cows were lying under the old apple trees in the pasture, their methodical chewing stirring only an occasional tinkle from their bells. The horses stood full in the light in their pasture, heads bent, tirelessly cropping the grass. A silvery mist lay on the pond. Beyond the small fields of the farm the dark woods extended for miles in every direction, the moon moved across the sky, the vague shadows shifted, a barred owl hooted across the valley, and we lay beside each other in our bed in the small farmhouse and slept. *