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Walking the land with a farmer poet

If you want to hear some interesting stories, try taking a walk with a farmer on his own land. He might tell you about the time his horse had a stroke and died in his arms.

If you want to hear some interesting stories, try taking a walk with a farmer on his own land.

He might tell you about the time his horse had a stroke and died in his arms.

He might complain about restrictive government regulations.

He might become poetic about the pleasure that comes in watching the sunrise over his fields each morning.

Or he might just salivate as he talks about what’s for dinner that night.

Reading Brian Brett’s latest book, Trauma Farm, is like taking such a walk with such a farmer, a somewhat cantankerous old poet who has no qualms about speaking his mind.

The subtitle of Trauma Farm is “A rebel history of rural life.”

And if you believe there is a war going on between industrial agribusinesses and small farmers, Brett is the small farm’s Che Guevara.

The rebel was recovering from a head cold when he answered the phone one Sunday evening, making his already distinct growl of a voice sound nasal and all the more strange.

He was getting ready to leave on a week-long book tour of the US and was trying to get a few last-minute chores in before he left.

The cold was “screwing everything up.”

Between farm chores, Brett writes books and poems, and articles for such illustrious newspapers as the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Yukon News.

But the News not is Brett’s only connection with the Yukon.

He first came to the territory in 1998 as the library’s writer in residence and has been returning ever since.

He’s paddled down the Wind River to see the remote Peel Watershed firsthand and has captured its beauty in poetry.

And Salt Spring Island, where Trauma Farm is located, has long had a strong connection with the Yukon.

Beyond the fact that the two locales seem to attract particularly idiosyncratic individuals, many of the orchards throughout the island where planted with the Yukon in mind.

To ward off scurvy, prospectors on their way to the Klondike would stock up on bushels of Salt Spring apples to get them through the winter.

After 18 years, Brett and his farm have too many stories to fit into one book.

It was a nightmare trying to pare them down to fit between the covers, he said.

Friends, many of them members of Canada’s literary elite (Margaret Atwood, for example, frequently visits the farm), had been asking Brett to write the book for years.

Trauma Farm finally came about when a publisher friend talked him into signing a two-year contract for 60,000 words.

Three years later, Brett presented him with his first draft, which weighed in at a whopping 255,000 words.

After heavy editing the finished product comes in at around 100,000 words - a modest 366 pages.

One of the many stories that got left out was about a friend trying to teach Brett’s parrot Tuco to imitate Woody Woodpecker’s distinctive laugh.

She sat in front of the bird and laughed over and over again, hoping the bird would pick it up.

After the millionth ha-ha-ha-haa-haa Tuco stared at the women and, as serious as a parrot can be, opened his mouth and squawked, “Woody Woodpecker.”

Tuco was shouting in the background throughout the interview, mimicking not just voices but also noises - ringing phones, flushing toilets and flatulence.

Brett declined to explain where the bird had learned that last particular noise.

He is thinking about writing his next nonfiction book about that clever little bird and animal intelligence in general.

Part of the reason why Brett put off writing Trauma Farm for so long was that he couldn’t figure out how it would be structured.

He wanted to capture those magical moments that can only come when working with the land and animals.

At the same time, he wanted to discuss society’s increasing separation from the food we eat, as well as address regulations that hurt the small farmer and the devastation caused by factory farms.

But he didn’t want it to be one long harangue.

One day it just came to him: the book would be structured around a 18-year-long day, from sunrise to sundown, which travels not just through Brett’s lifetime but the entire history of farming.

It’s like spending a day with Brett as he prattles on about whatever comes to mind and it fits the different subjects perfectly.

He got the idea from the traditional native teaching tale.

Native cultures, which didn’t have the written word, relied on tales and stories to pass on their morals, traditions, history, science and other knowledge.

And so Brett goes from collecting eggs in his chicken coop to ruminating on the poetry of the egg, its history, how you can tell exactly what a chicken has been eating through its yolk (grains make it yellow, bugs make it orangey-red and more delicious), the industrial egg industry, how superior fresh eggs are, how to cook the perfect soft-boiled egg and how regulations requiring eggs to be washed ruins the eggs natural layers of defense against salmonella.

The reader comes away from this knowing some interesting historical facts, more interested in where their food comes from and, often, feeling ravenously hungry.

In fact, the most difficult thing about getting through the book is that it often induces an earthquake-like rumbling in your stomach, forcing the reader to go out and cook up a feast - using organic, locally produced ingredients, of course.

Some sections can cause one to loose their appetite, especially bits about what goes on in a factory farm, traditional slaughter and other bits of gore that go hand in hand with life on the farm.

But Brett always brings you back to the dinner table with, for example, stories of a group of brothers nearby who used to hold all-day breakfast feasts.

And between the food and politics Brett, ever the poet, meditates on life’s little pleasures, like swimming at the local pond, resting after a hard day’s work and passing time with friends.

Trauma Farm is best summed up by a line from near the end, in a chapter on death’s necessary role in life on the farm:

“Animals talk, they die, they’re born, they die again, until all the stories fold into a long summer’s day of memories.”

Contact Chris Oke at