I was raised on a farm.
Not a hobby farm with a horse or two and some chickens on ten acres. But a mixed farm on the edge of the foothills of the northern Alberta Rockies with a thousand acres under cultivation, some fifty head of beef cattle, a couple of milk cows, a few hundred chickens, geese, and turkeys, and a hen house of some fifty to one hundred layers. When I was a preschooler, I held the water hose as we planted some 2000 trees around the farmstead my parents built. I spent my summers picking berries, rocks, and weeds; throwing bales and shoveling grain; and driving tractor, grain truck, swather, and combine. Throughout the year, I looked after the milk cows, collected eggs and fed chickens, and rounded up and fed the cattle. I helped my dad build a barn and two sheds, cut and pound fenceposts before stringing barbed wire and electric fence, and worked alongside him clearing and burning piles of brush, draining muskeg, and digging drainage ditches for the low parts of our fields.
Before I was in high school.
The house where I lived for my first five years before my dad built a substantial three-bedroom bungalow with a hired carpenter was a house my great-grandparents created by pushing two square, wooden grain bins together over a hand-dug hole that served as cellar. This house had running water and electricity but no toilet—the outhouse was out back. Before the big phone company bought it out, our party line had fourteen on it, and only existed because my grandfather and dad had augered the holes, logged, cut and placed the telephone poles, strung wire, and formed a telephone cooperative.
I grew up knowing the original homesteaders who carved farms and ranches and roads out of what they called “the Peace Country”—the Peace River District of northwestern Alberta. They lived hard lives, sometimes brutally so. The bachelor who homesteaded the quarter section on which my parents built their farmstead lived alone, got hung up in a barbed wire fence one winter, and was found frozen to death in the fence where he was ensnared.
I now live in a city.
Not the ‘burbs or exurbs, but in a downtown, paleo-urban setting with Victorian terrace homes around the corner and down and across the street. The newer section starting about eight blocks away boasts block after block of 100-year-old “craftsman”—arts and crafts movement—homes with oak wainscotting and beams and pocket doors.
But I only moved here fairly recently from another, much larger city where I lived on a high floor of a downtown, condominium apartment building.
Once the other second city—second to Montreal, since 1976 Toronto has grown and developed into Canada’s first city. Toronto is not a New York City or a London or a Los Angeles. But its influence in Canada cannot be underestimated and sometimes spills over international borders. Toronto combines Bay Street—Canada’s Wall Street—and Bloor Street—Canada’s Madison Avenue—with “Hollywood North,” a theatre district exceeded only by Broadway and London’s West End, three universities including a leading research university and two major law schools, a consortium of half a dozen or so research hospitals situated within blocks, three broadcast network and the leading cable supplier headquarters, two national dailies with the two leading business broadsheets, the flagship daily of a tabloid chain, the largest circulating daily in Canada, the leading newsweekly and several monthlies’ editorial offices, and among the most culturally diverse populations in the world. The functional headquarters of the country’s flagship airline is there and so are major league baseball, basketball, and hockey (including the Hockey Hall of Fame).
All this, but . . .
Within two blocks of where I lived in downtown Toronto, I could eat made-to-order pasta, sushi, Indian-Nepalese, Thai, “Canadian Cantonese” and genuine Szechuan, and Jamaican jerk chicken. Or, I could visit three or four greasy spoons, two pubs, an up-market steak house, and several fast-food chain restaurants. There were three “dollar stores,” a used book store, several independent convenience stores as well as a chain store, a tuxedo rental, a Persian rug shop, a 24-hour supermarket and a downtown arcade, an ethnic Indian tailor in business for fifty years and two seamstresses who did mending, two dry-cleaners, and three coffee shops including a “Five Bucks” as well as the less pricey “Tim’s.” Across the street was the old Eaton’s department store with the restored high Art Deco concert hall with its Lalique fountain and on the next block was the old Maple Leaf Gardens—the hallowed hall of hockey. There were two framers, an art store, a musical instrument retailer and renter, three large hotels including Canada’s largest, a movie house, Toronto’s police headquarters, a car dealership, two hospitals, my local “Y,” and a major subway and streetcar stop.
Within two blocks of where I lived.
Within five to ten minutes’ walk were Bloor Street’s cultural and marketing headquarters and high-end shopping including the usual suspects—Cartier, Tiffany’s, and the rest, three more movie theatres and used book shops, the University of Toronto and Ryerson University, that hospital district, dozens of restaurants, three major chain book stores, Canada’s largest downtown mall, Massey Hall that rivals Carnegie for acoustics, four live theatre spaces—the Canon, the double-decker Elgin and Wintergreen, and the Panasonic, Toronto’s insurance district and the Bay Street financial district, several more hotels, and the gay village.
City contrapuntal . . . In the middle of the nearby gay village was historic and staunchly orthodox Jarvis Street Baptist Church, south on Bay Street sat “affirming and accepting” Little Trinity Anglican Church surrounded by hotel and office towers in Trinity Square, and on King was St. Andrew’s, Toronto’s oldest Presbyterian church a block from Toronto’s “West End”—the live theatre district and a dense concentration of clubs and licensed summer patios. There was the terminal vista of old City Hall—an Edwardian neoromanesque affair reminiscent of the provincial Parliament building at “Queen’s Park”—across the street from the brutalist “new” city hall at Nathan Phillips Square.
Of a Saturday there was the reading room at the University of Toronto’s Hart House with its art deco club chairs where one could catch a summer’s breeze through swivelled, leaded-glass windows. At the base of the adjacent neogothic Soldiers’ Tower—a memorial to World Wars I and II fallen, folding chairs were set up on summer Sunday afternoons for the three o’clock carillon concerts. And then there were the annual, autumn book sales at University, St. Michael’s, Victoria, and Trinity Colleges from which bibliophiles and used booksellers alike stocked their shelves. At St. Michael’s were Sunday weekend theatre productions like the original stage play of “A Few Good Men” and afternoon pipe organ rehearsals in any number of nearby churches equipped by Casavant.
Or one could take a tour of the Ontario legislature situated in Queen’s Park on land leased from the University of Toronto. As well as the seat of government, it serves as something of a portrait gallery of Ontario venerables dating to its founding in 1791 by United Empire Loyalists who fled the southern British colonies during and in the aftermath of the American revolution. Here hangs a smoke-and-fire-damaged portrayal of the Quebec Conference of 1864 that drafted resolutions to become the British North America Act creating the Canadian confederation—one of the world’s oldest constitutional, representative democracies. This was a city mainly of Ulster Protestant foundation—either by way of what became the United States or from the northern counties of the Emerald Isle. At the north end of Queen’s Park is a memorial to the war dead of the British Empire’s last triumph over the Boers of South Africa. Around Queen’s Park and down to the old City Hall the Orangemen would march every July the 12th up to the 1970s with someone playing “King Billy” on a white charger leading the parade. Now, it’s “St. Patrick” who is commemorated every March 17th with a parade down Yonge Street.
Hair cuts and hot-towel, straight-razor shaves at Ralph’s, jazz and blues clubs, the annual popular music festival—”North by Northeast,” Tafelmusik‘s original instruments rendition of Handel’s Messiah, hotel lounges with wing-back chairs that didn’t try to hurry you through the Saturday National Post, and the weekend breakfast buffet that prepared flawless omelettes-to-order.
Ah . . .
Long before I lived in Toronto, I saw a letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail extolling the virtues of life in by then Canada’s most populous city, celebrating the ineffable sense of joy he felt standing at the corner of Bloor and Yonge. I replied at the time contrasting the spectacular sight that intruded into view while heading west on the Trans-Canada Highway toward Calgary as one came over that hill and was confronted with the stark majesty of the Alberta Rockies dwarfing the glass and steel and granite Calgary skyline—beyond the rolling foothills and fields of wheat. I suggested in my reply—printed by The Globe and Mail—that the earlier letter writer merely confirmed that at the intersection of Bloor and Yonge in Toronto was a “black hole” and he had gotten sucked in.
But after five years’ living a ten-minute walk south of Bloor and Yonge, between Yonge and Bay, “I get it.”
And I’m a farm boy . . . lost in this overflowing, cultural cornucopia of creation, living a city life.