In January 1968 I took up my professional occupation as a Physical Limnologist (landlocked oceanographer) at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, a newly-formed Government of Canada research institute in Burlington, Ontario. Burlington, located north and east of Hamilton, along the north shore of Lake Ontario, was at that time in transition from a small market town serving a surrounding agricultural community, to an outlying satellite of Toronto. By October Penny and I had acquired a station wagon, a daschund puppy, our first child, Lyse, and a small house on a tree-lined street with a half-acre lot of fertile sandy loam adjacent to a large field. This houe would be our home for the next 31 years.
The Niagara Escarpment with its sporadic outcrops of limestone rock lay a mile to the north. There were parcels of good arable land above the escarpment, but where the impermeable limestone lay near the surface, the land was poorly drained. Below the escarpment and close to Lake Ontario the soils were deep and fertile and much of the land around Burlington was given over to family-operated market gardens, selling produce locally as well as supplying markets along the shore of Lake Ontario between Oshawa and St. Catherines. A kilometer north of our home lay the valley of Grindstone Creek. Grindstone Creek drained land to the north above the Escarpment, plunged over the Escarpment itself in a handsome waterfall and discharged into Hamilton Harbour/Lake Ontario. The Village of Waterdown was established above the escarpment where Grindstone Creek ran fast towards the falls, a good site for water-powered mills. Below the falls, the Grindstone flowed through a kilometer of no-mans’s land, narrow, tangled with vines and other well-watered growth emerging to daylight in a small, confined subdivision adjacent to the major east-west railway line and Higway 403 to Hamilton, Brantford and and beyond. South of the highway and railway, the steep sided creek valley was given over to a largely undeveloped public park where neighbourhood childen including ours patrolled unsupervised like chimpanzees in clothes. We came to know this area intimately.
On the west side of the Grindstone Creek valley Lemoville Road followed the valley’s rim north There were several small market-garden farms on the west side of the road, all of which had been owned at one time by members of the Lemon family. The largest farm was at the north end of the road. It was owned by Archie Lemon and his wife Mrytle. The second farm downhill had been owned by Archie’s brother Murray (now deceased) and his spouse Pearl. I do not know the history but I suspect that the other two farms along the road had been owned by brothers or sisters of Archie and Murray. That would be consistent with what I learned about their autocratic father. Pearl became a good friend and we partnered with her in the restoration of her apple trees, the production of strawberries and sweet corn. Archie & Myrtle became persons of interest and the subjects of a series unpublished poems (Up at Archie’s) about a fading local agriculture and the redevelopment of formerly productive land. Some of these poems are posted here.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were the years of the “back to the land” movement and we were drawn to its striving for regional independence even as it was being overwhelmed by the commercial logic of long supply chains and industrial food producton. As an environmental scientist (long retired) I came to believe in the validity ( even necessity ) of a bioregional approach to food production and to human cultures in general. Thus we became students and supporters of the small scale local agriculture in our neighbourhood,an agrculture that once supplied a major city like Toronto, even as those traditions faded away.
Looking back on the Ontario years when we were in our youthful primes I am amazed at the energies we possessed and the projects we took on. One of mine was learning to draw and paint through evening classes at the Dundas Valley School of Art. Needing a space where I could lay out my paints and work free of household distractions, I rented an unused portion of Pearl Lemon’s barn, closed it off and added an oil heater. Scenes from the Grindstone Creek valley became favourite subjects. In the 70’s and 80’s I produced little poetry but many drawings and paintings, some of which are reproduced here.
Along the Grindstone
If you start at the concrete silos
Near the sewage treatment plant,
Step over the bank by the culvert
And drop down through the screen of sumacs,
You’ll hear the creek below you.
The going isn’t easy;
There’s deadfalls, clay sidehills, and tangle,
And always gravity’s sharp pull.
Trees let you walk among them,
Indifferent to all except the earth’s slow turn,
Watching the light, cloud, rain, wind and snow
Come and go
Across the valley’s narrow rim.
Here in the gorge, the creek clings with tiny, silver claws,
Holds back against relentless pull.
Resisting all this time has led to wreckage;
Pulling at escarpment’s rim has brought down huge blocks
Which, despite their weight
have offered only fragile foothold,
Focussing the struggle in a new place but with the same old results.
Sometimes you can see where the creek has plugged the gaps
With whatever came to hand.
Jammed among the slabs and boulders,
Logs and brush, old timbers, tires,
And once the rusting carcass of a car.
Further on it seems the water wearies;
There is no longer the purchase on broken rocks.
Hawthorns and willows take advantage of the lull,
They’re grabby, want all the room,
Clutch at strangers with thorny arms.
Wet clay underfoot and piles of matted twigs
Show where the creek has tried to snatch things back.
On the high ground, aloof from this brawling,
Maple, oak and beech have slowly gathered
On the valley sides, crowding to the skyline.
Among them, if you know where to look,
You can see Archie’s house and barn
Peering over the edge and none too sure of the footing.
Down here in the tangle, always the noise,
muttering at the edge of comprehension,
Water regretful of its turbulent descent,
Clawing earth down to stand higher.
(October 1982; revised October 2005)
The gold October sun,
Reverberating in the scattered yellows of late leaves,
Has become more personal and less blinding.
Under his wistful gaze,
The compass of our vision narrows,
The land contours firmly on old bones.
Down among the roots,
The earth pulls nearer to its centre.
Now I feel the shapes and folds of gullies,
Whisper the creeks which way to run,
Draw breath and see the cool air
Flow among the trees to meet me.
(October 1978; revised October 2005)
Putting the Strawberries to Bed
Cool east wind;
year’s last month brings first snow.
Softly, the bare apple twigs
gather new blooms.
On the strawberries
we have laid a cover of fresh yellow straw.
It blazes like a gold road to nowhere.
White birch, morning sun,
Yellow leaves in grass.
Ahead are desk and papers.
Raising Henry Truscott
The crew has paused a while,
lawnmower resting in the dandelions and grass.
Downslope they gather round a toppled headstone,
the kid with tummy and cowboy hat,
Dad there too – same shape but more,
a worried guy who wants to do the right thing,
and two old farmers in faded shirts, suspenders and peaked caps,
holding a shovel and an iron bar.
Henry Truscott, born 1843, died 1921, has fallen down again.
Once more his neighbours work to set him straight.
On this spring Saturday, they gaze up the churchyard slope
where clouds mull over the notion of a sudden shower.
All around the smells of grass and spaded earth.
“Been looking up this hill for sixty years.” says the old guy with the spade.
“Henry too.” says the other,
while Dad measures the morning left, the uncut grass.
“Tom, that mower’s cooled by now.”
On my first visits
I stumbled quickly through,
Sensing this to be a private place,
And possibly abandoned,
Yet potent with inhospitable ghosts.
Later I surprised them
Bending over in a row of weed-choked rhubarb,
Myrtle picking and Archie gathering.
There was anger in their gestures,
Myrtle blaming Archie for letting the weeds grow
And Archie sore at the weeds for growing.
Words I don’t recall.
There may not have been any.
I confess to being captured by the quaint
While sensing the dark undercurrents
I would later see and feel.
I returned many times with camera and drawing paper
Until, with practice,
My pencil plunged beneath the surface of the page
And clicked against the bones.
To tell you about this place
I have first to map it,
shape the hills and hollows,
prickle the thickets,
scatter the birds,
conjure up the visitors,
all this underneath the hand of my mind.
Later, when the stream has been set in motion,
and the dusk falls smoothly,
I can tell you about the autumn noon,
the sun’s farewell caress on the back of your neck.
13 thoughts on “Along the Grindstone: Some Ontario Poems”
Great stuff Farrell! Love it.
Best Regards Ed Alm Sent from my iPad
Thanks, Ed. I value your encouragement.
I loved reading your writing and seeing the artwork and photos.
Here are a few small stories based on a sketch map of the Grindstone creek valley and surrounding area that I drew and wrote soon after I had moved to Nova Scotia. Thomas added to the map and added a few stories. The writing is not polished! It was notes for a map
-The valley, otherwise known as Lamb’s Hollow. Creek running through steep hillsides on either side. One of my favourite places to be, spent a lot of time there. I used to spend time here with my brother, with my parents, by myself, with my friend Jennifer. There are good hills for skiing when enough snow falls. I enjoyed going running with Dad on the trails in the woods. I went on solo treks to explore and observe – often finding a place to sit still and watch and listen to birds and other animals. In the summer and early fall there are a lot of sweet smelling plants growing tall in the river valley.
– I love to walk up along the top of this ridge, It’s a steep climb up. I have a favourite tree up there at a spot where you can look out over the valley. Often see signs of deer along the path. Wildflowers on hillsides in spring. Lots of trilliums. I looked for the rare dark red trilliums and white ones with green stripes. Downhill from the special tree there’s a damp patch where lots of skunk cabbage grows, one of the earliest spring plants. I like the smell.
– Brick factory. Big red brick smokestack, kilns, lumpy land, abandoned piles of broken bricks
– A pond that’s great for skating in the winter. A protected spot with steep hillsides. Lots of birds in summer
– A grove of sycamore trees near the creek
– Lots of people fish from this bridge
– Rickety rackety one lane wooden bridge that makes a great rattling sound when a car goes across it. Great to go across it on a bike. At this point Grindstone creek goes into Burlington Bay / Hamilton Harbour. Early in the morning you sometimes see rowing teams practicing.
– these railway tracks are very busy and dangerous. At this point where the Valley Inn road passes the tracks you can get a good view of Hamilton. Smell of creosote from the tracks, especially if it’s a sweaty summer day. When I was falling asleep at night I could hear the trains going by.
– Mrs. Lemon’s farm: reddish brown earth, Mrs Lemon hoeing weeds in hot sun wearing a faded cotton flower print dress, fields of market garden crops including lots of tomatoes, a long row of gladiola flowers, apple trees, pear orchard, wooden barn, old chicken coop, picking strawberries, Mrs Lemon’s red and white truck for market days, old license plates nailed to inside of the truck part of the barn. Mrs Lemon’s house has a nice side porch – with a water pump. Hay loft in barn. Dad’s studio was where pigs used to be kept in the barn, Henry’s horse and later two horses lived in the barn and didn’t get enough exercise.
Finding arrowheads in the fields, finding fragments of china in the fields (including parts of china doll faces), old cars in pear orchard (one of them is our old dark grey Volvo with red seats.) These cars belong to Henry who lives across the road in a house right at the edge of a very steep hill. He has a workshop in his garage and can fix a lot of things, especially metal and mechanical things.
– Little creek with red clay banks and woods all around. Have to cross a few rusty wire fences behind pear orchard to get there. Found a dead dog there once
– Hidden Valley: a small community deep in the valley. Very shady and nice in summer, lots of trees. A dead end road. Smaller houses. Someone built a really neat suspension bridge over the creek. At the end of the road there are trails that go upstream.
– Archie’s pasture. Used to be Archie Lemon’s land. I can just remember him, his old threshing machine, and horses. Now a beautiful sloping hill, hawthorn trees, lots of deer, wagon tracks getting grown over in the woods. I really like to walk up here from the valley – walking upstream. It’s treacherous in places because of the steep hillsides. The house and barn aren’t there anymore
– Convent land. They used to run a girl’s school. I was relieved i didn’t’ get sent there. My friend Elizabeth got sent there after grade 8.
– Rolling fields and trees. Explored this land with Jim, he lived up near here off Waterdown road and knew this area well. The area was designated as a green belt. In high school I used to ride my bike up Snake road to visit Jim. The ride home was very fast, all downhill. Usually I went home via Waterdown road, being careful not to take the corner near teacher Dave’s house too fast because there was often a lot of gravel there. (Dave Creighton was one of my amazing high school English teachers.)
– Easterbrook’s 12 inch hot dog stand. This place has so much character; an old diner that escaped modernization. Ice cream, hotdogs, burgers, fries, pop in glass bottles in a metal cooler of ice water. A hallway with business cards pinned from ceiling to waist level. Booths with wooden tables
One of Thomas’ stories:
This is one of my favourite spots in the valley. It is a steep north facing slope in the edge of a large pond. It is covered with large hemlock and white pine trees. It is always cool and dark on this hillside…. Owls enjoy roosting in the shelter of the trees away from the prying eyes of blue jays and crows. I have found numerous owl “pukes” under the trees and on the ice below in the winter. With the view through the boughs of the pond, marsh land, creek and hills I can pretend I’m far away from the city – in the northland of Ontario when I’m really a 10 minute bike ride and walk from my childhood home.
There are more of my little stories and Thomas’ stories – I will add a few more of them in another comment later
How I remember Grindstone & the Lemon farm. Will read at my leisure. Did I not see your painting of the Grindstone in Winter? >
Thanks again for these treasures, you have an amazing memory and no doubt kept these things, poems and drawings, safely for years to be pulled out now in our ageing years. My favourite picture was definitely Pearl Lemon’s Farm and my favourite poem is Along the Grindstone. You describe a world I’m totally unfamiliar with so I appreciate the chance to have a glimpse into your earlier years, while Roger and I were living such an incredibly lifestyle. Thanks again, Pauline
Thanks, Pauline. In the picture “Pearl Lemon’s Farm” the door to the right of the grey tractor (my treasure) is the entrance to my studio.
That was beautiful! Enjoyed every minute of it! So wonderfully describes where we still live and where we raised out three children. Our grandchildren enjoy this marvellous area when they visit. Susan Preston
Glad you found this post, Susan. Did Lyse tip you off?
I sent it to Mark (Susan’s son), Britt, Jim, Jen and a few others who grew up in the area at the same time as Thomas and I
Is that watercolour of Mrs Lemon’s farm with the bike in the foreground the painting that Mr + Mrs Beech had on their wall for many years?
That’s the one. Mr. Beech packed it up and sent it to us – rest his soul. It’s hanging in our sunroom.
And I have hanging in my bedroom 2 small prints (?) of Grindstone Creek. >
Read your idyllic account of life in Ontario. LOVE your paintings. Poetry to be saved when I’m not feeling so yucky. >