There is a great Wendell Berry poem that talks about teachers and learners. He asserts, in beautiful prose, we encounter teachers and mentors everywhere; we often just aren’t ready to accept their wisdom or are too impatient to see them. He says that these teachers come into our lives at different times and usually at just the tight time, when we need guidance and direction.
After spending not quite a week on Duck Creek farm on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, I have been blessed to see a teacher. His name is John Wilcox. He is a farmer in the true sense of the word. He is not someone who just produces food for his income; John is a man of the land. He has invested his entire life with passionate intensity in the gentle relationship of man and soil. His family heritage includes five generations of Canadian farmers who have passed to him their love and knowledge of the land, years of lessons learned and wisdom attained. Looking through John’s office, plaques and newspaper clippings line the wall. Each tells a story of past and present groups he has been involved with, awards won for his efforts in the name of farmers, ribbons for best produce at the market, news stories. It becomes quite clear after seeing this room that John is not just a farmer, he is the embodiment of a vision for farming. Like a seed sprouting from good soil he is the transformation and transcendence of man to ideal.
We pass through the machine shop. There are tools and equipment scattered everywhere. The smell of rust and gasoline is strong but pleasant. It seems to tell a story – one of hard work and failure and success and love. John, now 70, leads me into the room to look to look for the tiller. It is my second day on the farm and there are so many questions in my head I seem to lose track of them as they arise. Just as I mouth my next query, John shouts “there she is!” the tiller comes into view. “Now this is a machine, got her for 150 bucks at a garage sale, can you believe that?!” His excitement is real and infectious. I want to exude the same energy and emotions, but I don’t know what the true value of this equipment is. I, however, act astounded as to not look like a total rookie. John carefully teaches me how to start the machine and how to till. He tells me to let the machine do its thing and that my only role is to guide it. To not push too hard or force it, but to work with the machine in balance. His explanation is very unclear and reminds me of a mind twisting zen poem. With great trepidation I pull the knobs and levers and walk the machine down a bed of cloddy, chunky soil. The teeth of the tiller dig into the ground as I try and keep a straight line to not run into the newly sprouted potatoes inches to the right of the masticating metal teeth. I struggle for the first couple of lines, but then find rhythm and learn to relax my grip on the machine and feel the dirt.
After lunch, John, his partner Sue, the other farmhand Anna and I sit around with happy dull eyes. The warm food lays in the hammock of our bellies and we enjoy the fleeting blessed moments. I ask John when we are going to seed the beets, beans and corn. He turns his gaze towards me and tells me he doesn’t know. He explains that farming is best based on intuition. That the weather and the land will decide for us, that it is not a decision for us to make. I happily take this lesson from the teacher and am quiet.