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Friday, July 5, 2019

Portrait of a hardscrabble hill farm


This farm is down on its luck, but it’s been in the family for five generations. How much longer can it survive?
Hill farm with logging truck, by Carol L. Douglas. 16x20, oil on canvas. The black flies will go as soon as it dries.
On Wednesday I found an old hill farm to draw in East Fraserville, Nova Scotia. I found a place I could safely pull off the road, so I set up my safety cone and got to work.

I’ve been assessing my reaction to painting locations and including that in the painting. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was aware of a low-level anxiety, coming from the hilly, narrow roads and the steep shoulders I was working from. This is an 80-kmh provincial highway, which translates to a 55-mph state road.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more uncomfortable, I saw a logging truck snake down the long hill toward me. To be fair, these were very careful drivers, but I have a healthy respect for their top-heavy loads.
It's a narrow, fast road, and this is not what you want to see bearing down on you while painting.
My painting became less about looking down on the house and more about its relationship to the high road. It is a lovely old place, similar in age and style to my own, but it’s in bad repair. Still, they had hospitable, woofy dogs, gamboling cats, and an impeccable garden. I figured I’d like the owners.

I met the husband in the early evening. He was a tall, sturdy, upright fellow of about my age. He told me that blueberries are depressed right now. They’re paying $.20 Canadian per pound, which is $.15 our money. Worse than that, the big growers had warehouses full last year and refused to take any from smaller growers. His crop rotted in the field.

He has hundreds of acres of land earning no revenue, so he’s taken an outside job. He kept apologizing for the condition of his house. Since he and his wife raised five daughters and sent them to university from that farm, it began to look downright heroic.

“People ask me why my house is down in a hole, but the road used to be where my driveway is now,” he told me. The high road was built in the 1950s.
The house in 1888, before it had a porch. (Tinted photo courtesy of the owner.)
He showed me a tinted photo of the house taken in 1888. What follows is my best recollection. The man on the far right is his great-great-grandfather. His great-great-great grandmother is the older lady, and the other woman is his great-great-grandmother. The two gentlemen to the left were named Crossman; there’s a nearby hill named after that family. There’s also a dog, if you look carefully.

His great-great-great grandfather died when his son was 14. He was climbing a fence while hunting and accidentally shot himself under the arm. He walked to a neighbor’s house, sat down on a stump and bled to death. Two days later, one of those Crossman fellows brought the widow to East Fraserville. In a hardscrabble world, necessity wins out over sentiment. But who are we to criticize? Today we marry for love and half our marriages end in divorce.
This is an underpainting I started yesterday. Hopefully I'll finish it today.
The house has been in the family ever since, although its glory days are now long gone. Farming’s never been an easy road, but it’s worse when small producers are being squeezed out, as is happening in Nova Scotia right now. I wonder how my new friend feels about being unable to farm his family homestead. I wonder if any of his daughters are interested in it, or whether it will pass out of the family when this generation passes on.

3 comments:

Rebecca Gorrell said...

Great story. I love when paintings have a story. Here, yours made me look longer, see the logging truck, and the high and low roads.

Mary Whitney said...

Great story Carol and paintings!

Carol Douglas said...

Thank you both. I booted up the color slightly and removed 59 black flies from the surface--no kidding. That necessitated some repainting since they died dramatically. I didn't take a new photo of it yet but will soon.