Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life by Brian Brett
Reviewed by Ken Favrholdt
Brian Brett’s book certainly has a catchy title. Even better, the book lives up to it, providing a unique interpretation of the dying art of the family farm, which has been a common institution in British Columbia for a century and a half. Brett’s “long day of storytelling,” a blend of philosophical commentary and amusing anecdotes – “theory and worms” – is a unique tale of the rural/urban fringe.
Trauma Farm is a real place with a real name – Willowpond Farm – located on Saltspring Island at the vanguard, as Brian Brett puts it, of living, eating, and acting locally. “If anything,” Brett states, “the small, mixed farm is a hymn to the lush achievement of our complex work and to ecological entropy – the natural process that creates diversity” (1). Here, surrounded by primaeval cedar forest, Brett, his wife Sharon, and their younger son and friends moved into a large house eighteen years before he conceived of this quirky natural history of their farm. The book is written as a walk around the farm on the longest day of the year – an eighteen-year-long day that “includes both the past and the future of living on the land, tracing the path that led hunter-gatherers to the factory farm and globalization” (3). The book thus goes beyond the parochial to the universal. Brett, disrobing himself in the warm summer night, sheds thoughts on every imaginable subject.
The book has twenty-four chapters, really vignettes, that cover a wide variety of topics, from sleeping in a teepee to raising poultry, watching sheep and deer, making breakfast, walking, gardening, chopping wood, discussing The Origin of Species, and critiquing the perils of factory farming: “It’s clear that factory farming is dangerous, but it has fed many people economically. We have to learn how to harness it and reduce our addiction to its defiled products” (365).
Better known as a poet and fiction writer, Brett writes in a style that is both postmodernist and 1960s beat. A constant theme is his rant against globalization: he predicts a return to the hunter-gatherer state – more Trauma Farms where people can return to a place where ecology can be understood: “Our minds can’t encompass the multiplying intersections of a farm’s diverse interactions; it’s a mystic star map whose interconnections are larger than human imagination and certainly beyond the reductionist mind trap of the logic that led to the thrills of globalization” (211). Brett offers wonderful perceptions of and humorous angles on the world around us.
He intertwines many different stories and sources that shed light on his personal world. Some of the notable authors he lists – including Americans Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, E.F. Schumacher, and, of course, Henry David Thoreau – are essential reading for people like Brett and for the people Brett hopes we will become.
Trauma Farm is an eccentric but important contribution to BC bookshelves. The beauty of the book is that there are people like Brett living in the province and making a living on the edge, yet finding their centre in the mundane. For the reader who wants a historical portrait of the small farm, this book will not fill the bill; however, for those open to the ramblings and ruminations of the eccentric farmer on British Columbia’s economic and social fringe, Trauma Farm captures the meaning and message of West Coast existence.
BC Studies, no. 167, Autumn 2010.