The Slow Farm
April 6, 2017
Review By Connie Brim
A memoir, The Slow Farm, focuses largely on the brief period during which Tarn Wilson lived on Texada Island with her American parents and younger sister Rima. Arriving in 1973, the then four-year-old and her family first occupied a cabin at geographically isolated Pocahontas Bay. Here, the parents’ counter-culture lifestyle ensured that the sisters played unencumbered by rules, etiquette, and often clothes. The sea and woods became their playground, and their father’s tales of magical creatures nurtured their imaginations. Despite his disapproval, the family moved several months later to the Slow Farm, located six miles from Van Anda, so Tarn Wilson could attend grade school.
More than half-way through the memoir, Wilson announces, “the Slow Farm is hard on women” (190), and this farm emerges as a metaphor for the sexism that the adult Wilson explores as a flaw in her parents’, and by extension, hippies’ back-to-the-land movement. Dark and feculent, the Slow Farm housed not only visiting hippies and destructive goats but also a disintegrating and financially distressed family. While father Jack tinkered with engines, mother Janet – alone and unaided by modern conveniences – faced a formidable number of domestic chores, developed pneumonia, and sought part-time work in Van Anda. Only a few months after the family had moved to the dank farm, Janet left, settled on Vancouver’s East Side, and immediately petitioned for custody of their daughters.
The Slow Farm is divided into seven sections, the latter two of which focus solely on journeys Wilson later made to Texada Island (1996) and Cowichan Bay (2005). Otherwise, the book’s sections contain multiple segments, each thematically titled and only a few pages long. All of the titles, such as “What I Feared Most: Frozen Heart,” essentially foreground what the reader is to notice in each segment’s self-contained memory. Wilson also incorporates what she calls “artifacts” – quotations, black-and-white photographs, chronologies, passages from personal letters, and newspaper items. These include quotations from Timothy Leary’s The Declaration of Evolution and A.S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, shedding light on some of the sources for Janet’s and Jack’s guiding ideals and attitudes, while establishing a broad cultural context for Wilson’s personal narrative.
As a narrative that increases our knowledge of British Columbia’s alternative communities during the 1960s and 1970s, The Slow Farm falters. Wilson offers few stories about the hippies Jack and Janet befriended and rarely cites surnames of visitors to the Slow Farm. She acknowledges, “I’m not in Texada’s stories of itself” (352) nor are its hippies in Texada, a historical record prepared by the Powell River Historical Society (352). Nevertheless, as a memoir that evokes a singular childhood, initially Edenic and subsequently traumatic, The Slow Farm reveals the emotional and psychological impact of some anti-establishment ideas on a young child who wanted structure and rules.
The Slow Farm
Port Townsend, WA: Ovenbird Books, 2014. 368 pp. $18.00 USD paper.