Getting skunked is part of the rich pageantry of life.
Last month I joined a couple of farmers on a remote lake in Algoma to search for speckled trout. We were banished to the place by our wives who were not willing to listen to us moan a minute longer about the cold, wet spring. The fields were going to need at least another 10 days of dry weather before a wheel could be turned, so a cabin in the woods seemed like a reasonable place to sit it out. The last person to call me before we headed into the phone-free wilderness was a cash cropper friend from Elgin County who said he had never in his 30 years on the land been so busy doing nothing.
“I think I’m skunked,” he wailed.
I tried to console him. Farmers are not the only ones who find themselves suddenly up against a wall. Everyone gets skunked sooner or later. This is just our year.
We always complain that it’s different for us. We deal with large forces beyond our control: Markets, weather, confrontations between nations, events that defy prediction or preparation. But perils lurk everywhere and are a normal part of the human condition.
I have been skunked myself. My ancestors made a killing in the farm machinery business in the 19th century and I grew up assuming that the dividend cheques would just keep coming in the mail. My great-great-grandfather persuaded the federal government to fix tariffs both ways for him. He paid no tariffs on incoming steel and he made his U.S. competitors pay high tariffs on any machinery they tried to sell in Canada. This was called the National Policy and it kept the Conservatives in power for a generation. It also made my ancestors very wealthy. The logic of protection worked just as well for politicians and businessmen back then as it does today. So my ancestors lived in big houses and left monuments everywhere and their children took up lawn tennis and amateur theatre. Canadian farmers did not fare quite as well. They went through three serious depressions in the 1870s, 1890s and early 1920s before the big one hit in 1930. The government’s remedy once again was more tariffs and that helped the Great Depression hang on in my farm neighbourhood until about 1965.
By this time, my family had long since cashed out of the machinery business and taken up lawn tennis and theatre full-time. The company eventually sleepwalked into insolvency and fell into the hands of a hedge fund in the U.S., just about the same time our family accountant gathered us together to explain that the money was now gone and all of us would have to work for a living. This was a shock from which I have still not fully recovered.
I was at university studying economics at the time and I got a big fat history book out of the library that examined the history of the family corporation. I wanted to know where it had all gone wrong. I learned that when my great grandfather keeled over at an early age in 1901, he left no one with his energy and vision to step into his place. Drift set in, and the company very slowly drifted over a cliff. I began to understand that struggle in a worthy cause is not only healthy, it is essential. I took the last cheque from the family trust and used it to put a down payment on this little farm.
The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung told us we really only need two things in life: Love and work that matters. Most of us farm because we believe that it is work that matters. And it will still matter next month or next year, or whenever it finally decides to stop raining.
It rained for four days and four nights on our little cabin in the woods. Speckled trout are a very fickle fish. They can go days without showing any interest in any lure in the tackle box. We circled the lake on a continuous loop, but in the end, we were skunked. No fish. But it was therapeutic to fret about something different and the trip had the right effect on us. By the end of the week the world was back on its hinges and swinging properly. We were ready to throw ourselves back into the struggle