Greystone Books, 320 pages, $21.95
I almost didn’t give Trauma Farm a chance. Salt Springs Island farmer Brian Brett is also a poet (it’s his main source of income, in fact, and he jokes throughout the book that it supports his farming habit), and the first couple of chapters came off as overly-flowery. After stacks of tomes on farming and sustainable food that are dry and full of statistics, Brett’s descriptive, poetic style seemed too disconcerting.
Likewise, the style of arranging the book – stories that comprise the “18-year-long day” of life on a B.C. farm, can be confusing at first, as Brett bounces back and forth to different points in the farm’s history, while loosely arranging the chapters along the lines of a typical day at the farm. A story about the death of a cherished pet or animal will be followed by another story on a different theme where the same animal plays a role. Until the readers gets all the characters straight, and accepts the non-linear train-of-thought style, the whole thing can be hard to follow. Settling in and pretending that you’re sitting on Brett’s back porch while he sips tea and shares stories of the farm seems to be the best way to approach the book.
The animals are, indeed, true characters in Brett’s book. As any of us would describe a beloved pet, he offers up humorous, heartwarming and heartbreaking stories about his dogs, a beloved horse that had a heart attack in his arms, a goose that spent many years terrorizing that same horse, peahens that coveted a jaunt around the inside of his house, and the story of a blind and deaf dog named Bonnie, who became lost in the woods at night and then was relieved from her terror when Brett managed to catch her, only to die of a brain tumour a week later.
For all of his descriptive stylings, Brett doesn’t romanticize farm life in the least. He’s open and honest with his readers on all the gory bits (slaughtering animals), the frustrating bits (dealing with government officials whose regulations are skewed in favour of factory farm operations), and the stupid bits (like slipping in goose crap and breaking his leg).
But much of Trauma Farm revels in the beauty of Brett’s world; of the terroir of his land, or the joy of a cob of fresh corn. In the chapter about lunch, he works his way through the elements of the meal, revelling in the bread or the greens of a salad. Brett uses these chapters to segue into sections – they’re not quite rants, and not exactly editorials – on issues such as GM seeds, quota systems, factory farms, or the health and safety regulations that force food producers to actually make our food less safe than it would be from the farm gate. These bits seldom get ranty, and they’re all factual, but they’re also not heavy on statistics. Not that I’m questioning Brett’s knowledge or expertise on the matter – in fact, I like his style in these sections immensely; having read the full syllabus required of the average SOLE food fan, it’s refreshing to not be inundated with numbers and percentages, to hear a farmer’s account of the situation as he would tell it if you were, well, sitting on his back porch.
Trauma Farm also touches on the farming community in Salt Spring Island. From the sharing of tools to the local farmers market or the fall fair, Brett covers all of it, usually with an amusing anecdote – for instance, a neighbour with a trailer often got called to help round up escaped animals, and once in a rush, after catching a pair of pigs he left them in a pen at the fair until he could figure out who they belonged to. When he returned, he discovered the pigs had won 2nd prize.
In the end I’m glad I stuck it out past the initial chapters, as it turns out, Brett’s Trauma Farm was an inspiring, informative, and really enjoyable read. The poetic writing style didn’t always work for me, and Brett seemed to move between three or four styles depending on the topic at hand, but I always felt as if I was right there beside him as the stories unfolded.