The Surreal Life, Country Edition – Or, how I learned to give up Lattes and love Durham

Ruth Gordon almost ran me overLast night I dropped in at our local grocery to grab a few groceries, and was almost run over by a chain smoking, wig wearing Ruth Gordon clone driving a mini van. This isn’t as unusual as it would seem, since the average age in my tiny little town seems to be about 101.

Seniors who can barely see over the steering wheel of their cadillacs regularly veer into traffic without signaling (or even noticing other drivers), and parking spaces are considered to be suggestions more than hard and fast rules. The busiest joint in Durham is the Legion (that’s Canada’s version of a VFW hall), and the crossing guard by the local school seems to escort more old guys in rascal scooters across the road than she does school children.

Drive through Durham, and your initial impression is of a typical small town in rural Ontario – not a lot of money, slightly down at the heels, and with a rapidly aging population. You need to look closer to see the changes that are taking place here.

Driving along the main roads and side-roads in Durham you’re struck by the cheerful cacophony of hand lettered signs for eggs and produce.
There is something else distinctive about this farming neighbourhood. You’ll notice that organic farmland is not manicured. You don’t see perfect rolling hills of green or gold, you see nature in its natural state. Wildflowers are abundant on an organic farm. The fields are white with Queen Ann’s Lace or covered in the purplish haze of wild alfalfa.

From ‘A Day in the Life of an Organic Meadow Farm

There’s a paradigm shift taking place in this tiny little town on the shores of the Saugeen River. We’re at the center of the organic farming boom, and this is bringing in an influx of forward thinking, new generation farmers, some of whom sport tattoos and multiple piercings. As one local resident is quoted saying “I wasn’t sure what to make of them at first, but they sure do seem to know their farming”.

They sure do know how to court controversy, too. There’s a local dairy farm where you can buy ‘shares’ in a cow, which entitles you to a share of raw, unpasteurized milk. Fans of raw milk say it tastes better and is healthier than pasteurized or processed milk, but selling it is illegal in Ontario, as local Durham organic dairy farmer Michael Schmidt found out in 2006.

Raw milk legalization bill defeated in December
Issues around raw milk gained a high profile late last year after a raid on the southwestern Ontario farm of Michael Schmidt.

Schmidt, who runs a cow-sharing raw milk operation near Durham, Ont., had his equipment seized on Nov. 21 and was charged with operating a milk plant without a licence.

A number of prominent supporters including celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy and Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara spoke out on Schmidt’s behalf during his month-long hunger-strike protest.

From ‘Got raw milk? Don’t share, Ontario dairy board warns farmer‘, on

With the organic farmers and their families have come more interesting local businesses. Chicory Common sells organic produce and foods, as well as vegetarian options. Their cafe features vegan and fish based lunches, with dinner served on Friday nights. Poetry slams, lectures on greening your house, special orders from small micro cheeseries and farmers and speeches by Green politicians keep the cafe full five days a week.

Bike FaceBike Face sells high end road, mountain and recumbent bikes, along with hand cycles. Bike Face sponsors the Rocky River Cycling Festival, with demos, triathlon workshops, film nights and camping. We see a ton of cyclists in this area in the summer, due to the abundance of accessible trails and roads with wide shoulders (originally there to accommodate Mennonite horse and buggies).

The same trails that bring in snowmobilers in the winter, draw mountain and cross country cyclists in the summer.

Our local art gallery is set at the end of a long, lovely suspension bridge that spans the Saugeen river. We wandered in last summer, expecting to see quilts and water colors of flowers. What we found was an exhibit of kinetic art, featuring ‘Science of the Quotidian’, an installation by Christopher Flowers, and the quirky and ground breaking film ‘The Way Things Go’, by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

No quilts in sight, and the only water colors were a selection of prints from the local artists commune/collective, located just behind the gallery in an old converted grain mill.

Durham might not have a movie theatre, but we do have the Symphony Barn, complete with cattle, birds and an assortment of cats. It’s one of the venues of the ‘Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film‘, our local film festival. The films range from independent to animation, and are shown outdoors, in the barn or at our local retro drive-in.

Durham also has the ‘Words Aloud‘ festival of spoken word and storytelling. With entries open to almost anyone willing to step up to the mike, there’s a lively mix of poetry slams, verbal histories and folk lore, with some political action thrown in for good measure.

Against all of this — this mix of new tribe organic pioneers, displaced Torontonian artists and professors, and an aging population of middle class, blue collar workers, we sit on the edges of the largest concentration of Old Order Mennonites in Canada.

Our store parking lots have shelters for horses and buggies, and we share our sidewalks with Old Order women in ankle length dresses and velcro closing tennis shoes.

It’s a rich and fertile mix that encourages and nurtures iconoclastic personalities. What better place for a post punk geek grrl dog breeder to put down roots?