Five Winters: Two Conscientious Objectors Find Struggle and Salvation in Their 1970s Move Back to the Land

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Introduction by Kerridwen Harvey

In 1969, Jocelyn “Josh” Harvey, born in the American Midwest, moved to a farm outside of Barry’s Bay, Ontario, with her husband, David Harvey, who, ever the punster, dubbed the farm Gopherwood, and their one-year-old daughter Kerridwen.  There, the two former full-time English professors who taught in upstate New York, embarked on a politically motivated project of “living off the land” — or attempting to do so.

Conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, although too old to be draft dodgers, they left well-paying academic jobs and the comforts they provided, to establish themselves as subsistence farmers, never having farmed themselves, on a hilly, 100-acre rock-encrusted farm. They had hoped to sell an anthology of American poetry to help support themselves, but they did not find any takers, so they were grateful for the generosity of an elderly relative who allowed them to survive those years.

They lasted “five winters” on the farm, as Josh characterized it. This piece, written by Josh just after they left the farm to look for jobs in Ottawa, tells of how they managed to eat in this inhospitable environment. Never returning to academia, Josh went on to become an accomplished arts administrator and advocate, working for many years at the Canada Council for the Arts. The family would visit the farm on occasional weekends and at Christmas until David passed away in1990.

Josh sold the farm in the late 1990s and the octagonal house Dave built while they lived there since collapsed. Josh visited the farm, now much grown over, with her daughter only 11 days before she passed away in August 2019. Seeing the farm after all that time gave her great pleasure. Josh remained politically engaged throughout her life and the Jocelyn Harvey Legacy Fund was established following her death to encourage democratic engagement.

Note the language of the piece is of its time (“mod cons”, Eskimo, etc) but has not been altered, because it speaks to a space and a time. That said, many of the themes resonate today with our society’s growing interest in local food, sustainability, and health-conscious diets.

Josh’s Story, Written in 1975

Six years ago, my husband, our daughter, and I moved “back to the land,” leaving behind a comfortable middle-class academic life, two salaries, supermarket food-buying, and other “mod cons”. We were frightened but elated.

This was the adventure other people seemed to put off until their retirement years. We were going to have it now, while were young and capable. We flexed our muscles and prepared with all the wilfulness we’d brought to our PhD dissertations to make something of wilderness life. Before the move, we read everything we could get our hands on: Bradford Angier’s cheery practicalities, the apocalyptic advice of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and enough “How To” books to make us imagine we knew something about the life were going to lead.

In the summer of 1969, we left for Canada, with two immense cast-iron stoves in our rented truck and a gritty look of determination. Within two weeks, we had found a farm in Ontario and bought it and by mid-July, we were beginning to wonder what we would live on without money. Despite our salaries — or was it because of them? — we had come to Canada with next to no money and laid down most of that to pay for the farm. But we were people, as our parents had always said, with “no sense of money,” otherwise, surely, we would never have come at all.

We had hopes of eventual royalties from a book we had written and verbal promises of freelance editing work, but the immediate problem, now that shelter was taken care of, was very simple:  how to eat.

Food absorbed our next year, in a way that it doesn’t, even in these days of high food prices, if you can take your wallet with you to the grocery store. Among our multitudinous experience with food some were grim, some exhilarating. A few of them changed forever the way we were to eat, and almost all of them were an excellent preparation for living economically, even in the city, while eating wisely.

In February of the following year my husband’s aunt, a marvelously generous and adventurous soul, began to send us $100 a month (“I mean to leave it to you when I died, but I’d rather have it doing some good while I can watch”), and that money became a part of our salvation. But, in the meantime, from July to February, how did we manage to live? It was mid-summer already, too late to put in more than a tiny garden, seeding plants that would mature before our first expected frost date on September 7. And besides, the farm garden had not been tilled in at least five years and was full of Scotch grass, which has powerful spreading roots and must be painstakingly removed if it isn’t to fill up the garden again.

At the same time, we somehow had to made our aged farmhouse habitable. It had had no resident family for five years and had been used by hunters every fall. Crammed full with broken jars, ancient grubby tinned cans, school papers and old clothing, empty whisky bottles, limitless amounts of dust and dirt, and eight mouse-eaten mattresses, it required almost all our attention. Merely to clean it out, fix the leaks in the roof, and rip off five peeling layers of old flowered wallpaper was a full summer’s enterprise.

The well, too, needed work. The water was undrinkable, and the problem seemed to be that seepage from the land (which had once tenanted a herd of dairy cows) polluted it. The top of the well, flush with the ground, was covered by a rusty trunk door from an old Model T, the rest of which we located behind the granary. So, we cleaned the well, handing the buckets of water up from the bottom, head over dripping head, scoured it thoroughly and finally build a concrete retainer at the top. The water cleared and became deliciously fresh and cold in a few days, but in the meantime, we had little chance of providing our winter food supply. Besides, weren’t we optimists with no sense of money and a boundless assurance, based on our affluent past, that those royalties and jobs would eventually appear like gods over the hill?

By the fall it was clear that they would not. The publisher rejected the book as too expensive to produce and the editorial jobs never left Toronto for the hinterlands. We were back at the beginning — except that we needed food.

By Luck and Generosity, Bulk Food Abundance

At this point we were saved. A new friend of ours, who lived on a farm not far away, found a bankrupt health food restaurant in Toronto and bought up its dry food supply. She hauled it back in a 5-ton truck, set out bags upon bags of food in her living room, and sold it for a pittance. For $35 (very nearly our last money), we bought 100 pounds of brown rice, some soybeans, and chickpeas and, as a bonus, 50 pounds of cocoa!

It is one of the delightful paradoxes of subsistence farming that in the midst of general scarcity, there are often these wholly unexpected and sometimes excessive luxuries: berries which grow in immense abundance on our farm, proved to be one of them — we always had vastly more than we could eat or preserve; zucchinis, as every small gardener knows, were eventually another, but so sometimes were sweet corn, acorn squash, and beans.

We had bought a few chickens from a nearby farmer soon after we arrived and their eggs, Marcia’s dried foods, and skimmed milk bought in big bags from a local creamery provided the core of our winter food supply, along with berries and apples from our small orchard, a bag of potatoes cheaply purchased from a neighbouring potato farmer and an indispensable 50-pound bag of onions.

I am still appalled by another item we bought, raw sugar at $9 for 100 pounds from a Toronto wholesaler, who, we found out a few years later, should not have been selling raw sugar in bulk for human consumption since it sometimes contains ground glass! Needless to say, that was also far more sugar than we should have needed, and much more than we later used when our city diets had changed. From the same wholesaler we bought a large quantity of cooking oil.

Once these staples were in, we lived on our $6 monthly baby bonus. It was literally our “family allowance”. With it we bought cheese, carrots or a cabbage, margarine and apples to make apple sauce or juice for our daughter, who was nearly two. The apples and cheese were particularly precious.  I remember discovering one day that the neighbour’s dog had walked in, eyed the pound of cheese we’d just laid on the table, and wolfed it down. I sat down weakly and cried as if an old friend had died.

We never remotely considered buying meat, coffee or alcohol, but we allotted ourselves one shared cigarillo a day. At Christmas time we had lived on this diet for nearly four months. We were all determined that our Christmas meal would be something special. Each of us chose his or her favourite food. Didi wanted oranges, I remember, Dave chose a pound of real butter, and I asked for cottage cheese. Dave played Santa Claus with five dollars and a few pennies; he spent it all on these luxuries, our Christmas treats. Our meal was an elegant rice stuffing – without the bird.

Generosity to See Us through the First Winter

In February, shortly before Aunt Blanche’s check arrived to relieve the monotony of our diets, some neighbours who heard of our circumstances brought us the only gift they could afford to offer: four boxes of frozen vegetables. Not beans and peas, however, but frozen carrots, cabbages and turnips. Today I find the thought of frozen turnip indigestible, and of course these foods had lost a good deal of their vitamin content, but at the time we simply kept them outside and frozen and used them in cooking, thankful to have even that much variety.

I wouldn’t recommend the diet we lived on that first winter and I wouldn’t like, if possible, to repeat it. Five years later, I still find it impossible to swallow pea soup. But we did survive, and our health remained remarkably strong. Our daughter had a steady diet of pureed beans and peas, plenty of milk, eggs and juice, as well as the children’s vitamins we’d brought with us from the city. We met the recommended Canadian dietary allowances, I expect, but just barely, and very boringly.

Part 2 offers abundance in spring’s food foraging as the family’s back-to-the-land saga continues.

Jocelyn “Josh” Harvey was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and accomplished arts administrator and advocate, working for many years at the Canada Council for the Arts. This story is provided to MOTHER EARTH NEWS by Josh’s daughter, Kerridwen Harvey.

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