(the following is an excerpt from Survivalism, John-James Ford's upcoming picaresque)
I wrote the first draft of my first novel on the East coast of Canada at a now-defunct place called The Association of Hermits, which amounted to a few shacks in the forest occupied by two nuns, one priest, and a few bizarre drifters. My Great Aunt Phyllis was a Catholic nun and she’d been living there for years. I was living a version of the madness Kerouac wrote about in Big Sur and was trying to escape it by being somewhere wholesome and remote.
In exchange for meals and a plywood cabin equipped with mouse-eaten insulation and a rusty wood stove, I harvested timber for the other hermits. I can still taste the blue smoke from the temperamental Husquevarna I used to chainsaw my way through oak and maple trees. I enjoyed the work, even though I was always skittish about widowmakers and the fact that there were no ear defenders or safety goggles available. This turned out to be a healthy fear, since I almost got crushed by a dead tree and did eventually end up in emergency with a splinter in my eye.
To combat the oily fumes I hauled in lungfuls of sober cigarettes. I’d scared myself with my drinking and part of my self-imposed exile in the weirdly religious bush was to dry out. I wore a purple and red-checked lumberjacket, old Carhartt dungarees and bitten-leather steel-toed boots, overly conscious about looking the part in the uniform of a salt-of-the-earth working man.
In the autumn, when enough lumber was in, my duties changed to picking turnip. This work turned out to be more miserable than any I’d ever done, including washing dishes, treeplanting, and basic Infantry training. Since we picked after first frost the endless drills of turnip were half-frozen; to claw the bulbous taproots from the cold earth required fingers unencumbered by mitts or thick gloves. Some degree of frostbite was more or less inevitable.
The priest from the hermitage ran the turnip farms at a perennial loss because it meant turkey at Christmas for numerous families. My co-workers were out-of-work fishermen still partly in denial that the cod fishery had collapsed, and who couldn’t feed their families with the sparse catches they made from angling.
The work was a new brand of anguish for me and I learned about determination from those men, most of them twice or three times my age; I marvelled at what they would put their bodies through to bring something extra home to their families, their lack of quit, and how they’d lunch on nothing more than a thermos of black tea and a raw turnip.
It’s possible I’m waxing romantic. Could be those guys just went and drank all their earnings at quitting hour—I have no way of knowing for sure other than what it felt like then. At that time I had the twin voices of guilt and denial whispering all sorts of things to me, and to keep those voices at bay I wrote.
I only worked lumber or turnip about three days of the week; the other days I spent banging away at an Olympia portable typewriter. There I built, sheet by sheet, the manuscript that would come to be Bonk on the Head. I used to get lost in reverie and flip the pages over and run my hands over the punctuation hammered in like very spare Braille.
I knew I was going somewhere with that book because it was virtually uncoiling itself from old traumas that had long lay dormant in my gut.
Lately I've felt that same feeling again.
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