• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

Butter and twinkle lights: Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

From Nora Ephron’s October 1980 essay, “A Few Words about Elizabeth Bennet”*, inspired by that year’s BBC production starring Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet and David Rintoul as Fitzwilliam Darcy. “A Few Words” shows the magic and power of Ephron as Everywoman — personal yet universal.

The other day they sent me a photograph of the actress who plays Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and I took one look at it and threw it into the garbage can. All things considered, this was a mild response. I have spent twenty years knowing exactly what Elizabeth Bennet looks like, and she does not look a bit like this person they have gotten to play her. She looks like me.

It has been possible for me to persist in this delusion as long as I have partly because I love Elizabeth Bennet and partly because Jane Austen, who created her, managed to leave out of her novel any detailed physical description of her heroine. She does write that Lizzy is not as beautiful as her sister Jane and that she has fine eyes — there’s much made of those fine eyes — and a pleasant figure. But there’s not a word about whether she is short or tall, blond or brunette; not a word about her nose or her lips; and while the fine eyes are said to be dark, there is not a word as to whether they are dark brown, or dark blue, or dark green, or dark lavender, or the color I happen to know them to be, which is dark hazel.

                                                           .      .       .

I fell in love with Elizabeth Bennet the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, and I have read the book at least once year ever since. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” the book begins, “that a single man n possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” That glorious sentence is a threshold into Austen’s world, a world of manners and domestic arrangements, a world where nothing — not politics nor war, which are simply not mentioned — is as important as the right match. Each time I cross into this word I bring to it the same intensity and sense of suspense I felt the first time through. I cannot put the book down. I am on tenterhooks about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. I am stunned by what becomes of Wickham. I am captivated by Elizabeth’s father and appalled by her mother. I am furious at Miss Bingley. And when it becomes clear that things will work out, the lovers will triumph — when Elizabeth unexpectedly meets Mr. Darcy while walking through Pemberley and realizes his feelings for her are unchanged — I cry.

All this may say more about me and my rather dippy capacity for romance than it does about the book, but I doubt it: Pride and Prejudice is one of the greatest romantic comedies ever written, a novel about the possibility of love between equals, and in many ways it is the forerunner of a genre it was undoubtedly instrumental in creating. Two strong-willed people — one of them rich, the other not — meet and take an instant dislike to each other. She reacts by being arch and provocative; he is attracted by her audacity, her playfulness, her intellect, and, as Elizabeth reminds Mr. Darcy at the end of the book, her bad manners. “You may as well call it impertinence at once,” she says. “The fact is that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking and thinking for your approbation alone.” Eventually — after a long push and pull, half a dozen misunderstandings, and one explosive rejection — the lovers soften ever so slightly, acknowledge themselves to be possessed of at least one flaw apiece, and realize they were meant for each other, class distinctions aside.

What a lovely fantasy this plot is! It is the dream of any woman who has ever wanted to believe that what really matters is not beauty but brains, not flirtation but wit; it is the dream of every young woman who has ever been a wallflower. Indeed, when Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy, she is exactly that: She is sitting on the sidelines at a dance when she is pointed out to him, and to her amusement she hears his comment on her looks: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” It is also the dream of every young woman who has ever worried she would never marry; for her the sister who is most serious, most thoughtful, most sensitive, is rewarded in the end by the very thing she has been shown to care least about — a rich husband. And for a moment — in spite of the many examples in Austen’s work to the contrary — we are allowed to believe in the likelihood of a great marriage. “I know your disposition, Lizzy,” Elizabeth’s father tells her. “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband, unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”

(The plot of Pride and Prejudice and the scrappy, feisty dialogue that characterizes Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship — the skittering banter, the deft back and forth — have been imitated in thousands of novels that have been written since and dozens of movies: It Happened One Night, with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable; The Lady Vanishes, with Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave; Woman of the Year, with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In these movies the convention is reversed: The part of the not-rich person is played by the man, and he is the first to be arch and impertinent, she is the prideful snob. For the most perfect illustration of what might happen to an Elizabeth and a Mr. Darcy after they marry, see The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy.)

I may be deluded about the similarity between Elizabeth Bennet’s looks and mine, but I have never been as foolish on the question of character. Hers is far superior to mine. Her flaw is that she is too quick to form opinions based on first impressions; in short, that she is prejudiced. And that is her only flaw. I have at least a dozen as serious as that and a few far worse. The Austen character I most resemble, I am sorry to say, is not Elizabeth Bennet but Emma Woodhouse, of Emma. Now there’s a woman with flaws: She’s manipulative, bossy, and controlling. There are few Austen lovers who do not believe Emma to be Austen’s finest work, but I have always been grumpy about it; it’s too close to home. I prefer my literary heroines to be perfect, unlike me; and Lizzy is as close to perfect as she can be and still be interesting. In fact, I consider her flaw so minor that the first time I read Pride and Prejudice I assumed that both nouns in the title referred to Mr. Darcy. Who, after all, could blame Elizabeth for thinking ill of a man who insulted her at a dance? Who could think her genuinely prejudiced? Not I, that’s who.

Recently, I was reading a novel by by one of the most shrill of the feminist writers, who complained in it that there were no more Mr. Darcys. There are probably no more Elizabeth Bennets either. What’s more, there were probably none in the first place. Which is wonderful. It means that those of us who would love to be like her can never feel too bad that we aren’t; no one is. That’s what makes Lizzy so lovable: She doesn’t exist.

Not so surprisingly, Pride and Prejudice made it onto Ms. Ephron’s list of “What I Will Miss” in her last book,  I Remember Nothing, published in 2010 several years after the onset of her leukemia:

What I Will Miss

My kids
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
The park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan

Thank you to Nora Ephron for all the laughs, in print and at the movies, and for my lifetime fixation with the semi-colon.

* From my copy of Nora Ephron Collected, 1991, moved from Washington, DC to NYC to the prairies


June snapshots

A friend of the kids, a wonderful pianist, is graduating from high school and moving oversees with his family, so he decided to give a farewell concert on Sunday. A wonderful way to spend Father’s Day and our anniversary. On the way home, we saw a Mule deer doe crossing the gravel road. But she paused and looked back for just a fraction of second, enough for us to realize she was leaving a fawn behind. I looked on my side, and there by the side of the road at the edge of the ditch was the fawn hunkered down, still as a stone. We’ve come across dozens of White Tail fawns in the grass around our farm, but never a Mule fawn before. Photo by Davy.

The other week Laura checked all of our nest boxes to see how the swallows are doing. Some boxes had just eggs, others newly hatched chicks, and others a mixture of eggs and chicks. Photo by Laura.

A Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (I think), on one of the pots in front of house. Photo by Laura, at my request.

Duck family at Bonnyville, north of here. Laura came with me on an end-of-season greenhouse run, to find languishing treasures.

Laura found a stand of yellow lady’s slipper orchids (aka Moccasin flower) during one of her birding excursions around the farm the other week. Photo by Laura.


We’ve survived all the May activities, and are now looking forward to a less hectic few months, though the fair is at the end of next month and we have to start preparing.

We got all the shelterbelt trees planted; the kids had fun in the play (“Alice in Wonderland”) and despite some grumbling from the boys about not doing theater next year (the thrice weekly rehearsals for the last few months get to be a bit much), they now think they want to do theater again in the fall; we got to the city for the provincial music festival even though the two days away was quite disruptive with 4H; Laura passed her learner’s test after two tries and has her license; the spotting scope Laura bought arrived and has been pronounced excellent; our naturalist society had the May species bird count (for which Laura was awake and in town for 6:30 am); and all the cattle and kids comported themselves well at the 4H show and sale. Daniel in particular got a very good price for his steer, and Laura and her heifer won reserve champion for showmanship.

Davy and his steer,

Laura was rather distracted on the last performance day of “Alice” after learning that she’s accepted for the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop and is very, very excited, especially since only six kids from across Canada are selected each year. We’re all tickled and proud. The participants live at the field station with staff and learn to band birds and go on a variety of excursions. And she’ll finally get to meet other young birders. Now we have to get her to Long Point, Ontario, on Lake Erie, and while she’d like to have us drive — more birds to see, and the chance to stop at Point Pelee — it’s a poor time to leave the farm, and Tom’s construction work, for so long, so we’ll put her on a plane.

Usually the kids get the day off after the long beef club Achievement Days weekend to sleep in, but one of Tom’s apprentices called in sick  just as Tom was hoping to finish one of the many roofs to reshingle. So the kids were pressed into service to help. Then Laura was up for 24 hours the next day as part of the Baillie Birdathon. She saw 79 species in one day, and so far has raised around $800, including a very generous donation from Edmonton’s Wildbird General Store, which we were lucky to be able to visit on our way home for provincials.

As far as activities, we have 4H achievement day left to do, for the baking club. We’re hoping for a quick and easy cookout with members, families, and friends. The boys have been contracted to do some gardening and landscaping jobs for neighbors, and Laura is planning to disappear into the fields and trees with her scope and camera.

I’ll end off with some quotes from author Zadie Smith’s recent blog post on libraries in The New York Review of Books; the council in her mother’s London neighborhood intends to demolish the library centre along with a bookshop, in order to replace them “with private luxury flats, a greatly reduced library, ‘retail space’ and no bookshop”:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their Macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library — also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park — is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.

All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet [emphasis mine].

Read the rest here.