Looking gift horses (and sheep) in the mouth


It really freaked me out. I’d climbed up the grassy hill to take photos of the pastoral scene—a lovely, but dung-filled field of cows, horses, goats and sheep grazing. The day was hazy, not great for taking pictures. As I got close to a group of sheep nursing their lambs in a spruce grove, a few of them started walking away. I followed, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by the whole herd.

I should have remembered a book someone lent me—“When Elephants Weep”— about how we humans grossly undervalue our fellow Earthmates. The premise is that animals—especially mammals—share highly evolved traits with us. But I was too preoccupied with the sheep consciousness right in front of me to remember that.

Trying not to panic I started talking sternly to the sheep, easing down the long path to the gate. The more I hurried the more the sheep blatted and crowded into me. In the end I was waving my arms around like a fool and making weird loud sounds just before ducking out the fence gate.

When I worked up the courage to tell the farmer about it, he laughed and said it was a good thing it was the sheep and not the horses. I took that to mean that the horses are a lot tougher.

Earlier in the week I watched a new horse being unloaded at the farm. As soon as it got out into the field it tried to join up with the herd of resident horses. The result was predictable. The new guy started scuffling with the other horses, and before long there were several encounters, until finally the new horse was sent packing, chased off by the others.

I remember going to four new schools before Grade 8. I got a good taste of what being a new arrival feels like. You get tested, get into a fight, usually with the tough kid in the class, and get accepted or rejected for the rest of the year. I did okay. I never lost a fight and always ended up with a few new friends.

My experience of moving here from Ontario six years ago follows a similar trajectory. And I shared some of my feelings about this with my editor last week. From his six-month perspective, this corner of the world can’t be as tough as some of the places he’s been, such as Prince Albert.

I’m not so sure. Since coming here I’ve gone the extra mile—like doing pro-bono development work for the Town of St. Andrews for over a year, and finding a patron to fund it. In return I asked the town for free office space, which in turn took me two months to renovate before being able to use it, as well as several visits to town council to explain what I was doing.

Then I adopted the Ministers Island project and moved it into the new office, triggering another set of meetings with town council, who wanted to know why I was providing them free space. “Well,” I said, “they don’t have any money, and it’s a good project.” The idea of incubating opportunities seemed to elude them.

During that year I also worked to build a knowledge-based economy here, bringing the arts organizations, science centres and tourism attractions into a single focus—to create a St. Andrews College of Arts and Sciences, and a demonstration site for sustainability.

I guess it didn’t work. The St. Andrews Town Council has just given me three weeks to vacate the office that I spent months and thousands of dollars renovating.

Now I could take this two ways. One, that there’s something wrong with me. Or two, that there’s something wrong with them. To figure this out, I turned to my old dead friend and mythologer, Joseph Campbell, who wrote that I should find a hero to inform me. And what I found was Prometheus, the immortal titan.

The name Prometheus means “forethought” and Prometheus was a visionary. He defied the other gods and gave humans woodworking, crafts and tools before Zeus caught him and forgave him. The second time Prometheus wasn’t so lucky. His punishment for stealing fire was to get himself chained to a rock and having Zeus’ pet eagle tear out his liver every day—only to have it re-grow overnight and to have it ripped out again the next day.

Of course the gods represent the elite control group, the status quo. And it’s especially true here on the East Coast—the original vertical society established by the Loyalists. The status quo doesn’t want some upstart handing over power to just anybody. If that happened why would we need the gods?

Which brings us to the biggest god Stephen Harper. Ironically, Steve got it right. Atlantic Canada does have a culture of defeat. But he missed the fact that we lag behind the rest of Canada at the hands of our own petty controlling classes.

Only out here can one hear it said with pride, “We eat our young.” Well to be fair, maybe only their livers.


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