I had three Doukhobors hired all summer. They were fine fellows. They gave entire satisfaction and always do their work for the interest of the farmer.
– The Wheat King, A. J. Cotton
The grandson of A. J. Cotton, Johnnie, welcomed us warmly when we first came to the Swan River Valley in the 1980’s. He re-welcomed us when we purchased this property in 2000 in order to set up a retreat, and he supplied us with generous loads of various materials for free in our first years here when we struggled to establish ourselves. His family has always been generous, especially in the early days of valley settlement, which is barely a hundred years old. His grandfather, A. J., was a levelling force early in this region’s history; his evaluation of and assistance with Doukhobor settlement would have been more than fair.
We ourselves came onto this property penniless; it is still not much of a going concern. But it is intentionally that way. Over the past two decades we have pondered deeply what it means to both serve the dehumanized and what technology is required to do so? In that sense we are fully out of step with our neighbours. Yet in doing so we are completely in step with the exigencies of authentically understanding and supporting those who are most in need and denied access to the most basic needs in life.
What is clear from our own now sixty year backgrounds in farming is that genuine agriculture is a community affair, both in terms of those who do the actual work as well as in regard to those who benefit. As we regularly look across the road from this place into what was the Thunderhill colony of Doukhobor settlement in Saskatchewan we are persistently reminded of the overwhelmingly positive attributes of the first farmers who settled here. Fully committed to everyone making it together they lived communally, although in separate family dwellings. They intuitively and directly saw the good in one another. They saw little need to go beyond the most basic engagements of life: food, drink, clothing, housing, immediate family life, one’s word being one’s bond, refusing to do other humans harm. Some of their descendants still live here; those attributes are yet discernible; they are great neighbours.
There are differences between us and them. So what? Our own experiences of having lived and worked around the world in vastly differing cultures made us take seriously what it means to live in a pluralistic society. And while the reverse may not necessarily be understood or respected, we work to support and nurture the traditional ways of knowing in others, even if it means our own demise. That is what it means to serve, which is at the core of the compassionate Christian life, and most certainly a central tenant of the Catholic Worker movement.
This winter we have ruminated on what Peter Maurin might have thought of when he came in contact with these transplanted Russian peasants and in particular their way of life? What got seeded or reinforced in Peter’s life? …in his emerging awareness of what was actually required to succeed at serving others tangibly? There is certainly a lot in their way of living with which he would have found impressive and in line with his own background, and experiences, and education in Europe. How did his failure in homesteading cause him to think on their success? I certainly cannot imagine that with his verbose mannerisms that he would not have engaged them concerning the differences between his and their belief systems, which incidentally most Canadians took exception to and found offensive regarding the Doukhobors as well. How would those interactions have gone? Would these differences have made as great a row in today’s Canada?
Revisiting the texts that I have on Doukhobor settlement over the past couple of months has once again served to highlight many of their attributes, doing so this time from the standpoint of being a Catholic Worker farm. There is a lot for me to chew on. If you want to read more firsthand material for yourself the two classic texts are: The Doukhobors, by Woodcock and Avakumovic, and Toil and Peaceful Life, by Carl Tracie. I am sure that more reflective insight will emerge for me as I begin to engage in outdoor work this upcoming spring and summer. And you are certainly welcome to come and tour with us this region to get a hands-on experience of this place and the lives of these early settlers. In any case, it is a good, genuinely human wrestling that we are privileged to do on this particularly sacred farmscape. As always, I am indebted to those who have gone before and humbled.
It is commonplace to record on paper,
but it is more important to penetrate one’s heart with truth.
– Doukhobor saying
Today’s view of overlooking Whitebeech Creek from the vantage point of what had been the Doukhobor village of Troitzkoe, two miles from our home. There is rarely a time I drive by here that I do not think of these people and say a prayer for them, which I hope that they do not mind.