Band on the Run: Gathering Food for Thought

So, in between touring and festival weekends in the summer months, what does a musician do with herself? Well, there are lots of answers to that question, but lately I have had red fingers, aching knees and scratches all over my skin. What have I been doing?

Berry picking.

(That’s what you were thinking, right? Right.)

This is the time of year when wild berries are all in season. Not to mention strawberries, which are farmed around where I live and readily available. I have picked my share of organic strawberries and now they lie bagged and frozen in my freezer ready for winter smoothies. Recently, I have also gathered gooseberries, blackberries and currants (both red and black).

For me, activities like berry picking are just a means to writing lyrics. I find long bike rides are the same; they each give space and time in my head to just get into a zone and piece words together. Picking berries is not the most inspirational of activities, but it’s the repetition and the quiet that inspires me. I can kneel in the shady overhang of a berry bush for hours and come out with a bowl (and a belly) full of sweet goodness, not to mention a brain full of new ideas to scrawl down on the first piece of paper I can get a hold of once I return home.

I’ve also been out with my neighbours in this endeavour. Getting to know the women in this area has been great. Despite living around here for three years, touring can sometimes keep a person from developing fast friendships with neighbours and I’m glad to say that this is starting to change. All of us neighbours are so different and from so many different places, but together we find ourselves having landed in this same community and then crouched under the same currant bush gossiping about the town and the culture here.

We talked about how we (as outsiders: i.e. those who didn’t grow up here but were drawn here) will always be the “transplants” according to the heritage farmer families. There is definitely a divide going on and we all hoped to build more bridges rather than widening that gap. And, it’s true really. We will always be transplants, but we’re here and we love it here too; we’re all part of this colourful whole that makes up this wee place nestled in the farthest eastern counties of Ontario.

Our town, the town of Dalkeith, has about fifty inhabitants and I am not technically one of them. Living three and a half kilometres out of town makes me a “surrounding area” resident. There are about two hundred people in total if you count all the in-towners and out-of-towners. So, there are a lot more animals and square footage than there are humans, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Dalkeith has a little general store at its centre. This store is also the post office, the animal feed supply store, the local nursery (seeds, plants and fertilizer), the video store, the butcher, the baker and the heart attack maker. By the latter, I mean it is also the greasy spoon restaurant that specializes in a big farm breakfast.

Every morning, the farmers gather for breakfast at around seven o’clock and the place is hopping until about eight thirty or nine a.m. The owner of the store, Jenny, is also the cook and she is usually the only woman in there until the breakfast crowd clears out.

Once, last fall when we were leaving early in the morning for the airport (en route to a gig far away), I stopped into the store with a letter to mail at about eight o’clock in the morning. The place was packed and clanging when I opened the door, but when I stepped in through the threshold it all died out to an eerie silence. A hush literally fell on the place and it felt as though all movement froze with its weight. Thinking of it now, I think I saw an overflowing fork in midair and a farmer’s open mouth, all locked up like a statue. All the men, scruffy-faced and wrapped in bulging plaid flannel shirts and dusty denim jeans, turned and stared at me like I was an intruder.

Jenny was in the back in the kitchen in her apron and she called a greeting to me over her shoulder from behind the butcher counter. Seeing the letter in my hand, she told me to just put the mail next to the cash and said she’d collect from me later. I thanked her because I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. As the door swung behind me, I heard the action resume. Talk about a men’s club!

(And they say men don’t gossip.)

Well, there I was picking berries with three other women in the community, two of whom have young families and husbands and longer histories here than I have, and I asked them about the General Store breakfasts. They laughed knowingly and recounted similar tales of the hush and the feeling of intruding on a secret society. They just shook their heads in amusement.

That’s when I got a great idea. “Let’s go!” I said, standing up. “Let’s gather a bunch of women together and go for breakfast!” Everyone stopped picking berries and looked up at me. “Okay,” said my one neighbour Diane after that momentary pause, and then everyone started talking at once.

So, we’ve got plans to go. And don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about it. I’m sure it’ll be the talk of the town!

I came home buzzing with words in my head with images of gender chaos in Dalkeith, which makes me laugh out loud even now. My new lyrics may not amount to any new song, but the smear of berry juice on the page where they were scrawled will always remind me of the day I spent gathering. Gathering food. Gathering ideas.

Gathering courage to shake it up in a small town.

Without getting on stage.