A lofty subject
If you’ve wondered why so many barns are painted red, David Elias has your answer. Early in The Truth about the Barn, the novelist from Winnipeg tells us, “Red dominates barn colour for the same reason we see it so prominently in the primitive cave paintings of Lascaux, France. As pigments go, it was relatively abundant and easily obtainable to our early ancestors.” Elias doesn’t stop there. He continues with details about why there was “so much ochre lying around” and meanders to a discussion of cosmology, then to God having something to do with it, only to conclude in outer space with a speculation that “extraterrestrial ‘barns’ ” may be red too.
Written with something of a stream-of-consciousness approach, the book engagingly drifts from one folksy rumination to the next. As you hear about runaway farm animals, for instance, it’s suddenly about Mollie, the young horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This line of thought then moves to livestock escaping on its way to the slaughterhouse and concludes with a riff about industrialized “big meat.” After this we learn that “the idea of a barn was used to explore one of the finer points of epistemology.” And then a couple of paragraphs later, it’s a discourse about a Potemkin village. It’s as if you’re overhearing farmers chatting at the local feed store, and you’re not too surprised when you discover they all have PhDs.
These philosopher-farmers would no doubt get around to, as The Truth about the Barn does, outbuildings in literature, in television, and in movies (everything from Pussy Galore and James Bond’s stall romp in Goldfinger to young Marty McFly’s time-travelling DeLorean crashing into Farmer Peabody’s barn). Sprinkled in between are references to quantum mechanics, the attributes of different types of manure, and histories of farm implements, sex in haylofts, and animal husbandry. While much more could be said about stables — that special brand of building that horses call home — it seems there are no more than two degrees of separation between every imaginable subject and barns.
Intermittently, Elias reminisces about the appeal that barns have always had for him: “If that sounds odd, it’s only that there are a lot of barns in my past, in fact, in my youth I managed to develop a close personal relationship with quite a number of them, mostly because I spent an inordinate amount of time there as a farm boy performing menial and often unpleasant tasks.”
This farmyard odyssey includes childhood stops at the “cavernous world” of his father’s turkey barn in Manitoba, where he raised 30,000 birds at a time. But others objected: “In much the same way Emperor Joseph II took exception to a befuddled young Mozart’s latest composition and complained that there [were] simply too many notes, so the neighbouring farmers, still practising animal husbandry in the old humble manner, increasingly held the conviction that my father’s barn exceeded tolerable limits, and further, that it involved orders of magnitude both unfamiliar and unwelcome.” Elias paints a beguiling picture with his barn factoids. The narrative gives a human dimension that’s essential if you’re to understand the emotions that make the barn more than just another farm building.
Your ability to appreciate The Truth about the Barn may well depend on whether you’ve experienced a barn other than as a wedding venue or museum. If a part of your life has been on a farm, if you’ve lived proximate to animals and understood the cycle from planting to harvest, the book could rekindle potent memories. If not, you might feel it’s merely a lament for the disappearance of a quaint way of life.
Having once had a visceral connection to a barn, or lacking such a bond, will also shape your perspective of an old building on the site of Apple’s sleek new $5-billion world headquarters, in Cupertino, California. Near this massive Norman Foster building, Steve Jobs insisted on keeping an existing barn, albeit in a completely reimagined landscape, with fountains and drought-resistant plants instead of cultivated cash crops. The sight of Apple’s barn could be nostalgic or painful if you grew up on a farm or often visited one; for everyone else, including most of the company’s employees, the building is probably just cute — a sanitized shed free of the complexity that Elias’s many stories illustrate, not differentiable from what you’d find at Disneyland. It’s a barn appropriate for the artificial landscape in which it’s marooned, and a triumph of Apple’s aesthetic: an artifact rendered almost virtual.
The truth of The Truth about the Barn is that barn life, for people and animals, was never easy. Old MacDonald’s farm wasn’t always happy. It was a place that could be as nurturing as it was cruel, as elegant as it was filthy, and it was usually connected with arduous labour and the terrible risks of weather, disease, injury, and volatile markets. A barn is an icon of a time when many laboured in partnership with nature to survive. To lack a barn was to lack a livelihood. And that is why barns can still enthrall us.