The Great Work
On a small farm in Ontario, two old friends reimagine farm work as a sacred art form.
Trace them back far enough, and you’ll find that many farm stories start in the city. After all, that’s where most of us are, and so that’s where we have our wild ideas.
This one begins in Toronto in the summer of 1983, when a 32-year-old artist named David Holmes threw out his back. At the time, David’s art practice involved collecting artifacts from the side of an old highway leading out of the city. He’d come to see the trash-filled ditch as a sort of beachfront on the ocean of our collective unconscious; every day he bicycled alongside it, gathering odd bits of detritus—clothing, jewellery, letters—and assembling them in his cramped rented studio above a souvenir spoon factory in the west end of the city. For money, David did small carpentry jobs and other contract work, until the day he took a gig laying flagstones, hurt himself, and that was that.
After a month flat on his back, sweating in the August heat and listening to the regular stamp of the metal press below, he finally made it to a chiropractor, who told him to avoid manual labour for a while. By then, the pinch of hunger was starting to squeeze harder. So David reached out to a friend whose work involved matching independent support workers with people who need assistance, to see if he knew of any open positions. That’s how David met Peter.
Peter was 16 years old and had Down syndrome. His parents invited David to sit in on a class Peter attended at a junior high school in the city, to see how he was doing. “I went into this classroom and there was Peter, sitting on the floor,” David recalls. That encounter would prove to be the start of a friendship which has spanned nearly four decades, and though they had no way of knowing it at the time, it marked the beginning of both of their lives’ work. It would eventually lead them to a small farm (hereafter: the Farm) about an hour north of Toronto, where David has lived since 1998, and where Peter travels most days to help care for the animals.
From the beginning, theirs has been a relationship based on mutual respect and appreciation, but not on spoken language, as Peter doesn’t use words to communicate.
David was captivated by the way that not talking changed how it felt to be in the world. “There’s something frightening about it,” he recalls of those early days getting to know Peter. “You feel out of your depth. How do you connect? But very gradually, something forms.”
Overwhelmed in the classroom, Peter and David began taking long, slow walks around the neighbourhood together. In Peter’s unhurried pace and frequent pauses, they found a shared rhythm and a way of enjoying each other’s company.
Before long Peter’s parents hired David to support him full-time, and David introduced Peter to his world of artist friends. They began documenting their time together, and David got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to make a film with Peter, which led to a collaboration with some other artists to make a sound-art performance. But over time, their partnership gradually shifted from artmaking to gardening, and ultimately, to farming. For a while, the two worked in a farm-garden north of Toronto and delivered boxes of produce to their CSA (community-supported agriculture) members back in the city.
Through the 1990s David grew enamoured with the local food movement. One day, he dug up the entire backyard and converted it into a garden. He dreamed obsessively about having his own land to farm. Finally, in 1998, he and his then-wife bought 25 acres at the end of a dirt lane near Lake Simcoe, with a rickety barn, a big yard for gardening, several pastures for grazing, and a charming old farmhouse. David bought two Belgian draft horses, along with a small flock of sheep and a coop full of hens. Ultimately, David’s wife realized the Farm was more his dream than hers, but he felt he needed to see it through, so they decided to separate. Peter kept coming, and the Farm became their mutual project.
David’s version of farm life has always been more focused on presence than productivity. Over the years, vegetables have been grown and hens have laid eggs, but the value of the Farm could never be measured by quantities of food.
Rather than crops or yields, David and Peter’s harvest is each little detail noticed and celebrated: a trusting moment that passes between Peter and one of the horses, or the bright red sumac buds that David hangs above the kitchen table.
From the beginning, the Farm was a place where David and Peter could break the limitations imposed on people with developmental disabilities. David abhors condescension, and he hates that people like Peter are sometimes confined and excluded under the guise of care. His approach has always been to make space for spontaneity and to let Peter take the lead. Life on the Farm is thoroughly anti-systematic: there are no programs and no therapeutic outcomes, just the quiet routines of preparing and sharing meals, tending to a few animals, and passing the time. In that sense, the Farm is a lifelong extension of the moment when David and Peter first walked out of the classroom and took to the streets.
Inspired by what David and Peter were doing at the Farm, others began joining them. David and Peter were connected to a larger network of families with members who were on the autism spectrum and used no spoken language, and some of these men became regulars. Neighbours started dropping in regularly, and friends and acquaintances from around Ontario began making the trip, to lend a hand and savour the atmosphere. (I was one of those, for several years.) The numbers have ebbed and flowed, but a small community has always coalesced around the Farm: loose, evolving, and delightfully unlikely. Today, it’s mainly just Peter and his close friend Kevin. Kevin doesn’t use spoken language either, but he, Peter, and David have found a rich and subtle terrain of conversation that goes beyond words: gestures, body language, touch, and eye contact.
Many fail to realize how extensively and aggressively our society has excluded people like Peter and Kevin. Since the middle of the 19th century, people with developmental disabilities were shunted to remote institutions in the countryside, where they were cruelly labelled and robbed of their autonomy and privacy. Many were abused, whether physically, psychologically, or sexually. The inclusion movement has now grown strong, and most of the large institutions have closed, but our collective habit of ostracizing nonconformists is still powerfully ingrained. We were taught fear rather than curiosity, pity rather than enjoyment. We learned to patronize and infantilize, not to trust and learn.
Most of us share this wound: our capacity for appreciating our fellow humans has been curtailed by programs of segregation, so that we don’t even understand what we’ve lost. When we cut ourselves off—consciously or unconsciously—from those who don’t fit our ideals of productivity or standards of success, we are more easily trapped by the need to prove ourselves.
One finds an uncommon freedom at the Farm, in the company of Peter and Kevin, as well as a certain grief, realizing what we’ve habitually missed, and what it’s cost us. If we ignore those who don’t talk, we fail to develop beyond our words.
David believes that the men who come to the farm are able to connect deeply with the animals and the natural world, in part because of the way that society has dismissed them. “If you’re in a place where no one can see you, you feel it,” he says. “For a lot of people, their life-saving connection is nature. Because nature does not project onto them a life sentence. Nature doesn’t do that. The animals don’t do that. Their relational capacity is not blocked by that construct.”
David says that the men who come to the farm have acted as guides for him. Spending time with them, his perception alters, and there are moments of breakthrough, when the grass is sharper and the moon is more familiar. “It has to do with the stopping. You have to stop, to get to wonder. It’s a different window.”
Nowadays, a day at the Farm starts with a gathering in the living room, where the cast iron wood stove emanates comforting waves of heat. Kevin arrives first. He and David spend the first hour or so eating a light breakfast and relaxing on the sofa. Kevin prefers things to be more orderly than David, so he does some tidying up. A Great Pyrenees named Babette pads noisily around, knocking the furniture with her long tail, before settling to snore under a side table.
Then Peter arrives, and the three men begin their routine of reading aloud from a book. It’s something they all enjoy and has become a staple of their day. Mary Oliver has long been a favourite for the men at the Farm, but for the last few years David has mainly been reading the works of the eco-philosopher Thomas Berry (1914–2009), who wrote about what he called the “Great Work”: the process of transforming our collective relationship to the earth, to make it mutually beneficial rather than simply extractive. But we can’t have a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth until we have a real relationship, says David.
Since the beginning of their friendship, Peter has been showing him how to find that communion with nature. “I’ve watched him go into states of wonder and awe,” David says. “It’s affecting when someone’s in that space. It communicates. And if you’re not talking, that’s helpful, because words aren’t interfering.”
After the reading, if everyone is feeling well, they make a trip to the barn. The 300-foot journey is as slow and deliberate as a religious procession, especially across the winter snow and ice. Once arrived, the atmosphere inside the barn is precisely like a cathedral, with its sombre light and air of stillness. One feels an instinct to whisper, and, like Peter and Kevin, to take careful, quiet steps.
The first order of business is to feed and water the sheep. On this particular day, we discover that one of the ewes has given birth. The little newborn is already skittering around on four legs while keeping close to its mother. Seeing the lamb, the quietness among the men intensifies. For several long minutes, they hover in the corner, taking in the scene. Kevin reaches out and removes some straw from Peter’s hat.
After the sheep, it’s Whistler’s turn. A gorgeous standardbred horse with a dark brown coat and black mane, Whistler has gotten some burrs in his coat from the pasture. David sets about pulling them off while Kevin gets to work with a curry comb, lifting clouds of dust into the slanting light. With a word or two of coaching from David every now and then, Kevin runs the brush lightly in circles along Whistler’s flank.
The barn was once busier than it is now. There used to be eight horses, not one, along with 100 hens and 12 sheep, plus goats, pigs, and rabbits. For David, working with the men has eclipsed his work with the animals and the gardens, and over time, the Farm has gradually shrunk to just one horse, seven sheep, and a dog.
“At times, I see the Farm as a failure, and myself as a failure,” he tells me that evening after Peter and Kevin have gone home. “But the part that hasn’t been a failure is that I made a choice to stay with the men. For me, it has opened up some cracks that I think are precious and vital.”
No one who’s visited the Farm would call it a failure, in any sense. But it does defy the traditional logic of farms: to work hard and live off the land. What else is a farm for? View the Farm, instead, as a sanctuary for both nature and humans, as an experiment in moving slowly and mindfully, and the answer appears instantly: it’s sacred. That word feels fragile and mysterious, like a newborn lamb adjusting to the soft light of the barn, and three men standing quietly together to watch. No other word quite fits such a scene, but if “sacred” or “holy” seem too shaky, don’t say anything at all. It’s fine. There’s no need. ■