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  • Snakes and Ladders
    By Tom VanDusen - AgriNews Staff Writer

    Until I began the process of relocating from the Village of Russell to the North Russell countryside, I thought snakes - the kind that slither on their bellies - had all but disappeared from the landscape, a collective victim of long-term environmental mismanagement.

    After all, that's what the environmental scaremongers were claiming, that the bottom of the food chain, the frogs and snakes, are among the first to go as the world becomes increasingly polluted.

    I'm talking about your basic garter snakes, the 18-inch long, green and black striped, totally harmless little fellows which, growing up in Aylmer in the 1950s and 60s, we used to drop down the front of our pants to impress the girls.

    They weren't impressed then and they were even less impressed with the snakes in our pants as the years moved along.

    It turns out I was dead wrong about disappearing snakes. I just wasn't where the snakes were. They were in North Russell all along as I was keeping an eye open for them around the village.

    Since I began this transition at the end of July after purchasing a mid-1800s farm house on 4.5 acres flanked on two sides by Harold Staal's soybeans, I've seen nothing but snakes almost every day: A snake in the storage shed, one in the swimming pool probably preying on the frogs trapped in the filter, the proverbial snake in the grass barely spinning out of the way of the ride-around lawnmower blades, all of it culminating with discovery of a very-much-alive snake swarm in the east wall of the house.

    I knew when I bought the place - the original homestead of the Hamilton family, some of whom still farm in North Russell - that the wall of what was once a back shed would need major repair.

    When we got the ladders leaned up and started ripping off mushy century-old boards, it didn't take long to stir up the snakes which were summarily flipped off onto the lawn without a single one being dropped down the front of our pants. Almost a dozen in number, they indignantly slithered off looking for a new place to congregate.

    That's only one of the little anecdotes accumulating as I make the move, the plan being to fully relocate in early September. I've set aside a full month between the time I move out of the village house and tenants move in.

    I was drawn to the North Russell place years ago by a faded, nostalgia-tinted photo in the Russell history book "From Swamp and Shanty" by the late Wendell Stanley. The picture shows folks taking a break - probably for the photographer - during a hay harvesting bee.

    Everyone is facing the camera which is set up at a distance to take in the entire scene: Men are wearing black pants, white shirts and vests, women field-length dresses; there's a little girl in white pinafore standing with one group; horses and the equipment they draw wait at the ready.

    The photo was taken a good 120 years ago. There's a row of log and frame barns to the rear of the shot and to the left, a long, white frame, storey-and-a-half family house with inviting wrap-around porch.

    I wouldn't be so foolish as to suggest the times depicted were better because I know farmers then worked from sunup to sundown without the assistance of mechanical equipment or computerized processes, and without efficient means of getting their products to market.

    But I would certainly suggest that those times were more family-oriented, more neighbour-dependent, and more rewarding because it took far less then for people to feel they'd accomplished something worthwhile.

    Yep, I'm moving on up to North Russell after 35 years of living in five different houses in the village, with one foray south into Dundas County.

    Other than as a residence, my new house once served as a rest home and the people I bought it from ran an antique shop out of the barn.

    This will mark the first time since the 1970s that I'll be surrounded by working farmland, something I'm mightily anticipating for the sense of tranquility it'll bring. In a way, it'll recreate the '70s when I lived in a big brick farm house on three acres along the old Limerick Road south of Chesterville.

    Those were the days when the publisher of this newspaper and myself were strapping young lads covering many of the same events, he then as now for The Chesterville Record and myself for The Ottawa Citizen.

    Those were the days when, had we been asked, we would have dropped snakes down our pants in the flick of a forked tongue... in fact, maybe we did.

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