The War in the Country: How the Fight to Save Rural Life Will Shape Our Future

The War in the Country book review A\J The War in the Country \ Thomas Pawlick

In The War in the Country, Thomas Pawlick has done a great service. He documents recent tensions and traumas that have battered every rural commun­ity across Ontario. Moreover, he reports in the voice of family farmers, small businesses, native people and back-to-the-landers. These stories are worth keeping in your library to be read from time to time – to be reminded of the countryside that once existed.

Economies of scale sent farmers away from local, independent suppliers to better deals in regional supply centres. Larger livestock barns led to demands that municipalities and provincial regulators set standards for the increasing volumes of livestock manure being produced on small acreages. New health and safety standards for food processing put successful, decades-old practices under a cloud. Environmental regulations meant that the public could intervene in the normal practices of rural businesses. Rules focused on land use – both old (Ontario’s Mining Act) and new (zoning bylaws) – raised fresh controversy about property rights.

Focusing on these concerns, Pawlick chronicles trauma-laden accounts from his haunts in Eastern Ontario. He writes with a vitality that is not duplicated in archived press stories found on the Internet.

Pawlick would like this collection of stories from his own rural community to be a call to action and a guide to saving rural ways of life. But here he fails. His analysis of the causes that underlie this “war” is too shallow. I misunderstood these diverse clashes in the countryside until I read Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations years ago. I enjoyed the book until I came to Jacobs’ musings about the countryside and its relationship­ to cities. She did not refer to the wide-open spaces beyond our city limits as countryside, rural, exurban or simply as “country.” Her term was “hinterland.” I reread that part of her book many times and eventually accepted her reasoning.

The economy of the hinterland is totally dependent on wealth generation in the cities to which the countryside is connected – the stronger the connection, the more robust the rural economy. I don’t like this, but I accept it. Not far behind economics is culture – the stronger the connection, the more vital the rural culture.

Pawlick wants an independent economic and cultural future for the country. For this reason, he includes a to-do list and introduces the reader to organizations with agendas that try to minimize the urban influence in the country. Good information, but only if you believe that the countryside can be strong without the economic and cultural support of the city. I don’t.

Still, reading The War in the Country was very worthwhile for the stories of tension, trauma, cultural clashes and urban economics that are forcing change in rural areas. Read it, too, for a basic understanding of the contributions that some organizations can bring to the reinvention of our countryside. And give Thomas Pawlick a nod for believing that a wide alliance of interests is necessary if country folk are to have a say in managing the all-pervasive urban influence.

The War in the Country, Thomas E. Pawlick, Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2009, 320 pages

This review originally appeared in New Eco Books, Issue 36.3. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information

Elbert van Donkersgoed was the first executive director for the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee and now publishes the online newsletter Locavore News.

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