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Our Community, Our People

Learning To Be a Good Neighbour

Curated by Cathy Wilson

By Brent Bowyer

March 28, 2023

Living out in the country these last 23 years, neighbours have become way more important to us than when we lived in the city. You share things with your neighbours, help each other out in the busy seasons and emergencies, and look out for both human and animal intrusion on properties.  


Working together has been an ongoing real learning experience for us. Several years ago, one of our neighbours got permission to take out some big white pines from the fifty-acre wooded swamp next to our place in the Municipality of Morris-Turnberry, Huron County. Some of these trees had been standing dead for years but only had rot about an inch deep on the outside. While most people wouldn’t see any value in a dead tree, this neighbour knew that he could use his sawmill to cut off the punky surface and get lots of useful lumber from the rest of the logs. The neighbour waited until early March when the snow was hard and crusty and brought over one of his Belgian work horses. He had it tread back and forth to where the trees were, dragging an old hood of a car to pack the snow even more. Then he hooked a chain to the end of the log and the horse pulled it out over the half-frozen, swampy area. The theory was that the trail would be solid enough for the horse to walk on without falling through. It worked most of the time but, sometimes, the horse stepped on a thin layer of snow over some willow shrubs and fell through up to its belly. You wanted a calm horse then, and a person who knew how to get them out without injury. As a newcomer to country life, my role was mostly to run and get cant hooks for rolling the logs, and help out a bit.  

Two people standing behind a pickup truck. The landscape is snowy with trees in the background.

One person in a tractor, with another to the right. They are in a snow covered landscape covered with trees.
Clare Gerber and John Farrell working together about 2015 to pull some logs out of the bush (dangerous work, always better to not work alone), Municipality of South Bruce, Bruce County

Our son will remember us building a fire at noon right on top of the snow, and the neighbour's wife bringing over a pot of coffee and some hot food, with all of us sitting around shooting the breeze. It was interesting seeing the fire sink lower and lower as it melted the snow underneath. After an hour or so, it was about three feet below the surface! 


I have so many good memories of working with this neighbour. I'd be saying, “I don't see how we can do something or other,” and he'd say, “Why not?” and think of a way to do what I thought wasn't possible. Working the sawmill, building various projects here and at his place, going all over southern Ontario with him to pick up big bags of wool, cutting, splitting, and piling firewood, fixing machinery (him, not me), putting chains on tractor tires…Nothing was ever too hard to try! 


It has often been said that, “Many hands make light work,” but it’s more than just the number of hands. It’s also the different skills and ideas, as well as energy, that people bring to a shared task. How often haven’t we been tired or frustrated when doing something, only to be given a lift when someone came along to help. 

Richard in a red tracktor that is holding up footings. There is a grey barn in the background.
Richard Cronin of Teeswater helping a neighbour by moving pre-made footings for a new building, c. 2012

Donald lifting wood into a pile of split logs. There are trees in the background.
Donald Bowyer at a “work bee” where neighbours gathered to help pile firewood, a yearly task, c. 2018, Municipality of Morris-Turnberry, Huron County


Soon after we moved out in the country, another one of our neighbours offered us about a dozen elm trees that he'd removed for a new shed. We took them and got them cut into boards at a local sawmill, then took them to be kiln dried. When we offered to pay for the trees, the neighbour refused, but said he would take some help picking rocks in return (some of these rocks would’ve done a lot of damage to his combine if they went through it at harvest time). So, my wife and I went over to his place after supper one hot June night and started picking up the millions of rocks bigger than our fists. Bending. Stooping. Crawling on hands and knees so as to not have to bend and stoop. Up & down. Throwing them into the neighbour's tractor bucket. When it was half full, he took them and dumped them in a low area that needed filling. After a few hours of this we were really getting stiff, sore, and dizzy. At one point, after he left to unload, I lay down on my back to let it recover a bit. When he came back, he jumped out of his tractor quite alarmed. “Are you alright? Is everything ok?” He thought I'd had a heart attack! We were done soon after and did not volunteer to do that again. Oh yes, you wonder what we did with those boards? They twisted like spaghetti when they came out of the kiln and eventually got cut up for firewood! 


It took us a long time to learn the unwritten rules of bartering. One of them may be that there aren't any rules, certainly not in writing. Someone does something for you and you try to do something in return. How much is enough? Rototilling or a load of manure might be exchanged for use of a splitter. Sawing or winching of logs might be exchanged for labour in haying. Generosity and respect are always necessary. Things borrowed must be returned undamaged or the damage repaired. Keeping a sharp tally to try to come out on top isn't the way to go; rather, it's better to try to make sure that, if anyone “comes out on top,” it will be the other person. When some cash is involved, it's better to offer more than you think the person expects or would want. That gives the other person the chance to suggest a lower amount and show generosity. I don't know of any books that spell all of this out. It's something you have to work out for yourself. It can work well with people of good will. And there are myriad ways it can go off the tracks too. I'm sure you can imagine some of them.  


Taking Time to Get to Know Neighbours 

I've learned a different way to tell time since moving out in the country. In the other places we’ve lived, time was measured by the hands of my watch. I saw the goal to be getting things done efficiently, in and out, as fast as possible.  Conversation was too often just functional, stating what was needed and moving on. After all, there were always umpteen other things to get done in a day. These past years I've learned a different and, I think, better way of relating to people. When visiting neighbours, our mechanic up at the corner, or the old-order Amish, they have shown me that there is another way. You don't just come to borrow a tool. You ask how work is going, how their family is, talk about local concerns, the selling price of livestock, land, or some piece of equipment, often commiserating, sometimes some gossip. Whenever possible, not always at harvest time, time can slow down. Whether on the seat of a tractor or pickup or standing on opposite sides of a fence, your watch can quit working. And it doesn't matter. Because something more important is going on. For me this was a startling discovery while I think my wife always did understand this about time. 

Tony and Jim leaning against a white pick up truck on the right. There is a house on the left.
Tony McQuail & Jim Papple taking a break to shoot the breeze at a work bee c. 2017, Culross Township, Bruce County.

Mary, Robert, Elgin, and Brent sitting around a table with a leaf pattern cover.
Mary Hehn, Robert Johnston, Elgin Johnston (nearly 100 years old at this time), and Brent Bowyer playing crokinole at our home, c. 2016, Municipality of Morris-Turnberry, Huron County.

In our Quaker house-church we sing a song that has the line in it: “When I needed a neighbour, were you there, were you there? And the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, were you there?” We are trying to be good neighbours who are there.   


All photos were taken by the author, Brent Bowyer. 


About Brent Bowyer: 

I am a retired public-school teacher aged 71. Carol and I moved to our rural bush property between Wingham and Teeswater in 1998. Half of our land is provincially designated wetland and most of the rest is a managed woodlot. Gardening, woodturning/woodworking, hiking, birdwatching, family history, folk music, poetry-writing, and reading are some of our interests. Through a monthly DVD-watching group, occasional evenings of folk music singing and poetry reading, Carol's sharing of muffins, and occasional neighbourhood potluck meals, sunflower growing "contests," and helping neighbours with various tasks, we try to encourage a feeling of community.  

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