Saturday, July 11, 2009

Spring Chickens and Ham-lets...

Penned June 22nd, 2007

It's not often that one gets to experience a hamlet. I've been to many cities before, and even more towns. I've seen a few municipalities, some villages, several unnamed communities, and even dwellings calling themselves 'corporations'. But hamlets, well, you just don't see them as often. Maybe a hamlet is more of a European thing, like marmite, or technopop, or environmental responsibility. Maybe the hamlet was once commonplace in these parts, but over time developed into full grown hams. Or perhaps the very nature of a hamlet is to be hidden. Maybe the hamlet aims to be something tucked away in the corner, avoiding the limelight, trying to carry on its generations-old way of life independent of the world rapidly advancing around it. I think that just what a hamlet might be: a small group of simple folk, leading the simple life. Because more than anything else, that is what I found in the Hamlet of Grovedale, Alberta.

Most people outside the County of Grande Prairie have never heard of Grovedale. Many people inside the County of Grande Prairie have never heard of Grovedale. It would seem a bit of a challenge for a place to simultaneously be a hamlet, a grove, and a dale, and sadly, Grovedale falls short, a true hamlet requiring the absence of a church, something one would never find up in Alberta farm country. However, the community is located just off Highway 666, and this could nullify the presence of the church, perhaps rendering the name accurate.

With a population of 500, there is a sense of predictability and ease in this place, and news is exchanged the old fashioned way, at the General Store, or on the way to it. To some, this sort of life may seem a bit dull, but in this small town, the ho-hum existence is offset by an event so exciting and extraordinary that it punctuates the entire year like a exclamation point scribbled in soy ink. Yes, I speak of the Grovedale Summer Fair.

Many agricultural communities in Alberta have summer events. In these parts, it is difficult to drive a highway in August without being accosted by signs for the harvest festivals of a thousand small towns, each one promising the biggest hogs, the tallest sunflowers, and the sweetest corn. But Grovedale is not numbered among them. When competing with such heavy hitters as Valleyview and Sexsmith, it is difficult for the smallest of the small communities to compete. So Grovedale doesn't.

You see, some time long ago the wily townsfolk of Grovedale realized that the glut of proximate harvest festivals combined with their diminutive population put them at a competitive disadvantage. They were afflicted by the curse of our generation: Too much choice. If the people of Grovedale were to put their hamlet on the map, they would have to do something different. And so they did.

Rather than try to compete with the myriad of communities hosting events at the end of the summer, Grovedale tried the opposite approach. They put their summer fair not at the end of season, but rather, at its beginning. And it just seems to have paid off. Grovedale is the only farm fair held in the month of June, but it attracts visitors from as far as, well, Vancouver, BC.

To say that I was surprised at the number of people in attendance would be an understatement. Shocked would be more accurate. There must have been almost a thousand people there, each with a corn dog in hand, carefully scrutinizing the lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and the few other dwarfed specimens cultivated before their time. Every farmer in the area had brought out his prized animals: pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, cows, each carefully washed, brushed and decorated with ribbon, tassles, and brass tags. Judges weaved in and out of the rows of livestock, carefully scrutinizing each animal, petting, poking and prodding, testing both demeanour and aesthetic, looking under lips, legs and loins. The animals responded with ambivalence, perhaps irritated, but accepting it as par for course in the life of organism awaiting a dinner plate denouement.

There was entertainment for children; ponies to be ridden, local residents masquerading as clowns, piles of hay hiding toothpicks to be redeemed for China-made toys, and a maypole, rendered a tangled mess by momentary lapses in nine-year old judgment. There was a children's rodeo, where boys would prove their mettle by putting their eight seconds in on a two year-old hog. The girls didn't seem so interested. On the whole, the atmosphere of the event was festive, but laid back and down to earth, much like the people of Grovedale themselves.

The height of the fair came in the late afternoon, when the dust in the air clung to skin sheen with perspiration coaxed forth by the summer sun. A crowd had gathered around a small enclosure. It was no more than three by three metres, the outside lined with chicken wire, with wooden stakes driven in the ground at the corners to support it. Inside it was the silty gravel typical of these parts, but it had been divided into squares of equal size, four wide by four across, demarcated with bright orange spraypaint. Each section had been numbered from one through sixteen in a random pattern, and bets were being placed on these with even odds. To what end I was not sure.

Then a clamour began to rise up from the crowd, which had grown stiflingly close and deep. To one side the sea of people began to shuffle. Something, someone, was coming forward. A path was forming, and despite the tight clustering of people, the person making his way to the square met with no opposition. Deference was shown to him and his precious cargo, a cardboard box he held under his arm. When he reached the side of the small fence, he looked back to the crowd, and it fell silent. He set the box down beside him, and cautiously opened it, one flap at a time. When its contents could see the light of day, he reached inside.

When he again stood, his hands were in the air, and over his head was... a chicken. A roar rose up from the crowd. With a motion borne of ritual, he cast the animal into the pen. It flapped its wings gracelessly, but landed softly on the ground. And as the mob continued to rage, the hen, disaffected, walked about the space.

Hundreds were pressed around the fence, and all eyes were fixed on the bird inside. Some were screaming at her, others to themselves, and a few to God. Sweat-laden hands clutched cash and tickets, wishing, praying for chance to favour them. The smell of desperation mingled with those of bodies and fowl, and rose into the air with the curses and howls. Never before had such breast and thighs inspired so much passion.

The hen seemed to take notice of the madness about her. Her demeanour shifted, and she began to strut, to show off for her throngs of adoring fans who cheered all the louder to her response. She seemed to take pride in her position, her moment of fame. Perhaps she knew her fate. Maybe she thought she might stave it off if only she could justify her existence, put on a real display, become the show hen, the one that would return, and be the life of the fair for years to come.

Or maybe she was just enjoying that sense of empowerment, that fleeting feeling of control you have when all eyes are fixed on you, and you are the one who decides the outcome, although you know fully well that once that decision is made, your power disappears. And so you hum and haw and drag it out as long as possible to maintain that supremacy, not wanting to give it up, but trying to keep face while you dither.

And just then the hen looked at me. And I could see in her eyes that she was done. It was all just a game, and when it was over, so was she. She had had her fun, but the time had come for the round to end. The inherent sadness was tinted with relief, and the hen almost appeared as though she was ready for what was to come. And with this realization, she relaxed. She stopped moving, and stood there, looking at me, and then with a look of consternation, shat on the ground below her.

Cheers of victory from those who had predicted the correct square, and moans of defeat of those who had not took to the air, and within a few minutes, the crowd had dissipated. The same man who had brought in the hen picked up his box, stepped over the fence, and placed the animal inside. I was the only one left.

"What's going to happen to her?" I asked.

"Soup," he smiled, then walked off.

I crouched there a while longer, reflecting. I looked inside the pen to square number two, the one containing the cooling guano. I wondered if it was significant. That the hen had defecated atop the number with which I have always associated. Maybe as she looked into my eyes, she was trying to say something. That, compared to those hooting and hollering, I was no different. That some disdain should be felt, for I should know better. Or maybe more simply, like the hen, that we all just get shit on, sometimes.

But by that time, is was starting to get late. The fair was beginning to wind down, and there were still a few things I wanted to get done while I was there. I took one last look at the fenced square, and thought for a moment about the hen, and wished her well, and hoped that whoever ended up eating her would not trivialize what he was doing, and instead would appreciate the full extent of what he was experiencing. That one animal should die, so another can live.

And with that thought I left the ring. I headed to the ticket booth, collected my winnings, and headed off to get another beer.

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