The Cabbage King
"When the sun rises, I go to work,
When the sun goes down, I take my rest,
I dig the well from which I drink,
I farm the soil that yields my food,
I share creation, Kings can do no more."
— Ancient Chinese, 2500 B.C.
My first associations with Vince McIntyre centre on his hands. They are cracked, callused mitts that engulf the soft skin of my own as the tough love of a mother might enshroud a child. I am 11 years old and we are standing in the upper field of my family's property where Vince is growing corn. In exchange for the use of our land we will have a root cellar full of root vegetables for the winter and my mother can go to the "grocery store", as she calls it, anytime, to pick fresh ears for supper. This is rural exchange at its finest, free of the middleman and monetary complications.
Along with my father, Vince has always been the embodiment of hard work in my life. Steadfast and tenacious in his never-ending cycle of preparing, planting, weeding, harvesting and selling, he is a cornerstone of our community and one whose legacy will live on long after his plough stops turning our good earth. My memory is riddled with images of his legend. Countless snapshots of him, perched on his two-wheeled wagon, going up and down our gravel roads behind two heavy draft horses — a sort of rural Roman god armed with pitchfork and scythe. Or his yearly staple of baked potatoes stuffed with cottage cheese and served on a big, purple cabbage leaf at the Fall Faire — as iconic as the lineup of people with empty white buckets waiting for the honey truck to arrive.
In the fall of last year, on the invitation of Vince's daughter Amber, I drove my Volkswagen Vanagon down the rough road towards Glacier Creek to pull potatoes. Being the laid-back artist I am, I arrived at two in the afternoon to join the crew which had been there since sun up. This was day nine of the potato harvest and my enthusiasm was met with the kind of knowing stares that are given to green, naive soldiers by grizzled old veterans. After a quick lesson from the man himself as to the best technique for pulling a spud from the earth I was left to it and quickly removed both my gloves and my boots so that my toes and fingers could wriggle in the dark soil like fat, white worms.
The rows were long and the going slow. During one fleeting moment of youthful audacity I attempted to keep stride with Vince which ended quickly and unceremoniously as he pulled ahead effortlessly, unaware of my fantastical competition. Two years ago, he replaced the draft horses with an old blue and white International tractor and it prepared the rows ahead of our crawling progress. He was wearing a blue collared shirt and beige pants, his wrists taped like a high-performance athlete. At nearly 70 years old he out worked us all — setting a precedent, it seems only he can reach.
At the end of the day the white bags of potatoes that dotted the upturned field were loaded up into two aging pickup trucks, their axels nearly touching the ground, and driven off to the potato barn. Inside they are piled along with the rest in order of variety. Russets, Yukon Golds, Red Norland, Kinnebec and Purple Majesty all leave an earthy smell in the barn. It's a good smell and one I will remember for a long time. It's the smell of getting your hands dirty and feeling the rich, black soil under bare feet. It's the smell of thistles biting ungloved hands and of a brief conversation as you pass a fellow worker in an adjacent row. To make a living this way becomes a meditative way of life. There is no frivolous excess allowed, nor time for relaxation — although it is rumoured that Vince dives into the cool waters of Kootenay Lake daily during the summer months.
As an artist whose majority of days are spent traversing the stifling confines of my mind, there is an inherent sense of rightness that descends on me when my hands are dirty. There are few things as gratifying as physical labour and the complete removal of the incessant intellectuality that comes with it. Whether it is crawling around under a vehicle to get covered in oil or being elbow-deep in a potato field I appreciate the simplicity of the task at hand. Yet, this is again a product of a vacation-like mindset and I am sure that once the initial romance of the physical engagement wore off I would wish for nothing more than a hot bath and a good book.
Yet Vince has dedicated the past 40 years to this steady, spiralling, spine-bending progression, and, after watching the beautiful short documentary, Shaped by Hand, that film maker Elias Koch made about our local farmer, it is clear he hasn't lost any intellectuality in the process. On the contrary, he has gained a simple wisdom that rings of clarity — much the same tone a Buddhist monk might acquire after a lifetime of dedicated spirituality.
Now it is his 70th birthday. People are gathered in the community hall to recognize a life of harvest by eating a potluck in his name. Without being told I know at least a few Vince veggies have found their way into a dish or two — some mashed potatoes look and taste particularly suspicious. Vince is dressed in an formal yet working way as per usual with a few exceptions: atop his head is a large, green, cone-shaped party hat complete with glittery tassels, and nestled in his unbuttoned vest is a heavy, fake-gold dollar sign on a matching fat chain. "The King of Cabbage and his bling," he tells me, eyes twinkling.
After dinner the entertainment begins including a showing of Shaped by Hand. Surprisingly, it is the first time I have seen it and its simple elegance matches its star. Shots of familiarity show on the screen. Vince walking behind his horses through fields I know well. Those engulfing hands pulling weeds from between rows of onions. His lined, sun-browned face with its ever-present, silver beard. As his husky voice floats over the imagery I am drawn into his life in a way my own relationship with him has never accomplished, and, walking home, the last lines of the three-minute film ring in my head.
"At this age, in my life, I'm not so concerned with the outcome," he says, walking up a forest path. "I go out there and I do what I can. If it doesn't work, I've tried."