by RSE Guest Blogger: Douglas Allen
The irony is, of course, dear Reader, that you would never have known about the story of my father’s experience of crossing a stream on horseback had it not been for the plasticized glow of the screen. For how else could you have known about it? It is true, I might have sat beside you while watching an equestrian event in Toronto in the autumn at the Royal Winter Fair. But words would likely not have been shared beyond a polite greeting. The story would have remained hidden and revealed only to those close by, should they care to know it, their own faces lit by the glow of the screen.
So there are decided advantages to a plastic medium that has the power to take words and send them throughout the entire world in "microseconds". The question is more a matter of deciphering what we have gained against what we have lost in that process. True, we have gained the means for words to transcend circumstance and physical encounter. We lose, however, perhaps too often, exactly what is transcended, those same things, circumstance and encounter. We lose the frequency with which we are physically and emotionally present with the one with whom we are communicating. We don’t take time to speak with the cashier at the food market, because we are in too much of a hurry to get to our phone or computer to look for, or send, an electronic message.
The question here is, of course, one of community… The horse has an important role in the story because the horse, as a living creature, has a magical way of bringing people together, who might not otherwise find their way. This is, I believe, what happened one evening for my father and his horse.
The question here is, of course, one of community. We have “online” communities, but we have lost a great deal of what community has traditionally and historically meant because we have lost some of the physicality, the face-to-face nature, of community. The task at hand would seem to be to try to capture what is best about the new without losing the beauty of the old. One significant part of the beauty of the old was its equestrian nature.
Indeed, the very idea of pre-modern community brings us back to the horse. The horse has an important role in the story, in part, because the horse was limited in its ability to take us away from each other. But it is also because the horse, as a living creature, has a magical way of bringing people together, who might not otherwise find their way. This is, I believe, what happened one evening for my father and his horse.
My father always enjoyed travelling. Sometimes I think he would have been far happier had he just kept on travelling instead of settling down and having a family. He was a man who, while he enjoyed people, was very much happy to be by himself all the same. In his younger days he found himself travelling quite a great deal by horse on the prairies. Travelling like he did, he found himself from time to time in a “situation”. He’d speak of it years later with a gleam in his eyes and a half grin, the grin conceding that he likely should never have gotten into it in the first place, but also confessing that he had nevertheless enjoyed the excitement that came with not knowing how his day, or journey, would end.
One of these “situations” occurred when he was travelling by horse and, likely, carriage, and must have somehow miscalculated, or had become engaged in something which delayed him. It seems to me that it was autumn. The temperature had dropped significantly as the sun began to set. It was growing dark and late in the day, and he found himself too far from town or village.
Aside: The sometimes very significant change in temperature over the course of the day is one thing I myself have experienced from having lived on the prairie. I could, for example, leave for work in the early morning on a spring day and the temperature would be, say, -20 C (-4 degrees F) and return home in the evening when the temperature would have risen to +15 C (+59 degrees F).
My father was not really what I would call a bold man. But he had a deep faith that things would always turn out for him. He is perhaps one of the luckiest men I have ever met. And a good job, since his planning, like on this occasion, was somewhat wanting. He knew he had miscalculated, so he did what seemed the natural thing for him to do at the time. My father was the eldest of five children. He learned there, I believe, to ask for what he needed. He approached the farmhouse that was the only one in sight for miles, to ask if he could stay with the family overnight.
The farmer whom my father met was not, however, hospitable at all. He told my father that he would not accommodate him. There was a silence for a moment. But, glancing over and pointing to my father’s horse, he said that he would, however, accommodate my father’s horse. My father replied to the effect that, “Well, okay then, thank you, at least my horse will have shelter for the night.” But then the farmer, after some hesitation, went on to say that, since he was going to accommodate my father’s horse, my father too might as well sleep in the barn with the horse. Some straw would have to suffice for his bed.
I remember that the story went on that the farmer’s wife or daughter, or both, later on, when it had gotten to be closer to bedtime, brought out some blankets for my father, and I believe something to eat. The farmer likely never knew about this act of human kindness by the other members of his family.
There is, I think, much to learn from the story. It illustrates the way that our obligations to animals sometimes have the effect of saving individuals from their unkindness to other people. The horse’s very presence made an appeal to the farmer to search within to find his own human kindness.
The story thus reminds us, too, of how our relationship to an animal is a type of contract. … We bring it inside our husbandry and this obligates us to care for it. It is a living, beautiful creature. It deserves human kindness….[But] a human deserves human kindness too.
The story thus reminds us, too, of how our relationship to an animal is a type of contract. We tame it and employ it. We bring it inside our husbandry and this obligates us to care for it. It is a living, beautiful creature. It deserves human kindness. But a human individual is, too, no less, a beautiful creature. A human deserves human kindness too. And, as in this story, we all share the responsibility to look after horses and our fellow man. Indeed, the thinker Kierkegaard “insists that the concept of ‘neighbour’ … must apply, in principle, to just anyone whose need is presented to us, and not just the family and friends we choose to be with.” (George Pattison, The Philosophy of Kierkegarrd (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) p. 125)
It also speaks to us about the relationship between the horse and the human community of yesteryear. My father’s approach of a solitary and unknown farmhouse speaks in itself about the notion of community that existed at the time. My father was certainly not alone in this. In this instance, however, the horse was the means by which my father was helped. The horse served to construct a three-way community, which, strangely enough, helped one man to find his way to a more hospitable stance, if not entirely to kindness, and hopefully taught my father a lesson in the process.
And in thinking upon this relationship between my father and his horse, and the horse in general and the human community, I think of a poem by my favourite poet, the American poet Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a poem I have loved since the high school day when it was gifted to me by one of my English Literature teachers, and is hopefully a favourite of yours too. We can speak of this poem in the summertime, I think, because it was, in fact, written in the summer.
Let’s revisit this poem (below) in terms of the idea of community and the relationship between an individual and his or her horse next time.
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Who is Douglas Allen?
Douglas is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. He is also a writer and is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.