Quill and Quire

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An Acre of Time

by Phil Jenkins

May this book spawn others like it, for what a little gem it is.

Five years ago Phil Jenkins penned Fields of Vision, a bittersweet chronicle of life on Canada’s family farms and a book that seems now like a precursor to this one. Like Wendell Berry, Jenkins clearly believes that place matters a great deal.
An Acre of Time offers the history– geological, anthropological, personal, political, botanical – of an acre of land in downtown Ottawa now known as Le Breton Flats. It’s on the south side of the Ottawa River, near Chaudiere Falls. Jenkins paints a picture of himself at the acre about to bury a computer disk containing all the words in An Acre of Time. “In effect,” he writes in homage, “I’m holding the acre’s memory.”

The book bids us take a moment to ponder this tiny plot that in 1794 was “fixed in the British web.” Among those who put their marks on the acre are an explorer named Champlain, an innkeeper named Firth, an Algonquin chief named Penency, and a surveyor named Stegmann. The land has seen horrific fires, cruel expropriations, and wonky schemes, all recorded here.

Key to the success of An Acre of Time is its scale. No more, no less, Jenkins set out to know just this one God’s green acre. It’s not an entirely original idea (I’ve read other books like it) but the writing is frequently lively, rich in irony and surprises, and funny; the research that preceded it plainly relentless. The book works best when past and present are made to intersect, when Jenkins is physically there on the acre bearing witness to then and to now. Where mere history must bear the burden of the narrative, without the author’s voice-over, the book loses its freshness.

I was left with a new respect for that one acre and a great urge to walk on it. Perhaps it will speak to me as it so clearly did to the man who told its tale.