Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Conversation With...Ben Smith

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

When I walk into the bright, cluttered kitchen of Ben Smith’s home on Crawley Road outside of Pugwash, he’s shelling peas into a large steel bowl balanced between his knees. His two children are playing with toys; Midge the dog lies at his feet; his wife is working her booth at the farmers’ market. Fish cakes are frying on the stove. 
Ben appears perfectly content with the stillness of his current task yet this is a man who juggles many interests and projects. He builds and maintains raised beds for the couple’s market garden and he is a landscaper, working mainly with stone. He is a singer and songwriter who plays guitar and the bass violin and has hosted the  Friday night kitchen party at the cafĂ© in Pugwash for five years. He plays baseball, coaches high school baseball and teaches disc golf to schools then trades the bat and glove for a goalie mask and stick during the winter. He works two days a week running an afterschool sports program at the Y in Amherst. He even wanted to homeschool his son and daughter but they really wanted to go to school. 
His four-year-old daughter hands him a mess of yarn twined around a large comb. Kadance and her six-year-old brother Avery pop peas into their mouth as her father patiently unravels the yarn. 
My first question to Ben could be the facetious ‘When do you sleep?’ but rather, I open with something that might explain how Ben accomplishes everything: ‘What is your guiding principle?’ 
“I live by the Tao,” he tells me, referring to the Tao Te Ching (the ‘book of the Way’) written by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “It talks about doing tasks to completion. When you’re completely immersed in something, you become the task. So my guiding principle is that each thing I do, I try to do it completely and immerse myself in it. Not worry about the results. Do my work and step back, that’s the only way to longevity. With a couple of my other self-employed friends, we’ve been kicking around this idea that if you just keep doing good work, eventually things will fall into place.”
Born and raised in Amherst, Ben has been exploring his skills and ideas since he was a teenager. 
“I was involved in sport really heavily and at 15, I made a choice. I could continue on the path here or I could try to take a shot down in the States so I did a year of private school hockey down there,” he says. He returned to Amherst for Grade 12 and attended Dalhousie University. 
“I thought I was going to do sport and teaching but I realized that job prospects and the constraints of the education system weren’t going to be my most effective use,” he says. “It was the same thing when I went to the States and played hockey; I realized that’s not what I wanted to do.”
So he explored university (dropping out during a long strike), worked for eight summers as a tree planter in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and BC, and travelled. 
“I hitchhiked across Canada at 18 then did it three more times,” says Ben who only began playing guitar when he was 19. “I decided I wanted to see North America so I’ve been to every state and every province, up north and down south.”
He’s called a lot of places home. In his early twenties, he lived for awhile on a farm in Jemseg, outside Fredericton where he got into gardening and reading and discovering the joy of being alone. As he talks about this time, I recognize the stories from some of his songs. After leaving Dalhousie, he ended up tree planting in northern BC (where he met his wife) and made enough money to buy his bass viol and later, a home. They moved south to the city of Vancouver where Ben thought he had found his dream job at the age of 26. 
“I worked for a professional baseball team, the Canadians, and I thought that was going to be it. I was ‘head of the interior’ [he wasn’t playing]. I was promoted quickly to have my own crew.”
The work was perfect for him: it was self-directed and the stadium was eight blocks from home. But…
 “I realized it was artificial,” Ben says. “Professional sport is really a strange game but again, I’m glad I got to do that work. I did, I tried, but this is better.” 
All the travelling, all the different jobs, was intentional.
 “It helped me realize that much of the experiences we have are shared experiences, whether you do them in Canada or Korea or wherever,” he explains. “I wanted to understand where I come from. It helps me have some kind of grounding for relative experience. That’s why I love living here so much. 
Ben, now 33, and his wife settled in Pugwash over five years ago. 
“Because I’ve been other places, I realize not everybody gets a hundred acres of nature reserve behind them and quiet and the opportunity to flourish with money and culture,” he says. “It’s very subtle here but it’s all here. When we lived in Vancouver, there were five hundred other potters doing what my wife does. There were a thousand other landscapers doing the stuff I was doing. Here, there is an overwhelming amount of jobs and opportunity, you just have to have the wherewithal, the gumption to take it on.”
Our conversation keeps circling back to his guiding principle, which Ben says he’s been developing all his life. 
“You learn to be quiet and listen to what really is happening. I think my one benefit is that I made some mistakes early and learned from them. That has led me to all these things. When you do something, you do it fully. Success is a by-product of hard work but the difference between success and failure is so thin, you might as well focus on the hard work and see where that takes you.”

At peas with himself...


  1. Another interesting profile Sara. I know Jen (Ben's wife) fairly well but I didn't know so much about Ben or his fascinating & rich history.

  2. Hi, Susan, thanks for commenting. Ben is another conversation that gave me so much material I couldn't use. We have fascinating people around here, that's for sure.