Words to live by

Small card is a gateway to a large world, says Bobcaygeon-area man

By Denis Grignon

'I could pick up a book, learn from it and make money. Or benefit my life in some way.' Photo: Nancy Payne.

“This is the most important card in my wallet,” the man announced, casually and matter-of-factly, to Lynn, the staffer at the Bobcaygeon library, as she checked out his regular haul of books.

It’s not an uncommon remark from local patrons — “we get it a lot,” Lynn says —   especially in a small community whose de facto epicentre is often the library. But, she says, “This one stood out as he explained how his own history with libraries went so far back. It spoke to his own development as a person.”

Hugh Morshead insists he wasn’t exaggerating that day, even proclaiming that this thin plastic card is as vital to him as the ID he obtained as a landed immigrant. When he arrived in Canada from Ireland as a young adult, he was, by his own admission, untrained and had no formal education. But he could read — and so devoured books.

Every Saturday I would go to the library and take out six books.” “I’d read them and totally self-teach on every subject,” says Morshead, who’s on the shadier side of 60 but looks to be on its sunnier side.

Morshead has always devoured books. Photo: Nancy Payne.

“With a library card,” he continues, “I could pick up a book, learn from it and make money. Or benefit my life in some way.”

It’s hard not to be convinced of his conviction.

Even when Morshead is not specifically talking books, the conversation often seems to underscore some measure of their influence on his everyday life.

“We’re now heading into the fairy zone,” he says, leading the way along one of many wending paths on his 19-acre bush property about 20 kilometres north of his favourite library. “And here we are,” he announces, stopping in front of one of several yurts he’s constructed in the 12 years since he built an off-the-grid, rudimentary but welcoming homestead here.

No surprise that each yurt features a mini library, often populated with books that guests have pilfered from his own large library at the main house. (Only friends and acquaintances seeking some solace or respite stay in the yurts; he doesn’t rent out these unique, cozy units.)

Morshead, however, doesn’t call it a yurt; he prefers “hobbit house,” a nod to J.R.R. Tolkien. And in yet more deference to the esteemed fantasy author, a wooden plaque on Morshead’s front gate reads, “Hobbit Land.”

It’s all fitting, really, given what defines —  and drives — Morshead, whose attire (Tilley hat, rumpled cotton shirt, khaki pants) would allow him to blend in nicely as one of the human citizens amongst the elves and dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Books taught him how to garden and even how to build a root cellar. But it’s not all just about higher learning or deep thinking. Photo: Nancy Payne.

As Morshead showcases the interior of the largest yurt — er, hobbit house — pointing to everything from the earth-wall construction, the tea candle that (somehow) generates electricity and the embedded clear Pyrex oven dish that serves as a window, he’s asked if his background is in engineering, or construction.

“No,” he responds sharply. “It’s in books.”

Indeed, his first hobbit house was inspired by Earthbag Building, a book he found at the Lindsay library.

But most of his working life was spent around horses, whether as a jockey or designing equestrian jumps and courses. (Of course, work is a term he’d be loath to use, since he boasts of having retired at age 17, then travelling and eventually living five different lives, which included a 22-year marriage and two now-adult sons.)The two worlds — books and horses — converged when he authored a how-to book, now in its second printing, on building cross-country equestrian courses.

Morshead is now retired — or, rather, not in dire need of generating income. He says he’s financially comfortable, a status no doubt enabled by an uber-simple lifestyle where he consumes little that he doesn’t grow or manufacture on his own.

Books taught him how to garden and even build a root cellar. But it’s not all just about higher learning or deep thinking. For instance, he’s reading a biography on Jann Wenner, the creator of Rolling Stone magazine. And then there’s the book about England’s last 60s-era hippie, which he discovered at the Fenelon branch. “I thought ‘this has got to be a mistake!’” he beams about the surprising discovery in such a tiny library.

Following the breakup of his marriage (“we’re still very good friends”) there was more opportunity to travel, which he does frequently. In keeping with the eco-friendly lifestyle he espouses, those trips typically involve 100-kilometre per day cycling tours in places like Patagonia.

But books, and their impact, are always close. “I could live in any country really, really easily… The knowledge goes with me,” he says, pulling out his slightly tattered library card from his wallet. “With this” I can do anything.”

Here, Morshead pauses, as though trying to remember the exact words to a favourite passage from a favourite book, then adds, “It’s my free ticket.”

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