READING at times like an owner’s manual, The Truth About the Barn: A Voyage of Discovery and Contemplation, by Winnipeg’s David Elias, explains everything an owner might find himself doing in a barn. It’s a delightful book — funny, informative and full of the author’s very obvious affection for the buildings and the animals that live in them.

If you keep pigs in a barn, you’ll need to know that if they get out, the best way to get them back in is to chase them around and get them to drag you behind them. This will tire them out, and they’re much more co-operative once that stage is reached; you can then take them by the ear and lead them back to where they are supposed to be.

If you have 1,000 or so turkeys, meanwhile, Elias knows how to make an alarming noise that will cause the birds to panic and run for the barn, saving a lot of time trying to herd them. He describes the sound but not how to make it, feeling it might cause disasters if everyone started using it on turkeys.

Elias (author of Elizabeth of Bohemia and Henry’s Game, among others) tells you everything you’ll need to know if you use a wheelbarrow to clean out a barn or move grain or hay into the barn. Apparently, like many other things, wheelbarrows were invented in China and were brought to Europe in the 13th century by Marco Polo-type travellers.

He moves on from practical work-oriented barns to fancy renovated ones that rich folks like to live in. He gives examples of furniture like bar stools made out of tractor seats and kitchen stools made out of the bits of discarded machinery that are pretty common around most farmyards.

None of it sounds very cosy — if, for example, you make the back of your barn sofa out of old shovel handles, it might not be very easy to nap on the couch.

He has some examples of lovely old barns that people have turned into beautiful country homes. Being a Mennonite, Elias describes the barn houses that his ancestors brought to Manitoba from Russia. In addition to housebarns found in some museums, there are villages in which everyone still lives in these buildings.

In a climate like ours they’re practical — the house is typically at the front of the property, and the barn is built on at the rear, with openings so the air from the barn, warmed by the body heat of the cows and horses, can circulate and keep people warm.

Elias confesses that "out behind the barn" was a place where he would go to do things he did not want anyone else to see, like smoking, eating stolen watermelons and reading forbidden magazines. An old-fashioned polymath with plenty of information about many things, when Elias mentions smoking behind the barn he slides easily into a small essay on surveillance. He talks about fiction written about animals that behave differently when there is no one around than when we are watching them. Sometimes they won’t do the things we might need and want them to do, like mating, because they don’t like to be watched while being amorous.

He has a chapter on the vocabulary that has probably originated in barns; bulls--t, horses--t and pig s--t are examples. He ruminates about why the latter hasn’t made its way into the lexicon of cuss words the way the other two have. (To find out why, you’ll have to read the book.)

As winter sets in, The Truth About the Barn is recommended as a good read to keep on the bedside table.

Jim Blanchard is a retired academic librarian and writer ofhistory books about Winnipeg.