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Love letters to the cottage: On the pleasures of not changing a thing

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This article was originally published in the Early Summer 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

As the country turns 150, we’re celebrating the greatest national pastime: going to the cottage, the place where we feel most Canadian.

The first idea we gave up on was painting. After buying our cabin in northern B.C. (a shack, really, valued at zero dollars by tax assessors and more rustic than your average ice-fishing hut), my partner, Alisa, and I had gotten all peppy about painting it yellow. Oh, butter yellow would be lovely. With sage-green trim. Then we thought, Why bother? Everyone agreed the thing was a teardown, if it didn’t fall down first. I’m not exaggerating here. Whenever we went to the cabin, we brought a tent in case we found it lying on the ground. It was not so much a cottage as a giant game of Jenga.

We turned our attention to what I grandly called “the grounds.” The shack sat at the edge of a clearing, which had evolved into an enormous woven mat of tall grass and thorns and prehistoric-looking cow parsnips that filled the air with a scent like medicated foot powder. A team of us waded in with scythes, machetes, and axes. We had hardly liberated the cabin from its straightjacket of green when an angry bird rose up to let us know that we were about to destroy her hidden nest. But of course—the briar patch that threatened our home was itself a home to many a critter. The bird was serving notice that she had prior rights. We chose not to dispute her claim.

And so it has gone, all through the years. We have not, as planned and planned again, repaired the roof. Careful sketches exist of our new foundation, but the new foundation does not exist. We did not put in a well or make improvements to the perilous outhouse. We have not installed a charming gate or a deck or solar panels or a sauna or a smoker or a firepit or one of those great outdoor showers that I really love when I use them at other people’s places. Even at the height of the pergola craze, we did not build a pergola. The inside of the cabin, meanwhile, looks as much like a rural crime scene as it did on the day that we bought it.

Over time, as with all things that are done year a er year at a cabin, our inertia became a tradition. We are proud of the changelessness of the place—so much so that we feel competitive with other dormant cottage-keepers. Don’t mistake what I’m describing for laziness. The result of our inaction is not some hillbilly life of barefooted ease, but the hard work of living in the rough. Sometimes, back home in the city, we talk about the kind of dream chalets you see in the pages of magazines like this one. Then we go back to our shack in the woods, and it whispers, Not here.

Change, we have realized, is high on the list of things we are trying to escape when we go to the cabin. The grind of so-called progress. The latest iPhone. The mania for constant renovation of our homes, our physiques, our personalities. Change has become a modern pollutant, like pulled pork, like emojis—change can be good, it can be useful, but as often as not it appears where it is not needed. Even the damned climate won’t stop changing. Every year now, we walk down the trail, chop a path to our cabin door through the season’s growth of jungle, and go about doing what we always do: sinking down into the belly of timelessness. One day, we know, the shack will fall down. Maybe then we’ll build something new. Or maybe we’ll put up the tent.

J.B. MacKinnon is an award-winning journalist and author living in Vancouver. His latest book is The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be.