Clive Thompson confesses his cottage sins: Pride

illustration of the word pride with various deer around it Illustration by Sam Island

Pride, wrath, envy, sloth, lust, greed, gluttony—the cottage can bring out the best and the worst in us. We asked seven of Canada’s top writers to come clean about their cottage sins.

I Have a Confession to Make…

When I was a child in the ’70s, seeing a deer outside my cottage was a treasured moment. 

We had a small place on Presqu’ile Point, a wooded peninsula jutting out into Lake Ontario. The local deer, easily spooked by humans, didn’t venture near very often, but occasionally my mother would wake me up at 6 a.m. to whisper that a doe and her fawn were grazing in the wet dawn grass near the edge of the forest. “Be very quiet, or you’ll scare them,” she’d warn, as we peered out the back screen door.

Over the next few decades, though, deer became braver. You’d see them walking along the road, or even walking up to our deck. By the ’90s, it was clear what propelled this change: the deer population was exploding. Soon, there were so many that they devoured the vegetation; the forest was thinning out and the deer were starving. They’d walk right up to you, ribs showing, looking for food. Once an awe-inspiring spectacle, the deer were now a miserable one.

Why did the number of deer soar? What happened? Well, we did. It was humans tinkering with nature, over decades, often doing things that we thought would help the deer, but that backfired. And it’s a reminder that when it comes to living alongside the great outdoors, our chief sin is pride: we think that we can control nature, but nature has other plans.

The trouble began, really, when European settlers arrived in the 17th century. Over the next two hundred years, they cut down so much forest for logging and farming—much of Presqu’ile was cleared for farms back then—and so avidly hunted, that deer populations were wiped out in many parts of the continent. 

By the year 1900, though, there was a backlash. A generation of people became alarmed by how profoundly we’d altered the landscape, and the modern conservation movement that was committed to restoring the wilderness was born. By the middle of the 20th century, Canadian provinces and U.S. states, for example, were actively rebuilding habitats and restricting hunting.

“You weren’t allowed to hunt south of Highway Two for quite some time,” says David Bree, the chief park naturalist for Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Eventually, Presqu’ile’s habitats rebounded, and so, gradually, did the deer. Score one for humanity, right?

Except we’d made the mistake, over centuries, of getting rid of wolves too. So when deer rebounded at my cottage, they had no natural predators, and their numbers surged far higher than what was normal. They became a pest species, officially native, but throwing the forest out of whack all over again. “They were eating everything in sight,” Bree says. “All the spring wildflowers.” 

Granted, we humans weren’t trying to mess things up and create metastatic, runaway deer populations. Our intent was good! We were simply too confident in our ability to bend nature to our will.

We’ve done this time and time again, alas. Remember wild boar? They were originally introduced for food and biodiversity purposes, but now they’re rampaging through Canadian forests and, much like all invasive species, they’re eradicating diversity. In the 1970s, to clean up algae in North American waterways, we introduced algae-devouring Asian carp. Whoops: they thrived far too well, devouring not just the algae but also native species, and—with their penchant for leaping acrobatically out of the water at boats—they even endangered us directly. These are complex, gnarled mistakes, which took us decades to make.

We can, though, learn from them. With the deer at Presqu’ile, the province finally set up culls by First Nations peoples to reduce the deer back down to a sustainable population. 

Can we sustain it? We’ll try. Bree and his colleagues are paid to try, and conservationists grow more knowledgeable every year. But as Bree ruefully tells me, nature is wily and weird, constantly throwing surprises. We can’t get cocky.

These days, I’ll go for a walk through the woods with my sons, and deer are once again an elusive sight; long before you can draw near, they’ll hear you coming and vanish. But every so often they’ll appear, hesitantly, at the edge of the woods, and my kids find those brief glimpses just as soul-stirring as I when I was young. I’m glad the mystery is back. 

“Cottaging means coexisting with nature. And that, it turns out, means constantly unlearning our sense of entitlement and arrogance, our sense that we can just settle in and make ourselves at home. We need to embrace caution, awe at the complexity of the wild, the limits of our comprehension. We need the opposite of pride: humbleness.”  

Clive Thompson is the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. His work has also appeared in Wired and Smithsonian.

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