We missed the “For Sale” sign the first time we passed it. It was nailed to a tree a few feet in from the road. When I pulled over to park, a large boulder dislodged itself from the roadbed and scraped the underside of our car. The seven-acre property near Perth, Ont., was densely wooded, but once we scrambled through the understorey lining the road we emerged into an open forest of mixed hardwood and spruce and were able to walk easily down to the lake. We knew it as Long Lake—small, oval-shaped, about a kilometre from end to end, and with only three buildings on it, one of which was a log cabin that we had rented 20 years before for $2,000 a year.
We called the real estate agent and told him we’d think about it. He advised us not to think too long.
Like a lot of people in these pandemic days, when cities feel crowded and unsafe, my wife, Merilyn, and I have been thinking about buying country property. We’ve looked at a lot of land that hasn’t been quite what we have in mind. We want something between wilderness and farmland, but close to the wilderness end of the continuum. Something that is still natural habitat.
We know what farmland is. Before moving into the city, we lived in a 200-year-old farmhouse with 15 acres of bush, two acres of gardens, a dozen apple trees, and two dozen chickens. We tried to dwell as “lightly, carefully, gracefully” as we could, to borrow environmentalist Bill McKibben’s phrase: we grew most of our own food, but without ploughing or fertilizing. Instead of excessive watering, we mulched our gardens. We heated with our own wood, winter-stored our apples and collected the windfalls for pressing cider; we tapped our maples for syrup and foraged on our property for wild leeks and morels.
After 15 years of hard labour, we realized what Henry David Thoreau had understood 150 years earlier. A garden may be close to nature, but it isn’t natural habitat. In Walden, Thoreau writes that he spent the growing season “making the earth say beans instead of grass.” We spent 15 years making our land say apples, potatoes, and day lilies instead of butternuts, trilliums, and staghorn sumac. “Our” forest and “our” gardens were artificial constructs that, in order for them (and us) to thrive, had to out-compete what wanted to grow there naturally.
We aren’t looking for wilderness. Even if we were, true wilderness no longer exists. The 1964 U.S. Wilderness Act defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Now, when four per cent of the dust particles on this continent are plastic, when the average temperature at the North Pole is 3° Celsius higher than it was when ice covered it, and when, globally, the population of most wild species has declined by 68 per cent in the past 50 years, it can be argued that there is nowhere left on the planet that hasn’t been trammeled by us, nowhere that we have visited and not remained. There may once have been true wilderness somewhere, but we have lost it. Wilderness is now what environmental historian William Cronon describes, counterintuitively, as “quite profoundly a human creation,” existing only as “the reflection of our own longings and desires.”
Which is the reason I actually prefer poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder’s view. To him, “wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.” His idea doesn’t separate humans from the “community of life”: within Snyder’s “diversity of living,” there is a place for us.
Merilyn and I aren’t naive enough to think that we can live in a natural habitat without changing it. Although we have no intention of exporting the city into the country—in the form of septic systems, air conditioning, gas-powered generators, and noise—we understand what I call “the observer effect” of being in the wild. In physics, the observer effect states that you can’t even passively observe a system without altering it. Margaret Mead famously applied the theory to anthropology: the mere presence of an observer among a remote people, she warned, alters their behaviour in ways that the ethnologist wouldn’t even notice. I feel the same way about natural systems—we are never simply passive observers of nature. Our presence in the natural world changes it. In the same way that an oak tree planted in the middle of a pine forest changes the nature of the forest, so our presence in the wild makes it slightly less wild. Humans have irrevocably changed the nature of the forest.
And we’re continuing to change it, almost always in negative ways. We can, however, make as few inroads on it as possible (literally and figuratively). We can find a relatively unspoiled piece of natural habitat and leave it relatively unspoiled. What we want is a piece of what realtors call “vacant land,” with its ecosystems and diversity of wildlife intact, and simply to ease into it. We want to understand and to accept the value of what is there. Any place anyone lives is called habitat. Maybe a place where everyone can live is called vacant land.
The cabin Merilyn and I rented on Long Lake sat lightly, carefully, and gracefully in the woods. Built in the 1800s of white-pine logs, it still did not have electricity or running water. I built an outhouse, we heated the cabin with wood, and in the winter, like Thoreau, I chopped holes in the lake ice for water. About the only thing our cabin had that Thoreau’s didn’t was a solar panel on the roof to keep our laptops charged. Geographically, it was only an hour from where we lived in the city, but it felt far from anywhere, which was almost as good.
We spent several months in the cabin while I worked on a book about coyotes. One evening, I found myself writing with outrage about hunters who set leg-hold traps for them. Then I realized I had just set four mousetraps in the kitchen because white-footed mice were coming in and eating my granola. The contradiction stopped me in my tracks. We plugged the holes through which mice were entering, put our food in mouse-proof tins, and I dismantled the mousetraps. We grew more tolerant of porcupines, snapping turtles, and black rat snakes, and I finished my coyote book feeling that I had come closer to understanding what being in tune with nature meant.
Now, we can’t shake the feeling that we had and lost what we’re looking for, that what we want now is a return. This feeling might define humanity’s relationship to nature for the past hundred years. We had it, and we let it go.
Is it too late to get it back? The evening of our inspection of the seven acres on Long Lake, Merilyn and I talked about it. It seemed right. It was quiet, unimproved, affordable. We knew the lake and the people who lived on it. We knew the wildlife we’d be sharing the land with: porcupines, red squirrels, muskrats, snapping turtles, deer. A pair of ospreys had built a nest at one end of the lake, and at least two Caspian terns regularly cruised overhead and occasionally dove for fish.
On the other hand the property was only seven acres, and close to one of the other cabins on the lake. That 20 foot drop to the water bothered me. The trees were second-growth, maybe third, and there were no clearings, so we’d have to do a lot of cutting and grading to make an accessible building site. Were we too eager? Shouldn’t we take a second look?
The next morning, we called our agent and asked him to send us a copy of the survey. He called back and told us that the owners had already had more than a dozen offers, some from people in Toronto who had not even seen the property, and probably for well over the asking price. We’d hesitated and lost.
But we’ll keep looking. We know the place we’re looking for exists somewhere. Cronon may be right when he says that wilderness exists only as a metaphor for what we have lost. But we can still find a place where humans and nature can coexist, where anyone can live who simply wants to share space with wildlife and allow natural processes to take place only minimally affected by us. Where vacant land can remain vacant, even when we’re living on it.
This essay appeared in the Mar/Apr 2021 issue of Cottage Life.