Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Wearing several hats at once.

One of my favourite amazing bloggers is bon over at Crib Chronicles. She has lately written a post about buying recreational land and the impulse to live a life of self-sufficiency. I started to write a comment about this post but, when I had reached about the one hundredth word mark, realized that what I should be writing was a post of my own. So, please go and read her post about almost buying a cottage. You'll love the writing and be fascinated by her topic. And I will add my bit to the discussion.

When you buy a hundred acre piece of vacant land, it can take over your life. It took over ours.

Our early years as a married couple were a mad scramble as we variously coped with doctoral dissertation, two babies in fifteen months, frequent moves and not enough money. Once JG finished his post doc, however, and settled into a permanent job, once the kids both started school, things, especially our finances, became smoother. And we decided that while a suburb was a fine place to raise and school young children, it was also noisy, crowded and nerve racking. We decided to buy recreational land.

Our first few investigations told us that a cottage on water in our price range came with even more noise, crowding and nervous tension. We started to look for a peaceful place, hopefully with access to water, where we could spend weekends. What we found was a hundred acre plot that had been settled and farmed in the nineteenth century but that latterly had returned to scrub bush. At the end of a rutted track on a dead end road, it was a perfect hideout.

My father, an avid consumer of survival fiction, worried from time to time about how his precious grandchildren would survive come Armageddon. He helped us buy this piece of land, and encouraged me to teach the girls subsistence farming, archery, self defence, all the skills he thought necessary for living through cataclysmic times. My husband was far more concerned with building an insulated cabin for all year weekending, taming the overgrown field and bush, killing marauding porcupines and exploring every nook and cranny of our new-found possession.

We did get books about surviving in the bush, we made (awful) soap and tried boiling down maple sap à la our pioneer ancestors. I tried gardening, but the competition with deer, coons, rodents and birds, on a two-day-a-week basis, was just too aggravating and I continued to keep my kitchen garden in the back yard of our city house. An electric fence, large dogs and a good aim with a twenty-two are the kind of help back woods gardeners need. Living off the land? While cat tail roots may be nourishing, they taste terrible. I was never inspired to see if porcupines were any tastier.

What did happen is that our daughters became very proficient at finding their way through the rocks, hills and swamps, learned to snowshoe and cross-country ski, charmed chickadees to their hands with sunflower seeds and, by helping with JG's various building projects, became competent carpenters. This was some comfort to my father. Later, my land happy husband acquired two hundred more acres of scrub bush, we became maple syrup makers and when he, a research scientist, got an early buyout from his federal government employer, we moved to this land permanently and built a home here. My grown daughters love it here for recreation and peace. I feed the deer and do not compete with them and live in gardenless tranquillity.

It was sometimes difficult, living five days in the city with part time job, two kids, dog and husband (um, not in that order), two days on the land, fitting all the city work into the four evenings, keeping two kitchens stocked, two houses clean and repaired, working with the woodsman husband long hours in the bush, cutting and stacking cabin stove and sugar camp evaporator wood, getting ready for the sugaring season, enduring the long hours of boiling, bottling, checking the lines in the bush for leaks plodding along through deep, soggy snow on snowshoes, lugging the equipment. Twice a week packing, travel out and back, arrange the children/teenagers' lessons and social life around two day absence from their milieux, keeping track of it all, could be frustrating, onerous.

We have friends who made the break complete, moved entirely into rural mode, grew food, raised their children there. Gradually they have adopted some amenities, buy more of what they need, made things easier. We have friends who have always lived here who seize on any and every labour saving device to make farm living smoother (theirs is the garden with the electric fence and all that, a garden where I weed in exchange for produce.) We have retired to 'the bush', and that is somewhat different. I shop in the nearest town for most of our food needs, and while JG happily lives a forest manager's life, I spend my time doing what my interests and age suggest to me, volunteering, reading and writing and photography, the minimum of housework. I no longer help in the bush - my joints and back are too vulnerable and, in truth, I'm not that fond of hoiking pieces of tree around.

As a young wife and mother I did what I had to do. I put myself at the end of every list for twenty years of child raising and for several more of housebuilding so that we could live comfortably here. I am now nurturing, slowly and carefully, my sense of self and my autonomy.

In the end, you see, the land and the dream have taken over only as much of our lives as we allow.


  1. oh Mary.

    i hear all the work. and the something else. i don't know if i'm up for the former, and yet i suppose it is necessary for the latter. because that dream of sense of self, of some autonomy, it sounds beautiful the way you write it.

    thank you for this, for taking the time to share, to mentor.

  2. This was a thoughtful post, Mary. My parents retired part-time to rural Oregon and lord almighty, they work awfully hard for retired people.

    (I have to tell you, at the risk of sounding irreverent, that I can't get the image of "marauding porcupines" out of my mind. It makes me laugh!)

  3. Great post Mary, and after reading Bon's post I can see how it stirred up so many thoughts and memories that you decided to write your own post! :)

  4. Jennifer, we shot over fifty porcupines in the first two years we had the land. They ate tires, shovel handles, plywood (the door and seat of the outhouse) and the tops of young maple trees. Maurading is a polite word - especially when they started on the outhouse wall.

  5. You can't leave it at that : if nothing else, you need to tell the story of Porky, with pics (and I still have the Citizen article!)

    And while I am neither a compentent archer nor carpenter, I do love the bush!

    the YD

  6. thanks for the peek into the your life--that was a whole lot of work for you and the family.

  7. I like the mix of civilization and rustication. And the idea of all that maple syrup is making me envious. I hope it's the good, dark kind and not the light, more "desirable" color. I like my maple syrup much less refined for both the occasional pancake or waffle and always for cooking and baking and indulging.

  8. "Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling."
    Henry David Thoreau

  9. I presume somebody collects your maple syrup? You don't process yourselves, do you?

  10. AC, we don't make syrup any more at all - we quit after the ' 98 ice storm as our bush was very badly damaged and we were getting too old anyway to work at that pitch. When we did make syrup we did it all ourselves, from collecting to bottling and sales - wholesaled about half and retailed the rest. We would make about 150 imperial gallons in a normal year. I have been going to do a post about it for a long time, but never have got around to it.
    Trooper Thorn, this is second growth woodland, not the forest primeval. But we do have wolves and they do howl.
    Nance, we made extra light syrup when we could - it was a challenge to my husband and it made us more money. But I always insisted we boil and keep the darker, richer late season stuff for my own use and a few discriminating customers.
    YD, okay, I'll do the Porky story, but your photo is going to be in it. Okay with you? I have a copy of the clipping too, somewhere.

  11. My Goodness..... I think you have to be certain types of people to do this. I am not one of them but admire people who are.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  12. This life of city and country mixed together sounds hard in many ways. but i just know it fed your soul.

  13. Love that photo! :)

    There is a beautiful park near us that is about 300 acres, and I have often pretended it belongs to me - but it consists of rolling grassy hills, formal gardens, roads and paths...and a full staff.

    Now I have a hankering for waffles with maple syrup for breakfast!