The cabin is a mile down a winding logging road, deep in the green forest. There’s no running water, unless you count the creek, and no electricity. It’s far from everyone and everything.
The way in is overgrown with weeds and wildflowers and ends at Beaver Creek. A rough footbridge spans the water: planks nailed between two tree trunks that were pulled into place by a neighbour’s horse. We fill our arms with supplies from the truck and walk over: drinking water, wine, cooler, bags of food, bedding and towels, maybe a saxophone, the stories of Chekhov—“the hockey player” my husband Marco deadpans— or fat yoga and philosophy tomes we don’t have time for in the city.
Stepping onto the bridge’s weathered boards, I feel something lift and wash away in the rush of water and wind in trees. It’s the sensation of a gorgeous absence, as when a pain that had been constant is suddenly gone, or when a noise that had been forever unheard for always being heard disappears. All the cells of my body relax. Below, the creek pours on without beginning or end. At the far shore I step between the tall poplar and the woodpecker-riddled cedars and onto the land.
Up ahead, the cabin, shaped like a tiny barn with cedar-plank siding and a blue steel roof, rests amid tall trees. On the front porch, I peer into the mud and moss nested in the eaves while two adult phoebes peep in alarm from a nearby maple sapling. Four upturned beaks. This means we’ll be using the back door again this spring, until the babies fly. I pull out my keychain, a globe, and open up the front door. Of all the places on this planet, this is where I feel most at peace, at home.
A retreat in the woods is the last thing I expected to have, or even desire. For 20 years I lived in Toronto. I loved cities. I had zero interest in wilderness. I considered it anti-social to spend time alone, and would never have considered leaving the smoggy, edgy metropolis for a place where insects outnumbered people. I got uneasy at the very idea of being “miles from a lemon”—no culture, no clubs, no cappuccino—just like Reverend Sydney Smith, an English writer who once remarked of his new country parish: “My living in Yorkshire was so out of the way that it was actually 12 miles from a lemon.”
Then one summer, quite suddenly, I got fed up. I’d been working on contract for the provincial government, wondering how my journalism career as the next Oriana Fallaci had come to this. My boss was in a constant state of panic about legislation we were working on and she paced, spritzing peppermint essence into the air. My friend and I, two lapsed magazine writers with no clue about how laws are made, lived in perpetual fear of getting fired. Each evening we’d ride the streetcar home together, limp from tension and amazed to still be employed. The money was stellar, but the days were consumed by absurd dramas and counterfeit crises.
About the same time, home became inhospitable. Marco and I were renting a three-bedroom brick semi with a small yard near St. Clair and Oakwood. Mighty Q107 blared nonstop from the yard next door. Out back, our neighbours kept their tiny city lots pristine by sticking all their junk out of sight behind their sheds—the view from our rear door. They hacked down trees, which they considered a messy nuisance that blocked sun from their tomatoes. Then a dead body was found in the trunk of a car that had been parked outside our house for a week. Much later, Marco told me he never corrected the rumour that we were brother and sister; thus the hostile stares whenever we walked down the street holding hands.
Worst of all, many bored kids lived nearby. They called to me, ‘K, what are you doing?’ I longed to read in peace, so Marco constructed me a hideout in the back corner by our shed. He used the springs of a bedframe and let green beans grow all over it, an aesthetic not appreciated by our neighbours. They went in for garden gnomes and had a back-gate sign that said Garden of Earthly Delights—I guarantee they weren’t familiar with the painting.
In my leafy retreat there was just enough space for a chair. It was so pleasant there in the dark green shade. Before long, the kids discovered me and their calls became ever more plaintive. One day, exasperated, I stood in the yard with my arms spread wide and shouted to the skies: “All I want is me squared of peace!”
I’m inside the cabin, gazing up into the green cathedral. Boughs of balsam, maple, white pine, birch and cedar fill the windows. The phoebe chicks cheep in their porch nest. I hear the rush of wind in the trees, the nearby whir of hummingbird wings, a woodpecker’s knock. Green chiaroscuro light dapples the forest floor down the short slope to the creek. At the water’s edge, two white birches and a tall cedar, trunks enmeshed, arc up, leaning on one another. At intervals, ducks, beavers and muskrats coast silently by.
The cabin’s main floor is 12 by 24 feet, with two rooms up steep wooden stairs for sleeping. In this space is a tiny washroom, a kitchen with our luxuries— a full-sized propane stove and pine cabinets—a retro grey table and chair set from the 50s, and a tall bookshelf loaded with nature books, childhood classics such as Black Beauty and The Black Stallion, plus volumes of fiction and poetry. A daybed piled with pillows sits beside the Atlanta Homesteader woodstove. Everything one needs in life, all within sight.
At night, we pull down random books and read to one another by candlelight. This excerpt—from “The Lonely Forest Dweller,” by Prince Tissa Kumara, the youngest brother of King Ashoka, who spread Buddhism through his vast realms in 250 BCE—resonates with us across time:
“If nobody is to be found,
In front of one or behind one,
That is exceedingly pleasant
For the lonely forest dweller.”
We repeat the next stanza, laughing and substituting “deer” or “moose”:
“Pleasing, and joyful to sages,
Haunted by rutting elephants,
Seeking my goal alone, quickly
Will I go to the wild forest.”
This morning it’s raining. Drops ping on the metal roof, treetops rustle in the wind and the fire makes burning sounds—not crackling, but combustion. A log shifts in the woodstove and Marco’s hard rubber boots tap outside on the deck. I finish my coffee, pull on rainwear, and step out the sliding door to the small deck that looks down toward the creek.
My favourite walk loops around the edge of our 47 acres, skirting the central “Unknown Regions”— swampy, dense bush where branches poke and bruise and shadowy animals glide by in the half-light. Up the path in the field, wildflowers have taken over from hay. This was once part of the Old MacKay Farm. There’s now a clearing where the pioneers’ house had been. The barn’s old stone foundation and apple trees still stand. Fresh water still bubbles from an artesian spring in the woods nearby.
At the end of the field is Moose Point, marked by a patch of scrubby cedars and a pile of fieldstones. Black bears fling the heavy rocks around, looking for insects. I find the overgrown path in the bush and then teeter over the top of the beaver dams. Pushing aside cruel raspberry canes with my beaver-whittled walking stick, I wend past the fiddlehead patch and veer slowly right, clapping, watching for bear scat, and continuing on the path’s curve until the hardwood forest.
Here, under the tall maples and cherry trees, there’s a hush. My thoughts become quiet. I pass the rocky hummock, the highest point on the property, and soon hear the gurgle of water. From the creek I wander downstream, past the wide pond where wild rice grows, and along the deeryard path, moss inlaid with white quartz underfoot. At the end, the path emerges back beside the footbridge and the cabin. The land’s intricacies, traced into memory by years of my footfalls here.
Free of everyday concerns I follow the rhythms of the body: eat, walk, swim, walk, sleep. I do yoga on the bridge and the red squirrel scolds, his claws scrabbling toward me along the branch that serves as a railing. He loses his nerve at the last moment and makes an angry about-face. How can I tell him I won’t hurt him? More and more, I want to protect the peace here. We don’t allow hunting, so this is a safe haven for fish, deer, elk, moose, mink, grouse, ducks.
In the solitude and safety of this place, I feel relief from life’s rushing and chafing. “We are driven to distraction by the pursuit of the fragmentary,” writes Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore in “The Religion of the Poet.” Never more true than in our technological age, which for all its benefits, exacts a steep cost. We have constant connectivity; yet our gadgets untether us from reality in deeply disturbing ways.
Shortly after my “me squared of peace” plea, Marco and I started to tag along with friends on their househunting expeditions up north, dreaming that perhaps we could afford a summer place, even though a house in the city was out of reach. We met Merv, who became our real estate agent and rural decoder. He introduced us to blackflies, bug-jackets and properties around Bancroft. By late fall we had resolved to buy a mouseinfested cottage near Maynooth that teetered beside a raging torrent and had only a rickety bridge for access. Some other impractical souls beat us to it. We were sad, and resolved to keep looking in spring. But to our surprise in February, Merv rang. “Guess what, kids—I have something to show you.” The property had more going for it than the other place, he promised. “And I’d be your neighbour.”
We met him in Bancroft the next week on a cold, sunny day. Merv told us his plan: we’d hike in the back way over a neighbour’s property—the man had made paths while logging with his horse—and then cut across a frozen beaver pond. Merv wound duct tape around the tops of our boots, and we began the long slog in. An hour later, out of breath and shivering, we paused on the crest of a hill. We spotted it below: a charming blue steel roof amid snowy pines. We hastened our steps and slid-bounded down the slope.
Inside the little cabin, Merv fired up the old woodstove and invited us to sit on the god-awful orange sofa, where snow from our boots melted onto an old braid rug. He lounged in the matching orange grandfather chair and told us the details. The beavers would build at the low point in the access road “once in a while.” Our right of way ran over Domtar land. “They’re the kind of neighbours you want—they’ll come to cut a few trees every 12 years or so.” The right-of-way was shared by a neighbouring property—the access road ran right through the creek and past the cabin’s front door. But this wasn’t a problem: the owner lived in Alberta, Merv explained, and the only person we’d see was Doug, a friend of “Alberta’s” who kept an eye on the place and who had permission to hunt next door.
Once we’d warmed up, Marco and I went back out to stand on the little bridge over the creek, which led to the logging road, the fair-weather way in. Blue sky above, sun sparkling on snowy boughs, and the frozen creek, still flowing fast in the centre. “I wonder what’s under all this,” I said, waving my hand at the deep snowdrifts. We shrugged. Whatever it was, a graveyard for rusting Chevys perhaps, we both knew it was for us.
The deal was done by April, shortly after my fortieth birthday. I was working on another government contract and life on Bay Street was a speedy grind, driven by “the sky is falling!” panic—about volunteerism awards. I stayed marginally sane by sneaking out with a friend to do yoga at Trinity Church at lunch, writing poems with titles like “Bored Brain,” and reciting poet Theodore Roethke: “I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils, Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight, All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage.”
Now, however, new vistas were opening up. We had a retreat in the woods, far from noise, speed and stultifying routines. The snow had finally melted, the logging road was passable, and the cabin beckoned. We rode through the mud on Merv’s ATV and he walked us around the property, pointing out landmarks: the secret spring, the foundations of the old house and barn, the corner post in the beaver pond, cherry trees in the forest. Merv knew and loved every corner, as he’d grown up here. There were no rusting hulks—just trees, water and sky, and a “nature lovers’ paradise,” the vast wilderness at our backs.
Today it’s sunny, and the weathered boards of the dock warm my bare feet. I look into the sun-lit water, at cedar reflections. Fallen trees—so many lose their footing and topple into the creek—appear as wavy lines, while the live trees are green rectangles that ripple when the wind touches the surface. The creek widens and deepens here in front of the cabin, before turning the corner and flowing down over a waterfall.
Curious black bass come and hover. I step into the cool water, go down three natural steps in the rock and submerge myself. When the sun’s up I can see right to the bottom as I swim: brown-gold water, companionable fish following me—Are you food?— and the stem of a water lily growing up from the muck. I never feel so clean. The creek is the liquid heart of this retreat. I can think of no greater gift than clean water and spend hours swimming in its everlasting rush and clarity. All that’s negative, depleting, gets washed away. The cold shock of water on my warm body, the joy of being immersed in the new element, the beaver’s-eye view of water, the grey shore festive with green ferns and water irises or cardinal flowers, woody cedars rising from the banks, white and yellow birches that guide the eye up to the sky. I encounter other creatures of the creek made light by the waters—a beaver, a curious watersnake, a bass protecting her nest—all of us persuaded by the currents, baptized here.
I’ve always loved water best, its constant flow and movement. It reflects the truth of change both within us, and around us. On it goes, running downhill, powerful, yet taking the path of least resistance. Limerick Lake to Beaver Creek to Moira Lake to Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence to the sea to the sky to the earth, perfect cycles of fall and flow.
At first, kneeling by the creek, I’d cup my palms and try to drink the sparkling water quickly, before it escaped. Now, I experience the cascading water as a deep, unending source that always finds its way.
In the early days, all I wanted was me-squared of peace, an arm’s span of serenity to the front, sides and back of me. I didn’t quite know what to do with forty-seven acres. Sometimes I felt compelled to tidy up the messy sticks in the woods. Or I hid indoors, persecuted by deerflies, thinking, “This is not what I signed up for.” I couldn’t have told you the name of a wildflower or the difference between evergreen trees. One evening, having a drink by the dock after our four-hour drive from Toronto, Marco and I were startled when, after half an hour, what to our blind eyes had appeared to be a rock swam away—a giant snapping turtle.
I liked the natural world vaguely, but it was more what was absent than what was present that appealed to me. Asked to explain this to my urban friends, I’d quote Dorothy Parker:
“My land is bare of chattering folk;
The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet’s the air with curly smoke
From all my burning bridges.”
Even just for weekends it felt wonderful to escape the accumulated scandals, failures and baggage of 20 years of living in Toronto. Led away by the cabin, after two years of being stuck in traffic with all the other cranky Torontonians going home on Sunday nights, we moved to Kingston—two and half hours closer to Beaver Creek. Poet Al Purdy calls the area “the land of our defeat” in “The Country North of Belleville.” Settlers worked the thin veneer of earth on top of the ancient rock: “A lean land / not fat / with inches of black soil on / earth’s round belly.” The farmers grew hay and took it out by horse wagon to Sutton Road, following an old track that leads from our field. Snake fences and cairns of fieldstones in the woods are testament to their backbreaking labour.
As our nature enthusiasm grew, it became evident that few people in our circle shared it. My Dad surprised us by liking the place—it’s good to have a “bolt hole” to run to when the Apocalypse comes, he said. My friend’s druggie brother was excited to hear we had a remote property with an open field and a good water supply. He sidled up at a funeral and asked, “Would you like an opportunity to augment your income?” Thankfully, my sister Kath and Talisker, her dog, loved the cabin as much as we did. Most everyone else visited once, and never returned. They were, as I was at first, annoyed by bugs, the outhouse, the small indoor space, lack of running water, electricity and cell signal. How could they not be won over by the solitude, open space, natural beauty, trees, wildflowers, and the ever-flowing creek? Clinging to comfort separates us from reality, like the seasons changing and the rhythms of the natural world, leaving us in a fake, fantasy world of our own creation, I’d opine to their eyeball rolls.
At first I was sad that the place was too “rustic” for everyone. Soon, however, I appreciated the peace, first as a guilty pleasure and then as a luxury I reveled in. Gradually my desire for peace became a deepening hunger for solitude. Before long I rarely invited anyone up to the cabin by the creek.
Occasionally, however, someone would arrive unexpectedly. One afternoon I looked up from my book to see an elderly woman clinging to the bridge, legs kicking. “Grab my canoe!” she shouted. I jumped into the water and caught it, noticing a rod and reel and many large, dead frogs. Maggie from St. Ola was eighty-two, she told us as she climbed back in her canoe, and liked to make fires on islands in the stream and do some fishing. As well, “Whittlin’ Doug,” a local man injured in a chainsaw accident who often left his demonic carvings on peoples’ porches and window ledges, would suddenly walk past and wave.
As Merv had predicted, we rarely saw anyone except Alberta’s friend Doug, who was a pest but kept a good eye on the place. His presence only became unrelenting in September as hunting season approached. Walking in the field one day, I saw him leaving apples out for the deer on the neighbouring property so they’d make easy prey when he returned with his shotgun. One November, we met Doug and his friends on the road. Six men with guns, all of them likely doused in deer pee so the animals couldn’t smell them. They asked if they could hunt at our place. We told them emphatically no.
Hunters, especially bear hunters, make me edgy. I don’t fear black bears or wolves, only hunters, when I’m in the woods. One day, we walked up our logging road toward the main road, speculating about where Doug had found the “IGA bag full of morels” he always bragged about. Two big sweaty hounds, tongues practically dragging on the ground with thirst, came bounding up to us through our open gate.
We poured water into an upturned shovel for them to drink and noticed a phone number on their collars. Minutes later, a white Toyota Tacoma came barreling in past the gates and started to roar up our road. We stepped out from the trees and it stopped. The driver was clean cut, and beside him was a hairy guy with a long beard wearing dungarees.
“This your place?” asked the clean-cut man. We nodded. “Have you-all seen our other five dawwwggs?” he drawled, opening the tailgate, allowing the two hounds to jump up into the kennel custom-built onto the back of the truck. Tennessee plates.
Apparently more of their dogs were running free in the bush. How did the dogs get away? we asked. “Pappy’s been coming up to Coe Hill for 30 years to hunt bears,” the clean-cut one replied. We looked puzzled. “We let the dawgs loose, they tree ’em, and then we shoot ’em,” he explained.
“Not the little ones though,” Dungarees added, noting my look of horror.
“We’ll call the number if we see them,” I said. Reluctantly, muttering “Pappy’s gonna whup us sure,” they turned around and roared off.
My heart beat erratically. Why can’t people respect this place, and leave the wild animals alone? I thought about the few undisturbed places left on earth, of plants and creatures at risk, of the links to human exploitation. Even here: footprints, ATV tracks in the meadow, litter—chip bags, plastic bottles, tin cans, cigarette butts, spent shotgun shell casings. Plastic washed downstream; it’s killing oceans. People, always making incursions. The nature of a sanctuary is that it can be violated.
The tea-hued water passes under my feet. I glimpse it through the gaps between the bridge’s planks and see two little fish looking up. Cardinal flowers flash red amid the green fern-ribs, and wild peppermint grows on the grey rocks. Above the tall silver birch, protected from beavers with a wire skirt, the sky is wide. The sentry trees, two cedars, are pecked with holes, so their resin drips onto the bridge.
Disturbances at the cabin feel magnified, yet vanish quickly, like a stone thrown into water. The quiet swallows them. They are overcome by the creek’s fluent voice, jays squawking, the great blue heron’s silent shadow passing overhead, the flitting of woodpeckers, warblers, chickadees in the branches.
On the bridge I do what I’d have considered an inconceivable waste of time in my old life: sit and stare. When I first arrive, the trees are a welcoming green expanse, and the birdcalls, a chorus. Soon, shades appear, variegated trees, and bird songs become the phoebes’ nervous ‘cheep, cheep,’ the barred owl calling ‘who cooks for you,’ the mad cackle of the pileated woodpecker. The longer I stay, the subtler my perceptions become. Safe and undisturbed, I can go inward, return to myself, and notice the world around me.
I write on the bridge, and my pen is stilled when a dragonfly lands on the page to rest, seems to say, ‘Look at me—No, really look.’ Four black-lace wings, gilded red bubble eyes and body. Then a spider crawls across the white page of my book. My knee is a landing place for powder-blue dragonflies and metallic blue-green ones—the nymphs from last night that practiced flying, dancing up and down high in the air at dusk.
I have often felt out of place, jangled, unable to truly relax into the moments. Peace is rare and fleeting, soon to be broken. I always identified with birds, the way they can’t rest, their twitching motions, fear of cruel claws. But here, where I feel safe, I’m learning to be present. Experiencing the beauty of the dragonfly, or a blue-spotted black salamander asleep under a plank, or the bright stars above, makes me, in that moment, conscious of being part of it, not apart. In the quiet forest, I can begin to see the patterns of reality. To retreat is to stop, gain clarity, and make space for change.
Inspired by our experiences in taking a step back here at the cabin, Marco and I make plans to attend month-long yoga retreat in India, to immerse ourselves and study. I’ve been reading about India’s ancient forest dwellers. They preached that the perfect relation with this world is the relation of union. As Tagore writes, the forest hermitage in classical India literature is “the place where the chasm between man and the rest of creation has been bridged.” I read these words, seated on the bridge with my back against a tall cedar tree, and heave a satisfied sigh. Observing the complex unfolding in these woods, I’ve experienced the truth of relatedness, so different from the duality of everyday life. Not long ago, I’d felt that humans were somehow separate.
We can learn from our bodies, and from the book of nature. Some think retreating to the woods is sticking our heads in the sand in a time of ecological crisis. I attended a reading at which an “activist” environmental poet dismissed Mary Oliver. “She lives in a national park”—meaning, “She’s out of touch with reality.” But don’t we first need to recognize what we need to preserve? “I like to think of myself as a praise poet,” Oliver said in a rare magazine interview. Others write well of the coming devastation, she added. “Yes, I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.”
In this forest, I become quiet, observe. Then I move back into the world, transformed by my new respect for insects, plants, animals, seeing the interdependence of the natural world and all creatures on this planet. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” Oliver writes in Blue Iris. Ecology of the spirit leads to ecology in the physical world.
It’s nearly autumn and the crisp air feels urgent, vital. Beside Beaver Creek, ruby grosbeaks flit in the cedars as thrushes flute the sun to sleep. The creek gurgles and the dog begins to snore on the rug as we sink into the rapture: another quiet night deep in the forest.
On a warm February evening on the spice coast of Malabar, after our yoga studies, I realized that our forest sanctuary had inhabited me in unexpected ways. Marco and I were dining at a guesthouse, set in a lush coconut grove on a bluff by the sea. We sat with a couple from London, UK—he was in tax law, she was a tourism executive—and a dancer and a sociology professor from Paris. Urban professionals with city concerns; like me in my Toronto days.
We swapped stories. I found myself talking not about our adventures from our yoga retreats, such as the rampaging temple elephant that nearly trampled Marco, then picked up its trainer and threw the man against a tree (the mahoud lived, but was taken to hospital with serious injuries), or the passionate embrace we received from Amma, India’s most famous female guru. No, I talked about the cabin.
The others seemed receptive so I evoked some scenes. “In spring, trilliums carpet the forest in white or deep purple; yellow and purple violets peep out from under the dead leaves; and we forage for edible plants coveted by chefs, such as fiddleheads and morels.” The French people nodded in approval.
“And all the creatures have come back: young deer feed in the fields; migrating warblers, white-throated sparrows and woodpeckers sing; and garter snakes hold orgies on the warm rocks. By the way,” I asked, “did you know that garter snakes have two penises?”
They exchanged incredulous looks, and laughed openly as I continued to regale them with stories about our cabin in the woods, and how its influence slowly transformed our lives, even acting as a catalyst that led us to India. They looked puzzled. “A retreat is about creating space for what’s meaningful to you, but you don’t have time for in everyday life,” I explained. The sun sank into the liquid gold of the Arabian Sea, and as we clinked glasses, I was aglow in a warm vision of Beaver Creek—how it flows, falls, loses itself.
That spring, my friend Wendy—a “naked yoga” teacher from New York who I met during my earlier yoga teacher training retreat in Bahamas—visited us at the cabin. As we got out of the truck, frightening clouds of mosquitoes descended. She gamely pulled on a bug jacket and lit a cigarette. “These things have a design flaw,” she noted, trying to take a puff.
That night by candlelight, over dinner, I held forth about how landscape and divinity are closely linked in India. She listened a while, and then said: “You’ve become a nature freak.” We laughed at how I’d become yet another of India’s disillusioned spiritual seekers, one who went on a yoga retreat 5,000 miles away only to find peace at a small cabin two hours from home.
Despite shady gurus and other lively disappointments, India was fascinating, and provided new ideas about sacred topography and the forest. In Vedic tradition, life is divided into stages. When your hair is grey, you have wrinkles and grandchildren, and your family and worldly duties are completed, you may enter what’s called the “forest dweller” phase. This is when a couple may go to the forest to become hermits, to live simply but not grimly (i.e., sex is allowed, once a month), and have a spiritual life.
While the hedonism quotient at the cabin wildly exceeds Vedic guidelines, the parallel seemed obvious: I came to the cabin when I was 40, and in this place, began to explore the natural concerns that arise at middle age, and changed my trajectory. I moved to a smaller city, became a yoga teacher, and focused on literary writing, work long deferred.
A forest hermitage dominates Khalidasa’s famous play, Shakuntula. The spirit of the forest retreat he describes as “sharanyam sarva bhutanam (where all creatures find their protection of love.)” I read these words while swinging in my hammock by the water, and had to put the book down. An epiphany: in this retreat, a missing inner dimension had been restored. I was refreshed, and now spilling over with my “protection of love.”
Literally the next day, everything changed. First, we found out that our absent neighbour, “Alberta,” had given his property to his son. Inexplicably, Alberta’s old friend Doug suddenly became like a burr we couldn’t get rid of. Nearly every time we visited that season, there he was: examining the bridge and talking about building a bigger one; making elaborate plans to improve the road; scoping out places he might park a caravan.
One dark night, the mystery of his constant presence was solved. It was 10.30 pm and we were nearly asleep. A blaring car horn shattered the quiet. We ran outside and found Doug standing on the far side of the bridge. First, he launched into a rambling tale about how he’d taken in a relative who’d suffered brain damage in a logging accident (Whittlin’ Doug). Always a sucker for a colourful story, I said “Uh huh,” at the appropriate moments. Then he got to the point: he had permission from Alberta’s son to log the few remaining trees. In exchange, Doug was to build him a road to the waterfront and clear a building site.
The next morning, Doug was planning to bring heavy logging equipment over the stream—at 6:00 am. Marco and I looked at one another. We shared the right of way with the neighbouring property and Doug had permission, so there wasn’t much we could do. We’d always known that the right of way passed over the bridge or through the creek, a stone’s throw from where we swim, from the cabin’s front door. We shrugged, asked Doug to avoid early mornings and weekends in future, and told ourselves it was temporary.
Doug, who is a terrible listener, besieged us for months: at all hours, he was chain-sawing, machines and tree torsos trundled in and out, and the new road—which snaked all over the property next door where Doug cut trees, versus taking a direct route that made sense—looked like a giant had come and uprooted everything. A few stumps were uncomfortably close to our property line. Doug met every protest at how inconsiderate he was being with an excuse. He was like an old fire-horse, his blood up, crazy to snuff the trees. When I talked to Alberta’s son about it, he seemed unconcerned, said he would likely sell the place rather than ever building there.
Walking in the field one day, I spotted Doug dozing in the cab of his truck. As usual, he’d tossed his Snickers wrappers out the window. He was diabetic, and brought his treats here to savour them far from his wife. I was furious with his littering. But I always softened. He loved this place, he was old and had a serious heart problem, and he likely did not have many seasons left. Temporary, I told myself.
I kept walking along the loop trail, confused. How could this be? Just as I’d felt grateful and at one with everything, chainsaws appeared in the sacred grove? As I walked through the hardwood forest and to the creek, my mind turned over something I’d never quite been able to grasp: the Buddhist concept of attachment, and how it leads to suffering. With the cabin I’d always wondered, “How can we not be attached to what feeds us?” Now I was getting some insight. Everything changes. That makes us suffer.
In consolation, and to mark our ten-year anniversary at Beaver Creek, I resolved to write about our beloved cabin in the woods. I packed up all my notes and naturalist journals, ready to begin. We arrived to find a real estate sign nailed to our gate: “70 acres, waterfront, right of way, call for details.” A huge arrow pointed down the logging road toward the cabin. Tracks from an ATV went around the gate, flattening the tall flowers and grass. I saw tire imprints in the muddy spots all the way in, and just past the cabin, a red marker tied to a tree, well within our boundaries.
Strangers—and soon, neighbours—in this space. ATVs in the temple. “The retreat story is taking a new direction,” I wrote in my journal in consternation. We had known that change was in the air. Doug had died a few weeks before, of a heart attack. Also, Alberta’s son had mentioned he might sell the property— which we couldn’t afford to buy anyway. But we were still shocked.
A droning sound approached and then the real estate agent and his clients rolled through the creek on their ATVs. I reasoned with myself. “Really, is it so hard to coexist? Maybe all will be well and the new people will be nice, even new friends.” Or they could be noisy hunters.
Peace was suspended. I constantly thought I heard engines. Sometimes I really did, and ATVs or pickups would appear and drive through the creek. Feeling sick, frozen in my hammock, I hoped they’d get out quickly. We had passive aggressive exchanges with the real estate agents—two young guys with preppie haircuts. “Hope you brought your bug jackets,” we’d say, happy when the deerflies were truly awful. They’d reply, “We know what to expect up here.” Or “Is this your only showing this weekend?” we’d ask, and they’d counter, “Are you here every weekend?”
We sent the dog to bark at them, were happy when they arrived as Marco was looking most eccentric, his hair long and wild, wearing pink shorts and sharpening his axe. When the people left looking harried, we felt triumphant. It was an invasion of our privacy, our peace; but we knew we couldn’t win.
New people arrived on ATVs. Marco spoke to them: three guys from “Camp 40.” Doug no longer held hunting rights on the Domtar land we cross over to get to our place, and now these hunters were leasing it. The one who said he’s “the captain” told us we’d never see them, except maybe for two weeks in November during deer season.
Before long the real estate sign came down, and the new neighbours—two couples with many grown kids, extended family members, friends and dogs—introduced themselves. They were social, shared our feeling that this place was paradise. I struggled to be civil despite how obviously sweet they were. I recognized that they needed to get to their place somehow, and couldn’t just walk over bridge as we did. I recognized their right to be here, and truly wanted them to enjoy the place. And I loathed their presence. Marco was gracious, while I hid and felt besieged whenever they cut their engines outside and a booming voice called, “Howdy neighbours!” Or when they zoomed through the creek in the morning to get bacon, beside where I was swimming. One night, after they dropped by to say hello unexpectedly— ten of them and three dogs—I wept. Next, Domtar came to cut the trees. I avoided my sanctuary all that fall. I had to regroup. The world had arrived.
I’m at the cabin, sitting by the creek and leaning back against my favourite cedar. A woodpecker raps on the tall white birch and a grouse gains altitude, wings beating. A duck quacks upstream in the pond. I watch the ever-changing flow of the current that can’t be held back any more than it can be slowed by my hand. I dangle my fingers; create a temporary wave of resistance.
Where is the stream taking me? On. After years of peace here, it seems I’ve taken it in. The cabin’s true gift: a place inside, a sanctuary of the heart. The cabin, the creek, the woods: the outer reflection of my unconscious desire all those years ago in Toronto to retreat, and find a new way to live. Turns out it was I who was the call.
Now, the whole “ATVs in the temple” storyline seems like a cosmic joke. Ten years of nearly perfect peace; I resolve to write about retreating to a small cabin; and within months, we have scores of neighbours, hunters appear to lease the right-of-way land, and Domtar cuts down the trees across the creek. Much else has happened since. Before, these events would have made me feel the peace and stability were being snatched back, another of life’s cynical tricks. But I’ve changed. I’ve been filled. Maybe events are hinting at a new call—for community?—that’s arising now.
The cabin has gone from being something I thought I didn’t need or want; to a guilty pleasure; to a luxury I drank in greedily; to a deep need met; to an emotional geography, a quiet place I carry within. The true power of a retreat: we take it inside.
As ever, when we arrive at Beaver Creek, Marco and I make plans to build me a writing hideout down the deeryard path beside the pond, and discuss renovations and solar panels that would make the cabin liveable if we wanted to move here. Then, the neighbours drive in and out to pick up relatives, milk, or more beer, and we wave and begin talking about finding a new place, somewhere more private.
In a way, it doesn’t matter whether we stay, or go. After seventeen years in this place, our strides are long, our hearts light. We feel blessed on earth, and open to the flow. Just last night, I saw the stars go from white light to variations of blue and red, and in the quiet, I returned to myself as to some longed-for source. In the green cathedral, wind still ripples the water, and most of all, the creek’s steady pouring…
Photo by Unsplash user Olivier Guillard