Visiting the Wilderness

CONTRIBUTED BY SARA BECK

Thank you, Peri, for inviting me to contribute to your blog.

I’ve been staying for the past week or so in Peri and Barry’s home. I often come to look after the animals and gardens for Peri and Barry when they are away, and the place has become a beloved retreat for me. I am never more comfortable than when I am here.

And yet, although I immediately feel comfortable when I arrive, it invariably takes me a day or so to settle in to the place.

I think this is because, for me, wildness is not something I live with on a daily basis. Out of financial necessity I live in a city: a small one, granted, but a city none-the-less.  There, my contact with wildness is mostly confined to a few squirrels and the giant spiders that live in my basement flat. (Actually, I exaggerate. The city does have a wonderful waterfront and the Rideau Trail allows me boardwalk rambles through wetlands where the songs of redwing blackbirds almost drown out the omnipresent sound of the traffic.) But in such a place, wildness must be sought out. It offers a brief moment of delight to those who take the effort to find it.

But when I arrive here for a long visit, I know that I shall not be in wildness just for an hour or two: instead, I shall be immersed in it for days.

The first thing I do is greet the animals in the house, and then head out to greet the meadow, the pond, the woods, the stream, and the ancient oak on the hilltop. I greet each of these places like old friends. I am bathed in nostalgia, remembering what they looked like last time I saw them; this time I see the bare, brown, rattling shells of burst milkweed pods replaced by soft, plump, green ones; the once-frozen pond now leaping with frogs; the spring-chilled wind now heavy with the approach of summer rain. Of course, I am also swept over with emotion. I am overwhelmed by the quietness, the gentle pace, the peacefulness in comparison to the city. In wilderness, I feel less constrained, more free to hear myself think, to listen to my own voice, and follow the requirements of my body, eating and sleeping when I wish to instead of following a schedule imposed by work and other demands. For me, this is all part of the decadence of staying in a remote and place.

But of course, this is not what living with wildness is about. No, what I experience here is what visiting wildness is about. As I’ve described, visiting wildness has a lot to do with the self. But living in wildness is about the self as a member of a complex ecosystem. I can imagine it’s akin to the difference between babysitting a beloved child and actually raising it. There’s still love, but it’s a very different love.

It’s strange to think that this is the sort of environment in which most people once lived. Many of our predecessors could not wait to get to the cities, away from the solitude and ruggedness of living with the land and into a world shaped and governed by the desires of people, not by natural forces. Today, to actually live in wilderness is a luxury. Certainly, I am not sure that I can afford to live in it; not while being close enough to my workplace that I don’t need to spend hours commuting—and polluting the very land that I love.

But perhaps it is not a luxury to live in wildness. To escape into it the way I do is a luxury. To live here is a responsibility.

Reading through Peri’s blog, I was most touched by her dilemma over restricting access to the meadows and telling the couple on ATVs that they were damaging private land. I think this is part of the responsibility of living in wildness, as opposed to simply visiting of it. To live here, you must be willing to protect it. Even though the mere act of putting up a house in a wild space alters the landscape and the natural environment, it is important to have people willing to protect wild spaces. And, of course, to celebrate them. I hope one day soon to have the honour of doing so. Until then, I will continue to visit wildness.

As I type, a hummingbird has come to the feeder by the window. Outside, I can hear black and red squirrels squabbling. The grass in the meadow is shining in the sun, set brilliantly against the black and purple rain clouds that are rolling in. In the moments before the rain comes, can hear the bumblebees making their rounds. I shall go for one last walk before I head back to the city. The air is cool with the approaching rain, but there is no scent of autumn on the breeze yet. If I’m lucky, I’ll see another wild turkey as I walk, perhaps a deer, but certainly a great leaping of frogs and a great fluttering of dragonflies. And I’m sure, when I head back to my basement flat, it will take me time to settle back into that place, too.

As I said, visiting wildness is a different sort of love than living with it.

But it is a deep love, none-the-less.

S.B.

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About Peri McQuay

Peri Phillips McQuay is the author of Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home, The View From Foley Mountain, a book of nature meditations on her experiences living for 30 years at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area and A Wing in the Door: Life With a Red-tailed Hawk is the story of her adventures with Merak, a human-imprinted hawk, who lived free but saw McQuay and her family as her special people. Also Peri has written numerous essays, articles, book reviews and a weekly column, published in the Kingston Whig-Standard Magazine. Her credits include Country Journal, Harrowsmith, Bird Watcher’s Digest, The Snowy Egret, Seasons, The Fiddlehead, Herizons and Brick.
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