Rewilding Realities in Small Towns
Here there is a constant chorus of tree frogs, crickets, and birdsong that never stops, even in the darkness when the bats fly over the creek to hunt mosquitoes. I see the black and white flash of a skunk ducking into a hollow, a fat black and yellow garter snake hunting frogs and field mice, scores of tiny brown and black toads leaping away from my feet as I walk, and blue jays, woodpeckers, robins, and grackles zip over my head without fear. A red fox runs through the brush, a mother deer and her two fawns munch on tender greens in a meadow, porcupines scrabble up trees, startled wild rabbits dart out in front of you, and gaggles of wild turkeys roam freely.
I am not in the wild, I am not in a nature conserve or a provincial park. I am in a small town of 600 people in rural Ontario with a house and garage on a 1/3 of an acre. I can walk to every shop in 2 minutes that people have to drive to in the city. Other times I am at my parents' 83 acre farm which is only ten minutes away and surrounded by other farms. This place is called Killaloe, after the small town of Killaloe in Ireland. Founded by Irish settlers in the 1800s, it now hosts a mixture of people with Irish, German, and Polish backgrounds. Hippies moved in the 1960s and started farming. Thanks to them, people are pretty open minded and liberal here. There is a local accent and a required local attitude of friendliness and hospitality (my neighbour admitted he gives the finger to people who don't wave hello back to him because it's such a great offense). The town and surrounding farms are filled with pockets of wildness. The people here didn't see fit to "civilize" every inch of town or even their farms, especially since most are hunters who understand they need the wilderness to be healthy homes for turkeys and deer to hunt to take home for food over the winter. Just look at the view below. I am standing on the footbridge in the middle of town, I can see my house across the creek, but it is so very green and full of trees it doesn't look like I'm in a town at all.
It amuses me to no end that I now live in "cottage country". This is where the people of Ottawa and Toronto come every summer to escape the city and enjoy nature. When they do come, the town's population triples (okay, it's more the number of cars in town that triple). You can tell a cottager apart from a local because the city-dwelling cottager won't return your wave hello, but instead ducks their head and runs. It took a bit for it to sink in, that I will live year round where people go to vacation. Sometimes I wonder if they ever think of moving here permanently? A handful of retirees do, but most only come in the summer after black fly season.
Why am I here? To be close to family for one. What a difference to be 10 minutes away from my parents, instead of thousands of miles when you have a child --especially a little boy who loves his grampa and gramma so dearly. I am two hours away from my father's parents and his brothers and their wives and their children and their children who all live in the huge capital city of Ottawa. I am four hours from Maxville, an early Scottish settlement where my mother's father is from, I am six hours from Montreal where both my parents are from and where I lived for a time in my early 20s (I've lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Barrie, and on Lake Simcoe too), and I am six hours from Toronto where my sister and my mom's siblings live.
Tearful Lament of the City Dweller
If you love the city, the art, the culture, the food, the events --I am happy for you and for my good friends who feel the same. This piece is not for you. This piece is for those who, like me, long to live near nature and experience a healthy ecosystem on a daily basis instead of seeing a once contained city eat up every nearby town, and crawl up every mountain until everything is a suburb and there is no space left between. It scares me a bit that it can take hours just to drive out of a city to reach nature.
I am here because I could not live in the wilderness in my beloved British Columbia. I couldn't take the city anymore or the rudeness of the people and the extreme overcrowding. Any cool event I tried to go to was ruined by the thousands of people trying to fit into a space meant for 200. It's my own theory that when you get millions of people living elbow to elbow in a city, they stop thinking of and treating other people as humans. We can only remember a few hundred faces, and we were only ever meant to live in social groups that large. Take public transit for a week in a large city and find out how considerate people are. I didn't think it was quite that bad (okay, Toronto was) until I was pregnant and had a baby in a stroller while taking public transit. I was never given a seat and people actually tried to kick and push over the stroller on multiple occasions with me screaming "what's wrong with you?!" and no one intervening, but instead looking away or pretending they were asleep. The last time I took public transit in Vancouver before I moved it was so bad I broke down crying before I even reached my destination and just went home.
After months of researching and scouring listings, I realized I could never afford to buy property where I wanted to live. After I wiped away the tears shared by many of my generation who realize they can never afford a home and land of their own, I looked into renting where I wanted to live instead. I was immediately stopped by the 'vacation rental' roadblock. It seemed like everyone renting out houses in the rural small towns and islands outside of the Lowermainland was trying to make big money from tourists instead of looking for long term renters. I did not like the idea of having to move once or twice a year because a landlord kicked me out to rent the property to tourists for three times the price instead.
Maybe there were some more tears. Then I moved on to Plan C (a girl's got to have multiple back up plans). Move back to my beloved Burnaby Mountain and live in co-operative housing near friends and lots of local pagan and shamanic events. I would technically still be in the city, but my son would grow up surrounded by woodland and a huge nature conservation area that I love dearly. It was not to be. Along came Kinder-Morgan and a federal government who removed the protections on the nature conserve so they could build an oil pipeline through the mountain to fill tankers in the inlet on the other side to send to China. Because nothing says "build an underground oil pipeline here" like a wild mountain that is a massive natural aquifer and wild salmon habitat. Yes there was a great uprising of locals and environmentalists protesting, but the overall attitude of the city dwellers was "put those hippies in jail and build the pipeline already." It was heartbreaking, there were more tears.
This spring I was in Killaloe visiting my parents at the farm for a month, trying to catch up on writing while getting a much needed break. My father took my son and I on a walk around the farm. He took me to see his chair. Of course it wasn't a chair --this is the man who regularly beats his bounds as if his old Irish soul is performing ancient magics he doesn't realize. In the centre of his property on a hedge of stone and trees between two fields, on top of a massive granite stone, he had build a wood platform. I laughed, it was Odin's high seat and it was the high seat of the kings of ancient Ireland. He climbed up, I handed him the baby, and I climbed up. You could see the entirety of his property. The fields, the forests, the pond, the marshes, and the rolling hills in the distance. It was beautiful. "I like to drink my coffee here in the morning and look at my land. One day this will all be yours, your sister's, and your son's."
As I climbed back down into the field it hit me like a ton of bricks: why was I looking for land out West when my family already owned land in Ontario? Why had I been stubbornly insisting on staying in British Columbia for so many years? My father had been trying to convince me to move to town since he bought the farm a decade ago when he retired. I looked at my son and I wanted him to have the croaking frogs, the fireflies, the hooting owls, the deer, the incredible swathes of green space, and the creek to go fishing in. I wanted him to have all those things now dead and forgotten in the cities. Sometimes there are bits of nature, but we tell our children to look and not touch. I realized I could transport my animism and bioregionalism to this place. I could pull up my roots and transplant them to a new home. As we walked back to the house I half-jokingly said to my father and mother "if you find me a house with air conditioning, I will move here."
The New House
Well, they obviously took me quite seriously because here I am. A friend of my mother's from church had died in March. She was elderly and it was sudden. Her children put the house up for sale themselves. My mother remembered one time when we were driving through town and we stopped to see the house. I took one look at the land and fell in love. The price helped too. My monthly mortgage payment is half what I paid for rent in the city for a tiny low-ceiling basement suite. The same German family had lived in the house for the past 50-60 years. The two sons and the daughter were so happy to sell it to a family. There was only one beautiful hydrangea in the yard planted for beauty alone, everything else was edible or medicinal. My yard is full of pear, apple, crabapple, and wild plum fruit trees. There are rose and currant bushes and wild violets everywhere. There is a huge raspberry patch, two giant garden plots, and a big compost. Birch, linden, maple, cedar and fir trees were strategically planted around the house for shade. The trees do their job so well we've only had to use the air conditioner twice since moving in this summer. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly this summer. Suddenly I had a house and land and was out of the city.
The house needed fixing up, but mostly just cosmetic since it was built in the late 1950s. Some putty, some paint, some new flooring in a couple rooms, and it looks just lovely now. There's a great big oak kitchen with a wood cookstove and a beautiful view of the yard from the table. There's a big livingroom, a big bathroom, and smaller bedrooms upstairs. Downstairs is your typical dark and scary basement - it even has a dirt floor root cellar. It will just be used for food storage and for overwintering cold sensitive plants. It's pretty typical for the houses in town, though they range from being built in the 1800s to the 2000s. I think it's amazing that it's completely normal here to have a wood cook stove and/or a wood stove in your house.
My house has its own well, which is also pretty typical in town. My water smells and tastes like cold, clean, deep dark earth --no chlorine in sight. I can't wait to brew mead and beer with it. The house is also set up to collect rain water, and I can pump water from the creek to water the gardens. I have a back up generator as the power goes out in both summer and winter due to storms. The garage has space for one car, but the rest is a huge functional wood shop. The bandsaw, scrollsaw, edge planer, and flat planer all came with the house. The garage attic has a solid wood floor and a metal roof. It is so warm in the summer that it is perfect for hanging herbs and foods to dry.
I have the vintage wood cook stove as well as the electric and its been set up to partially heat the house while you cook. I can wild harvest in my own yard. Let me say that again: in my own yard. Or, I can step across the creek using the quaint covered footbridge and I'm right in a section of wild forest. I can see that footbridge from my front porch and have watched the laughing children swim under it where its dammed up and deep. The children are all nut brown here from playing outside all day. I saw a fourteen year old girl beg her father to go fishing. Packs of children roam the town and play until after sunset. They are part wild here and it is so beautiful to see. Yes, it is so ideal and green and lush in Killaloe and yet I live behind the town's grocery store and the post office is a two minute walk away.
Rewilding isn't just about living off grid, camping off grid, living in a yurt or a tree house. Rewilding can be realistic and attainable. Yes cities are unsustainable and their constant growth and construction is incredibly damaging to wild ecosystems, but rewilding would not be sustainable either if every city dweller suddenly decided to leave their life behind and move to the wilderness. Yes, I just said that rewilding would be unethical if everyone did it. Suddenly the forests would start to resemble suburbs. The same would happen if every city dweller decided to hunt or forage for food. Rewilding yourself is not as easy as picking berries and feeling connected to Mother Earth, there are just too many of us to make the mainstreaming of foraging for food viable or ethical. There are simply too many of us. We are locusts; fine in small numbers, devastating en masse. You know what there are also too many of? Small rural towns who are forgotten, abandoned, or in danger of being so due to dwindling populations. I hear the same story over and over from the old folks in town: "Everyone moved to the city, no one comes back. My children don't want to farm, my children don't want to take over the business, my children couldn't wait to move away..."
If you are serious about rewilding yourself and your family, but do not have the skills, knowledge, or desire to live hard core off grid (or it's stupidly illegal in your state), why not move to a small town instead? They are already established with homes and infrastructure. They have already claimed the land from nature. There is no need to buy "empty" plots of land in the wilderness and intrude on the wildlife by building there. If you want to build your own house, there are many affordable opportunities in Canada's small towns: 9 Canadian towns giving away free land. The United States sure has its fair share of dwindling and empty hamlets due to outsourcing and the mortgage crisis that caused a massive recession from 2007-2009. There is also the much bigger example of Detroit. Who's to say your city isn't next?
When young people, families, and retirees move to small towns, they add tax revenue to those towns, they add services, they add beauty and life. When you move to a small town it isn't just good for you, it's good for the town --whether it has a population of 20 or 2,000. So many are in need of rejuvenation, even just a few families moving in can make all the difference. There are empty homes and empty commercial buildings waiting for you and a town council who doesn't know how to get you to move there, but who may be willing to give you a break if you do. The kind of growth that happens is the healthy kind, a town becomes a functioning community with a sustainable population. Sometimes they even become great stewards of the land creating eco-villages and farming collectives. For a good example listen to this CBC radio piece about the rejuvenation of Palmer, Saskatchewan by young people from Ontario.
Let's be honest though, the main reason stopping people from leaving the cities for small towns is work. People are terrified they won't be able to make money because they are so used to it costing so much money just to live in a city. My friends seldom had time for each other in the city because they were all too busy breaking their backs trying to earn enough money to live in the city. Everything costs less where I live: houses, rent, taxes, groceries, liquor, gas, and even commercial properties. Research first, find the town you can afford to live in. If your cost of living drops significantly, your need for income does too. You could support a family with a part-time job where I am. If you have a lot of savings and credit to work with you could buy a business or multiple business, or buy up real estate and make your income that way. It can seem impossible to get a job in a small town, but moving to one is still a more realistic form of rewilding, it just requires thinking outside the box and maybe being willing to work outside of your chosen field. If you are self-employed, a tradesperson, work online, or have the ability to open your own viable business in a town, you are set. Small towns are always in need of a business or service that disappeared. I work online as a herbal retailer, but I can also take my products to the local farmer's markets and craft fairs. I know I am lucky. If I need other ways to make an income they are available. Thanks to the size and fertility of my land I am going to grow herbs and produce to sell next year.
I also have a background as a professional cook and this town is in dire need of a restaurant or pub as they've all closed down for various reasons (though mainly due to retirement and having no one to take over). Some of the seniors in town found out I was a cook and have been trying to talk me into at least opening something. I didn't think I'd be able to afford to, but one day while I was admiring an old empty storefront in town for its stamped tin ceilings, an old hippie drove by and said the whole building could be mine for the low price of $35,000 and that I could rent out the top floor as it's a big apartment. Well... it's a dream to keep in mind once I'm more settled here and can rebuild my savings.
The lesson to take from my experience so far: your money will go so much farther and your dreams are so much more attainable in a small town as long as you are willing to do the work. Here is my last reality check: in Canada you can buy a crappy run down house in Toronto or Vancouver for a million dollars, or you can buy an entire abandoned small town. You don't need a million though; did you know there are small towns in rural Canada selling plots of land for $10 just to get people to move there? There is even land being given away for free in the Yukon. For those of us who don't already live there, leave the wilderness alone, let it stay wild, visit its beauty, but live right next door to it in a space already set up for the needs of humans. Small towns aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if you find one that is the right fit, happiness will abound.