I came home on Monday from a week at my parents’ house. At their house I harvested wild plants; I picked vegetables from their large and tidy vegetable garden; I sat among the cedars; I saw a fox, rabbits, many chipmunks; I saw signs of deer and porcupines; I paddled on a lake; I heard the loons calling; I heard coyotes howling. My children roamed outside on their own. There was lots of space; specific spaces for specific needs – extravagant amounts of it really – both inside and out.
My house is so much smaller than my parents’ house. It’s in a big city. Every room is packed and has multiple functions. My backyard is a fraction of the size of my parents’ backyard, but I cherish it. I keep my vegetable garden tiny so I can reserve a patch of grass for my children to play on. So I can have a path open to get my bike out of the shed. When we want to roam outside, we walk or bike to a park or ravine. Sometimes in the city we see deer, coyotes, muskrats, mink. But not outside our back door. Outside our back door we see squirrels, raccoons, and the occasional, unwelcome Norway rat.
But here, I am surrounded by community. I don’t need a car to get to the places I want to go; my family of four takes up a small footprint of land; my sister lives around the corner; my in-laws are a short bike ride away; my young children can walk to friends’ houses by themselves. My nine-year-old, with great pride, now walks to the library solo. He bikes with me across the city using his own strong legs, never complaining, sometimes singing loudly along the way. In the next few years, his independence will grow. He won’t spend his early teen years dreaming of a driver’s license. The thought probably won’t even occur to him.
I don’t know how to weigh these two ways of living in the balance.
Until recently, there was no question. For the first fifteen years of living in this city, I mapped its streets with my body, mostly on foot, later by bicycle. I went to the theatre, obscure movies, operas (those made me very sleepy). I scoured through bookstores and thrift shops, went to art exhibits and book launches, walked home at night alone past bustling patios and through quiet residential streets. I knew the storekeepers on my way home from work. I shopped daily, on foot – like a European, I liked to think. When I could, I travelled to Europe, where I was born, and where something always pulled me back. Explored its cities on foot; rode on trains, which took me everywhere, even to the smallest towns; hiked mountains.
Not much of that has changed. But, so much has changed in me. Two children. And, over the past decade an increasing interest in gardening, food, permaculture, gleaning, foraging, naturalist skills. A pull to be grounded, rooted in the Earth, to know the ecology of the place I live in. A call to connect my children to the natural world; to give them unstructured time and free play; to allow them opportunities to take risks and follow their own passions. And to find the same for myself.
My relationship to nature has blossomed. It’s wide open, attentive, alert, increasingly aware. I’m learning about plants, wildcrafting, birds, animal tracking, wilderness skills. I am deeply in love with all of these pursuits. I am deeply in love with the people who pursue these pursuits. I look back at all of the years I walked to school and to work, watching and hearing the seasons change (never with headphones – I couldn’t bear to miss anything); ate lunches outside to escape enclosed offices; hiked and cross-country skied. I see that person was always there in me.
Friends talk about moving out of the city; they dream of farms and large wooded properties, of being off the grid. And yet I continue to love this city. I am, if anything, deeply loyal. But now to my chagrin I drive more regularly. To get out of the city. To find some time in the wild.
It’s a false dichotomy, really. My parent’s place is not wilderness: it’s outside town; it’s close to a lake. They garden and plant fruit trees, cultivate mushrooms. Most of their neighbours don’t.
And yet, even if it were more wild, would I trade that for what I have here? Do I need to?
A few weeks ago, I told my husband – once again – that I couldn’t figure out my place, that I would never be a true bushcraft girl, and what was the point of all of this anyway. He scoffed (as only a truly patient, gentle and kind person can scoff): “You don’t need to make yourself into any one kind of person. You don’t need to fit into anyone else’s place. You can love tracking AND love film noir. You can love what you love. This is who you are.”
I keep looking for a pre-existing niche to fill; a clearer map to tell me where to go; a plan. I envy those who KNOW. But each day I can only try to fit the bits and pieces together of my own particular puzzle.