Town mouse, country mouse?

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.

12 thoughts on “Town mouse, country mouse?

  1. I hear you! Do you think that you are in this situation of wondering if you are either/or or both or where you are going because there are so few roles models outside of dominant culture? I sometimes feel like the boots are too difficult to fill when I realize that I am an image maker for others… Bushwacking a new path has lots of uncertainties, false turns and places where you just feel stuck or scared or both but I wouldn’t trade my own little path for any well-worn path!

    • I agree that there are so few role models. I am also realizing that I’m increasingly curious – instead of anxious – about how things will unfold. Ha, re-reading what you wrote, I’m smiling – I’m seeing Robert Frost’s two paths diverging in the wood, and imagining that instead of taking either (well-travelled or not), we can go off trail entirely. Thank you for that image! And for being a role model yourself.

  2. Wow – tremendous writing. What a great reminder and inspiration to help us remember to love the paths and places we choose to travel. Thank you!

  3. Thank-you for sharing this! As our family prepares to leave the city I am also torn with where we fit in and how where we live can define who we are. I love the idea of being able to be city-country folk; growing in large gardens, raising chickens and still returning to the city to navigate the busy streets on our bikes!

  4. Yes, Malgosia. I completely get it. For the last few years, I was torn as we started making different choices. We ended up sitting down as a family and writing out what makes us happy right now and most of the list included connections we’ve made with friends and extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. who are all in relatively close proximity to our city dwellings. And my teenager made a compelling case for herself. Listening to the opinion of our strongly voiced 16 year old definitely swayed us. She NEEDED the comforts of our familiar city, the home she grew up in, as she navigated unchartered waters within. Her pleas outweighed the general preference for all for more open space. Opportunities for space and outdoor time have presented themselves when we most need it as a family and I am grateful for the generosity of friends and family who can give us those opportunities. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on this and I’m happy to know I’m not the only one who feels that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for any family! 🙂

  5. It is so true that there is this pull in many directions in our lives. I was never so keenly aware of it until I had kids, now I feel this longing for my original home, Thunder Bay. I have a sadness that they will never know the wonder of spending weeks on end at our camp with no running water or electricity on a beautiful Northern lake. But as my husband always points out they will have their own special memories of their childhood and these will be their nuggets of nostalgia.

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