I have now lived in the West for more than 20 years, but I grew up just beyond the north edge of Toronto, in a storey-and-a-half brick house, one in a row of them built for the employees of the cotton mills where my father worked. Ours was the yellow one. I mention this house because it was from some object or design within it that I discovered the form of my self. I don’t know what it was—a mark on the wallpaper by my crib? the bevelled geometry of the inlay on the front door? an oil painting by my mother of a ship foundering in a stormy blue sea? but at some early stage of my life the form of that thing or shape became identified, deep in my unconscious mind, with me. When I was imaginable to myself, it was that form I imagined. Not a shape, but a form. When I looked at my hand I saw that form, but I saw it too in the face of my dog and in the posture of my Punkinhead bear. It was the form not only of me but of anything mine, any thing familiar. It was the imprint, the stamp, the signature of the familiar, of me, on the world. And this is how I think of home: an order imposed upon the wilderness of the world that does more than afford shelter from the elements, that makes it your own.
The problem is, in my bones I know the world out there can never be mine, that this projection of familiarity is a vain illusion. That the wilderness informs our homes as surely as we seek to inform the wilderness with our homes. And so for years I was reluctant to admit that I was living in any one place. I certainly never put pictures on the walls or held onto possessions for more than immediately practical purposes. The things familiar to me were already at the same time too much mine and not mine at all. moreover, it was very clear to me that my possessions did not appreciate being imprinted by me.
I know this must sound like low-grade paranoia or preciousness, a cultivated quirk, but I wonder how often bachelor slovenliness is less torpor than a symptom of a personal compact with wilderness.
In my late teens I left home and entered a long tunnel of rentals. I lived in rooms with a desk and a bed, like cells. I rented other people’s apartments and flats and houses. Finally, in the summer of 1975, I arrived in Edmonton to teach at the University of Alberta. It was my first trip west of Georgian Bay, and I had just spent four years living in shabby chaos in a cottage in the English woods. After the woods of Surrey and the lowering skies of Toronto, the prairies were amazing. After the foggy impactedness of England, what extravagance of space! When I looked up I got dizzy. How could the sky be so close and at the same time so far away? I thought I would fall in.
I found a one-bedroom apartment in a highrise overlooking the North Saskatchewan River and, across the river, the highrises of downtown, twinkling in the night. It was completely unfurnished but for a hollow door on blocks and a pallet of foam. What more could a man want? Very soon I found the walls of the apartment too vacant, too white. All this emptiness, all this space. I was spinning. I bought a giant cushion. I bought a dozen plants and ranged them along a one-by-six plank on bricks in front of the sliding doors to the balcony. In my spare time I bought electric typewriters at Zellers and took them back. That hollow door resonated so loudly under them that I was sure they were defective. One day the manager happened to be standing near the Customer Service counter when I brought back my fourth. He raised a trembling finger. “So you’re the guy!”
After three years in Edmonton I decided what I needed was a country retreat. By then I was living like somebody’s mad cousin, stooped under the sloping walls of an attic flat in an ancient rooming house. But I did have a little money saved. I searched Vancouver Island, New Brunswick, eastern Ontario. My requirements, in descending order, were cheapness, silence, privacy, and proximity to a body of water. Since cheapness, silence, and privacy rarely mix with water, by the summer of 1978 I had dropped the latter requirement and was down to trudging around rock farms, when a realtor in central Ontario said he had a few shacks he wanted to show me. Well, they weren’t shacks, they were cabins and they were on a lake. No road, no phone, no electricity (a generator), no neighbours. I bought them.
The first thing you learn when you live in the wilderness is that the creatures who also live there do not ascribe to any notion of boundaries that you may assume inherent in the idea of home. They understand it, they just don’t agree. Chipmunks, squirrels, porcupines, groundhogs, bears, deer mice, voles, bats and mosquitoes are always coming in. Once, as I stood in the kitchen gazing for some reason at the tangled grey mass of insulated wiring over the door, I realized those cables were half milk snake. Another time I annoyed a red squirrel by trapping her between the kitchen door and the screen door. As soon as I freed her she ran to the garden and felled three irises. One December morning I woke up with the temperature inside my cabin -43 ° C. I broke an egg for breakfast, and the instant the yolk hit the bowl it froze solid. But this is the primary beauty of a home in the Canadian woods: there can be no kidding yourself the wilderness is out there. The wilderness is wherever it wants to be.
The secondary beauty of a home in the Canadian woods is leaving it for the prairies. Every year as I reemerge from Ontario driving west out of the forests of eastern Manitoba, and the landscape opens up and the sky reveals itself in its majesty, I surprise myself (because I love the woods) with a tremendous sigh of relief. It is the sigh of a man who unexpectedly finds himself outdoors after too long inside.
Love is like that, and in Edmonton my wife and I and our 12-year-old son now live in a small, neat, white-stucco ’50s bungalow with grey trim and yellow awnings. My wife’s and my offices, the recreation room (pine-panelled, with the obligatory ’50s bar), laundry room and second bathroom are in the basement. Seated at my desk, as I am now, I gaze out, much of the year, at a cross section of snow around the window well. Beyond that is the neighbour’s house, stucco too, and above it, blue spruce and blue sky. I like my office because it is concise and out of the way, practically tucked in under the stairs. Up those stairs is the main floor of the house, which is like a two-bedroom apartment—small bathroom, long kitchen—except that wise previous owners have knocked out the wall between the dining and living rooms and at the south end put in a bay window (now containing my wife’s small tropical forest of plants), so that the living room feels much more spacious than one would expect in so compact a house.
It is not, I suppose, a remarkable house, except perhaps in one respect, and that is that every square inch of it is in use and not one square inch of it is uncivilized. Well, maybe the contents of the odd basement drawer. This otherwise universal order, like the spareness, like the Balinese-Santa Fe decor, is my wife’s doing. Because this is her space. I am consulted. But the initiatives are hers. I am the beneficiary and handyman. If she were to leave and I were to stay, it would all quickly slip away to a natural state. Until such unlooked-for time, I am pleased and grateful to dwell here, in a space so free of myself, in the space of the greater wilderness of this other being. And I marvel that I no longer live in monk’s cells and rented squalor and that I am no longer spinning from highrise emptiness. In the woods of Ontario, the natural wilderness has taken care of that. Here, under the changing light of the prairie sky, my wife has. The secret, it turns out, has been loving them.
“Writer in Residence,” Western Living, 21:5 (June 1996), 20-22, 32.