Grit Under the Nails
Since 2016, our collaborator Juliette Leblanc is getting used to country life (and finding out what the little house on the prairie is really like).
Photos—Eliane Cadieux et Catherine Bernier
If you had told me 10 years ago that, one day, online shopping would mean spending my nights frantically trying to pick seeds for my garden, I probably would have laughed in your face.
I grew up in a suburb of Montréal, and I’ve spent my entire adult life in the city. Suffice it to say that for the longest time my relationship to the country was idealistic and remote at best. In fact, it was limited to the games my sister and I played when we were little, in the cornfields near my aunt’s place—a proximity to nature that to us seemed almost unreal. In 2016, I met Laurence and moved in with him, in Arthabaska, in the Centre-du-Québec region, 103 miles [166 km] from my best friends and family. Until then, I’d never had a driver’s licence, and my balcony gardening amounted to no more than a few tomato plants dying of thirst.
We now live in a house that has been built entirely by hand, shaped by multiple extensions and additions, at the edge of a rural town. Our garden, our greenhouse and our chickens allow us to increase our level of food self-sufficiency a bit more every year. We have a composting toilet and we use rainwater for our shower and dishwasher. Our house points due south and, in the winter, it’s heated in large part by the sun.
Our house isn’t “normal”; our toilet isn’t “normal”; our incomes aren’t steady. Nothing about our existence is stable, yet it’s the existence I have chosen. I choose to live in this Frankenstein house, surrounded by a garden I learn to better care for with each passing season. We shape our kingdom according to our own rules and at our own pace.
My life in the country is a compilation of first times. Chopping wood for heating with an axe (and convincing myself I look good as a lumberjack); cleaning the chimney (and convincing myself I look good as a Mary Poppins-style chimney sweep); building a table (and pretending it’s straight); taking care of the compost, taking care of a sick chicken (have you ever seen a worm in a chicken’s eye? Yeah, exactly.); dealing with an insect invasion in the garden (squishing larvae between my fingers before my first cup of coffee); or even coming to terms with losing a harvest, letting nature take over to create an ecosystem where prey and predators eke out a precarious existence side by side.
We’ve met a lot of people along the way who’ve had a decisive impact on our story, but this one is special. In August 2018, we were on vacation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where we met Brendan. He told us that his parents, Brian and Maria, had purchased a huge piece of land in the 1970s, far from everything and everyone. At first, they lived out of a tent, then upgraded to a tiny cabin without electricity before tackling the construction of their house. That’s where they were able to start a family, surrounded by chickens, an orchard, a lush garden, and mature forest.
When we drove down the dirt road to pay the couple a visit, I was picturing all kinds of ramshackle and rustic houses. Five kilometres of forest later, all of my preconceived notions evaporated. I was dumbfounded. If I had to choose a term to describe their house, I would say it was a “castle in the trees.” I never could have imagined such a unique, moving, and artistic place. It was the kind of dwelling that was shaped with patience and skill, carefully thought out over time, improved as the seasons went by and the children grew up—a life’s work. It was fascinating. We saw the shed where the hydroelectric turbine and transformer were housed, the room where vegetables and preserves were stored, the composting toilet system, the greenhouse over the hot water tank, constantly heated by means of an electricity surplus, not to mention the suite of rooms peppered with furniture Brian had made and decorated by travel souvenirs judiciously chosen by Maria. So many questions were buzzing and racing through my head; it was overwhelming. I was overcome with an anxiety I couldn’t explain. I was thinking: And us? Our garden isn’t as big, as productive; our fruit trees aren’t as mature—or else they get gnawed by deer—crows eat the grain that’s supposed to feed the chickens (our scarecrow only scares me, apparently); we don’t have 300 acres of forest where we can cut wood for heating; we don’t have access to a river with current enough to generate electricity; I don’t have enough Mason jars; I go to the hardware store more often than I do the grocery store; I’ve never made bread; I don’t know what all the wild plants are called; I can’t identify edible mushrooms.
Then I took a deep breath, stopped comparing myself, realized that “if I were to do it over again” is something that afflicts everyone, and understood that Brian and Maria lost seedlings during the summer, and that, in the winter, snow and wind isolates them. And I remembered something crucial: between the two of them, they have 40 years of experience. I’ve had two at the time. Over the course of the conversation, I recognized that failures aren’t final, and that in the end, all of our attempts are good for us, since they help improve the systems that structure our lives. For example, Brian willingly admitted that his hydroelectric system was flawed. Maria asked us questions about our vegetable patch with unfeigned curiosity, even though I think of her as an expert in the field. It was humbling for us; we’re so impatient to accomplish great things.
Maybe this is where resilience lives, in that narrow space that’s never far from doubt. This undertaking has no finish line, no comfort zone.
I left the city to stop comparing myself in the first place—to trust my choices, and accomplish things slowly, with care and rigour. My little personal revolution is about not buying fresh vegetables and eggs for part of the year. It’s about not having a heating bill in the winter, about reusing rainwater, or watching the apple trees grow.
Above all, it’s a team effort, a future we are creating for ourselves—that’s how it was for Brian and Maria, and the same goes for us. We are doing it with different resources, during vastly different eras, but our desire to live an alternative life and join in the wide struggle to safeguard our planet is the same.