One foot in the city and another in the woods.
The BESIDE cofounder spent the first half of his life in Abitibi; the second, in Montreal. For the longest time, he thought he would eventually need to choose between city and country, but today he's finding ways to make this hybridity work.
TEXT Jean-Daniel Petit
I’ve been lying in the moss for the past two hours.
I spent the year frantically working, trying to accomplish as much as possible, always running against the clock. I’m so numb I’ve fallen completely out of touch with my senses. Here, the scent of pine and damp earth reminds me that nature smells a whole lot better than a sequoia-fragranced candle. The woods are quiet, the air is soothing. The squirrels are hoarding food to get them through the winter.
Silence has fallen since I arrived. Not a deathly silence, no; a silence filled with life.
I doze off, staring at black spruce branches. It’s not the most beautiful tree, but it’s certainly the straightest and most resilient of the entire boreal forest. I’m in the present moment—far more than I ever am between my two savasanas on Laurier Street. I’m not thinking about anything other than lying here, in the forest of Abitibi, hundreds of kilometres from the city. Hard to tell what time it is, or know what’s going on in Bangkok; I haven’t looked at a screen in days.
The second week of October is sacred here: it’s moose-hunting time. Some see it as a chance to temporarily escape their office or other responsibilities, others take the opportunity to get reacquainted with silence, far away from screaming children. For me, it’s the time to catch up on my lack of sleep, with some aromatherapy thrown in as a bonus. No running water, no electricity, no networks: I settle for a bed, a wood stove, and a bucket of water. I live according to the natural light cycles, getting up at the crack of dawn, with frost in the camp’s windows, in bed by 7pm, after reading a few pages and chatting over a beer. And between all that, I hide in the woods, hoping the week doesn’t speed by too fast. I go hunting to kill, clearly, but especially to kill time. To stop it for a moment.
Back in the city, I’d never leave my apartment without my keys, phone, and wallet. Here, I never leave camp without my knife, a GPS, and a flashlight. The perfect little urbanite’s survival kit is completely useless in the forest.
I really do appreciate my life in the city though. It opens a window onto the world, and provides infinite doors to reaching the other—other cultures, other opinions, other human beings. But it’s once I’ve withdrawn deep into the woods that I realize the city isn’t perfect; it conceals an inner emptiness that only a mountaintop can fill.
For the first half of my life, I lived in Abitibi, before moving to Montreal. That was more than 15 years ago. Back then, the pull of the metropolis was more powerful than the peaceful spruce trees surrounding the 22,000 lakes of my home region. I wanted to see the world, question it, experience it. Sayonara, little house on the prairie. The little guy from the woods is going to town.
The country made me who I am, but the city allowed me to share it with the world.
From the moment I arrived, I basked in new encounters, new stories, new perspectives. Montreal is so easy to love. It’s beautiful and simple, yet refined at the same time. At 33 years old, I officially have one foot in the city and another in the woods. And I have to say, this tug of war evolved over time. As I got bored with the country, I fell for the city and its shows, exhibitions, and culinary feasts. Every six months, I went back to Abitibi with new eyes. And in a subtle way, my roots kept deepening.
I’ve barely begun probing the depths of my Abitibi origins. The more I talk to my parents and my spouse’s grandparents, the more interested I get in their history—our history—and the more I feel the need to get closer to those dense northern forests.
When I’m in the city, I’m a hick from the woods; when I’m in Abitibi, I’m a city slicker. Other people don’t see me as belonging to either the first or the second. I’m a hybrid being looking for balance—somewhere in between.
And so for the longest time, I felt this pressure to choose, once and for all—to move back to the country, to abscond from the “dirty” city in favour of Abitibi’s purity. Maybe it’s because of my greying temples, but I have an appetite for nuance—nuanced news, nuanced social media, nuanced stereotypes that separate city and country.
I need the city and nature in symbiosis. I want know-how and I want to know-how-to-be—to know how to hunt and fish, to know how to fell a tree, chop wood, tend a garden, grow my own tomatoes, cook a moose stew in tomato sauce. I want to keep travelling every day through the people I meet, to be stimulated by the city, and be able to find solace in nature’s peace and quiet when it all becomes overwhelming. Because knowing both how to gut a moose and use Photoshop is as unusual as it is practical.
Lying comfortably in the forest of Abitibi, I lock eyes with a wild lynx passing by in silence. We recognize each other; we share the same space-time, even the same frame of mind. No one is impinging on the other. He continues on his way like a ghost and I get back to my thoughts, thinking to myself that I’m happy to be who I am: a weird hybrid inhabitant with a foot in the city and another in the woods.
JEAN-DANIEL PETIT was born in 1985 in the diminutive municipality of Évain, in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. After working in communications in Montreal for over a decade, he founded abitibi & co, a Quebec-based canoe and kayak company, as well as the BESIDE media brand.
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