Photos—Julien Robert & Yan Kaczynski
December 21, 2018, 2:32 p.m.
“The transaction is now complete. Congratulations, Mr. Côté and Mr. Petit!”
With that, after the ink of our signatures legalized long sheets filled with empty words, our company BESIDE became the owner of 1,254 acres of wooded land in the Lanaudière area. According to the notarized deed, I am a buyer and Jacques Côté is a seller.
But this statement could not be further from the truth.
“In 1803 the township of Chertsey appears for the first time on a map drawn up by Samuel Holland, Surveyor-General to His Majesty.
“Here you can see the Morin series with pink granitic gneiss and quartzite, and the Grenville series with garnet gneiss and…
“Look at the white pine, Pinus strobus. Majestic! And these rocks, the gneiss series in grey granitic…”
I didn’t understand a word of what Jacques was talking about. Even though we were perched on a four-wheeler in the middle of the forest, I felt like I was in history class with a hyperactive professor—or an improbable cross between Yoda and David Attenborough. Unique and endearing.
Jacques spoke to me for hours about the land he acquired in 1988. Even though this was the fourth time I had visited, I still didn’t have a real sense of its size, or its richness. Nor the emotional charge. Imagine: the years he had spent in these fields outnumbered the years I had been alive. More than 30 springs with their buds, birds, and trout that leap when the insects hatch. Hundreds of heavy rains, snowfalls, violent winds, and sunsets over the lakes.
This was not just a plot filed away by the land registry. It was his life, his memories, and his dream. This land was his baby.
“You should make mugs with the BESIDE logo.”
This idea was proposed some years back by a friend in a bar in Hochelaga, Montréal, my adopted urban neighbourhood. I had my doubts about whether our cupboards or Instagram feeds needed another mug, so I answered tit for tat:
“If BESIDE was ever to make a derivative product, it would be a cabin in the woods.”
The words came out of my mouth as though I’d been mulling over the idea for years. The truth is, I had never thought of it before then. The kernel of that idea must have been slumbering somewhere inside me, somewhere between my desires for a life in the wild and my fears of failure. And yet, when I uttered those two syllables, ca-bin, it was as though all the puzzle pieces were falling into place. I could see myself there already, bathing in campfirelight, in harmony with the nature around me.
An idea is a powerful thing. Especially when it never leaves you.
November 2017. My colleague Nicolas and I were on our way to Chertsey after having stumbled across a YouTube video of a piece of land for sale. We wanted to visit it before winter really started to set in. We drove through the first snow of the year, so heavy that the spruce lining the roadside looked like giant marshmallows.
Jacques was on the doorstep of his house when we arrived, wearing a khaki beret with a dream catcher hanging from its brim, black jeans, and a T-shirt down to his knees, Kanye-style. Quite the getup for a man born in the 1940s.
Jacques worked as a notary in Rawdon, the town next to Chertsey, for decades—and was likely the most colourful and memorable of them all. He was also the innkeeper at the Rawdon Inn on Queen Street during the great age of disco. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, he backpacked across several countries, encountering various cultures and ways of life that would eventually shape his own world view.
When he came back to settle down in Rawdon, one of the most diverse cities in Québec after Montréal (and home to more than 20 different ethnic and Indigenous communities), he reclaimed his position as a notary once more. Over time, he fell in love with the mixed Lanaudière forest, as richly varied in biodiversity as the local population. And because he was acutely aware that North America’s natural places were deteriorating, Jacques decided to purchase a parcel of the Morgan forest in order to protect it.
As I walked across Jacques’ land with him at my side, I began to understand that I was in a place unlike any other on earth, a place with the power to transform whoever ventures through it.
Surrounded by the thousands of tiny noticeable attributes of this stretch of forest, I was surprised to notice my own growing desire to protect and showcase it in my turn. I also desired to create a place where people could come together and experience nature in a new way, in a setting that encourages unplugging and contemplation. A setting that brings together nature and culture.
I was born in Abitibi, and nature has always been a source of indescribable pleasure for me. As I grow older, I realize that what I feel in nature should rightly be compared to what art, design, and architecture also inspire in me. Nature and culture speak the same silent language, one that hits you in the gut and stirs up deep emotions that have been buried for too long.
On that day, all through the fields, I imagined the experiences nature and culture could collaboratively offer, once they were brought together under the right conditions. Everything started to become crystal clear, and I was sure that the destination I was imagining would become real someday.
My initial concept for BESIDE Habitat was also to respond to a wider cultural condition: that we all need to slow down and reconnect with our five senses, to be close to nature and embrace our Nordic identity, to enhance the balance between hard and soft skills, to come together in community and create new stories for the sake of our future.
Jacques and I spent innumerable hours walking across this land, talking about what would come next and about life in general. Long enough to realize that, in spite of the generations that separated us, our vision was the same.
He passed on more information than my internal hard drive could hold. I have since made room in my memory so I might have more opportunities to absorb all the knowledge he continues to pass on to me.
Jacques was a Besider before it was even a thing. A precursor, a visionary. When he began his mission, 30 years ago, everyone treated him like he was crazy. Giving the forest the same care you would a garden, creating trails to observe the most beautiful features of the land, walking the length of streams in spring, summer, and fall to learn how they breathed.
His way of life, his degree of attunement with the land, was unequalled. And yet he still had a dream for the greater community of Rawdon to live in harmony with the natural resources of the area.
In 2008 financial crisis struck the world, and Jacques was not spared. He was forced to consider selling his land. Little by little, he lost faith in his project, in our Québec, and in humanity in general.
Once he started to actively seek out a buyer, several people showed interest in the purchase, of course—entrepreneurs with plans for cardboard condos, or “mansions for thoroughbreds” as he so aptly calls them—but he held out as long as he could. Staying strong in his mission, he needed to make sure the land would find its way into the right hands. In the end, it wound up in ours.
“I feel I can let him go now, my little one.”
Eighteen months passed between our first meeting and the signing of those long papers full of empty words.
The truth behind this document is that Jacques Côté is not simply a seller—he’s a pioneer.
In the end, it is not only his land that he’s passing on, but also his knowledge, his vision, and his dream. And as for us, we will have given him a little bit of hope that those dreams may still come true. ■
This article was written as part of the development of our BESIDE Habitat project.