The Search for a Woodland Sanctuary

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau

Introduction

The seed for my vision of a “cabin-in-the-woods” may have been planted at Camp Keewaydin. At dusk, two dozen Girl Guides sat around a bonfire singing rounds, songs of adventure, and hand-action tunes. In the last category was this:

In a cottage in a wood
A little old man at the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at the door.

‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said
‘Before the hunter shoots me dead!’
‘Come little rabbit, stay with me,
Happy you shall be.’

(Repeat)

Each repetition omitted the words of the previous line. On the ninth iteration, silence prevailed while twenty-four pairs of raised hands drew cottages and window frames, knocked on imaginary doors and mimicked the hopping of rabbits and the firing of shotguns. But, you had to be singing in your head to get the right sequence of actions. What pedagogical genius condemned rote learning? A septuagenarian now, I remember not only the melody and the words, but also the hand actions. Until today, copying the song, I never noticed the change in person—third to first. But, until today, I had never written down the words. And what importance does grammatical consistency have for an eleven-year-old? What intrigued me was the concept of a refuge in a woods. I found one—twice.

The Oxley Cottage

Near the western terminus of stagecoach route that traced the north shore of Lake Erie, reposed an inn, ancient and weather-beaten. Six equally time-worn cottages lounged among the hundreds of mature maples that dotted the grounds.

For three months in the spring of my twenty-sixth year, my husband and I inhabited one of the sextet of tiny cabins. We had purchased our first house, a two-bedroom bungalow, a year and a half earlier. Soon we tired of its mediocrity and boxy newness. A stately, red-brick Victorian, complete with a two-story turret, came on the market. In short order, we bought the property and sold ours; however, the closing dates did not correspond. We needed to vacate the bungalow almost at once.

The good-hearted, elderly owners of the 1865 former manse, agreed to store our belongings for a few months. Somehow, we discovered the Ravine Cottages. It was the low season and only one other was rented out.

Our cabin consisted of one large room. Across the back wall, a small fridge, sink, and stove perched in a crooked row. To their right, a three-piece washroom—pedestal sink, toilet and shower—functioned without pretense. An unpainted wooden table and four chairs occupied the middle ground. At the front of the room, side by side and facing the water, were a sitting area and a sleeping space. A double bed had been wedged into the rectangle created by the back wall of the bathroom and two walls of the cottage—a three-sided cage. I slept on the inside—a bonus when I wanted to open or close the window. Inconvenient for nighttime trips to the toilet. Large paired windows graced each side of a central door. A screened porch completed the plan. I first viewed the bug-safe enclosure as a welcome luxury. In May, when legions of shad-flies coated the world with their fragile living, dying, and decomposing bodies, I realized the necessity of the protected space.

For our only neighbours, a young New Zealand couple, the Ravine Cottages was the latest stop on their west-to-east cross-Canada journey. In their cabin, pressed against a wall, squatted a small dresser blackened with age. The checkered shellac surface and a large dark ring seared into the top didn’t diminish its inherent beauty. I asked the proprietress if she would exchange the piece for one of our light-oak washstands. Although she made it a policy not to sell any of the inn’s original furnishings, she deemed a trade acceptable.

Once at our cottage, a closer examination revealed the value of the dark little cabinet—black walnut construction with burled walnut inlays, hand-forged nails and abstract flower petals carved into the back rail. I felt guilty about the exchange and spoke to the owner. She beamed at me, “What a fantastic swap! The oak piece is far too nice to leave in a cottage so we brought it into the hotel!” My conscience was appeased.

During those months in the Oxley cottage, I enjoyed the freedom of few possessions—some clothes, toiletries, and books—and the ease of keeping such a small space clean. I taught only in the morning. During the unhurried afternoons I ambled among rivers of discarded leaves, inhaled their musty perfume as I disturbed their evolution; listened to cheerful melodies of tiny songbirds; watched fat grey squirrels and curious chipmunks scamper among the spring-ripening forest. When troubled thoughts crowded my mind and obliterated the peace of the natural sanctuary, a protruding root, a noisy sparrow or an unexpected fragrance pulled me back to the present and restored my equanimity.

The Don Street Shack

Twenty-four years later, I relocated to a small town cradled on the shore of Georgian Bay. There I discovered a second “cabin-in-the-woods.” The tiny shack, abandoned for years, huddled among half an acre of mature maples and pines. The weathered clapboards had never seen paint and most of the green had deserted the rotting wooden shutters. Sealed tight, the blinded house prevented my peering in. Even so, I envisioned “saving” the neglected gem. My recent divorce and part-time work dictated that the salvation would have to wait.

Two years passed. On summer’s first Friday, I signed a permanent teaching contract. Next, I drove by the Don Street cabin. Braked. Stared at the charming vinyl-clad home that stood tall in the place where the shack had once crouched. A local builder, who had taken on the renovation as a hobby, had done a remarkable job. Better even than I had envisioned. The addition of a wrap-around veranda was pure genius. Best of all, in the front yard, on a sturdy square post, swung a large white, red, and blue sign—FOR SALE. On Monday, I officially owned the house. I loved it for fourteen years.

Why did I move? First, the neighbour to the west added a two-story addition. It obscured the view of the bay. Second, the builder who refurbished my home owned the two wooded lots adjoining it. He fancied the area so much that he cleared the forest on the east side and built a house for him and his family. That land was elevated. When he put in the swimming pool, his children and their friends had an unimpeded view into our once secluded backyard. Then, the same contractor sold the large treed acreage behind our two properties—a tract with a brook winding through it where I frequently roamed. A retired couple built a sizable house on the land then created a sizable number of vegetable gardens that abutted our fence. My forest refuge shrank to a small island in a sea of domiciles.

The renovated Don Street shack

Prince Edward Island

The property we bought six years ago is not a cabin-in-the-woods. It is a multi-level, modern dwelling situated on more than half an acre of lawn. However, every spring I plant trees. More than thirty to date. In the future, not in my life-time though, towering blue spruces, Austrian and red pines, maples, and lindens will protect the house from searing sun and icy gales. Whoever comes to dwell here will revel in their own private woodland sanctuary.

Some of the trees I have planted–spruces and a weeping crab-apple
One of four ornamental pears that I planted four years ago.
An hydrangea standard that was badly damaged in a hurricane and another ornamental pear.
Four new blue spruces planted on the berm this spring