Country Mouse/ City Mouse

Truth be told, I am very conflicted about my country mouse/ city mouse existence. I love big cities. I was so happy to be living in London last year, and since we’ve been back, I have been missing the energy of city life. There are days when I rage at being isolated in the country. I long to walk down a street, hear different languages, peer into windows, people watch.

But I am also deeply committed to living in the woods. We moved to the rural wilds of eastern Ontario 25 years ago to give our children a childhood filled with trees to climb, stars to count and newts to save. Every day I revel in the beauty of what I learn outside my door.

We were in Toronto this past week, visiting our son Xan for his birthday, when the big blizzard hit. There was no driving home so we spent a fabulous day visiting friends and trudging through the snowy streets. Going to St. Lawrence Market was a party in itself – there was a communal pride in being intrepid Canadians. We sipped spicy Korean soup and shared weather stories with others who had braved the storm for the sake of community and good food.

The next day was clear and bright and we drove away from the city, leaving the already brown, snow-clogged city streets. Snow in the city is annoying, but in the country it is transformative. It stays white and clean and makes everything look new and fresh. The snow reflects the sun, making everything brighter. In the country when there is a huge snowfall followed by a day of sunshine, we unfurl from our grumpy grey winter hibernation and soak up the extra strong rays. Winter on these days is the best time of year imaginable. I can’t imagine anywhere better.

Our house is on 78 acres of scrubby land, adjoining hundreds of sparsely populated acres of the same. On a snow-filled winter day, I can walk out the front door, strap on my cross-country skis and go to investigate the woods.

Amanda heading out for a ski
Heading out to ski

Lewis and I decided to explore together – he on snow shoes, me on skis. We’ve got a trail through the property that we keep open, but breaking through the snow is hard work. These are not groomed ski trails. I let Lewis go first.

We are not the only ones in the woods, of course. Observing animal tracks is one of the real bonuses of the woods in winter. In the woods you can follow stories. There are a lot of deer this year. We could see where they’d circled the juniper bushes for the deliciously fermented berries.

Deer trails and juniper bushes
Deer trails and juniper bushes

We found hollows where the deer had curled up in south facing exposures – resting places where they could get sun but still be protected from the wind.

A cozy deer bed
A cozy deer bed. The light is deceptive. That’s a hollow in the snow, not a mound. You can see tracks leading in and out.

It takes about a half an hour for us to get to the back end of our land, longer when we are breaking trail. Our property ends at an old rail bed that is now part of the Trans Canada Trail. Initiated in 1994, the TCT is the world’s longest muti-use network of recreational trails. 73% of the trail is now complete, comprising 16,800 kilometers of trail stretching across the country. It is scheduled for completion in 2017, in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Apparently, 80% of Canadians are within 30 minutes of the trail – which seems to me an impossible statistic. Does that mean 80% of Canadians could come walking, riding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, jogging, biking, or skiing past my “back door”? Perhaps I am not as isolated as I thought.

We have an old barn at the back of our property, right by the trail.

The old barn
The old barn

The barn is at least 100 years old, probably more like 150, as it was one of the first built by the previous owners of the land. They had a sawmill and a barn building business. It is a beautiful building, with huge ash beams of a size that is unknown now. I’ve used the occasional piece of barn board for artwork (“Fragments of the Leaves of Grass”). But it’s at the back of the property and not really useful to us as a barn. I’m ashamed to say we’ve let it fall into disrepair. With this last snowfall the roof finally caved in. It is now a statistic – one of Ontario’s beautiful ruins of agricultural days gone by. Too late to repair it, I can only hope the wood will find new life as reclaimed furniture or art.

But there is an animal trail coming out of the barn. Something canine, that is clearly living in there and has made a well-worn path. It is solitary, not grouped like the clustered deer tracks. While coyotes are common, the singularity and size of the path makes me wonder if it is a wolf. A lone wolf. Perhaps. I’m glad the barn can give it shelter.

Lewis and I find a fallen branch to dust off and sit on. I’ve brought us a little treat for our excursion – tiny glasses of port and a piece of Mexican chocolate. We leave drops and crumbs for hungry deer to find.

There is a beaver pond on our land, and we set off across it, well off the trail now.

setting off across the beaver pond
setting off across the beaver pond

The snow allows us to explore places that we can’t get to other times of year. We begin the trip back home. The afternoon sun streams through the cedar grove. The silence is deep and full.

It really doesn’t get much better.

The light through the cedar grove
The light through the cedar grove

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her book THESE ARE NOT THE WORDS was published in April 2022 by Groundwood Books. Previous books include The Pact, (Red Deer Press) which was listed on the 2017 USBBY Outstanding International Books List; selected for the 2017 ILA Young Adults' Readers Choice List; Nominated for 2017 Snow Willow Award; and listed in the Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Books for Kids & Teens, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at Photo Credit: Marianne Duval

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