There’s a good blizzard coming down outside. Good for me, that is, tucked inside the cabin with a book, a fire, and a tumbler of Ontarian whisky. Not so good for Phillip who tramped off through the snow towards the car earlier in the evening, intent on hunting down a geocache in the countryside surrounding the township. Eventually he will return, cursing himself for forgetting his snowshoes and wondering aloud about the possibility of getting the last few hours of his life back.
The cabin has been our home base for the past few days while we’ve been conducting interviews and generally making ourselves a nuisance in the middle of Ontario, poking our noses into wood-warmed kitchens and bathrooms in our efforts to document the off-grid lifestyle in this part of the country. It’s about as off-grid as you can get for paid accommodation, running off a small bank of solar panels that in this snow probably could do with a good sweeping. An inverter box is mounted on the wall beside the last-supper-sized dining table, pitching a white noise hum into diner’s ears, and next to it a display that has been steadily counting down from 12.4 Volts as the sun dropped, the lights came on, and our laptops drained the charge from the cabin’s batteries. Cell phone reception ended a few kilometers outside of town, and the pitted and troughed driveway ensured that only those with four wheel drive make it to the parking lot on the edge of the 500-acre property. From the parking lot we strapped snowshoes to our feet and continued for another ten minutes towards the cabin, wending our way along ski trails and over lines of animal tracks towards the cabin, sinking occasionally in the unseasonably wet snow despite our over-large footprints. These are just a few of the grids we are referring to when we say off-the-grid, and if there is a commonality in the stories we have heard, it is the increased effort and attention in all matters of communicating, accessing, heating, and powering.
Onerous as it may seem, staying off-grid while we are conducting our research allows for an immersive understanding of the lives we encounter, and sitting around dining tables deep in our interview-conversations we are able to nod appreciatively as we hear about the frustrations of waking up to a cold house and building a fire while still wrapped in bed blankets. Fire duty in our cabin has fallen – not begrudgingly – to me, and I’ve become something of an expert in the chain-smoking, tinder-free approach to lighting the morning’s fire from last night’s embers.
A few townships over Cam demonstrates his electric chainsaw as he bucks logs to heat his 19th-century farmhouse. The machine is quiet, with perhaps only a little less raw ripping power than a conventional gas saw. Most of Cam’s wood comes from around his 200-acre property, in the stand of trees beyond his extensive gardens. He and his wife Michelle have self-published many books on off-grid living, renewable energy, and subsistence gardening, and their growing plots are fascinating: the largest is housed within the remaining stone-and-concrete foundation of a barn that once stood on the property.
“The walls keep the heat in,” Cam explains from where he stands on top of the head-high wall.
“Mostly I grow rocks”, he jokes, pointing out a pile of stones in a far corner of the yard. “All those were buried. They get pushed up slowly every time the ground freezes”.
A short distance south, Rob’s maple bush stretches up and out from the floor of the gully behind his straw bale house, accessed along a heavily tire-marked forest path guarded by his 1953 Mercedes Unimog. The arterial mainline zig-zags down from the higher maples, suspended at chest height by a series of lateral guy wires, and ends where we stand at a four-foot cube container. The temperature differences haven’t been great enough to get the sap really flowing, and there are only a few inches of clear liquid in the bottom of the collector. Picturing the system in reverse, it’s not impossible to imagine that the trees have drunk the sap dry as if from a juice box, the mainline’s many capillaries slowly drip-feeding life into the maples, keeping them alive through the winter.
Rob’s 8-year-old son charges up the slope ahead of us, calling back to make sure we’re following him over the correct section of collapsed barbed-wire fence. We catch up, and he directs our attention to the dismembered tail of a porcupine.
“What’s the porcupine’s only predator in this area?”, asks Rob.
I’d first heard of the reclusive Fisher – a relative of the wolverine – a few days ago while thumbing through a guide to Ontario mammals, but in those few days its name had come up repeatedly, most recently in a list of animals that had passed through the compost bins of a dinner guest.
Stuart is a compost enthusiast. Once mistaken for a Mennonite by Mennonites because of his suspenders and homesteader apparel, he appears to have a sixth sense for microbial organisms and the nuance of decompositionary stages. He also lives in a yurt – a 19’-diameter wool-and-canvas structure he shares with his partner Julia – in a field just outside of town.
Stuart has done things with compost that most garden centers would warn strongly against: experimenting with animal remains and human waste for two decades, and carting various piles of humus across central Ontario a few times in the process. An opportunity to work on a local acreage is bringing new permanence to his otherwise temporary dwelling, and he smiles warmly as he tells of his plans to “bring up his two horses” from the compost bins on his farm a few hundred kilometers away. In addition to the two mares and the fisher, he has also composted three black bears (roadkill saved from an anonymous burial on a highway shoulder), a wolf, a number of feral cats, and a moose.
“It got to the point where friends were just bringing me animals they had found. At one point I had twenty-seven beavers, and if I hadn’t been collecting my own excrement for the past 15 years, I wouldn’t have known what to do with the bodies”, he surmises. And then, “Jeez, listen to me! I should work for the mob!”
I admit to sharing a fascination with the alchemical composting process. There is a peculiar and doleful romance to committing a body to soil with the knowledge that its flesh will eventually feed gardens and darken loam, and as I lie in bed going over the evening’s conversation I can’t help but picture the clean bones rising from Stuart’s compost like Cam’s boulders slowly pushed to the surface by the freezing and thawing of the seasons.