Moving Back to the City

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PAUL BAILY
A summer picnic at the old home in the wilderness.

In August 1991, Deanna Kawatski told MOTHER EARTH NEWS the remarkable story of her family’s homestead in Northwest British Columbia. Three miles from the nearest road and one hundred from the nearest town, she married, had two children, and lived the life we’ve only dreamed of. Now she offers an equally moving sequel, in which she details how Paradise was lost… and found again amid the bustle of an urban community.


For 13 years we had been leading a self-reliant lifestyle
deep in the Coast Mountains of northern British Columbia,
growing all of our own food and living in almost complete
isolation. Everything suddenly changed the day my husband,
Jay, departed with our kids for a six-week vacation in
Wisconsin. Before he left, he presented me with a letter
that stated, in effect, that our marriage was over.

Occupying my time with decision-making helped me deal with
my feelings of great loss and hurt. I decided that I would
be the one to leave the bush, that I would go back to the city. So I made plans for the move,
as well as arrangements to pick up the children, Ben and
Natalia, at the airport upon their vacation return.
Unfortunately, the decisive acts couldn’t diminish the
grief I felt while moving through my cycle of chores. I fed
the chickens, collected the eggs, tended the giant garden,
gathered clover in the field, and carted it to the rabbits.
In the evening, I sat on the front porch breathing in the
clearing and ebony spruce spires, knowing that I would have
to leave it soon.

My mother and sister, Donna, drove 1,000 miles north from
the Shushwap Lake region to retrieve me. Twenty-one boxes
of belongings I felt I couldn’t live without were lifted by
helicopter from the Ningunsaw Valley and shipped south to
Chase by transport truck. I also sent along the snowshoes,
skis, and bikes.

As soon as the three of us entered the prominent northern
town, I felt like a fish out of water. Certainly I had made
trips out of the wilderness, but they averaged once every
three months. Town was Stewart, with a population of 1,800
during boon times and substantially less during the bust
spells. There were no shopping malls, no theaters, no
McDonald’s. It was a mere one-bank, one-department-store
town, with a post office the size of an envelope. This new
town had all of the above and more, and when we walked into
a motel located on the highway, I wanted to turn and flee.

The next day the three of us happily greeted Ben and
Natalia, fresh off the B.C. Air flight, and drove on to a
motel in Williams Lake. Natalia realized for the first time
that night that our stay away from the Ningunsaw Valley
would be for longer than a couple of weeks, and she began
to cry for her home. She missed the mountains and her
animals. My biggest problem was the noise. Although I wore
earplugs, I couldn’t sleep with the racket of trains,
traffic, and sirens.

Making the Transition

Initially we searched for a place to rent in nearby Chase,
and were aghast at the prices. It took more to buy less,
and it was a real shock to go from living on $3,000 to
$5,000 per year to $1,300 per month simply for food and
shelter. In the woods, weeks could pass without having to
handle money, or even think much about it. Suddenly it was
a perpetual concern.

For the first time, feeding my family became a major
adjustment. In the bush we trudged to the garden, root
cellar, or cupboards for nearly everything, and did, in
fact, produce 75% of our food self-sufficiently. Suddenly
every item had to be purchased. At the supermarket I would
pick up and stare suspiciously at the polished produce,
wondering about its age, its origin, and–for the
purpose of preservation and eye appeal–to what degree
it had been polluted. The amount of choice in this giant
room was astounding, and I found myself practically
paralyzed by indecision. Forty different brands of cereal:
with high fiber and low fat; with low calorie but high
sugar; with just sugar; with sugar, without fat but with
raisins–on and on.

Overselection did have one built-in advantage, though. It
hampered my ability to overconsume. And when it came to
purchased products, I ended up applying one rule: Seek out
the cheapest.

In Search of Home

Due to my deep connection to the north Shushwap
area–I had spent all of my summers here as a
child–we decided to spend the winter here. As soon as
we arrived, I felt like Rip Van Winkle. Shuswap Lake had
been home to my family for five generations, and its
original 160 acres had dwindled down to two acres. It had
also changed from a distinctly pastoral location with
tinkling cowbells and rustling poplar leaves into a busy
tourist haven. Miraculously, amidst the noise and
emissions, the loons, ospreys, and mergansers still swoop
and dive. As we searched for a place to rent, I was more
concerned about the size of the yard and whether it
contained trees than the house itself.

We finally settled on one, seven miles from my mother’s
property. Little did the owners know that I chose it
because of the several acres of woods just east of it.
Civilization had drastically altered my sense of space. Out
in the wilderness I felt huge but was constantly reminded
of my own insignificance. There were trees that were older,
animals wiser. Back in civilization I felt mentally,
physically, and spiritually crowded.

The house that we rented was a furnished two-bedroom
duplex. Ben and I shared a bedroom while Natalia had her
own. The downstairs remained unoccupied. Large windows and
a deck overlooked Shushwap Lake, and the glow of the
fireplace fed our primal spirits and offered us
consolation.

And yet how radically different a typical day in the
wilderness had been from a day in civilization. In the
woods our alarm clock was the crow of King, our rooster.
This signaled it was time to begin the first task: starting
a fire in our wood cook stove and simmering the cereal,
often homemade from our own wheat. A brisk trip down the
hill to the outhouse offered a revitalizing (torturous in
winter) tonic of fresh air and view of Natty Creek. The possibility of spying a wolf or moose always lingered. On the
walk back, I would reenter our log home only after grabbing
a hefty armload of birch and spruce for the stove. Then I’d
put the morning meal on the table.

Here in our rented house, the propane heat was summoned
at a touch of the thermostat. The initial blast of air
through the vents sent shivers up my spine. Despite my
nagging at breakfast time, the kids rejected the
time-consuming homemade cereal from the bush for a quick bowl
of sugary cereal doused with milk. In the same sense, I was
impressed by the speed of the electric stove. (A couple of
sheets of burned cookies smartened me up on just how fast it
does heat up.) Here in the modern world there was no steep
side hill to negotiate to get to the bathroom, which was warm
and cozy. A fan–which went on simultaneously with the
light–was a surprising indulgence. The efficient flush
of the toilet seemed magical to me–until Ben dropped a
pen down it to see what would happen and plugged the whole
works.

Physically I hadn’t had it easier in years. Back in the
bush there had always been wood to chop, bread to bake,
rabbits to feed, grain to grind, school to teach, and
floors to sweep. Here I felt out of my element maneuvering
a whining vacuum cleaner across my carpeted living space,
and I often wore earplugs to cope with the racket. Still,
compared to my bush house, which also served as a toolshed,
woodworking shop, school, and food-processing plant, this
one was tremendously easy to keep clean. It was no longer
necessary for me to cook three meals from scratch a day; I
found that, as a family of three, we ate substantially
less.

The only wood I had to chop or pack was for the fireplace,
and after 11 years of hand washing, having an automatic
washer and dryer was sheer fun. I noticed on my daily walks
to the post office (this felt like real freedom after
waiting one month to six weeks between trips for mail in
the bush) how each dryer vent from the houses beside the
road exhaled the same smell of fabric softener. In
civilization, everyone’s laundry smelled the same. In the
bush, my clothes came off the line permeated with the smell
of wind and rain. The modern convenience I had the most
difficulty adjusting to was the television set, and
eventually I threw it out in favor of expanding our
bookshelf.

Home School vs. Public School

For Natalia and Ben, the most radical change was attending
public school after having been home schooled their whole
lives. Suddenly they were forced to ignore their impulses;
their lives became governed by clocks and schedules. In
modern society, children are fitted into the tight harness
of someone else’s schedule. Constant diversions and a whirl
of activity quickly become their reality. In the bush, our
lives moved with the cadence of the seasons. I’m left
wondering when people ever have a chance to grow and
cultivate the gardens of creative thought that lead to
invention.

On the first morning of school, I walked my children a
half-mile up the road to the bus stop. I felt guilty about
handing them over to the public system. However, I had
given them the choice, and both were eager to make friends.
This wasn’t so easy. Ben cried on the first day and
developed a stutter, which has thankfully subsided.

To our dismay, Nat’s greatest fear materialized. At the
outset she was completely rejected by her classmates.
However, her independent learning proved to be an asset.
She remained conscientious about her work and ended up
winning the academic achievement award, bestowed annually
on one student in the graduating class.

Fortunately, the North Shushwap Elementary School is a good
one, and a caring staff encourages parental participation.
Last year I helped with various activities, including the
cross-country ski club. And Natalia had the chance to learn
to play the clarinet. Eventually, she was accepted by the
class, but it was mainly the required conformity above all
else. Quietly, I watched the changes. In the bush
practicality and comfort ruled and the kids were content to
wear cast-off clothing. Now brand names infiltrate their
psyches, and the frequent requests for fancy items puts a
strain on my brain and budget. Other strains included
viruses. Within a few weeks both kids–who almost
never got sick–were on antibiotics.

Changing Habits, Not Values

Despite the changes, I have found that old habits die hard.
Regularly I refer to the bathroom as the outhouse, and to
the compost bucket as the chicken bucket. One night I woke
up to what I thought was the glacier-fed wind whistling
down the valley, carrying with it the scent of wolf packs.
I opened my eyes and realized that it was a noisy truck on
the road below our rented abode. After years of living in
the bush down a rough foot trail three miles from anything
resembling a road, I resented the intrusion. And through my
window, from across the street, shone my neighbor’s light.
Being from the city she didn’t feel safe sleeping without
it. At night I craved genuine darkness.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my longing for the
Ningunsaw Valley, I would snowshoe regularly through the
woods and across the nearby golf course, seeking out the
deer beds. Still I found a new strength unfurling.

Moving to civilization gave me a chance to learn how much I
could do on my own. In addition to working through the
transition of households, I replaced the flat tires of
Ben’s bike, assembled a bookshelf, and fixed Natalia’s door
when she got locked out of her bedroom. I paid the bills
and managed our affairs, and even though I didn’t know how
we were going to survive financially, I learned that I
could be organized and efficient.

This past spring I started a small garden on my mother’s
property. It was virgin sod, which I turned by hand, not
far from the spine of rock that my great grandmother had
piled when she pioneered here in the early 1900s. With
growing enthusiasm I planned the layout, and later
harvested small but healthy crops of peas, potatoes, beets,
tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and other delectables.
The climate here is much more hospitable than in the north,
where frost could occur at any time of year. And no longer
are huckleberries our main winter fruit. Here the apple,
plum, and pear trees flourish.

I see the concept of self-sufficiency in a slightly
different light now. Our fiercely individualistic North
American society has created a lot of lonely people. As
much as we must learn independence, we must also learn
interdependence. In the bush there was too much work for
two people, and Jay and I both ended up feeling
unappreciated by the other. I no longer see it as possible,
or even desirable, to do everything on one’s
own–individually or as a family. We must work
together. Still I continue to bake my own bread and to cook
from scratch. I preserve produce for the winter, walk or
bike when I can, and try to conserve more than consume.

One afternoon last spring, as I rode my bike home from the
garden, I was chased by massive thunderheads. A fierce wind
whipped branches across the road and churned the lake to a
chartreuse mood reminiscent of summers past. Then the
clouds released themselves in torrents of rain, which
bounced off the fading road. In a flash I remembered that
in nature, as well as in life, there is always room for the
unexpected, and jubilantly I felt myself free and eager to
venture on.