COMMENTARY – “How we live” by David Orton

“As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is
closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.”  (John Muir) 

Green house buried in snow in the winterIntroduction
We live on a 130-acre old hill farm in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, which has gone back to forest and a habitat for wildlife. A close friend of mine, with whom I have worked on environmental issues ever since moving to our place about 27 years ago, has repeatedly told me that how I live is reflected in my writing – that is, how I analyse the world and respond to environmental and green issues. He felt my day to day living would also be of interest to those who follow my thinking, and that I should write something about this to share with others. This is what this post is about.

 I remember being invited to give a talk to the federal Green Party convention in 2006 in Ottawa. My topic was whether Left Biocentrism was relevant to Green Parties. There was a big laugh from the audience, quite unexpected on my part, when I said how we had bought our place in Pictou County in 1984, but that I did not believe in private property. One of the contradictions facing the deep ecology supporter is of accepting a basic position that humans cannot ‘own’ the Earth, yet having to use private property ‘laws’ to buy one’s own place or sometimes to acquire land in a capitalist society for conservation and wildlife preservation purposes. Using such laws can help Nature in the short term, but it can also, unless the basic deep ecology view that humans cannot own the Earth is part of the conservation discussion, foster and reinforce the legitimacy of the capitalist view, that humans can ‘own’ other species and the land itself.

As readers of my writings know, Arne Naess, John Livingston, and Rudolf Bahro – key influences for the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism within deep ecology – all emphasized this fundamental point. Livingston expressed it this way: “A man should no more be allowed to own the living soil than he now owns the air he breathes.” (Canada: A Natural History, p. 223) An industrial capitalist society, that does not recognize ecological limits but only perpetual economic expansion and has the profit motive as driver, will eventually consume and destroy itself. But we will all be taken down with it. ‘Private property’ or the idea that humans can ‘own’ other creatures and the land itself, is the ultimate human conceit, which supporters of deep ecology need to undermine, if we are to move in our societal consciousness to sharing this planet with other species on a basis of equality, not dominance. This is a primary goal for the supporter of deep ecology and necessary for real long term social sustainability.

Another theoretical issue is the importance – or lack of it – of individual or personal change as contrasted with major societal change. Do overall ecological and social beliefs held by a person have any necessary relationship to how one personally lives? I think the Left has primarily focused on institutional change and often mocked the green emphasis on being the change you want to see in others and the world. Both individual and societal change must go hand in hand. I have always felt that, to have any integrity in the eyes of others, how one lives personally, has, to some extent, to be a reflection of one’s eco-politics. How one lives should be a kind of laboratory for trying out and applying green philosophy and trying to sort out various contradictions. I believe this is implicit within the philosophy of deep ecology. But it can be hard to write about it without seeming to be a personal tub thumper, which has no attraction for me. Perhaps this is a reason I have avoided, until now, my friend’s advice. Below I will describe my personal living situation, and the routine life I share with my wife Helga. I hope others will find it of interest. 

 DISCUSSION
We have lived on our place for the last 27 years. It used to be a farm, but most has now gone back to forest. Our land is intersected by a dirt road. On the side where our house is located there are 100 acres, the remaining about 30 acres are on the other side. The soil here is thin and rocky. If you walk around the place, you come across large piles of rocks, which the original settlers must have gathered by hand to clear the fields. The largest trees (biggest diameter and tallest) are on the boundary lines, and this is why they have remained uncut. Such trees give some sense of the original grandeur of the Acadian forest before the colonialists arrived.

 Picture of David Orton sitting in a chairThe house is over 100 years old. It is small, but has two levels. On the main floor is the living area, and upstairs are the bedrooms, which have a gabled roof. There is also a half-dug basement, where we keep the winter firewood and which functions as a cold cellar. We heat only by a wood stove. When we moved in, we took out an oil stove – a source then of supplementary heating. When the wood stove is on, there are always three kettles of water on it. There is no indoor toilet, but we have an outhouse a short distance from the house. In winter, the temperature does not usually go below minus 20 degrees centigrade, except for a few winter nights. The house is “snug” and well insulated. Unless there is a winter storm with high winds and low temperatures, the house remains warm until one goes to bed. Making the fire in the wood stove in the morning is the first task.

Our house is set back about 200 yards from the dirt road. Once the winter snow comes, the car stays at the bottom of the unpaved narrow driveway for several months. We move the groceries, laundry, etc. up and down the driveway by sled.

About 15 years ago we had three ponds dug at our place. While my general sentiment is as little disturbance of the natural world as possible, having ponds dug does seem to encourage wildlife. All of the ponds have streams flowing into them. Beavers have periodically moved into the largest pond and we had to adjust to their activities. The beavers cut down all the fruit trees around the perimeter of this pond. They took over what was planned to also be a swimming pond for humans and filled it with alder branches for winter food storage. The beavers raised the water level of the swamp behind our house, and thus eliminated a spring we used as an alternative water source in summer, when our dug well often goes dry. At one time, we needed to unplug a culvert funnelling swamp water under the dirt road on a daily basis, as a result of beaver activity. If we did not do this, the “authorities” would have trapped the culvert-plugging beavers, as they could potentially cause a road washout. The beavers have now moved on from the pond, but muskrats, mink, herons, bitterns and ducks still make their appearance, along with frogs and dragonflies. We now make use of the second smaller pond, located a bit closer to the house, for summer swimming and washing. We also carry water to the house to wash dishes, when the well goes dry. This more or less yearly summer water shortage helps me focus on the importance of water in our life and not to take this for granted. Our third pond is way back in the woods and was really dug just for wildlife use. However, there is a large boulder by the pond which we call “thinker’s rock.” We often walk to this rock.

The woods surround us. Since moving here all the formerly cleared fields have been reclaimed by the forest. It is quite amazing to see how fast the forest cover regenerates itself in the damp Maritimes climate. Some fields have grown back in softwoods – balsam fir, spruce and larch. There are also some older woods, both hardwoods – birch, maple, beech – and some mixed woods. For many years, I have cut trails through the woods, using a bow saw and wood shears. I have never wanted to use a chain saw. With a bow saw, one smells the tree one is cutting and can hear the sounds of the forest animals in the vicinity. Keeping these trails open after wind storms has been a constant activity. Softwoods in particular are shallow rooted and often come down with heavy winds. Where the woods have been clearcut by industrial forestry operations around our place, the wind velocity increases and the trees on our side of the boundary lines often blow over. We have these walking and observation trails so we can get around, particularly in heavy snow, and yet leave most of the woods unmolested for wildlife. Plus, it enables us to keep an eye on any logging activity around our place. We have found almost an industry predisposition to cut over boundary lines, if the forestry operator feels he can get away with it.

We have seen bobcat, deer, mink, snowshoe hare, porcupines, coyotes, fox, black bear and moose at our place. There are of course many summer bird migrants who come for the insects and to nest. In the fall, bears come around to the now wild apple trees which are close to the house. Sometimes they break branches to reach the fruit, and there are many piles of bear feces around the trees. At night, we often hear a pack (or two) of coyotes howling fairly close to the house. Yet one rarely sees these animals. We believe coyotes have eaten two of our cats, plus a goat tethered quite close to the house. In the past we also had geese, ducks and rabbits, but presently all we have are a border collie and one cat.

We have a small barn, where we keep the garden tools, bikes, cross country skis, snowshoes, and the two ocean kayaks which we have used in past summers. We carry the kayaks on top of the car, as the nearest ocean is about half an hour drive away.

This life seems a world away from industrial Portsmouth in England, where I was born and worked in the dockyard. Notwithstanding the ravages of industrial forestry which surround us, I feel I live in a simple living paradise. Our daughter is now 28. She was one year old when we moved to our place and spent all her school years living here, before going away to attend university and make her own path in life.

NATURE NOTES
Since 1998, we have kept what we call “Nature Notes” – a piece of paper pinned on the wall, where we record various seasonal indicators of life and which show quite a remarkable yearly regularity. For example, we gather pussy willows sometime during the first two weeks of March; the migrating grackles usually appear around March 24th. We look for the first advance robins in the beginning of April. In early April we hear the peepers (frogs) serenading us from the swamps and ponds. I start the early salad garden about mid-April, using a bed alongside the house where the soil defrosts first and warms up. Also around this time, the marsh hawks (northern harriers), who nest in the swamp behind our house, come back to start their reproductive cycle. We have never tried to find their nest, but that spot stays the same year after year, as we see from their aerial descent. The first wild flower we see is the pink “spring beauty”, around mid-April.  The first black flies make an appearance in early May. After the flies come the warblers. Towards the end of May humming birds make their appearance. And we have flies: blackflies, no-seeums, mosquitoes and horse flies. Until the no-seeums disappear, we cannot have open the windows even on sweltering nights, because they can pass through the fly screen. Each fly species has a dominance period in the summer, and their intensity, from a human impact perspective, is quite correlated with particular types of weather. Summer garden work sometimes requires wearing a fly exclusion jacket, with a hood that encloses one’s face. The horse flies are the last to disappear towards the end of summer. Even when cycling on the roads in our area, horse flies can still successfully seek their human blood fix. 

THE GARDEN
The soil here is very thin and rocky, so to grow anything, we found it necessary to build up soil in raised beds. I do not use power tools. The wood ashes from the stove go into the garden. Every spring, when the soil can be worked, I bury the winter’s compost under the soil. I then plant vegetables which need a lot of nutrients and are high producing, like zucchini and English marrow, on top of the buried compost. Eventually, over the course of the summer, it becomes beautiful black soil. I also bring mud from a stream which meanders through an alder swamp, about 100 yards from the house. When the stream dries up sufficiently, usually towards the end of the summer, it exposes rich alluvial mud side bars. For bringing this mud to the garden, I drag it in a hand-pulled garden wagon.

David Orton holding a large cauliflower in his gardenI have always gardened organically, using no biocides or chemical fertilizers or even so-called biological pesticides. I rotate the crops and move the potatoes, carrot and beets to different beds each year. Sometimes, despite doing this, one can lose a vegetable. This has happened with carrots, which by mid-summer can be quite wormy. The potato beetle I pick off the plants by hand. We have lots of slugs, but we co-exist. The only thinning I do is with the beet seedlings, which have to be spaced to grow to any size. When planting seeds, I usually water them with water from our pond, to give them a start. One has to keep up with the ‘weeding’ (a definition I have always liked is that weeds are merely plants out of place), otherwise the garden becomes overwhelmed. Strawberry beds seem to require continual attention in this regard. Sometimes “organic” methods do not work out. For example, when I buried seaweed gathered from the seashore to supposedly enrich the garden, it did not breakdown. However, the garter snakes seemed to appreciate the seaweed to deposit their eggs. I ended up removing the seaweed from the garden soil because it did not biodegrade fast enough.

By about May 25, if all has gone well, we have the great pleasure of eating the first salad from our garden – lettuce, spinach, radishes, and spring onions. These salad vegetables can tolerate frosts. Other “cold weather” crops like carrots, beets, potatoes, peas and broccoli, are planted when the winter frost goes out of the soil and it has warmed enough for the earthworms to appear. Depending on the frost situation (the last “spring” frost can sometimes hit as late as June 20th and the first “winter” frost can hit around early September), we eat from the garden until late September or mid-October. All the usual vegetables which we have found suitable for our location and which we like to eat, are grown. We have various berry bushes (gooseberries, black and red currents) and lots of wild blueberries; a big rhubarb bed looks after itself, and we like to have a couple of beds of strawberries each year. Some years I make jams.

I plant a lot of dill and parsley and freeze them to use with various fish dishes throughout the year. I have moved from “starting” plants indoors in various flats, to trying to plant as much as possible directly into the garden. This is much less work. Usually I start cucumbers, English marrow and zucchini in flats in our sunny porch as back-up plants, if these “warm weather” seeds planted directly in the garden do not germinate. I now buy a few tomato plants from the local nursery, although in the past I grew these from seeds in flats in the house. The major vegetable we grow is green beans, which are blanched before being frozen. They last us for most of the year. The further our garden beds are away from the house, the more losses there are to wildlife, especially rabbits. Sometimes, bears have had a stroll through the garden, as we could see by their large paw prints. Having a cat (sometimes we have had two), it becomes necessary to initially cover seeded areas with chicken wire, for seeds to germinate successfully without being dug over by the cats. When the plants are up sufficiently and start growing through the chicken wire, we remove it.

Some things did not work out. For example, the soil was too shallow for the fruit and nut trees; and corn, cantaloupes and peppers never grew to a good size because they needed more heat. We always had a nice crop of tomatoes, but it was usually a challenge to get some ripe ones before the frost. Mostly, we collected them green and ripened them inside.

FIREWOOD
Paying attention to firewood and fire is an important aspect of our life. It becomes crucial in winter, along with having a swept chimney to avoid a flue fire. Wood has to be seasoned for a year, that is, kept in the open in piles raised off the ground so that the water can evaporate from it. Dry wood has to be loaded into the basement in late summer, before the fall rains come. (Burning wet wood can create a build up of creosote in the chimney, plus there is less heat given out to warm the house.) We try to clean the flue every year. 

Building a fire

We get about seven cords of hardwood every two years. One of our neighbours delivers this wood for us which, although cut into stove length, I still have to split into smaller pieces in the basement. As the  wood seasons and dries, the bark comes off and we use it for starting the fire. Another source of kindling for the fire are alder branches. Periodically, we have to cut the alders down along our driveway to keep it open. Likewise, we cut alders from some of the trails and drag them with a rope back to the house.

PHYSICAL RESTRICTIONS
As one becomes older (I am now 77) and subject, as in my own situation, to quite severe hip arthritis, I am reduced to hobbling, rather than walking. For example, I now often dig the garden on my knees, rather than standing upright. I cannot put the sock on my left foot, so I adjust to going without socks in the house. What one can do physically, as the John Muir quote which introduces this essay points out, becomes restricted. But life itself remains a source of wonder. Because of where we live, Nature’s joys remain.

My capacity to walk in the woods has become curtailed. I no longer ski, snowshoe, cycle or sea kayak. Walking down the path for the mail in the winter in deep snow can become an event. Also, getting to the outhouse, if the path is icy or there is a storm, has to be factored into time considerations. My wife and partner Helga, who shares a similar basic world view, but who is twelve years younger and with many of her own interests, has come forward to take up a lot of the physical tasks which were formerly my main domain. 

Helga with a shotgun in her handShe now looks after bringing the winter wood indoors in the summer, cutting the trails and most of the snow shovelling. I still do the cooking, the dishes, the garden, wood splitting, and look after maintaining the fire in the winter. Helga, who has just retired as a nurse, does the laundry in town and nearly all of the grocery shopping. I can often see several weeks go by without going into town.

I have tried to minimize interventions with Canada’s basically excellent public health care system. Up to now, I have not taken any medications. I have a belief that one’s physical pain can help with empathy towards others who are suffering from pain. Also, I believe that as one ages, physical pain is a part of living, and that one needs to accept this. Each of us has to take responsibility, to a large extent, for our own health. This means eating properly (as well as one can afford), and being physically active. However, recently I had to access the health care system. On March 3rd, after feeling nauseous for about ten days, losing weight, and with some other symptoms, including yellowing skin colour, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I may now have to make use of our health system for palliative care.

Sitting at the computerPHILOSOPHY AND CONCLUSION
For quite a number of years now I have understood, through deep ecology, that coming into a profoundly different relationship with the natural world is primary for humans, if we are to overthrow the ecological and social destructiveness of industrial capitalist society. This shift in consciousness is in part spiritual. It would mean moving totally away from our society’s assumption of human dominance over other species, as well as greatly scaling down human demands on the natural world and living much more simply and self sufficiently. (Social justice for all humans, along with population reductions, and ending industrial capitalism, are a necessary part of the larger picture.)

I don’t want to elevate my individual experience above others. Many older people have similar relationships to the land, but we all have to move more in this direction.  I have tried to show what a low consumption lifestyle, and living surrounded by the wonders of the natural world, has meant for me personally and for my family. I also wanted to show how we handled some of the inevitable contradictions which we faced in trying to live in a different way. Although not discussed here, I have drawn from this practical experience in struggling publicly on wildlife and forest/biocide issues in Nova Scotia. The most recent example of this being the article “Wildlife Hysteria: Nova Scotia’s War on Coyotes”.

For the Earth, David

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