Saturday, January 15, 2005

Leaving Home

Leaving Home

Well, the day I have dreaded for the past eighteen years has finally arrived: my son is off to college. I am very proud of him, of course, and I’m sure he’ll do well, but the college he has chosen is in another city, and any way I look at it, he is leaving home.
I’m going to miss him terribly.
It’s hard to believe that this tall, thin, dark-haired, deep-voiced young man who is now packing his bags in his bedroom is the same person who, just a few years ago, was a small boy who used to hunker down in the vegetable garden with me and ask me all those serious questions about radishes and ladybugs. This young man, who is now well on his way to becoming an accomplished musician, and whose girlfriend struggles to fight back tears as she talks about how important it is they stay in touch during the coming months, used to fit into the crock of my arm where he would lie and giggle as I carried him around like a football. I find it all so amazing. How did he change so much, while I hardly changed at all?
As I watch him pack up his guitars and amplifiers, and dismantle the futon and cram books into boxes, I find myself thinking about the last time we went camping in Algonquin together. Was he really only fourteen years old then? I remember thinking how strong he was, and how willingly he put up with the rain and the bugs, the sand in the food and the heat of the portages. All that seems so remote now. Back then I was always there to pick him up and dust him off when he fell. Back then I could tell him to be careful of slippery rocks and low-hanging branches; I could watch out for him. Who’s going to look out for him now?
I want to give him some advice about going out into the world – something I haven’t already told him during all those talks of the last 18 years. But what? Eat well, get plenty of rest, don’t drink, don’t do drugs, work hard at school, respect yourself. I feel there are so many things I haven’t told him yet. I should have told him not to be too trusting, and yet not to be too distant from people; I should have shown him more of the world so he would have a better sense of who he is. I guess he will have to discover these things for himself. I regret the angry words I have spoken in haste over the years, the missed opportunities to look at family pictures, the times I brought work home instead of reading a book or watching a movie with him. I wonder if he will be all right.
What I really want to say is “be safe.” And in my heart I want to say that the best way for him to be safe is to stay home.
But of course I can’t say that. I can’t hold him back from going out into the world, a world which has much beauty and delight in it, but which also has so much heartache and sorrow. Even if he did stay home, I can’t protect him from all that. All I can hope is that I have done my bit to prepare him as best I can. The time has come to let him go, I suppose, and then spend the rest of my life with my fingers crossed.
What I can do is do his laundry for him before he leaves, something I always insisted he do for himself so he would know how when the day came to move out – the day which is now here. I can iron his shirts for him so he will look nice as he heads out, and I can wash his sheets so he will have a clean bed waiting for him when he comes home for visits. I can pack a couple of boxes of food so he will have something to eat, and I can make sure he always has enough money for the train home.
But beyond that, I don’t suppose there is much more for me to do except hug him, wish him luck, tell him I love him, and then hang on tight to those memories as I let him go.

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise
There is trouble brewing in cottage country between those who think nature should be appreciated without being disturbing, and those who think it should be exploited for fun. And before I go any further, let me make it clear that I count myself firmly among the former. Having just returned from spending several days in the northern part of Algonquin Park, followed by a week at a cottage just south of the park, I am keenly aware of the differences in attitude towards nature among the members of the two camps.
Campers and cottage dwellers who travel through the region in canoes and kayaks – or on foot on the many hiking trails – do so quietly. They are able to experience the extraordinary silences of the wilderness, and if they’re fortunate, they may be privileged to spot moose, deer, bears, and a variety of wonderful birds, in their natural habitat. There is something awe-inspiring about paddling silently through the early morning mist of a marshy inlet to spot a moose standing chest deep in the water, feeding on the water plants, moving slowly through the shallows. And there is something both wonderful and humbling in seeing the bulk of a black bear moving through the wild raspberry bushes along a portage trail.
And of course there are the loons. Those incredible, ancient birds with their haunting early morning calls to each other echoing through the stillness from lake to lake, a sound that has been heard in that part of the world for millions of years.
The natural wonders of central Ontario are so amazing because they are still there, in some cases in pristine conditions. There are still a few lakes where the fish are abundant, where the water is drinkable, and where there is still the silence of the wilderness.
But perhaps the silence is a little frightening for some people, because there are certainly many who do everything they can to keep it at bay. Over the years, there has been an alarming increase in the use of motorized vehicles in cottage country, from SUVs thundering up and down the highways or over narrow forest access roads and ATVs tearing trails through the bush, to powerboats and smaller personal watercrafts roaring up and down the lakes, almost invariably accompanied by raucous music.
This summer, as every summer, stories abound about the destruction inflicted by these machines on the environment and the animals, and every summer the problem just seems to get worse. Sitting on a dock early one morning, cup of coffee in hand, watching a family of loons fishing for breakfast, I was stunned to observe one powerboat after another come tearing up the lake, to circle the loons while the people on board took pictures. The loons bobbed helplessly in the wake, their fishing disrupted until the boats left them alone. Had the boats been driven by teens, I suppose it might be possible to excuse the behaviour as a lack of understanding about nature, but these were adults taking their kids out for a ride, setting the worst possible example. During much of the rest of the day, powerboats sped up and down the lake, variously towing people on water skis or on any number of inflatable devices. The fact that the noise and pollution was a problem for so many other people on the lake was clearly of no concern to the boaters.
A story came from another peaceful cottager of having seen a length of shoreline being destroyed to make way for a huge, multi-level new “cottage”. While workers completed construction of the building, the owner spent his time driving his Hummer through the hills behind, tearing out small trees and destroying wildlife habitat. Unbelievable.
When asked to stop the destructive and irresponsible use of powered vehicles in such a fragile eco-system, the people using the equipment will say they have as much right to have fun in the great Canadian outdoors as anybody else. And perhaps legally they do. But this is not an issue about legal rights, but about moral obligations. The Victorian notion that the outdoors is a playground for people to use as they please is not only out of date, it is irresponsible. Nature is not something to be abused, but something to be kept in trust. Responsibility and respect cannot be legislated; we have to acquire these attributes on our own; we owe it to future generations.
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