A Walk in the Rain…and why no fences make good neighbours

A late October walk in the rain and the leaves, but for a few hangers on, make for a glistening, vibrant carpet on the paths through the fields and woods that separate my farm from the Lambtons.  The Lambton farm has a rich history.  A historic log house set near a creek ,where paths meander through fields to a lake in one direction, and through the woods, into a glen and down past another creek, to the fields where I live. The story of the paths that join the Lambton property to mine, is an interesting tale in and of itself, but this story is the story of my friend and neighbour, Hilary Jocelyn.

Hilary and I are relatively new imports to these ancient hills. I have lived here for 19 years and Hilary has lived here for 6. We have a long way to go before being considered locals, but we feel as deeply rooted as many of our born in the hills neighbours.

I first met Hilary and her husband, Renny, when visiting my octogenarian neighbours, Gunda and Bill Lambton, Renny’s parents and Hilary’s in-laws. Years later when Gunda and Bill moved to Wakefield, Hilary and Renny took over the farm, bringing new light and energy and fitting in perfectly!

Hilary and I quickly discovered we shared a passion for nature and the stillness of the woods.  Neither wind nor rain, nor sleet (well, maybe sleet) nor blizzard deters us from connecting and walking the well-trod trails in and around our farms, which we try and do as often as possible. Two hours on the trails is a wonderful departure for me on what are always busy weekends, For Hilary, it is just a beginning, as no matter where we are, she goes further and will cover miles walking, running, snow-shoeing or skiing! Energy thy name is Hilary!

While a solitary walk is a magical thing, as one’s senses are totally attuned to one’s surroundings offering both physical and spiritual enrichment, a walk with a friend is an experience of another kind, as you share companionship, laughter, occasional tears and always the changing beauty of your surroundings.  Each walk is a discovery. On our woodland meanderings with canine companions, Robbie and Rio, darting to and fro, Hilary and I have shared many old and new stories, and happily echo the sentiment of New England poet. Robert Frost, whose poem, Mending Wall, suggests no fences make good neighbours.

Recently, walking through the woods on a rainy October afternoon, I mentioned to Hilary that I was writing for a Wakefield blog. I asked her if I could share the story of what led her to the Gatineau Hills and could she provide me with some specifics of her journey that I may not be as familiar with. Being Hilary, and a story-teller and writer in her own right, she provided me with more than a few jottings. She recounted a lovely and detailed story, one which I feel is best told in her own voice.  It gives me pleasure to share with you, in her own words, the story of how Hilary came to be my neighbour…

I was remembering that the first time I heard about this area of the world was when Renny and I had just moved in together to our first apartment in my hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Gunda, my mother-in-law came to visit. Somewhat insensitive to my deep-rooted Scottish sensibilities, she began to tell Renny that she hoped he would take over the farm when she and Bill could no longer manage it. I was incensed because I had no intention of ever moving to Canada and certainly no intention of ever living in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Ha-ha! Life plays jokes on you doesn’t it!

I certainly didn’t leave Scotland easily as I was very connected to the landscape and the people in it. I was raised in Edinburgh and have deep love for the place, even though growing up was not all that easy. I spent a lot of time as a kid hiking with my dad, who was a difficult man, but it was something we shared, and I am truly grateful that he gave me that gift. Together we explored the mountain tops of Glencoe, Loch Lomond, the Cairngorms and our local Pentland Hills. I spent a lot of time as a teen and young adult on the beautiful Scottish island of Iona where I worked at a summer camp, the local hotel and the local shop. The island way of life meant a lot to me and I was to return as a young adult to live and work on the neighbouring island of Mull at an adventure camp for youth at risk who came from inner city areas where even in Scotland they had never seen a sheep!

Scottish mist

My interest in social work also began when I was young. My Mum was quite involved in the Scottish labour party and as a young kid I used to go door to door with her handing out leaflets.  I remember getting doors shut in our faces quite often! My dad volunteered in a homeless shelter once in a while and I have an enduring memory of the night he ended up bringing some of the men back to our house because the shelter was full – which made for an interesting breakfast the next morning and taught me to want to  be open and accepting and not to judge people before you know who they are. 

I ended up moving to Glasgow and lived and worked in a house for homeless women barred from shelters because of their mental health issues. My job was to go around the streets and talk to the women living in doorways and under bridges and invite them to come to the house.  With some of these women, I learned more colourfully explicit and creatively graphic ways of swearing than I have heard anywhere since – even from the toughest men from gangs and prisons!

I had lots more adventures in Scotland including one or two in the romance department, but I fell for a young Canadian man who I met one day as I was moving out of a large shared apartment in Edinburgh and he was moving in. We hit it off and after a few months moved in together and lived for three years in a very poor area of Edinburgh where we had lots of adventures, and I happily ignored his increasing homesickness for his beloved Canada. Eventually I came to realise that this wouldn’t go away and so I agreed to go and visit.

I was surprised and delighted by the vibrancy, the diversity, colours and street life in Montreal and then the huge expanses of landscape as we drove to Wakefield. I found the presence of trees quite overwhelming and at the beginning would call them green blobs. I was used to being able to see wide open vistas and the shapes of the hills. It was only later that I learned to love the bush and now I am at my happiest and most peaceful being out in the woods with my dog, merging with the forest life around me.  

After that inaugural visit, I agreed to come and try our life in Canada and to see if I might like it.  We lived in Montreal and over the next few years we had a baby and then another and then another – all girls!  Canada had won me over.

Hilary and Renny in the Gatineau Hills

After three years in Montreal we moved to Ottawa and lived in a great housing co-op for 7 years. I worked for an organisation that worked with homeless people with mental health difficulties. I saw lots, felt lots, tried lots and certainly cried lots!   I’ve since spent most of my working life in this domain.

We left Ottawa and bought a house in Aylmer – one step closer to the Hills! We spent a happy 17 years there where we raised our kids, enjoyed our neighbours and the good community around us. It was a great place to raise teens as they had a lot of freedom and independence and could walk to school, soccer practices and to their friend’s houses. We lived in the old part of the town, a short walk to the marina, and I discovered a lovely wooded path near our house to go and run and walk the dog each day.

We visited Renny’s parents regularly and so the old farmhouse in the woods became a familiar place where we would ski in the winter, pick apples in the fall, swim in the summer, and pick daffodils in the spring. My mother-in-law was very talkative and so I would always get out of the car at the turning of the road when we arrived and walk down the laneway, preparing myself mentally for my time with her. More importantly, I would notice the quiet and the beauty of the trees and relish the silence.

I have always loved mountains and I discovered the Adirondack mountains- a mere 3 hrs drive away- before the US was such a challenging place to come to terms with. I began to explore them – sometimes with people from an outdoor club I belong to, but often alone. Slowly over the years I became a 46er which is someone who has climbed all 46 peaks over 4000 ft. I get itchy to go there every few months. I know the way by heart and come back as high as a kite before I crash from the exhaustion of hiking 10 hr days! I love that I can look across the range and know all the mountains by name!

Hiking in the Adirondacks

At some point the kids all left home to go to Montreal, which was just fine and dandy. My in-laws left the farm and moved into an apartment in Wakefield when they were well into their 90s. The farmhouse was empty then and looking quite run down and in need of some serious love and care. My partner was keen to take this on, but I was very, very sure that there was no way that I would move to the middle of nowhere far away from people and friends and community. So, the house was inhabited by a series of house sitters and short-term tenants.

Nevertheless, as a bit of a compromise, we decided to build a small cabin on the land so that we could come and enjoy the area when we wanted to. We took two weeks off work and went at it.  It was hard work and a whole lot of fun, as I had never built anything before. I used quite a few of those swear worlds I learned in Glasgow as I hit my thumb time and time again with a hammer. However, while we built it, I noticed something important. I liked it here. This place is special. I didn’t want to go back to Aylmer.

We met the neighbours, got invited to a few gatherings around a bonfire, attended a few community events and I soon realised that out here in the hills the community is vibrant and alive and well. I realised that I wanted to be a part of it. The next time Renny talked about what to do with the house I suggested that we move into it and give it the love and care that it needed.

That was six years ago, and I don’t regret my decision one bit. Life is a series of adventures and there are hopefully many other ones ahead.  I have discovered that I love to grow food in the garden which makes me very happy. So has the wonderful community of neighbours and beyond that we have come to know and who fill our lives and enrich our days. It’s lovely as well to see our kids and now our grand-kids visit and lay down new memories as they too experience the pleasures of life in the hills.

As Scotland’s national bard, Robbie Burns, wisely said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. To which, Robert Frost, might aptly have replied, “and that made all the difference.”