by Sean Butler
I RECENTLY reread some old journals of mine (yes, I used to journal, not so much because I considered my existence worthy of recording its mundane details for posterity, but because it helped me process a life I was still trying to figure out), dating from a period about 15 years ago. I was in my early thirties, living in a series of shared houses in and around Wakefield, and enmeshed in the local service economy – working first at the now defunct restaurant, Chez Eric’s, and later at the Black Sheep, Wakefield’s famous tavern/live music venue.
Looking back at that time now – an age before parenthood, my farm business, and a marriage that has come and gone – it seems like another life.
One of the most striking things about this prior incarnation is the sheer volume of socializing I engaged in. I consider myself, like any writerly person, to be moderately introverted, yet the record betrays an almost constant parade of parties, after-parties, morning-after-parties-brunches, hang-outs, dinners, bonfires, potlucks, birthday parties, impromptu jam sessions, and other interpersonal variations in a shifting cast of characters circulating in the youthful underbelly of Wakefield. I remember thinking at the time, after a particularly gratifying run of social engagements, that Wakefield might even be turning me into an extrovert.
We also walked a lot. My journals detail a surprising amount of perambulation: aimless, consuming half the day, in small groups, full of discoveries, occasional naked sunbathing, and punctuated by swims in season. I lived for several years with no car, and little money, so exploring my immediate surroundings by foot was an affordable and accessible excursion. A favourite walk was to go up the hill at Rockhurst, cross the 105, continue up Brown’s Lake road, and into the Gatineau Park and on to Brown’s Lake itself. It always amazed me how you could then hike along a narrow path by the shore and find a beautiful rocky swim spot all to yourself, just a short distance from civilization. What sort of paradise was this, where even a proletariat like myself had access to some of the best waterfront property around?
I recall one occasion, while walking up the twisting Rockhurst road, when an unfriendly driver, apparently discombobulated by how much space our small group was taking up on the road, shook his fist at us and shouted in passing, “I pay taxes here!” In retrospect, there was probably an element of jealousy for our seemingly simple, carefree lives enflaming his burst of anger in our direction. Had we had more than a moment to interact, we could have told him how sorry we were for him that he had to pay taxes, and a mortgage, and work all the time, and be in a hurry, and drive all alone instead of walk with friends on this beautiful summer’s day. We could have offered him some lemonade from our thermoses, and invited him to come for a swim at Club Brown’s Lake.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but this experience was a harbinger of what was to come. That walk to Brown’s Lake was later cut off by the extension of highway 5. That unhappy taxpayer’s automobile won out in the end over us walkers, as it has repeatedly for the last 100 years. We run around our hamster wheels, earning money to pay for our cars, which we need to get to work, to pay taxes to build more roads for more cars, which are needed to get to increasingly far-flung and spacious houses, which require more work to pay for. I personally know of several former paths, campsites and public swim spots, all free, that have been lost in the past 15 years to development. It’s just the latest encroachment of what has been a centuries-long process of taking all that was once free and communal and subsuming it into the economy, privatizing and monetizing it. And so goes what we call progress.
I DON’T want to romanticize that time. My journals also record a fair amount angst-ridden confusion about my direction and purpose in life. While there may have been moments when I was able to live like the lilies of the fields, I am as much a product of our achievement-oriented society as anyone, and my apparent lack of accumulating anything other than a collection of interesting experiences, at a time in my life when others my age were amassing material wealth and status distinction, weighed on my ego. My unsettled existence, moving from home to home, job to job, girlfriend to girlfriend, was also quite literally unsettling. I yearned for something I could really dig my teeth into, a project I could start building up over a longer time period than a year or two. Something to commit to.
The goal I had had in life since I was a teenager – being some sort of artist (writing, music, and filmmaking all contending for dominance) – was faltering during this period. When I lived in Vancouver and Toronto during my twenties, and had to work harder just to afford life, I always had the excuse that I didn’t have enough time to pursue art to the degree necessary for success. But now I was working a mere three nights a week at the Black Sheep, which easily paid my modest country expenses, and whole days stretched uninterrupted before me to dive into the seas of creativity that I suspected churned just beneath the surface of my awareness.
And yet, I did next to nothing artistic. I preferred to walk, or swim, or canoe camp, or read, or watch movies, or cook, or write letters, or garden, or chase girls, or improvise on my guitar and mandolin, or do all that aforementioned socializing. I realized I didn’t have the willpower to force myself to work on art – a work with such uncertain payoff. Brenda Rooney, that high priestess of theatre and filmmaking in Wakefield, once gave me the sage advice that if you don’t feel like art is something you have to do, then by all means don’t do it; it’s a hard life. I suppose, while I felt drawn to artistic expression as in interesting pastime – a better use of one’s time than most things – it was still work, and simply enjoying life in the present moment held more appeal. My life had been too easy, perhaps, I had not suffered enough, and consequentially I had no burning passion to express.
I also questioned what the point of art was, and I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. It seemed to me at that time like an indulgence, peripheral to the fundamental necessities of life. Was I to fiddle while Rome burns? Cast free from my moorings to the world of art, I drifted in search of some other ideal to devote my life to.
I had always liked gardening and good food. My dad had instilled a love of food in me from countless restaurant and home cooked meals growing up, and an anarchist/free-schooler/community organizer/independent scholar/activist/sports writer named Matt Hern, whom I was lucky enough to share a house with for a year in Vancouver, infected me with the gardening bug in my early twenties. As I abandoned my dreams of artistic glory, tarnished as they were with a sense of vain futility, the concrete and obvious utility of growing food caught my attention. While the world’s need for yet another song, book, or film was questionable at best, it was clear that we all needed to eat. Moreover, food was an interface between the natural world, which I loved, and human beings – a bridge still standing, albeit battered, in a civilization increasing stripped of such connections. Permaculture – the intentional design of ecosystems to better serve both human and other species’ needs – offered a powerful conceptual framework to undergird my pivot into growing food and regenerating the natural world, and I embraced it for a time with all the fervor of a new convert. I was firmly launched on my new path, which has carried me through to today.
LOOKING BACK at that time now, I can see both good and bad. I had more fun, but I was also, paradoxically, less happy. I lacked purpose, and flitted from one experience to the next with no clear point to it all – an ultimately unsatisfying way to live.
But life was very soon to grab hold of me and give me a purpose, in the form of a farm and a child, after which I was too busy serving that purpose to bother my head or scratch in my journal about existential questions. Existence got real, no question.
While it was immensely satisfying to get the chance to apply my ecological and horticultural passions on a real piece of land, and channel them into a functioning business model, all while engaging in the timeless joyful labour of bringing up a new human into the world, I literally went several years without experiencing that thing called “fun”. I clearly remember the moment when I first experienced it again, several years into my farm/kid adventure, at a neighbour’s dance party, a little high on edibles, surrounded by other sweaty, smiling people, all united in the shared, deep Fun of that moment.
After that, I did start having fun more regularly, yet to this day I still yearn for more. My business may be mature – it seems to have found its form and is supporting itself without me having to think about it too much – and my son, at ten years old, is certainly growing up fast. But my life is still governed by to-do lists and responsibilities to a greater degree than I would prefer. To be clear, I do enjoy having things to do, it helps give structure and grounding to my life; it would just be nice if there were a bit less of them.
One way to have more fun is to be more social, and in this I continue to struggle in a way that I think is familiar to anyone with jobs and young kids. But my life of 15 years ago is a reminder of what it was like to feel a part of a tightly-knit friend network, and something to aspire towards again.
My previous life, remembered on the pages of my old journals, is also a reminder to slow down, work less, and enjoy the many things in life that are still free. It is all too easy to get caught up in the striving for material possessions, a nice house, vacations abroad, and everything that signifies to yourself and others that you are “successful”. Whatever financial goals you reach, you always seem to need more. But real success is happiness, and happiness is a complex mixture of obligations and enjoyments, but rarely hinges on material wealth, at least beyond an amount that meets basic needs.
Ironically, I have now come to a point in my life where I think I could be much happier with the sort of life I had 15 years ago. It is said that youth is wasted on the young, and that couldn’t be more true. Back then, when I was nagged by the need to “prove myself”, I couldn’t fully enjoy all the pleasures that life consistently offered me. I was seized with the search for a mission in life, something I could do to help “save” the world. Having rejected art as insufficiently powerful, I turned to agriculture. I entered farming with the naively overconfident goal of helping to inspire change in a system that is arguably the most destructive thing that humans do to the planet, and yet holds the most potential for being our greatest gift to our shared ecosystem. Several years of seeing some of my best efforts of growing successful crops in unconventional ways fail quickly humbled my ambitions, and showed me that I still had a lot to learn before I could set any kind of positive example for others to emulate (my belief in permaculture, with its overly complex ideals, was a casualty of this period).
And yet I did manage to forge a financially viable farm business – no mean feat – that provides healthy and delicious food to my community and is, at least, doing no harm to the wild plants and animals we share our farm with. We have even taken small steps, such as planting hedgerows with native trees, to improve upon the flourishing of life in our immediate environment. Modest goals, consistently implemented, is probably the best most of us can achieve – a reality not yet internalized by our younger beings with their exaggerated sense of selves. But it is a good thing that the young have inflated goals – it is their ambition that helps improve things from one generation to the next. Strive high, fail, reassess, and hit achievable targets – that is a playbook none of us should be ashamed to follow.
So having now realized that I’m probably not going to be able to do more than help save the world just a little bit, I am much more willing to accept that life is largely about the other side of the equation: savouring the world. And here I can relearn from my early-thirties self: work less, take long walks with friends more. Turn off your phone and go outside. If we just followed that simple advice, a whole lot of psychologists would need to find other work.
Interestingly, an appreciation for art has returned to me. There was a time when I’d only give my limited reading time to serious non-fiction – I needed to know about Important Things in order to change them. Now I give about equal time to novels; I even dabble in poetry. I have not yet picked up my guitar and mandolin again, but I feel that time is coming. I am, obviously, writing again. If the main purpose of life is to savour it, which I think is true, and art represents one of humanity’s unique and greatest inventions for savouring life in all its complexity, then art really is as important as good food. Cuisine, in fact, is art. I thought I was abandoning art to pursue food, when really food, grown and prepared with a passion for both its life-giving and life-enjoying capabilities, is just another form of art.
So my goal now, and perhaps this is a goal we can all strive for, is to try to integrate the best parts of my younger and older selves. Take the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures from the younger me, and combine that with the purposefulness and humility and self-acceptance of the older me. It’s all still in there, I know it. Those pages on my journals prove it.