Wilderness living and string theory

Stoking up the woodstove every morning and making the first trip to the outhouse in the chilly dark, hunched over in my winter jacket, with only the dim glow of the first snow as light - it won't take long anymore.

Stoking up the woodstove every morning and making the first trip to the outhouse in the chilly dark, hunched over in my winter jacket, with only the dim glow of the first snow as light – it won’t take long anymore. Two and a half months, and winter should be here.

As I stand in the greenhouse, clawed at by tomato tentacles, and struggle to tie up the laden branches, it’s a comforting thought. Snow, darkness, ice. Cold. A prelude to fall can already be felt in the mood of the land. Fried into oblivion by the hot and dry weather, some of the fireweed, poplars, willows and cottonwood have already started to change colour, letting yellow leaves sail away on wind gusts like so much confetti. Groups of loons have been yodelling at each other across the lake, echoed by the whirring of plump waxwings in the trees.

I carefully move the prickly leaf stalks of the zucchinis and squash around, hunt for more fruit to harvest. Slightly scary, the speed at which they grow. It’s too tight in here, I end up bruising leaves and stalks in my quest with the kitchen knife. Two more zucchinis ready to eat, a dozen or so little ones already crouched against the plant’s stem, about to explode in size when I’m not looking.

I should tie up the acorn squash a bit more, it’s almost impossible to fight my way through with the watering can. String, where’s more string? None in the greenhouse, none in the garden shed. None by the chicken coop. The plants are already clinging precariously to a motley collection of cut-off bailing twine, hemp rope ends and fencing wire, lolling about drunkenly, fertile, like passengers on a luxury cruise through Northern waters. Would you like another drink?

I pass among the green arms adorned with yellow and orange, stilling their thirst, keeping them in the belief that this artificial environment is what it’s really like up here. So nice and warm, yeah.

I take the two zucchinis and go out into the garden, where the carrots and onions are pushing up against the soil, out, and where the huge broccoli leaves and jungle of potato greens are overhung by bulging pea pods. Meals that formerly featured mushy canned veggies are now a non-stop extravaganza of fresh this, ripe that. I eat and eat, trying to keep up, hoarding the textures and flavours against the winter that’s coming, that will be here soon.

It makes me feel like a bear, like a squirrel – eating all I can, stashing away the surplus with an urgency that wasn’t there in July. I cheer it on, fall, the departure of birds, the metamorphosis of trees and grasses, the retreat of the sun. I’ve almost had it with the demands of the garden plants, their dependency on my care while their native cousins somehow make it through heat and drought without my watering can, without bailing twine.

Still nothing to be found that I can tie the plants up with. Something else for Sam’s shopping list: string. Although it’ll be a few more weeks until he comes home. Maybe I can cut up an old sheet into strips or rig something up with bits of chicken wire in the meantime. If I was into survival skills, I suppose I would just go and make some rope out of plant fibres. Old stringy poplar bark?

That’s all it is, life in the bush: a circular existence where you never get ahead. Forget the great achievements of a successful career and promotions, amassing retirement funds. That’s linear, like the string I’m missing. You start out at nil, work hard and accumulate things, so that when you’re old, you can stop working.

But out here, come spring, we’ll be exactly where we started out the spring before. The stacks of firewood depleted, our canned moose meat supply down past the half-way mark and a wild craving for fresh food in our bellies. Summer and fall are spent growing, collecting, buying and hunting the new supply of goods to make it through the next winter. I like that about winter, living off our labours for months on end. So what’s the deal with string theory – does it apply to life in the bush?

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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