These cooler temperatures relieve me. I am glad to see the back end of summer. Summer is the season of noise. Residential neighbourhoods sound like industrial parks during the dog days. I am surrounded by the deafening sound of lawnmowers that peak at about 100 decibels. And it’s not just one lawnmower, it’s one lawnmower after another and another. A typical rock band issues only 10 more decibels in comparison to the lawnmower –but don’t worry, we still get to hear the backyard neighbour’s poor taste in music.
Even the clamor of blackbirds fighting for sunflower seeds prompted me to put away the birdfeeders for a time. Recently a walk in the bush with a dear friend was not without reminders of the ‘urban’ life as her Apple watch beeped and chimed every new email, facebook message and calendar reminder. Even at home, all day and night, there is the distraction of pets clicking across the floor, phones and computers ringing with updates, regular living noises –flushing toilets, someone’s phone conversation, the dinging of the microwave, and God forbid, unexpected company showing up on the doorstep –I work from home.
At times I feel a sense of dread that quiet will elude me for the rest of my days.
There is a Mesopotamian creation myth that tells of the freshwater deity, Apsu, who becomes so overwhelmed by the ruckus and noise created by his offspring that he conspired to kill them. Things ended badly for Apsu but when it comes to boisterous neighbours, incessant barking dogs and the commotion of our own loved ones, let’s admit it, we can all relate to Apsu once in a while.
If you ever have the honour, when you venture onto Dan Knox’s land west of Sault Ste. Marie, it may take a moment to register the absence of manmade noise. But for the occasional buzz of an airplane overhead, unless Dan is at work on one of his many projects, the only sounds that fill the air are natural ones- the wind through the grass, a ‘baaaa-rrrrack’ from a raven, a sighing whistle from a cedar waxwing, the ‘chip’ of a squirrel and at this time of the year, the descent of autumn leaves as they flutter through the trees to the forest floor.
While the property provided practical uses for his business, Tree Men & a Chainsaw, Dan and his wife, Leslie, acquired the 220 acre parcel with a vision of creating a place for their family to develop a relationship with the land.
“We thought it would be a good spot to teach our grandchildren about caring for the forest and what is in it. The plan was to access the property on horseback. Leslie really wanted a couple of horses. We were even taking horse riding lessons and I built a bay for the day we’d eventually buy our own.”
It’s a sunny and fresh morning. The leaves are late and just starting to show some colour. Dan is at the wheel of his big, black F-250 Ford. We cross onto the rural landscape of town and he takes a long draw on his Du Maurier. We’re headed to the Hobbit House and Leslie Park.
“About three and a half years ago we thought it would be nice to add a water feature on the property. We have a creek but wanted to enhance the
property. Leslie wanted to put in a pond. So that’s what we did.”
The couple delighted in their three main priorities in life: taking care of the family, working hard and playing just as hard. Playing often meant renovating and improving their property. Upon purchasing the land, Dan received approval from the provincial government for his 10 year Forest Management Plan. The program provides a tax break for property owners possessing 10 acres of forest.
The criteria for acceptance into the program provides that: plans are sustainable while providing a balance of social, economic and environmental values; are prepared by a registered professional forester with input from local citizens, Aboriginal communities, stakeholders and the public; determine how much/where harvesting can occur, where roads can be built and how much forest will be renewed; and include opportunities for public involvement.
“The animals on the property are so cool. We have often seen moose, wolves, bears, lynx, mink, deer rabbits, bald eagles, falcons and even buzzards,” listed Dan. “My long term goal is to turn this into a park- with as little development as possible.”
When we reach the road leading to Dan’s place he stops the truck to let out his smiling Doberman, Jango, who runs ahead and leads us to the main house. When we arrive, the silence is refreshing and I am surprised when Dan pulls out two four wheelers that will take us into the heart of his property.
“I’d have preferred the horses but I don’t have an interest in horses anymore.” That’s all he needs to say.
On December 17th, 2012, Leslie, the love of Dan’s life, quite unexpectedly, passed away. “She was a most wonderful woman. She really could do anything. She did it all. She could even climb a tree as good as any man.”
He speaks of her often. He thinks about her constantly.
We set out on the ATV’s and Dan leads us about half a mile into his property, to the spot where family and close friends gather- to have a good time, and to also celebrate Leslie’s life. It’s also the place where Dan goes when he is seeking time alone.
We drive across an open field towards the enchanting place envisioned by Dan. Tucked into the south corner of his property is a tiny oasis complete with the pond that Dan and Leslie created together in the months before her passing.
Since then Dan has further developed the area building a picture perfect Hobbit House and all around the pond, terraced seating is formed by sand, earth and peat moss and is covered with sod to keep the structure’s shape and with clover to minimize maintenance. Everywhere are reminders of Leslie including a memory bench embossed with a loving and frustrated endearment from Dan: “Not fucking long enough.”
Completed one year ago, the 10’ by 10’ Hobbit House is a cozy fit for Dan who stands at 6’3” and whose breadth is an impressive 22” across. The dwelling is equipped with just the essentials but is not without its comforts. The feature piece in the space is the Cowboy kitchen complete with table, benches and storage and it all folds tidily away to make room for the hide away double bed -decked out in adorable moose sheets, that is tucked into the opposite wall.
During the summer the sod, which encloses the north and south walls and roof of the home, keeps the abode cool. And in the colder months, the dwelling is heated by a Mennonite wood/cook stove, the smoke curling up the chimney that rises out of the grassy roof. The refrigerator is a deep cupboard, set into the earth and kept cool by the natural elements or in warmer seasons, chilled by a cooler full of ice.
In the corner of the room is a refurbished chair and a table that serves as Dan’s reading spot –a favoured activity while he is there.
The floor has been laid with Italian tile, and the north and south end walls are formed with one foot of concrete while the east and west walls are constructed with cedar and pine. Double glass doors on both the east and west end of the dwelling allow a natural and soft light to pour into the space.
From the front entrance Dan’s view is an open sand field that he hopes to cover with natural growth. His back viewscape is of the pond and to the north, a pump house that will eventually host a flush toilet to compliment his ‘sugar shack’ option out back.
As Dan tours me about the grounds the grass rustles –it is the only sound.
“We’re half a mile from the road. Nobody is going to bother anybody here.’ Dan is surveying his expanse of property.
True enough. Even though Dan is still technically within city limits the location feels remote. And what Dan doesn’t have to contend with is flimsy noise ordinance by-laws that provide much leeway to the noisemaker.
“It’s like my own little kingdom and I like that.” Dan chuckles.
In the City of Sault Ste. Marie noise prohibitions are pretty antiquated forbidding the ringing of bells, sounding of horns, unusual noise (?) and noise likely to disturb inhabitants. There are a few exemptions to the law including “a newsboy, peddler, hawker or petty tradesman plying his calling legitimately and moderately”.
Phew! Guess I can still pull out my donkey and cart of clocks and handmade soap wares on Saturdays!
In our modern culture, silence is not golden. When one considers that silence is often used as a ‘treatment’ or a form of punishment it is easy to understand how the absence of noise and at the very least, no chatter, could be a negative. In a world full of distraction being alone with our thoughts has become a terrifying notion and not the least bit difficult to avoid.
Italian psychiatrist, Piero Ferrucci, believes that silent contemplation is a human necessity. He compares it to the necessity of “going to the bathroom”. “But we deny this basic, physiological need,” he says. “As if the entire society were to forget to go to the bathroom. That’s serious!”
As far back as 1948, long before today’s electronic, industrialized and motorized cacophony, Max Picard – German Swiss Catholic theologian and philosopher, offers the world his impressions on the role of silence and balance in human life.
And perhaps most importantly, Picard encourages us to seek out silence and to indeed find it within ourselves:
“Silence reveals itself in a thousand inexpressible forms: in the quiet of dawn, in the noiseless aspiration of trees towards the sky, in the stealthy descent of night, in the silent changing of the seasons, in the falling moonlight, trickling down into the night like a rain of silence, but above all in the silence of the inward soul.”
Dan has been quietly standing on the edge of the pond for a few minutes as I fumble around with my camera. His hands are jammed deep into his pockets when I hear him say, “I like the quiet. This is the only place now that I feel much at peace.”
He stands a moment longer, gazing across the water at Leslie’s memorial site. He turns around and grins.
“Are you ready for another ride?”
We rev up the ATV’s, tearing up the silence and it’s good.