Twenty-five years ago I bought a small cabin in a woods on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. I paid a mere $4,000 for it, since it was a hundred yards off the lake, and since it was primitive, with an outhouse, a band-pump for water, etc.
It wasn’t conveniences I was after, however, and I loved the place from the beginning. What I wanted was a close-to-nature experience for several weeks each summer, and occasionally in the “off-seasons” too. I loved the natural sounds and silences of Bruce Beach, the wind in the trees, the waves pounding on the shore in a storm, the birds singing in the morning, the trill of cicadas on a hot August afternoon.
I also loved the nights. They were sometimes so silent and dark that my view of the sky must have been what my great-great ancestors enjoyed. On moonless nights, the Milky Way was so distinct as to light my path. Once or twice a summer, I could count on a display of Northern Lights that left me feeling blessed, in a way.
In a quarter-century, however, civilization has slowly crept in around my retreat in Canada. The snowmobiling craze in the early 1970s marked the end of my enjoyment of the cabin in winter. Before the snowmobiles, I would take a week of solitude in the snow, after the lake had frozen. Then the silence of a snowswept day was a special pleasure, but now it became a rare moment when there wasn’t at least a whining buzz in the distance.
At first I tried to fight the snowmobilers, for they were fond of my primitive road. They consistently snipped a wire fence a few yards down from me in order to pass freely to the property on the other side, which linked them back to the county road. A once quiet winter afternoon became more and more often like a noisy racetrack. Soon I stopped going to Canada in the winter.
Over the years, the qualities I loved about Bruce Beach began to deteriorate in the summer, too. Recreational property skyrocketed in value in the 1980s, and the quaint and modest cottages along the shoreline began slowly coming down, with large showcase second homes going up in their places. And with such homes, to be sure, came powerboats and other motorized water vehicles, which took over the silence of the lake on calm days.
Improvement became the major preoccupation of the new generation of cottage owners. Picturesque roads were upgraded, sometimes even paved. Residents began to sod and mow their grounds instead of letting them grow wild, as everyone was doing when I first bought my cabin.
As sure as death and higher taxes, all remaining wild spaces began to get “developed.” In time, it was inevitable that someone would buy the little woods adjoining my lot, on which they built their grand summer home, three stories high, so from the top deck they could see over the trees’ to the lake. Fortunately they left some woods in between us, although my outhouse might have had something to do with their remote choice of building site.
My new next-door neighbors weren’t of the worst sort. They loved their privacy, too, and immediately put up “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs on their place and in the woods and along the road that joined our properties. In that sense, they reduced the traffic of off-road vehicles, which were the new rage of the kids coming up.
But, as is so common for modern city-dwellers, they owned a big dog that barked all the time. And the man of the house was in love with power tools. It was a rare minute during the day, even Sunday morning when I didn’t hear wafting through the woods between us, no longer the songs of birds or wind in the trees, but a lawn mower, a drill, a hedge trimmer, a power saw. And, as so many of their fellow beachers had already done before them, they installed a gross dusk-to-dawn floodlight that greatly diminished the view of the more subtle lights in the heavens.
In such ways important to me, my privacy had been violated. But how to display a “Keep Out” sign against all of these superfluous floodlights—that trick I have not discovered. And where they make the “No Trespassing” sign that protects my ears from the irritation of constant motor noise—that manufacturer I have not found.
Sometimes I tried to adjust to my neighbor’s ways by reminding myself how even richer the silence would be, how much deeper the darkness, when he finally turned his motor off or gave his night light a rest. And to a certain extent that trick worked.
Nonetheless, the reality slowly came home to me: no place exists anymore where silence and darkness hold an endearing value to very many of one’s neighbors. They were blisses of the past now.
At the end of last summer, I had my Canadian property appraised, thinking the best days for me were over there. The lot itself was worth $60,000, maybe $70,000, the real estate agent told me. The cabin itself was worthless. But I already figured that.