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The Way We Live

The Orton house in the snow

We live on an old hill farm of about 130 acres which has reverted back to forest. There is about 30 acres on one side of the dirt road we live on, and 100 acres on the side where our house is located. The house is over 100 years old. It is fairly small but with four bedrooms. There is a half-dug basement where we keep the winter firewood and which also functions as a cold cellar.

We heat only by a wood stove, for which I split the wood in the basement, as we need it. In the past we have ordered in about seven cords of wood every couple of years. We have lots of downed wood on the land, and when we first moved here 23 years ago, I intended to have a horse and bring out the wood this way. But I had to decide where my main interests lay, and environmental work soon demanded all my time, so no horse.

We have a hand pump which works by gravity: there is no indoor plumbing. When the stove is burning there are always two kettles of water on top of it. There is no indoor toilet, but we have an outhouse about 30 yards from the door. In the winter the temperature does not usually go below -20ºC, except for a few winter nights.

The house is snug and well insulated, and unless there is a winter storm with high winds and low temperatures, the house remains warm. Our house is set back about 200 yards from the dirt road. Once the winter snow comes in, the car stays for several months at the bottom of the driveway by the road, and we must move the groceries and laundry up and down the driveway by sled.

Our own Walden Pond

A few years ago we had three ponds dug, one of them fed by springs as well as by a stream. We swim in this pond throughout the summer. Most summers there is not enough rain, and our fairly shallow well dries up. We have a spring in a swamp about 200 yards from the house, and often we must carrying water from it for about six weeks to two months. The soil here is thin and very rocky. If you walk around the place you come across large piles of rocks, which the original settlers must have gathered by hand to clear the fields.

For gardening (I am the gardener) we have raised beds, about 12 of them in all. We eat from the garden from June until the end of September, growing all the usual things. We also have red and black currents, gooseberries, raspberries, elderberries, strawberries and lots of wild blueberries. The soil for the beds comes from our own composting and a load of manure that sometimes comes in once a year, but mainly we take it from an alder swamp through which a small streams meanders. The silt brought down by the stream, which periodically overflows its banks, provides earth to “mine” for the garden. I bring it to the garden by wooden cart.

We also have a small barn where we keep the tools, bikes, cross country skis, snowshoes, and the two ocean kayaks which we use in the summer season. We carry the kayaks on top of the car—the nearest ocean is about half an hour by car. We love to kayak and this provides us with an opportunity to “escape” people, explore marine nature and enjoy viewing wildlife. We snowshoe and cross country ski throughout the winter, enjoying the woodland that surround us.

Walking trails through the woods

Our place is mainly wooded, some formerly cleared fields which have grown back in softwoods—balsam fir, spruce and larch. But there are some older woods, both hardwoods—birch, maple, beech, and some mixed woods. But the only really big trees that remain are on old boundary lines which were not cut because of their use as demarcation lines. From such trees one gets an idea of how the existing forest trees are really like match sticks compared to the old forest giants.

For the last several years I have been cutting trails through the woods using a bow saw and wood shears. (I have never wanted to use a chainsaw because of the noise.) These are walking trails so we can get around, particularly in heavy snow, and yet leave most of the woods unmolested for wildlife. At the back of our mind is also to bring the interested public to hike around our place and to use the opportunity to provide some education in basic green thinking.

We like it when there is a snowfall because all the animal tracks from non-hibernating animals are apparent in the snow. We have bobcat, deer, snowshoe hare, porcupine, coyote, fox, and black bear. Often at night we have a pack of coyotes howling fairly close to the house. In a large marsh just beside the house, marsh hawks or northern bitterns nest most years.

Periodically, beavers block the culvert under the road which the marsh drains. Every day, once the winter ice is gone, I have to unblock the culvert otherwise the dirt road washes out and the neighbours and Department of Transportation get upset and would want to trap out the beavers. I of course do not want this so my compromise is to undo the beavers’ overnight work. We have a border collie and a cat.

A long way from the industrial world

My life seems worlds away from working in the dockyard in industrial Portsmouth. It has been a really long road, with many twists and turns, from growing up in England to living as I do now. I am involved philosophically with the Deep Ecology movement, developing a theoretical branch that I have called “left biocentrism.” This is the left wing of the deep ecology movement, combining ecocentrism with social justice. This work links me through the Internet with activists and theorists around the world.

Helga, my partner, was born in Germany but raised in Brazil. She works part time as a nurse in the hospital in nearby Truro, about an hour by car from our place. She tries not to take any extra shifts in the worst winter months because of the driving, which is always a problem for everyone around here in the winter. Being on a backwoods dirt road, we are dependent on the snowplough to go by before we can drive out after a deep snowfall. The driving is the main thing Helga dislikes about winters in Nova Scotia, and she also finds some contradictions between her environmental beliefs and what she feels are the too-many unnecessary interventions at the hospital to prolong life when there is no hope for improvement.

I have my work, and I have an excellent relationship both with Helga and with daughter Karen. I also have an excellent relationship with Nature. These together are paradise for me, even if my low-consumption lifestyle would place me among the “poor” in the class-ridden eyes of many in the mainstream of today’s affluent Canadian consumer society.

About the Author

David Orton sitting in his kitchen in Saltsprings, New Brunswick, Canada

David Orton is a deep ecologist and writer who lives in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, in Canada’s eastern Maritimes. David founded the Left-Biocentric branch of the Deep Ecology movement. The full version of this article first appeared on Orton’s Deep Green Web March 8, 2011.

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