Off grid writing
I sit in a dark cabin, propped up on an old, mildew covered sofa, with my bare feet inches from a blazing wood stove. The world outside is still dark, although it’s nearly 9 o’ clock in the morning. There’s no electricity here, no running water. Locals say that the cabin was likely first constructed in the 1970s by American draft dodgers, who traveled to Haida Gwaii, British Columbia -- or the "edge of the world", as some call it -- in order to hide out from fighting in the Vietnam War. It’s had many other owners since then; all who’ve made various improvements: adding shelves, a raised platform bed, an additional room and a front porch, an outside shower that works by a gravity-feed bucket system. But to me, it seems to hold the same feeling of being hidden away, isolated. Built up on the sand, shrouded by dense old growth forest, the cabin is close enough to the northern beach that I can hear the breath of the ocean: the pull and crash, the suck and spit of shells, debris, and driftwood onto the shore. A year after the tsunami in Japan, a motorcycle washed up onto the beach. The locals found the bike’s make, tracked down the owner, and shipped it back to Japan. When the light filters through the trees, I’ll climb through the scrubby dunes and peer into the newness of the day, scouring the tide line for bits and pieces of the wash up, competing with gulls and bald eagles and tiny flocks of shorebirds. We are all scavengers on these shores.
For now, I listen to the waves outside. I listen to the crackle of the molten hot embers. I hold the computer open on my lap. I don’t know where to begin. I stare at the brilliant blizzard of the blank screen, willing myself to write, fingers ready like talons, yet I fear that I have nothing of interest, or importance to write.
On a winter morning at the edge of the world, on a northern island, hidden away from the world, I am a writer who feels that she’s forgotten her craft, or perhaps the craft has forgotten her. Confession: I haven’t written, truly dug down and felt the water of my own well, for months, maybe even years now.
The not writing began, somewhat ironically, after completing the manuscript for my first book Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World. I was writing full-time in those last four months, holed up in my parent’s basement in the small town in northern Alberta. I spun sentences day and night, rising before the sun to write, re-write, and scrub my prose into form, barely breaking for food, fresh air, and conversation. I must’ve expelled words even in my breath as I slept. The writing lived in me, and vice versa. The book beat inside the cavern of my chest. It was the orb of my meaning, the reason why I woke up in the morning. It was no longer a choice to write. It was necessary to write, although it was just like any other job: frustrating, mundane, sometimes painful, wearisome, and so forth. But the job held me. I didn’t quit. I finished the book. And now, in a week, or so, I’ll get to hold the book in my hands, and incredulously stare back at a part of myself. If I don’t say it aloud, I’ll probably ask myself, dumbfounded, “Did I actually write this?”
But that’s another story to come.
After those four months holed up in the Peace Country, I flew north – another 200 kilometers north – to man a fire tower on an unnamed hill, beside an unnamed muskeg swamp, in an off-grid cabin. My job shifted from stringing together sentences to stringing together weather calculations. I traded writing for observing life from a 100-foot tower. I neglected the books that lined my cabin walls for walks through the forest, picking and drying wild flowers, learning the names of berries that proliferated on the wet, boggy soils: bilberries, cloud berries, soap berries, dew berries. When words found me at the fire tower, they were broken bits of poem. Love sonnets by Pablo Neruda who wrote about solitude and his own exile, lamenting on the strangeness of time, “the not happening was so sudden.” Perhaps nothing resonated more than those six words. On those long, slow days at the fire tower, everything stopped, including time, including the past and the future, including writing. That kind of solitude had me flat on my back, pressed into the green grass, steeping in old questions without answers: what has my life meant? And, what does it mean to live?
I emerged from the tower with hardly an essay, article, or word to my name. I stumbled back into society – albeit in a sleepy, northern town – and wondered “how must I write? What must I write?”
In the late autumn, I had coffee with another writer and confessed to him the uncertainty I felt about my craft. “Read,” he told me. “Read books, essays, and articles. Figure out what kind of writer you want to be.”
So I did. I devoured the words of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, anything I could get my hands on by John Vaillant, Jenna Butler’s A Profession of Hope, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I re-read Strayed’s Wild manifesto, and fell in love with H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a stunning memoir about the author’s journey to train a goshawk in order to grieve and heal from the loss of her father. I lived inside the creased, coffee stained pages of these books.
All the while, I was living alone in a poorly insulated mobile home on the edge of the Heart River valley, furiously splitting wood in a mad attempt to heat the shitty ice-box that it was. Within three months, the pipes froze, the diesel furnace broke down, and black smoke came leaching into the house through a crack in the chimney. But the words of these writers kept me warm. I wrote half-baked essays. I pretended to write. And outside, the rewards of living on the edge of a wildlife corridor regularly stole the breath from my lungs. Once, under a full moon in January, I woke to sound of hoof pawing ice. I looked through the frozen window to see a herd of thirty to forty wapiti elk only meters away from my bedroom window. I watched them, awe struck. As Annie Dillard wrote in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin.” As if for the first time, “I breathed an air like light. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever. I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.” I tremble at the memory.
Seasons passed through me so quickly: another fire season, another autumn have since come and gone. Aside from an essay here, an article there, I still haven’t dipped back into, truly, writing. I’ve traveled over 10,000 kilometers back and forth Canada, boarded a ferry across the Hecate Strait, and have since found myself holed up in a cabin on a remote northern island beside the Pacific Ocean.
On a clear day, I can see the distant shape of Alaska, a blue body sleeping lazily on the horizon. Most days, I am alone on the beach, marveling in the vacancy of people and the splendor of the wild beings who do appear, like the giant bald eagles that sit at the water’s edge, letting the foam cover their talons, as they sway leg to leg, searching for a meal. I'm not so different from those hungry, hook beaked birds of prey. I'm hungry to write about my life. I'm hungry to remember what it feels like to need to write.
I’m beginning to understand that my identity as a writer – along with my desire to write – is inextricably linked to dwelling in remote, wild, unpeopled places. Not with the goal to distance myself from people, but rather, to draw closer to my own human nature, to find the space to write about the people and the places and wild things whom I’ve encountered, loved, and been inspired by. This is who I am as a person and a writer.
OFF GRID is a new, hopeful project for my own creative resurrection. It's about paying homage to wild, unusual spaces, ideas, and constructs. It's a creative canvas to step off the journalism grid and unabashedly, unconsciously experiment with writing about the geographies, cultures, ideas, and memories that are important to me. I long to write raw essays, mixing travel writing with the personal narrative, and on some days, a dash of political commentary.
Long at last, I’m listening to the advice of the writers whose own works inspire me:
“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment,” said Annie Dillard. "Give it all, give it now. The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it’s destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”
Here is my truth: I am a writer of wild, remote landscapes. If you're interested, please stay tuned for more heartfelt dispatches from far flung places.