My little ecological mission

We bought this island in 2009. It's not very big - about 3 acres - and it's not on a fashionable lake. Just the way we like it. Peaceful, quiet, normal. Or as I like to call it, thoroughly un-Muskoka. And less than 2 hours from downtown Ottawa. At the time it only had a small (498 square feet, that's small) building with a storage shed out back that doubled as an outhouse (don't ask).

We got it for a good price (see "not fashionable lake", above) because this part of Ontario is not exactly booming, real-estate-wise. Which suits us fine, as we have no intention of selling this place. For we have grown to love it very much, our crazy little island in the middle of nowhere that's all ours and that we could actually afford if we made sufficient sacrifices elsewhere.

We've made some improvements: an addition that doubled the floor space to a whopping thousand square feet, a septic system, a new dock. And we've started cleaning up the land.

The previous owners had been here for about 40 years. I take it they were heavily into fishing during the day and watching television at night. From what we can tell they bought the place after a fire had burned through most of the island, and pretty much did nothing to the forest as it grew back.

They kept it reasonably tidy around the cabin but - from what we can tell - simply ignored the rest of the island. It's a wild, giant mess out there, with all kinds of things growing and dying and falling down on top of each other.

We started clearing it, moving from the building out. Removing the dead stuff, felling trees that were threatening to fall down in unpleasant ways, creating paths, and going for hikes around our wild domain. Every time we're out there we do some tidying. And what do you know, after a few years it's starting to look like we're beginning to see some progress.

And not just with the vegetation. The first couple of years all we could see was a big ole porcupine and some crows. Then we got wasps, and not just a little. But gradually our cleaning job in the forest has led to more air, more sun, more wildflowers, more bees, prettier birds (we now have ospreys!), baby porcupines, snakes, frogs, and a whole extended family of squirrels.

And this made me think very much about the right approach to protecting and improving the environment. I like my island wild - I'm not trying to turn this into a manicured French park. But wild is one thing, jumbled mess full of mosquitoes and wasps quite another. It's better for us humans when dead trees are picked up and disposed of (either mulched/composted or chipped or burned, depending on their state of decay), when dangerous dying trees are taken down so younger ones have more space and sun and air, when sunshine brings flowers that bring bees, and when my old cranky porky finds a girl and they make babies. They are dangerously cute.

It's also, I submit, better for the ecosystem of my island to have humans helping it along. OK, so maybe it's not hugely better for the dying trees and the wasps, but if the dog left the squirrels alone long enough for me to interview them, I'm sure they'd say they're happier alive than dead. So would the wee pine saplings that are growing now that they have more sun and space.

There are ways to live peacefully and respectfully with nature. Mine is just one example, and obviously it's a highly idiosyncratic one. And that's just the point: The proper way to protect and improve the environment is not a one-size-fits-all approach dictated by Al Gore but a responsible, respectful, decentralized one.

A one-minute book review, and then some

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