An urbanite’s adventures in rural life
After 50 years in the city, I traded my downtown apartment for a five-acre plot of land east of Guelph. Best decision I ever made
In 1967, when I was 14 years old, my family moved from London, England, to Toronto. I lived downtown for decades, spending much of that time with my husband, the artist Ivaan Kotulsky, in our beloved Victorian semi at King and Portland. After his death in 2008, I bought a small commercial building at Dupont and Shaw, where I lived on the second floor and ran a jewellery store on the main level. I named it Atelier Ivaan, in honour of my late husband.
I was a diehard urbanite. I’d always felt more comfortable walking on pavement than hiking in the wilds. My idea of a vacation involved European cities or luxurious spas, not camping in provincial parks or swimming in cold Ontario lakes. But by 2018, condos were popping up along Dupont. Every morning at sunrise, there were dump trucks idling outside my home. The fumes triggered my asthma, so I started sleeping in my windowless basement workshop. After a couple of months, I woke up and abruptly decided I’d had enough of everything—the noise, the fumes, the endless construction. I needed a change.
One day that summer, I was driving to Collingwood with my nephew Philippe. As we went along a country road, past farm fields and tiny hamlets, I realized that for the first time in months I could breathe without wheezing. “Well, Auntie,” Philippe said, “look around. There’s no shortage of for-sale signs up here.” And so in early 2019, I started looking at rural properties within an hour’s drive of Toronto. Before long, I’d found an unusual house on a five-acre plot of land in Wellington County.
The home, built in 1963, had a grey board-and-batten exterior and a wraparound deck. Inside, spread across 3,000 square feet, were four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and a large loft with cathedral ceilings. The lot had three ponds, a derelict boathouse and a deep in-ground swimming pool. In the middle of the property, between two of the ponds, was an island covered with thick brush and deadwood. While I initially had doubts about the sprawling wooden house, my city feet instantly felt like they were putting down deep roots. I was falling in love with the place. The following week, in the span of two hours, I’d sold my Toronto building for $1.045 million, closed my shop and purchased the Wellington County lot for $990,000. I named it Five Acres.
On April Fool’s Day 2019, I arrived at Five Acres with only a suitcase, a lawn chair, a blanket, a wind-up radio and a bag of groceries. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anyone in the area. I couldn’t find a phone jack for the landline. I didn’t even know how to light a fire. It was a long, cold first night in that lawn chair—and yet it was also exhilarating. It seemed like the beginning of an adventure.
Suddenly, all my time was discretionary. I had no commitments—everything depended solely on me. Once the movers arrived and my furniture was unloaded, I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement. I had enough of everything, but not too much of anything. I was bursting with energy for the hard physical work to come.
One of the first tasks I set for myself was to clear the brush and deadwood on the island. I lasted all of two days with an axe and handsaws before I realized that I’d make quicker progress with a chainsaw. I spent the rest of the summer working on the island, returning home only to eat, sleep and reapply insect repellent.
Over the next few months, I began to get the hang of country life. I built a new wooden cover for my below-ground well pump and learned how to purify my water three ways—through sediment, ultraviolet and charcoal filters—before boiling it for drinking.
When Covid hit, I looked for ways to become more self-sufficient, since I had no idea if I’d be able to leave my property. I started growing my own vegetables in four raised garden beds, and batch-cooking vegan meals: soups, curries, chilis and stews. I learned how to maintain the swimming pool—so far I’ve rescued three large snapping turtles who took a wrong turn on the way to one of the ponds. I felled 50-foot trees using my new chainsaw, acquired a four-ton log splitter for firewood, replaced a shed roof and single-handedly restored the old boathouse. In April, I rowed across the largest pond to hike on the far corners of my land for the first time.
After decades spent bound by the clock, I no longer need one. I wake up at dawn and go to bed when it’s dark. I’ve learned to share the land with beaver, deer, Canada geese, turkey vultures, crows, muskrats, rabbits, skunks, herons and swans. I can go for weeks without seeing another human. I love relying on myself.
I no longer take the neat precise steps that carried me around my tiny building on Dupont. If I walked like that here, I’d never get anywhere. My rural gait consists of big, loping strides. I keep my eyes fixed to the ground when I walk outside, because there’s always something to trip over.
Every so often, Philippe comes up to visit me and we drive along the country roads we took back in the summer of 2018. I always make sure to point out the for-sale signs, one of which led me to a life I never would have imagined for myself.
In my new life, I can go weeks without seeing another human