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Writer Michael Clarkson with wild turkeys outside his homemade fort at the edge of the forest in his rural hometown of Fort Erie, Ont. (Jennifer Clarkson)
Writer Michael Clarkson with wild turkeys outside his homemade fort at the edge of the forest in his rural hometown of Fort Erie, Ont. (Jennifer Clarkson)

Plan B

My own RRSP – rural retreat, silence and perspective Add to ...

Approaching 65, I never thought I’d wind up in a homemade child’s fort at the edge of the forest, scrambling to write myself out of debt.

For 37 years, I was a reporter for daily newspapers across Canada, then a freelance writer and part-time professional speaker (on coping with change, so I’d better get my own life right).

For many years I lived in the Greater Toronto Area, where markets were bountiful and the action stimulating, but Toronto got too dense to think clearly about my changing career and, indeed, the rest of my life.

Two years ago, I moved back to my rural hometown of Fort Erie – not to retire because my DNA won’t allow it. As a freelancer in an unstable economy, in which writers are constantly getting laid off or rejected, this is a financial gamble for me. Everything is on speculation. But I’ve always been a risk-taker and trusted myself, and it’s helped me with controversial stories.

Working from home at first, I got trapped in the cyber world as I kept pace with Facebook and e-mailing. An iPhone was my middleman for communicating with others. I visited the Taj Mahal on Google Earth, but not my own backyard.

And so I “changed” my name to Hal and built the first thing in my life behind my house – Red Pines, a fort fashioned from branches of dead pine trees and Dollar Store twine with a cramped bedroom and small fire. At one point, I slept in it for a month, and still do occasionally, overcoming the black noise of silence – my fear of brush wolves and the dark.

I made the fort just safe enough, letting nature breathe on me without consuming me. When life is too safe, it snores.

Inspired by fauns and fauna, I’m writing books and screenplays in long hand. Without the income of my patient wife, Jennifer, who has a solid, full-time job, I’d be just another starving artist.

There’s prose when the wind tickles your toes, when winter melts into a creek, when you sleep under The Big Porch Light of the moon, and when the wild turkeys finally let you feed them as your fingers shake with joy. How does one put a price on that?

Shooting photos, I’m taking life one frame at a time, learning to sweat the small stuff. One afternoon during the robins’ happy hour, in the bath of a warm sun, I let a butterfly flirt with me and was graced by an appearance of whitetail deer from the kingdom of heaven.

Alone, I can sing again, even if it’s off key. Why not? Are the coyotes embarrassed by their marauding? Are the gobblers uncomfortable in their ugly skin?

Outdoors revives the individual, the senses. Back There, in society, I lived too much in my arrogant brain, which bullied my touch, taste, smell, hearing and even my sight – not to mention my instincts. Back There, I breathed too much of my own air. Out Here, I’m Hal with three dimensions, five senses and an orchestra of a million crickets.

My life is not always Shangri-La; an author of seven books, I haven’t sold anything in two years. A major New York publisher was interested in a book on the fort, until the editors learned I was Canadian (they said they couldn’t market me properly in the United States).

As well, I’ve completed a book on Niagara Falls daredevils of the early 1900s. If I can get published on those two subjects, my Hollywood agent hopes to translate them into movies.

Although I’m hurting financially, I’m getting out of spiritual debt. The fort is a wooden chapel for quieting the brain and listening to the mind, the soul. The fire is a night’s work to look into as I glare at my selfishness and come to terms with deep issues involving my father, whose ashes sit next to me in a box, and I think of ways of surely becoming a better person. Humbling, isn’t it, when you realize society carries on without you?

When spring blooms, I take off my shoes and run, giggling, in the wild, wet fields.

Chopping wood, sweating until my own salt tastes good, I seem to be healthier, although while trying to live off the land, I vomited the first fish I caught and counted store-made burgers in my diet.

My levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and salt have all improved, along with my physical strength and mental toughness to live for long periods without the iPhone.

Spending time alone, I do miss the city and interaction with people, but I’ve learned that my family and friends come to my aid when I need them – they helped me rebuild Red Pines after an arsonist burned it to the grass. Now they visit the new fort and talk about their methods of escape, of finding a place for themselves.

Hopefully, I’ll overcome my financial debt. I’m learning from the creatures around me that you must be adaptable, even aggressive at times, to survive. Before I become a greeter at Wal-Mart, I must secure a book and movie contract. In the meantime, I’m rich in ways I was as a boy.

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