Shannon Moneo is a Métis writer who has lived in cities, towns and rural communities in five provinces. She has a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Regina.
Much has been said of the COVID-19-driven urban exodus: City-dwellers, some who are able to work remotely, are choosing to decamp to suburbia, semi-rural enclaves or even country acreages, seeking space and quiet. Statistics Canada reported that between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020, Toronto posted a record loss of 50,375 people; Montreal saw 24,880 leave, which also set a record.
But not enough has been said about what happens when they get there.
Panic-buying fuelled by the fear of missing out, coupled with the ability to view a property on the internet, has created the risk that a buyer from the city may have only read a few chapters of the rural living manual. It seems when people shed noise, traffic, pollution and other urban blights, they expect their new rural Eden will be tranquil and without frustrations – unaware that even the shiniest apples have worms.
Otter Point, B.C., has been my home for 25 years. My husband and I live on a sloping, one-hectare property with views of the Juan de Fuca Strait. Roughly 2,100 people live in the unincorporated area, 45 kilometres west of Victoria. Logging and small farms once dominated, but it’s now a place with hobby farmers, retirees, families and a few funky small businesses like a meadery, a sea-salt producer and a cannabis store. When Canadians think of the West Coast, Otter Point might look something like their romanticized vision: Big trees, ocean views, clean air, pristine beaches, soaring eagles and breaching orcas.
Which is why Vancouverites, Torontonians, Calgarians along with other Canadians, Americans and international emigres have set up their own often large and showy households here. As the president of a building materials company told me, when you sell your Vancouver home for $2-million, you can afford to spend $1-million to build a very comfortable oceanview house.
But it’s not so simple. City-dwellers might be familiar with the trope of NIMBYs rejecting new urban developments, but here in Otter Point we’ve become familiar with our own species: NIMAs, or Not In My Airspace.
In April, the director’s report from the Otter Point, Shirley and Jordan River Residents and Ratepayers Association (OPSRRA) featured a section titled “Low Airplane Flyover and Noise Issues”; it seems that some residents have recently become aware of the noise from the small, single-engine plane from a training school that flies over the area, maybe once or twice a day at different altitudes, for several minutes. When I read the report, I couldn’t believe it: I’ve long heard and seen the plane, and it’s a minuscule bother – nothing like living near an international airport.
New arrivals to Otter Point and other small communities like ours should know that we play host to far more intrusive assaults on the senses than these brief flyovers. Instead of a buzzing airplane, how about two hours of a droning chainsaw, cranked up at 7 a.m. as your neighbour bucks up wood? Or a sawmill, 200 metres from your home? What about the wood stove, the pungent smoke of which fills the air on cold, damp days? Residents are also allowed to burn piles of natural waste – usually yard debris like tree branches – but human nature being what it is, and given that garbage pickup isn’t a municipal service on offer here, these burns can include household trash – and eau du garbage is a particularly compelling scent. If not ignited, mounds of garbage, and even animal parts, can sometimes be found surreptitiously deposited near rural mailboxes.
Then there could be the rooster crowing at 5 a.m., or the peacocks, which can screech around the same time. Or the lowing of the neighbour’s sheep, which are vocal when newborns are frolicking. The farms buttress their sounds with smells, too, like manure piles. A few Otter Point farmers are fond of spreading chicken manure on their fields, leaving a stench that lasts days.
What can also last days are power outages when a harsh storm brings down trees. That’s when generators are purchased en masse, if you can travel on the road. And when it snows, streets are not cleaned for a couple days. Snow is such a rarity, the equipment to deal with it is limited. Cell phone coverage can be non-existent. The nearest hospital is a one-hour drive away, barring rush hours. Water sources may be a well, which could run dry, or a small lake where geese flock.
While most of these rural markers are an inconvenience to urban arrivals, the influx has led to a bleak rise in fences and gates over the past 10 years. People, it seems, want security and privacy, not to mention keeping wildlife at bay, particularly deer, who can destroy a garden overnight. Sadly, what those barriers do is disrupt the natural travel paths of animals. Bears become a concern. Some newcomers are so excited to see a black bear, they will bait it with food so they can get the perfect YouTube video. Others, who’ve left their garbage outside, will see the bear, overreact and call conservation officers, who inevitably kill the bear. And if a cougar is sighted, expect panic.
Otter Point isn’t the only place where city transplants have to deal with “issues” they were not expecting. But the expectation that aggravations won’t exist because you are in a natural, less concrete and paved environment is shortsighted.
In January of this year, France passed a law to protect the “sensory heritage” (i.e. the smells and sounds) of rural areas, following battles over noisy frogs, crickets and roosters. Farm machinery and cowbells had become targets by those who, previously subjected to traffic racket or street side hubbub, believed they were owed peace. One famous case featured Maurice the rooster, who was put on trial in 2019, after beefs about his predawn crowing; the neighbours’ complaints were rejected, and they were fined €1,000 ($1,475).
Here in Otter Point, though, the tensions continue over the community’s rural ways. In 2007, tsunami warning signs were even removed after bed-and-breakfast owners and realtors complained that they created fear and lowered property values. But there is irony in this. In our slice of Eden, actual physical signs are being erased for warning of what the sea, land and air can deliver – yet distinct, more natural signs will continue. They just require people to use their eyes, ears and noses – and to stop their bellyaching, if their senses failed them.
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