THE BLOG

My Sinful Second Home

07/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2008-07-19-shoelake.JPG Shoe Lake, near Dorset, Ontario Over at Grist, the Biodiversivist does a driveby shooting of a rather nice green second home, complete with Durisol walls, recycled wood, Ice-stone counters, Kirei cabinets and a tracking solar photovoltaic array. He writes "Another mountain meadow bites the dust to fulfill the status seeking urges of a couple of upright walking primates. This home is not cool. It is a badge of shallowness. Spread the meme."

Which is positively polite compared to some of his commenters, who suggest that "That is such nonsense! The cabin would take more land away from the local wildlife, and when people get there they are not there to mix into the natural life. Instead they leave trash, hunt local wildlife, cause more buildings to go up as their friends now want a second home too!" and "It does not matter what a person's reasons are for despoiling an ecosystem, or how they do it. In this case it's with a home that will suck energy and resources while being empty 98% of the time. Cabins despoil a chunk of the planet for very little if any actual emotional or spiritual gain. They are the result of fantasies."

I am writing this post from my own little fantasy in the woods by a small lake in the District of Muskoka, three hours north of Toronto. I am not going to talk about how green my place is, (I did that on Planet Green here); I am instead going to defend the sinful second home, and why I and my cabin are perhaps not as uncool and shallow as the Biodiversivist says we are.

2008-07-19-dorsetcabin.jpg My cabin.

The Local Economy

150 years ago, settlers were promised free farmland in Muskoka and came in droves, to break their backs and their spirits trying to farm in the shallow, rocky soil; they soon found that the only industry that worked was logging, and tapped that out pretty quickly. When the logging trains switched to tourist trains 100 years ago, rich Americans from New York and Canadians from Toronto build resorts and cottages on the three big lakes, and many families still return every summer.

My lake was opened up by the government to veterans after WW2, who built 15 cottages and raised their children here in the summer, while the dads took the train or drove up for the weekend. When I bought my falling-down geodesic dome 20 years ago from the estate of an engineer who loved Bucky Fuller, I was the first "outsider" on the lake.

Without logging, there is not much to do up here; like upper Michigan or Maine, most of the jobs now are in tourism or supporting the second home trade. It is such an important part of the Muskoka economy that they send the kids to school in August so that the parents can work, and they have their vacations when we have all gone back to the city. Scooping ice cream and sucking septic tanks isn't the best work in the world, but it keeps people working up here and keeps communities going.

As more and more of us make our living in a world where your office is where you are, it is creating opportunities to bring life back to stagnating communities; a surprising number of people are able to telecommute or run their home businesses in ways that were impossible before the internet. The postmaster had to redesign the post office to install more boxes; she tells me that the number of people living and working up here is exploding, reversing a century of economic decline.

2008-07-19-cottagewindows.jpg my recycled windows

The Environment

A commenter at Grist wrote "The cabin would take more land away from the local wildlife, and when people get there they are not there to mix into the natural life. Instead they leave trash, hunt local wildlife, cause more buildings to go up as their friends now want a second home too!"

In fact, the opposite is true. In the city, everything goes into a pipe and disappears, or the city picks it up. Here, you are responsible for everything you do; the dump only allows two bags a week, you have to recycle like mad, your poop goes into a composting toilet that has to be maintained, and you are aware of every scrap of garbage that you generate because you have to carry it in and out, in my case in a 14 foot aluminum boat.

Out of self interest, we become obsessed with water quality, the health of our local loons, the invasive grass or mussel that we have to stop. Everyone who has a place up here is concerned about global warming (increased forest fire risk), climate disruption (big storms= more road repairs and taxes) and habitat preservation. Nobody "leaves trash"- even old furniture goes to a shed where people can leave it; my cabin is furnished with dump finds.

2008-07-19-bedroom.jpg my kids' tiny bedroom

The Family

As a kid, I fell in love with nature at Camp Arowhon near here and wanted to come back. My kids are already plotting how they will share the place when they get it; they love every minute here, learned important skills and have put down roots that will last long after the house in the City has gone. Exposure to the country is the gateway drug to environmentalism, and my kids are hooked. Anyone who writes "Cabins despoil a chunk of the planet for very little if any actual emotional or spiritual gain" hasn't spent enough time in one.

2008-07-19-cabindorsetinterior.jpg my table recycled from a bowling alley and doors recovered from an office renovation

The footprint.

I have a theory; what matters isn't the number of places one has, but the aggregate square footage. I would rather have my 1200 square foot cabin, a small pied-a-terre in the city, and a tiny chalet in snowboard/ x-country ski land, and rotate between the three of them. As it is, I do burn 10 gallons in a round trip to the cabin in my four-banger Subaru, but I do not do that very often- I stay up here for the entire month of August. I am not using any electricity in the city for air conditioning, not driving anywhere while I am here, and not flying off for a summer vacation. I can't burn much electricity while I am here; there is nothing to run other than my laptop computer and a small fridge.

Before air conditioning made cities habitable in the summer, lots of people often moved according to the seasons; you could survive in a tiny cabin in good weather because the outdoors was your living room. The cabin or cottage was a way of adapting to the climate instead of trying to beat it into submission.

Second homes are not sinful, and I am going to continue to do my bit to reduce the peak load on our electrical grid, to live with less stuff and to save water at mine, and I am not going to feel guilty about it.