The Wild Tonic

By Ashley White, MD, MPH

Waterfront vacant land on Paudash Lake is now a rarity. Most strips on the busy, popular parts of the lake have buildings – for better or for worse. The remaining slices of land on the quieter parts of the lake come with road or boat access problems. These can be overcome with time, money and love but, it can be annoying. So it was really exciting when my family decided to purchase a sliver of land with easy road access on Paudash Lake this spring. Over the long weekend, we gathered there to ‘move in’.

How exactly does one move into land? We didn’t know. I brought some solar lamps, thinking I could landmark a bit of a driveway. Is it called a driveway when there is nothing at the end of the way? My brother brought a trailer to clear brush and some garbage (an unfortunate trade off for good access). 

We gathered kindling for the fire pit marked out by the previous owners, but the fire ban prevented any actual fire. We stomped around the nooks and crannies. The bugs ate us.  The sun made a valiant effort at early May sunburns.  

And we made plans. We talked about where we might build what, and when. Inevitably, talk of making evolves into talk of living: Who is thinking of changing jobs? Who is going to have kids? Who needs more rest? Who has no idea what comes next?  

The land held us up while we were curious about each others’ lives. In a family of adults, this is the work of connecting to each other. Work that isn’t always done when there is a kitchen to clean, dinner to get on the table, TV to watch or emails (so many emails!). The land stripped away all the stuff of a Western life and all that was left was us, the waves, the tall birch trees and the earth underfoot. It felt most real. It felt like good and gentle living.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, that “We need the tonic of wildness.” 

I believe he meant that we humans need to be reminded of the mystery – he called it the unfathomable – of the wilderness lest we forget our own mortality, forsake our humility. 

The wild is not ours. Our efforts to tame it have yielded a great and deadly warming. The wild is the real master of this Earth, even as we mechanize, plasticize and systematise our lives into the fractals of time permitted by Google calendar.  

The land can heal the isolationist wounds of modern life, ironically, even while preserving solitude. The land will bathe you in air that sings, lift you up on living soil and compel your spine up and open. 

For my family, the land allowed us to see each other as the clan that we are: flawed, preoccupied, hopeful, and ultimately united. Take your people to the land this summer.  Take some of that wild tonic and rest easy that it will carry us through whatever comes next.