On becoming rural

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down life as we knew it in Canada in March 2020, and UBC shifted all teaching and meetings to online modes, my partner and I left our apartment in Vancouver and retreated to our home on Salt Spring Island. At that time, we packed up the perishable food and filled the car with other immediate necessities, as my partner thought we might need to stay on island for “two weeks or so,” and I told her that it might need to be even longer, “like three or four weeks.” Ha.

Five months later was the first time we set foot in the apartment again, and that was only to empty the fridge of remaining condiments, and pack up a few more things. We ended up living on Salt Spring Island full-time for two and a half years, with only some brief city visits. It was not until December 2023 that we returned to the city for a longer stay and a shift back to part-time urban life.

The unexpectedly extended stay on Salt Spring Island, where we live in a rural area that is a 15-minute drive from the village, has given me much food for thought about how living in a rural area has changed me. I no longer feel like an urbanite living in a rural area; now, when I am in Vancouver, I feel like a rural islander visiting the city.

Environmental scientist Frederic Beaudry considers the relative environmental benefits and drawbacks or urban and rural living and concludes that, “urban living likely results in, on average, lifestyles with a lighter environmental impact,” while “rural life may allow more flexibility for individuals to make personal choices aimed at minimizing one’s ecological footprint.” Indeed, I experienced some of this myself.

Buying directly from Duck Creek Farm, Salt Spring Island

For example, I have found that living in a rural area, amidst the Douglas firs and arbutus trees, has made me more acutely aware of the change of seasons. I have also got to know several local farmers and try to buy from them directly as much as possible. This means, automatically, that more of my diet is seasonal. In addition, living in a rural area with access to garden space has given me the opportunity to grow some of my own food (and gain an even greater appreciation for farmers’ hard work!). Rural life means being more exposed to and dependent on weather: windstorms lead to power outages, atmospheric rivers lead to visible soil erosion, and heat domes lead to distressed plants and animals. These first-hand experiences have motivated me to make efforts to make my own garden more resilient, leaving roots in the ground and mulching to reduce soil erosion, and investing in significant rainwater catchment for summer irrigation. At the same time, rural living undeniably involves greater car-dependence, with the nearest supermarket as well as the seasonal farmer’s market a 15-minute drive away. Heating our (older) home is less efficient, as we can tell from both our electric bill and the decreasing supply of firewood.

Home-grown garlic drying in the carport, Salt Spring Island

In the city, we live in an apartment, and being surrounded by other units on both sides, as well as above and below us means we rarely need to turn on the heat, even in winter. (Living in an apartment in a dense neighbourhood also means it rarely is completely quiet, while moments of silence are a treasured experience on the island.) In the city, the supermarket and a seasonal farmer’s market are a 5-minute walk away, as is access to public transit that connects to the rest of the city. However, being more reliant on the supermarket and having no direct contact with farmers means that it is easier to buy produce that looks good even if it is not in season. In addition, while we are more car-dependent on Salt Spring, when we do drive in Vancouver we tend to drive greater distances and spend more time in traffic.

However, as I mentioned, living first in cities and now a rural area for a prolonged period of time has changed not only the pattern of my environmental impact; it has changed me. I notice and pay attention to different things now, such as a patch of plants that looks like it needs water, or a shrub whose branches have been broken, perhaps by a careless cyclist or skateboarder. Jenny Odell (2019) writes, “patterns of attention—what we choose to notice and what we do not—are how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time” (p xxiii). And I would add: patterns of attention also have a direct bearing on what we feel is necessary and desirable at any given time. They shape who we are and how we see our role in the world.