On an Island: Writing and My Soul in the Time of COVID-19

photo credit: Andrew Watson

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This post by Andrew Watson is the third in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.

I’ve spent part of every summer of my life on an island in Muskoka, Ontario. During the spring and early summer, it looked like I might not be able to visit the place where my soul resides. Many people have endured much worse during the pandemic, and I’m aware of the privilege I enjoy when I write that the prospect of not visiting my family cottage was devastating.

What made it even harder was that during the spring, as teaching switched to remote delivery, and the kids stayed home, and the rhythms of life dissolved in new ways each day, I tried to write the introduction and conclusion to my book – an environmental history of Muskoka.

Most cottagers in Ontario didn’t hesitate over their decision to drive north and open their cottages. There is a long history of cottagers thinking the cottage is a good place to be during a crisis, as Peter Stevens explained in his post from May. For several weeks the mayors in Muskoka grappled with figuring out how to communicate the concerns of the local community without angering and alienating the wealthy second home owners who pay high taxes and have an important influence in municipal elections. I feared the worst when I saw people from the city flooding north, but it appears cottagers have not been spreading the disease.

I almost always struggle with my writing, which is a common experience, I think. I have a hard time figuring out where to start, I spend hours (or days) writing out notes by hand to try to get the creative sap flowing in the thick log that is my head, and I get discouraged – really badly discouraged. I tell myself I can’t do it – but then I do it. That’s my normal process.

photo credit: Andrew Watson

There is an irony here. The place that gives me so much joy and inspiration when I visit is also the cause of anguish and frustration when I write about it. I’m not certain of the wisdom of choosing to research and write about something that you love so much. It has made for some confusing emotions for me. But those tensions have always been re(ab)solved when I set foot on the island, when I return to where I keep my soul.

But this spring, as I agonized over the introduction and conclusion and felt like I had to give up, I also thought I wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit the island and remind myself why I loved this project, and why it mattered to me so much.

One of the central arguments of my book is that tourism made life in Muskoka more sustainable for the first few generations of settlers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These days, tourism is still vitally important, but it’s a dubious claim that tourism offers a lot of benefits for permanent residents in Muskoka. And that’s even more apparent during this pandemic.

photo credit: Andrew Watson

By the middle of June, I had finished writing the introduction and conclusion, but I still had a hollow feeling inside. I just couldn’t feel the joy of having completed the work without also connecting with the place that gave it meaning.

My partner and I eventually decided that we wouldn’t fly with the kids to Ontario to visit the cottage. It was too risky. But we decided that I would go, and drive the entire 28 hours and 2,800 kilometres from Saskatoon to Muskoka alone (and I will be forever grateful to my wife for giving me the gift of this trip).

So that’s what I did. I packed all the food and water I’d need, took a sleeping bag to sleep in the trunk with the back seats folded down, and drove for fourteen hours on the first day, slept for four hours, and then drove another fourteen hours the next day. I stopped six times for gas and to use a toilet (and every time I got back in the car I rinsed my hands with sanitizer). Since I arrived on the island, I’ve been living in a tent behind the cottage to protect my parents, in case I picked up the coronavirus on the way (I wrote this sitting in the tent on the left below).

Each day, I walk the land on the island, swim in the waters next to its shores, and when I lay down to sleep in my tent each night I can feel this place feed me energy, bring me peace, and give me the strength to finish writing this story and start another.

photo credit: Andrew Watson
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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.

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