Don't Change, Muskoka

Muskoka, Ontario, where the G8 summit is being held, is referred to in Canada as "cottage country." Though I had visited the U.S. many times, it was not until I moved here, nearly three years ago, that I realized few Americans use the word 'cottage.' Lake-house, summer home, cabin--yes. Cottage, not so much. And those rare gems who do speak of cottages even more rarely speak of an entire area as cottage country.

But for Canadians, cottage country is as familiar as the CN Tower or the Rideau Canal. The heart of cottage country, Muskoka, might be North America's best-kept secret. It ranks in beauty with the best sites I've ever seen, the limestone in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, or the Masada in Israel. Right now international media are fawning on Muskoka, amazed that a region like this exists quietly in a country better-known for the snowy mountains of Banff and the Rockies.

And that is the worry. Canadians are concerned that sleepy, modest Muskoka will be permanently transformed by a summit of the most powerful countries in the world. Not just transformed, but in some ways disfigured, the way plastic surgery can ruin the natural beauty of a face, even if its symmetry is improved. Ontarians are anxious that, once discovered by the rest of the world, Muskoka will cease to be itself. Instead of humble and peaceful, it might become Disney-fied and overrun. "They may have taken away a little bit of [Muskoka's] smallness," as one resident lamented.

Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into building new facilities in the Muskoka region ahead of the summit. Undoubtedly this funding is welcome, as it would be anywhere. Roads are repaved, signs are repainted, and community centers are built. But there is the danger that places like Huntsville (population: 20,000), where the actual summit is taking place, will lose their charm. Hastily-constructed buildings to accommodate a humongous security presence can dilute the authenticity of life. This is not a case of outsiders ignoring local poverty--Muskoka is not poor, nor is it underdeveloped. There are no slums, no ghettos, no homeless littering the streets. Many residents, in fact, are finding their businesses suffering because of the summit, since their usual clientele of cottagers and locals are staying away, scared off by the overwhelming security presence and threat of protesters. Many just wish the meeting would be over and done with. "I'll be glad when we have something else to talk about around here," said the owner of Mugsy's café.

There is something very Canadian in this--in finding the eyes of the world more of a burden than a blessing. Americans bask in the sheer size of their country--the beauty of the vast wilderness of the United States is something that has rightly attracted awe and admiration from everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ansel Adams to Tony Judt. But the U.S. is actually dwarfed in size by Canada, which, after Russia, is the largest country in the world. And yet, despite its mammoth land mass, Canada has just over one-tenth the population of the U.S. Most of the Canadian population lives close to the border, with much of the Northern parts of the country nearly uninhabitable, so harsh is its climate. Coping with the unfriendly terrain and climate is essential to the country's character; Margaret Atwood has identified survival as the dominant motif of Canadian literature and history.

Muskoka in the summer, then, comes as a tremendous relief. A relief from the harsh Canadian winters, but also from work and industrialized civilization. Simply put, Muskoka is as gentle and tranquil as human life gets, as it is likely to ever get. Deep blue lakes, multicolored loons, giant rock, small towns with large post offices and gravel roads. Roads darkened with tree shade, hand-built wooden lawn chairs, plastic kayaks. If a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe, as the late national historian Pierre Berton once quipped, well, it's no wonder a lot of canoeing is done in Muskoka.

And there is silence. Actual silence. The reassuring tree-divided wind is the only sound one hears at times in Muskoka, at least before the crickets being humming at night. At least four books have been released so far in 2010 blasting the volume of our civilization, especially traffic. These might seem like the complaints of spoiled Westerners, until you've lived with the peacefulness of natural sounds. Most religious rituals are performed in silence, because whatever is spiritual in humans is nourished most in silence. I spent a summer in Muskoka working outdoors, and when I returned to city life I felt like an unfrozen caveman, frustrated and overwhelmed by the noise. Ever since, my ears ring at the incessant, intrusive blaring that characterizes modern life.

Most romantically of all, the wildlife encountered in Muskoka has few parallels. Sarah Palin's moose-hunting may have been exotic to most Americans, but to many Canadians it is familiar (though her politics are not). Geese, deer, chipmunks, beavers--these are not unusual creatures to residents. If they are ever chased away by an increasing population, it would be a tragedy to both animal and man. Driving several years ago, a family of turkeys crossing the road forced me to stop my car. I got out and watched while the turkeys took their sweet time waddling to the edge of the road, apparently amused that they had forced a human to be inconvenienced by their travels. They passed by, and I was able to resume my drive to a cottage. This is Muskoka life. May it always be.