Early morning is my favourite time of the day. As I lie in bed, eyes still closed, I savour the silence, interrupted only by deep breathing and an occasional snore from my husband and kids. I finally open my eyes and look through the window – craggy silhouettes of Green Mountains slowly come into focus. It takes me a few minutes to remember it’s January 1st. Which means 2021 is here. And even though in this tiny cabin in southern Quebec, in the presence of eons-old peaks, time units like years seem ridiculously arbitrary and inconsequential, even though I am fully aware that pandemics and other global crises don’t follow a calendar, I still can’t help that growing sense of relief. 2020 is finally over.
Sometimes I wonder what words historians, writers, artists will use when years from now they try to make sense of 2020. Challenging, transformative, dystopian, pivotal, tumultuous? The year when the world stopped? The year of zoom? The year of yearning for human connection, for a hug, a simple touch? The year when for many of us our homes became our offices, our gyms, our entertainment centres? The year of sourdough bread? The year of learning to express ourselves with eyes only? The year when for many people doing their jobs meant putting their lives in danger? The year of toilet paper memes? The year that exposed the many flaws in our system? The year when we came together to save lives? Or the year when we refused to give up our so-called personal freedoms even when lives were at stake? The year that redefined the word “essential”? The year of the pandemic that also included wildfires in Australia and America’s west coast, U.S. elections, Trump’s impeachment, the rise of Black Lives Matter movement all around the world, actual Brexit (and that’s just the tip of the 2020 iceberg)? The year of tremendous loss?
2020 has finally come to a close. Around this time I would be putting together my usual The Best of the Year post. It wouldn’t be hard to do. While emotionally taxing, 2020 was full of wonderful trips to new and familiar places with both new and long-time trusted travel partners. Turns out enjoying a pastime that takes you away from people has its benefits during a pandemic. That, and, of course, our privileged position of having stable jobs with lots of vacation days. Once the strict lockdown was lifted, we could continue to explore Ontario’s beautiful wilderness in a canoe and on foot. In fact, we managed to do more backcountry trips this year since our big road trip across the United States and Canada fell through.
So no, I would have no trouble putting together a list of the best trips, views and campsites. The biggest challenge would be to choose between our backpacking trip in Pukaskwa and our canoe trip to Killarney’s north west, between Lake Superior’s majestic vistas and the ever changing yet deeply familiar view from the Crack, between finally canoeing in Temagami and exploring new parts of Algonquin, between my solo birthday trip to Ruth Roy Lake and a trip with my husband to Kakakise Lake, both in Killarney, between ringing in the New Year in a Hobbit House and celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary at a luxury glamping dome, between chasing the comet just north of Toronto and watching meteor showers in Pinery.
This year, however, I am moving away from The Best of the Year tradition. And not only because the word “best” and 2020 seem like a weird combination. 2020 calls to dig deeper as I try to make sense of the events that have unfolded over the past few months. So here are a few ways I would describe the year that lasted a decade.
The year when exploring meant looking at things with new eyes instead of heading to new places
Marcel Proust said that “the real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” We got a chance to test that quote back in March when the entire world came to a screeching halt and our personal worlds shrunk to the size of our homes. A trail along the creek not too far from our house became our only reprieve from the dystopia that seemed to have spilled right through our screens and into our living rooms. As we paced along the familiar path day in and day out, we not only ventured further and discovered pockets of uninterrupted nature right in our backyard, we also learned to look closer, notice almost imperceptible changes throughout the year and watch familiar views get reshaped by internal and external weather systems.
The year when nature provided a sense of permanence in a shifting world
On one of the mornings during our first camping trip of the year to Killarney’s Nellie Lake, I pushed our canoe into the orange-tinted dawn, steered it into the middle of the lake and just sat there watching the world being born again. The same familiar, but always miraculous sight: the flaming ball inching from behind the hills, checking its reflection in the water and then catapulting into the sky. On that serene morning, being surrounded by La Cloche Mountains, I could finally exhale. Knowing that these ancient hills had witnessed this daily ritual for more than three billion years provided a constant in a world of variables, something to hold on to as the tectonic plates of our existence were shifting all around us.
Judging by the number of people on the trails and even in Ontario’s backcountry this year, we were all searching for comfort in nature. And sure, some will say this exodus into the parks that saw overcrowded parking lots everywhere and lack of canoe rentals was partly due to a shortage of other entertainment options. But I am convinced the sense of permanence amidst uncertainty was what we were all after, and, as always, nature delivered.
The year that pushed us to deliberately search for light and joy
One thing I learned from all those years of photography is to always look for light. After all, photography literally means drawing with light. Even in seemingly complete darkness, the camera will pick up glimmers – from the stars, the moon, distant cities – if the shutter is left open long enough. And yes, sometimes the source of light is too faint, so that’s when you bring your own.
This past year demanded from us to apply the same determination in real life. Looking for joy amidst tremendous loss may sound frivolous but in reality it is a radical act of pushing against darkness, a deliberate practice of finding strength to keep going. Those glimmers of light may be faint: the first glimpse of a tiny sprout pushing its tender head through the soil, loon’s yodel bouncing across the lake, dew drops spilled like diamonds across a spider web, a lonely leaf waltzing on its final decent to the ground – but, when woven together, these almost invisible threads of joy become a lifesaving rope when we are drowning in the sea of hopelessness and despair.
The year that showed us how closely connected we all are
Trees in a forest may stand apart from each yet they are a close-knit community. Connected through underground networks, they talk to each other, share resources and support their young and sickly neighbours. And no matter how our modern western narrative tries to push the idea of individual freedoms above all else, we too are a forest, dependent on each other for support and responsible for each other’s well-being. This year when physical distancing entered our vocabulary and staying apart became an act of care, stories of people finding new, ingenious ways to come together and look after each other have defined 2020 as much as did the virus quickly spreading from one individual to another, from country to country, from community to community.
So 2020 is finally over, and we can exhale a sigh of relief hoping for a fresh start. But believing that by changing one number we can put all our troubles behind us is, of course, magical thinking, especially since the systems that made 2020 such a terrible year are still in place: systems rooted in unbridled exploitation of natural and human resources, systems where some lives are seen as expandable. We can, however, collectively decide what we want 2021 to be: The year when we rush back into the usual comforts while ignoring the pain of others? Or the year when we collect the pieces of the old “normal” and use them to build something better?