Boxes big and small

Michael Johansen
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Friends of mine, they have this amazing thing: a shiny metal box. You put bread inside, wait a while and then it come out as toast.

Me, I have to use a rusty wire contraption that perches on top of a fire. It only browns the slices on one side at a time, so when I flip them over I’m frequently toasting my fingers, too. Their magic box does both sides at once.

A month in the woods may not seem like a long time to spend under canvas (nylon, truth be told), but it’s enough for a person to misplace a few technological habits and to be somewhat forgetful about certain everyday conveniences.

Like the white thing in one of their rooms. My friends, who own a comfortable bungalow overlooking Lake Melville, have a big bowl that uses water to whisk human waste out of their house quicker than I could run down the street after it, if I was so inclined.

Here, I don’t need a shovel and I don’t have to swat flies. True, with the white bowl my waste ends up in the same body of water that provides the spectacular view, but (as our leaders always say) progress requires sacrifice.

When one is without modern conveniences for any length of time, their benefits are more pleasant to rediscover than their costs are to contemplate.

For instance, there are the numerous plastic tabs on the many walls of the house. When I flick one of the tabs up or down, a bright light appears in the middle of the ceiling. No more oil lamps and candle stubs. The necessary power comes right to the house — as, in fact, does information about the entire planet, with moving pictures and everything. In several rooms there are large boxes that, for 24 hours a day, display exciting stories, pretty images and talking heads.

In the bush, I only have a small black box that gives faint sounds often obscured by static. Sometimes there’s music and sometimes there’s talk, but there’s never anything to see.

My friends have a couple of other large boxes I haven’t seen for a while. The largest (it stands about head-high and is wider than my shoulders) generates low temperatures that cool the air inside and preserve perishable foods for much longer than is normally possible in summer. Although temperatures outside have reached the high 20s, I’ve seen this box keep milk fresh for more than 48 hours.

The other box is about half the size and, unlike the first, it’s designed to generate heat, not cold. It works impressively well to cook meals without filling the room with smoke.

Speaking of food, my friends are actually able to leave a loaf of bread on their counter overnight without waking up to an invasion of whiskeyjacks or of other more dangerous animals. That’s one clear benefit of walls and a roof.

My vacation in civilized society is only temporary, made possible by other people’s vacations elsewhere. Since even low-season travel in and out of Labrador can cost thousands of dollars more than most Canadians pay for transportation anywhere they want to go (unless they want to go to Labrador), any families who want a holiday out of the region must invest a considerable amount of time and money into the expedition. They also usually have to make arrangements to keep the family home safe in their absence — which, remote gravel roads being what they are, can be unexpectedly prolonged through mishap or by natural forces like forest fires or floods. In that case, a house-sitter is needed and a friend who happens to be living in a tent while he’s building a cabin in the woods (like me) is often a fine candidate for the job.

I must confess that as much as I love being surrounded by nature, it’s nice to enjoy the fruits of advanced technology for a little while.

Now, if I can figure out what the little box in the living room is for. It does nothing except make an occasional noise. In fact it’s ringing right now.

Funny, it’s almost like it’s trying to attract my attention …

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Lake Melville, Labrador

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