From May to September of 2000, I worked as an environmental research assistant in a remote south- eastern corner of Alberta. Our housing and lab spaces were located at Onefour, a cattle research station on a breathtakingly beautiful parcel of endangered grassland.
In its early years, Onefore was a bustling hub of activity with a population large enough to support a small store, a school and an assembly hall. Sadly, the towns’ heydays were long gone by the time I arrived. With only a few people remaining, many houses were boarded up and the community hall was of greater service to the barn swallows than to local residents. The closest place to buy groceries was a two-and-a-half-hour drive away and the primary source of entertainment was a dilapidated trampoline abandoned behind one of the housing units. Onefour was practically a ghost town; quiet, peaceful and like nothing I had ever experienced in my exclusively urban upbringing.
That summer was filled with field work, evening bonfires and huge stretches of time when I saw few people and spoke with hardly anyone. When you live such an isolated existence, every gesture between humans is deeply meaningful. Be it a slight wave of the hand from a driver on a gravel road, or the tip of a hat to a neighbour working a field- these small human interactions are infinitely powerful. That summer, I grew to rely on these silent communications and was grateful for the connections they created.
After my brief stint in Onefore, I returned to city living. In the years since, I have slowly abandoned the rural etiquette that I grew so fond of that summer. Those gestures of connectedness, once so habitual, were soon replaced by actions more suited to city living: averting my gaze when navigating busy transit systems and bowing my head when passing strangers along narrow paths. In a busy city, where we see humans all day long, our social habits tend to be more about creating distance than connection.
In our new Covid-19 reality, city dwellers are experiencing some of the same isolation more commonplace in rural settings. As a result, we should no longer be taking for granted the power of small gestures of connection with others. Inspired by my Onefour experience, my daughters and I now wave at every passing car and say hello to each person that we see along our forest adventures. Just as was the case that summer, each thread of connection shared with a neighbour, brings us closer to the comforting realization that we are in this together, and together we will get through.
Written by educator, Tara Beck