Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

From firepits to tree forts and rock terraces, I get the urge to build when I’m at the cottage

BEN CLARKSON/The Globe and Mail

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

Cottage living is different for everyone. For those who choose to be part of life by a lake, there are a thousand different ways to shake off the ugly cottage commute or a week of work in the greasy city. Rest, whether it comes in the form of a dunk in the lake, a frosty beverage or a nap in the local hammock, beckons like a siren song at the end of twisted and rutted country roads.

Yet my cottage experience, while filled with plenty of the known benefits, is also inextricably linked to work. Work, or rather labour, of the more manual variety.

Story continues below advertisement

Just when it seems I should be curled up in the gazebo with a good book or lounging by the lake without a care in the world, I can be found digging up rocks in the forest.

It comes at me from out of nowhere, at no particular time – a sudden urge, a moment of inspired lunacy – and for no particular reason, at no one's particular prompting, I am up and away, at work on another of my "projects."

While our time away from the city is a much-desired break from the toil and bustle of my family's busy life, I don't seem to be able to leave the need to work behind completely.

Masterpieces created during these spur-of-the-moment creative callings include rock terraces, firepits, flagpoles, gardens and a rambling tree fort. Not to mention the endless tree-toppling, wall-building and rock-smashing that have had to happen merely because they were there. I could also go on to mention myriad sandcastles built on beach vacations after the allure of sun-tanning ran dry in five minutes.

While many required manual chores come with cottage life, these far more appealing projects stand out for their distinct lack of necessity.

No one has sent me an e-vite to the firepit-project planning meeting. Nor did my boss suggest I build a rock terrace. There is never a need to punch a clock, though overtime is always an option. In fact, I often have to pull myself away from my travails in order to spend time with my family. I am certain that left on my own I would happily build something, somewhere, well into the night. And while there are, as we joke, several levels of administration to work through in order to get a project approved, the creative sum and substance of whatever has inspired me is entirely my own.

I am employee, employer and customer rolled into one, with a deadline that is gloriously absent.

Story continues below advertisement

Perhaps I am a closet artist struggling to express myself, missed my calling as a landscape architect or farmer. Maybe this need to think with my hands is connected to a much more primitive need that we all harbour, which is rarely fulfilled in most modern-day workplaces.

A few years ago, I struggled a bit with a strange sense of anxiety. It seemed to coincide with turning 40, so maybe that explains it right there. However, I distinctly remember that one of the things that made me feel better was being outside in the garden, working with my hands, using another part of my brain and being human in an entirely different way.

I think now that I was merely exercising the same muscle that craves and calls out for work at the cottage. A kinesthetic reaction and release is created when one's hands, back, shoulders and calves are asked to produce while the busy part of the brain takes the day off.

I wonder if the roots of my anxiety took hold because my underused physical state was hijacked by an overused mental one.

It was during a more recent project that another benefit to all of this physical work became clear in a clearing. While moving a massive boulder that was in danger of cracking heads under my recently-completed zipline project, I remarked just how difficult it was – armed only with a crowbar and a few boards – to move this microwave-sized rock. It took a good 45 minutes of planning, prying and good old-fashioned sweat, among a squadron of mosquitoes, to peel that sucker out of its hole.

But what a good sweat. What a satisfying sensation. To wander back in time, without machine or ignition, and to simply move something, battling gravity all the way. Success came with a little thought, but mostly with sheer and very physical will. The beauty I found in the simplicity of this challenging task was profound.

Story continues below advertisement

And so it goes most weekends. When our car pulls into the cottage driveway, my restless physical brain is already panting and pulling like a dog on a leash even as my work-addled brain longs for a beverage and the nearest bunk.

My hands start to itch and I plan an excuse for leaving the bags for someone else to unload. I walk the property looking out for the next boulder to be moved, or potential extension to the growing tree-fort complex. Not because the boulder is necessarily in the way, or the fort extension has to be built – more because the work week for my more physical sense of self has just begun.

James Darling lives in Toronto.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at