Margie and Donnie McAlear, Matawatchan, Ontario
Story and photos by Shauna Dobbie
He erects an outbuilding, she puts a window box on it, and together they make their lives just a little more beautiful than it already was. Margie and Donnie McAlear have been living on and in and with this 100-acre property well north of Kingston since 2009, though it looks like it has been there forever.
Donnie grew up on a farm in St. Andrews West in Eastern Ontario while Margie grew up in Toronto, but with parents who always gardened. She didn’t really have an opinion on it either way but found as an adult that she felt most herself while playing in the dirt. “I guess there must be some residual, because as soon as I grew up and had my own places, I got into it. I like things to be beautiful.”
Overall, the yard brims with old-fashioned blooms that mix in well with the great wide vistas of fields, hills and trees. Smatterings of pinks brush up against cerastium, single peonies blend in with the foliage of shrubs behind. A bed teeming with Queen Anne’s lace makes you wonder if she planted it or encouraged it, or if maybe it just grew there to suit this lady’s wild whims. Orange hawkweed multiplying in the grass seem more like they’ve found this place on their own and dazzle the eyes with raging colour.
She has a secret garden in a copse of shrubs. You entre through an arbor and find stepping stones around a statue of Buddha, his head resting on his knee, peering at the flowers surrounding him. A bench nearby invites you to sit down and contemplate the nepeta and spirea that bloom wildly before you head back out to the wider garden.
Everywhere you turn, there is an ornament of some sort, anchoring a bed. Like the Buddha, there are statues and sun dials and old farm implements. A horse-drawn plow seat, studded with lichens, above a harrower. A watering can. A bench. St. Francis. They seem to grow there along with the flowers: some purple salvia and a Greek goddess.
There are a few raised boxes containing vegetables, with walking onions ready to walk away, next to a greenhouse. A water barrel here doesn’t collect rain from a roof; rather, Donnie fills it with water from their spring-fed dugout pond. He has set up a pump so that, with various hoses, most parts of the garden can be watered and their well won’t be affected.
It’s a gorgeous bit of land that seemed destined to be theirs. They were living in their dream home in Lanark Highlands, but, out for a drive one day while they were taking a weekend at a cottage nearby, they came around a corner and saw this farm. There was something about it, a big stretch with a farmhouse surrounded by goldenrod and wild apple trees. They asked about the farm when they stopped at the store in nearby Matawatchan; the woman they talked to, also a real estate agent, said the owner died and left it to five people, so it seemed unlikely to be for sale any time soon. They were disappointed and left; they had their dream home, after all.
Well, the farm was listed for sale and Donnie nabbed it. The existing house needed to come down, so they lived in “an old and ill-equipped trailer without any hydro or plumbing” for four months while their new house was built. (The city girl was nonplussed, but her country boy didn’t mind so much.) In addition to roughing it for a few months, Margie has had a few other country-living tribulations to bear, like blackflies.
Although they are supposed to be the earliest of the flesh-sucking insects, she says: “At one point I can affirm that there were mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies that were all fighting and you think you’re going to lose your mind!” But she dons a bug shirt and carries on. What else can you do?
They confess that it’s worthwhile, though. It may seem like they live in the middle of nowhere, but there are others who live nearby. Maybe not a stone’s throw, because neighbours aren’t that close in the country, but just down the road a bit. And they all know each other.
Besides that, Margie loves to watch the sky. “That’s one of the best parts about living here,” she sighs. When the moon comes up and you can watch the phases of it—that’s when they feel most at home.