Over to the east of Algonquin Park, north of Eganville near Lake Doré, where 125-year-old log barns, sway-backed but sturdy, still stand, and coyotes yowl in the late afternoon, I stood in a field of herbs planted from seeds collected in the wild by Steven Martyn, and thought I had rarely met a person so at peace with himself.
It was not always so. Martyn is 35 now, standing barefoot, bearded, and long-haired, like an emissary from the Age of Aquarius. When he was 19, however, it was a different story. He was tormented.
« I was just out of high school and I didn’t trust the world I was in. There was so much that was two-faced. I wanted to get away from it all. I wanted to become autonomous.’’
His parents had a cottage in the Muskokas, where he sought refuge. « I felt I could trust nature. I felt safe and comforted by it.’’ Before long, the forest had become his home.
« I began going into the bush with a tent and gear.’’ And with a paperback copy of A Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson. « At a certain point, I had this huge revelation that basically you can eat anything. That Western agriculture had closed us down to the reality that we too are animals, and we’re part of nature.’’
In his second year, he got fed up with carting around a tent and gear, and built a hutch. It was like a small, rectangular tent, maybe a metre and a half high, with low walls of dried mud, and a roof of small logs.
It served his purposes admirably, so he built another … and another. In the end he had five, spread over an area of about 165 square kilometres through which he roamed, ranging from Point Walker on Lake Muskoka, south to the Severn River.
For four years, until he was 23, he lived by foraging for food — roots and plants and barks — and by snaring small game. He used his father’s chain saw to cut firewood for winter. « My father was tolerant, but he had no idea what I was doing….
« At one point, I had barely seen anyone in a couple of years.’’ And then it came time to leave. « I felt that if I didn’t leave soon, I wouldn’t be able to leave.’’
The forest « had given me a sense of place and belonging.’’ But returning to society wasn’t easy. There were bad relationships, difficult times. « It as a real challenge for me to keep my integrity and still interact in the larger culture. I found out how really difficult it was to walk my talk.’’
He enrolled in Fine Arts at York University, graduating in 1992. « I went from no people to 50,000 people at York.’’ Then he travelled to the Chiapas highlands in Mexico. « And there I discovered integrated agriculture, where they grow 60 crops intermingled, with no weeding, no plowing.’’ None of the high cost, high maintenance, high chemical use of North American agriculture.
He returned for a masters degree in the cultural use of plants and of land at Trent University. But he still hadn’t found « a place for me in this society.’’ A place where he fit, and which would enable his partner, Kim Elkington, to leave Toronto and live with him.
They found such a place with The Algonquin Tea Co. which they created to produce herbal teas from wild plants in the Algonquin area. They shipped their first teas 2 1/2 years ago, and now are branching into « wildcrafted and organic Canadian seeds and herbs.’’
The Algonquin teas — lucid dream tea, sweetfern tonic, and homestead tea — sell at stores in the $6 range for a package of 20 tea bags. If you want to know more about the teas, or the herbs and seeds they now sell, call 1-800-292-6671.
« The tea was my bridge to society,’’ Martyn says. But bridges go two ways. He also hopes the teas will help people cross back to the natural world.
It’s now 16 years since he entered the wild, in what came to be an epic search for spiritual equilibrium. The gentle soul emerging from that search is an inspiration.