Sunday, 15 December 2013

Being Here Now, Waiting for the Silence

Across the world, in Venezuela right now, in the Ukraine, in many places, people are fighting for their right to a fair way of living. For simple freedoms, for human rights, for their dreams, and some are being shot on the spot for demanding something better of their leaders. How is it that they are they, and I am me? It just is. For if I were them, I would be them, and if they were me, they would be me. What I deal with day to day is in no way a struggle in comparison to theirs. Where I live, however, there are still things to fight for, there are human rights to defend, there is nature to protect, and a living to be carved out. The onus is on us, as residents of this amazing part of the world, to preserve what is truly most valuable, to discover intelligent and resourceful ways to be self sufficient and to strengthen the social structure of our communities. They say you must start from where you are, with what you have, and do what you can. So, here I am renting a house on a gulf island, commuting to work in the town across the water, trying to utilize my talents to provide a living. What kind of living do I want? One of peace, of achievement, of contentedness, self-sufficiency and low impact. Should that right be available to all of us? Yes, it should. Then, how?

A Summer's venture to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

       One of the first places I came to visit on G Island in 2008 was the home of S and R, then best friends of my partner K. Arriving by bike off the ferry on a hot July day, I got lost trying to find their house, and had to keep asking the locals how to get there. Anyone I asked seemed to know the way, carefully checking me out before answering. While riding around the island in haphazard disorientation, my unfolding surroundings overwhelmed me with nostalgia. The quiet gravel country roads encroached only by by forest,  the fresh air and the lack of traffic, the smell of the sea in my mind wandered back to my childhood summer holidays spent at Qualicum Beach, where our friends owned the humble beach-front Waskasoo Inn, with its sand-splattered floor tiles and its seaweed and driftwood-scented rooms. Wild and suntanned children of the 70s, we'd bravely march along the railway tracks through the woods until we reached a secret trestle, where the raging river suddenly stood still and formed a pool as serene and deep as a mug of warm milk. We'd dive and swim and hang from tree branches,and shout at our own echoes from the surrounding rock walls ....then we'd wander safely back at dusk on the deserted Island highway, past a pink sunset shoreline view interrupted only by the presence of Mrs. Little's Cabins and the odd motel, to discover my dad and Mr. D returning from a day of fishing for salmon in the ocean...we'd devour the buttered red fish off the barbeque and watch in horrified awe as Mr. D held freshly roasted oyster shells above his head. Barely cracked open by the heat of the beach fire, they would slide slowly out and then suddenly drop down the back of his throat, setting us all screeching with disgusted glee. We'd light fires inside milk cartons and send them off on the outgoing night tide, watching them flicker upon the waves until we could only squint at little pinpoint specks in the dark, confusing them with the stars.

When I arrived at S and R's house that daydreaming July day, I noted how easily I could have passed it, tucked away and unassuming, an eyeblink of a driveway hidden from the road. I pushed open the big wooden gate in their ten foot fence, and walked into a world that would entrance me all over again, for I thought, right away, this is paradise. A thin but well-worn path crossed a yard overflowing with flowers and vegetables, past a tire hanging from a tree, and beaten down and bleached wooden sheds, bees buzzing, birds tweeting, the smell of soup cooking, a rickety old sunken mobile home covered in rose bushes, with a boot-trodden covered porch offering rocking chairs and sofas, decorated with hanging beads and glassware, candles and animal skulls and batik cloth and stoneware pottery, buckets of seashells, and beach stones piled in the corners of each porch step.. My partner was there waiting for me, and he introduced me to S ~ tall, with friendly eyes and and a lanky build, and R, with her red flowing hair and long colourful hippie skirt. I was invited in for tea, and was fascinated by the humble beauty of their simple, with plywood floors, a woodstove, a small kitchen, yet crammed to the rafters with books and musical instruments and textiles and art on the walls, the sun streaming in the windows to paint everything gold, highlighting a lived-in chaotic assembly of used furniture and unfolded laundry and pets. This initial visit would soon blend in with the many ensuing wonderful days and nights spent at at their place, eating fried local oysters in mesquite sauce, listening to R play the piano and sing while S played the accordian, huddling round the woodfire cuddling Angel the dog, gathering round the table for one of R's home made meals, laughing with her daughter and son, getting pecked on the neck by the lovebird Lucy, helping R organize her school papers for marking, watching S carve his artful handmade jewellery. Always their door was open and always they had friends over throughout the day. Always there to listen to stories and tell jokes and offer a shoulder for someone to lean on, they were, to me, the most exemplary couple ever. Like us, their love of the natural world surrounding them was their passion, and close small community their stronghold. I said to K the very day that I met them, this is how I want to live, I want us to be like them, with an open welcoming home and a strong supportive connection to our neighbours.

Thistles in the yard of S & R

I suppose I thought, when shortly after that visit I decided to move here, that I was coming back to that sort of an ideal island life, but you would not recognise my old Qualicum Beach today and I'm quite sure that this island is too, alas, slowly losing it's own quaint and isolated edge. Eventually I realized that my romantic vision had already passed by about thirty or forty years ago, and S & R's home was a fragile surviving oasis; they had bought their property years ago and worked hard to maintain their dreams and positively impact their community. As much as we hoped to replicate their frugal and simple low impact lifestyle, it was rapidly becoming a challenging and fading possibility.

Not long ago on the ferry I overheard another version of the wailing call of the far removed yearning for that future day. This wailing call is the mournful lament of the people who visit this island and hum and sigh about the difficult economy and say how much they would LOVE to move to a gulf island like this but it is simply impossible to do so and make a "decent" living. These are the ones like the man I met at a party awhile ago who said it took him seven years to finally move here because there was no way to build his second home sooner, like the businessman I met in Vancouver who sold his sprawling summer house here because his city obligations never allowed him time to get away to it.  The ones who firmly believe that a certain amount of secured wealth is prerequisite or imperative to setting down roots in this fast receding ecosystem of clean water, lovely forest paths, various rocky and sandy beaches, fresh fields that welcome deer, slapping tides that otters roll in, tree tops where the eagles perch, horizons cut sharp by orca fins, dewy earth-scented trails where bike tracks can dry and disappear before the next rider finds them, hidden alcoves deep off the beaten path that house muddy beaver dams, gravel roads that sit silent on a Friday at dusk,small and simple unobtrusive cottages that a woodstove can fully heat, ocean water that welcomes swimmers and row boats, pitch black night skies that offer a million stars per penny earned in a lifetime, as long as you can find a place where the treetops part enough to see them.

All of these divine and natural joys in life that should be FREE, free to us all while our lungs are still pink and our cheeks still rosy, seem to be the expected full or part-time reward only to a privileged few. And still, many of those privileged few prefer roads over fields, paint over wood, and parking lots over walkways, property lines over trails, and the erection of No Trespassing signs. How did this come to be? Of course some element of economy was needed to sustain anyone living here, but what kind of economy did that need to be? Wasn't it always here already if nature was able to provide, and those living here didn't equate serenity with luxury or enjoyment with convenience?

Last summer, working for $12 an hour, I had a chance to mow the lawns of numerous beautiful properties around the island.While I got my exercise I was able to feel the sun on my body, enjoy gorgeously abundant gardens, smell the beckoning giant froth of the sea and, on one particular day, stand in front of the widest private view of the ocean from a vantage point that will never be mine or anyone's but the home owner's...who wasn't living there, and wouldn't be back for six months.

K and I recently read a book titled Twelve by Twelve ~ A One Room Cabin Off the American Grid 
which encompasses an ideal that still struggles to find its space in the wilderness....the idea of self-sufficiency in a very low impact and minimal  lifestyle. It is a dream of ours to seek out such a living.

View of the ferry arriving ~ photo by Sean McFarland
Many enterprising people in society are sacrificing their time and their lives to an unchallenged formula, the formula that separates life from lifestyle, and career from home. They have an eye on the final reward...the comfortable life they expect to live here "one day". Much as I wonder at the roundabout pursuits of these people, their hard work and retirement-aimed goal has made it  possible for people like me to live here year round, to be crazy enough to barely manage to rent a house in the woods twelve months a year, to wake up every morning seeing trees and not cement outside my window, to force myself to be creative and resourceful in my means of earning a living, and to be thankful for having the very basic necessities with which to eke by while surrounded daily by the enormous beauty I can never, now that I know it so well, ever leave for anywhere else, unless we move somewhere more remote, somewhere that still runs fifteen or twenty years ahead of its wider discovery.

We remain here, simply surviving, with no guarantee of savings or so-called security, and yet, we actually own from day-to-day what nobody can buy or make or replace once it is gone...pristine, unspoiled nature.

Unsuccessful at securing a livable income on G island, we rely on my work in town on Vancouver Island, a 24 minute ferry ride away. Being among those who rent here, we're part of the struggling service population, and yet it is the only way we can be here now. Is it really a worse deal than owning a home we must wait to live in year round , or worse yet not ever want to live in year round? Sadly, I have quickly learned how much the odds are stacked against people like us, and how much the wailing call is a true and valid lament. It IS a struggle to live on G Island through all four seasons if you are not a home owner, retired, a successful business owner, or well-employed across the water.. The pursuit of simply maintaining a meager existence here is not for the faint of heart. A flexible and forgiving landlord is a Godsend and one has to pray he/she doesn't give in to the idea of renting at a higher rate to professors on annual sabbatical or a rotation of international visitors. People earning minimum wage who rely on affordable accommodations on G Island will never see the inside of  a $1600/month second story ocean view suite, and can only hope the $800-900 rentals hold steady, the same rentals that only three years ago were $500-$600. The population here is rapidly morphing to a majority of wealthy elderly retirees and off-island recreational home owners, whose symbiotic partner is the necessary service and rental income providing population. The trades, and property maintenance, provide the majority of work for year-rounders, much of it for cash or at rates competing with off-island contractors. Local employers are pressed by long quiet winters to seek the economic advantage of hiring retirees or teenagers who don't mind $10/ hour, and lack the means to hire working age renters who rely on a  full-time living wage. Unfurnished year round rentals are rare and far for September-June furnished rentals asking city prices are increasing, and many people would rather alarm and protect their valuable vacant properties, fearing poor upkeep or property damage by low income renters.

Our Front Yard

Diversity is crucial to the maintenance of strong island community. To dilute it and tip the ship too heavily one way is the beginning of a sinking. 

Almost everyone I know from the city has told me they could never take the risk of living as close to the bone as I do now. It's a massive leap of faith, which once taken, may not offer an easy way out. People will call you everything  from crazy to lazy to falsely entitled to doomed, none of which are true, nor should be. Is it wrong to strive to survive on as little as possible, to have a trailer on a huge treed lot and never develop it,  and to seek out an uncomplex life in the place you most wish to live? Good friends of ours who arrived here shortly after we did , all the way from Edmonton, eventually left for a more promising life in New Brunswick. A local family who have stretched themselves thin for seven years have announced they are at the end of their financial rope and will be forced to leave this spring.

My partner, who has lived on and off this island since the 90s, has witnessed the slow erosion of natural simplicity as it caves in to the invasion of West Vancouver style transplanted homes, more paved roads and the erection of NO TRESPASSING signs where once anyone could freely cut through the woods following only the deer trails. Now marketed and "branded" as the Isle of The Arts, an optimistic and exclusively chic  generation of commercial artists rely upon the Arts Council to promote their work to the tourists and sustain their careers. The council succeeded last year in packaging their brand by employing local artists (upon condition they belong to the Arts Council) to paint the telephone poles along the ferry hill, staking their claim to represent their commodity to the tourist market. If you are producing art here and are not in the council, you will likely miss out on the fanfare of having your work widely discovered....something for diehard art hunters to might be necessary to go a little deeper to discover what is hidden in the woods...among my very favourite artists here, is an ostracized drug addict who lives on welfare, who would prefer to remain anonymous.

Once an island of hippies and wood cabins and small trailers on widely separated lots, as with all areas known for their natural beauty, the private ocean views and the tree-felling dream houses were soon to be sought after. Suddenly offered sums for their properties they couldn't even fathom, the simple living folk, unsung artists and bohemians of 20th century G Island sold out....and, sadly for the economy, the peaceful ma & pa pot growers  such as our friend S have been increasingly busted out, essentially having their lives upset and ruined for no advantage to anyone. They must take the hard knocks and the punishment, as the greedy masqueraders of the the profit-seeking medical marijuana commercial industry barge in to trample them over and  remove all their human rights. As far as I am concerned, pot is akin to broccoli and should be treated as such...grow it at home or buy it from the store, illegal to anyone under 18 to purchase. It's plain intelligence, and the economy would thrive, as well as people over corporations. The people are also let down again as another corporation, BC Ferries, has cut the sailing services to the island forcing the working class out, and more empty subdivisions shall continue to cramp in as real estate agents see profit.

Across the dirt road from us, a large circular lot has been carved out deep inside a remaining thin circle of high evergreens. We walk past it and peek across at the motor home which at night glows with a golden light. We've met one of the women who lives there, and we think we've spotted the other one at times. I always think, they have everything already, no need to go any further. Truly, if we actually owned a lot like that, a sweet little cabin or motor home would be enough for us to end our days in and find a community-serving way to make it work. But that's just me and my partner. We're wondering when the chain saws and hammering will start across the road, or if they will at all. So far we just smile and say hi when we see anyone there...we're too afraid to ask if, eventually, the trees will all be shaved, the magical forest stripped, and a West Vancouver lookalike home be erected. 

I wish there was a way we could ALL find the life we want, simple or extravagant, where we want, and when we want it. Sometimes I'm sure there are two types of people...those who shall continue to move toward outer space, and those who shall remain cherishing this rare and fragile pristine earth. Both are adventurous and inventive, but me, I want to work where I live and be here now, build on my humble and simple living days where I thrive the most, for after all, life itself is a rental. The world is discovering how insecure we all are, balancing on a needle head. K and I want to earn our keep here always but starting NOW, and not buy into the delusion of the far removed who may never see their future day. We don't want them to be right, and they don't have to be. I want us to make it here, to make it here because we want for so little and don't want to have too much . And most of all, I want the wailing call to fade away.


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  2. poignant and you're truth a heart warming piece and you're story shared for all of us of your journey on the Island...thank you. I shall be here in Steveston fanning your desires to continue to lead a sustaining and a rich in body, mind & spirit life on the Island. BIG HUGS Dear Ranza...& K

  3. Thanks for sharing your beautiful writing and heartfelt dreams. I am lucky enough to live on a gorgeous Gulf Island and be your neighbour, and I too wish that property with the trailer stays the same.