It is vain. It is frivolous. Yet in the window of a local main street art and framing shop, there is a painting which I covet. It is spectacular in its own way, a limited edition copy, well executed by someone who knows and loves the sea well and intimately. He has captured every fleck of sea foam, every glint of light perfectly. The painter Christopher Walker is a renowned Canadian illustrator and this image has my heart. It is small, 24”x 15”, which makes it more endearing and also possible to mount in a boat. It portrays a man in red storm gear rowing a clinker-built skiff a goodly distance from shore. The title of the work is ‘Devotion.’ “Ya bet yer breasthook!” I think. You’ve got no choice. Pull for your life all the while resolved to the living heaving reality all around. It is often referred to as ‘Storm Ecstasy.’
Behind him, a steep near-breaking swell rises high above but he does not look, hearing its slop and hiss tells him all he needs to know. He has to have confidence that his small craft will rise daintily over it and all the other lumps he must encounter on his way to a sanctuary somewhere near the lighthouse. He is resolved that there is nothing he can do about it anyway. One moment of panic may well spell his doom. “Now lean into it,” he thinks, “but don’t break or lose your oar.” That light, to me, looks a lot like Race Rocks, a few miles from Victoria. It is noted for its turbulent surrounding waters and the image is so true I can smell it. I can taste the brine on my lips, feel the wet air on my face and the slap of the sea against my fragile, thin hull. I’ve been in such situations and can see, hear and feel everything including the pull and spring of the wooden spoon oars. Perhaps there is a nice small halibut in the bottom of the skiff. He isn’t out there just for the exercise.
Designed to warn mariners away from danger, light houses are seldom built to draw them near but onward he rows. This painting expresses tension and peace all at once for the seasoned mariner and a certain terror for the viewer who is a landsperson. I love it. I want it. There is another special nautical painting which, years ago, I did not acquire yet remains indelible in my memory. Now the capitalist craving haunts me again but for the time being this new longing will have to stay in the shop window where it has called to me for the past year. The painting is a metaphor of my life. Read into it what you will. I have a fantasy of my writing desk by a window looking out to sea, my books on shelves at either elbow, that painting on the wall where I can see it along with other art I cherish. Still rowing toward distant marks, tide against wind I yam what I yam. You know the Bob Seger song.
The painting requires only a bit of money but I I have none and there are, of course, debts and bills to be paid first. The job I started a week ago lasted less than four days. I made a simple but grievously stupid error on my first morning. I was easily able to repair it and offered that, but the damage was done. There are no second chances after making a bad first impression. My wagging tail was suddenly tucked where the sun seldom shines. That dark cloud of doubt weighed on both me and my new employer. With a rapidly dwindling trade, due in part to both the global virus dread and the puckered economy in result of regional protests I could clearly see there was not much work for me at the moment. I need the income and I need the affirmation of being able to hold a job. Gone! I must confess my weary body and the incomplete healing from my recent surgery also made it obvious that perhaps my glory days on the job are past. I was able to prove to my younger co-workers that motors can be diagnosed and repaired efficiently without computer diagnosis. Maybe ignoring protocol was what did me in. But then, it would have been something else. So what! Life goes on.
This is a tough week and first things first, I must repair the engine in my truck. Maybe that will restore my confidence. Done. But I feel no better. Suddenly I’ve come down with flu-like symptoms but haven’t coughed up any Corona bottle caps so no worries mate. I was at the doctor’s office last week and everyone with a sniffle is piling in there. I don’t do baa very well. You get old, you get sick, you die. Then the cycle begins again. Old Jack wants to go for his morning outing, which will be a slow and halting procession, for both of us. We each need the air and the exercise and off we go before the drizzle thickens into a steady rain. Spring draws nearer.
One of my signature poems is called “The Water Rushing By”. In it, I describe the consummate need for mariners to feel the sensation of water passing the hull of a boat. That feeling is an addiction and presently, being boatless, there are days when an old log would have to do if nothing else were at hand. Fortunately I had the good sense to buy a wonderful Achilles inflatable boat before the money ran out. The size of what has usually been a dinghy to my mother vessels, it is nevertheless a boat which gets me away from shore. Equipped with a new outboard motor my tiny vessel is reliable and safe although it can certainly be rough and wet. A man of my scantlings must make an incongruous sight bobbing along miles from shore, but what is, is. Two blogs ago I described touring around this part of the coast in my little basher and this blog is about a recent day when I went off with my cameras in that little boat.
Bound up with cabin fever I launched the inflatable for a long day away. As an afterthought I threw in a small air mattress, one blanket and a tarp…just in case. With extra gas, water and a small bag of provisions I charged out on calm waters beneath a cloudless sky not knowing where I was heading. The best days start out exactly like that. Wind is always of concern in a tiny boat. In the Gulf Islands, with all its bays, and cliffs, forests and flowing water, local winds can spring up quickly. Despite prevailing winds local breezes are capricious and one must be prepared. Conditions within a short distance can change dramatically. Bouncing about impedes progress and soon has the boat and its contents soaking wet. It is safe enough, just miserable. I always try to position myself as quickly as possible so that access to the route home is downwind. Although longer andslower, it is usually much easier and drier.
After leaving Ladysmith Harbour, once safe under the sheltering cliffs of Valdez Island a passage of about sixteen kilometres, or ten miles, an outer island in the Strait Of Georgia, the wind can come from the north or south quadrants and actually help a small vessel on its way. Vancouver Island, the size of a small country, lies off the west coast of mainland Canada aligned in a northwest- southeast direction. On the inside lower shoreline it is flanked by an archipelago known as the Gulf Islands. The geography here is mostly of sandstone and was clearly shaped by glaciation. Along its Dali-like sculpted sandstone shores one often finds round granite boulders which must have been deposited as the ice retreated.
The archipelago was an ancient haven for indigenous people, with an abundance of edibles, especially sea food; there were a maze of sheltered nooks and bays, and a moderate climate. Hold no illusions about an idyllic lifestyle, it would have been a hard life and the numerous native nations warred brutally among themselves. Compared however to the harsh conditions in the traditional homelands of most other first nations people, with long bitterly cold winters, life in the Gulf Islands was easy enough for there to be time for a very rich culture, full of wonderful art and creativity. Sadly for them, the invasion of Europeans spelled a rapid end to that venerable culture, which only now, is regaining the respect it deserved. Hopefully we will find a balance of living together as equal human beings, each with our own piece of cultural diversity, distinct, and yet part of a brightly-coloured mosaic like a patchwork quilt. Comfortingly, local place names were often bestowed by Spanish and British explorers and many places have been returned to the original indigenous derivatives. Kuper Island, for example, is now Penalakut Island. The Strait Of Georgia, is now politically correctly named The Salish Sea.
The Gulf Islands are a mecca for folks from all over the world. They attract yachters, eco-tourists and those with enough money to acquire a piece of land and build an often garish neo-monstrosity that is clearly not an effort to assimilate the tone of this beautiful place, but rather seems to scream “Look at me.” The world these folks wanted to escape has been merely been transplanted here, they are tentacles of yet another invasive species. I love to repeat that I remember a time when poor people lived by the sea and ate fish. More’s the pity, those days are gone forever.
In the near-four decades that I have lived in this area, it has become a much different place and not in a good way. Over a half a century ago (Yes, it was that long ago) hippies and draft dodgers invaded the Gulf Islands. The islands were then remote, sparsely populated, land was cheap, It was nirvana for a generation of free-loaders who wanted a perfect climate for growing their organic “crops” and living close to the earth, often in communes. The mantra was “Peace man, share the wealth.” Then, as inheritances came along, land values soared yesterday’s hippies became yuppies and “Private, My Land!” signs were spiked, in places, to every shoreline tree. It has been said that capitalists are merely socialists who have found an opportunity. Mine!
Well, life goes on. Like the dinosaurs who could not assimilate change rapidly enough and faded into history, old farts like me will pass and “Progress” will continue. Frankly one of the foulest words I have come to know is “Development”, synonymous to me with greed and devastation. When the time comes, scatter my ashes on the local green waters where I can wash and circulate among these beloved islands. Look at these islands and try to imagine how they used to be not so long ago. The images in this blog are from within a twenty-four hour period two days ago. There will also be a video.
“Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit.” Brooks Atkinson
Jack and I walked our normal morning loop down at the waterfront and around the old coal terminal here in Ladysmith. I call it the “Black Beach” because of all the coal left over from that era. Jack loves it there. Blackberries and rabbits thrive and he often gets to socialize with other wonderful dogs. The sun hung as a huge white ball low over the glassy waters of the harbour. No boat stirred its surface. There was not a breath of wind. The morning air was cool in the shade and warm in the light. A heavy dew had settled this morning. The seasons progress.
For some reason I recalled a labour day sixty-two years ago today. It was 1957, I was five years old. My father was a manic gardener and could produce amazing heaps of vegetables out of the red clay soil of Southern Ontario where we lived. Across the street from where we rented a tiny house there sprawled a large playing field. Several games of soccer often went on at the same time. I can still hear shouts in Italian and Portuguese as flashing balls ricocheted back and forth on the broad field and see swarthy men pelting about in pursuit. Every spring a circus came to the Oakville arena on the far side of that expanse. When it left town there remained warm pungent heaps of manure. Elephant, camel, horse, monkey, lion, tiger; dad swore by the properties of these exotic mounds and he would trot with his wheel barrow back and forth across the park with his freely-acquired aromatic garden elixir late into the night. He certainly could conjure monstrous vegetables out of that brick clay mixed with circus dung.
On the particular Labour Day I’m recalling, he built a fire in the backyard and installed a cauldron over it. We harvested from the garden and mom boiled and canned a large part of our winter’s preserves. We were living in town, newcomers from dairy farms, but even then, in post-war suburban Canada, it was an unusual thing for folks to do. Dad had survived the war in rural England, mother grew up on a prairie homestead through the depression and survivalist sensibilities came naturally to them. They possessed and taught me skills which I now take pride in when most people around me live in a push-button culture. It was hot, dirty work but even at that tender age I was expected to work like a little man. A friend from up the street wandered by to ask me to come play but was told I had to stay home until the day-long job was done. I complained that it was a holiday and dad responded that on Labour Day everyone was expected to work, no matter what other folks were doing. I believe he was serious.
The very next day was my first ever at school. I walked, on my own, the better part of a mile to find my way to kindergarten. When, years later, I visited these old haunts as an adult, I could not believe that my parents had pushed me out into the world like that. I suppose that is how baby birds learn to fly, flap or crash. I learned skills which have served me well throughout my existence. My parents were martially strict yet would allow me great latitudes in how far and how long I wandered. Apparently, when I was outside of their presence, God was expected to babysit. When I pass a high-school and see the parade of vehicles transporting teenage students I wonder at these kids and their skills to go out into a digital world and cope with basics like food and shelter. I cannot even operate a modern mobile phone competently but I do know how to survive without one.
A few weeks later that fall, Sputnik orbited over our house. I recall, even now, how everyone stood out in their backyards staring up at the clear night sky not sure what they were looking for. Suddenly someone cried, “There it is!” and soon we all spotted, in muted awe, a very bright star hurtling across the darkening cosmos. The world changed forever that night. We seldom look up now to count all the satellites stitching across the sky in all directions. We don’t even look up from our texting as we step into the traffic.
My parents, consummate fundamentalist evangelical Christians had been indoctrinated that Soviet Communism was the epitome of Satanic evil and surely the mark of the “end of days.” This mysterious Russian weapon (or whatever Khrushchev was scheming) now violating God’s heaven and spying down on us surely heralded Armageddon. We were living through the era leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis and paranoia of being fried to a crisp was rampant. I recall the air-raid sirens and the drills at school when we would all crawl under our desks and kiss our little asses goodbye, again. A gas explosion destroyed a house a few blocks away that winter. There was a huge thump, everything rattled horrifically. I can still remember my deep terror that this was IT. The Pinkos had struck!
Well, here I am well over a half-century later. I survived it all including my high-school years which is a fabulous story in itself. All I’ll offer of those days is that there was grave concern for a few years about the next encroaching ice age. Yes really! Then Ralph Nader came along and the tiger crap really hit the fan. The profit of paranoia is still imposed on us as never before history began to be recorded.
It is nowa beautiful, flawless late summer day. I need to get up from this desk and do something. Despite backyard burning being illegal in this town I am tempted to find some beets to boil and go make a fire. I could explain to the volunteer fire department that I was following a cultural tradition. Yeah right. There is a rising breeze and if I turned on my marine radio I’d hear a string of Maydays. It happens every summer long -weekend. Yachters from mainland Canada must return across the Strait Of Georgia and as soon as a tiny whitecap appears, panic sets in among the Tupperware armada. It used to amuse me but now that I’m boatless a dull knife twists in my gut. I know that all those millions of dollars of nautica, which never leave sight of land, belong to most folks for nearly every reason other than a love of the sea. Once in the home marina most of these “look at me possessions” will languish abandoned until Easter. Money isn’t everything but I sure could stand a change of problems.
“C’mon Jack, let’s go for a walk.”
…”The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
Last blog I offered a cryptic squint at modern policing attitudes. I must add this. Four years ago a habitual drunk in a pickup truck careening through a suburb of Victoria ran a red light and rammed a police car broadside. He fatally mashed a police officer. The victim was a woman and a mother. Her husband still grieves, especially now. The sentence handed down for this horrific tragedy was a mere four years. However we may each value our human lives that punishment seems cavalier to say the least. That the victim was a RCMP constable on duty should perhaps be irrelevant but four years for wilfully dangerous and violent, mortal irresponsibility is a horrific insult to us all. It trivializes the value of everyone’s life.
I stand by my concerns about jaded and arrogant police attitudes but I also grasp how crushing it must be for all officers when they are so demeaned by a casual judicial system. It also helps me empathize a bit better with the policeman’s lot. Small wonder they become bitterly hardened in the face of such crass dismissals of what they endure while trying to do their duty, no matter how they perceive what that might be.
By the way, friendly comments about my last blog suggest that I “Stay out of trouble.” All I’ll say in response is this. Name me one of your heroes or anyone else the world remembers who stayed out of trouble! C’mon now, just one name!
Summer is rushing past. Dried leaves fall and carpet the trails. Over-ripe blackberries ferment and drunken wasps buzz in your face. Tiny songbirds are flocking up and feeding voraciously in preparation for long southward migrations. Second cuttings of hay on local farms have been baled and stored away. Local markets and roadside stalls overflow with fresh local produce. Back-to-school ads flood the media. It seems I was just posting photos of early spring buds. The seasons whirl by. Peter Fonda, the baby-faced biker just died. He was 89!
I was shocked to realize that the classic and iconic movie, ‘Easy Rider’ was first seen back in my high school days, an entire lifetime ago. That was over half a century! When you start measuring your own life in those terms, well, you know the jokes about buying green bananas.
I’ve never written a bucket list; I’ve just lived it. The greatest anticipations are yet to be experienced. I’ve learned to quit wringing my hands about things like politics. I still constantly prod people to think, think for themselves but I’ve also realized the wisdom of the old Alcoholics Anonymous mantra: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Or, as George Carlin put it, “Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.”
This blog’s photos are local grab shots taken in the last few days.
A dear friend and fellow sailor presently visiting the Thor Heyerdahl Museum in Oslo Norway has just e-mailed me this:
“Borders? I have never seen one, but I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people.”
It is the second day of July. Last night the holiday fireworks resolved into a mere two huge explosions. Then all was quiet. I hope there were at least a few survivors. This morning it is raining, a beautiful steady warm rain. The doors are open and I listen to the music of water gurgling in the downspouts. There is a lovely aroma of freshness. We need this, desperately. There were a few hours of precipitation last week, the stream beds did not swell at all. Now this. I swear I can almost hear the parched earth soaking it up. More please! This blog will be a simple photo essay about life in my little patch here on Vancouver Island. Rain or sun, bring your hat.
“ For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out. James Baldwin.