Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Fishing Boat.

Here is a little sketch of a Mexican fishing boat some where off the coast of Baha California. Not much, a white page, a few scratched lines, it could hardly be called a "work of art" if only because it is so ephemeral, so incomplete. For me it serves a different purpose; its very lack of polish brings it closer to the reality of perception. It is free to just be itself. It is always a miracle to me; a few scratched lines and what a minute earlier was before even thought itself has sprung living onto the page.
What I like about this shadowy little image is that it is so shaggy, so ill defined. There are so many places a viewer can get a handhold, to interact, and be drawn into the page: unfinished by design, it lives forever as potential. With our own imaginations, we can feel the quality of light that casts the ship in shadowy outline;- the shimmering pearly light of the Sea of Cortez. We can call up the crew ,their personalities, their lives when they are home again with their families ashore.
It is the subject for an ongoing meditation that it could never be if it were a painting with all the details complete; - with all the blanks filled in. It will continue always in a state of becoming.

Low tide. Crows and Seagulls.

A wide vista: a breezy afternoon at the docks, boats, a rocky breakwater, islands, blue sky. In the foreground, so easily overlooked, is a low tide mudflat, a temporary landing strip for a swirl of crows and seagulls: all wings and strident calls.
My original sketch shows none of this swirl of movement in black and white. I drew what I saw: a few crows resting on a mudflat amid the pattern of shallow breaking waves that bend as they curve around the point of the flat.
So why the change? It has much to do with working with brush and ink and a fascination with pattern. If a little is good, then a lot could be more so right? It can happen faster than I can think with a big brush on rice paper. So the brush and the paper and my hand fly along like greased lightening and suddenly there is a new entity before me. It is as much of a surprise for me as to any other viewer.

...a flight of pelicans
Is nothing lovelier to look at;
The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts loose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Ernest elements of nature.
"Boats in a Fog."
Robinson Jeffers.


A canoe glides along beside an ocean shore. The bow paddler pauses in his rhythm and nods towards a distant headland."There, at the base of that cliff. Bear!" Later, closer,"Rock! Now a rock."If these are indigenous peoples in the canoe, this would not be a natural mistake in perception ("For a minute it looked like a bear but my imagination was playing tricks on me") but rather that the perception never changed, the thing observed did: it transformed from bear to rock.
This way of experiencing the world as transformational is, or was, the norm among many peoples around the world. Not hard to understand intellectually, but difficult for those of us raised in a different world view to blend with our own. They are wildly divergent ways of understanding the world but create an interesting tension when they occur together.
Only after finishing and living with this ink painting for a while, did I see the face in the rocky cliff in the foreground. Its one of those figure ground images: either you see the rock or the face, it flickers back and forth. At first I resented this intrusion into a painting of a favourite family camping spot on Portland Island. It was not in my plan. Then I thought about this transforming image and realized how much I rely on being open to the unbidden, the unexpected. If I take control and paint this out I will be negating the greater truth that`s trying to speak through this painting. Even in a landscape so closely associated in my mind with intimate family memories, there still resonate other older perceptions and ways of seeing. There is a depth here to which I need to pay attention.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


We have had our second winter storm. First, wet heavy snow weighed down and broke trees and branches. Then a powerful warm front came in with heavy rain and warm south-east winds causing rapid melting and flooding. Finally with the following cold front we had a last wild bout of strong gusty west winds and wild waves.
At these times the people of the coast know the world as flux; the solid certainties and rational predictabilities of daily life and work interrupted by the storm sweeping in from the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps its not such a bad thing to be reminded that life is in its essence all flow and that once forced out of our life routines we can feel the movement of the larger natural world of which we are a part. Uncomfortable yes, but liberating.
In this drawing of two companion islands I show a real solid rocky place, that is also part of the ocean of ever moving sea and air. The sandstone shores are carved and shaped by the waves. The trees, bushes and grasses feel the salt spray and grow formed by the winds of winter. If we think about this relationship at all, the chances are we will think we must frame it within a scientific perspective: weather fronts, erosion ( even glaciation.),and all of the complex biological processes busily at work. I find though, that if I am to make a picture of flow and movement I must reach for another set of tools, a way of thinking, that permits me to feel my way into my subject. That stepping out of the world of culture that we experience in the midst of a storm, the feeling of being part of the wild world, is the mind space I reach for. Empathy is usually thought of as applying to a deeper understanding of other human beings but I do find it answers for my art as well. That alternate tool box of intuition, emotions, passion and spirit holds the key to the Dragon`s gate.

Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.
Carl Jung.

Salty sea breeze

The afternoon sea breeze funnels up the narrow bay creating small crested waves that pant rhythmically as they hit the beach. Higher up the shingle are rounded driftwood logs, a dense salal covered bank and a magnificent grove of big alder trees leaning fulsomely into the wind.
This is parkland, no waterfront homes, no marina, just a secluded little bay, a salty sea breeze and the natural sounds that belong to it. When I was a Park Ranger I walked along this bay often as part of my duties, in all seasons, at all hours, but it is this particular scene that tugs sharply at my memory. Those alders leaning into the briskly flowing air, their fluttering leaves filling the bay with sweet sound and flickering light, the steady beat of the waves on the beach; it was all so fecund, so full of life. And I, trotting purposely along in my uniform and wearing my Ranger hat, was pulled out of myself for that moment and felt the lovemaking of the world and knew that I was part of it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dragongate Genesis

Snowberry bushes grow on the slopes of the rocky knoll behind our house. Common as dust, nondescript green during the summer, in winter they are bare sticks covered in white berries. On cloudy wet days, thousands of white dots hover above the dark sodden ground, a kind of Milky Way that reaches as high as my belt. That starry image drifts into my mind unbidden and I welcome it with an inner smile. This trick of mind that opens the gate of perception runs like a background program playing with words, images and the associated ideas that jostle and elbow each other seeking a new life, a new amalgam.
Dragongate, emerged typically as an almost accident: typing in several possible blog titles and finding them taken, I drifted into the image of the wooden dragon I had created and placed on the lintel above my entrance gate. Success! Like the dragon himself springing to life from a piece of driftwood, the name became a presence, a daemon, that stands at the gates of perception.
The dragon is a potent symbol in western culture. Like fire itself, the dragon is both a destructive and a potentially creative entity. Pillaging and burning, guarding a treasure hoard locked up in the dark primordial earth, it is also the creature we must go through to regain the sequestered treasure that we must have if we are to constantly renew and revitalize the world. I remember the Dragon ships of the Vikings. These too were a force that gnawed at civilization, civilized thought, the accepted world view and were in the process an agent for change and renewal. I could not have thought of a better symbol for the power of the creative process if I had tried.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


The Little Island
There is a little island not far from here that has always held a powerful attraction to me. Hardly more than a rock with a beacon at one end, it is in the path of all the ferry traffic travelling to and from the mainland. Its dominant sound is the crash of ferry waves, the thunder of engines and the squawk of public address systems.
In spite of all this disturbance it is a most beautiful land in miniature, like a painting of some idealized Renaissance landscape tantalizingly glimpsed in the distance behind some luxurious nude: Sandstone slopes and diminutive cliffs are topped by a grassy meadow and several rounded evergreen trees. That is the fascination with islands, there is a satisfying sense of completeness, of natural boundaries, that is so hard to find in our human, complex world.
In this drawing as in the Renaissance Painting, the human element, the ferry waves,fill the foreground while the Island fades in the near distance, already at the fringes of human interest. How many among the thousands of ferry passengers each day who rise to depart at the prompting of the loudspeaker, will pause to spare a glance at that perfect beauty they are passing by?

Monday, November 26, 2007

In the wake of Kon-Tiki

The bookmobile was my introduction to a wider world. Regularly it parked at the end of our rural road on the outskirts of Victoria, and I and my parents stepped up into the travelling library. My father’s choices were always travel books, and so, after I had read all my children’s adventure books, I read my way through all his books too. They were an introduction to lands and peoples, and they have shaped the direction of my life.
Later in university, where I studied anthropology and geography, it was the memory of travellers’ tales that flashed the light of human emotion over the scientific facts. To know the mechanics of monsoon rains, for example, and how they influenced human societies, was one thing; to have experienced those rains through the words of a hundred writers added another vital layer of understanding.
One of those books, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, has continued to influence my life. It combined all my favourite elements: the grand adventure of building a raft and sailing to Polynesia, mysterious ancient societies, trade winds, coral reefs and the great ocean itself. Here was the stuff of real life. Here, too, were attitudes towards living that I absorbed unconsciously. The crew of the raft had recently emerged from active duty in World War II. Faced with the blank void of peace, they leapt at the chance to put to use their hard-won skills and camaraderie. Here were people who didn’t just dream of travel, they carefully built a structure under their dream and sailed away.
For years the pull of that book was so strong that eventually my wife, daughter and I sailed our own wooden schooner dream boat down through Polynesia. On the month-long three thousand mile passage from Mexico, we experienced our own chapter-by-chapter opening to the ocean. Like Heyerdahl’s crew, we felt the apprehension of leaving land far behind and struggled to adjust to a solitary life in an alien world. As the massive squall clouds enveloped us, as the wind and waves became our more familiar companions, we slowly became at home in the seascape. The cycles of the moon became our timepiece during our long night watches, and in the dark before moonrise we felt ourselves to be skimming along in space, suspended between the bright stars above and the flashes of phosphorescence in the dark sea below us. As if teetering on a cliff edge, we felt we might fall into the universe. Then the wind on our cheek and the snort of dolphins racing beside us caught us back to a safer image of our ship sliding over the curved shoulder of a watery world, eased on by the breath of a warm wind in our gaff sails. In the wake of one seminal book we now experienced in our own life what we had only read about before.
Eventually the southeast trade winds blew us down to the Tuamotu Islands. New landfalls are always exciting, but this was a special place, because here was where Heyerdahl and his crew had come to the sudden end of their raft voyage. I scrambled up the ratlines on the foremast to guide us through a narrow, turbulent passage into the atoll’s calm lagoon where we spent a week at anchor in the lee of a palm-covered coral island, swimming among the reefs and walking on the motu we had dubbed ‘Kon-Tiki Island". We relaxed for the first time in months out of the roll of the Pacific swells. When we walked on the ocean side of our little island, and saw the surf where the flat coral reef dropped suddenly away, I recalled the final moments of the Kon-Tiki raft voyage as they drifted helplessly and smashed again and again on the steep cliff of coral. The mast collapsed, men clung to ropes amid the breakers, and finally the big balsa logs were bunted up on to the reef. I imagined them as they faced this dramatic voyage’s end with a quick evaluation of the situation, a plan, and an organized sequence of actions that brought them safely through the surf and to the island on the reef. They salvaged what they could, set up camp, painstaking dried out and repaired their short-wave radio and sent a message home to say they were safe. In my mind’s eye I watched them very carefully. There were such essential lessons to learn here for our own life. When fate dealt us a tough card, we too would need these same attitudes and skills to win through to more life and more adventures.
At anchor beside us in the lagoon was another Canadian family yacht. We rowed across to trade some of the books we had read during the voyage. We passed our package of books up to our friends and climbed aboard. Soon we were deep in our swapping discussions.
"You haven’t read Harry Potter?" exclaimed the little girls on the boat. "Oh, that’s terrible! But it’s only a lend, this time - don’t forget. We want them back!"
It was such a long way, and yet not far at all, from that life-changing bookmobile of my childhood.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

THe voice of the world

With winter rains, our stream is flowing again after it`s long summer`s silence. Even when the wind roars through the trees at night I can hear the stream`s undertone. On a misty morning I walk downhill beside it, listening more than looking. It is a long thread of music ;the high trill of water flowing over gravel, the plunging deeper tone of a waterfall into a pond, the sibilant sound of little rapids. All changing and blending as I walk along. Other grace notes wind in and out: the breath of air in the forest canopy, eagle and raven calls, the neighbours sheep, even the chainsaw across the valley ,the floatplane in the distance and my own footsteps, my clothes scraping against the salal undergrowth. Such a simple thing. So beautifully real. The voice of the world.

"People say that what we`re all seeking is a meaning for life....I think that what we`re really seeking is an experience of being alive ,so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we can actually feel the rapture of being alive." Joseph Campbell.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


With the dawn comes a calmer sea and a welcome landfall.It has been a passage filled with more than it`s fair share of heavy squalls and cross grained waves.The chart shows that once through that pass between the islands up ahead we will find a safe harbour.We look forward to the reprieve of course,we yearn for it,but it`s the anticipation of approaching a new land that really excites us.We have become hooked on the adrenaline of these passages and the anticipation of new landfalls.A little closer,the harbour more certain,and we will feel a touch of diffidence:end of the voyage let down.The discipline of the journey,the camaraderie of shared danger will soon be exchanged for the more complex and yet diluted world of shore side life.Soon though, the journey will call to us again and launch us into another thousand miles,a week or two,of blue water sailing and another landfall all the more sweet for being so hard won.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

First Winter storm

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The first winter storm woke us in the predawn darkness.Flying bits of trees peppered our metal roof.The house flinched at the stronger gusts.Over the slashing sound of the rain was the dominant of wind in a thousand thousand branches.A greenish flash of light,and our electrical power was gone:lost to fallen trees on power lines.We stoked the woodfire with small dry pieces of wood to get a hot fire to boil water,made tea and porridge by candlelight.
Now in full daylight the wind has dropped and I walk outside to check for damage.But what`s that.?Down where the stream enters the forest stands a shaggy sheep looking up at me.Wooly.I hav`nt seen her since I left her barely able to stand two weeks ago.What a time she must have had last night.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


On one of our westcoast islands,hidden in the forest, is an ancient Indian well.While many of these beautiful islands are now draped with roads,powerlines,fields and villages,there are still other older lines of power growing and blossoming with their roots in deeper soil.This well is still visited by the first peoples of this land,it`s water carried up and down the coast as a valued spiritual substance.Holy wells have a long tradition in cultures around the world and yet the whole idea is hard to grasp while we are immersed in our own branch of modern daily reality.Yet surely we are the poorer for it when we loose the thinking tools associated with the concept of a holy well.The depth of our understanding shallows up to high and dry at low tide.How full the tide must be in the lives of people who can drink from the flow of meaning welling freely up out of the earth and into the light of daily life. Here is an ink painting I`ve called "The Indian Well."A canoe is pulled up on beach logs safely above the high tide lapping on the shore.A moonlit island landscape folds in shadow the path to the well.Go ahead! You too can beach your canoe and follow the path to the Indian well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Wild food!

Our schooner is a tiny white dot in the blue tropic island bay far below.High above me the sharp volcanic ridge blocks most of the gusty trade wind. I clamber among the swaying branches of a wild mango tree picking precious fruit and dropping them one by one to my wife Heather braced on the steep trail below.After a months voyage from Mexico to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia we are starved for fresh food.Soon we have our packs full and scramble back through the warm humid air to the beach.A quick launch through the gentle surf and we row through a gap in the coral reef and out to our anchored schooner.We grin to each other. Yesterday we bottled the tuna that our daughter caught as we neared this bay and today we will bottle the extra mangos. Tucked away beneath the floor boards all this wild food will help feed us as we sail on across the South Pacific to Australia. What an elemental satisfaction there is in this nomadic sailing life!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Begin it now....

Whatever you can do or dream you can,begin it.

Boldness has genius,power and magic in it.

Begin it now.


We found this quote on a memorial to a Canadian climber who died on K2.(his favorite quote).Having bought and rebuilt our big wooden schooner we sailed north along the inside passage in preparation for our big Pacific voyage.The enormity of this next step into ocean voyaging was weighing on our minds.When we found these lines on Jedediah Island they were an affirmation of our plans and an encouragement not to give up our dream.We wrote it into the first page of our ships log where we would reread it regularly.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wild and Wooly

A few years ago,after our return from our Pacific sailing adventure,we found two feral sheep were regularly using the woods and grassy glades on the lower slopes of our little home farm.Shaggy, and very shy,they rushed off through the underbrush at the least sign of interest on our part.We called them Wild and Wooly and were friendly but not pushy.Perhaps because we ourselves had led a wild life on the ocean for several years,it never occured to us to rescue or domesticate them in any way.We remembered the story of the starving wolf who chose to keep it`s freedom rather than accept food and shelter if it came with a collar of ownership. Last year,Wooly turned up on her own and spent the winter in a sheltered lea under some cedars.Often we saw her standing, looking up to the house for hours on end.How lonely.For a flock animal it seemed too much and yet when our neighbours flock broke into our fields ,Wooly made no move to join them.We called out"Hello Wooly" as we walked past and left her alone. This week I found Wooly upside down in a bushy hollow.Cast,she could not get up.A common end for sheep without a shepherd.Perhaps she had been on her back for a day or so and lucky so far not to be eated alive by eagles and ravens.I heaved her back on her feet and struggled to keep her propped upright for the next hour.Her heart was beating wildly and her legs trembled so I left her for an hour to see how she would do.Nope, back down on her side against the fence so once again I got her up and watched her crop the grass on trembling legs After half an hour I let her be. The next morning I walked the glades and trails half wondering if I should have brought my shovel but no sign of her.Its interesting to think of my own life:independence,freedom ,versus the obligations of community and the likely outcomes that go with those often unthought through life choices.Its a wooly world.