Thursday, October 29, 2009

War crimes and other atrocities.


‘I have seen the enemy and he is us.’ Andy Capp.

In the following piece I am drawing on my own experience of rowing among the Gulf Islands and having time to think about things as I go along. I was intrigued by the idea of waves that spread out behind a boat being like an event in the past that has reverberations that drag behind it to arrive some time in the future to disturb the surface of the mind. In the story, the real event of the waves in the calm sea opens a window into a hidden and repressed time from the past. The ripping sound of the breaking waves is the final tug at the blind which zips up to expose a wartime atrocity.

What I found interesting was the idea of continuity. A personality which has a past in wartime atrocities, I imagined an incident in the ethnic cleansing conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, but there are plenty of other possibilities, must always hide parts of itself within ‘normal’ society, but certain basic structures continue, in this case a preoccupation with efficiency. I think this person is a monster like those that ran the death camps for Germany during WWII, but the horror is even greater if we realize that much of this death and destruction was carried out by ‘regular folks’ who could fit right in with the rest of us when conditions changed once again. As Little Abner said in the Andy Capp cartoon, “ I have seen the enemy and he is us.”

             Continuity of personality.

A motor yacht plows a deep furrow as it travels south among the islands. It`s wave pattern spreads out behind, forming several rows of steep, sometimes breaking waves in the calm sea. They sweep toward a lone man in a rowboat headed north.

Facing south, at the oars, he can see the yacht receding far down the channel. He can hear the waves when they finally arrive and turns his skiff to face into them. Up and down pitches the skiff while he balances it with his oars held steady in the water. The waves are smooth except when the crests tear open with a ripping sound and foam escapes to race down the wave fronts. The waves pass, the calm returns and he resumes his course, his mind, once again, free to wander.

“That beamy boat plowing along - all that energy being used to make waves.


“Those waves that came up behind me: they sounded like torn cloth when they broke. Riiiip! Or a machine gun.”

The sound of gunfire echoing behind the mountain ridge from the village in the next valley. A fusillade of rife shots, the ripping sound of a machine gun.

“Such a small village. The men had been told to conserve ammunition. Amateurs, anxious to get it over with. They will learn.


On the radio this morning there was discussion about the conviction in Canadian court of Desiree Munyaneza for atrocities in Ruanda and of the war crimes trial in The Hague of the former Serb leader Radovan Karodzic who lived incognito for many years, just like the character in this meditation, before being caught. What I found difficult to deal with while writing this was that I was describing myself and the train of my own thoughts up until the final deeper memory of the massacre and even that was an easy and logical imaginative leap to make. While it is important to point the finger at those who cross the line into barbarism, it is also useful to recognize how adaptable human beings are, for better or for worse, and that all of us are part of this bloody species and share emotions like anger and the need to ‘defend’ ourselves, our families, or our ethnic and national identity. It is important that we do not bury these ugly attributes so they will grow in hidden and twisted ways, but admit them into our understanding of what it means to be human so that we can balance them up with the more socially positive aspects of humanity of which there are many. It is that struggle for the unity of our real selves that makes us fully human.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Building a life #9. ‘All work and no play.....’

Building the log cabin moves forward steadily throughout the winter months. We also must live from day to day in rough conditions and keep ourselves and our children happy and healthy. This is just as well because it is a temptation for me to focus twenty-four hours a day on the building project. I try to, but the other needs of the day drag me out into the larger perspective. Pacing is important, and we are launched on long term projects.

Our dog Saffi is killed one morning as I drive the children ( we are late) down to the school bus stop. She has been in the habit of running beside the pick-up truck as I haul loads of logs up to the building site and this time she darts in front of the van and is run over. It is a sad business, but she has been a stupid dog from the start and that caught up with her.

We are getting to know our neighbours. Heather has started volunteering as a Girl Guide leader
and the girls have made friends at school. We are not alone in our ‘back-to -the -landing’ on Saltspring. All around us are other families building and living rough, raising goats and chickens, learning archaic skills. We begin to get together for pot-luck parties. While the children play, the women trade experiences of their non- suburban life style while the men get deep into technical building discussions and the ways to get around the building inspector with his residential codes best suited to city subdivisions.

We have a memorable children`s birthday party in the pumphouse that first winter. A hoard of girls fill the little building. They play complicated games that lead them up and over the furniture. This is so like the essence of the ‘Little House’ books. That our girls all have ‘Holly Hobbie’ pioneer frocks and poke bonnets adds to the impression. The girls all get (second hand) baby carriages for Christmas and parade up and down the paved road which has little car traffic. Our property is rough, muddy and covered in building materials so the road is their cleanest play area. Thank goodness we have the washer and dryer in the pumphouse or just keeping clean would be difficult.

Christmas it turns out is problematical for Gwynnie. She writes in her letter to Santa that we are living both in the trailer and the pumphouse and to please leave the stocking presents in the trailer as his ‘Ho Ho Ho’ would be too frightening in the tight confines of the pumphouse. Like the girls who are leading parallel lives in the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ our girls get tin mugs from Santa this year. Santa always leaves an illustrated shakily written letter for the girls each year to show that they are in his thoughts. He appreciates the sherry and shortbread that is left for him in the trailer and the carrots for his reindeer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Building a life #8. The Little House in the Big Woods.

                                    The little house in our big woods.

It is cold, dark and snowy outside our snug little pump-house cabin. We are all tucked into the big double bed and are reading the first book of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, ‘ The Little House in the Big Woods’. The wind shakes the boughs of the overhanging firs and down thump big puffs of snow onto the roof, but in our imaginations we are off in the much wilder world of the Ingalls: Mary ,Laura, Ma and Pa are living in the big woods of Minnesota during real pioneer times. How brave they are and how much they care for each other. How warm and cozy we all are in the our own big woods. How real their lives feel. We are living parallel lives.

Up on the hill on the other side of the stream, piling up with snow is the log cabin. There is not much to see as yet, some short posts on concrete pads and skinned logs stacked nearby that we have cut on the building site, but we are underway and the snow, heavy and wet as it is, will soon turn to rain and I will be back to work with the chainsaw.

During the mornings, Gwyn is the only child at home and Heather is anxious to help move this project forward. She sets Gwyn up in the trailer in front of the TV watching Mr. Dress-Up and Sesame Street and hurries up the hill. One morning I am placing the big sill logs on top of the cedar posts that raise the building high enough for a crawl space underneath. The final 30 footer has a curve that must be adjusted for and then I lever the smaller end up in place: easy. The butt end however is heavy and I sweat away, raising and placing blocks and wedges with Heather`s help, as it inches upward. Finally I call to Heather, “Take your hands away from the other end. I`m going to roll it on now!” Being curved, it moves slowly as I lift with the peevee until suddenly, passing the tipping point, it rushes to complete the roll. Heather`s hand is crushed as it rolls over her fingers!

There is no time for recriminations. We rush down the hill, put her hand in ice, gather Gwyn up and drive for the hospital, twenty minutes away. So far it has not hurt, but after the doctor has pulled each finger to check for damage it certainly does! Nothing broken, but this is a good reminder of how close we have been skating to an accident. Back in the other little house in the big woods we bet that Ma and Pa would have been more careful: not only was there no hospital for them, but an accident that crippled either of them would have life threatening consequences for their family`s ability to survive way out on the real frontier. Our life here may be rough and ready by normal standards, but it is only play acting compared to that of those folks in the big woods over a hundred years ago.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Building a life # 7. 'Who could ask for anything more?'

The Pumphouse is framed up.

Feeding the goats in their temporary pen. The chainsaw has the milling hardware that helps to make squared timbers for the barn.

The completed barn with Maggie, Muffin and probably Alice.

Most pump-houses are the size of an outhouse, but we plan a multi-use building - a 16x16 foot pole frame sheathed in plywood on a concrete base. Here we can all sleep in our proper beds, have a washer and dryer and use electric heat. With batt insulation and plastic vapour barrier lining the walls and ceiling, the walls lined with our drapes and with carpets on the floor this should be quite comfortable ( luxurious, compared to our tents).

Some friends come over and camp beside us for a few days and we quickly raise the frame. How proud we are! Once the roof and siding is on and I have poured a concrete floor, my next great challenge is to install the electricity; mains service, panel and wiring for the pump, washer, dryer lights and outlets. I have my bible - a Readers Digest book on everything to do with building and a little red book with the electrical code. A lot to learn in a short time, but the local hardware store is very helpful with consultation and diagrams and eventually the inspector, on my second try, gives me the ok . We seriously watch him drive away and then - WOOPEE!

We move the trailer beside the new building, stretch a tarp between the two and we are in business for the winter. We now have light and heat, running water and a telephone. Who could ask for anything more?

The next urgent item is the barn. It needs to be a larger version of the pumphouse, so on the other side of the driveway I level a 16x32 foot piece of ground - it always looks so small at this point - and pour another small concrete pad just for the milking area. The rest of the uprights sit on concrete blocks. I have an attachment for the chainsaw bar that allows me, with a lot of sweat and noise, to trim round logs into squared timber. The longest log (36') is the ridge pole, and it is a great day when we skid it up and lock it into place. It is very nice for this project not to have to use the generator every time I need power for my tools - a chain saw cannot do everything ( almost, but not quite all.)

Now we can unload the ‘pup’ trailer and store our furniture ( minus the beds, lamps, dressers and washer/dryer) in the lofts, move our goats and chickens in and regroup for the next really big project -the log cabin.

It is now time for Anne and Elaine to start school and fortunately the bus comes right past the end of our street. The first afternoon after school we tow our big dory ‘Swallow’, that I had built back in Okanagan Falls, down to Ganges, our island town ( with it`s clapboard buildings and wooden sidewalks) and go for a sail in the harbour. This day would usually be the beginning of a busy school year for me as well and it feels liberating to be sailing instead. It has been a terribly busy summer but we have met our targets and are ready for winter.

Branding. A nasty jab at Uncle Stephen.

The 'new' Canadian government has taken to branding itself 'The Harper Government' after our prime minister Stephen Harper and identifying our tax money being returned in services as rather his and his party`s gift to us. This is all very 1984 -ish (as in Orwell`s novel of that name) and I have surmised that the distribution of the H1 N1 flu vacine will continue the tradition.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The touch.

                                                              The festival of light.

Down by the bay the misty sun glints gently off the water and softly brushes over the trees and banks of salal. I feel it touching me too as I pause to make a photo. It is the gentleness of the light that has pulled me into the scene and in a time when we are drifting toward the harshness of winter this is a parting gift.

It is a spooky thing to feel this powerful communication without any religious packaging, no framing, just a direct touch of a vanishing hand and a whispered promise of return.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Building a life # 6. The feral cats of Cat Hill.

The day when we first arrived, I lifted the smelly box of wild cats out from the truck and opened it. Zoom! The mother and daughter disappeared downhill into the trees like smoke. The girls became the cat`s caretakers and carried food down to the base of a tall rock outcrop. To get there they had to push their way through an alder thicket by the stream and then walk down a shadowy old trail. The salal undergrowth was far over their heads and the great firs and cedars stretched up forever. It was a spooky place, especially in the evening, full of spirits and now the hiding place of two cats who lurked while the girls quickly delivered their meal and ran back to the light of the clearing.

One of the first things we did was to try to find the property boundaries. With compass and a long string I set off through the forest swimming through the high salal, ocean spray and red current bushes that masked a mess of old logs, all rotten and slippery beneath my feet. I plunged through to the ground through cris-crossed logs, crawled up, balanced precariously, walked along a log, plunged down once more. The string payed out behind me and warned me if I was wandering off the compass course. “No worries,” I muttered when it felt like I might drown or wander lost forever. I was glad to find the clear spaces beneath the big cedar trees, like islands in the wild ocean of vegetation. At the bottom of the sloping seven acres were some enormous broadleaf maples which had found some open sky in a logged off clearing from long ago. A cedar stump several feet across still held an ancient tobacco tin from the 1940`s, bits of rusted cable draped over rocks. Some of the big trees around the overgrown clearing were bent from being mangled during the logging process or growing up through logging slash that had long since rotted away. I was walking through a forest of second growth - one cut away from the forest primaeval.

One place other than our little clearing with our summer camp that was clear of undergrowth was the top of the mossy outcrop that stood above the cat feeding place. It was the first landmark we named - Cat Hill.

Staring into space.

It was hard work making this lot of firewood, especially as the big Balsam fir had grown a grand set of thick branches while alive. It was dying down from the top when I reluctantly decided that this was the next sacrifice for our winter delight. I knew it would be a devil to split, and in the end the last knot ridden chunks had to be cut up with the chain saw. At last here it is in piles and ready to be stacked and covered so next winter`s wood will be cured and dry when we need it.

The dry branches are burning briskly after this morning`s clean-up. Already there is a pile of incandescent coals at the base of the high, flickering shaft of flame. Unfortunately it is now lunch time but I cannot leave the fire until it dies down because while we have had plenty of rain the ground is still dry beneath the forest trees. I throw down my jacket and lie on the ground. On my back, I can look up past the layer upon layer of branches of the large trees around the clearing to the bright blue sky. It is not often for me to find myself with nothing to do but literally stare off into space.

The sun flashes in and out of racing clouds. High up, there is some wind, and I find myself engrossed by the swirling edges, the forming and then vanishing clouds of vapour. I am at the bottom of an ocean of air that tumbles and twists as it flows over the rough hilly landscape. The clouds are followed by a long period of blue which is crossed by three high flying ravens that flap their way across the clearing and then several robins cross lower down between the tree tops. No planes, although I can hear them in the distance as a background accompaniment to the bird`s flight. What luck to have this upside down and unusual moment in a busy life -like a crab looking up from the ocean floor.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Building a life#5 Getting started.

Lowering the pump down the well. Wasp attack.
Thank goodness it is summer we think as we spread ourselves and our possessions over and along both sides of the driveway. We had made a quick trip to our new property during the last Easter holidays with the van full of little sticks with burlapped roots, -our future fruit orchard- and I had cut down some large fir trees to make a clearing where we would plant them. After the many lodge pole pines I had cut I was pleased to find that larger trees were not correspondingly more difficult and that they hit the ground with an even more satisfying thump! We planted between the logs and build wire cages to keep the deer away. Now, a few months later we have some space to build a temporary goat shelter out of plywood sheets and can put the chickens out in their movable pen.

'The flight of the Israelites' We spread out across the clearing.

My brother-in-law Gerry has loaned us a ‘pup’ - a half-length commercial box trailer into which we are able to put all our household furniture. Lined up along the driveway is; first the big storage trailer, then our tents with a sagging plastic tarp against the rain and finally the travel trailer which serves as kitchen, dining room, livingroom and bathroom. At its entrance is the milking stand. Despite the hundred and one demands on our time, the farm chores must still continue.

Milking lessons.

Before we left the Okanagan we bought a deep well pump and generator from a plumber friend complete with instructions for installing it in the deep drilled well beside the driveway. We need water immediately so up goes a tripod with a big block ( pulley) and down goes the torpedo shaped pump as we attach length after length of plastic pipe with the electrical wires taped to it. Heather tends the rope that lowers it all stage by stage. Suddenly I hear a screech. Her bare skin has been found by some angry wasps and she cannot just let go and run for it! I`m tempted for a split second to say” Hang on, Just a few more lengths and we are finished!” but caution for my own marital survival tells me to grab the rope and belay it quickly before we both make a run for it!

This summer, it turns out, is a peak year for wasps. There is a low hum in the air and wasps are everywhere, hovering just above the ground. One busy afternoon, Anne and Elaine are playing behind the tents in the salal bushes when they start to scream: they too have found a wasp`s nest. Heather , a descendent of pioneering Scots Canadians, races toward them, picks up our youngest, Gwyn, along the way and throws her into the igloo tent, zips the door closed and leaps down the bank to grab the others and carry them to safety. All this, while on the other side of the clearing I am still trying to figure out what is going on. That wife of mine has a lot of presence of mind in an emergency -the kind of personality that makes all this adventure, and future ones, possible.

Hair washing in the irrigation water from the lake.

It turns out that one should not run a pump from the ragged current of a generator so we carry on hauling water from the nearby lake in a collection of (new) garbage cans. We all go for a swim in the afternoon, and come home with our heavy sloshing load. We need to move towards our first building - the pumphouse/workshop - where the main electrical connection will be made to the grid. Upward, onward. The summer is zooming by.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Building a life #4. A moving experience.

Quitting my teaching job turns out for me to be not as stress free as I had thought it might. I was good at what I did and had much of my identity still folded into my profession. The great unknown opened a chasm before my feet. It really did require, despite all our plans and preparations, a definite leap of faith to say goodbye. Surely I will go back to teaching once our house building phase is done with? Not so, as it turns out. Life has a way of moving on and I never do get the itch to design and build things out of my system.

During the last Spring we sell our Okanagan home for a good profit. Now we can be mortgage free on Saltspring as we live our ‘simple’ life. We buy a tired aluminum travel trailer and I make necessary repairs while it is parked on the front lawn beside the long pile of yellow, skinned poles for our future log cabin. The first week after school a large commercial trailer is dropped off in our yard and with a friend`s help I load all the logs first and then lay sheets of plywood on top to make a temporary floor. Our chicken coop and milking stand are next, along with extra hay bales, two plastic bags of only slightly used peat moss, and then all our furniture and possessions. The piano is squeezed in last, the door shut, and a tractor truck comes to haul it all off to the coast where it will be delivered on the day we will arrive on Saltspring. Heather`s dad Jack will tow our travel trailer and Heather drives the V.W. van. I follow with the Mazda pick-up with the goats, chickens and, as it turns out, the cats. Hee Haw!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making history at the Ganges Dock.

My sailboat is moored alongside the dock in our local town of Ganges - such an exotic name for a little island community, only matched by the even more peaceful village of Vesuvius just down the road. The boats tied up around me are a reflection too of the makeup of these Canadian Gulf Islands of which this island -Saltspring - is the largest, and whose place names really reflect the history of British naval exploration: HMS Ganges, HMS Vesuvius.

My little folkboat, slowly emerging from of a long re-fit, lies astern of a rusting, steel hulled schooner that has not stirred for many years and trails a luxurious forest of sea weed beneath it. Opposite me, a once pretty wooden bowsprited sloop is peeling and rotting away. There are smart fiberglass sailboats too, rough aluminum skiffs, many varieties of dinghys and runabouts. A still beautiful oceangoing yacht is beginning to decline, neglected after almost sinking at it`s moorings two winters ago. Visitors slide alongside for an overnight mooring in the big metropolis, bringing fresh faces to the usual crowd of people working on their boats. This is a busy and fascinating place to spend a weekend day.

So many stories are represented here and portrayed so graphically. Fishing boat names are instructive: One, being converted to a yacht, still proudly proclaims ‘Canadian Star’ on it`s wooden stern, another, selling shrimp, is ‘Bandit’, ‘Miss Conduct ’is snugged up close to cute little‘Minnie Pearl’. The people who own all these boat are an interesting crowd too, just as Gulf Islanders have always been. But it`s not just the scenery and sunny Fall weather that makes this a good place to be, not just the people, it`s really all about these interesting boats making history right now in Ganges Harbour.