December 5th, 2020
My Island, My Muse
Our house, a star-shaped cedar octagon that some locals call the White Man’s Tepee, is also celebrating its fortieth anniversary—after a ptsd-inducing difficult birth, sired by hippie handcrafters, artists, designers, and itinerant musicians.
I wrote my first novel in this house: Needles, which was also born in 1979. So that was a hell of a year, a life-changer. Until then the notion seemed absurd that I could escape the burdens of a law practice and earn a living—in Canada!—writing novels.
Until the 1970s, I had never set foot on a Gulf Island, though was intrigued by the mystery of those placid green humps gliding past the ferry. What manner of weird loner would live there? What was there to do? How does one survive without theatres, concert halls, galleries, cocktail bars?
Growing up on the Prairies, I’d hungered for the vibrant life of the city, the noisier and brighter the better, and Vancouver fit me like a well-tailored suit. I was fighting famous trials, working hard, living hard, getting ink—it helped that I was a former Sun reporter—while somehow finding the time to be a husband and father. But after two decades as a partner in a hyperactive, ego-driven law firm, a kind of malaise seeped in, a discomfort that I refused to blame on overwork and the grinding, competitive tension that is peculiar to the legal profession and that regularly causes breakdowns.
Within me, something did snap, but oddly, and softly, and it occurred on my first visit to a Gulf Island, to see a couple who had abandoned the comfort and glamour of Vancouver for Salt Spring—I could only assume they’d gone bonkers, and was all but certain when I saw goats being shooed from the deck of their ramshackle country home and chickens from the kitchen.
As I wandered about their small acreage, a strange peace settled over me, a slowing. Attuned to the jangling of the city, I felt disoriented by the trilling entreaties of woodland sparrows; the high-rises from which they sang were not dead structures but alive, breathing, propagating: statuesque cedars and firs and flouncy, gay arbutuses.
I am not what one would call a spiritual person, and worship no god or prophet, but rather suffer the uncompromising insolence of the hard-core rationalist. So I lack the tools and gifts of those, like my new-age friends, that might help explain this transformative event on Salt Spring Island.
Maybe Dr. Freud could help. Maybe some repressed yearning flowered. I knew deeply, in any event, that I was not enduring some starry-eyed back-to-the-land whimsy. I wanted this. I wanted all of this. This peace. That birdsong. That crook-backed big-leaf maple leaning over the pond. That rickety bench and rickety fence. The sense of being on an island, a moated bolthole, bridgeless, untethered to the fat, swelling city.
That summer, I spent my every free day exploring the Southern Gulf Islands, travelling their back roads, being pitched to by eager, chatty realtors, and during evenings pouring through the classifieds.My wife and I finally chose ten forested acres on North Pender with an open field suitable for gardening. The price was right. The American seller was convinced that Dave Barrett’s newly elected socialist government planned to confiscate foreign-owned properties—through the device of the grasping monster known as the Agricultural Land Reserve Commission. There seemed no point taking issue with the views of this stubborn Republican, or to confess that Barrett was a pal and one of my heroes.
For one thing, his government saved the Gulf Islands from ruin by creating the Islands Trust, with its mandate to preserve and protect the islands’ unique ecology. For another, I am proud that our land is within the alr, indivisible, undisturbed but for dwelling and outbuildings. The cabin where I write this lies underneath a canopy of carbon-capturing coniferous giants.
The property was originally intended as a retreat from the city (I too was once a weekender), but as the island continued its charm offensive the weekends expanded, ultimately encompassing Thursday nights through Mondays mornings. (Many judges are easily persuaded to adjourn trials set for Fridays.)
We began, as many newcomers do, making friends, a task at which Penderites are peculiarly adept—and I include the amiable outliers of South Pender, our smaller sibling over the bridge—and many of these friends were in the building trades, jaunty and assertive: “We can have this sucker up, roofed, plumbed, septic done, in six months easy.”
Four years later, its shell was sitting abandoned after two sets of contractors were sent packing, as costs mounted faster than the posts and beams. The third, a jovial, bearded, beer-loving Limey named Patrick Brownrigg arrived like a rescuing angel to finish it in time for my planned year’s sabbatical.
That’s where I pounded out Needles on a typewriter, under a nest of massive inclining sawn cedars that seemed to fortify me with pyramid power. My other nineteen books and innumerable scripts and screenplays were written there or in the cedar log studio that Patrick also built (pictured above).
So you, my green-gowned lady, my lovely, lusty, busty Aphrodite with your coves and bluffs and winding trails—you, my island, have been my muse.
Yet it was almost twenty years after you set my life on this creative course and away from the cold, pitiless dialectic of the law that I honoured you. In 1997, finally, I recreated you as a continuing character, under the nom de plume of Garibaldi Island, in Trial of Passion. A novel in which a stressed and trial-weary criminal lawyer escapes Vancouver (or tries to) for a new life on the soothing shores of the Salish Sea.
Garibaldi Island stars in six successive novels, including the one in progress. The agony prompted by the halting efforts to build the White Man’s Tepee has found its reward in the sketching of several recurring characters (e.g., Stoney and Dog) drawn from my laid-back, pot-puffing work crew, all forgiven friends.Many other characters, especially from my early days on Pender, have reappeared, often poorly disguised. A postmaster, for instance, who read aloud the back of postcards before yielding them to their rightful recipients. A Green Party leader who many confuse with Elizabeth May. A dimwit former trustee, a pawn of developers.
It’s a struggle to preserve and protect the islands of the Salish Sea from those whose vision of them is clouded by dollar signs, a struggle that engages conservationists especially over issues involving the threatened loss of carrying capacity of land and water resources.
Those, like me, who have attained old-timer status and have paid our dues as stewards, do not feel disparaged when accused of trying to pull up the drawbridge. It is often overlooked that the legislated object of the Trust is to preserve these islands for the enjoyment of all residents of British Columbia. Tourism matters on the Gulf Islands. Tourists don’t come here to marvel at condos and subdivisions.
Thankfully, we endure drawbacks that deter unsustainable growth—the cost of ferries, the frequent power blackouts (just before Christmas, a ferocious windstorm downed power lines for up to ten days here on Pender), the restricted choice of entertainment venues. (Mind you, this island is blessed with an incalculable number of community groups and events and a wealth of talent.)
Many Canadians have never come nearer to farm, field or forest than while rocketing along the 401. An example: several years ago, a Toronto literary agent who was vying for my business stepped off the ferry dressed for a royal wedding and, gaping, expostulated: “This has got to be the end of the world!” We put him up in our guest cottage in the woods, jokingly telling him that he need not fear bears, wolves or cougars or even old Elmore, who is slightly touched but merely likes to peer through windows at night.
The poor fellow took us seriously and slept not a wink, with all the lights blazing. Elmore never showed up. The agent never came back.