a blue cabin at the tide’s edge

At the king tides, said Carole Itter in her interview with CBC Radio’s On the Coast host Stephen Quinn today in which she discussed the issues around the eviction notice and demolition order she and Al Neil received in the blue cabin they’ve lived in for years near Cates Park in Dollarton, at the king tides, which don’t occur very often, the water comes up under the house. (Dollarton was where Malcolm Lowry lived with his wife Margerie in a series of squatters’ shacks and wrote Under the Volcano, a masterpiece of 20th c. literature. )

Imagine that. Imagine a small house perched near the water, a woodstove for heat, a number of sculptures of found objects surrounding it, opposite the Kinder Morgan site over on Burnaby Mountain. Al has lived in the cabin off and on since 1966 and at first he was a sort of watchman for a shipyard next door. He paid them a nominal rent. And then they told him not to bother paying the rent.

carole itter's photograph
carole itter’s photograph of the cabin

Carole and Al are prominent artists — Al is a pianist, composer, and visual artist and Carole is a writer and sculptor. Both of were part of the big shake-up of the Vancouver arts scene in the 1960s and 70s and both continue to work as artists. This cabin is both studio and home, though they also have a shared space elsewhere where (as Carole told Stephen Quinn) hot water is available as well as heat. As Al is 90 and Carole is 75, this is a blessing.

When I first lived in North Vancouver — after meeting John and before we moved to the house we built on the Sechelt Peninsula — there were still people talking about the 1971 burning of the artists’ squats on Maplewood Mudflats near Dollarton. Many artists had constructed driftwood houses there in a vibrant and productive community with others — Paul Spong of Greenpeace among them. The community was called Shangri-La. And oh, there were the usual reasons for evicting the squatters — upholding health regulations, etc. How ironic that in Vancouver, named this week as the second most expensive place to live on earth (after Hong Kong), there’s lately been an effort to remember the Maplewood Mudflats community. One of the artists who lived there, the sculptor Tom Burrows, currently has a show at the Belkin Gallery at U.B.C.  The Vancouver Sun had a piece on the show last week: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/First+museum+exhibition+Maplewood+Mudflats+artist+Burrows/10709676/story.html  I loved this little passage from the article:  “In 2010, artist Ken Lum made a sculptural work at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite at the Shangri La Hotel called From Shangri-La to Shangri-La. The work was made of three scale replicas of the Maplewood shacks where Burrows, Spong and Lowry lived.”  (The Shangri-La, for those unfamiliar with Vancouver, is a luxurious hotel on Georgia Street.)

I know people might think, Oh, what if everyone wanted to squat in a handmade house on the edge of Burrard Inlet and make art. Oh, what then? And I guess that wouldn’t be ideal. But the thing is, how many people want to live this way now? How many artists are willing to settle for simplicity and quiet when the terms of our culture ask us to expect so much more? In the Globe and Mail article today on Carole and Al’s situation, Carole mentions a big assemblance behind the cabin, at the edge of the forest: “This thing sparkles in the sunshine. I’m sorry you’re seeing it under a west coast mildew.  The beauty about working on it is that I knew it was never going anywhere. It was never going into a gallery and it was never going to be on the market. And now I realize it’s going to a dump. Or as Al says, let the bugs eat it.” To create something for the love of it, against the hustle of the contemporary art world…how wonderful is that?

I’m getting cranky as I get older. I want there to be individuals in the world who live against the grain, against the tide. I think of those cabins on Sombrio beach, removed by helicopter, and the small outposts of alternative living disappearing little by little, and I think we’re less for it. The world is less for it. As for Vancouver, with its history of mavericks and creative cooperatives — well, who can afford it any longer? And that’s sad.

13 thoughts on “a blue cabin at the tide’s edge”

  1. I live in Yellowknife on a floating house, in a floating house community, and near the ‘Woodyard’, an old part of town settled by squatters in small shacks. They live there still. One room houses with no services. I too love finding people who live against the grain. Because at the end of the day, those granite countertops everyone has are just not that essential. I think we are losing sight of what is important in our lives.

    1. I think I’ve seen that community. What I liked about Yellowknife — was there in 2008, I think it was, for a few days — was the sense that it’s still possible to make your own way, your own life. Increasingly difficult in many other places. And as more of the edges get smoothed away, the more we all lose, even if we don’t want that for ourselves. (Or maybe some of us do!) Thanks for you comment.

      1. I entirely agree. Because we are in a way at the edge of civilization, (if that could be defined by big box stores), its easier here to live that way. I wonder what all we lose when we lose that freedom and outlook on life. Resourcefulness and a zest for living come to mind. Less reliance on certainty. Somehow these things seem more in keeping with what we need to face life. I love the theme of your post and this conversation. I’d love to hear more about what you think we lose.

      2. I think that the fewer models there are for living not only off the grid but differently (by our wits, true to our deepest hopes and wishes), then the harder it is to figure out how and why to try for ourselves. It’s hard to resist the siren call of contemporary culture — those gadgets! Those granite countertops! And I get that. But if we don’t even know that other lives are possible, then maybe we won’t be able to imagine for ourselves. It’s happening in every area, I believe. Harder to imagine making our life’s work the writing of literary work that is outside the mainstream if that work has been marginalized, if there aren’t those books to inspire us. If publishers are less interested in taking on those books, then maybe one quietly gives up writing them. The same in music or art. I hope there will always be those who take the road less travelled, even though that road might also be pretty rough — unpaved, gravel, but oh, there might also be wildflowers growing on its shoulders, a few ancient farms with heritage sheep in the pastures, the sound of a hammer dulcimer drifting from the windows. (You can see the direction my heart leans…!)

  2. I live in Yellowknife in a floating house, in a community of floating houses. We are near the Woodyard, a small area settled years and years ago by squatters living in small one room shacks. The shacks are still there and still lived in. It’s one of the things I love about this place. Somehow it’s easier living here to remember what is and what is not important about life.

  3. I’ve heard (from a source I believe to be reliable) that Al and Carole’s cabin is to be relocated by barge to Storm Bay, near Sechelt. So: you may have a new near-neighbor!

    1. That’s such a lovely area, Michael. But I think they’d need a boat to get there. (I’ve only been to Storm Bay once, taken by friends with a Zodiac…) But I’m glad the cabin at least can be saved, if not in its current proximity (with potential to influence and inspire) to Vancouver.

      1. I agree; It saddens me that the wild margins are disappearing, that so much (more) is becoming bland and conformist. We need to nourish and preserve the interstitial areas, where the blackberry brambles thrive.

  4. Wonderful. I remember that king tide! when staying in the cabin next… 1974! Visited Carole this past October. Ahhhh… Lovely to connect here, Theresa!

      1. Yes! And we are using our old cedar shake roof for kindling, replaced maybe 12 years ago with blue metal. Shakes stacked behind the house and home to lizards….

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