Earlier this fall, I had a lovely conversation with Michael Enright (of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition) about Ethel Wilson’s beautiful Swamp Angel. Readers of this blog know that she is one of my foundational writers. She brought a feminine, perhaps even feminist, attention to the places and stories of British Columbia, and few writers attended to the landscape as lovingly as she did.
Our interview will air this Sunday morning and I hope you’ll listen. When I have a link to it, I’ll post it in my News and Events area.
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 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.
I don’t pray. I’m not a Christian, or anything else. But I just heard an interview on the CBC, host Stephen Quinn talking (gently) to a woman from the Philippines, working in Surrey as a nanny, who told him what it was like to find out that almost all of her family was lost to Typhoon Haiyan. She is returning to the Philippines tomorrow to take care of her 13 year old daughter. Her sorrow and her bravery made me cry as I cut potatoes for our dinner. Her dignity. What is there to do but hope that somehow the people who survived will find a way back to their lives after this? We sent money the other day. The Red Cross is always quick to try to do what they can to feed people and shelter them and make sure that clean water is available. But from this great distance — across water, acros the globe, across the cultures, from such entitlement and privilege to such utter devastation: what is there to do or say? I don’t pray but I wish there were words or actions that could offer comfort.