dreaming of sombrio beach

I’ve felt restless lately, caught in a mesh of memories and regrets. Not regret for what I have — I love everything about the life I am living, the participants in that life, its context. But perhaps I mean I regret not having gone a little further down a road I tentatively explored in the mid-1970s. In those years, I was trying to figure out how to be a writer. I thought it meant choosing a place and giving up everything else to be there. In a way I’ve done that. But I wonder about the other places, the ones I spent time in and loved. The ones that provided a template that is a transparency through which I still see the world, understand its complexities, and through which I still dream.

After last week’s lovely interlude at the Pacific Rim, I am reminded of how much time I spent as a young woman on the far beaches of Vancouver Island’s western edge. I was unhappy in those years. Poetry was my solace and my salvation. Finding out that I could write saved my life: I truly believe this. And the grammar of that early work was rooted in the flora, fauna, and geology of those isolated shores. Leechtown, China Beach, Loss Creek. I’ve written a novella, Winter Wren, still searching for a home, in which I locate my character in the house I longed to live in above Sandcut Creek. I’ve given her the life I wanted then. I was 2o. In my novella, Grace is 59, the age I am now. And here’s the house, above the waterfall where I used to shower after swimming when I camped on this beach in 1975:

P1020930I’ve been thinking about this sense of displacement — my own, and history’s. This afternoon I watched Paul Manly’s beautiful documentary, Sombrio. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pN9zPECVNBA  (I wish I could figure how to embed these because the trailer has such a beautiful image of the beach itself.) Sombrio Beach is one of the western beaches I knew in the 1970s. It’s northwest of Jordan River, on the road to Port Renfrew, which is the southern end of the West Coast Trail. When I went to Sombrio, there was a rough road which led to a even rougher trail. You climbed down to the beach itself and it was wonderful. People lived there in houses they’d built of scavenged lumber and I know now that some of them surfed. I never noticed that then. I noticed the scent of wood-smoke, the way the houses were low and organic, and how some of the residents sat in front of beach fires and said, Come over and warm up! I know from Paul Manlys’s film that people have lived on that beach for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. It was a summer village site of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations. Later, Chinese and North American gold miners staked claims on Sombrio River. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people migrated there to live simply and quietly, to fish for halibut, gather mussels, and raise families. One family, profiled in Manly’s film, raised 11 children in a handbuilt house without any modern conveniences. The kids were home-schooled, wise in the ways of the natural world, impossibly beautiful with their open faces and wind-tangled hair. They learned to surf as soon as they could walk and several of them went on to become world-class surfers. In a review of the film in the Globe and Mail, Tom Hawthorne describes the interior of the home: “A wood stove provided heat, warming the inhabitants as well as the jumble of wet suits dangling from the rafters like tattered black flags.” When I saw the wet suits, I thought of seal skins, pelts drying as the children spent time in one element, donning them again to enter the sea and ride the waves as though they were part of the water. Selkies. Children of a realm we dream of but seldom experience ourselves.

In 1997, the residents of Sombrio Beach were evicted so the provincial government could include the area in a park. Some of them moved further into the wilderness. The family so intimately portrayed in Manly’s film relocated to Port Renfrew. Tragedy has been visited upon them in unfathomable ways with four of the children dying and the father losing his life to cancer. When I read about this after watching the film, I was filled with sorrow. I imagined them leaving the home that had been cobbled together of driftwood and beach stones, goats and chickens and a garden lovingly tended, and beginning again.

How we fill our lives with stuff we could so easily live without. Looking at piles of dishes in the sink, I think, O, maybe it’s time to think about a dishwasher. Or I feel the chilly tiles under my feet on winter mornings and long for a system of hot pipes to warm the floors. I don’t have a cell phone but I’m wondering how long I can resist. A big television. A fancier car. What haunts me about Sombrio (and I rented it for 48 hours via Vimeo: it cost me 1.99. If you do the same, I’d love to know what you think…) is how people have lived so well with so little (by first world standards) and how authorities simply can’t stand it and move in to fix things. Would I give up what I have now, at the age of 59, to live in a driftwood house on the edge of the Pacific? Probably not. But I wish others could live there, riding the green waves on narrow boards, and opening their windows to the salt-laced wind.


Thown (back)

This week I’ve been reading Thrown: British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and  Their Contemporaries, published this spring by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia. It’s a collection of essays, interviews, and letters by or about a group of potters who were closely (or loosely) connected to the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall. These potters – Michael Henry, Tam Irving, Charmian Johnson, Glenn Lewis, Wayne Ngan, John Reeve and Ian Steele – were part of an exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery in 2004. The book  (“Far more than an accompaniment to an exhibition,” the editors write in the Acknowledgements) is a wonderful pairing of texts and images. For those of us who lived in B.C. in the 1970s, the potters and their work will be familiar.  I look around my house and see pots that several of them made. This tea bowl by Wayne Ngan for example. I received it as a gift in 1976. I’ve never used it for tea but keep it on a shelf where I see it every day. The colour never ceases to amaze me.


I’m reading Thrown after the fact. After the fact of the exhibition, which I never even knew about, but also after the fact of writing a novella last summer and fall in which one of the characters is a potter living near Sooke in 1974. He even spent two years working at the Leach Pottery. I read Leach’s books to try to understand the impulse to make things with clay and I was intrigued by one of his colleagues, Katherine Pleydell-Bouvier, who used the ash from rushes and sedges for her pots. When my character returns to British Columbia, he works to develop glazes made from native plants, experimenting with scouring rush and nettles.

In this novella, Winter Wren, I wanted to revisit and re-occupy a time and a place still intensely important to me. I was 19 years old in 1974. I was a university student and I was finding my voice as a writer. I was often lonely and I felt like no one would ever love me. I spent a lot of time on Sandcut Beach, west of Sooke, almost at Jordan River, and in some ways I’m still there. I learned to keep my own company on that length of the coast, bedding down for a day or two at a time above the high tide line and making endless pages of notes in the journal that never left my side. I swam in the breakers and showered under the sandstone cliff where Sandcut Creek tumbles over the edge to meet the sea. The sandstone contains shell fossils from the Oligocene period and I loved running my hand over them for the sense of mystery they contained.

After John and I met in February of 1979, we took a tent and camped on the beach in March. The stars were extraordinary, and the sound of the surf just a couple of yards away was as familiar as breathing. We’ve returned many times and I have a chunk of sandstone on my desk, dense with fossils, to remind me. As if I ever need reminding — of both the early days of our relationship or Sandcut Beach…

The essays and interviews in Thrown are illuminating, shedding light on artistic practice and process, on materials, on friendships and relationships. I love Mick Henry’s letters to Glenn Lewis in which he describes the quotidian details of his life at St. Ives and then later at Roberts Creek – walking, baking bread, making pots. I wish I’d seen that exhibition but in some ways it’s all here, in this book:  tables laid with jugs and platters, tea pots and wine cups ready.