Return to Salt Spring: Fall Impressions of an Island Refuge

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (2008)

Salt Spring Island, with a population of about 10,000 inhabitants, whose centre is Ganges, named after the last British ship to cast anchor there in the 19th century, is one of the southern Gulf Islands that lies in the Strait of Georgia between Victoria and Vancouver.I lived on Salt Spring from 1997-1999 and wrote a column, “Pilgrim’s Notes” for the Gulf Islands weekly newspaper, The Driftwood. This piece was published in The Driftwood on September 17, 2008.

The seaplane arcs a turn and descends slowly onto the island. We buzz the tree tops and approach due South from Vesuvius. I recognize the pub from the air. A neophyte Salt Spring Islander, an ex-Ontarian from Britain, who finally fled the harsh winters, tells me it has been closed for a few years now. It has been seven years since my mother Joyce’s funeral in 2001. Joyce and husband Allan James are buried in a twin plot in the cemetery behind the Central Hall. A return to the grave site with sister Mary Lou to tend the ground and offer prayers is planned.

It is good to return to this island―to the salt sea air, the peace that settles in with gazing at the tops of sheltering, giant firs, to the variegated characters who like a mixed assortment of odd clothes, populate this island, to the slower, mellow pace of the E-shaped country that, culturally, is a better fit with northern California.

By virtue of its natural energy, Salt Spring carries healing in its wings. It lies on one of the world’s great lay-lines, or energy circuits, that runs through Stonehenge, another magical island spot, the desert warmth and gem-like colours of New Mexico, and the silent, Egyptian pyramids, mysteriously personified by the riddling Sphinx. Descending from the float-plane, I pause to bask in the brilliant Fall sunshine, fill my lungs with the pure air, look up to contemplate the bright wash of azure sky. The tonic is already working its magic, restoring well-being to body and mind.

Salt Spring placates the harried mainlander, cradles you in her arms and sings an island lullaby. The pacifying effect is built into the island’s alchemy and history. The first nations referred to Salt Spring as Fire Island, a symbol of the flame that radiated healing but did not burn. Salt Spring was and remains a sacred burial ground. Here the ancestors lie sleeping, dreaming their ancient dream, called Dream Time by the Aboriginal Australians. Adjacent to the homes on Menhinick Drive lies a native preserve where sacred rites are still performed which are shared with respectful islanders. The first nations never fought wars here. Somewhere on Nose Point there is reputedly a well of sacred waters which was shared by rival tribes, friend and foe alike.

But spiritual romance fades in the face of harsher contemporary realities. I see creeping development encroaching on the woodlands. Houses and other residences have sprung up spottily where once the visual field was only solid timber. Bare-breasted, raging grannies and more youthful activists have made their nude and semi-nude protests to halt it all. Still the “development” continues.

It is an ambiguous word, this word development. Who of us wants to endorse ongoing “progress” that swallows up everything it its path? Development, and the parasitic, materialistic values that feed it, has already sanctioned the rape of earth, the fouling of our waters and the spoiling of the air. I stand by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s incantation in Inversnaid: “O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

The nature-dream is momentarily broken by intermittent nightmares. Snippets of conversation overheard at the Salt Spring Coffee Company tell of life-threatening illness, divorce, broken relationships, stressed out lives and struggles to make ends meet. Mainlanders who once anticipated a slower pace of life here see themselves obliged to return once it becomes apparent that they cannot afford to live here any longer. The “Help Wanted” signs in the shop windows beg for the employees who cannot keep pace with the rising cost-of-living. A blond, young woman in animated conversation hides her disappointment in levity as she tells her friend of her parents’ retirement divorce while “their RV lies rotting in Mexico.”

My thoughts wander beyond this island refuge, out to embrace the larger community of humanity that is suffering today from a host of troubling pathologies: War, hunger, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, famine, disease, repression, injustice. The more affluent western nations are also suffering from their own version of bad dreams: Random violence, inner-city blight, economic woes, unemployment, catastrophic illness, psychological dysfunction, homelessness, and the fractured social relationships that are increasingly defining marriages, families, friendships and the workplace.

Now the dream, sceptics have often said, is nothing but an illusion. But more perceptive minds view the All that surrounds us as the manifestation of a waking dream, a dream that is of our own making. Is it not high time to dream a new dream and awaken from the nightmare that is disturbing our conscious life? What shall this new dream be? For this pilgrim, at least, it is imperative that the vision that will enable the people to flourish should be world-embracing. It should transcend the little singularities that define the daily round of our individual lives to include the entire human family. It is a vision that shall once for all put an end to war and violence, to chronic hunger and famine, to illiteracy, to the subjugation of women. It is a vision that cherishes the organic unity and solidarity of the human race, that strives for social justice, and the elimination of all forms of prejudice, a vision in which religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and exclusivism shall be replaced by interfaith amity and understanding.

I pause to look up from my desk. On a patch of grass nearby, a crowd of yellow buttercups is waving almost imperceptibly in the autumn breeze, an idyllic picture I shall remember once I have returned home.

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