Tuesday, November 1, 2011

LOVE SONG TO CLAYOQUOT SOUND

{pond past the summit, just before one heads down the mountain to Ukee and Tofino}

[Kids, I consider this my signature  piece: my Love Song to Clayoquot Sound, which tells the story of my glorious ten years in the land of my dreams.  An edited version of this piece appears in the anthology  Writing the West Coast: In Love With Place, edited by Christine Lowther and Anita Sinner. This was a topic I felt in my very marrow, the more so since I can no longer  afford to live in the home of my spirit. I did enjoy this trip back to those glorious years, when I walked on the wild side! Hope you enjoy it too.]


The wild shores of Clayoquot Sound sang a siren song to me for years before I journeyed there, before I ever saw the perfection of its beauty. This song captured my imagination, my heart and my spirit, drawing me to it as surely as a murrulet is drawn to its nest, a migrant whale to its feeding ground.

And now, years after my glorious decade in that place, the home of my spirit, I still hear its call. Always the wild shores of the Sound pull at me, echo through my heart, here in my home-away-from-home, where I'm remembering, remembering. It's a song of the clean and pungent air, the salt spray, the sea foam, whitecaps lined up and galloping into shore like wild white horses, manes a-flying. A song of the wild waves, roiling and crashing over black volcanic rock, swirling the maelstrom of The Cauldron at the base of the cliffs on Frank's Island. It sings through the forest floor, through the tops of giant cedar, in the lift of the eagle's wing, seabirds wheeling free above shining waters. Its song sings inside me still. It always will.


Half a lifetime ago, at thirty, I discovered I was an ocean person, a displaced ocean person, cast up like a beached whale on the shores of Okanagan Lake. The peaceful lake with its lapping ripples, fragrant bullrushes and weeping willows, were pretty and desirable to many. But it was the wrong scenery, the wrong place, the wrong "energy" for me. If I ever won the lottery, if Mr. Right appeared and swept me away, Tofino is where I wanted to be swept to. But it would be another decade before I finally arrived.

I don't just love nature - I have a spiritual and physical need to live immersed in it. When I am not, I am homesick, heartsick. When that most essential component of my well-being is lacking, when it is citified, tamed or domesticated, I must make do, and am always aware that I am making do. In a perfect world, I would carve myself a dwelling inside a huge old tree, on the edge of the sea, with only the wild in sight, no human footprint visible but mine.

By 42, I had been longing for the ocean for so many years, I began to feel my soul was dying. I had waited as my three older children completed high school. Now, with my youngest leaving elementary and about to enter high school herself, I knew it was now or never. I could not face four more years of marking time, as my years and energy slipped away. I grew plaintive about it. I keened; I yearned.

Not brave enough to make the leap myself, I waited for the universe to make the change for me. And, in its way, it did. My sister stacked the deck. For my birthday that year she took me to Tofino on a zodiac expedition to see the whales.

It was as perfect an experience as it could possibly be. The sea was serene, there were whales everywhere, the day was sunny and sharply etched and, when we turned off the motor, we were drifting on the same level as the whales. They were so unconcerned with our presence that one whooshed up right beside the boat, thrilling me to my toes. Its ancient eye looked upon us; we gazed back in silent awe, the whoosh of its every exhalation sounding like the very breath of God.

We passed rocks covered with sea lions, who barked imperiously at our passage. Beneath a huge nest in a scrag we sat, staring at the resident eagle, who stared diffidently back. Little orange-beaked puffins bobbed diligently atop the waves. We investigated little inlets, discovered hidden waterfalls. And as we headed back to shore, sunset spread its palette of color before us. It was a dream of perfection.

The tour guides were environmentalists; their talk was of saving Clayoquot Sound's forests, then heavily under siege by the multinationals. They informed us this one remaining pristine ecosystem, this last stand of old-growth, astoundingly was being cut and exported as raw logs, to be pulped and made into phone books for California. Logging was spreading towards the few remaining untouched watersheds. It was time for those who cared to take a stand. My heart took fire. Everything I loved, longed for and believed in was here, and I wondered: why am I not here too?


I did not want to go home. I did not want to be a tourist, who had to leave. I wanted to go home with them: the guides, the environmentalists, the ones who got to live here. I wanted to sit by their fires, join in their talk, be one of them. With every fibre in me, I knew that I belonged here.

I went back to the Okanagan, to my hated job, and to a persistent depression as winter closed in. I wrote a letter, after a few weeks, to the woman tour boat owner who had guided our excursion. I told her how lucky she was to be living her dream, and how long the west coast had been my dream. On our excursion, she had spoken about her difficulty finding anyone who could handle her business as well as she did, so she could take some time off. In my letter, I ventured to wonder if I might be that person, if there might be a place for me there.

There was no reply, the winter went on. The walls closed in and I felt trapped: by the need, as a single mother of four, to earn a living, to support the kids, by my aloneness and the seemingly endless struggle. I felt like I existed only to bring brown paper bags of groceries in the front door. An aware employer recognized my spirit was faltering. She encouraged me to take supervisory training and apply for the position of supervisor in another department, out of the job I hated, away from shift work, into management. I passed the training, won the position and for the first time was earning enough money to pay the bills.

The universe, having a sense of humor, chose that moment to offer me, in the form of a letter from Tofino, the choice it has always presented: continued "security", (a huge issue for a single mother accustomed to poverty), in the job I presently held, or the life of my dreams, and utter insecurity: part time work at six dollars an hour, but in Tofino where I longed to be.

I wrestled with the hugeness of the choice, with its uncertainties and all of its unknowns, but there was little doubt: though needing assurances that simply were not there, I knew this was a choice about following my heart, or giving up my dream and staying where my spirit was dying, for financial security. And I knew I couldn't live without a dream.

Had I known the difficulties that choice entailed I might never have found the courage to make the leap. It is good I did not know. It was the biggest trusting I have ever had to do, and it repaid me with ten years of unparalleled joy.

What I did know is that, from the moment I first set foot on the beach, that questing, longing, seeking voice inside of me was stilled. I was at home, the home of my spirit, the one place on the planet where I belonged. No matter how difficult it was to find housing (a merry-go-round repeated every several months), or how many part-time jobs it took to pay the rent, (two or three at a time), whatever it took, I would do, to feel  this rightness, this boundless joy, this sense of being exactly where I was meant to be. Home.

The night I rounded the corner at Long Beach in the rented Budget truck, a gigantic ball of fiery scarlet was going down behind the hills, the sky a Gaugin canvas. Taking a moment from unloading boxes into my winter cabin, I saw a whale in the bay - a whale in my front yard! It was like the universe was on over-drive: one dream come true, served up brilliantly.



I arrived in Tofino with holes in the toes of my sneakers. ("I see you didn't win the lottery," dryly commented one crone I told my story to), and a grin from ear to ear. For the next ten years, I ecstatically walked through some of the most spectacularly beautiful landscape on the planet, with daily joy and gratitude at the beauty my eyes were feasting upon, and a fullness in my heart that meant more than any amount of money. Happiness abounded there, free for the taking, for anyone who had the eyes to see.

That first winter, I lived in a cabin on Chestermans Beach, Frank's Island across the sandbar out my kitchen window. Every morning as I plugged in my teakettle, I caught my breath in wonder, looking out on white-topped waves, a scene of perfect and unimagined beauty, mine to look upon: mine!



My eyes loved everything they fell upon: treetops poking out of the early morning fog; beckoning miles of white sand stretching to infinity; herons picky-toeing along the pebbled mudflats; orcas vaulting by, half a dozen at a time, in the harbour, to our ecstatic and vocal appreciation. Lone Cone blushing deep rose at sunset, little boats all heading in to  port through the dancing waves; interestingly attired alternative lifestyle folk, my kin, drifting serenely past on bicycles, sometimes singing; the cute little village center, its appearance unchanged even now, after twenty years of a hundred million tourists clambering over it like ants on an unruly anthill.

The sights of home sang a constant love song inside me: rain-slickered, gum-booted locals, heads bent against the wind, making their way laboriously to the post office under the lashing rains of winter.



Radar Hill on an early springtime morning, the perfect beauty of the natural world for 360 degrees, as far as I could see, coupled with my awareness, in that same moment, of human-created misery playing itself out down below. Pain the other side of the coin from joy, awareness a two-edged sword.



There was the Tall Tree Trail on Meares Island, more spiritual than any cathedral, where one could visit the Hanging Garden Tree, an opulence of ferns and smaller trees cascading from it, and the Stairway to Heaven tree, a giant fallen uphill, so you could walk up it, like a ladder to the stars.


I had only to step out onto the beach to achieve a meditative state, all worries falling from thought like weathered shakes from a tinder-dry frame. Every day I chose a different beach, an undiscovered trail. I explored every beloved inch of my new home.

My eyes sang a love song to that place for ten years. It sings inside me still. It always will.

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And then there were the sounds of home that played through my days and nights in that beautiful place, that will echo within me always: rain pelting, pelting through the mountain passes against the windshield, and the swish-swish-swish of the windshield wipers: going home, going home! Enya on the car stereo while wind lashes the tall gnarled pines at the highway's edge, the sudden shock of a rock flung upwards -crack! - and you slow right down, heart beating fast. The joy of heading home - Home! The very word a triumphant smile inside. Loving every inch of the highway that took me there.

It's the sound of waves coming in like jet planes at South Beach in winter storm, walking a deserted shore, the only human visible for miles, feeling like an outtake from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the film that began my odyssey to the sea so long ago. The piercing shriek of an eagle's cry, the raucous keening of the seagulls massing on the sandbar at Combers, before a storm, the bossy caw of the town crows, begging for scraps on the common. It's the locals dressed as crows, cawing a "happy solstice" to a crow-loving friend, on their knees around her, cawing upwards at her laughing face, lit by candle glow. It's the scold of a bright blue jay on the rough-planked deck, as Mozart wafts through the open window. It's the midnight storm lashing the creaky cabin, waves in full fury against the dunes out front, tall branches whipping the cabin wall, I snug in bed and listening.



It's the comforting whoosh of the fire crackling to life in the woodstove, the putt-putt-putt of boat engines pulling up to the government dock, the bell tinkling on the door of the Common Loaf bakery as you go in out of the rain, faces all upturned to greet you, wet rain gear sloughed off and steaming. It's the mooing of the foghorn at Lennard's Light, sounding all night long through the eerie, drifting fog. And, in the morning, it's the complete silence, that lets you know the power is out, no humming appliances to muffle the sound of Perfect Peace.

It is the sound of my beloved waves, forever advancing and retreating in my heart.

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When I moved to Tofino in 1989, the environmental movement was gathering steam. This was reflected in the graffiti painted on the concrete abutments rimming the sharp corners and steep drop-offs along the mountainous Pacific Rim Highway.

We village folk traveled the highway frequently, for shopping, visiting the Big Smoke, appointments with specialists. Heading out, we might read: Hug a Tree, in huge black letters crooked against the concrete. Coming home, on the neighboring abutment, in even bigger letters, we'd see: Hug a Logger. You'll Never Go Back to Trees!

Cars got into the act. My little blue Honda had barely visible bumpers under bright yellow stickers proclaiming: Money is a Drug - Heal the Spirit, and Money Rules - the Spirit Liberates!

As the environmentalists grew more numerous, vocal and visible, the Share B.C. movement rose in response. Yellow ribbons hung from loggers' car antennas. You could paint Ucluelet yellow, Tofino green. "Share B.C." said the pins on the lapels of the purse-lipped ladies at the Post Office, who were married to loggers. "Share the Stumps!" cheerfully responded the greens. "Logging Feeds My Family" proclaimed the high-up bumpers of the monster trucks. "No Jobs on a Dead Planet" said the signs at the blockades.


Then came 1993, and the Peace Camp - and everything came to a head. Arrests, placards, banners across the highway ("No More Token Groves" at Cathedral Grove) - everything was hotting up and no one was backing down. Those early mornings on the blockades were some of  the most meaningful of my life. This was my cause, and I stood there with my whole heart bursting.

I had to work and couldnt be there as often as I wanted. But I was there some mornings, notably the Women's Blockade. Proud, joyous, strong, we sang and spiral danced around the roadway, feeling our power, sharing smiles. That night my son phoned: "Mom, I saw you on the news, dancing on the road with a bunch of hippies."

Yup. That was me.

And now, always will I remember: the gentle sleepy beat of the tom-toms in the early morning half-light, as we gathered around the campfire; the fear and determination as the big trucks rolled in, as the official read out the injunction to move off the road, and the RCMP moved in to make the arrests, people carried off by arms and legs, to our supportive cheers and tears - the most profoundly passionate hours and days of my life.



That summer, I longed to live at the Peace Camp, set up in the Black Hole, an eyesore of a clearcut alongside the highway. I envied those who had the freedom to devote that summer to the blockades. I still had a child to support and, by then, a small mortgage to pay. I wanted to stand on the road, for the trees, for the planet, for us all and for the future. I had to work. But I was there when I could be, hours I will never forget.

I was there the night they closed the Peace Camp down. I sat listening to Dana Lyons singing "Magic", watching hippies dancing in a clearcut, followed by a fifteen-minute group hug and am "OMMMMMMMMMMMMM" that seemed as if it would never end, blissful smiles amid the stumps, smiled down on by a full, round Grandmother Moon.

I had just missed the hippy movement of the 60's. Much as my spirit recognized its affinity to those gentle beings and their unfettered lives, I was shackled, back then,  by a bad marriage, and had three small children. I lived one block - and a whole other reality - away from their liberated lives. Now I had this: the best of all. I had come full circle. Home.

     *****     *****     *****     *****
More than the beauty, it was the community I belonged to there that filled me. They told me ley lines intersect near Tofino in a way that makes it one of the power spots on the planet, that it draws certain people to it, as I had been drawn. There I was enveloped by the most highly original, individualistic, creative, intelligent, authentic, interesting and fully alive people I had ever met, each with a unique gift to share. My writing was appreciated and supported there as it had been no where else.

And the gatherings! A wealth of events through the years, at which you'd overhear snippets of amazing conversation, marvelling anew at the folk you were surrounded by. At the Common Loaf I once heard a tourist observe wonderingly: "They're like refugees from the 60's." We were, and that is what I most loved.

During my first weeks there, I attended a gathering on Vargas Island where, for the first time in my life, there was no light other than from the campfire or a flashlight, and an astounding panoply, a universe, of stars. I knew the uncertainty of being utterly cut off from civilization. I was on "Tofino Time" now, everything up in the air, unfolding however it unfolded. What if the boat didnt come? But it came, at midnight, and I waded out to it in my shoes, having my left leg impossibly high to gain purchase over the side of the boat, my other still planted in the water. Muttering to myself, "It's hard to be a hippy after 40!" I somehow hauled myself up and over. On that midnight ride, for the first time I saw bioluminescence  in the boat's wake, all magical, as brand-new as creation, cleaving my past from my present like another life.

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There appeared to be no barriers of age there. At gatherings, all ages were present, and accepted. At International Women's Day we'd arrive, bearing plates of food: lush young women at the peak of their flowering, demure young girls just on the threshold, decorous-enough-looking crones with gray hair - until the drums began, at which time we were all transported into a spiral-dancing, writhing, joyously beaming mass of primal womanhood and rocked the roof off. A beloved and feisty septuagenarian got up to do a boogy-shimmy, to the raucous delight of the watchers; a young woman read a poem about menstruation that had the room in hysterics; a belly dance was performed with the knowing eyes and awesome sensuality of a lush, full-figured woman at home in her body, followed by a slender First Nations girl draped in white wolf fur, who danced for the animals.

In the old dusty theatre I witnessed the best performances I have ever seen. Local playwrights offered gems about life and love; we watched child performers grow up on stage from year to year; we laughed and cried and witnessed moments that will live in my heart forever. And the audience was as entertaining and involved as the performers!

The best musical concerts ever were in this place, where the small local audience was so receptive they rose as a single entity and danced and writhed frenetically to the music. No polite pat-pat-patting for applause - but an uproarious frenzy of appreciative pleasure!

I was at home among my people there. These days, I am not. Now the town inhabits me as I once inhabited the town. But all of these precious memories still live, within the chambers of my heart - they live.

     *****     *****     *****     *****




After 1993, the tourists began to come in the millions to see this beautiful spot that had gained so much attention on the nightly news. The tourist dollars pouring in changed some of the feeling and the flavor of our little village.In terms of quality of life for the locals, development decisions began to be a lot more about money than many would prefer, especially we low-income "many".

Everything started getting tuned up to welcome the money in. Graffitti was no longer tolerated; abutments remained pristine. The environmentalists directed their focus, rightly, to the multinationals- the real rapers and pillagers, with their bottom line: profit. Even the loggers, now unemployed, began to understand their livelihoods were being phased out by the practice of clearcutting, right along with the trees.

The banners got folded up and put away, and my little blue Honda got traded in for a Toyota and life in Port Alberni. My current bumper sticker says "I Love Tofino". I am nothing, if not faithful.

Housing in Tofino has always been dicey. Year round rentals are scarce. Every spring,  locals (who work the low-wage jobs that serve the tourist industry) are asked to vacate any rooms or small suites available in winter, so they can be used at top dollar to house tourists. I found the stress of trying to find winter and then summer accommodation too stressful to endure well, and eventually I managed to purchase a collapsing wreck of a trailer, which I had to rebuild from the ground up, simply in order to have a fixed address.

For ten years I maintained that dance of survival, the precarious yet deeply joyous clinging of the impoverished, like a marsupial to the underside of a storm-tossed branch. But I wager I was richer in happiness there than many of the wealthiest residents of the monster houses along the beach I walked twice daily.

I came away with the satisfaction that, alone, with enormous trust, I took the risk and made my dream come true all by myself. I learned along the way that there is no security other than that which we carry within.

I worked myself into collapse the years I lived there, and that collapse eventually cost me my place there. No choice but to sell my hard-won trailer, my tiny foothold on that place so dear. I left Tofino suddenly, by ambulance, no time for a painful goodbye. I woke up in a different place, Port Alberni, the antechamber of Paradise, as unlikely a follow-up as one might imagine.

I had to learn to be happy in yet another landscape foreign to my spirit. The universe set me the task, once again, of losing what I most loved, of learning to bloom in the least likely setting I could imagine for myself, and I have.

Is it better to find home and then lose it, than never to have found it? Yes, definitely. How many lives can boast ten years of joy on a daily basis? I was in the august ecstatic company of Rumi and Hafiz. My soul sang with one constant refrain:  this place is so beautiful, so beautiful......I am so happy to be here.....and I did it myself....with  generous assists from all the gods and angels, who assist me still.

I miss it every day, the dream of returning a beacon I fasten my hope to.I want to end my life there, where I belong, among the loved and venerable crones in that eccentric-friendly place. I want my bones to rest in the cemetery under the wind-whipped pines, where the winter gales howl through.

There, I replenished my stores of peace, the peace I had sought for so many years and struggled so hard to win: by letting the sursurration of the waves wash through me, through my ears, my brain, my skin, my being, until I was as calm as the lull between waves, as strong and silent as the smooth stones scattered along the ocean's shore, as patient as the sand dollar that spins its house from the sand and grit around it and carries it within.

Love for that place never stops singing inside me. I carry those ten years within me like a gleaming treasure, like a song of love.

I have made a home-away-from-home here. I walk the forest trails, spindly pine forests draped with verdant moss and old man's beard, not old-growth. I find water: joyously rushing green rivers, burbling creeks, sleepy lagoons and lakes, and not the pounding sea.

I found a big rock by the lake the other day. It spoke to me. So I rolled it to my car, heaving it up and onto the floorboards. On this rock I will paint the word: Peace. I will roll it across the yard and plant it under the rose bush, water it well and watch it grow in this unaccustomed soil.

In Tofino, sunset is an event, as in, "Are you going to the sunset?" or "Catch you later, at the sunset!" All up and down the beach, people wander down with their after-dinner cups of tea, to attentively witness the going down of the sun.

There are no sunsets here. Sometimes some color behind the mountains to the west throws us leftovers from the spectacular sunsets one knows are occurring at the beach. I yearn; I long.

Today I will spend outdoors. Today, the world is burnished gold, fading soft to starshine. As the colored remnants streak across the evening sky, I will look to the mountaintops. Behind them, glorious West Coast sunsets are unfolding, these richly colored evenings. On tiptoe, I can almost see them shining.


10 comments:

  1. You're right. Few people can say they've had what you had: ten years in the paradise of your dreams. What a wondrous gift from the universe, Sherry.
    I'm glad you still carry Tofino in your heart, and if i takes another ambulance to return you there in the end, I hope you will have one last day, one last sunset, before you reach the cemetery.
    — K

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  2. Sherry, I read this with a tear in my eye. My original comment was so long I erased it and wrote a post. You inspired me.

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  3. Thank you both for reading such a lengthy tome. Kay, with any luck, I'll make it there while I can still hobble:) hee hee. Paula, I would love to read what you posted on your site, but when I click on your name, it wont take me there. But I am glad my piece inspired you.

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  4. This is probably the most fantastic post I have read - ever! I have had to read it in episodes, and I shall want to read it again. I feel so envious of you, and yet at the same time I feel so sorry on your behalf. The ante-chamber of Paradise doesn't sound at all bad and you home away from home sounds good to me - but then I guess I'm more a forest person, though the ocean resonates deeply as well, and I can certainly understand why your present circumstance must be a second best to you.

    And then the tragedy of deleting your seminal piece!

    I just hope that your deep wish will come to pass again for you. Maybe another ten years...?

    And what

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  5. Beautiful words, Sherry. Whenever I read about that time in your life, I am awed. It really is great to look back at this time, to feel the feelings you experienced then once again. Not every has known such a 'love.'

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  6. Beautiful, Sherry. Though I live on the Island I have yet to see the Clayoquot area - I hope to get there soon, and I know already, I won't want to leave...

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  7. I read a quote somewhere that said: "if you don't stand up for something, you will fall for anything"
    At least you did your best to take part in the protests. Did what you could as you were able to protect those beautiful trees from destruction. It wouldn't be so bad if they were able to replace them but, it took hundreds of years for forest's to grow into being. What's taken hundreds of years takes humans an hour or less with a chainsaw.
    You know Sherry, I often wonder if the trees feel pain. If they tremble at the sound of those chainsaws and if they weep as they are being cut open. It doesn't bear thinking about because the answer is probably yes, they are alive.
    It's a wonderful thing when you feel so in tune with your surroundings.
    You have been blessed to know it all.

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  8. Wow Sherry - this piece is, as so many before me have said, exceptional. I wrote a whole lot more here but decided it was too lengthy and too personal for a post so will email it to you! Happy New Year!

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  9. You have definitely learned the lesson the Universe is teaching: "that there is no security other than that which we carry within".

    "How many lives can boast ten years of joy on a daily basis?", I dare say not as many as want.

    Those who have been blessed with such joy will always be blessed and their joy will feed many. You have become that Nature. Your joy nurtures.

    Gather your will and go to the sunset again. Nurture yourself once more.

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  10. Such a wonderful story; you make us feel it all with you. xx

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I so appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Thank you so much. I will be over to see you soon!