Tuesday, August 9, 2011

LOVE SONG TO CLAYOQUOT SOUND

This pond is alongside the highway past the Summit on the way to Tofino.


[Some of you who are new to my site have mentioned wishing to hear more of my story. For now, though it is a bit of a read, this piece, written a few years ago, will tell you quite a bit about me, the single most defining decision of my life - and the ten glorious years that followed.

An edited version of this piece appeared in the anthology Writing the West Coast: In Love With Place, edited by Christine Lowther and Anita Sinner. The title, of course, convinced me I had something to say about this love of place! Of the various places my work has appeared, I am most proud of appearing in this anthology.]

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 in to shore like wild white horses, manes a-flying. A song of the wild waves, rolling 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. A song of the spirit, strong and free and laughing from the top of the wind-swept dunes.

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 unlikely shores of Okanagan Lake. The peaceful lake with its lapping ripples, fragrant bullrushes and weeping willows, was pretty, and desirable to many. But it was the wrong scenery, the wrong place, the wrong "energy" for me.

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 to 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. By 42, I had been longing for the ocean for so many years, I began to feel my soul was dying. I had waited patiently as my three older children completed high school. I grew plaintive about it. I keened; I yearned. By the time my youngest left elementary school, and was about to enter high school herself, I knew it was now or never.

Not brave enough yet to make this huge a 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, in 1988, 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 surfaced 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 waterfalls. And as we headed back to shore, sunset spread its palette of color before us. It was a dream of perfection.



On the Tall Tree Trail, Meares Island

The tour guides were environmentalists; their talk was of saving Clayoquot Sound's forests, then heavily under seige by the multinationals. They informed us that 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 lived there. 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, succumbing to 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 trip she had spoken of the difficulty in 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 traped: by the need, as a single mother of four, to earn a living, 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 that 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 with something left over.

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 to 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 I knew I couldn't live without a dream.

Had I known the difficulties the choice entailed, I might never have found the courage to make the leap. I'm glad 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, or how many part-time jobs it took to pay the rent, 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, underlining my dream come true in Technicolor.

Chestermans Beach, where I spent my first winter

For the next ten years, I walked ecstatically 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.


That first winter, Stephanie and I lived in a wooden cabin on Chestermans Beach, Frank's Island right across the sandbar out my kitchen window. (The other kids were on their own by now.) 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, a half 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 drifting serenely past on bicycles, sometimes singing; the cute little village centre, its appearance unchanged even now, after ten years of a hundred million visitors 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. 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 was on "Tofino time" now, everything unfolding however it unfolded. On one magical midnight boat ride, for the first time I saw bioluminescence in its wake, all magical, as brand-new as creation, cleaving my past from the present like another life.

I had only to step 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, and will echo within me always: rain pelting, pelting through the mountain passes against the windshield, and the swish-swish-swish of the windshield wipers: the joy of heading 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. The piercing keen of an eagle's cry, the raucuous shrieking 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 bluejay on the rough planked deck as Mozart wafts through the open window. 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 as you go in out of the rain, local faces upturned to greet you, wet rain gear sloughed off and steaming. It's the midnight storm lashing the creaky house, waves in full fury against the dunes out front, tall branches whipping the cabin wall, I snug in bed. It's the mooing of the foghorn at Lennard 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 again, no humming appliances to muffle the sound of Perfect Peace. It's 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.


As the environmentalists grew more numerous, vocal and visible, the Share B.C. movement rose in response. Yellow ribbons hung from car radio antennas. You could paint Ucluelet (our neighboring village on the peninsula that houses Pacific Rim National Park) yellow, Tofino green. "Share B.C." said the pins on the lapels of the pursed-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 mega-wheeled 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.


I was there some mornings before work, On The Road, heart bursting. At the Women's Blockade, proud, joyous, and strong, we sang and spiral danced around the roadway, feeling our power, sharing smiles. That night my very conservative son phoned: "Mom, I saw you on the news, dancing on the road with a bunch of hippies!"


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 order to move off the road, and the RCMP moved in to make the arrests, people being carried away by arms and legs, to our supportive cheers and tears - the most profound and passionate hours and days of my life.


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 an "OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM" that seemed as if it would never end, blissful smiles amid the stumps, smiled down on by a full, round Grandmother Moon.

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Lori Kerr photo
More than the beauty, it was the community I belonged to there that filled me. They told me the ley lines intersected near Tofino in a way that makes it one of the power spots on the planet, that it draws certain folk to it like a magnet, as I had been drawn. There, I was enveloped by highly original, individualistic, creative, intelligent, authentic, interesting and fully alive people, each with a unique gift to share.


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.


There appeared to be no barriers of age there. At all events, all ages were present, each person accepted as a being of worth. At International Womens' Day we'd all 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 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, small dusty theatre, 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.


The best musical concerts I ever attended were in this place, where the small local audiences were 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.

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After 1993, the tourists came in the millions to see this beautiful spot that had gained so much attention on the evening news. The tourist dollars pouring in changed some of the feeling and flavor of our little village. Everything started getting tuned up to welcome the money in. Finding affordable housing became even more of a nightmare. Tofino has its wealthy Monster House owners, but no housing for the minimum-wage earners who love it so dearly they are willing to struggle to stay there. The irony is that it is the minimum wage earners who man the desks at all the tourist agencies fuelling the economy in this tourist-dependent village. Many of these clerks live in vans and tents in good weather. But to those who guide the decisions, the priority is continuing the upscale trend that is Whistlerizing Tofino, effectively squeezing out some of the people who love the place most dearly.


I did not have to live in a van or a tent, but the constant moving was stressful and debilitating. I needed a home so badly, I was grateful to finally move into a collapsing trailer that I had to basically rebuild, just to have a home. 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 spirit and happiness than the wealthiest resident of the monster houses lining the beach I walked twice daily.


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Why I had to leave that place is another story. I came away with the satisfaction that, alone, with enormous trust, I had made my dream come true. I also learned that there is no security, other than that which we carry around inside ourselves.


I worked myself into collapse in 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 this place so dear. I left Tofino suddenly, by ambulance, no time for a painful goodbye. I awoke in a different place, Port Alberni, a logging and pulp and paper community, the antechamber of Paradise, as unlikely a follow-up as one might imagine.


Away from the place where I belong, I had to learn to be happy in yet another landscape foreign to my spirit. The universe set me the task of losing, once again, what I most love, of learning to be happy -if not ecstatic-in the least likely setting I could envision for myself, and I have done this.


Is it better to find home, then lose it, than never to have found it? Yes, definitely.


For ten years, I was so in love with Clayoquot Sound that I had no need of a partner. How many lives can claim a solid decade 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 no longer have the health, finances or stamina to re-enter the housing merry-go-round, every few months finding a new place so the tourists can rent the space for bigger dollars. But one day, perhaps I will return. I want to end my life there, where I belong, among the loved and venerable crones in that eccentric-friendly place. I want my remains put to rest in the cemetery under the wind-whipped pines, where the winter gales howl through.


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.

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I have made a home-away-from-home here, in this place chosen for its affordability and proximity to my beloved beach, an hour and a half away. 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 deep 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 floorboard. On this rock I shall paint the word: Peace. I will roll it across the yard, plant it beside the fence, water it well and watch it grow in this unaccustomed soil.

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And now it is mid-summer in Port Alberni. The evenings are long and light; the sunlight turns amber as evening fades. Our hearts are turning towards fall, amber days, blackberry-picking. I am yearning to travel up and over the mountain pass, to walk the wild beaches once again.


In Tofino, sunset was an event, as in "are you going to the sunset tonight?" or "catch you at the sunset." All up and down the beach people gathered to attentively witness the sun going down behind the horizon. Fires crackled and glowed at intervals; people wandered down from their houses holding their after-dinner cups of tea.


There are no sunsets here. Sometimes some color creeps across the sky from behind the mountains to the west, leftovers from the spectacular summer sunsets I know are occuring at the beach. I yearn; I long.


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

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22 comments:

  1. Beautiful writing and pictures. I am going to send someone else very familiar with this area to your beautiful blog.... Her name is Diane.

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  2. Thank you for your interest, Mary, and I look forward to Diane's visit. :)

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  3. i love those sunset pics!

    i truly enjoyed your post. thanks for sharing. :)

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  4. I looked up clayoquot sound and was pleasantly surprised to see it listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, you are so fortunate Sherry, to be living in such a sacred space!

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  5. the places you are in are stunning,
    magical to me.
    lovely post.
    have a fun Tuesday!

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  6. Thank you all so much. Yes, it is an amazing place, the "energy" of it is truly special. After the blockades and protests, it was designated a biosphere reserve, we succeeded that far, at least. But as my environmentalist friends continue to remind me, that doesnt mean it is saved. Right now they are opposing an insane plan to STRIPMINE Catface Mountain, which would destroy not only the mountain,across the bay from Tofino, but the watersheds. This is unbelievable to me.

    Also, First Nations have been ceded territory, which they have a rightful claim to, but I believe they plan to log. Cant blame them for wanting some profit, given the multinationals have already taken the lion's share of resources. But it hurts to think of old growth coming down.

    However, the beauty is still there, and the wonder of that place. Down any trail, surrounded by thick-trunked friendly beings a few hundred years old, all covered with moss, the feeling is more sacred than any cathedral.

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  7. Oh wow, wow, wow! I was so engrossed and moved by this beautiful piece of writing.

    I so identify with so many of the feelings and the sentiments, it has reawakened my longing, my urge for the ocean and rugged clifftops of my special place.

    A really wonderful piece of writing, it contains magic, it contains energy, it contains soul.

    Love to you. x

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  8. Once an ocean person, it never leaves you:) Thank you so much, Susannah, for your comments. It truly is my love song to this place, which I miss on a daily basis, still. I must get there soon!

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  9. This has always been my favourite piece of your writing, Sherry, because it's clear your whole heart went into it! Knowing how gorgeous Tofino is, and how you long to be there, it is my fervent wish that you get to settle by your beloved ocean again, so that it is the first thing you see each morning, and the last thing you see at night...

    Lynette

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  10. Thanks, Lynette. Yes, this is my major opus. When I am typing it or reading it, for a while those memories come to life again. I so long to be there. Not completely impossible, were I to choose a dogless existence, I could live in the apartments..........but no dogs????? Hmmm.......big choice.

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  11. Beautiful writing and a beautiful blog, Sherry. I came to visit by way of Poets United. Nice to meet you. :-)

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  12. Paul, thank you so much for stopping by. I appreciate it!

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  13. Sherry,
    A beautiful and engaging read. I was captivated by the first few words. I can see why you long to return. I hope for your spirit one day you can.
    Pamela

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  14. i feel as you do, about the pacific, its serenity and deadly power... thank you!

    btw - it's pt.alberni my uni bud is from, not tofino... close, but no seegar :O lol

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  15. Thank you Sherry for sharing this treat with me.

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  16. Sherry, I remember living in the rather dilapidated Venice Beach in the 70s, when "poor musicians" could afford to live there. We would gather at sunset; we would go to a cheap diner together in the mornings, everything was communal. We were the last wave of the hippies, although I am still a hippie at heart.

    But compare that to your story of rustic living, of being ONE with nature, of your courage in fighting The Man to the point of peaceable arrest... you truly have the soul of an earth mother and the heart of a wolf mother. I loved hearing more about your story... and I love your writing! Peace, Amy
    http://sharplittlepencil.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/i-heard-the-news-today-oh-boy/

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  17. If it's meant to be, you will go back there again. But, they cann't take away your precious memories.
    Funny when our souls can connect so deeply and be so intune with the land. I feel like that about being close to water, without it, I feel I slowly die, inside.
    This was a precious and a lovely, heartfelt read Sherry.

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  18. Dear Sherry,
    I always find that my post does not appear somehow in your comment box. Something must be googling it up. Anyway, your post inspired a poem over at my blog for you. I hope you like it.

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  19. BTW, your post is beautiful and moved me to tears.

    Love always.

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  20. Such wisdom here, Sherry, as always. I learn from you at every reading. You are a guide in every good sense of the word.

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  21. I am so glad to have found this wonderful story! And I understand it well. 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!