No Snakes on These Islands
Ian Johnston
(This article was written in 1987 for the second issue of Atrevida, a Malaspina magazine that ceased publication after the first issue.)

His bare, low-pitched island in the pale blue sea was all he wanted. . . He liked to sit on the low elevation of his island, and see the sea; nothing but the pale, quiet sea. And to feel his mind turn soft and hazy, like the hazy ocean. Sometimes, like a mirage, he would see the shadow of land rise hovering to the northwards. It was a big island beyond. But quite without substance. (D. H. Lawrence)

Johnson had said that he could repeat a complete chapter of "The Natural History of Iceland," from the Danish of Horrebow, the whole of which was exactly thus:--CHAPT LXXII. Concerning snakes. There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island. (Boswell)

I hate islands. It's a long-standing and unqualified relationship and has a good deal to do with the shortage of exits and appropriate forums. For me islands are traps, and many of the people who rhapsodize about insular experience are the willing victims of the oldest seduction game in the world, the erotic temptations of a mythical Calypso offering romantic promises without the inconvenience of a human partner, "Come live with me and be my love, you isolato, you." The prospect of building an emotional moat around oneself exercises a long-standing allure, but, unless you're a neurotic over-rich regal idiot like Ludwig of Bavaria, the capital expenses of a personal Neuschwannstein can be pretty steep, so the next best thing is to find some piece of a convenient island, preferably one without a bridge.

For someone who hates islands as much as I do, I seem to have spent a good deal of time on them. Maybe--to compare great things with small--it's something like the case of Neville Shute, who used to explain that living in a place as dreadful as Australia was a daily problem but the distaste kept his creative juices sharp. Just another example of the pleasures to be gained from time to time by interrupting a continual banging of one's head against a brick wall. Anyway, the catalogue of islands where I have done time is getting quite extensive--Vancouver Island, Montreal Island, Capri, Toronto Island, the Isle of Dogs (if that counts), Jersey, Prince Edward Island, Britain, various Gulf Islands, and several unnamed pieces of the Canadian shield sticking up in the middle of lakes all over northern Ontario. I've had problems with them all in one way or another, although, speaking generally, the larger the island the more bearable it tends to be because it's that much easier to pretend that I'm not on the damn thing.

And, depending on my mood, I'm deeply suspicious of or sorry for people who love islands, especially islands with no immediate escape route to a place that isn't surrounded on all sides by water. That love smells to me too much of the death instinct, the urge to huddle against a sea-girt rock in the face of the winter storm, deliriously happy because at last one has found a place where one can be truly alone. So the popularity of islands rather baffles me. Take that Islands 86 lottery on Vancouver Island, for example. Tens of thousands of people purchased tickets at ten dollars a pop largely on the strength of the colour photograph on the poster illustrating the first prize, a tiny lump of rock with some trees on it, stuck in the middle of some salt water, and the organizers walked away with such a massive profit that they immediately convinced lots of other money-hungry public organizations to emulate them. Lacking the right picture, of course, many imitators, including Shakespeare Plus, as it was then still called, lost their shirts.

Of course, the way in which islands appeal so strongly to the death instinct is not the official line, at least not on the west coast of BC, where books about the romance of life with a horse on five acres by the sea or about the existential purity of stone age technology are an essential identification badge on the rough-hewn ledge beside the draughty windows and the polluting wood stove. A good deal of that is just arrant fakery. There may be a few green acres and a bucolic horse or two on the property, but there's often a nice little stash in the bank, the profits from an earlier life as a corporation lawyer or university academic in the big city or from selling off some of the land to eager urbanite weekenders falling for the oldest real estate scam in the world, the pitch that insularity brings content, that the pursuit of happiness ends triumphantly on Avalon.

That's why big corporations who take on island citizens, at least in this part of the world, often get badly bruised. The company types take one look at the local yokels they are dealing with and chuckle all the way back to their pals in the government regulatory agencies, figuring that these zombie relics from the summer of love are going to be a push over. Well, one can hardly blame them, given that some of the islanders look like stoned bumpkins. But the big company flak catchers usually end up severely mauled, because often inside that Rip Van Winkle's head is the cunning ruthlessness of a big city leverage buyout broker and the scientific acumen of someone who toughed out a full series of consecutive post-doctoral research grants at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a major Pentagon project and lived to walk away from it.

Some confrontations between gulf islanders and the urban technocrats have become classics. My personal favorite occurred during the Courtenay hearings into a new sewage disposal system. As usual, the apologists for Howe Street tried to snow everyone with charts, statistical jargon, and ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) lies. Well, that was their role, and it had proved successful in many past encounters, so why should they change it? But then some reincarnation of Gabby Hayes emerged from the backwoods of Denman Island, carrying under his unwashed and unkempt locks information from decades of high-level research work in oceanography (conducted elsewhere in another life, of course). He then politely, meticulously, and at length irrefutably shredded the company's case. By the end, the fisherman in the assembly, hardly the best friends of the alternative community on Denman and Hornby Islands at the best of times, were solidly against the proposal. Hell, that shit in the water was going to kill their fish. The company was left with nothing to say, except rather weakly to offer Gabby a job. As an attempt at repressive desublimation that was a gallant invitation. But Gabby declined. He didn't need the money.

But my detached interest in such victories of David over Goliath doesn't make me any happier about having to spend time on any of the gulf islands. I've just endured too many weekends cooped up in the rain, one or two ferry rides from the nearest coffee shop, fast food joint, or pool hall, worrying about whether or not I'm sitting in someone else's chair (the only one in the room near a light strong enough to read by if there was anything to read apart from old copies of The Whole Earth Catalogue, the most boring publication in the world), listening to a faltering water pump and conversations about how long the ferry line up is going to be tomorrow and whether or not it's time for the vigilante group to tour the beaches once again just in case some of those delinquent asshole adolescents from Comox are drinking beer above the tide line and whose turn it is to use the binoculars to peer more closely through the drizzle at one more passing fishboat or, holy smokes, will you look at that, another eagle.

Not that the gulf islands are havens only for subscribers to Mother Jones. The allure of insularity has no particular preferences for class, gender, race, or economic status. So in some places, like Gabriola, the granola-and-grass crowd stands shoulder to shoulder with the full-Nanaimo fortrel-and-checks phalanx to denounce one more time the price of the ferry ride to and from the city. Most of the rest of the time the two groups spend snarling at each other about just how much the proposed bridge is going to push real estate prices up into orbit and the quality of island life (the phrase, or its acronym QIL, is a mantra of sorts) down into the lowest depths of Dunsmuir's mines. Of course, both responses come from basically the same source, the urge to control one's own environment as much as possible, to translate the geographical reality of the island into a personal organizing principle of life. Get the acreage, put up a fence, grow a few vegetables, and arrange things so that the only thing we have to look at until the next dividend cheque arrives is the alien sea.

Because what unites the west coasters--ex-hippie, student, subsistence farmer, pot grower, real estate agent, intellectual, artist, what have you--is that they or their immediate ancestors almost all came quite recently from somewhere else. They abandoned, sometimes in stages, family roots, traditions, old religions, ancient landscapes, inherited communities. In one way or another, they are the product of past social failures in an older world. There were many reasons, ranging from a desire to escape the law, to boredom, hopes for a better economic future, family quarrels, hatred of snow (that's my excuse), and so forth, but they all came west, seeking a cure for their dissatisfaction elsewhere and reaching the sea when there was no more space. I have this theory that the west coast of BC hosts a genetically selected pool of eternally frustrated, restless, adventurous, rootless, entrepreneurial wanderers at the end of the road, all in search of that final island. Where else in Canada could one earn lots of money from people who want pay one hundred dollars each to throw themselves off a bridge with nothing between them and the waters in the canyon one hundred and fifty feet below but an elastic band looped around their ankles? Where else would people pay to watch them?

The centres of daily social life for BC island folk are the marina and the yacht club. Anywhere else in the world these would be symbols for excessive affluence. On the west coast they are the temporary meeting places where ordinary people run into each other briefly as they prepare for the ultimate pleasure of the isolato, boating. The attractions of this activity truly escape me. It's the most expensive way to travel third class ever devised, the equivalent of ripping up wads of fifty-dollar bills while standing in a cold shower. If an island is a prison, a sailboat is the solitary confinement cell. Once you've left the strangers on the dock, no one exits from that setting. A good deal of the local interest in boating, of course, has to do with the pleasures of secret drinking, because a boat is, so I am reliably informed, a great place to get truly ripped and thus temporarily to escape the worries about making the next payment, closing a real estate deal, coping with the neighbours who have just purchased the next lot, cleaning out the septic field, or getting the best price for the standing timber behind the rustic cabin.

The lengths islanders will go to for just the right boat are astonishing. My ex-father-in-law purchased a ketch sight unseen, had it shipped thousands of miles, and watched it sink when it first hit the Pacific water in Vancouver. He spent a couple of years of putting it back together and then sold it after one ten-mile trip. And my friends Morris and Pat wrote themselves into the Island book of lore with their seven-year let's-build-a-boat project. When the time came for the official launching of the hull in Ladysmith harbour and the rumour circulated that Morris's and Pat's boat was on the move, the hordes gathered. The cavalcade from Yellow Point stretched for miles. It was a grand party, the only time I have ever really enjoyed myself on a sailboat, maybe because the mast was not yet in place. We chugged around the harbour close to the shore, breaking every safety regulation about proper attire. The sun was warm, the booze plentiful, and as soon as Jill pulled off her dress and jumped into the briny for a swim, I knew it was going to be one of those days to remember. Fred stayed clothed and refused to join in the fun, so that he could take embarrassing pictures of everyone, but then he was only a temporary visitor from the East, so no one cared or was surprised. The festivity lasted until we thought it would never end. Soon after that Morris and Pat, too, sold their boat.

And where else but in Canada's western isles is politics so mushy? Outsiders arrive full of expectations that the classic right-wing-left-wing confrontations which are supposed to be such an important feature of west coast life represent some vital political debates. Nothing of the sort. There may be lots of die-hard Socred and NDP supporters and elected officials from the west coast, but the rhetoric is typically a politically correct gesture or an emotional raspberry, not a sign of any intensely held convictions. The dynamics of the situation usually mean that voters decide by casting ballots on the basis of what they don't want, rather than on the basis of what they do. What other citizenry would treat the Social Credit party as a serious political option? Where else in the world could and NDP leader like Mike Harcourt announce his platform and dare to declare himself a socialist? He can do that here and retain his constituency, because deep down where it really counts, all gulf islanders want the same thing, enough money in the bank to retire to a self-imposed life sentence on Alcatraz.

Of course there are energetic political arguments all the time, but they mostly concern debates about the appropriate width of the aesthetic corridor which the forestry companies are required to leave between the prisoners on the shoreline gazing through their picture windows at an inland sea (the placid Strait of Georgia hardly qualifies as a bona fide ocean) filling up with dioxins and the logging operations which fund the lifestyle, working hard to turn every island into what looks from the air like an animal shaved for some diabolical physiological experiment. No one seriously disputes the importance of keeping technology dynamic enough so that once we have earned enough income from resource exploitation we can pretend how truly human we are by turning our backs on it and everyone else. The scenery is important, but what's essential is the gulf.

I learned this lesson the hard way some years ago, when I tried to help set up a viable Green Party in Nanaimo. The moment seemed auspicious, there were lots of enthusiastic party members, and an election was looming. The only trouble was I couldn't get the local party faithful to recognize the difference between an ad-hoc environmental protest cadre and a political party. The enthusiastic meetings tended to focus exclusively on the next weekend's march--making placards was a major priority--and to turn away from any long-term commitment to developing some ideas which might pass muster as a political platform when the time came to go to the electorate. Still, I persevered. I figured that if we could get, say, one quarter of those islanders who marched against nuclear weapons, against clear cutting, against pollution, against whatever the currently fashionable technological target happened to be, well then we would make quite an impact. For there was certainly no shortage of doctors, lawyers, teachers, union members, and citizens generally parading around on behalf of the variously correct political flavours of the month. A wiser head than mine could have predicted the outcome. On voting day, the electorate dropped their placards, looked deeply into their wallets, and voted as usual. The Green Party earned significantly less than ten percent of the vote. I chalked it up to experience and switched my allegiance to the Rhinos.

On the Gulf Islands correct political attitudes are mandatory, whereas significant political action is irrelevant. Maria, a cousin of mine visiting from her native Mexico recently remarked pointedly on the discrepancy between the extraordinary openness and apparently sympathetic political stance of islanders towards the third world generally and their amazing ignorance about things Latin American. There was, she observed in a letter, a soft sympathy for the country with which we are supposed to be entering into a trade pact but generally a lack of informed opinion or specific interest in anything more urgent than ocean-front balcony conversations checking into the prices of condominiums in Cozumel or swapping margarita recipes.

She has a point. Islanders protest everything--ad hoc rallies are announced in the tourist brochures--and vote mainstream. They write hundreds of newsletters addressing every conceivable cause, but don't rock the boat. Many waterfront landowners denounce capitalism, but everyone flocks to see romantic evocations of the most popular west coast heroes of all, Robert Dunsmuir and Brother XII, the apotheoses of the successful islander. Meanwhile, one of the great figures in the class struggle, Ginger Goodwin, whose murder by the police prompted the first provincial general strike, sleeps quietly in Cumberland. Of course, his union work was largely off island, so maybe he doesn't count. Besides he didn't make it. If you don't get to become king of your own island commune or Craigdarroch Castle, you're a nobody.

Vancouver Island could be an exception, given its size, but it isn't really. The basic islander mentality permeates the place. Victoria is essentially an overgrown harbour dressed up to look quaint so that flocks of American tourists who don't want to risk a terrorist bomb on a flight to Warwickshire can pretend they've had a hit of the echt Shakespeare. And there's a room in the Empress where civic officials hire distinguished looking indigent pensioners to walk around the place and give the waterfront an air of gentility and old world security. Once I submitted a playscript to a Victoria repertory company. The artistic director wrote back to say he loved the script but that it wasn't suitable for Victoria audiences. The piece had some naughty words, so I believed him. The play was rejected from all over North America for various reasons, but that was the only time I ever heard that particular excuse.

Victoria is officially a provincial capital city, but basically still a small waterfront village. No wonder there's no CBC station or NFB outlet. You don't get a feeling there, or in any other Island city for that matter, of a vital public alternative life style. Like everywhere else, the Island has a significant number of homosexuals, for example, but there's little sense of that in the public culture. It's not just a matter of size, the need for a critical mass of followers before the closets can fully open. It's just that islanders are, well, at heart unsocial. For one fine summer Nanaimo had a great gay hang out, Spikes, in the basement of the Outrigger, but that was patronized largely by out-of-town theatre professionals in Nanaimo for the few weeks of the opening Shakespeare season. And when Ron Glass, Sam Mancuso, Donna Miles, and the rest left at the end of the summer, the place folded. After that, the founder, Mike Oczko, flirted for a while with Cappy Yates Park before trading in the possibilities in alternative options in Nanaimo for a major executive income in post-glasnost Poland.

The expatriate Brits still try now and then to revive some sense of colonial aristocracy, but their efforts, although in places remunerative for the tourist industry, are otherwise largely pathetic. Some of them shiver with glee that there's a relative of Queen Elizabeth living somewhere around Parksville and grow quite ecstatic at the prospect of a visit from one of the dim peripatetic royals. And they thump the Anglo-Saxon drum in the city parades to announce the next meeting of the Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada (occasionally featuring some rabidly anti-French creature like Doug Collins). No one takes them very seriously. The phenomenon is a bit like the remnants of English public school life still on the walls of the Qualicum College Inn, once a pedagogical experiment based on the seven C's (Christianity, corporal punishment, Classics, cold showers, cricket--I forget the rest). Now the space is put to much better use as a watering hole for vacationers and convention delegates. Insular libertarianism doesn't have much use for outmoded traditions or residual aristocracies.

Island intellectual life is pretty arid, too, at least in public. The quality of reporting in the daily newspapers is as hazy as the landscape. Investigative journalism is unheard of, largely because that might mean pulling a reporter away from the major responsibility for gulf gossip and for speculation on behalf of the sports fisherman about what the tides are doing and where the remnants of the depleted fish stocks may still be lurking. Victoria TV newscasters are typecast and made up to look, dress, and talk in a more subdued fashion than their Vancouver counterparts. What with endemic corruption in the legislature and some hugely important aboriginal land claims, among other things, there is no shortage of potentially divisive public issues. But, hey, this is lotus land, so don't bug me. College instructors fresh from the eastern big cities or urban California are characteristically taken aback by the tepid political-intellectual climate here ("Just what are the issues I can use to turn the students on?"), until they, too, purchase a sail boat and start dreaming of a ten-acre waterfront patch on Reid Island. Calypso Rock, indeed.

The most remarkable thing about the BC coastal islands is the density of active minor Prosperos. Everywhere you go, you're tripping over artistic types of various kinds--poets, novelists, playwrights, painters, carvers, musicians, graphic designers, architects, weavers--the place is littered with them. Like the native salal, they grow unchecked in every corner and flourish naturally in the environment. The situation is quite unlike an eastern big city, where there are lots of would-be artists doing other things. One of the reasons one gets such surly restaurant or taxi service in Toronto, for example, is that most of the waiters, waitresses, and drivers think of themselves as artists waiting for the big break and are contemptuous of the philistine bourgeois clientele they have to serve in the meantime. On the Island being an artist comes quite naturally with the territory. It's not something you wait to do sometime in the future.

So there's an astonishing variety and fecundity. Loggers make burl clocks in their spare time, housewives produce pottery, paintings, and poems, academics keep the drawers stuffed with novels, bonsai plants, woven mats, photographs, what have you. The great unifying theme is a consistently narcissistic celebration of island life. No place on earth is so devoted to producing more artistic anthologies or exhibitions about itself. Not surprisingly the painting is heavily into ocean landscapes, and the creative writing often features imagistic ponderings on the metaphysical mysteries of everything from fishnets to sand dollars, usually with a generous dollop of what is known in the trade as magic realism. It's not the place to come if you're into socially committed political naturalism (try Prince George) or hard-hitting, trenchant journalism (even the New York Times is hard to sell up Island).

Most of the art is, as one might expect, routinely Parnassian stuff, cannon fodder for the charity bazaars. But at its best the quality of Island artistry is really good. And it comes from many unexpected quarters. Literary types like Jack Hodgins and Frank Mohr crop up in the nominations for the Governor Generals awards (Jack actually won one, too), local drama groups routinely win prizes in the provincial festivals, and the local school jazz bands constantly walk off with the top awards at national competitions, leaving the big-city schools muttering in defeat, "Just where the hell is Nanaimo?"; the work of Hornby Island potters and builders appears regularly in major journals; Chemainus converts itself overnight, it seems, from just another mill town into an internationally known display of murals, and Oolichan Press in Lanzville keeps coming up with unexpected writers from the most unlikely places--ex-loggers, etymologists, marine biologists, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. Maybe it's something in the water or the air. But I'm not surprised that when a big sturgeon recently decided to reproduce in captivity, a major artistic triumph, it happened, in part, in Nanaimo. On the islands one learns to accept creative activity as a daily fact of life.

Maybe that's one reason for the general feeling of self-satisfaction among islanders. We may have a high murder and suicide rate, but we know we're in paradise, or as close to Elysium as we're likely to get this side of the great divide. The feeling tends to be a seasonal thing which reaches its apogee sometime around the end of February, when the first hit of warm weather brings the crocuses bravely out. At that point islanders declare a national Islands' Smugness week. The celebration involves watching the TV news from the rest of Canada and chortling with superior glee at the footage of all those poor slobs trekking through the snow in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, and Halifax. That's about the time, too, when people start dusting off the winter's creative work in time for all the summer town fairs, celebrating (what else?) the quality of island life.

I'm not sure why I've stayed so long. It may just be a case of inertia. On the other hand, whatever small artistic talent I do have, it runs to strong satire, and here there is no shortage of tempting targets. In fact, on the Island one has plenty of opportunity to fire paper bullets at flocks of sitting ducks and loons, for the endemic politically fashionable attitudinizing and the smug cultural self-satisfaction produce, one way or another, a large number of quacks. The problem is that among a people who believe that visiting the rest of the country means taking a ferry ride to the mainland or at most a trip to Kelowna the chances for any satire based on national issues are rather limited. And the political and intellectual life is often conducted with such an air of silly but absolutely sincere sanctimonious pontificating that satire becomes redundant. Sticking a barge pole in a wet lump of clay which immediately reforms is no substitute, as far as a satirist is concerned, for pricking balloons until they explode. But in the island lands of Clark and Vander Zalm, garden fantasies are the reality for everyone, and there is never any conscious conflict of interest. It's all right if the isles are full of noises, just so long as they give delight and hurt not.

[Back to Table of Contents for Volume I, Issue 1]