#67 Denman Island porch song

ESSAY: A Denman Island Porch Song
by Bill Engleson

First published Dec. 27, 2016


Denman Island Community Hall. Photo by Wind Rombough

Once a week, every Wednesday from 1-4 in the afternoon, I volunteer in the Dora Drinkwater Library on Denman Island. Such a reputedly literate island spawns more sluggish times than one might hanker for.

If the season is clement and the weather temperate, if the sun has managed to peep through the soaring trees that stand on the western side of the Seniors Hall, I select one of the silver-grey, plastic, all-purpose chairs that proliferate here like rampaging broom, haul it out to the veranda, aim it in a southerly direction, stretch my legs out on the large warm rock abutting the steps, open a book or magazine, read a little and gaze up now and then at the placid, bucolic trickle that is downtown Denman village life.

Periodically, I nod off, more than I probably should, sure to be roused by the raspy exuberance of a Denman raven or a lead-footed, speedway-dreaming Denmaniac — or even an itinerant reader seeking sustenance in our dusty aisles.

As I take notice of the pulse of Denman Village, and check mine just to be sure it’s still there, I marvel at how contented I have become, how comfortable and at ease I am here on this island, here on this porch, partially shaded, allowing a few slivers of whatever sun the day offers to warm me.

I admit to being no true librarian and I do not stem from bookish roots. In the mid 1960s, I shelved books at the SFU library for a brief time. I was not a model employee — setting, I suppose, a most dreadful example. I had never, up to then, been so intimate with so many books.

Bill Engleson at a student council meeting at Simon Fraser University, 1960s

There, at SFU in my late teens, surrounded by thousands of provocative volumes, I succumbed to their ink-arched lure.

I would slink off to some private corner and devour whatever was handy until the end of my shift. Being one more reader amongst many was perfect camouflage. There was no supervision to speak of.

Oh, I performed my required duties as they arose. Carts teeming with books to be shelved arrived from time to time. Though I may not have been the total shelving slacker I now recall, my studies, or lack of them, and the revolution — a heady mix of sex, politics, medicinal horticultural products, ideas, and insurrection — eventually required more of my time.

An extraordinarily undemanding part-time shelving job was just too lacklustre for such an era. I resigned to relish a more intricate life.

Years later, almost by accident, I found myself consumed with a career. Initially my employment took me across the street from my home. Later, I had to travel a mile or two. Eventually I ended up with a thirty-to forty-minute commute. By some standards, this might seem an annoying trifle. It didn’t strike me so at the time. Like many urban commuters, I tended to think of the world as a series of minor inconveniences conspiring to delay only me.

When I moved to Denman, I still imagined that the world revolved around me. That first winter, I decompressed. I assessed and then submitted to my humble place in the community continuum.

Eventually I realized that the worst place for me was alone with my thoughts. Even at the best of times they can be skimpy companions.

I needed some diversion from the distressing isolation of my house. My love unreservedly agreed. “For Pete’s sake, you sweet lug, find something to do,” she emphasized, most ardently. And then added, “You’re hovering again.”

I needed a fix of hubbub. I needed busy. I needed, I thought, the commotion I had always found in the city. There is, I discovered, not a lot of naturally occurring audible hubbub on Denman Island, apart from the Fanny Bay sea lion chorus and the spill and fill of the Buckley Bay ferry providing what a friend calls the rush minute.

I was reminded of the idle observation by Jim, a minor character near the end of the 1947 film Out of the Past: “Too many people! Too much talk! Maybe that’s why I like this town. Here, three people are really a crowd.”

Committing to an afternoon a week in the library in Denman Village gave me the opportunity to enjoy whatever clamour I might find.

Over time, especially during my indolent porch ponderings, gazing off into vacant downtown Denman space, I found something else, something of greater value then human clatter. I found the lost slug in me: my true snail, my Denman Island doppelganger: my pre-revolutionary part-time librarian personality.

Indoors, the Dora Drinkwater has a dawdling routine that needs to be met. At the beginning of every shift, books scrunched through the after-hours slot are processed, Venetian blinds raised, signs hung, and sandwich board positioned near the road.

Drinkwater Library

If there has been a concert in the hall, many of the books need to be nudged more securely back into their shelf. When the Hall is rocking, they shimmy and shake with abandon and slither perilously close to their precipice over the dance floor.

The signage seems singularly ineffective in drawing in traffic. The urban fiend in me, still gripping my soul with sinister thoughts, imagines the Library emblazoned in pulsating neon, flashing in a glimmering, fancy script, as if the Dora Drinkwater was some 1940s Road House/ Library pastiche.

Every year, as autumn takes hold and winter fast approaches, I move my main street Denman Village ruminations indoors. The porch is abandoned for the season.

I’m not sure it matters that the library isn’t heavily used. It may be that it achieves its purpose simply by being there. There is succour to be had in knowing that the books wait faithfully, dreaming devotedly of the day someone will lift them from their dusty bed and caress them with the love and the care they so deeply deserve.

I shy away from the gluttonous pace of Island book clubs for the very reason that books need to be tasted unhurriedly, at a most restrained pace. Others readers, of course, set their own rhythm.

Denman Island provides no hurried quotas or fixed productivity. Insularity on this limited scale means that land and literature are consumed at a modest rate.

November’s fading leaves flutter to the chilling earth. Time, never overdue, has claimed another of our key volunteer librarians. I smile to know that Betty-Ann Grodecki had a glass of red wine the day before she died.


Bill Engleson

Bill Engleson is an author and retired child protection social worker. Born in Powell River, raised in Nanaimo, he spent his first year of life trapped aboard his parents’ leaky fishboat. He resided in New Westminster for most of his adult years, retiring to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction, essays, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in the sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. He self-published his first novel, Like a Child to Home (2013); his second book, Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul (Silver Bow Publishing, 2016), is a collection of humorous literary essays. He is working on several new projects including a prequel to his first novel entitled Drawn Towards the Sun; a mystery, Bloodhound Days; and a collection of home grown, satirically tinged essays, DIRA Diary: Tall Tales of Democracy in Traction. His website/blog is www.engleson.ca


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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