1110 Cedar stumps and coastal rambles
Here on the Coast: Reflections from the Rainbelt
by Howard White
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2021
$24.95 / 9781550179248
Reviewed by Howard Macdonald Stewart
Is this Howard White’s swan song? Probably not, but it would be a good one if it was. White has been an important player on the west coast literary scene for decades, as both writer and publisher, so it’s not surprising that he’s written a delightful and diverse collection of short pieces set around this coast – nor that he managed to get it published. Here on the Coast offers over 50 engaging vignettes in 200 pages. Sometimes humorous and sometimes serious, and often both, they’re a mix of enlightening, light-hearted, insightful, frivolous, nostalgic, and loving looks at “the Coast” and White’s life there. Some border on self-indulgent rambling, but surely he’s allowed: he owns the press.
Uncle Howard tells us he’s not talking about the big Coast from White Rock to Desolation Sound and the shores of Vancouver Island. Mostly it’s about the stretch of mainland coast from Howe Sound to Jervis Inlet. Even if Pender Harbour is 110 km from Pender Island, not 240 as White suggests, and they are quite different places, much of the wider coast shares many things in common with the Sunshine Coast. White’s stories touch on a lot of these similarities, but there are also real differences. “[Pender] Harbourites have a natural modesty,” we’re told, and this “leads them to think nothing can be too big of a deal if it’s happening there” (p. 156). White’s little coast is virtually an island, but this modesty is the opposite of what one finds on most of our populated islands, where anything that happens is a big deal.
White chooses kalpilin, the traditional capital of his truncated coast, as his starting place. This almost completely forgotten Indigenous site – virtually a townsite — was home to upwards of 6,000 people wintering there in long houses up to 90 metres long and six stories high. With a little luck, inhabitants of the broader coast and the province beyond will follow White’s lead and begin embracing venerable places like kalpilin as vital elements of our cultural heritage, places we ought to celebrate rather than white out of the picture as we’ve done for the past 150 years.
Not for the first time, White also reminds us of the need to follow the lead of Haida Gwaii and restore many Indigenous places names around our shores, instead of sanctifying often frivolous ones chosen mainly by late 18th century British mariners to honour distant patrons, mistresses, race horses, and so on. A few generations of settler usage have made us comfortable with names like Trutch Street, Denman Island, Powell River, and others that commemorate people who ought not to be celebrated, while forgetting others who lived here and their deep and ancient stories. A related sketch concerns the land claims industry, a kind of lawyers’ perpetual motion machine that puts off issues we all need to address squarely together. White opts not to mention the larcenous excesses of 19th century colonial leaders, even though their actions are a critical piece of the puzzle we all have to solve.
Here on the Coast goes in many other directions, exploring just about anything that came to White’s mind or spilled out of his files, from the glory of salal gardens to the annoying instant obsolescence of everything these days in the face of the next improved model, for example tools of writing that require new finger routines, new hardware, and new software no matter how content we were with the old ones. Another riff involves early personal computers, those clunky, scandalously expensive, primitive behemoths that felt like the ne plus ultra of high tech 40 years ago. Is this a backhanded reminder of why we must always accept the industry’s latest upgrade without complaint? (I don’t, of course, and suspect the other Howard doesn’t either.)
Only some of us can relate to the chapter exploring the pain of being both male and useless at home repairs. But all of us should feel personally targeted by the author’s warning about the pernicious danger of accepting accelerating climate change as inevitable. I wonder if, on Uncle Howard’s little coast, they might view this mental trap as something spawned by the Alberta side of our personality? Or maybe there aren’t as many refugees from east of the Rockies on his part of the coast?
One foray takes us north to Bute Inlet to learn of actor Michelle Pfeiffer’s short-lived retreat there and of three Scottish bachelors who stayed longer. This fits into a well-established Whitean tradition of stories about the coast’s remittance men, movies stars, salt of the earth logger-poets, cultural icons like writer Hubert Evans, and a veritable potpourri of diverse issues, reminiscences, ruminations, observations, and anecdotes, all grounded in familiar coastal settings.
Other stories are intensely personal – about family cottages and treasured old growth 2 x 12 Douglas-fir joists as family heirlooms. I found even these personal vignettes had a familiar, universal dimension. Like the young Howard’s confusion about germs and Germans: if both were said to be bad for us, then how to account for Luther and Bach, Goethe and Beethoven? And there are the adventures that await so many of us when we come to care for older relatives: things one never thought of before like walkers, handholds, Depends, bathtub lifts, lift chairs, and motorised wheelchairs. NB: many of these can be had very cheap on Craiglist.
Then there are one’s scary Scottish grandmothers and White’s belated admiration of Scotland’s ability to manage a parsimonious natural heritage, so different from our wanton squandering of our own recently acquired natural bounty. And the brief florescence of Black Ball ferries on the 1950s coast. White speaks fondly of the M.V. Quillayute, though it’s the gallant little Smokwa that I remember best. I used to wonder why I was allowed to stand and watch the waves from the back aprons of those old boats, never suspecting that even a truck could roll off them into the chuck, as White’s family’s truck did.
Further personal ramblings explore the challenges of keeping water flowing through the raincoast’s droughty summers and the undervalued virtues of outhouses. Tarnished by negative myths and the supposed universal advantages of modern sewage management, outhouses deserve an advocate, a subject that White could have plumbed more deeply. Don’t get me started.
And stumps, those giant ghosts we grow up with and learn to ignore, are another worthy icon White aims to rescue from obscurity, though I think he probably mistakes red cedar for Douglas-fir. The stumps of the latter rot fast while the former last almost forever. Even in places like Pacific Spirit Park and Lynn Headwaters around Vancouver, old cedar stumps of stunning proportions and resilience offer silent memorials to the forests of a few moments ago.
Last but not least, Howard White celebrates the local cultural scene to which he has contributed much: the great music all over the coast, 99-year-old novice writers like White’s old man, and more. Many of these less tangible assets are more threatened than they have been in a long time, and White’s reminder is timely: “… in the right hands the arts can be a force for breaking down the walls that separate us…” (p. 145). We’ll soon need that unifying force more than we have in a long time. We, and our governments, need to do all we can to conserve it through today’s maelstrom of COVIDian challenges. I expect White might be part of this response (though he’s neglected to publish my latest manuscript).
Howard Macdonald Stewart is author of Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia (Harbour Publishing, 2017). An historical geographer and semi-retired international consultant whose work has taken him to more than seventy countries since the 1970s, Howard has reviewed books for The Ormsby Review and BC Studies. His memoir of a youthful bicycle trip down the Danube with war hero and debonair cyclist Cornelius Burke, Bumbling down the Danube, was published in The Ormsby Review in 2016, and his memoir, The Year of the Bicycle: 1973, followed in 2020. Howard Stewart is now writing an insider’s view of his four decades on the road that followed his perambulations of 1973, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker. He has lived on Denman Island, off and on, for more than thirty years. Editor’s note: Howard Stewart’s recent reviews include books by Wade Davis, Bill Arnott, Seth Klein, Liliane Leila Juma, Kate Harris, and Deni Ellis Béchard, and he has also written a popular Remembrance Day piece, Why the Red Poppies Matter.
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