Saturday, July 17, 2010

Summer vacation 2000, Part Two: Composting Culture

The brash, bottle-blonde proprietor was bidding a noisy farewell to two New York matrons while I waited to pay for my grilled cheese sandwich at the café in Kelsey Bay. Outside, sunlight bounced hard off the dock and shimmered on graphite fishing rods. Finally she turned her attention to me.

"Where are you going?" she demanded as she handed over my change.

"The Charlottes," I told her.

Her voice softened. “Everyone who goes there comes back changed,” she said. “Everyone has some kind of spiritual experience.”

That was fine with me. The Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii, are an archipelago of nearly 200 cloud-shrouded islands off Canada’s west coast and form a mythic backdrop to my life. The art and culture of the Haida people who live there have, in the last half-century, become legendary around the world. Thanks to artist and writer Emily Carr, I grew up with visions of forests guarded by totem poles, their eyes watching the sea for incoming storms or returning fishermen even as they composted quietly back into the forest. I imagined the silence, torn only by the myriad voices of ravens or rippled by rain dropping from leaf to leaf. On that hot, dry August day I couldn’t wait to get there, to let the damp green nourish my soul.

The reality, of course, was more…active. I rented a kayak from Cathy, a teacher at the local high school, and took advantage of the summer-smooth water to paddle past colonies of raucous seabirds. I hiked through forests waist deep in salal with sunlight pointing through the trees like God’s fingers. I pitched my tent on ankle-deep moss and fell asleep to the shushing of waves on a lakeshore. I saw clearcut mountainsides green with ferns and edged with enormous living trees whose bark had once been harvested to make rain-shedding hats and capes. I met mountain-biking ferry captain Gord Nettleton and his Jack Russell terrier Patrick who together cleared old logging roads and new singletrack on the jungly slopes of Moresby Island. I talked with Jim and Gail Henry, who run the gas station in Sandspit and, oh yes, in the evenings they go to the beach and feed bald eagles.

And there were ravens. They sat in trees along the roadsides, conferences of them, and like a construction crew taking a break talked loudly amongst themselves when I bicycled past. They sounded for all the world as if they were criticizing my technique – or perhaps my clothes. Learning not to be demoralized by birds was not the kind of epiphany I’d been hoping for.

On my way to look at historical displays in the museum at Skidegate, the scent of cedar drew me sideways, to a board and batten building. The open door faced the bay and two canoes filled the centre of the room. A man stood at a workbench under a window, noisily notching planks with a power saw while a woman with long dark hair and a younger man sat hunched on lawn chairs, paintbrushes in hand. And stacked floor to ceiling against two long walls were solid ranks of bentwood boxes.

In my urban world I’d seen them before – singly in galleries and shops and occasionally in some lucky person’s home. But here were dozens, hundreds, each one made from a single cedar board steamed and bent and then pegged together and painted with a moon or hummingbird, wolf or whale, kingfisher or raven. I felt like I'd walked into a back room at the Louvre.

What, I wondered, was this all about?

The woman looked up and smiled at me, then bowed her head to her work again.

“Ah,” my mind whispered. “Artists.”

The rest of me tiptoed past, careful not to disturb them. Sidling around the perimeter of the room I saw signs and notices. Repatriation project, they said.

When the saw stopped shrieking I shyly approached the operator, who seemed happy to talk. In the past, he told me, anthropologists, curators, and Indian agents had “collected” hundreds of Haida bodies – skeletons – and had taken them away. In museums or private houses around the world, they lay in cool metal drawers with their secrets and silent histories. Now their descendants wanted to bring home the great-grandfathers and cousins and inter them in the

warm damp island earth. Some, mostly from the museums in Victoria and the University of British Columbia, were already safely buried and now the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec was prepared to release one hundred and fifty more. The boxes around me, painted with clan symbols, were to be their caskets.

I stared, speechless; someone’s aunties had been hauled from gently rocking kelp beds or the fragrant shelter of evergreen trees and bundled off to the wind and glass of Chicago, the snow and concrete of Russia. I managed to thank him for the explanation, and as I turned to leave he spoke again.

Would I like to paint a box? he asked.

I stopped. Burying a loved one is very emotional. The flow of feelings can leave us scrubbed clean of all the usual protections, like a berry without its bloom. I felt like one of the foreign elements that these grieving, happy, relieved families needed protection against. I worried that my clumsy presence might scratch something precious. And on top of that, my artistic skills were limited to knowing which end of the paintbrush was up.

On the other hand, when someone offers such an intimate experience, it would be churlish – and foolish – to refuse. Unhappily contemplating my shortcomings, I accepted.

Andy – the sawyer’s name was Andy – introduced me to Ann and Ken, the other two painters; he handed me a brush, a plastic plate with puddles of red, black and white paint, and a box with designs pencilled on two sides. When Ken marked tiny letters, R for red, B for black, within the spaces on the wood, a little of the tension left my neck. I sat on the floor near the doorway and drew the box between my knees. Tentatively I dabbed my brush into the pool of black and drew it over the clean yellow wood. It went where I put it. I heaved a sigh of relief and did it again.

An hour later my two-finned killer whale was breathing confidence into the right side of my brain. I started to enjoy myself. By the end of the day I had a decent-looking wolf as well, and smears of red and black on my fingers just like a real painter. I was as secretly proud of them as any kindergarten student.

My box – Auntie’s casket, as I thought of it – went on the pile along the back wall, adding to the mural of myth and history waiting to welcome the ancestors.

The next morning I again showed up at the work shed. There was no painting today, though. This time I was attending a going-away tea for Andy and the others who would tomorrow start their journey to central Canada to gather their ancestors, wrap them in button blankets made by their children, and bring them home.

I stood against one wall, watching and listening to carvers who pulled bears from centuries-old trees, women who kept an eye on the kids playing outside, and the elders who gently bridged generations by blessing the work of youngers in a language that was old before the aunties were born. If they noticed me at all, perhaps they wondered briefly.

“Who’s the tourist?” I imagined them thinking. “What’s she doing here, watching the chiefs and grandmothers open their hearts and pour their love on our travellers?”

Then Andy spoke. He thanked the elders for their guidance and their prayers. He thanked the community for its work and support. He thanked me as one of the visitors who had contributed time and energy to the process of Yahguudaangang, paying respect to the ancestors.

I stood frozen against the wall, desperately wanting to drop my head and stare at the floor, knowing if I did my tears would splash the dusty planks and everyone would see. I was startled, embarrassed to be singled out. But most of all I was moved by Andy’s grace. His gift of appreciation turned my hesitant efforts into humus. With his words he told me that just as the totem poles of old crumbled to feed the forest around them, so my cedar box silently composting in the Skidegate cemetery would nourish the roots of Haida Gwaii.

The bottle-blonde was right.


  1. Oh, Rachel, what a remarkable story, and what an amazing experience to have. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Haida Gwaii is on my life's to-do list.

  2. Thanks, Ros.

    Haida Gwaii is such a paradox – completely down to earth and yet otherworldly at the same time.

    Definitely worth the trip.