I’m sitting with Frank Neuman, the computer whiz of the Salt Spring
Archives, who keeps digging up photos of my great grandmother, one
wandering a beach with her sisters…in full skirt and blouse and
necktie and boots, no doubt with a corset and bustle underneath. Not quite the bikini-clad trio I saw at Grace Point on Saturday, enjoying the first real day of hot sun this year.
That was after the morning market – a genteel seething mass of people selling and buying handmade silk scarves, French patisserie (she is French and has just opened a cafe, so I may go over for a little pain au chocolat and noisette..) , giving free massages, selling local goat cheese, local bread, herbs and vegetables and fair trade coffee from
Nicaragua….all the things you expect at a local market. Many of the visitors (the locals tend to stay away on market day, they prefer the peace and quiet) are from the States – over for a weekend from nearby Seattle – or from Vancouver.
In the evening I had my ’supper’ at the Tree House Cafe, a famous local institution. The tree is bigger than the house, and the house used to contain a generator for Mouat’s Store in the 1920s. Later it was a butcher’s shop, and then became ‘Granny’s House’, when someone’s Granny lived there for a several years. It’s about 4m x 3m. During the meal, we were entertained by the ‘Mancubs’, part of the 111 nights of free live music at the cafe. All the seating is out of doors, so you don’t even have to eat at the cafe, you can just bring your own chair and sit on the path outside. Last night was jazz with Judy Sims – great-granddaughter of Sylvia Stark, an original pioneer of the island, an African American (or African Canadian as I have heard them referred to here) who died in 1948 at the age of ‘about’ 104. She has a beautiful voice with a touch of Nina Simone.
Yesterday I walked with the ‘Newcomers’ club to Burgoyne Bay, under the shadow of Mount Maxwell and the largest known reserve of Garry Oaks – twisted, gnarly versions of Oak, which grow only in this part of the world. The western coast of North America (I’m being vague as I don’t know the exact geographical area) is also home to Arbutus,which, with its twisted red limbs and peeling bark it reminds me of Australia.
Manzanita trees are even rarer, and exist only in this part of Canada. On the way home, Dawn (my second hostess) drove me up Mount Tuam to a stunning view of the Southern Gulf Island and the United States.
Snowcapped peaks in the background leading down to blue sea and BC ferries like tiny toys in a giant bathtub.
Since last year there is a bus service on the island which runs to meet the ferries, but otherwise hitching is still a good way to get around (autostop pour les Francais). The island population is about 10,000, so most people know most other people or have coffee with them every other day.
THE coffee shop is Salt Spring Roasting Company. You go inside and it’s like entering any city coffee shop in the West – ordering is computerised, people sit at tables with their laptops fired-up and the chatter level is high above the music. Step outside and you are back in a 1950’s small town with wooden buildings, the Island’s Fire Department vehicles parked in the carpark and Mouat’s Store with the legend ‘Seaside on Salt Spring since 1907′. Drive for just a few
minutes away from Ganges town and you are in thick forest, with farmbuildings in fields that look the way they did 100 years ago. It is an island of contradictions, inhabited by 30 or 40 homeless and hungry who are fed by churches through the week in Centennial Park, hippies who camp out in trailers hidden away in forested corners of the
island, retirees in their ‘condos’ near town, and millionaires in their mansions on waterfront properties or mountains with helipads. Bill Gates apparently owns a little something here, though I haven’t met him, and Oprah Winfrey has been spotted on the island.
‘Salt Spring – a difference of opinion surrounded by water’ is the islanders’ favourite quote. There seems to be a debate about everything: more development or saving the rainforest? Tear down the old firehall to build a new and better one, or keep the heritage building? Pathways for bicycles and pedestrians or more parking for the giant trucks and cars that Canadians are so fond of. What they most definitely do not have is a town or island government of any kind – the closest thing is the ‘Islands Trust’ which makes some decisions for all of the islands. Coming from a French town, with a mayor and committee and paperwork about everything this is slightly incomprehensible but somehow freeing. I simply don’t know who makes decisions. Maybe everyone, maybe no-one.
I have been interviewed by the local paper and am due to talk to the schoolkids on Wednesday. I am trying to capture the people and the place while at the same time revelling in the personal history. I stood on the steps of the school my mother attended at the age of 5 and hoped that maybe I was looking at the same tree she would have looked at. I stuck my feet in the water on the same beach that my great-grandmother walked along so proper in her long skirt and parasol, and wondered what she would have thought of it all. The sweet, sticky, dusky smell of the islands trees and blooms fills my nostrils and I imagine that these huge trees watched the four generations of my family as they lived and laughed and cried on this little patch of rock in the ocean.