Happy Birthday Emily

Today, as I write this, is Emily Carr’s 145th birthday.  I thought I’d recognize the day with this photo of my back yard, and my favourite Emily Quotation.  This quotation always reminds me of this little spot of west coast forest that I call home.  There have been many times over the years I’ve lived here, on those quiet summer days when nothing moves, and those wild winter days when everything dances, that I’ve stood and marveled at the power of the natural world to keep on pushing, pushing, pushing, as Emily says, through whatever we might throw at it.  While maybe you can’t see the growth and expansion, if you allow yourself you can feel it – it’s an energy that imposes itself, that settles on your skin and resonates in every breath you take.

For me, Emily captures that energy and illuminates it.  Her paintings and her writings reflect the essence of this place and we are all richer because of the legacy she’s left us.  Her life, as well, is a fascinating story of passion, dedication and perseverance that adds so much to the rich and vibrant history of this area.  Those of us who live on southern Vancouver Island are so fortunate that her work and her life still permeates through our communities, a true local legend.

Do yourself a favour and spend a little time with Emily, to celebrate her birthday.  You can find her work at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (online at:  http://aggv.ca/collection/emily-carr), or better yet visit the Gallery or visit Emily’s childhood home (now called Emily Carr House), protected as a historic site and open daily at  207 Government Street in Victoria.

And for a closer, my favourite Emily painting (Forest, British Columbia):

All in my back yard…

 

20131016-020-sooke-hills-lrIf you take a walk through the woods in behind my house, before long you’ll come across a large concrete pipe winding its way among the trees.  It’s old, covered with a layer of moss in places, but still remarkably intact.  In some places, it lies directly on the forest floor, in others it’s raised on a gravel bed, and in places where it crosses ravines and gullies it rests on pilings and trestles.  When I first “discovered” the pipe, not long after moving into our new home (now, almost twenty years ago), I was intrigued.  What was it?  Where does it come from, and where does it go to?  I followed the pipe, in both directions, as far as I could, until the terrain became impassable, but the pipe just continued on, far off into the distance.

With a diameter of about 3½ feet, in most places the pipe rises above much of the low forest floor vegetation, and it just beckons you to walk along it.  It takes a minute or two to get used to walking along a bit of a curved surface, but then the pathway becomes very enjoyable.  Rather than slogging through underbrush, scratching your legs and tripping on hidden snags, this was like a stroll down the avenue.  Judging from the wear pattern on the concrete and on the way the moss grows, it’s clear that I’m by no means the first along this way – this has been a favourite pathway for many years.

With a little research, it doesn’t take long to find out that this pipe is known as the “flow line”.  It was once the main water pipe, built in the early 1900’s, that brought fresh water to the City of Victoria.  It ran from Sooke Lake, way up in the Sooke Hills, to fill the newly-created Humpback Reservoir that became (and is still) the source of Victoria’s water.  I didn’t know much more detail about the pipe until just recently when some friends gave me a fascinating little book for my birthday – Bringing Water to Victoria, by Charles Tolman, published by the Sooke Museum in 2015.

The book chronicles the efforts to get a good, clean and reliable source of drinking water for Victoria during its early days as a city.  It’s a fascinating story of determination, incompetence, ingenuity and greed, of local champions and outside experts; a story of stops and starts and indecision stretching over decades. (For those of us who live in the Victoria area, it’s all just a bit too reminiscent of modern-day infrastructure projects, like the sewage treatment fiasco and the McKenzie interchange – history, indeed, repeating itself)!

But once the decision to go ahead was finally made, in 1911, it took less than four years to complete the entire project – including determining the route, acquiring the land, building the infrastructure to lay the pipe (including several railways to transport the pipe), building the pipe itself, preparing the intake at Sooke Lake and then building not only the flow line itself, but also the dam and reservoir at Humpback and a further pressurized (steel) pipeline from the dam into Victoria.  A remarkable achievement accomplished by a bunch of remarkable people for the total price of about $2.5 million – and all right in my backyard!

I was never much of a fan of history when I was in school – or, at least, I wasn’t much of a fan of the way it was taught.  It never had much resonance for me, and trying to memorize dates and obscure European locations and interminable border skirmishes was, frankly, tedious and rather boring.  It wasn’t until quite some time later, that I began to perceive history differently.  I began to see it all around me, in the buildings, in the shape of my community, in the remnants of things left behind and the shadows of things that were no longer there.  And the ever-nagging question: “how did this come to be”?

History, for me, became much more fascinating when it came home.  In my view, history is not just dates and obscure locations, not just about great battles, world-shaking events, the comings and goings of kings and queens and presidents.   It’s also about the lives of the people who lived here before, their struggles and triumphs, their thoughts and ideas that nurtured their families, built their communities and shaped their world.  It’s about the stories my grandfather told me, and those from my neighbour.  We all have stories in our lives and they are, in their way, as full of drama and intrigue as any of the great sagas of our history classes.  But it is our stories that shape us, that make us who we are.

Our history – our heritage – is best lived and experienced, understood through the things we can touch and feel, passed on in a way that touches our hearts and our imaginations.  It’s why we need to work hard to conserve and appreciate our heritage, not just the castles and stately mansions, but the miner’s cottages and the old pipes as well.  Those remnants have stories to tell.

To Everything There Is a Season…

To Everything There Is a Season…

 

Metchosin - 01-3Timing, they say, is everything.  A moment too late, a moment too soon, and you can completely miss out.  Doing the right thing, but at the wrong time, is often no different than doing the wrong thing.

As a photographer, I’ve learned to focus on the details – not just the subject of the photograph, but also its relationship to the landscape that surrounds it, the way the breeze pushes parts of the subject around, or the way the light and shadows interact within the frame.  These things change, moment to moment.  A good photograph isn’t just about capturing an interesting subject, it’s also about capturing a moment in time – a moment when it all comes together, when the elements combine to create magic.  It’s timing.  It’s everything.

So it is with nature too.  Everything happens when the time is right, when the natural cycles intersect in the right combinations.  Cycles of light and dark, of warmth and cold, of rain and drought.  Cycles that are fleeting and cycles that are seasonal.  When change comes, it can be subtle, or it can be breathtaking.

There’s a little, old church in the community of Metchosin.  Built in 1873, the church of St. Mary the Virgin and its adjacent graveyard is now primarily a heritage site.  It’s a pleasant site, well-looked-after by its volunteers, and the graveyard is interesting with its numerous gravestones of pioneer Metchosin families.  But every year – when the timing is just right – something magical happens.

It happens in late March/early April, when the Fawn Lilies bloom.  A rather nondescript grass landscape transforms into a sea of white blossoms, as the lilies take over the site.  They are everywhere, seemingly all of a sudden, and they are spectacular.  I’m not sure how they came to be here – whether the graveyard was established on a meadow already containing the lilies, or whether the lilies came afterward (either naturally or by some form of intervention), but they are certainly a welcome sight.

If we can get our timing right, Sandra and I make an annual pilgrimage to the site, to bask in the true glory of nature’s bounty.  It’s a wonderful feeling to walk for a little while among the flowers – it lifts the soul.

And then we head across the street to My Chosen Café for their toasted cinnamon buns (the best in town).  Lifts the soul even further.

Metchosin - 02Metchosin - 03Metchosin - 01

Fire in the Cariboo

200509 - 001 - PembertonMore tales from the Grasslands.

Conservation field work – protecting special places – is often long hours and often full of surprises.  Some days more than others…

 

 

 

 

Fire in the Cariboo

Spring 1997. We had made our way up through the Gang Ranch on the long dirt road that eventually crosses the Chilcotin River at Farwell Canyon Bridge. The road then continues through grasslands, through ranch country, to meet the highway that runs from Williams Lake west to Nimpo Lake and then over the mountains to Bella Coola, many hour’s drive away. Where it joins the highway is the Riskie Creek Store and, in the 1990’s, the only public telephone for miles around. There is a forest service campsite just west of the store, on a small lake, and we decided to set up our camp there for the night.

After a camp dinner, Nichola needed to phone home – we’d been out of contact for several days. The third human member of our team was dead tired and had already gone to her tent for the night, so we left her sleeping and drove back to Risky Creek. The fourth member of our team, Gerry Lee my German Shepherd dog, of course came with us.

As Nichola was talking on the pay phone, I was sitting in the truck and noticed a glow on the horizon. It was not sunset, and it was getting brighter. Nichola finished her call and returned to the truck. We agreed that we were seeing a fire of some kind in the distance and that we should check it out – so we raced west toward the growing light. About 8 kilometers down the road, we found it. It was a barn and it was fully involved. There was a ranch house next to the barn, but it was still not on fire. We were surprised to see a telephone booth at the junction a couple of hundred meters down the road, so we raced to it and Nichola phoned the forest service.  As this was not a forest fire they could not attend, but they did promise to dispatch the nearest volunteer fire department. That was the Toosey First Nation about 20 kilometers to the east.

With that call made we raced back to the ranch compound, parked the truck a safe distance from the burning barn and ran toward the fire to see what could be done. At that moment there was an explosion (a propane tank). In the flare of light of the explosion we saw the rancher and his wife throwing buckets of water on the side of their house. The animals were safe, but there were more propane tanks nearby. It was hot and it was dangerous. We joined the bucket brigade.  There were now four of us – not enough – but we knew the neighbours were coming. Soon there were six of us, then we were eight, then around a dozen. A human chain, passing buckets of water from the farm pond to the rancher at the fire, then passing the empty buckets back to the pond. The system was worked, and it was saving the house. The buckets were enough to keep the side closest to the fire steaming but relatively cool. During our bucket brigade, two more propane tanks went off, so we kept up the pace, pouring as much water as could.

That’s when we noticed something else.  We had been so focused on the buckets that we hadn’t really noticed that something was changing. Perhaps the smoke had dulled our sense of smell. The “water” was getting “thicker”, and it was “smelling”. We noticed that the house was being covered with a black skin – the residue when the fluid steamed off.

At about this time the fire truck arrived. It had a crew of two who joined the effort. Like all the neighbours who had joined to help, the firefighters were not compelled to be there – the fire was a long distance from their community – they came because they were neighbours.  Soon the barn was a pile of ash.

It was only then that the exhausted crew stopped moving buckets and I realized that Nichola was at the beginning of the chain. She was the one filling the buckets but to do so she had followed the receding water into the pond and was standing up to her knees in the water and mud. But the pond, it turned out, was not a water pond at all, but the runoff pond from the barn. In other words, it was mostly manure.   No wonder the buckets had started to smell. No wonder the house was now coated in a black layer of something rather foul.

Nichola climbed out of the hole and walked toward me. I knew we were in trouble. The rancher’s wife offered a shower, but they were exhausted and still struggling to come to terms with their loss, Nichola thanked her but declined. As there was no longer any reason for us to stay at the fire, we headed for the truck to go back to the campsite – but, therein lay the trouble. What were we going to do with my poor co-worker who now stank like a sewer pit?

I got half a dozen garbage bags from the back of the truck and covered the passenger seat with two, then wrapped Nichola in the others. Opened all the windows and headed back to camp.  It must have been around 2am when we got there. Nichola went into the lake and washed herself and her clothes then went off to her tent. Gerry Lee and I settled in for a few hours’ sleep in the back of the truck.

The next morning the conversation went something like this:

Me to crew member number three:  “Did you sleep well?”

Number three:  “Yes. I didn’t hear you two get back. ”

Me:  “Did you hear the fire truck?”

Number three:  “No. What fire truck? ”

Me:  “The one that went by with its siren screaming.”

Number three:  “No. I guess I slept right through it.  Why, did it disturb you? ”

About that time Nichola joined us at the camp table and we began to tell the story.

Remembering Walden

Remembering Walden

Sooke Harbour - ThoreauI’ve long been an admirer of Henry David Thoreau.  One of the keenest observers of the natural world ever to put pen to paper, Thoreau has a great deal to teach us about our relationships – with nature, with one another, and with ourselves.

I first became immersed in Thoreau’s writings many moons ago when I found myself working for a year in the Library of the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.  (Yes, this was back when our Federal Government still respected scientific work and its accumulated knowledge held, supposedly in good-keeping, in government-owned science libraries around the country).  I had a year-long contract to compile a comprehensive bibliography on salmonids (salmon and trout and related species).  The idea was to create the first ever computerized database of scientific information detailing everything that had ever been written on salmonids.  It involved locating and gathering materials from libraries and researchers all around the world, assessing the material for its content, and then coding the information on to large computer input forms, the kind with hundreds of tiny little squares that the information had to be written into, one letter at a time, so it could then be keypunched and eventually stored into a huge mainframe computer that took up an entire room.  Yes these were the early days of computers (mid 1970’s) – how much we’ve forgotten what life was like before the internet.  As you can imagine, it was tedious and often mind-numbing work, but which, if it was to have any value at all, had to be done diligently and accurately and painstakingly.  At times, it made my brain hurt.

Back to Thoreau.  It so happened that my desk, in the back corner of the library, was located right next to one of those old, dark, glass-fronted library cabinets that no-one ever dared to open.  This one contained part of the library’s “special collection” of ancient, rare and special-edition books, and on the top shelf were two huge volumes of Thoreau’s Journals.  Almost 2 feet tall, a foot and a half wide, and at least 4 inches deep, these massive tomes were old and dusty and creaky – it seemed like they hadn’t been opened for decades – and they positively exuded the promise of some great insights and secrets.

And so, whenever the tedium of writing letters into little squares got the better of me, I would pull out Thoreau’s Journals and read through random passages.  A couple of things came to light as I read.  The first, that there is also a lot of tedium in someone’s journals – not every thought on every day is of lasting value.  Thoreau, in his meticulous chronicling, had an irresistible desire to count things like the number of nails it took to build his cabin, and to account for every single penny he spent.  Interesting to him, maybe.  But beyond that, his attention to detail also focused on the world around him and he recorded the ever-changing moments with reverence and an intimacy that could only come from a true and abiding connection with nature.  Emerging from those pages was an image of a man very much at peace with himself and his relationship with the world, even though he questioned everything; it was a testament to the value of personal experience, curiosity and intellectual rigor in providing a solid foundation for a good life.  His words had a profound effect on me, and have stayed with me ever since.

Many years later, on a family vacation to New England, we made a point of visiting Concord and, in particular, Walden Pond.  The pond and the surrounding woods had been owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and mentor, and were subsequently donated to the state by Emerson’s family.  By the time we visited it was a dedicated National Historic Site, and a State Park – and, as such, had been somewhat sanitized, as many State Parks are, in order to manage the volume of visitors.

Thoreau’s cabin was, of course, long gone, replaced with a replica (not on the original cabin site). There was also a statue of Thoreau (a bit tacky for my liking) and a very crowded swimming area.  Despite these distractions, it still felt – for me at least – to be somewhat of a pilgrimage.  The true value of our heritage, I believe, lies not only in the physical attributes of the place but in the intangibles – the stories and the memories that it carries with it, and the sentiments it evokes.  We walked through the woods, soaking up the spirit of the place, but my favourite spot at Walden was a large pile of stones (at that time, about 20 feet across and 6 feet high) immediately adjacent to the original cabin site.  It was a cairn that had grown organically, pebble by pebble, from the offerings of visitors who, I’m sure, wanted to leave a token of appreciation – not so much for the park, but for the man and what he’d left for us.  I clambered up and placed my pebble on top of the mound, and left feeling as though I’d made a true connection.

On the way back through the town of Concord, we stopped at a used book store where I found a well-used copy of Walden.  It still graces my bookshelf, some twenty years later, and can still evoke the same emotions.

Tales from the Field…

Conservation work – protecting Special Places – doesn’t just happen by itself. It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. It takes a lot of miles traveling on the back roads of our great country. And sometimes it takes a little creativity. Here, Bill Turner tells of one creative encounter from his days at The Land Conservancy that paid off.

 

Tales from the Field…

200509 - 002 - PembertonJune 1998. We had been waiting for several hours at the junction, and not one vehicle had come through our little roadblock. It was hot and tinder dry here on the east bank of the Fraser River, in the Cariboo grasslands. Nichola and I had started out early that morning from Turin Lake near Clinton. We drove for about two hours on the dusty road to this point where the roads to Churn Creek and the Gang Ranch divide. Just north of here the Gang Ranch road is joined by the overland route to Williams Lake. At this particular point in the road we knew that we were absolutely certain of intercepting any vehicles driving west into the Churn Creek Protected Area.

We settled down to wait, knowing that at some point today, as he did every Wednesday, Ron would have to pass here on his way back from buying supplies in Williams Lake or Kamloops. We did not know what Ron looked like, what his truck looked like or when he would reach our point. And we also had no idea if he would want to talk to us. But this was the only option we had to contact him – he had no phone, no radio and no electricity at his home.

I sat in the shade of the truck cab. Nichola had made her way up the side of a small bank where she could see the road toward Gang Ranch and kept busy writing an article she needed to finish. After some time, she hollered and pointed north. There it was, the first vehicle of the day. We saw it first as a rising cloud of dust, then the small shape of a truck appeared in the distance. Five minutes later he pulled up beside us. The truck was piled high with bags of feed, boxes of supplies, rolls of fence wire, some fence posts, large fuel drums and some sheet metal. A typical supply run in these ranching areas.

On these roads when you see a truck stopped at the roadside, you stop: “Did we need help?”

“No. We are looking for Ron. Are you Ron?” He could see from the logo on our truck that we were from The Land Conservancy.

There is a pause, a longer pause, then a cautious “Yes. Why?”

So began a relationship that was to shape the future of Talking Mountain Ranch (also known as Reynolds Ranch) for the next decade. At that time, Ron was the manager of the Empire Valley Ranch. He and his family lived at the ranch headquarters on the other side of the Churn Creek Protected Area. But Empire Valley Ranch had just been purchased by the BC Government, as a wonderful addition to the Churn Creek Protected Area, so Ron and his family were soon to be homeless.

We (i.e. The Land Conservancy), on the other hand, had just arranged the purchase of the Reynolds Ranch, about 30 kilometers South of Empire Valley, near the Big Bar Ferry, and we needed someone to operate the huge (75,000 acre) ranch. We believed, and we hoped to demonstrate, that land conservation and active ranching could co-exist and be of mutual benefit. And we needed an experienced rancher to help.

We knew it would be a challenge. Talking Mountain Ranch was in pretty bad shape, having been neglected for several years. We talked about what needed to be done. We talked about the opportunities. We talked about cattle and ranching and conservation. Ron was interested, and we arranged to meet again the next day, along with his family, to talk about the details.

So, with our “stakeout” successfully completed, Nichola and I returned to a friend’s home near Clinton for the night and Ron continued home to Empire Ranch, still about an hour ahead. A long day for us but an even longer day for Ron, who had started out around 5:00 am and had hours of ranch chores to do when he got home.

The next day we drove again for 3 hours along gravel roads to our agreed meeting place. And it was a very good meeting. Ron and his family had talked it over, and were game to take on the new challenge. We like them a lot. They were a great team and it was clear to us that we’d need just such a team for this project to be successfully. With an agreement in place, and the future of the ranch and the conservation lands secured, we left them to make their plans and headed off for our next project at the Horsefly River conservation area. Mission accomplished.

Just two days in the life of a conservation field team.

On Gardening…

Garden - ShivaThis blog is written with unreserved apologies to all my family and friends in Ontario and Alberta and other places across the country eastward of the Fraser Valley – i.e. all those places that are beyond Hope (sorry, couldn’t resist – just a little wet coast humour). But it’s the middle of February, and here in Sooke that means it’s time to start working on the garden. The broad beans need to be planted, and the early peas, and some greens. And it’s time to start germinating other seeds in the greenhouse, to be ready for when the soil warms up in April.

Now, I’m not a particularly avid gardener. Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of gardening, I’m just not quite sold on all the work that’s involved. It’s actually my partner, Sandra, who loves to garden; and I garden because I love Sandra. Makes sense to me. And besides, I’m coming to believe that it’s everyone’s duty as a citizen to also be a gardener. We take and take and take from the earth, and it’s high time we all put something back in to restore and replenish and rebuild (the new 3-R’s). Everyone. It’s not someone else’s job, it belongs to each of us.

My gardening motivation got a major boost a couple of years ago, when we attended a presentation from Vandana Shiva. What a remarkable person! I was taken by her amazing ability to cut through the crap; to take enormously complex issues and focus in on the essential truths, making our world and our options so much clearer. Among other things, she talks about gardening, and about how the act of growing our own food, saving our seeds, and not dumping all kinds of manufactured chemicals into the earth in order to sustain ourselves should be recognized for what it really is: an act of rebellion. It’s a simple matter of pushing back against the corporate domination of our lives – maybe it’s just small steps, but those are small steps that everyone can take, and those small steps add up. “It is true” Shiva says “that the concentration of power is more than ever before. But I think the awareness about the illegitimacy of this power is also more than ever before. If you take into account the number of movements, the number of protests taking place, and the number of people building alternatives, it’s huge.”

And gardening is on the leading edge of that awareness. It’s something everyone can do in some way – on an acreage, in a garden plot, in a box or in a pot. Everyone can grow something. “In planting a seed” Shiva says “you are one with the cycles and regenerative capacity of life…. A seed sown in the soil makes us one with the Earth. It makes us realize that we are the Earth.”

So as we come together in the coming years – as we will, as we must – to set things right, let’s start by planting a seed. Grow a veggie and nourish your body. Grow a flower and nourish your spirit. Grow a tree and nourish your grandchildren. Put your hands in the soil and get them dirty…you won’t be disappointed.

Gotta go now, it’s stopped raining.

Being Away and At Home at the Same Time

In what she calls “the walk that changed my life”, Kathleen took on the 800-kilometre journey along the El Camino Napoleon route starting from St. Jean Pied de Port (in France) and ending in Spain at Santiago de Compostela.

 

When you think of the micro-community of family and how we live within it, it is my feeling that each of our personal stories become the tread or the fibre of its sustainability. A shared family, landscape and community are, for me, the three main characters in the building of my stories, the weaving of my experiences into my life blanket.

I think of those who have crossed my life path, who are my significant others. The significance being that they have helped me grow to be the person I am today. They are my family, the co-creators of my blanket. It was not until I had visited Spain that I came to know the meaning of family on a larger scale. The landscape of the communities nurtures the gathering places for all walks of like. The beautiful squares, always with a fountain and enough space for children to run and play ball, while the rest of the generations commune in conversation. The Spanish culture creates time for such events to occur. Every topic is open to discussion – politics, love, sex, religion. Relationships all have a place in the story of their lives.

I witnessed the celebration of life even in death. The mourning was not hidden, the loss of a person was felt by the whole community, and the stories they all shared became part of the celebration, the blanket of love they wove in which to wrap their grief. Weddings and birthdays, toasted and celebrated with food, song, dance and music, and hope for a healthy and happy future was abundant.

While walking through small villages, offerings of figs and fruit lay on the stone fences to nourish strangers. It was though you were not really a stranger, and they were expecting you. In that moment you are connected, your presence acknowledged.

I am not naive enough to believe it is all roses. They, I am sure, have their times of discord that challenge the strength of the family. After all, it is a huge family. What I do believe is that their love for each other and their landscape and the stories they build is what sustains their passion for life. There is not a sense that goes untouched, which for me makes for the very best story of all – LIFE!

Family + Community + Stories = Spain

There are places I remember

 

 

There are places I remember, all my life…     John Lennon

Bordj el Berod, Morocco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I heard Bob Dylan’s iconic song Mr. Tambourine Man playing on the radio the other day (thank you CBC!), and it triggered a memory, immediately transporting me back to a very special place and to a moment, long ago, that rests within me and that surfaces from time to time. Music attaches itself to memory in intricate and powerful ways, pulling forth not only images and sounds but many emotions and deeper feelings of connection as well.

I was suddenly back in Morocco. Just outside of the city of Essaouira on the western coast, lies the ruin of an old watchtower, partially buried in the sand, surrounded by the ocean at high tide, eroding, little-by-little every day, but still maintaining a dominating presence over the vast stretch of beach that lies behind it. Bordj el Berod, as it is known, is built on a large natural rock foundation and is constructed of large stone blocks. Its survival over centuries is remarkable and its continued presence, standing bold against the elements, still commands attention. Its origin, however, is of some debate.

While it is often referred to as the “Portuguese Fort”, it is not – that is simply confusion with other Portuguese fortifications in the area. Its construction is generally credited to Mohammed ben Abdallah, the Sultan of Morocco, in the 18th Century. There are some, however who feel many of its features, materials and construction techniques more closely resemble Phoenician construction and suggest it could be linked to other Phoenician ruins in the area, found mostly on a small island off Essaouira (these ruins date from the 6th Century BC).

Beach - QuotationRegardless of its origin, it’s a magical place. I came across Bordj el Berod in 1974, when I was travelling through Morocco (on one of those hitch-hiking/find-yourself/misspend-your-youth trips through Europe and North Africa that seemed obligatory for 20-somethings back in the 1970’s). I was travelling with a group of people, all strangers who’d met along the road, clustered into two VW vans. We set up camp outside of town, then headed out for the beach. Out through the dunes, past the lagoon, over a rise and then, all of a sudden, we came upon this surreal ruin, right at the water’s edge. We clambered up on top, and sat around the old walls, enjoying the moment and our overlook of the expanse of sea and beach that surrounded us.

The beach was like a carnival. Part beach and part local thoroughfare. There were camel caravans bringing loads of goods into and out of Essaouira’s port. There were old men dragging/coaxing donkeys, also loaded down with packages, young men with bicycles and motorcycles, some riding, some pushing their vehicles through the soft sand. There were local people from the nearby village of Diabat, going about their lives. And there were visitors, like ourselves, mostly young people on quests of their own, looking for something they hoped to find there.

The Bordj was a magnet. One after another, people climbed up to join us. Before long there were more than twenty of us gathered in this remarkable spot, talking, laughing, enjoying the day. Someone counted: there were people of fifteen different nationalities, speaking nine different languages – and all able to converse, to understand and to be understood – sometimes directly, and sometimes with little pantomime or a little interpretation to help. Soon, the wine and the kif and the food came out, and everyone shared what they had.

The guitars came out too, and we began to sing together, searching for music that we all had in common. It wasn’t hard; music, especially for young people, is universal. I tried Mr. Tambourine Man, and it clicked – we all knew the song, especially the chorus. We sang it, and then we sang it again, and then again. It was like an anthem. As we sang, we all began to realize that right here were the “foggy ruins of time”; here was the “windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow”, and here we were “beneath the diamond sky”, “silhouetted by the sea”, “circled by the circus sands.” Right here were the inspirations and the connections that Dylan had been searching for.

As the heat of the afternoon sun became too much, we left and continued on our journeys, each one of us, I believe, enriched by the extraordinary connections we’d experienced in that extraordinary place. Many years later, with a few bars of music, I still remember that moment, and I still treasure it. Our memories are precious gems, whose value increases with time. We should not take them for granted.

The Michelangelo Test

Central Coast - Quotation

It is said that the sculptor Michelangelo considered it a productive day if there was a pile of marble chips on the floor at the end of the day. I like to think of this as the “Michelangelo Test” for a good day – a day where I have made progress toward my goals. I may not have finished anything, but if that pile of chips is there I can feel good that the day has not been wasted.

This test can be applied to just about everything we do. It can, for example, be the basis of your time management system. Think of those big assignments that you can’t seem to get around to, those tasks that are just so daunting that you don’t know where to start. Think of each of them as a slab of marble that you are going to shape into something brilliant, then make sure that every day you chip away at each of those slabs. Some days you will get more done on one project than on another, but if you try every day to work a bit on each you will ultimately achieve your goals.

I have used this same approach to direct major projects, such as land acquisition campaigns, fundraising and public awareness campaigns, intricate projects such as software development, as well as for daily living chores like chopping and stacking firewood.  It’s universal.  It also allows us to think big – to set our goals and our expectations high, without being overwhelmed and with full confidence that we will be able to achieve them.

I’ve never had a problem with big ideas.  As Michelangelo says, it’s better to aim high than aim low.  That was the approach when I started working to establish The Land Conservancy, twenty years ago.  And it’s the same approach we have now with the National Trust for Land and Culture – we may be starting small and moving cautiously, step by step, but we have a grand vision to build the kind of organization that is desperately needed in Canada (and that is successful elsewhere).

This approach has served us well.  The acquisition and protection of the Sooke Hills (including the Sooke Potholes), the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor and the Horsefly Riparian Conservation Area, for example, could not have succeeded in any other way.  The Sooke Hills project began with a couple of very small parcels around Ayum Creek, then, over a 15-year period, a multi-million dollar purchase of the Seraphim lands was added, the Sooke Potholes property followed, and finally two massive acquisitions of forest land for park and community water supply purposes.  From the beginning we knew what we wanted the project to look like in the end, but we chipped away one step at a time. We also had to fund raise for this one step at a time. Along the way, there were many who were terrified by the scale of the vision and that fear caused them to oppose it every step of the way.  But in the end, one step at a time, we were able to achieve what many said was impossible.

On a smaller scale, chopping and staking firewood, or working on a massive computer software project, I use the same approach. When I have had one of those days when too many distractions, too many necessary tasks have forced me to put aside the important tasks, I get a certain amount of satisfaction from chopping and stacking firewood for even 20 minutes and then working on software for 20 minutes – a few chips of marble – keeps me moving ahead.  Michelangelo got it right!