Where The Bee Sucks
A Northwestern island doth suffer a sea change
Just off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, twenty sea miles and an entire dimensional journey from Seattle, lies an island known as Salt Spring. It is the largest of an archipelago of several dozen such islands that reaches from Seattle toward Alaska. In the United States these islands are called the San Juans; in Canada they are called the Gulf Islands. The archipelago travels up through the fabled Inside Passage between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, where Captain Cook marked the first Anglo landfall in 1778.
The climate is northern Mediterranean, and nature, far from being red in tooth and claw, is titanic, breathtaking, inviting worship. Salt Spring, the largest of these islands, is seventy-four square miles. Three mountains mark natural boundaries between farmland and forest reserve. Mt. Baker hangs in the sky to the south, buttressed by clouds. All around is navy-blue sea.
Today, 10,000 residents call Salt Spring their home. Some of them are farmers, loggers, and fishermen, beleaguered resource workers all. Other, more recent, arrivals are retired professors and bureaucrats, of which Canada has an unconscionable number. Although the true proportion has never been determined, we might say that half want to preserve the "rural character" of the island, while the other half are the rural character and would like, therefore, to cash in on it. The dilemma was not always so easily described.
In the dark backward and abysm of time that was, to be precise, the early 1970s, storm-tossed escapees arrived on the island, looking at first for an escape from the war, and then from the perfidy of a world that poured down stinking pitch on the offerings of the counterculture. They wanted, at peril of their souls, an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, anything they could tend, a place bereft of any normal society, a place where they could read, tend their secret gardens, get high.
And so the island's beneficence grew in reputation. Broken and running, women were heaved there all through the eighties and into the nineties, children in arms, without men usually or, if with, the males generally shucked in a year or so as the women acclimatized and grew strong. By the early nineties, Salt Spring was considered a female island: eight women to each single man, went the rumored stats. Many were victims of cocaine binges in the cities; cheated of their lives by drunkards; wrecked by yuppie greed, or by foul play, or by infidelity, or by that catchall malaise: stress. Here on this island they arrived, looking for a safe place to bring up their children. Myths were unearthed that the natives had fished, collected psilocybin mushrooms, clams, and oysters, but had not wintered on the island, because their women became too powerful and the men less warlike. In fact, said a popular local book, Daughters of Copper Woman, pre-con tact natives in me area were matriarchal and matrilineal and, furthermore, believed that menstrual blood connected Woman to the divine.
These were just a few of the mythic verities that grew up around what swiftly became known as a sacred island. It was even discovered, and whispered about to the elect, that the Lion, Mary, and Michael lines, the three major ley lines of the world, passed through, lines of sacred energy that identified the island as having the same distinct pull and weight as the ancient city of Lhasa, the North Island of New Zealand, Machu Picchu. Women in the middle of the prairie were woken in the night by disembodied voices and told to come here. Women said that they were dropped here on their backs, arms and legs waving in the air, turtles dropped by a careless child, a tale suspiciously like a First Nations myth of origin. On these ley lines, vortices were discovered, and some were said to be portals to other worlds. Labyrinths were built on these portals. Self-identified as neopagans, and dedicated to reviving the ancient nature religions, the women agreed to agree on almost nothing but that the first witch was black, bisexual, a warrior, a wise and strong woman, a midwife, and a leader of the tribe. Standing on its head, therefore, the notion of the original evil witch Sycorax, or Morgaine, or the Wicked Witch of the West, it also was found that the original settlers in the 1850s were freed African-American slaves and Hawaiians, and this history gave resonance, depth, meaning, and power to this matrilineal island of outcasts.
The women, jealous of their place, commanded the elements to silence, wrapped the island in a fog, like Avalon, so that very few people, unbidden by the convergences, would come, and so that those who came, stayed, and did not fit in would be spit out by the goddess, as the island Wizard and limousine driver would have it. Even those whom the island loved were wrapped in sleepy clouds, their spirits bound up, lulled by the beauty of the trees, the ocean, the mountains, the birds, the rivers, and the nature spirits. The women studied the deep and abstruse texts of witchcraft and early tribal religions. Their states grew strange. They were transported, rapt in secret studies. And neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated themselves to closeness and the bettering of their minds, with that which, but by being so retired, o'er prized all popular rate; they lived on the social assistance. They developed their own rituals and calendars, held celebrations at the solstices and cross-quarters, and raised beautiful pagan children who believed in environmentally sound principles of living and who actively promoted a way of life that would not damage the Great Mother or any of her spirit or fleshly children.
There were many white middle-class people on the island as well, descendants of the original farming families. Among these was our Ariel, who in the spirit of deliberate confusion and for the sake of standing all patriarchal archetypes on their heads, shall be a short, squat, ecofeminist, celibate lesbian in late middle age, retired early from the education business. Brigid, we shall call her, ran the Tir Nan Og Light Centre on the south end of the island and communed in solitary splendor in her strawbale house with a host of nature spirits, including fairies, gnomes, sprites, zephyrs, salamanders, and the Green Man, Pan. She worked with the spirits, healing the earth and teaching people how to live without money. Brigid knew the island, knew the spirits and what they wanted from us. If she could be accused of an excess of imagination, equally she accused others of a too rich fantasy life. Neopagans, as we have established, agree on nothing.
Other members of the old farming families watched in some amazement as their land values rose and their forests were protected by those who did not own them. Many of the families saw the island as a future resort destination, a Carmel-By-The-Sea, a waterskiing, hiking, kayaking, yachting kind of place. And they were angered by the notion that a bunch of hippie mothers living on the social welfare, dressing in long skirts, their children in dreadlocks and grime, did not want this. The old families had been kind. They had been generous. When the mothers first arrived, they showed them where the best places were, where to fish, where and what to plant, where to buy honey, what goats to keep, and the mothers had been grateful, full of praise. The mothers had joined the farmers' institute, lauded the school, undertaken to improve it, and taken booths at the Fall Fair. Now, as honeyman Dave Harris put it, the families felt that there were "far too many people on Salt Spring who have no intention of ever making a living."
The mothers met in a circle under the waxing moon, best for the banishing of evil forces. Ariel was called, and the request was made to the gnomes and the trolls:
Run upon the sharp wind of the north
When it is baked with frost.
The convergences were drawing others, less worthy others. The world was intruding. The magic island needed some magic.
There are many candidates for Prospero on Salt Spring. Self-described warlock Bristol Foster, a former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum, for instance, a wolfish man with multiple Ph.D.'s, or Maureen Milburn, former president of the Island Conservancy, who holds her doctorate in art history, their libraries (and activism) duke-dom (or tenured professorship) enough for them. Or Nina Raginsky, coordinator of the Waterbird Watch Collective, a self-described minor-league heiress, former Time magazine photographer, and lecturer in metaphysics. They are merely representatives, behind them a flock of a few dozen highly educated, committed environmental activists, what our Caliban, a craggy, handsome former forestry CEO named Tom Toynbee, owner of much of the commercial real estate in the main village of Ganges, calls (in public) the most educated, articulate, formidable, and committed opposition around.
Many island people cross the street when they see Tom Toynbee; he is a villain they do not love to look on. But Toynbee makes the hardware store, the galleries, the restaurants, and the shops possible. Even the most pagan mother accepts that the island cannot do without him. Does Toynbee think he's a slave? Indeed he does, for the island is so beautiful that no one wants to work, except, he thinks, him. And they will not let him develop the property so that he can stop working. If he does not say in private, "All the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him by inch-meal a disease," then he is a saint, and despite the spiritual nature of all on the island, well, it is unlikely.
Along with the witches who arrived in the late eighties and early nineties came a more successful sort. Gonzalos to a woman or man, they came with professions that required floatplanes and high-speed telephone cables, and they conceived of the island as a boomer utopia and rejoiced:
... no kind of traffic
And use of service, none; contract,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard,
No use of metal, corn, wine, or oil;
The Gonzalos announced that they would with such perfection govern t'excel the Golden Age. They threw their collective weight behind the Islands Trust, a government agency designed to preserve and protect, and proceeded to strike committees to consider zoning bylaws that restricted development.
Noble creatures, thought the witches and single mothers, and they joined the rich boomers with the Pathfinders and off-island incomes in ignoring the meeting at the Harbour House of gentlemen of such brave mettle that would lift the moon out of her sphere if she would continue in it five weeks without changing, who contrariwise cried that they'd rather
... sow't with nettle-seed.
Or docks, or mallows.
And were the king on't what would I
Scape being drunk for want of wine.
For developers from Asia and the States had been drawn by the beauty of the place and the wasted space. Fishermen from Norway who had fished out the North Sea lusted after the Pacific salmon, and loggers who had exhausted the New Zealand forests arrived eager to exploit the last, biggest, cheapest forest in the world.
Making common cause, they laughed at the mothers. Here, they said, is everything to life, save means to live, and began to plot.
Spiritual earth mother into yoga, wheatgrass, fasting, cleansing, herbal masks, soy-milk douches, and simple life. Seeking to share her yurt with Island nature boy. Dreadlocks, didgeridoo, drum, multi-patched jeans, various dogs, '71 purple VW van. Maximum 8-word vocabulary and deep far-away look a necessity.
In 1989, in a fit of despair at city life, I bought thirty acres in the country my paternal family had settled a hundred years before. Over the years spent in London and New York, I had heard rumors about Salt Spring. The witches danced naked under the full moon, rowed out into the sea to cast flower petals on the water to honor the Great Mother. There were women on the island whom it behooved you not to cross. I would have laughed at these warnings, except that when I was in my first year of college I had persuaded a gypsy friend, who boasted that she was from a family of Bohemian witches, to cast a love spell on my philosophy professor. Jovita protested that her family couldn't cast spells anymore because a curse had been laid on them: when they practiced witchcraft their houses would burn down. I teased, challenged, and dared her until, on the night of the full moon, she drew a pentacle on her kitchen floor. Five days later my professor called, professing eternal passion, and ten days later Jovita's apartment building burned to the ground.
I am cleaning up the remains of a hash-oil factory on my land and the detritus of a party house run by hippie settlers. I collect dozens of old beer bottles, car parts, hunks of an old refrigerator, slabs of roofing, and add them to my slash pile. I, like Ferdinand, and all new residents, carry logs, back and forth, for years.
While I plod, I puzzle. Who are these witches? What do they want? They are not casting love spells, for romance on the island is considered best left to the very young. Many women are gay, or committed to the pursuit of cronedom, making middleage, heterosexual love sporadic in incidence at best. Besides, given pagan morality, just about every combination has been tried, and the combatants have retired early from the field, with bruised hearts and exhausted bodies, leaving the joust to their children. Pagan teenage girls are perfect and peerless, created of every creature's best, clean and healthy, nature girls all, usually ambitionless, since ambition is violence to the Great Mother. Young pagan island men, says Maureen Milburn's husband, Sam, travel from woman to woman, with gardening tools in the back of their pickup trucks, often leaving a child behind in each camp. Mainland boys pour onto the island, leaving the world (and cross parents) behind, attracted by the hippie chicks of Salt Spring, who are not, shall we say, overburdened by the desire for material possessions or even the knowledge that Dolce & Gabbana exists.
Loggers, fishermen, and developers, perhaps piqued by the fact that none of their blandishments had any effect on these gorgeous young creatures, who saw them as abhorred monsters, which any print of goodness would not take, capable of all ill, savage, brutish, and so forth, methodically sent the word of the is/and abroad. With the help and moral support of some members of the old families, the Trust was besieged by applications for casinos, resort-destination hotels, and walled retirement complexes. The Trust planner had appointments lined up for months on end with developers from Asia and the States. Men walked about the island as if in a trance, marveling at their future,
... and then, in dreaming,
Gunslinging developers hired high-priced lawyers to inspect the island bylaws. Legal challenges to the zoning restrictions were mounted. Secret allies were found, Gonzalos interested in selling their land for five or ten times what they had paid for it. The developers and loggers proclaimed their victory over
... this Sir Prudence, who
Clear-cuts appeared on the pristine and sacred South End. A communal farm, one of the last hippie utopias, blew up, and the survivors put their few hundred acres of the last old-growth Garry Oak meadow on the island up for sale. A consortium of loggers from Washington State made an offer of $800,000. Three condominium developments sprouted in the town. A strip mall appeared, as if by magic, overnight, and two more were planned.
For despite the island's beauty, the loggers, fishermen, and developers were right: there was no local economy to support the pagan women and their children, and the social welfare was becoming suspicious and impatient.
Circles were held under the full moon, and Prospero consulted his books.
In addition to studying the White Goddess, the Welsh Mabinogion, the collected works of Starhawk, Lady Gregory's Fairy Book, and various ecological texts, Prospero had been reading Machiavelli, The Art of War, and Tony Robbins. This effort was delivered of an Official Community Plan that expanded the original eight-page document to more than 300 pages, providing the island of 10,000 souls with more bylaws than the nearby provincial capital of Victoria. Accusations of sin were made against men deemed not fit to live. Suggestions were made that the developers, loggers, and fishermen should hang and drown their proper selves and take up garlic farming.
War broke out. Ecoterrorists filled the gas tanks of logging trucks with sand. A witch struck a member of Parliament. The loggers burned down the Community Centre on a neighboring island that the witches had declared to be the gateway to the elven kingdom.
Stephano, who slid under the wire a sleazy time-share complex on a fragile water table, announced with foolish bravado, "Who cares about the local residents--they're just a bunch of goofers." Next door to the time share, Goofer's Pig Farm raised a giant sign, and the island sprouted GOOFER'S PIG FARM T-shirts and bumper stickers.
"The plan makes 1984 look like laissez-faire capitalism," argued Trinculo, local poet and pig farmer. People here, he said, "are always figuring out what to do with other people's property."
But no matter how Caliban declared the island full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not, many developers gave up, for it appeared that every river, stream, marsh, and wetland had its protectors. There were 200 pagans on the Waterbird Watch alone. No tree was to be felled without a permit or an arborist in attendance. View corridors were to be protected. Farmers were not to cut down their trees for fences or barns without a permit. The water table was deemed sacrosanct. No streams were to be dammed. No lakes were to be drained for the watering of packaged tourists dressed in un-environmentally sound polyester. No hotels or golf courses or gated communities were to be built by those who would doubtless spend their profits in the sinkholes of the off-island world.
And still people flowed onto the island, though now it seemed that each new arrival came with a disorder: chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, multiple allergies. The island mothers, recognizing that the social welfare was impatient and that abundance (if not ambition) was desirable, proceeded to start many businesses to feed and heal the newcomers. Bounty descended in floods of organic produce, un-bioengineered vegetables, unfarmed fish, free-range chicken. The witch mothers hung out shingles, and every conceivable kind of treatment became available. Infusions were struck on the eve of the new moon, and people spoke of the sacred geometric grid of abundance: when properly lit up, there would be money enough for all without the degradations of commerce.
The island's enemies were all knit up in their distraction. They skulked in the bar at the Harbour House and swore, O, it is monstrous! Monstrous But one fiend at a time, I'll fight their legions o'er.
All were desperate. Their great guilt like poison bit the spirit.
This is the charge of the goddess: sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and Mine also is joy on earth.
The battle joined, Patricia Brown, Maureen Milburn, and Marcia Craig, members of the coven called the Gaia Collective, summoned leading ecofeminist witches Starhawk and Tisch from the Reclaiming Collective in San Francisco, and rituals and circles were held all over Salt Spring to raise the cone of power and bring it down to heal the earth. They embarked on such tasks as "moving energy around corners," singing, "Take off your head/Put it on the ground/That's how you enter the house of love."
The elements were called in, and praised, creating sacred space. Celebrating the body, food, love, song, wine, dance, drumming, the witches felt their years of abuse fade into insignificance. They went adventuring in the astral world. Their chakras opened, and going into trance and moving energy became easy and plausible, as if they were Celtic priestesses. They called in healthy male energy, power with rather than power over, an energy the world had never experienced. They performed the spiral dance, and by the end of it they had created their own private world, filled with mummers, fairies, elves, gnomes, and powerful spirits, called from their confines to enact the witches' present fancies.
Dr. Bristol Foster ascended and declared that each acre of forest held billions of microorganisms whose usefulness had not yet been identified; we must therefore protect as much forest as we can for
Earth's increase, foison plenty,
Spring come to you at the farthest
Dr. Marilyn Walker, ethnobotanist, former director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, and author of Harvesting the Northern Wild, ascended and declared that whereas Westerners talk about owning property, traditional cultures talk about stewardship. Walker spoke of the need to go beyond that, to cultures that have never lost the harmony among emotional and mental and spiritual. Traditional cultures, she said, all hold that plants have their own sound, their own song, and that they each have a lesson to teach and that therefore
... the queen o' the sky
Approach, rich Ceres, her to entertain.
Ceres had woken Angelique and Christianna in Saskatchewan and recommended that Christianna, a new fully realized being, move to Salt Spring and invite Amaterasu, a Japanese goddess buried in the earth for millennia, to the surface so that she might bring with her the devic kingdom, the spirits that weave energy into matter, and teach the people how to care for the land as sacred space. In the garden of their new house, Angelique and Christianna built a labyrinth on a ley-line vortex, and Amaterasu emerged through this portal and scattered many jewels of Vitality and Energy and Aliveness across the island, and she called out:
You nymphs call'd Naiades of the
The goddesses had ascended (that goddesses descend is a patriarchal construction), and the healing of the land had begun. Prospero bid Ariel fetch the rabble to commence the referendum on the Official Community Plan, and before you can say, "come" and "go," and breathe twice and cry, "so, so," each one, tripping on his toe, was here with mop and mow--and video camera, torch, and plan in hand to hurl at the island trustees, then (retrieved) to burn on bonfires in village riots in Centennial Park. Fights began in the bar at Harbour House:
... red-hot with drinking;
A witch spoke up and claimed that the island had prosperity enough. Had not a shopping mall of religious practices arisen: wicca, tarot, dream analysis, transformational massage, astrology, astral projection, precognition, psychic and homeopathic healing, meditation and yoga? Some of the resource-industry workers themselves had left their professions and opened shops to sell spiritual tat. In vain did Caliban decry the products of the forest:
The dropsy drown this fool! What do
Regulations hunted the developers,
Now does my project gather to a head:
All business on the island was spell-stopped, confined until the referendum. All the developers were distracted, and those with large properties they wished to subdivide were mourning, brimful of sorrow and dismay. Tears ran down their beards like winter's drops from eaves of reeds.
But Prospero's affections had grown tender. He decided that the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance and rewrote the Official Community Plan in order to allow some development but not that much. Pace and proportion were to be the guidelines. Policies were written that deliberately excluded outside investors in situations where economic benefits went only to absentee landlords. If developers were to come to the Islands Trust with plans that gave back Green Space, then some growth was possible. The marketplace would be delinked from the land. Collective rules would be held higher than individual values. The Official Community Plan was culled and simplified. Then Prospero called out:
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing
And ye, that on the sands with
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and
When he comes back;
By moonshine do the
green sour ringlets
Whereof the ewe not
Is to make midnight
To hear the solemn curfew;
Out of the forest, streaming toward the voting booth, emerged three or four thousands (the numbers are hotly contested) of squatters with no stake in the land, who lived off the grid in school buses, tents, yurts, tepees, and shacks. Some were shamans, who could transform both the seen and the unseen, who could journey to other realms, who experienced trances and visions and could predict the future, and who could move between this world and a less substantial--though ultimately more real--world for the benefit of others as well as the self. Inside sweat lodges they had contacted other worlds and made their requests, and the spirits said that Salt Spring was to be held sacred. And so the tribe who worshipped the Magic Mushroom came out of the forest, along with their Fane, and all the people marveled at Prospero's magic, for this tribe had not been seen for years.
And out of their houses, streaming for the voting booth, came the newest arrivals, too, with autoimmune diseases that only a clean, pure island with food products that were not bioengineeered or farmed with multiple pesticides could cure. And from these illnesses had come forth Tofu Debbie, Barb's Buns, Dan Jason's Organic Seed and Garlic Farm, David Wood's Salt Spring Island Sheep and Goat Cheese, Green's Plus--an entire economy of wellness, just as the witches had said. It was not for nothing that the principal mountain was called Mt. Maxwell.
All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement inhabit here, cried the developers as they watched the island saved for the nature spirits. Gonzalo himself saved the Mill Farm from a consortium of Washington State loggers by purchasing the land. Seven covenants were put in place to protect this plot in perpetuity, and Ariel, representing all those who weave the ether into matter, sang:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I
Entire matrices of vortices opened after the new Official Community Plan was accepted and the developers restrained. Trees began to talk, and all the plants were discovered to have an opinion as to where they should be planted. Radishes in magic gardens grew to the size of grapefruits, and raspberry plants reached ten feet tall. Ariel suggested that Salt Spring should become like the old mystery schools of Egypt and teach people how to heal, how to find and manifest visions, how to become elders, how to lead the Shift of Ages.
Unsuspecting tourists came and marveled and spent money. And it was discovered after all that displaying and marketing the products of a magic island indeed produced profits--not large profits, but profits nonetheless. And the businessmen finally agreed,
... do entreat
This is as strange a maze as e'er men
And they threw in their lot with Prospero, deciding not to infest their minds with beating on the strangeness of this business.
And still the convergences pulled others--not just tourists but artists and musicians and movie stars, all wandering the island with eyes full of beauty, blind with wonder. It was not for nothing, therefore, that the many Mirandas exclaimed,
How many goodly creatures are there
Epilogue But this is the twenty-first century, or almost so, and in this world we have Karl Lagerfeld, whose pet in the eighties was a young woman named Gloria, the Princess von Thurn und Taxis, a one-time Dusseldorf nightclub punk introduced by Karl, after her marriage to an antique cousin, to the thrills of the very rich, such thrills including couture, gambling, over-the-top decorating, and the pleasures of Area, Les Bains, and the Palace. A few years after her ancient husband's death, Gloria realized that her debts were insurmountable but that she had an old-fashioned forest estate way the hell and gone in Western Canada. She promptly sold it to a couple of development fiends.
Greenbaiting and greenmail are honorable businesses in the Northwest; for there is money in them. While waiting for their opposition to organize, the fiends made loud plans to strip the Princess's erstwhile forest estate of "every scrap of merchantable timber."
The witches had withdrawn, buried their books, and were growing gardens filled with not-magic indigenous plants that jibed with the tenets of bio-regionalism. They had stopped going to community meetings, because they did not like being shouted at. They had started a new circle of elders, called the Transformation Group, that would work toward a civil community, without the violence and polarization of the past. They begged leave to retire:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
But on the magic island lived others now, and a new Prospero, Andrea Collins, the former wife of the crushingly famous rock star Phil Collins, made sure that people the world over knew of the magic island and its dilemma. The witches took off their clothes and posed on their treasured island, and the calendar was blessed with many sales. Money was raised, pots of it, first in the amount of $800,000 from the community itself, more from a consortium of anonymous donors, NGOs, and government agencies. Thousands helped this time. There were blockades, and street people came from all over the world to live in the Peace Camp. People were arrested. People were slapped with nuisance suits. Community newspapers were sued for libel, as were columnists and editors. Dossiers and writs flooded the courts, until the government grew weary and pled for mercy, too.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Then people with doctorates and bureaucratic expertise raised $3.9 million and placed it on the table. They then raised $7.7 million and placed it on the table. And finally they raised $20 million and placed that on the table. Then Prospero amazed the greenmailers by demanding that the land be frozen in time, left to its true owners, the fairies.
The witches rejoiced, for there had been parties, and dances, and fairs, and barbecues, and TV shows, and documentaries, and poems, and more parties, just as the Goddess required. And at one of the last, David Suzuki, who some saw as the greatest warlock of all, came to the island, and everyone who had been arrested or slapped or sued was his guest of honor.
The Princess's lands were proposed as a national park. And Prospero, by your indulgence, was set free.