Standing on my paddleboard on a beautiful summer Sunday I head out from Tunstall Bay, into a small headwind and down to Cape Roger Curtis. I like that I practise a water sport that requires me to take a stand. It’s a hell of a way to think about things.
There is a lot happening at the Cape. Monster houses are going in there – the biggest is said to be 17,000 square feet, which is about ten times the size of mine. And the docks have started to be built, with the first one about 100 meters north of the Cape. Steel pilings driven into the seabed are creeping out to sea more than 200 feet from the shore and growing. The view is ruined, the iconic view of the Cape with a gnarled and sweeping arbutus tree, is forever overwhelmed by a two story high set of steel pilings soon to be topped by a pier. The seals and sea lions I would see every single time I was out there have disappeared. Perhaps they will return when the pile driving and the rumbling engines of the work barge are finished.
Something has changed on Bowen and these docks are the physical manifestation of it. There is an irreversibility to it all. We no longer talk about the land in terms of reverence; now the words are used to market the island to tourists. The way I used to know this community of Bowen Island is now just an idea, and we collectively serve that idea, but the idea has lost its power. Now it is discussed as an economic advantage, but discarded in practice. In practice we seem to be able to simply take or leave the beauty and the power of the place. Those with power are not working to preserve anything. Instead folks like the Cape developers talk about Bowen’s charms while daily depleting them. We seem to have lost the public will to steward the natural world of Bowen and instead are focused on the built environment and the economy. Those two things go hand in hand because the IDEA of the natural beauty of the place is what drives our primary economic activity – land values. To the extent that development DOESN’T impact MY land values, I’m okay with it, says this worldview. It’s a kind of every-one-in-it for themselves mentality. In that respect we aren’t really an island anymore, we are just like everywhere else.
We are retreating into the realm of the private. There are few activities any more that serve the public interest and few places in which the public can gather and simply be together. The last true commons – the sea – now has a large phallic structure asserted across its surface in the most beautiful part of our coastline. This was done despite nobody other than the owner wanting it.
Public debate is not about our place; it is angry people yelling at each other, projecting themselves into each other’s words and deeds. It is a disgusting display of rudeness coming from all sides. Ungenerous with our words, ungrateful for our neighbours, we bathe in a narcissistic intolerance for small differences. That is how decisions are made now on Bowen. It’s embarrassing.
Our island is made beautiful by friendship and the land itself but the heart and soul of community is now held by private effort, and we no longer speak the language of community as we used to. The community builders are the ones with money, not ideas. Things like “parks” and “nature” and “community centres” are fraught with politics. I used to write folk songs about this place, because it used to be a place that deserved a folk tradition. At one time those songs were sung at Council meetings. But singing those songs seem quaint now. The poets are quieter, the painters and musicians of Bowen don’t celebrate the community like we used to. We are in hiding.
But I am not going anywhere. We put a new roof on our house to shelter us until we are too old to climb the back steps. Committing to things in the long term makes a guy sanguine and reflective. It makes you pick your battles.
For me, my battleground has been respect and decorum in public affairs, but for now I’ve lost that war. The loud and angry voices have won, and this is the way we do things for now. Small cabals of people accuse other people of being in small cabals. The word “conspiracy” is tossed around by people who sit and conspire about what the other group is doing.
So this is me greeting the new Bowen. It’s not the one I wanted, or the one I celebrated or the one I voted for, but here it is and here I am. I’ll offer my gifts and appreciate others and get on with things and stop expecting it to be different than it is. And when the wheel turns again, when the docks have been smashed by the sea and wind, when the real estate values collapse, when we remember that we need each other in community, I’ll be here to dust off a few old songs that remind us of who we could still be.
In the meantime, that man out there standing on the sea? That’s me.