There are many places to hide along the convoluted coastlines of the Pacific Northwest. In Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings, the English author-cum-sailor Jonathan Raban writes that he “had never seen charts on which land and sea were so intricately tangled, in a looping scribble of blue and beige.” Laurie Ricou, the region’s most steadfast literary critic, observes that “at the edge of the continent, the land looks to be breaking into pieces. Its map is a confusion of islands.” This unruly land-and-seascape makes the Northwest a mecca for boaters, while the notion that the coast is a separate world has long rendered it a destination for those fleeing the city, the past, the draft, conformity, or themselves. As Jack Hodgins shows to comic effect in The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, one of the great British Columbia novels, there is no better setting for disappearance and reinvention than “the ragged green edge of the world.”
But there is no hiding from history. The fantasy of coastal refuge depends on two myths. The first is that land, in the sense of real estate, is plentiful and cheap. The other is that land, in the sense of territory, is uninhabited and unclaimed. Neither, of course, is true. What was financially possible for baby boomers is beyond comprehension for millennials. And on the West Coast — as elsewhere in this country — Canadians are reckoning, however grudgingly, with the nation’s colonial past and present. Even if you could afford to build a house on a remote island, you might have a sneaking feeling that the place wasn’t really yours.
Joy Davis’s Complicated Simplicity is a loving account, as her subtitle has it, of “island life in the Pacific Northwest.” Part memoir, part manual, it celebrates “the perspectives and experiences of people who live on Pacific Northwest islands, particularly those not served by ferries.” Davis is a genial guide to the archipelagic Northwest, and to the strenuous pleasures of small, distant lands. Her book is thoroughly attuned to practical details and the texture of coastal experience, but in some respects it evokes another time.
Davis recalls the island home of her childhood in idyllic terms. In the early 1960s, her parents moved their young family from West Vancouver to Bath Island, near Nanaimo. Davis now lives in Victoria, having retired from a long administrative career at the University of Victoria. She is still an islander, but, as she acknowledges early on, “if you live on Vancouver Island”— the length of which takes some seven hours to drive —“your day-to-day life probably feels very different from that of friends on Haida Gwaii or on a private island in the San Juans. You are all islanders. But the nature of your islandness differs.”
Speaking from experience, Davis points out that “life on islands off the ferry grid involves independence, complexity, and self-sufficiency. Ingenuity, creativity, passion, and hard work lie at the heart of making satisfying lives in these special places.” Her amiable portraits of various islanders bring such virtues into relief, although she recognizes that island life is not always blissful. Late in Complicated Simplicity, she makes a telling admission:
At times I wonder if Mom enjoyed her island-bound role and the constant demands of keeping everything moving along, but she never expressed any frustration. I wish I could ask [Mom and Dad] how they managed their relationship over their twenty-four years on Bath Island. Would they tell me anything other than it was a good life?
At its best, Complicated Simplicity raises questions like this — questions that transcend the book’s geographical scope. What makes life meaningful? What is a necessity, and what luxury? What is the proper distance between neighbours? Should children be kept busy or left to roam free? Such matters press upon islanders, but everyone, regardless of proximity to the water, must contend with them.
Aspiring islanders will find Complicated Simplicity indispensable; daydreaming mainlanders will be charmed. But islands are not intrinsically pastoral places, and Davis sensibly writes that would-be islanders must consider loneliness, the vagaries of wind and water, and cost: “Affordability is an obvious concern.” But when she describes certain manifestations of financial strain, even sympathetic readers may cringe. For example, there is the question of “warm vacations in the depths of winter,” which present “logistical challenges . . . particularly if no one is around to keep an eye on things, feed the chickens, and look after the dog.” Two of the islanders Davis depicts own a Cessna 182, which they use “to make quick trips to the Victoria airport almost as often as they use their boat.” And then there is the issue of horses — “challenging to get to islands as this normally involves an expensive combination of trailer and barge transport.”
I have lived on Vancouver Island for most of my life, and by any global or historical measure, I am inconceivably fortunate; but many of the circumstances that Davis describes are beyond my reach. The same is true, I imagine, for most locals under fifty (if not over). In Davis’s account, islanders are as temperamentally different from mainlanders as sea dogs are from landlubbers. The more pertinent distinction, however, is generational: island life is, or was, for boomers. Complicated Simplicity confirms the hard truth that it’s wise to be in the right place at the right time and to have the wherewithal to do something with that ultimate good luck.
In a sense, islands on the West Coast are just like other lands: they are contested places. “Indigenous peoples have deep roots on coastal islands,” Davis writes, observing that “their sense of place is intimately entwined with their ties with ancestors, traditional ways of knowing and doing, spiritual beliefs and practices, and a commitment to stewardship.” Left unexplored in Complicated Simplicity, however, is any conflict, latent or manifest, between that “sense of place” and non-Indigenous counterparts. Or, to put it bluntly, between “traditional territory” and “a nice spot for the cabin.” Davis notes that “it is estimated that prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific Northwest, over fifty thousand Indigenous people lived along the coast.” The pre-contact demography of the Northwest remains a subject of academic debate, but it is clear enough that when the first European ships sailed into this part of the world, the Indigenous population had already been decimated by smallpox, which had made its way overland from the prairies. Before it was imagined as paradise, the coast was the site of apocalypse.
Although Complicated Simplicity is not a work of historical scholarship and does not aim to resolve current political quandaries, it cannot escape local history and politics. The acquisition of real estate takes place in a broader context: Davis’s actual and prospective islanders make individual decisions about how best to live, while the region as a whole grapples with questions of jurisdiction, resources, and sovereignty. For some intrepid souls, the fantasy of island life may come true. But all of us, on the West Coast as elsewhere, face the greater challenge of living together equitably and sustainably.