It was a rainy, August day on the British Columbian coast, where my husband and I had been cruising since early July. We were docked on Malcolm Island, a favorite spot from the 20 plus years we cruised the coast between Seattle and Prince Rupert. Washing clothes at the marina’s tiny, immaculate laundromat, I wrote my column and smiled as I recalled a day, some years back, in another marina laundromat, when I chose its title. Having moved from our home of twenty years to a 42-foot sailboat, obviously without a washer/dryer, I was feeling resentful about the hours I would now be spending in laundromats. Seeking a way to turn my negative attitude around, I decided to use the time to write, packing my laptop along with the dirty clothes, laundry soap and quarters. I resolved to write a column for a local paper and call it what it was: Musings From the Laundromat.
I looked up from my laptop to admire the scenery, stunning even in the mist, and chat with islanders and boaters, all of whom were grateful for the desperately needed rain to help combat the wildfires that had been burning up and down the coast all summer.
Located near the top of Vancouver Island, Malcolm Island is known locally by the name bestowed upon it by Finnish settlers during the turn of the century. Sointula, Finnish for “Place of Harmony,” was the name the Finns, escaping tyrannical Russian rule, gave to their utopian community, which was based, among other things, on socialist ideals, equal rights for women and shared, caring involvement in the community. Today, the islanders, most of whom are descendants of the original settlers, retain many of the founding principles. The name, Sointula, still fits.
“The place hasn’t changed much,” says Murray Tanner, great-grandson of a settler, whose fish boat was across the dock from us. On a drive around the island with Murray, we saw for ourselves. Blink and we were back in time. Old, rough hewn shacks, acres of open farmland, fish boats in the harbor belonging to families who have fished for generations.
And not much more. Residents live simply and stay close to nature. Roadside conversations and talk in the pub are about the whales on Bere Point, the latest fish run, and the musicians who will be playing next week.
Which brings to mind the Seattle neighborhood I knew when I first moved there in 1986. Pregnant with our first child, we were the youngest people on our block. Our elderly neighbors had been there for decades. Their kids had gone to the local school and grown up together. On the cusp of a new chapter for our neighborhood, there were still hints of a lifestyle that hearkened back to a less complicated time. My kids could walk alone to school and friends’ houses and the corner grocery for a quart of milk. Shop owners were local folks with whom we were on a first name basis. Neighbors brought our dog back home when she escaped and ran up the alley. The old timers kept local history alive. It was, we often remarked, like living in a small village.
But change is inevitable and soon the small, family-owned shops were replaced by upscale and corporate-owned businesses. Our main street, once a sleepy little avenue, grew vertically and an urban feel crept in. Traffic became aggravating as more people moved to the area.
Growth has its advantages. I will not argue that. But I do grieve our losses as the uninspiring corporate culture and short-sighted, cheaply constructed condos suck the life out of our neighborhoods. And I wonder if the answer to some of our troubles today (e.g. garbage, pollution, climate change, isolation) is to go backwards instead of forward. On our boat during the summer, we use candles at night to preserve our batteries, we eat mindfully, buy local food and goods and conserve limited water. Internet, available only in bits and snatches, does not consume our time. The boating community is generous, friendly and helpful. A facsimile of what I imagine old time communities were like.
I don’t miss the conveniences of home. Not really. Because I know there is a price to pay for all of that. Reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks this summer, I was struck by his fictional, but frighteningly possible, portrayal of a broken society, where money is meaningless, there is no Internet, limited electricity is dependent upon solar panels and scant fuel is reserved for delivering essential supplies. Laundry is done by hand. In this scenario, I am musing over a washboard instead of in a laundromat.
Chris Hedges, in a recent column on the website, Truthdig, writes: “We do not have the power to make a new world. We only have the power to destroy or preserve the world we inhabit. We will either recover the sacred or vanish from the Earth. Those who do not respect the force of nature, who do not intimately know and understand its power, are doomed by it. The Native Americans got this right.”
I am hopeful that it will not come to that. I hope we can get on top of climate change and overturn the corporate machine that is driving us all to ruin. I hope we can stop believing in politicians and start believing in ourselves. There are so many more of us than there are of them, after all. We can and I believe we must rewind the clock a bit and start living more simply, consuming less, waking up to the fact that our cozy lifestyle is threatening our very existence.
If not, the clock may be rewound for us. It will be hard. Harder than we can imagine from where we sit now with all the things we take for granted. But perhaps we will survive by returning to our roots as a species. To a way of life that is community and family based. Hopefully with a planet that is still intact and life supporting.