Placeways in the Anthropocene: Phyllis Webb’s Canadian West Coast

By | 1 August 2017

It’s the kind of zen-like logic that Duff and Webb were drawn to. Discussion of the ‘Nothing comes only in pieces’ story looms large in the Duff and Berliner correspondence. Paradox is everything. The bowl ‘holds its shape / upon the sea.’ Darkness and light exchange places. Nothing comes apart, releases everything. The Raven’s call is heard echoing throughout Webb’s book – its nothing-haunted passageways, the presence throughout of the heaviness of absence – an absence you might make present, if you were able to snap it in two, spit its pieces out on the page.

Webb notes that her interest in petroglyphs began in 1970; in the coming years she befriended Beth Hill, and came into the intense orbit of Duff and Berliner. The bowl at the end of Churchill Road became part of her imaginary landscape – her ‘placeway’ – a reflective consciousness of the island itself by which she could navigate isolation, silence, failure. Duff shot himself in his UBC office in August 1976; Lilo Berliner left her correspondence with Duff on Webb’s doorstep, and walked into the sea near the bowl in Ganges Harbour, in January 1977. This nothing split in two – these ‘twins’ (as Berliner dubbed herself and Duff) – brought a broken book into being, set it as an offering to the wayward and watery paths of poetry.

When European settlers – and, interestingly, African-Americans escaping turmoil, oppression, and escaped slave laws – arrived on Salt Spring Island in 1859, they found forests, deer, cougars hunting the deer, and abandoned villages. A 1780 smallpox epidemic had devastated local populations. But the island was always, in part, seasonally occupied – by the Hul’qumi’num-speaking Cowichan, in the north, who called the island Klaathem (salt), and the Sencoten-speaking Saanich, in the south, who called it Cuan – the name of the large mountain at the south end, overlooking Fulford Harbour (where annual duck hunts were held), which now bears the mispronounced name Tuam. Evidence suggests at least 4000 years of continuous occupation, with midden – stl’ultnup (covered ancient ground) – marking village sites at Ganges and Fulford harbours, amongst other locations. All those deep harbours with their ceremonial bedrock carved bowls keeping watch, holding ceremony.

Occupation by means of constant mobility always confuses Europeans, who have a difficult time working transhumance and shared occupancy into their fixed property systems. There is a Hul’qumi’num word – sxwi’em (sh-why-m, change or transformation, the only constant in the withering world) – which is embodied in stories connected to landscape and specific places, or Temuhw, the land, or the world and everything in it. Cuan, or Mount Tuam, was the place shaman were trained, because it was here that a shaman once received incredible powers from S-hwu-hwa’us, the Thunderbird. Thus the aptness of Phyllis’s lines,

The spirits are not benign
up on Mt. Erskine chittering
at fog-flyers
up on Mt. Maxwell with cougar
who spies out the lambs of Musgrave.
Up on mount Bruce mean spirits
scrabble radio waves 
for living and dead.
They doze on Mt. Tuam.
They never sleep.
At full moon
they come down on the rocks
of the sea’s shore
deliver such messages:
are not gone.

The stories associated with Mount Maxwell (Hwumet’utsum) connect ‘my’ present location to ‘Phyllis’s’ in ways that capture some of my wonder at our fraught topistics. Smokwuts, the first man to live at what is now known as Point Roberts, at the southern end of my peninsular home, was asked to help with a monster that was eating people in Samsun Narrows (between Salt Spring and Vancouver Islands). Smokwuts began firing giant rocks at the monster with his sling shot, forming many small islands with his errant missiles. Only when Hwumet’utsun agreed to bend over (thus giving the mountain its distinctive form) did Smokwuts get a good shot at the monster, knocking its lower jaw off so it could no longer devour passersby in their sleek canoes.

I head out for my walk on a cloudy morning – uphill from my house, onto the bluff where, not two kilometers from home, I come to tiny park, a small swatch of grass that was once occupied by a private residence. The view off the bluff is west / south-west, over the ferry terminal below and clear across the Salish Sea to the islands. Those struggling against what time will write on their spandex-covered bodies toil up and down the approximately 200 wooden steps to the beach below. I am here simply for the view off the escarpment.

The nearly twenty kilometers of water seem just a sliver of silver. The first low ridges I can see will be Mayne and Galiano Islands – blue backed whales rising from the sea. Beyond them – a lighter blue – rise Salt Spring and Vancouver Islands with their bulkier and more pronounced peaks. So I can stand here on my peninsula and sight Phyllis’s island, visit it with eye and mind, even when I cannot get my body across that sea.

Or like Smokwuts I can sling my consciousness there – a perfect shot over a stooped Mount Maxwell.

When I look back at my peninsula – crossing home on the ferry, as it comes out of Active Pass between Mayne and Galiano islands and you can see the view from the bluff in reverse – my promontory appears like a dark and thick line placed in front of the sharp and huge coastal mountains – like someone drew it there with a charcoal stick on the shore. Likely not indelible. Just a slight smudge made by glacier.

Peninsulas are places of entanglement – the land with the sea, the islands with the main. Seeing Phyllis’s island with my naked eye – even with the day’s cloud cover, I can see across the kilometers to the blue of her isolation – is a good reminder of how close she chose to hide herself – as it were, in plain sight. Almost – but not quite – in reach.

Somewhere between my peninsular viewpoint and her blue hump of island an invisible shard of the United States stabs through the straights – a stray fragment of border jutting west through these waters. The ferries pass through this liquid lance of America going west – for a moment, dancing on that blade of broken glass.

In her fragments of ‘Kropotkin Poems,’ Phyllis offered herself a proposition: ‘Russia, Suicide, or France.’ ‘Suicide’ here becomes a place, a potential destination; if suicide has a geography, I see it in locations like the Alberta tar sands. The land, there, has been rejected by us, and in turn it rejects us, pushes us to the self-destructive brink.

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