We recently stayed in a cabin on a small unnamed island near Nuchatlitz, a former Nuchatlaht community off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The small island is privately owned by twelve people, but most of the surrounding area is either reserve or provincial park. We were there to kayak, but we were also visiting a place we’d read about. In 2001, our publishing company, Creekstone Press, reprinted John Gibson’s A Small and Charming World, a book first published in 1972 that told of Gibson’s time as a social worker in Smithers and later in Campbell River. The book’s last chapter contains a particularly poignant reference to Nuchatlitz. At one time about 3000 people lived in the area, but when he flew in to pick up a little girl going to school in Campbell River, only five houses were occupied. When we were there, one unoccupied house remained and its last occupant, Lily Michael, was buried in the overgrown cemetery across the inlet. We so often think of these isolated places as wilderness, but they have been occupied for centuries, and contain many stories. Which is why writers look for places like this.
Virginia Woolf told us we needed a room of our own. In the Sea Watch cabin in Nuchatlitz, also known as Witt’s End, there are many rooms, each lined with books. Among those books, I found a collection of essays by E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner, in which he contrasts his writing practice to that of a contemporary who sits down at home where his “privacy is guarded” and works in an orderly and diligent manner to accomplish a great deal. White says that his “professional life has been a long, shameless exercise in avoidance.” His home is, he says, “designed for the maximum of interruption,” his office the place he never is. How can a writer not love E.B. White? How can a writer not love Witt’s End?
While each room has a table inviting the writer to sit down with a notebook, out the windows are sea otters, cedars, rhododendrons, driftwood installations, and a greedy young crow eating the salal berries growing out of one of those installations. And the books. Downstairs, Chinese literature, the classics, fiction, history, the restoration plays. Bill Kinsella, Margaret Atwood, Virgil, A Dream of Red Mansions.
In the kitchen, beside the binoculars on the windowsill, the plant/bird/seashore/animal guidebooks.
You must climb the steep stairs to find the poets, ranged along the floor in a room with windows on three sides and skylights, a bed tucked into a dormer, the chimney from the wood stove below bringing warmth into its spaciousness. And a table, of course.
I brought a collection of Bruce Chatwin’s work along and, while it started well enough, seemed to become one of those publications designed to plump the coffers of his estate – some work would have been better left “unpublished or neglected.” In it he writes about the two towers where he writes well – one on the Welsh border and one in Tuscany. It is, he says, “a place where I have always worked clearheadedly and well, in winter and summer, by day or night – and the places you work well in are the places you love the most.”
Seawatch could become one of those places – and writer Paula Wild uses it for her own escapes and also runs writing retreats there. Shannon Bailey, the co-owner with Brian Witt, writes there too. She and Brian left Victoria (where she completed a Creative Writing degree at UVic) over a decade ago to live almost full time at Nuchatlitz. You really are a long way away from anywhere – an hour’s boat ride from Tahsis, which is about a three-hour drive from Campbell River.
You’d think it would be perfect. But the work to keep a place like Sea Watch running (solar energy, rain water cisterns, generators, boat maintenance and wild west coast weather) is, as White said, “designed for the maximum of interruption.” Like waiting for the right tides to put the sailboat up onto a neighbour’s makeshift dry-dock in order to scrape the barnacles off the hull, messy and physically demanding work, done in the dark, in the pouring rain. And anyone who’s lived in a place with only boat access knows the minutiae of hauling things up and down docks, in and out of boats, and offloading at a slippery low tide.
And then there are the distractions of all the artifacts the ocean offers up. There are hundreds of installations in every available space, inside and out. Shells, skulls, feathers, tiny congregations in mossy corners, as well as the reminders of the many places Shannon and Brian have travelled.
The perfect retreat, I think, needs to be someone else’s tower – as Chatwin said. Where someone else is bringing in the groceries, doing the upkeep, weeding the gardens. Or, as I suggested to Shannon – a real winter. I always look forward to October here in Driftwood Canyon – dropping temperatures put a quick end to any silly notions about another crop of spinach, by November the snow covers all those projects that call for attention all spring and summer, and it’s dark so early and so late, you’re not distracted by the play of light on the trees. You leave the curtains open and stare out into the darkness, thinking.
Thanks to Dan Shervill for letting me use some of his photos.