Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii : unique people
An account of the unique people who live on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii,
by British Columbia author Jack Haas.
A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.
I was free, and so I fled back to the Charlottes once again, back to the land of inexplicable wonders, magical vortices, and natural abundance. Back also to the land of elves, gnomes, silkies, trolls, gremlins, and smurfs. I say this because it was here that I would meet all these mythical species hidden in the disguises of the craziest litany of seekers, bush folk, renegades, musicians, anarchists, occultists, hippies, angels, demons, tree-huggers, and an implausible assortment of other fringe types who had found their way to the outer edge of the known world, and there paraded their sublime beings on the diaphanous veil of the corpulent flesh. Which is another way of saying that my frequent sojourns to the luminescent isles were regularly peopled by a plethora of colorful locals, drifters, and eccentrics; individuals who, for one reason or another, had seen fit to step aside from the stampeding herd of manic degenerates- from civilization, that is- and venture out into the isolated and forgotten reaches where the malaise of the mob had not yet fully infiltrated.
One such self-exiled woman springs instantly to mind: a fifty-five year old American lady who had changed her name to River Eagle, had dropped out as far as one can drop out of convention, had lived the last ten years or so without a proper home, building squatter's shacks out of whatever materials were available wherever she ended up- which, previously, had been the American San Juan islands and their vicinity- and had made her way up and down the coast by trading her labor, finding odd jobs, and selling the most delightful, authentic rosaries I had ever seen, let alone smelled. As a matter of fact, before I had met her, I thought a rosary was a string of fake gem-stones strung along a cord which tired old dowagers somehow found solace in fondling after everything else worth living for had died or deserted them. River set me straight on that presumption. She had disinterred the historic art of rosary making- boiling up a large vat of fresh rose petals in a viscous, glutinous mixture of wax and oil, and then rolling this concoction into little balls the size of marbles, setting them to cool, and then stringing them into a genuine rosary, fit to lei the pope with, which smelled deliciously like newly opened roses for an inexplicably long time.
This was her main craft and venerable vocation. And yet she was an incurable gatherer, tinkerer, and artist in almost any medium available; and on the Charlottes that largely meant nature's ever-present offal.
To stroll around and watch her gathering sundry stones, shells, sticks and boughs, wild hops, berries, reeds, and flowers, and to see nothing but an armful of compost of it, and then to view, a few hours later, the outcome of her free inspirations and imaginings, blending these disparate items into an incredibly unique work of art and beauty was to witness a lost way of being- a way in which the earth and humanity melded together from different directions and out of which the spirit was made visible. She was a Renaissance sculptor carving out the essence of existence in the wilds of the twentieth century, an animated sprite come to life on the living canvas of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.
In her early years River had done many things in many different places around the world. She had lived in Europe for a while, had been a surrealist painter, an actress in New York, a seeker of the mystical arts all over the globe, and had spent time studying the esoteric likes of Gurdgieff and his inverted universe. And then one day it seems she just sort of floated away from it all without even trying, and began her new life of mendicant homelessness, gathering, wandering, and living in a way that had become her own. She would even smoke dope in a way I had never seen anyone do it before, or since- carving out a thin tunnel through the center of an apple, and then, at one end, creating a little bowl to put some marijuana in, then smoking it through the tunnel, and passing it around, and when it was finished she'd claim the pipe and consume the apple. Then she'd be off again, meandering on her easeful way, taking facile observation of this or that, then turning away, taking hold of something else, and letting go of another. I understand now why she had changed her name to a most fitting label- River Eagle; because she had learned to flow on her own course with life, to not obstruct the gifts of the Giver, and to take and cherish and modify the beauty she alone could see with her subtle, artist's keen vision.
She was a delightful breath of fresh air which I inhaled insatiably during the few days we spent together; a stray flower floating about in the wind and loving life for its own sake, without needing everything else that most of us need without loving any of it at all.
Another time on the islands I was to meet two memorable fellows, each named Grant, each a recluse and dropout from society, each a brilliant and capable person in many ways, one of them living on the north island, one on the south island, one an ex-Freemason of the twenty-eighth degree, the other an ex-Templar who had, by then, given up the dangerous ways of magic and all the karmic pitfalls incantation unavoidably contains. Two Grants, each one a glowing ball of fire in his own right, and yet in the small circle of crazy misfits who inhabited the islands, neither of them, to my knowledge, had ever heard of the other.
Grant number one, a huge, imposing, long-bearded, beer guzzling, red head, lived on a ramshackle houseboat, and moved about in the little bays which populate the east side of the south island. He had been immersed in the culture of the occult before his self-imposed exile, and considered Aleister Crowley to have been the voice of truth and keeper of the Law. But nowadays Grant was simply staying away from it all, brewing his own grog, chasing down the occasional bush hussy, making flint knives the old Indian way, and making enemies the old fashioned way- by looking out for no one but himself- which was perhaps his greatest talent while waiting for the day when his pride would call him back into the dark and imperfect ways of gesticulation and sorcery.
The other Grant- a wiry framed, scowling, long-haired son of the islands, had, as a young man, fathered a handful of children with two native Haida women, and then had set off on his own around the world to discover the secrets calling and waiting for him. I suppose he must have found some because he certainly carried one of the most burning, passionate minds I have ever come upon.
I met up with him a few years after his return to the islands, when he had come across on the ferry with only a few bucks in his pocket, and had lived from that point onward largely off the land- or so he said. He had a wise and penetrating distaste for all authority and stomped around in knee-high moccasins claiming to be able to speak with the animals, specifically a few of the rare 'warrior bears', as he called them, who unanimously considered most humans to be absolute idiots and wastrels.
As I said, this Grant had a blazing fire inside of him which he regularly aimed at anyone in uniform, or anyone claiming even the smallest power or authority over the island- his island. He was incredibly entertaining to listen to as he brandished his recalcitrant, truculent, voluble sword against all that stank of prestige and politics- the cloaks of assumed position draped over the infantile minds of those who parade themselves as leaders.
He had an eye from which no corruption nor deceit could escape, and he suffered the inevitable blackballing by the authorities, which comes to any jester who turns his keen wit and acumen against the King.
It was from him that I heard about another man, one whom had been perhaps the most notorious resident to ever inhabit the islands- Jerry the Bear man.
Grant had lived with Jerry for a year and a half, had been a good friend, and had quite a story to tell about this iconoclastic comrade of his.
Seems Jerry was a different sort of man altogether, which is to say, he was a gentleman. Apparently he had always been set apart from the average bloke on the streets. As an adult he had gone off and spent eight years in meditation in one of the remote valleys on the island, and when he emerged from his hermitage the animals had grown to trust and love him and followed him back to town. It was there, at his house overlooking the town, that all sorts of beasts would gather, hang about, and play as if they had returned to the Garden of Eden and no one had ever heard of the Fall.
Grant showed me pictures of crows doing antics on his porch, dear grazing in the backyard, raccoons sauntering about as if they were card-carrying citizens of the state, and, of course, bears- all living within Jerry's home. The bears were the most astonishing. Coming and going as they pleased, eating breakfast at his kitchen table- sitting up, holding cornbread like proper Victorian ladies- and sleeping on his couch.
Grant told me that though the bears were absolutely wild, they accepted anyone whom Jerry accepted- which was everyone- and had never shown any sign of fear or hostility.
The Queen Charlotte Islands are home to the largest black bears in the world, so we're not talking here about any scrawny, goat-sized Himalayan dancing bears- we're talking about the big boys.
At one point there were as many as six bears coming and going as adopted members of Jerry's household, and never a problem, never an attack, never any aggression of any type. And yet this was too much for the authorities to assimilate into their neolithic heads. No one should be allowed to love and harbor such unpredictable and terrifying beasts. It was unheard of. And the uncreative, imprisoned, confounded consciousness of the cops could, in the end, no longer tolerate such a preposterous, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous event. And so one day the thick skulled gendarmes entered Jerry's house while he was away and gunned down all the bears that were peacefully hanging about in what they had come to know as their home.
And that was too much for Jerry. The story goes that, soon after the genocide, Jerry set his house ablaze to release the massacred spirits of the bears, and a rainbow could be seen coming out of the inferno. A few days later Jerry's vehicle was found on a logging road off in the hills, destroyed as well by fire, and with a mess of what were assumed to be Jerry's bones amongst the ashes. To the authorities it was an obvious suicide, but Grant claimed Jerry was a different kind of man than that, and though the murders of his friends had been horribly grievous to him, he was still alive somewhere, and had simply gone away to where he would not have to endure the violence, brutality, and stupidity of humankind ever again.
(excerpted from In and Of: memoirs of a mystic journey, by Jack Haas)
An account of the unique people who live on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii,