Friday, May 20, 2011

Maria Mahoi and Russell Island

The first of the sun`s rays catches the masts of yachts anchored in the shelter of the still, shadowy silhouette of Russell Island. It is the first bright note of a new summer`s day. This little 40 acre island, tucked into the arms of Fulford Harbour on Saltspring Island, is a small part of a national marine park in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. What makes it large in historical terms is due to the many years at the beginning of the last century when it was home to a powerful woman: Maria Mahoi, and her family.

It is an obvious but often neglected fact that everything, not just the big ticket items like cities and political personalities, contributes to the story of a place. This island and its people were part of the larger history of BC, their lives more important for us today than we might think. Russell Island obviously was not always called by its present name, that is an artifact of mapping and settlement by Europeans. Perhaps its First Nations name related to the food resources to be found or perhaps its silhouette was noted to resemble some supernatural being. It is here in BC`s frontier interface between the previous stewards of the land and the newcomers that we find Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Mahoi living her life, and in her genes was a blend of the old and the new.

Her island seems somehow taller this morning, its brown sandstone slopes and cliffs turn a seaweedy olive green for the last three meters before they slide demurely beneath the surface. The white beaches, made of thousands of ground up seashells, stretch down to green ribbons of sea lettuce that stir gently in the morning calm. Clams spout into the air after a long night asleep under the blanket of the sea. The tide is out, but already rising again. By noon the island will still be afloat but will then seem more deeply laden with it`s freight of trees, rocks and history.

If we paddle ashore, quietly, so as not to disturb the still sleeping people in their boats, we will beach our canoe on the shell beach at the southern tip and walk along a trail that leads east past rocky headlands and stunted pine trees. In winter this exposed side of the island takes the full force and salt spray of the south-east gales. A rowboat, scarcely visible in the reflected glare of the sun, is fishing on an offshore reef. Beyond, we look out towards Portland Island with its beacon on Kanaka Bluff. Oops, just wait a second for the ferry to pass. Ah there it is! In the far distance the blue humps of more islands rising out of the sea are in the United States. Not so long ago, historically speaking, there was no Canada, no United States, no boundary, except those flexible tribal boundaries that existed in the Salish Sea. Even after all that territory was parceled up and divided off, it was easy one hundred years ago to slide back and forth in a small boat. It is only slightly more difficult today.

The trail is littered with fallen arbutus leaves that crackle underfoot. Dry bleached grasses splay across thin soil atop sandstone cliffs, while the rocks below cradle drift logs above the ferry traffic`s intermittent surf. All except the ferries and the beacon seems as it was in Maria`s day. Looking back into the center of the island, there is a dense screen of same-age trees. This would have been a field in Maria`s time. The great trunk of a Douglas Fir vanishes upward though the canopy. It was a large tree then too - a landmark to use while gliding home on a late evening after visiting with friends and relatives on Saltspring or over on Portland.

Our path winds along the low cliffs and as we become accustomed to the island, as our feet adjust to stepping over sandstone boulders and fallen branches, our senses tune in to the combined smells of dry vegetation and sea weed, the patterns of light and shadow cast by the slanting sunlight. Yes, we can hear the ferry rumbling across the water and the drone of the first float plane of the day, but there are also more subtle communications: an eagle flaps along just over our heads, screaming to its mate perched in an arbutus that hangs precariously over the sea; an otter family at the water`s edge below us squabbles over a breakfast of something cold and slippery just now carried up from the depths. This is a brilliant natural world in sharp focus. How much more rich it must have been in the past.

Now, having crossed to the lee side of Russell through waist high salal, we follow a boardwalk across what will be a swampy area during the winter. The trees that arch across our path are fruit trees gone wild. This would once have been a trim and tidy orchard, rather wet in winter and needing drainage ditches, but retaining ground water for the trees during the long dry summers. Here is her house by the western shore. It is a modest, white clapboard building with a water tower standing behind it. Now we can really feel her presence. Perhaps there is some truth to the belief that people and landscape who have had a close relationship in the past continue that relationship into the present. The fact that Maria was of mixed ancestry, part Indian and part Hawaiian, would help explain it: no European scientific disbelief in spirits to block what comes naturally.

Hawaiian? It seems an unusual connection. We usually think of Hawaii as being flooded out by other races. Once we remember that, however, it would not be such a stretch to imagine that this pressure encouraged some native Hawaiians, during their own troubles in the cultural contact period, to seek a life far from home. And they did, often as crewmen on whaling ships or brought here as employees of the Hudson`s Bay Company in the fur trade. Those who landed in what would later become the US also migrated north from the newly created American gulf islands to a place where they were counted as landowning, regular voting citizens. Many settled in the nearby Gulf Islands, marrying native Indian women, as did many European men during the frontier period. It was not exactly coral beaches and palm trees, but here were islands in a mild climate, land was for the taking, and most importantly, there was a community. Maria was a child of this flexible frontier landscape. She, with her large family, went on to be an important element in the history of British Columbia. On little Russell Island.

The island seems an idyllic place to live now. How many millions of dollars would it fetch from a wealthy family bent on establishing an exclusive estate? In Maria`s day, a century ago, it would have been a hardscrabble sort of place, passed over by other settlers looking to farm on good land. For a people who could live off the land and sea, however, it was in the midst of plenty. The beaches produced clams and oysters, there were fish of all types in the surrounding sea and one could shoot wildfowl around the shores and also deer on neighbouring Saltspring Island. There was plenty of fresh water in the winter rainy season and during the hot dry summers, when the two shallow wells dried up, drinking water could be hauled by rowboat from a spring just fifteen minutes away at Indian Point. There was no electricity on the island of course, but everyone on the islands used coal oil lamps anyway, and strong bodies and hand tools did the work.

The people at the south end of Saltspring and the nearby islands did not aspire to luxury as we know it today. They lived in harmony with the land. The family did have to earn and spend money to some extent to buy flour, sugar, coal oil, tools and clothes that could not be made or endlessly repaired. Strawberries were grown on the island and along with wild berries were gathered and sold locally; clams and fish could be carried off to sell in Sydney, some ten miles away by rowboat. Wool from their sheep was sold or traded to native spinners. It must have been a steady business just living, visiting with relatives and friends, raising children. The years slipped by; sailboats and steamships were replaced by gas boats and the frontier openness slowly congealed into more rigid class structures as the colony filled with more Europeans and their imported wives. Soon southern Vancouver Island was ‘more British than the British’ and ‘Kanakas’ like Maria were looked down upon as unfortunate artifacts from the frontier period by white settlers, themselves scrambling up the economic and social ladder. Russell Island continued to be her fortress and refuge as the tides of change swept past its shores, but I imagine that she was too busy living her competent life to feel second class.

Maria was a strong swimmer and natural sailor. The sea beyond the house that is now reflecting the morning sunshine would once have echoed with the sound of her children`s laughter instead of the murmur from the present day yachts. It is not difficult today after this walk on Russell Island to imagine Maria sailing her sixteen foot clinker built rowboat skillfully through the yachts on the morning breeze. Perhaps we even glimpsed her earlier, fishing out off the eastern shore and maybe she has some fine rockfish with which to make a special dish. She lives on within the blood and bones of this place.

These self-reliant skills of hers provided for her family and reached out into her community; she may have been illiterate but she was the local midwife, well respected by her neighbours, known to be a hard worker and caring wife and mother. She was a tough, able woman in a era when there was no government social safety net for families that stumbled into hard times. Husbands often worked far away from the family for months at a time in the fishing and logging industries and sometimes forgot to come home at all. Deadly accidents also took them off permanently. Only a strong will and back, and knowledge about a thousand things to do with survival on this little island provided a safety line against disaster for Maria.

Outside of her island and community, up and down the coast of BC, people of all races and persuasions were living similar self-reliant lives. They all valued a sense of community much more highly than we do today and kept it in good repair. This is what makes Maria Mahoi more that simply a remarkable island woman. She stands for all those women of the coast who fought for life, raised their families and created the warp of a thousand threads into which their children and children`s children would later weave their own lives.

Now it is time to carry the canoe back down to the rising water`s edge, push off and paddle away from Russell Island. We look back over our shoulders and try to understand all that we have seen on this little sandstone island in the Salish Sea. Maria`s life here is important because on islands we can see patterns in microcosm that are easy to miss within larger landscapes and populations. She exemplifies a life of both competence and restraint, living skillfully within the capacity of the island`s resources to sustain herself and her family. She visualized her world as having a spirit, of which she was a part, that extended beyond her island shores and which constantly renewed itself. Her way of life was the opposite of today`s, where individuals buy nearly all they need and grow or harvest little. Our present economic world view, that is based on continual over-exploitation of all the world`s resources, would find her to be a less than model citizen. She carried into the beginning of our modern era her Hawaiian and Indian ancestors` concepts of being an integral part of and careful stewards of the land. Maria and her island, at this moment in our history, has some especially important lessons for us all.