- Fast Drumming Ground
For most of a decade, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, I lived on Bowen Island, in the mouth of Howe Sound, on the southern coast of British Columbia. In the midst of this period, I was away for most of a year, working in Western Europe and in Scotland, where I met with a good deal of colonial nostalgia. To celebrate my return to Bowen Island, I wrote this little essay.
The native language in Howe Sound is Squamish, a deeply endangered member of the Salish language family. It is not a language I have ever been able to speak, but I wanted, after a year away, to brush my teeth and tongue with some familiar Squamish syllables and to nourish my mind with some Squamish ideas. By accident, however, the essay was first published in Barcelona, where a mystified Catalan proofreader intermittently altered "Squamish" to "Spanish." A corrected version was published a bit later, on Bowen Island itself, first in a short-lived local journal and then in a small book, where my immediate neighbors could find it. I was startled to learn that, twenty years later on O'ahu, Frank Stewart had found it and read it. But it is, I now remember, not just a story about a place but about a predicament: a story about the hazards of navigation in landscapes routinely misnamed as well as misused—and in which, now, we are all immediate neighbors.—Quadra Island, 2010
Home is alive, like a tree, not skinned and dressed or cut and dried like the quarried stone and milled wood that houses are made of, nor masticated and spat out like the particleboard and plywood used for packaging prefabricated lives. A house is not a home the way a mask is not a face. But a mask is not a mask if it can't be read as a metaphor for the face, and a house is not a house if it can't be seen as the mask of home. Home is the whole earth, everywhere and nowhere, but it always wears the masks of particular places, no matter how often it changes or moves.
Mine moves often, but like many hunter-gatherers, I also keep a cache and circle back to it every year. I keep it now on a little island in what used to be the Squamish country, north and west of the rich, new city of Vancouver—the third most populous city in the second most spacious country in [End Page 120]
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the world, though it is barely a century old. Things have changed that much that fast.
The old name, the Squamish name, for this overshadowed island is Xwlíl'xhwm: a stony protuberance of meaning cloaked in a forest of evergreen consonants which I think it is worth learning to pronounce.
Bowen Island, its English name, was given it by a Captain Richards, who charted the coast of southern British Columbia for the British Navy in 1859. His predecessor George Vancouver had already named the surrounding waters Howe Sound, to honor a British lord of the admiralty, Richard Howe—Black Dick, his sailors liked to call him. Howe earned geographical immortality, in the British Admiralty's view, on 1 June 1794, by defeating a French fleet in the English Channel—for which, of course, the French have a different name. The battle itself was known to British patriots as "the Glorious First of June." To the French it was the thirteenth day of the month of Prairial, Year II of the Republic, and merely one more in a series of disasters that beset the Girondin and Jacobin regimes. Names are not the only...