When one thinks about sustenance, one normally thinks of provisions and nourishment. We imagine a plate of food, or perhaps a garden, orchard or an abundance of fish in a net. Food is necessary for life. Yet somehow our relationship to it has become strained, alienated, filled with anxiety around scarcity and possible ill health effects.
Our food has also become increasingly less nutritious. The market, with some government intervention, attempted to address this by a variety of means: organic farming practices, more labeling, exotic seeds, grains and fruit at our tables, vitamins and mineral supplements in convenient tablets.
Our food is also linked to market and political forces in other ways. We drink coffee, eat bananas, pineapples and avocados not because they grow where we live or because they’re healthy, but because colonial empires were funded by the exploited labor and occupied territories of subjugated peoples. This continues to this day.
A recent study claims that if the border with the US were closed, Vancouver Island would be out of food within less than a week. That’s it. Our surplus, in this land of plenty, would last us about three or four days.
But as we dig deeper, it becomes clear that healthy living also involves re-imagining what Denman Island might look like without being governed by private property or the market, including the selling of one’s labour for wages. (And while misanthropy might be a fit philosophy for a spotted owl or a polar bear, it doesn’t offer any real analysis of the causes of the looming global ecological catastrophe.)
Priorities for any society that wishes to be both healthy and happy would, in my mind, be a focus on making the knowledge of local foods and medicines widespread and the process of their acquisition meaningful. For this type of culture to manifest we need access to land without the restrictions of private property or government regulations. Land as part of a habitat, not as surveyed property.
And although we are presently confined to our private lives to a great extent, there are activities that we can pursue now, as part of a set of healthy social practices, while we wait nervously for a collapse of our fragile biosphere or for a social movement that will end this distressing predicament. We can look to hunting, fishing, permaculture, community gardens and orchards, foraging for mushrooms, berries, etc., and helping out our local farmers/gardeners as just a few local examples of sane food practices, as practices that don’t involve exploiting others, don’t involve commodification, or won’t harm our habitats or deplete the nutritional value of the food.
This brings me to the development of the North Lands. The issues in my mind aren’t whether all the players in the proposal are “bad” people or whether the increased density would adversely affect our island culture. I believe neither of the above is true. As far as increased density is concerned, a great many islanders would like to see accessory dwellings, elder housing, affordable housing and other high density solutions to some of our local social problems. It isn’t strictly our numbers, but how we live, (though of course there are limits), that affect ecosystems.
I do have some concerns. Would the North Lands development be populated exclusively by the wealthy or would it be a mixed class neighborhood? Such a dramatic demographic shift would obviously affect the island in negative ways. Will they be clamoring for a police station, increased ferry runs, complaining about pot smoking and nude swimming? Will they actively participate in the community or will they live behind a gate, comfortable in a little enclave? The island is already under attack from demographic trends as it stands (baby boomers cashing in on their first house and settling in the gulf islands where what many consider to be exorbitant real estate prices are still a good deal for them) leading to a gentrifying and suburbanizing influence.
It seems that we are losing no matter whether the status quo prevails or whether the proposed development succeeds. And in a sense we are losing what we never really had: the north lands. We hunted there, camped, we gathered fire wood, took strolls, bird watched, walked our dogs, collected medicines, etc., but the lands were never ours.
Every healthy community has a territory, a habitat within which to live according to the principles and ways that it freely chooses. The people of Denman Island don’t have a territory, aren’t deeply embedded in a habitat that they understand and care about. One can’t even really speak seriously of the “people of Denman Island”, because we are primarily a geographic community not a genuine one, although I am very attached to many of the people here and to the fragile culture that ties us together. I would like to see the North Lands as part of a territory, a habitat, for the people who live here. Not a protected eco-zone, not a park, not a development, but part of a greater vision that aims toward local sustainability and autonomy.