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'Stranger on a Strange Island'

Grant Buday trades city life for Mayne Island, and discovers an entirely new social order.

Grant Buday 31 Mar

Grant Buday is the author of eight books. Two of his works, White Lung and Monday Night Man have been nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Prize. A selection of his novel White Lung won the Fiction Category of the 1997 Western Magazine Awards. His writing has appeared in subTerrain, Vancouver Review and most recently, Canadian Notes and Queries. For six years, he taught English at Kwantlen University College and Langara College in Vancouver. He has lived on Mayne Island for eight years.

[Editor's note: In the great literary tradition of city goes country, Stranger on a Strange Island is Grant Buday's story of upheaval from his East Vancouver home to Mayne Island, a richly storied isle off B.C's southwest coast. There, he finds a social order brimming with eccentricity and unparalleled job opportunities, from boat poaching to sheep herding to a gig at the local recycling depot. In this excerpt, reprinted with permission from publisher New Star Books, Buday acquaints readers to some of Mayne's unique customs, and shares a few of his island employment wisdoms.]

The most basic social division on Mayne is that between islanders and off-islanders. While there are categories of off-islanders, all are, by definition, a lower order of being. This subspecies includes, at the very bottom, the tourist, whose most blatant bad habit is assuming that people on Mayne are mellow. They're not mellow. Most live here to escape the crowds, so when the crowds follow, they're angry. Nonetheless, tourists assume that Mayne Island residents don't mind if you drive along at one and a half kilometres an hour, wander the roads three and four abreast, or halt in the middle of the street to snap photos of deer. Tourists also seem to assume that the locals live only to serve them, as if we are a population of waiters and chambermaids.

Other Mayne Island cliques and sects include eco-warriors, hobby farmers, wildcrafters, druggies, drunks (surly and benign), mystics, artists, kayakers, the mildly Buddhist, the seriously Buddhist, the more-Buddhist-than-thou, the legions of retired males struggling with the fact that they no longer wield status, and those who have, quite simply, been here longer than you, even if only by a year. Nothing is more alienating than to be cast out of a conversation by the fact that you never knew so and so, or that such and such was before your time (true time having begun only once you took up residence on the island).

There also exists an exalted echelon occupied by the scions of old families, people whose forefathers gave their names to roads and bays: the Mayne Island gentry, if you will, who, like members of a diminishing aristocracy that can never be joined, only be born into, view newcomers with weariness and suspicion. No amount of newly purchased acreage can win access to this inner circle. Indeed, it might just as easily earn disdain. No queue jumping. You must put in your time.

On the lamb

My time included more odd jobs. I got hired on at a deer farm where there were no longer any deer because they'd all escaped, or been let loose in an act of revenge against the owner (local opinion was divided on this). There was, however, a large garden, and for most of the summer I pulled weeds and dug turf.

A word on Mayne Island deer. There are two kinds. One, black-tail, are beautiful but dumb. They stand on the side of the road watching you approach, and then, at the last instant, dart in front of your car, as if their most fervent desire is to become one with your hood ornament, or better yet become your hood ornament. The other, fallow deer, are manic. While you can approach to within 10 feet of a black-tail, getting within 50 yards of the fallow causes it to crash madly off into the bush. Both are the bane of gardeners, though the fallow are worse because they don't merely nibble plants, they uproot them. Yet how handsome they are. So sleek, so silent, so capable of holding a perfect pose. And so tasty. It seems a waste not to have an annual venison banquet. But they do serve one useful purpose, which is to provide an excuse for drunken drivers needing an explanation for how their cars ended up in the ditch. I was swerving to miss a deer!

The deer farm also had sheep. One day my job was to catch the lambs and crop their tails, for an uncropped tail collected dung, which could get infected. To my surprise, those sweet little lambs celebrated in nursery rhymes turned out to be frustratingly fast and deeply suspicious. If they don't exactly read minds they certainly know body language, and they didn't want me getting too close. All of which meant I spent a day sprinting about the stump-strewn field on my wobbly ankles hurling myself full length at fleeing sheep.

But this was not as grimly earthy as helping my friend Katja deal with the corpse of a ewe in the barn. It was a hot day and I suppose that should have tipped us off as to what awaited us. We stepped inside. Blades of sunlight slashed the badly boarded walls. There was a muted murmur of foraging flies and a stewy pungency of hay and earth and corpse. In a corner lay the mound of dead sheep. We approached with caution, breath held. Katja took hold of a rear hoof and pulled, intending to drag it to the door. And the leg came off in her hand, just parted with the ease of boiled meat. Flies rose, moist hot stench groped my face, and my throat cramped as Katja and I reeled to the door. Months later she returned and completed the job, the corpse having been reduced by the diligence of ants and flies to a wool sweater full of bones.

Seaweed management

Saltier than the stench of a dead sheep is the stink of rotting seaweed. Masses of the stuff drift ashore and decay each summer in Village Bay, and when the wind blows windows must be shut or a gas mask strapped on. The Village Bay neighbourhood had a fund, usually intended for hiring students, to clear the stuff away. Lacking a high school student, a middle-aged writer would do.

The job involved two long narrow trailers, the Sea Weeder I and the Sea Weeder II, and a rake. Sodden seaweed is as heavy as muck and just as much fun to shovel. When a trailer was full of kelp, I towed it off with a jeep and delivered it to local gardeners. Yet no matter how many times I filled the Sea Weeders I and II, the cruel sea quietly, relentlessly nudged twice as much back onto the beach.

There are many beaches on Mayne Island, yet with the exception of Campbell Bay, most are lousy, unless you favour a seaside vista of mud, rocks, barnacles, truck tires, and seaweed. No, if it's sandy shores you're after you must look elsewhere. While no feet in running shoes have drifted up, we do get a corpse every year or so, along with a lot of logs, plastic, Styrofoam, and red jellyfish, the kind that can sting even when dead. It is a commonly held belief that urine neutralizes their sting. In the event of a run-in with a red jellyfish, you must immediately go find someone and ask them to pee on you, or, if possible, you must pee on yourself.

On the plus side, most of the bad beaches have public access. That doesn't stop people from glaring at you from their living rooms for taking a seaside stroll past their waterfront homes even though, strictly speaking, the shore between the low and high tide lines is public property. You can therefore walk any stretch of shoreline you please, though in some cases you may have to parachute onto the beach in order to do so.

Mastering social dynamics

Driving seaweed around Mayne Island involved more than negotiating the hills and curves and avoiding the loitering deer. It also involved mastering that aspect of nonverbal communication known as "the wave." Waving, like carpentry, has a vocabulary of its own. Some people thrust their entire arm out the window and flap it around, the equivalent of a slap on the back and a bellowed "How are you?" Others, fatigued, scarcely lift a finger from the steering wheel over which their arm drapes. Some will offer a salute, or touch the bill of their cap, or raise their middle finger, or give the thumbs up, or the peace sign, or if cute is their goal they may twiddle all their fingers.

At the other end of the spectrum, a gesture favoured by the man's man is the raised fist and mock sock on the jaw. Some do what I call the Wayne Newton: this is a four-part greeting that consists of a point, a wink, then a cluck of the tongue finishing up with a rakish, Vegas-style smile. And finally there is the nod. Yet even this seemingly simple gesture has as many variations as the wave. There is the basic duck of the chin, as cheerful as it is brisk, there is the solemn down and up that implies a grave subtext of crisis and preoccupation, or there is the reverse nod, which is not a downward motion but a quick lifting of the head as if in sudden recognition. Much can be read into each of these signals. One wry existentialist I know likes to make a pistol of his fingers then put it to his temple and shoot himself. Then there is the guy who pretends to swerve his 4x4 into you, all the while laughing uproariously while his dogs bay for your blood.

Along with this nonverbal vocabulary, a different dimension of space exists on Mayne -- social space, that is. You can't simply walk past someone without acknowledging them. It's just not done. In the city it's the opposite. You scarcely make eye contact. Indeed it's often safer to avoid eye contact altogether. Not on Mayne.

This has complications, for you can easily see someone half a dozen times in a single day, and you can hardly have the same interaction each time. The first meeting of the day warrants one level of exchange, perhaps even a full blown conversation. Yet if you pass that person again an hour later, as you can very easily do, you're not going to go through the same thing. This second greeting is therefore more brief and yet also more complex, requiring an acknowledgement of the fact that you've already run into each other, and yet behooving you to say something -- preferably something light and witty. "Hello again," or the more risqué "Are you following me?" (The rejoinder is, "No, I'm trying to avoid you.")

By the third meeting you must dig deeper into your repertoire. "We have to stop meeting like this" is a little tired, so many opt for "This island is too small for the two of us, you should move off." By the fourth meeting you might have recourse to a nod, a jaunty wave, or a bemused shake of the head that acknowledges the absurdity of all these niceties that entrap us in this sticky web of social obligation.

By the fifth meeting you might laugh and put your hands to your face and moan. By the sixth you could pretend not to see them at all, or take a sudden interest in the sky, or run away into the bush. Then again you could pretend to be absorbed by your iPod. This alone may be worth their price tag. By the seventh meeting you will grow nostalgic for the city, and the simple freedom of being able to ignore people. In fact, it could well be argued that we live in cities, amid hundreds of thousands of people, for the paradoxical reason that we are then free to ignore them.  [Tyee]

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