Babes in the Woods
by Grant Shilling
D. and I came out to Tofino the same year. She was young and beautiful,
Quebecois, an urban fuck-up, street-involved woman (her extreme response
to suburbia) with her share of spirituality and eating disorders. Her
English needed as much work as my French, but her main language was
crow or bird or animal sounds (she spoke them well and effortlessly).
I saw her, or romanticized her as a character from Marie-Claire Blaise
novel of rural mysticism, Mad Shadows. (Of course, I’d never read
the book, but I did see a dance version of it with a beautiful Canadian
dancer named Ann Ditchburn.)
Sometimes when I was in town from fishing or whatever, D. and I’d
dance at the Weigh West Pub – when they’d push the tables
aside to let locals winter-dance for spontaneous parties.
I don’t remember what we danced to but I do remember how we danced.
I’d do this minimalist surf, rattle and roll dance and D. did
this thing with a swirl and some arhythmic touches. And, no it was not
a treeplant-folk-fest helicopter dance. We’d strike a low-high
energy balance. We had fun and then most often we’d go our separate
ways. Me to the boat (The Stroller, which has since sunk), where I’d
get damp and go insane with claustrophobia; or to the boathouse (ditto),
where I slept on a pool table (beside a dry docked 16 foot wooden boat,
engine parts and Pat’s old logging equipment and its million stories
yammering away at me).
D. went to the bush and a tarp and a platform. Both scenarios were typical
cases of affordable housing Tofino style.
D. was soaking up everybody and everything bouncing from one experience
to another which was sometimes a bit too much for my, ahem, slightly
cynical nature. “Can’t you see some ‘experiences’
Well, yes and no, I suppose.
Where we came together was in our intense interest in looking at things.
D. was into painting realistic flights of woodsy fantasy and I was into
found items, “artifacts” with stories attached to them.
A personal favourite item was a big, fat, crudely hand-carved red cedar
paddle I found in the middle of the bush, in the middle of nowhere,
toward an inlet. An errant Huck Finn dope plantation paddle?
In one of D.’s paintings, she painted herself squatting in the
woods and included the words ‘This is where I like to go pee.’
It sold real fast to a man who insisted she remove the words from the
I admired D.’s ability to sit in the bush for hours, stare at
trees and draw them. I admired her concentration and meditative powers.
We were very ‘different’ and came together through a sense
of touch. Recently, after a get together following not seeing her for
a couple of years, she said something flattering about my hands, my
touch and how this was surprising since I wasn’t a “New
“Old age,” I replied.
“Kundalini,” she says.
“Yogi Bear,” I reply.
We spent the night under the tarp on a platform in the bush near a swamp
with the mosquitoes, talking, and touching on things. (Also swatting
at things, mosquitoes, that is – at least I was. I don’t
like watching anything fill up with my blood – well, actually
I take that back, most things.)
That night D. told me she spent the winter in Northern California squatting
in the woods just outside of the University of Santa Cruz with Earth
Firsters, etc., blockading something over some matter. I asked her if
her accommodation was similar to the one we shared tonight and she said
no, it was much more primitive.
I asked her if she was making a ‘buck’ and she talked about
exchanges – real good exchanges. Was she on welfare? No, but she
was thinking of getting some to pay back her parents for the money she
D. is 29 and I sometimes worry that she won’t make some tangible
link of getting on the grid, earning just enough bucks to get by. Gain
She dreams of having a house to live in Tofino this winter.
While she was in Santa Cruz D. spent some time in a homeless shelter.
“Icckys,” a place she recommended, as the homeless take
charge there. It is run by some college guy with lots of suburban runaways.
She hitched back with a new name (about the fifth one since I’ve
known her), which I’ll call Fairy of the Moon. Which I don’t
know from Eve.
When we were talking that night in the bush, she told me how men are
totally, weirdly afraid of her and how she is even crazier than most
people think she is and how she doesn’t know if she should be
worried about it . A real, unnecessary worry. She told me of the colours
from natural elements that she can paint with – grass/green, bear
shit/black or purple, yellow from some plant and another oil-based colour
When we hike she shows me plants to eat, the vitamin C loaded buds of
salal, a breath freshener flower.
She walks through the forest barefoot and points out the slugs not to
step on. She swings her knapsack around as she says this and a Hagen
Dazs ice cream wrapper falls onto the ground and she blushes over, for
her, a guilty pleasure.
We talk about how Tofino is this touchstone for characters and their
relation to place and how if you’re lucky or (get) wise or stumble
along in some way, how you are put in touch with the absolute mystery
of the wilderness and its various lives, creatures and aura.
I once saw her go off in the mist dream waters in a skiff with a French
speaking Vietnamese former resistance fighter (who continues to resist).
A fellow who survived in a war zone jungle and still keeps a lot of
it inside his head. They were off to his oyster farm up the inlet and
he tried to make her – his.
She was back three weeks later with her dumb, stinky dog Bear that she
had rescued from the back of a dogcatchers van and imminent lethal injection.
(Everyone in Tofino had given Bear a try including myself. This was
D.’s second go round with Bear. Dogs and Tofino is a whole other
D. tries to embrace most things, for example the swamp mosquito bites
which she described as acupuncture .
“You know, I have tried for years to like that acupuncture,”
she says.I travelled and worked between Tofino and Vancouver for several
years. The movement suggests a duality between town and city, nature
and civilization, French and English (always French and English), male
and female, smoke and roll your own. Welcome to our town everybody smokes.
After each trip back to Vancouver I seek refuge and usually head into
the woods of books – the library. This time I found myself looking
up Mad Shadows, the Marie Claire Blais novel I hadn’t read and
– between slices of pizza and cups of coffee – actually
In the dappled light of the library it felt like summer. A summertime
read. The fabulous cliché of Canadian literature as landscape
rolling out in front of me.
I enjoyed the book and found myself book surfing in the CanLit section
as a pod of E.S.L students attacked the bookracks.
I read BC writer Daphne Marlett’s postscript to Mad Shadows, “…the
soul that winks on and off in this narrative, the hidden soul that cries
within or withers or is lost, having become nothing but the soul of
a doll, or remote still, that unknown which idiots are always searching
for, this soul has a purity born of the family drama that pre-figures
the religious social one.”
And I left the library with this going around in my head, felt warm
currents moving between buildings on my body and cruised past sexy summer
movie line ups (they are great when you don’t have to stand in
I still felt bushy and earthy (slowly getting dirty). Slipstreaming
a midsummer’s night dream.
Tofino fades – or does it?
In addition to going to the library
after I’m back from Tofino, I also tend to get (even) more insular
and inwardly aggressive (drink or smoke something). I feel trespassed
upon – hyperstimulated – so I withdraw. But first, I visit
a bar, right or wrong, in search of some attitude free, real human activity
and sex. A bit like a small town I suppose.
A club like a legion.
I had great sex with a sleazy bar star.
Was it her jacket?
We had breakfeast together and skipped the details, details, details.
The sun came out and we said bye. Kundalini went out the window. Or
did it? I don’t know. Describe the difference between Kundalini
and the fuck cure? Dualities again? It was time to go back to Tofino.
I was down by the side of Departure Bay Road, by the Esso there in Nanaimo
dwelling on the miasma of Kundalini and the fuck cure, dualities and
travel between Tofino and Vancouver all while I hitchhiked when Father
Frank Salmon, yup his real name, of Ahousat stops to pick me up.
He is going all the way to Tofino, but he has to stop at the Costco
and Walmart in Nanaimo first. “Okay?”
“I’ve got no appointments.”
It was my first Costco experience. Very Gulliver’s travels and
I’m the small and the Life cereal is the large. We were buying
flats and flats of Pepsi for the good people of Ahousat, a native village
on Flores Island (off Tofino). We also bought a lot of motor oil for
boats, and flour.
The Costco was big and bland and stocked
like some kind of successful socialism – that weird. Since I’ve
been there, I’ve had this feeling that I’m a giant lemon
poppyseed Costco muffin moving through it all.
I had been picked up one time before by Father Salmon. It was Christmas
Eve day and it was snowing and I was outside Tim Horton’s there
in Nanaimo. It didn’t look good. But the father, um… saved
me. Horton was there to knock aside any rebounds.
On that trip I just had to ask Salmon why natives needed a priest. (Sort
of like why a fish needs a fisherman.)
And even though it was on my mind, there was no way I was to talk about
the Kundalini cure, with Salmon there. It would be like talking to a
rock about basketball – or something. (At least I truly hope so.)
We had a pleasant enough ride and let the scenery do the talking for
us. I guess the one philosophical question we touched on was how tourists
experience place as opposed to locals, what are they getting/missing/seeing
that locals do or don’t?
And, of course, we concluded that we are all just passing through.
My first night back in Tofino I went to a birthday party for a surfer
girl. Dave brought a salmon that he caught earlier that day, Paula brought
mussels fresh from the sea, and there was even hummus fresh from the
chickpea. Good grub, good energy, good music and just the right amount
of party favours present.
For a lot of surfers the day starts with the marine broadcast (echoing
the activity of fishers). Some gale up in the Queen Charlottes becomes
a mysterious force that will or wonít work its way down to us.
And the surfer kids drive up and down the Pacific Rim during the day
to check the surf. And the day begins to feel like this giant wave of
In the past five or six years Tofino has had a real resurgence in interest
in surfing. It has brought a new crowd and a labour force for tourist
crowds. One more change for Tofino.
With all this enthusiasm over surfing I thought it was going to be my
next big career move. But I find the necessity of a board, wetsuit,
car (optional) and crowd (optional) and money for these things too much--for
Instead I began to catch some waves in the cold, cold water here after
my jogs on the beach. Iíve built upa high resistance to the cold
and can stay in the water for up to 45 minutes.
Riding sets of waves, walking back and forth in the coolgreen/blue water,
arms flapping in a big bird hug for stretch and heat, I wait for the
wave. Then as it approaches I jack out straight and flat as if to do
a racing dive riding the top of the foam- and then, Ride!
Doing this cold water surf can change my whole day. The wave and the
feeling stays with you. I think thatís what I felt at that party
Bodysurfing is this total body rush that seems to be a giggle that the
universe has to offer. For me its like consciousness surfing.
After a surf I often walk up the road (Pacific Rim Highway) to the cemetery.
I enter, gentle and true. Rest assured that if Tofino is changing the
The Tofino cemetery is a small patch cut into the forest surrounded
by a picket fence. The cemetery gives you easy access to the ‘inside’(
the inlet of the ocean is calm and lake like. At low tide the inlet
is a mud flat, which offers up critters and creatures and green islands
and green hills in the distance.)
The snow capped peaks of Strahcona Park (between Campbell River and
Gold River ) are clear and predominate from here. You can hear the echo
of the outside surf from here.
I came to the cemetery for the same reasons I surf, I suppose, the silence
and the nature. The peace. They say the sea is like a womb.
I set up at the back of the cemetery outside of the perimeter of the
fence. I get naked in the hot sun and move between shade and silence,
reading and walking amongst the naked and the dead.
Some visitors to a grave marking an early death leave some fresh flowers.
A couple of tourists pull up, don’t get out of their car, turn
around, and drive away. Maybe I should’ve waved them in.
I feel myself walking up the pathway of the cemetery looking at simple
wood or stone markers considering history as I look up over the white
picket fence in the dense forest.