Thursday, August 11, 2011

Follow the Yellow Boat Road

In April I had the privilege of spending a few days with Michaye Boulter and her family – husband Rob Pennicott and children Maya and Noah – at their magnificent house on Bruny Island (for more photos, see an earlier blog post, Abalone for Tea). Michaye is a Tasmanian visual artist who has impeccable Prince Edward Island credentials. Her father, Charlie Boulter, was a Prince Edward Islander who, in his youth, travelled to Australia, where he met and married Irene from Alberta. After building a boat and sailing from Brisbane to British Columbia, then through the Panama Canal to New Brunswick, with their daughters Michaye and Jeanette, they eventually settled in Tasmania. I met Michaye through her aunt, my friend and renowned batik artist Sylvia Ridgway, who lives with her husband Bill in Victoria-by-the-sea, Prince Edward Island. Michaye’s PEI cousins include my fellow Charlottetonians: the Ridgways – Greg and Jennifer (Jennifer runs Moonsnail Soapworks) – and the McCardles – Darcy and Shawn.

Michaye remembers vividly the weeks and months spent daydreaming on the boat – memories that continue to inspire her painting. She very kindly agreed to be one of my interview subjects and we spent a couple hours with my tape recorder in her studio at the Salamanca Arts Centre. I’m looking forward to writing up what she had to say about how her “islandness” comes through in her art, and incorporating it into my PhD thesis.
Michaye Boulter, her paintings, and me at the Handmark Gallery in Hobart
But today I want to bring your attention to an initiative of Rob’s – Follow the Yellow Boat Road – which he enthusiastically told me about on that weekend back in April. In an effort to raise money for Rotary International (along with Bill and Melinda Gates) to eradicate polio from the planet, he and his long-time Bruny Island Cruise fellow skipper Mick Souter set out from Sydney May 31 on a fundraising campaign, circumnavigating Australia in two 18-foot motorized yellow dinghies. The trip will total 12,000 nautical miles. They’re scheduled to arrive back in Sydney September 2.

Documenting the trip is videographer Zorro Gamarnik, who is providing an amazing and inspiring record of the journey. Zorro’s videos are fabulous – giving a rare opportunity to see Australia’s amazing coastline and meet some of the fabulous people who are helping them along the way. (The logistics - fuel, food, and accommodation wherever possible – have been an amazing feat alone – not to mention making the videos onboard a tiny boat and finding an Internet connection to post them!) I’ve been keeping track of the trip through Zorro’s videos on Facebook and through Rob’s website: But as the crew comes down to the crunch, I'm compelled to use these inter-island connections to help spread the word to whoever will listen!
Tuna-fishing off Bruny Island with Rob and family
To date the crew has raised $144,330 – 92% of which goes to polio eradication and 8% to the Pennicott Foundation for environmental conservation. In addition to the “donate” button on the website, they’ve been auctioning off spots on the boat for the various legs of the journey. So far the highest bid was for the leg from Port Gregory to Geraldton, bringing in $3,000. The next highest is for one of the Tasmanian legs – Strahan to Hobart on August 23 – which is now sitting at $1,500.

If you donate over $10 AU, you’re eligible for a draw for two people to travel on the final leg from Uladulla to Sydney (estimated to be Friday, September 2). This will include flights from anywhere in the world, along with two nights’ accommodation and a five-day holiday in Tasmania. (If you enter the competition, $10 of your donation is not tax deductible as this is your entry into the competition.)
Noah and Rob
Michaye and Maya
Needless to say, I’ve donated… I mean, how often does one get a chance to donate to a worthy cause, hang out with Rob Pennicott on a boat for a day, AND get to travel to Tasmania? (Actually, now that I think about it, I've done it, and can attest to how great all three are!)

For more details, check out Follow the Yellow Boat Road. And if you’re on Facebook, be sure to “like” what they’re doing – Zorro’s videos are worth the click alone!
Rob and Michaye

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The blood of so many tongues

My friends Claire and Julea and I spent the best day of summer so far – August 1 – baking on the beach at St. Peter’s Harbour, one of the few strips of sandy coastline along Prince Edward Island’s North Shore that isn’t part of PEI National Park. We were sitting with a woman whose name was in the news last week: summer resident Joan Butcher, who had been interviewed about a construction project taking place in the dunes between her cottage subdivision – a former farmer’s field – and the beach. Someone was digging into the dune, ripping apart the base of it to make way for a summer cottage.

When I heard the story – first through Facebook and then on the CBC news – I was shocked and appalled – then saddened at yet another example of the stupidity and arrogance of humankind. I wasn’t alone – others who care about the fragile ecosystem that is this glorified sandbar expressed their outrage, too. (Be sure to check out some of the comments below the CBC News story.) Especially when it was reported that the owner planned to put the sand back when he was done. Doesn’t this person know anything about dune systems? Has he never read the interpretation signs on any of the National Park beaches? Does he not know why we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building boardwalks to take people over the dunes so we don’t destabilize them with our incessant urge to make destructive pathways through them? Does he not realize that the dunes, the beach, and the million-dollar view from his soon-to-be-cottage won’t be there if the marram grass holding the dunes in place is destroyed? Doesn’t he care? Is it one of those classic cases where he thought it was better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission? Or is it yet again about the money, or maybe the centuries-old and centuries-tired argument: “It’s my land and I can do whatever the hell I want with it”?
In their investigation, the media reported that the powers-that-be cited “proper channels” and “grandfathering” – because the lot-owner – who remained nameless – had kept active a building permit issued BEFORE there was legislation protecting our precious dune systems. Government lawyers said there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. There’d be no fines, no rap on the knuckles, no nothing. And because this is a small island, where everyone keeps their mouths shut, he probably won’t even be ostracized for it.

We asked Joan if she knew who this person was. She did. When she said his name I was absolutely mortified to learn that I KNOW – and LIKE – this person. I KNOW – and LIKE – his wife and children and members of his extended family. His mother-in-law is a well-respected former politician whose good works, among other things, include protecting the Island’s land and environment. I thought about what I would say if I bumped into any of them. And I came to the sad realization: probably nothing.

This is a part of island living that gives islands a bad rap. Most of the time I feel happy and secure being an integral part of what historian Ed MacDonald calls a "kinship web." But this example is the downside to everyone knowing everyone else’s business. It’s insular. Parochial. Small-minded. In the face of possible confrontation, we shut down. We close ranks. Let’s face it: too many of us are afraid to rock the boat for fear that someone might not like us. And god forbid that we hurt anyone else’s feelings.

My friend Pete Hay, a feisty poet, academic, and environmentalist from Tasmania, has commented that Prince Edward Islanders are too nice when compared with his fellow islanders. He knows families and communities in Tasmania who have been ripped apart over environmental issues such as land use, forestry practices, and pulp mill construction. They publicly argue with one another, and then they spend the rest of their lives openly criticizing or studiously ignoring one another. Like painter Christopher Pratt when he talks about his island of Newfoundland, “Nobody apologizes for hating anybody here.” Pete won’t come right out and say that we PE Islanders are too nice for our own good, but I will. You’ll notice that I haven’t even named the guy, even though his identity is an open secret around PEI’s water coolers (and I’ve given some pretty darn good hints here, too).

But it’s also an island thing that we only have so much land to begin with. And if we keep destroying the dunes and beaches that protect it, we’ll have even less. No million-dollar view, and probably no cottage either: a couple winters from now and a wild storm could wash it away. It’s easy to say we’ll all be dead before global warming and sea-level-rise claim our beloved island. It’s easy to pass the buck – and our mistakes – on to the next generation. But an island isn’t like other places – if we keep destroying what’s taken centuries to build, there’ll be no island left to pass on at all.
Two of the things that this island has gotten right are the Island Nature Trust, established in 1979 and dedicated to protecting and managing natural areas on Prince Edward Island, and the L. M. Montgomery Land Trust, created in 1994 to “preserve the scenic agricultural coastal lands on Prince Edward Island’s north shore.” Both charitable non-profit Trusts raise money to purchase land in order to protect it. In particular, the L. M. Montgomery Land Trust purchases land from farmers whose “RRSP” or “registered retirement savings plan” is their land – subdivided and sold for big bucks as building lots. (And the irony of Joan’s summer cottage is not lost on me: the Trust wasn’t in existence back when her cottage subdivision was created.) This way, when the Trust buys the land at fair market value, a covenant is put on it so it can’t be developed. Often it’s leased to another farmer who keeps it in agricultural production. It is a way of protecting our most precious resource – the iconic working landscape that we know and love, and which keeps tourists coming back year after year. After this debacle, I have renewed respect for their work, and when I’m no longer a poor PhD student, I’ll be donating money to both their causes.

So our August afternoon at the beach was punctuated by kids climbing up and sliding down the dunes, some on their butts, others on boogie boards. We couldn’t help but marvel at one young fellow doing backflips off the highest dune – he was talented all right, but didn’t he realize the damage he was doing? We wanted to just shake a dad when we saw him hauling his toddler daughter up the dune so she could slide back down… fine role model, that. Joan told us about their efforts over the years to educate the residents of their subdivision on the fragility of the dunes, and about the signs that they’d carefully paint and put up, only to find them torn down and in pieces the next day.
So futile. But Joan is not so jaded that she doesn’t still get angry. After she told us the name of the dune-destroyer, she said, “I wish I knew where he lived. I’d take a front end loader to his foundation.” I almost said, “I know where he lives.” But I looked at my friend Claire and she looked at me, and neither one of us said a thing.

In the words of one of our best-known storytellers, David Weale, Island soil is red from the blood of so many tongues being bitten.