Clean White Shrines
“… I realized that the hamlet was really two hamlets, that it was divided almost precisely into houses with names, and the houses without names, though these two hamlets, like interpenetrating dimensions, were in the same place ….”
Malcolm Lowry, “The Forest Path to the Spring”
A Sunday afternoon drive was an opportunity for my brother and I to shift our on-going wrassingly match to the couch-sized back seat of my father’s ’67 Chevrolet Biscayne.
Half Nelsons and headlocks were applied, slipped, and reapplied against a flowing backdrop of freshly stuccoed Specials, but we called a truce for the panorama of the bridge crossing and the clouds catching on treetops. We forgot the struggle altogether when the highway turned into a narrow strip of road, winding through a forest.
My father called out the points of interest that lay hidden behind the curtain of trees: the squatters -“heepees” in his vernacular- at Maplewood Flats, and the “Burrard Band” reservation, home to the quasi-mythical Chief Dan George. A few minutes from home, and we were someplace far, far away.
The Tsleil-Waututh occupied Whey-ah-Wichen -“Facing the Wind”- for “time out of mind.” European colonization, taking the form of a wood mill, led to their forced removal to a reservation a few hundred metres west and off the water.
Squatters appeared, constructing shacks on the foreshore. Summer cabins for some, housing for most, made affordable by the uncertainty of jurisdictional authority.
Malcolm Lowry took up residence, naming it Eridanus, for the river that waters the Elysian Fields of Earthly Paradise in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Working the final drafts of Under the Volcano, Lowry and wife Margerie Bonner, swam, hiked, bird watched, and picnicked, sometimes at the end of a row running the length of Indian Arm.
“Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees.“
Richard Walton recounts Al Birney’s arrival at the bulldozed remains of the Lowrys’ home, and standing in the mud and the rain, surrounded by Malcolm’s unpublished and soaked work:
“The bright crazy little shack is gone; all the sloppy ramshackle honest pile houses where fishermen lived and kingfishers visited are bulldozed into limbo, along with the wild cherries and ‘the forest path to the spring’. Now there is an empty beach and beside it a park with picnic tables and tarmac access; the sea air stinks with car exhaust. And the city that ignored him plans to cement a bronze plaque in his memory to the brick wall of the new civic craphouse.”
The park was named for a family of tugboat operators.
By the late 1960s a community of hippies, artists and other free spirits arose just west of Cates Park at Maplewood Flats.
“This was authentic uncommodifiable human habitation, the polar opposite of the condo …. Squatting became a utopian model for the self-determined ‘village,’ self-sustaining communities in a city whose neighbourhoods were being razed for condo high-rises. The intertidal location was ruled by diurnal rhythms and lunar cycles, so available for parables of the rightness of living in harmony with nature.”*
A little strip of mud and grasses between the water and mountains, road and oil refinery, and a setting for the exploits of the “transdimensional” visitor in Byron Black’s all-but-unknown celluloid mind fuck The Holy Assassin, the mudflats were popularly known as Shangri-la.
Among the resident artists were Tom Burrows, Al Neil and Neil’s partner Carol Itter, all of whom practiced assemblage, abstract sculptures of organic and inorganic objects found in the intertidal zone -unfixed, ever changing and evolving. “[Their] assemblages on the mudflats at Dollarton were evidence of a concern to get art out of a gallery setting that had become a clean white shrine to modernism, and into the real environment.”**
In December 1971 state-sanctioned arson was employed by the District of North Vancouver to address an apparent challenge to “public health standards” (read: private development). The squats, including Tom Burrows’ home, were torched. Shangri-la was razed and Eridanus was destroyed -again.
Gone, except for Al Neil’ and Carol Itter’s cabin. Inexplicably the little blue wood-stove heated shack has survived the intervening 40 odd years in a quiet corner nestled between the eastern edge of Cates Park and a site previously occupied by Noble Towing (Dollarton Shipyard) and McKenzie Barge & Marineways.
Their assemblages have also continued unabated, with one estimated at 45 feet wide, suspended amongst the cedars.
Pianist, composer, visual artist, and author Neil is 90. In 2014 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award.
However, this aesthetic-psychic-interdimensional loophole is about to be closed.
Neil and Itter were issued an eviction notice by Port Metro Vancouver, effective January 31, 2015: that’s today. The shack is scheduled for demolition tomorrow, February 1st. They are to make way for townhouses, condos and apartments at the former shipyard site.
An exhibit of Tom Burrows’ work is currently on display at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, while Al Neil and Carol Itter’s work is currently on view at the SFU Gallery on Burnaby Mountain and the Audain Gallery at SFU Woodwards.
The Audain Gallery is named for art collector and philanthropist Michael Audain. Mr. Audain is also President and CEO of Polygon Homes, the developer behind the project prompting the eviction notice.
Mr. Audain has expressed his willingness to support the relocation of the cabin. Perhaps it could be put on display in a clean white shrine to modernism.
* Scott Watson, “Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos, and Squats.” Ruins in Progress: Vancouver Art in the Sixties
** Scott Watson, “Terminal City: Place, Culture, and the Regional Inflection” in Vancouver: Art & Artists 1931-1983