“Welcome all you who long to explore, to be reconnected to the wild. I welcome you into my home. Pull on your gumboots, your hiking boots. Go barefoot if you dare, and paddle my waters, wander my rocky paths, climb my precipitous peaks. You won’t need wifi here. I offer you a deeper connection.”
There is an important Skwxwu7mesh story about an ancient potlatch on Gambier Island in which Mink and Skunk give a feast and invite Whale to come. Whale swims fast and jams his head in the longhouse door, trapping all the animals in the feast and forcing them to talk to one another.
Howe Sound is like that longhouse, a container full of the richness of life, story and deliberation. A place where we live and work and play, where we come to heal and renew ourselves, where the long lines of stories play out and braid together against a backdrop of mountain ramparts, ocean and islands. Pauline Le Bel has drawn inspiration from the Whale in the Door story as told by Squamish Nation councillor Chris Lewis as her jumping off point for her evocative new book about Howe Sound.
Whale in the Door: A Community Unites to Protect BC’s Howe Sound is a tour through the current state of the fjord where we make our home. Part documentary, part journal, part myth, Howe Sound herself is a central character in the book, constantly singing in Pauline’s ear hints and clues for her own journey of learning about this place, in this time. Along the way, she catches fragments of story and song from those that make their place here, from port managers to citizen scientists, from activists and leaders to the creatures themselves that live in the sea and forests of our inlet.
The book begins with a call to attention and a tour through the “Genius of Atl’kitsem/Howe Sound,” a mind opening summation of the unique landscape and ecology of the place. From the ancient glass sponge reefs in the inky depths of the inlet, to the eternal rhythm of the salmon runs of the rivers, Pauline surveys the flora, fauna, forests, rocks, and water that are the container for our lives.
From there the book charts the rhythm of betrayal and renewal that have brought Howe Sound to some important turning points. The natural environment is recovering from more than a century of industrialization. The nature of the local economy is changing. The culture, rights and title of the Squamish Nation, nurtured for so long despite almost two centuries of brutal suppression, are finally playing a significant role in the future of the Sound. For residents of this place, these changes are about who we are and what our future will hold. In Pauline’s view, the future is about renewal and revitalization; renewal of beauty, ecological integrity, cultural resurgence and sustainability.
Pauline has spent years talking to the people that are shaping that future and she lays out their insights throughout Whale in the Door. What emerges is a picture of how we got to this point in our history and what our options are for the future. For us residents, Whale in the Door is a guidebook and a road map to the changes upon us and it contains a hopeful aspiration that we can live in balance with the land, with each other and with competing visions of what should happen.
While the book wrestles with the tough questions, it also pauses for moments of breathtaking beauty. I can’t stop reading over Pauline’s reflections on being in the forest, on the eelgrass beds, or above the mountains in the air. As an artist and a musician Pauline’s inclination is to listen for the voice and the song of Howe Sound, and that voice makes frequent appearances, guiding her own learning, underscoring important points, and whispering encouragement.
“We are not so much born into a place, but born into the stories of a place,” Pauline writes. The stories of Howe Sound hold us, whether our ancestors were touched by the transformer figures that shaped the inlet in mythical time, or whether we arrived here as settlers struggling to know our place. Pauline’s journey is an invitation to all who find themselves embraced by this inlet to listen more deeply for the story that is emerging, to be affected by it and to surrender oneself to it in the service of the life and beauty and power that surrounds us.