Living on an island in the Salish Sea

Some of you may have already found her blog on one of your many forays through the net: Milla Prince also known as “The girl who married a bear”. Milla tells us of her search for a home and the many unexpected little events that have ultimately led to her nest on an island in the Salish Sea. Thank you, Milla, for sharing this story with us.

Living on an island is a curious mix of safe and a little untethered. A body of water cuts you off from the rest of the world, but also insulates you from its troubles. An island is its own universe, self-contained, yet intimately connected to everything around it through the same sea which isolates it. If you have an ocean-going vessel, these waterways become your paths, connecting the headlands reaching for each other, one island to the next.

For the past five years I’ve made my home on a small island in the Salish Sea on the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States, somewhere between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, a few miles South of the Canadian border.

When I first came here, fourteen years ago this spring, I was, for the lack of a better word, a nomad. Not in the following the reindeer across frozen lakes sense, the true ethnographic meaning of the word, not braking up my yurts and tents at dawn, not tracking my route in the desert sand from one fresh water spring to the next, but someone without a fixed place of home, or origin. For most of my life, I’ve been en route, on the road between somewhere and somewhere else.

I ended up here, in this part of the world, on this island, by a series of coincidences, random occurrences that seemed unrelated at the time, but in hindsight look a little like fate. Almost from the moment the shapes of the shore, the ferry dock pilings emerged from the fog, I knew two things: that somehow, inexplicably this was home and that regardless of any obstacles; I would someday make my life here.

I often think about that when we’re on the water, looking back at our shore fondly. How I followed the invisible thread of my intuition, and how it pointed here, like the needle of a compass drawn by the equally invisible magnetism of the North.

Whenever we paddle our kayaks past a rocky point, I look for cormorants, nesting, returning each night to sleep on a cliff side that seems like a sheer drop to us land mammals. They are entirely at home, slender-necked shadows resting against a rock fifty feet above the water, on a ledge seemingly too small for a foothold, much less a perch, or a place to raise their young. How effortless, and at the same time, precarious it is. It’s not that different for people out here either. A limited amount of space, of things to do, for fun, or money, forces you to use your wits, your instincts and your imagination. Most people we know work part-time, some live in yurts and single-room-cabins, make do without electricity, or running water, the creature comforts, grow food instead of buying it, have time and freedom instead of money. We make things up as we go. We wildcraft and jimmy-rig and patch and mend. It can be hard to make a living, or find a place to rent, yet so easy to make a life.

Over the years I’ve lived in apartments and houses and rooms the size of a closet. On other people’s couches, in tents, in basements and on a rooftop, and once, for about a week, on a park bench out of a backpack. The house I live in now, is the largest and most beautiful dwelling I have ever had, the kind of home I used to dream of: with high ceilings, a wood-fired cook-stove, many windows, and a bedroom up high with a view of the trees and the morning sun. And yet, when I think of “home”, it is not what I think of. Instead, my mind goes into the forest, circumnavigates the island, follows paths past the furrows of the fields, over the ridges and down to the beaches, up our single mountain, from the top of which we can see everything. Only afterwards do I think of the map of my house, the kitchen, the woodstove, my bed, my sister’s drawings, family photos, the walls within which everything we own is contained.

A house is not just a house, it’s part of the landscape and it follows that you can’t live just in it, but in the trees that surround it, the madronas and firs, the birds who nest in those trees, on their way North and South, the in the kelp forests on the shore where octopus hide under the water’s surface, the air through which seagulls that hop effortlessly from island to island, the rock on which the foundation is anchored.

I have spent these years here, making my home, in this way, which is different from building, or decorating a house; by slowly learning the history and geography of this place, the shapes of the hills, the directions, the seasons, the names of the animals, plants and people around me; where they nest and live and grow and why and how they do this.

Home, to me, is the people I love, the animals in our care, the land on which we live, the community we’re part of. Home is the ecosystem, the microclimate, even the bioregion in which we live. Even when we’re inside our houses, we track it with us on the soles of muddy boots, it moves our windows and blows in on stormy nights, we drink it in the water from the ground and it makes its home in with a million tiny microbes, we eat it in the nettles we’ve collected, in last summer’s blackberry preserves, we send it smoke-signals trough our chimney, at night it responds with starlight Morse code. Sometimes, coming home from work at night, I stand outside our lit-up windows, peering in. The deer come out to the yard, light shapes moving in the dark, minding their own business. Somewhere in the woods an owl calls. I stay there like this for a long time, without going in, listening to the night, already home.

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