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Becoming Wild: Living the Primitive Life on a West Coast Island

By Nikki van Schyndel

Heart & Soil: The Revolutionary Good of Gardens

By Des Kennedy

Review By Lauren Harding

November 7, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 182-84

At first glance, Becoming Wild and Heart & Soil appear to be accounts of very different ways of relating to the natural world. Nikki van Schyndel describes her year living in the “wilderness” and Des Kennedy writes of the very civilized pursuit of gardening. However, the Edenic longings of both van Schyndel and Kennedy possess noteworthy parallels. Both authors describe their attempts at creating a nature-based earthly paradise in coastal British Columbia. Furthermore, both accounts reflect tropes of settler-colonial discourse and the finding of the “good life” through communion with (and sometimes control of) their environment.

Heart & Soil collects various newspaper columns and other writing on gardening authored by Kennedy over several decades. Kennedy begins by introducing what he calls the paradox of gardening, that what “may seem from a distance the mildest and most innocuous of activities, can be at heart a revolutionary act,” in that it creates “inspired environments and opportunities for enlightenment” (13). Eloquently written, Kennedy ponders a wide variety of topics pertaining to gardening to “collectively reflect upon gardening as an active engagement of the human spirit with the natural world” (15). He uses humorous anecdotes throughout, often featuring the character of the curmudgeonly gardener railing against the weeds, animals, and other forces of chaos that plague and foil his efforts to manage nature according to his vision. However, there is another paradox to gardening that Kennedy fails to notice: an activity that brings people so close, on multiple levels, to natural processes is also often steeped in historical associations with the colonial project of bringing order and civilization to a chaotic nature. Kennedy’s own origin story of gardening as “homesteading” on Denman Island, the traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation, and his account of turning the wasteland of logging slash into a bountiful garden, has obvious Lockean implications. Kennedy, although perhaps not aware of the colonial implications of his attempts at “taming” nature, is very aware of his limits of control over his own piece of paradise and his genuine affection for the natural forces that sometimes trouble his attempts at order; indeed, he anthropomorphizes them as “outlaws” and “rebels.” His tales are not simply of taming a landscape, but of creating a complex relationship with an environment by also accepting “nature as mentor” (203). Kennedy’s gardener is an environmentalist at heart, someone who seeks both to preserve and protect nature, and who seeks enlightenment through communion with nature. He maintains “that gardeners — because we each love a little piece of earth so dearly — are perfectly positioned to champion better treatment of the earth in general” (199).

In 2005, Nikki van Schyndel, her companion Micah, and her cat Scout set out for the Broughton Archipelago with the goal of living a “primitive” lifestyle for at least a year. van Schyndel discusses her fascination with survivalism and how this expedition was meant both as a test for her skills at self-sufficient living and as a means for her to build connections with the natural world. Upon landing on an island they had never visited before, van Schyndel and her companion fish, forage, hunt, and shelter primarily using tools they have built themselves from materials found in their local environment.

van Schyndel continuously uses the terms “primitive” and “wild” as descriptors of her experience throughout her account, with the former denoting a use of pre-industrial technology and the latter a pristine non-human environment. Her experiences with so-called primitive tools, often haphazardly derived from multiple First Nations cultures and far more complex both to make and use than they would initially appear, as well as the clear signs of human presence in the region, both past and present, contradict the terms she stubbornly clings to throughout. The semantics are important: her continuous use of these descriptors highlights her nostalgic longing for a pre-modern paradise, and her narrative draws from a literary culture of survivalist romanticism, which in turn is the contemporary offspring of colonial explorer narratives. Also inherited from wilderness/survivalist/explorer discourse is van Schyndel’s idolization/idealization of rugged individualism. Although she ventures into the “wild” with a human companion, she clings throughout to the idea that she could have “done it on her own.” This is despite the fact that, even in a twosome, their adventure was very reliant on the knowledge and support of their fellow humans, from a Kwakwaka’wakw man who guided them to the region to summer tourists with whom they traded their woven baskets. Furthermore, despite her female gender, van Schyndel’s idolized image of a rugged individual surviving in the wild is a masculine one. Her supposedly feminine inclinations like painting her toenails and taking long baths are representative of the materialism and corruption of modern, urban, society, and she sees the “girly” part of herself as something that contradicts her survivalist self and must be expunged in order for her to transform into the wilderness-dweller she wishes to become.

van Schyndel’s account is captivating, and her representation of the Broughton Peninsula as a wilderness paradise is seductive, as is her genuine love for the place. However, for scholars interested in contemporary British Columbia outdoor culture, it presents in astonishingly sharp relief the power held by the symbolism of Edenic nature in settler-Canadian culture. So powerful, in fact, that this insightful, intelligent, and capable young woman, despite her contradictory experiences, continuously interprets her survival in the romantic terms of the rugged individual. This does little justice to the people on whose support she drew, the thousands of years of the coast’s inhabitation, the colonial process which made her “wilderness” possible, and the vast accumulation of indigenous knowledge and practice represented by the tools she made “from looking at books and museums” (203).

Becoming Wild: Living the Primitive Life on a West Coast Island
Nikki van Schyndel
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2014. 224 pp. $24.95 paper

Heart & Soil: The Revolutionary Good of Gardens
Des Kennedy
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 224 pp. $24.95 paper