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An excerpt of the memoir of Peter Seixas (American immigrant)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

Category: 
Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2014.685.7

Story Text: 

Alienation
Peter Seixas

This is a short excerpt from Part li of a longer memoir, covering the years from 1970 - 73, when Peter and a small group of friends in their early twenties lived in the bush 15 kilometers beyond Powell River, on a homestead inaccessible by road, with no
electricity or running water.

Our isolation was, no matter how we wanted to imagine it, temporary, contingent, and limited. Despite our goal of food subsistence, we still had considerable non-food needs, and these did not diminish as the farm production increased. And there were pleasures, as well, involved in leaving the Farm. Town represented an emergence from monasticism: showers and laundry, telephones and candy bars. We were never really going to be hermits.

Going into town was always a first layer of re-entry into the civilization that we had left behind. Powell River was, after all, an outpost in the hinterland. But it plunged us into some of the same contradictions that we felt everywhere. An evening in the Rodmay Hotel pub, surrounded by workers leaving the day shift at the mill in the early evening gloom and drizzle was agreat contrast to the Farm, but part of the same terrain. In some ways we emulated the workers, in our beards, steel-toed boots and cheap, Chinese plaid flannel over-shirts. But battling this connection was the profound sense of alienation, an alienation-up and an alienationdown at the same time. Educated kids from an elite college that nobody in Powell River had ever heard of; Americans in Canada; self-styled subsistence farmers in a Safeway-anchored shopping mall. It was hard to get a grip on where we stood, who we really were. Did we know more than the tough-as-nails loggers only a little older than us, or did we know less? Did we have a wider view and understanding of the world or a narrower, more indulged view, a thin, hyper-inflated membrane? Powell River families were much closer to the bush and its hunting and fishing, tended larger, more productive gardens, and did more work on their own houses, than any in our own upbringing: they showed us what we needed to know in order to survive where we had chosen to go.

On the other hand, the televisions in their houses were never turned off. And shopping in Safeway: its fluorescent lights radiating superwhite on uniform rows of plastic packaging, full of food manufactured and marketed in order to erase as thoroughly as possible the traces of its origin and transport: the epitome of alienated space. How could these workers and wives happily wheel their shopping carts up and down the aisles? So this outpost of North American civilization with its Safeway precariously located near the end of Highway 101, became for us the closest symbol for us of all that lay beyond, of all that we had grown up with, of all that was part of ourbones.

Occasionally we ventured beyond Powell River, taking the ferries into Vancouver. Arriving at Horseshoe Bay in the evening, we would drive the Upper Levels Highway curving along the slopes ofWest Vancouver's coastal range. If the night was clear, the lights of Vancouver appeared across English Bay-a small downtown of tall office and apartment buildings flanked bya grid of avenues and streets blanketing the shallow rises of Kitsilano andPoint Grey. This sight triggered the thought: we have made this dramatic shift into the bush and people here are carrying on as if nothing has changed, getting and spending, turning on their electric lights, flushing their toilets, shopping, driving, all the things we were working so hard to do with out.

Going to Powell River, to Vancouver, to New York reinforced the sense that we had, as the Doors sang, broken on through to the other side. We were looking at North American culture from the outside now, and there was no piece of it that fit right, that made sense, that was fair or sustainable or untainted by blindness and gross hypocrisy.

How much of this experience of being "on the other side" was a product of LSD and other hallucinogens remains unclear. But it was supported by the books and journals we read and by the curious attention we garnered from older relatives who had missed the boat to the other side. It was not just that we had lost our way: the culture had lost its way.

How does retrospection, at this point, help to understand what was going on? The problems of consumption and the environment, inequality and war as we understood them at the time have, if anything been exacerbated during recent years of reckless destruction. And yet the radical alienation that was expressed by the construction of life in the Powell Lake woods is something we have all, in one way or another, overcome.