Le paradis n'est pas artificiel …

April 04, 2004

Daniel of the Woods

This was a hit when I read it tonight at the launch of "Fugue", the UBC creative writing department's non-fiction anthology. I did a Quebecois accent, too. Heh.

It’s hard to find the man. For one, he lives deep in the rainforest of West Vancouver Island, British Columbia; for another he makes almost no noise. As you approach his hermitage, even within a stone’s throw, you’ll hear no human presence. There is only the moist breeze pushing past cedar needles, the distant sound of the sea, and your footsteps as you trace his path.

Around the bend of a certain fir, however, the presence of Daniel becomes undeniable. An enormous green slug --- Dan’s tarpaulin shelter --- stretches twenty feet along a raised cedar platform. Above the iron smell of the forest floor hangs a vapour of cooking bacon, and strong coffee on the boil. There is the exhaling of a wood stove, and the low purr of the coffee.

It’s hard to find the man. For one, he lives deep in the rainforest of West Vancouver Island, British Columbia; for another he makes almost no noise. As you approach his hermitage, even within a stone’s throw, you’ll hear no human presence. There is only the moist breeze pushing past cedar needles, the distant sound of the sea, and your footsteps as you trace his path.

Around the bend of a certain fir, however, the presence of Daniel becomes undeniable. An enormous green slug --- Dan’s tarpaulin shelter --- stretches twenty feet along a raised cedar platform. Above the iron smell of the forest floor hangs a vapour of cooking bacon, and strong coffee on the boil. There is the exhaling of a wood stove, and the low purr of the coffee.

The only sound of Dan himself is a putt-putt as he smokes a cigarette, crouched gargoyle-like on the edge of his platform. He’s a tall man with the build of a greyhound and the same gaze. He has long soft brown hair and beard, which drape him like Spanish moss on the trees. Beside him, the head of the slug is peeled open and hung across a neatly stripped pole, revealing hard evidence of his breakfast on a pot-bellied iron stove. Yes, it’s hard to find the man but once you do he’ll nod, and clear his throat for his first salut in a while.

He’ll fix you coffee, sweet with tinned milk, or a plate of breakfast if you’re up to it: "Pig fat and peas --- this is the food my people live on in Quebec!’’ To have found him, it seems, is enough to be appreciated as good company. Not that he is lonely alone. "Everyone in society lives in a little box. They wake up in a box; they go to work in a box, go to the depanneur after work for some food from a box; then they go home and stare at the box. The people that come here, they are either crazy or artists, but they are interesting.’’ Dan gestures to the forest. "There once were hundreds living here. It was almost self-sustaining: there was a garden out that way; some people worked for money, and brought supplies to trade for things made here; everyone collected building materials and put them out there...’’

Dan won’t reminisce long over the commune, which disintegrated a decade ago due to efforts by a nearby tourist town to have it shut down . He seems more content now that it’s just him, Mike, John, and another Dan, on seventeen acres. Mike owns the land, but his vision is of "a sanctuary for crazies and artists,’’ Dan says again, never indicating which he might be. In his home there is a pantry of tinned peas, bacon and milk; some freshly gathered salal berries on a platter of leaves; there is a warm bed in the back, with clothes on a line and folded dry into plastic; there is a cluster of candles, but there is no book, no paint, no papers or pills or other clues about the nature of Daniel’s particular exile.

"John was a social worker who woke one day, confounded by his power to tear families apart. So he came here. The other Dan is an Inuit sculptor; the tourists pay thousands for his work but he lives on practically nothing. He’s an ascetic who never expected to be famous.’’ The Dans meet for occasional moonshine lamentations over society and women. "Dan didn’t see a white man until he was ten years old, and that man took him away to residential school.’’ Daniel’s wistfulness hints that he’d rather have been a captive like his friend than a captive member of his culture, but he’s sorry they share a name. "They call him ‘Inuit Dan’ to differentiate; they call me ‘Chicken Leg Dan’. The reason is that in winter I wear a big coat and stretch-pants. My legs look skinny, so they joke, ‘Daniel, chicken of the woods’... Actually, I hate the name, but it follows me around.’’

Dan doesn’t like to be followed. He is private about the past, especially about his lover: her scarf hangs from a branch in the drizzle, and is weathered mauve beneath silver embroidery and pine needles. Sometimes Dan’s eyes warm and he says, as if to himself, "Elle est partie, la bohemienne... It became too much. I said she must go, et elle s’est laissee faire,’’ before he returns to his more common meditation on the rain. Dan would be out of place anywhere restrictive --- he ekes out life on cannery shifts, randomly, when he needs supplies --- and is more akin, he says, "to the wolf and cougar’’ than to other people. If he is compared to people, you might choose the coureurs de bois: adventurers who went west to survive off skins and sleep under canoes. It is easy to imagine Dan as the last of such men, the one who journeyed to the edge of the New World, to rest by the sea with no further ambition.


Posted by delire at April 4, 2004 11:59 PM
Comments

origin of the box idea? I have read different versions of the story about how people live in little boxes. Is this original from here or did you get it from yet another source?

Posted by: Andrew Kornylak at September 20, 2004 03:00 PM

This piece is non-fiction, a biography of the real Daniel, with whom I have been acquainted for six years (though I'm rarely in his neck of the woods, and he never leaves his).

Knowing Dan, he probably came up with the idea of people living in boxes on his own; it seemed that way in conversation, and as far as I know he isn't much of a reader.

To hear him speak about the people trapped in their little boxes is to get a chill down the spine.

Posted by: Maureen at September 21, 2004 07:41 PM
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