Sea to Seed: Music and Permaculture in Canada’s Gulf Islands June 4, 2015
In what is now named the Salish Sea there are a string of islands that house a unique enclave of sustainability and endurance. On Canada’s Gulf Islands you will find artists and farmers, writers and former war-resistors – plus many other manners of life – all sharing space and time. People build their own homes and heat them with wood stoves. Hitchhiking is one of the primary modes of transport; community meals happen on the regular and residents often barter and trade items instead of buying. Scant internet and mobile phone reception means there is little interruption from the outside world.
To an outsider, it might sound like paradise. With names like Saturna, Thetis and Gabriola, these modest landmasses are rife with utopic potential. But the isolated nature of these islands brings its own set of challenges, especially if you are a farmer. Farm equipment, feed and livestock have to be shipped to and from the island. For an individual to travel between islands and the mainland can involve up to 3 ferry rides on a single journey.
These conditions bring a sort of banding together, in a place where the localisation of food systems can help drive down the cost of living. And, perhaps surprisingly, there are a fair number of younger generation farmers tilling the soil. Many of them participate in the local music scenes and music festivals along Canada’s west coast, itself a vibrant culture.
It is on this music festival circuit that permaculture advocate Syd Woodward became inspired to create a new movement. Woodward grew up on a farm and his long standing passion for sustainable agriculture and conscious farming practices led him to build a multimedia collective that would, through storytelling, work to challenge current social narratives. Aptly named Overgrow The System, it has met with praise worldwide. But not content to stop there, Woodward decided to innovate a more personal approach to the challenge with his Sea to Seed project.
Billed as a tour of farming, music and regenerative culture, Sea to Seed sees the 51-foot Andromeda boarded by 10 artists, musicians and storytellers, and sailed from island to island in the Salish Sea over the course of one month. On the boat, they pitch in to make food, create and share ideas, and help things run smoothly. The group is given lessons in basic seamanship at the beginning of the journey.
When the weather conditions are seasonably warm and favourable, trips between islands can take as little as 3 – 5 hours. Yet on each island, these impassioned rabble-rousers spend 2-5 days visiting with local farms, donating their time to work on the land and learning first-hand about sustainable agriculture. Their mission is to collect stories, strengthen ties and, together with the farmers, create another sense of the word ‘community’. There are potluck meals on the grass, communal dinners and intimate nighttime campfire sessions at which musicians from the tour play alongside local troubadours. All acts are conceived and orchestrated with an intentionally mindful attitude.
Tall and handsome, with a punk aesthetic, 28-year old Woodward resonates deeply with the earth. He stresses his intention of “seeing and being present for the natural rhythms of the world.” He emanates confidence and, more than that, tenacity. He wants to do things, make things, see things. Describing himself as a “left-leaning hippie-type”, Woodward says that one of the goals of the initiative is to “become conscious of the stories we are being fed and how to collectively transform them into the stories we want to be living”. And Woodward seems to know well how to bring people together. He has a strong sense of commitment to his community – a community in which he is helping to foster a renewed sense of belonging. He constantly asks himself “how do we work together as well as within the land? The issue with the whole agriculture paradigm is that the larger community aspect gets passed by. I wanted to find a way that the world of music and art can serve the people who are making local food a reality”.
Permaculture, where farmers consciously design ecosystems that mimic patterns and relationships found in nature, is itself a burgeoning movement in Canada. The idea of social permaculture builds on that premise by designing the community to reflect the sustainable, regenerative practices of its agriculture. It is a way to build an inclusive farming community that empowers its own citizens.
In this light, Sea to Seed is a revelation to many. The images of the tour are sun-kissed with a nostalgic feel, hearkening back to a time where community was about communication and farmers held high importance in the system. Now, in Canada and across many other countries, giant agricultural companies dominate the market. Their pesticides leak into surrounding farmland and water, contaminating small crops and slowly pushing local farmers to the brink. Meanwhile, the federal government’s laws, taxes and subsidies are shifting away from protecting the small-scale farmer while industrial farmers wear gas masks and biohazard suits as they irrigate the food that we eat. Where food production is concerned, the gap between right and wrong grows dangerously large.
In the Salish Sea, the situation is no less dire. Faced with a massively declining fish population, fracking and the prospective drilling of big oil pipelines through the land, this area is inundated with conflict. Aptly, the theme for this year’s Sea to Seed tour is ‘Resilience’.
Sea to Seed bolsters community spirit and engenders the kind of equanimity that is necessary to fight governmental anti-environment initiatives and big oil companies who are railroading local communities for their own monetary gains. Syd is passionate when he speaks about ‘showing an alternative way of being that doesn’t rely on using these resources that are destroying our world.”
Magdalene Joly, a farmer and chef on Denman Island was attracted to the event because it connected her to a larger group of artists and food activists that shared her basic values. “So much time and work and energy goes into growing food and sometimes as a farmer the food sort of disappears and you don’t really know where it’s going. This was a really good way of honouring our work and the food.” On Denman, the farm-to-table communal meal was prepared so that every dish had a story to go along with it – one that was shared by all.
All images courtesy of Syd Woodward