Part XVI. Women Working in Nature and the Arts, Caroline Woodward
Caroline Woodward is a writer of fiction, poetry and children’s books, living on the Lennard Island Lightstation at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino, BC. She is qualified as an Assistant Lightkeeper and often works relief at this and other lighthouses. The time she has to herself, when she is not working, has allowed her to complete her novella for children, The Village of Many Hats (Oolichan Books 2012), a Canadian Odyssey novel for adults, Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan Books 2010), and her children’s book, Singing Away the Dark (Simply Read Books; illustrated by Julie Morstad 2010). In September 2015, after seven years of living and working at more than a dozen BC lighthouses, Harbour Publishing released her first book-length non-fiction work, Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper. Read more here. Disturbing the Peace (1990, reprint 1995) and Alaska Highway Two-Step (1993, reprint 2017) were both written with the hulking Site C dam in mind, a mega-project turned down three times before what Caroline describes as the incredibly stupid decision made on Dec.11, 2017 to proceed with this environmental and financial disaster that disregards Treaty 8 signed in 1899.
You can also find Caroline blogging over at Woodward On Words.
Mary: Thanks for joining dragonfly.eco, Caroline! You and I have chatted back and forth for a number of years now, and I’m happy to include you in the “Women Working in Nature and the Arts” series. As a fellow resident of British Columbia, I like to follow your wild aspirations, writings, and interesting life. There you say:
I began this life in a northern wilderness, with no electricity or phone or television for my first twelve years, and although I’ve certainly enjoyed many busy, sociable careers, I am very happy at this stage of my life to be writing nearly full-time, on the wild West Coast. I am surrounded by books and wild ocean beauty and I have excellent company. I count my blessings daily.
This seems like a dream. Where were you born, and how did your upbringing mold your life today?
Caroline: I was born in Fort St. John, BC, which is located at Mile 46, or close to it, of the Alaska Highway north of the Peace River. My parents were European (Welsh and Dutch) homesteaders twenty-five miles northeast of Fort St. John in a settler farming community of 300, then as now, called Cecil Lake. Those childhood years without modern conveniences meant that I grew up like a child of the twenties or thirties, and when I tell school children we didn’t have a car until I was in Grade 2 and that we rode horses everywhere, I’m often asked, “How old are you?!” I do think that for a future writer, it was a wonderful childhood and all the chores and responsibilities of hauling and sawing wood, our sole source of heat, and helping hoe and water a very large garden, bringing cattle home on horseback, hauling snow in to melt for water has helped me be a more self-reliant and thrifty lighthouse keeper. And all these very rural experiences mean I can write from authentic experience and spare some research time when it comes to things like chickens, barns burning down, and rural nurses, not to mention the joys of outhouses at -40 F!
Mary: You have written a number of children’s books and a memoir about your time living in a lighthouse, Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper, published by Harbour Publishing. Let’s talk about your children’s books first, as they were inspired by your earlier experiences, such as volunteering for Canadian Crossroads in Sri Lanka and watching rice paper being made. What amazing experiences. How did such events inspire your earlier books?
Caroline: My first children’s picture book was Singing Away the Dark, which was inspired by my school bus driver reminding me when I was middle-aged (we were all at a family funeral back in the Peace region) how our neighbours used to get a kick out of hearing me singing my lungs out as I walked to school in the early mornings across their property to the school bus stop a mile from our house. There was an easement for the road, which followed a horse trail across both properties. It wasn’t a government surveyed straight line sort of a road at all. He married our neighbour’s eldest daughter, in fact. I had forgotten about doing that, and when I started thinking about how afraid I was of the dark muskeg stretch of road and the bull loose in their yard from time to time and all the sounds I heard as my little feet crunched through the snow, and then how I coped by singing to drown out real or vividly imagined noises and deputizing trees to be my “army” and celebrating every “safe” spot I reached en route, well, it was my autobiography as a six year old.
A Blue Fable was my first 12-page chapbook, which I self-published in Nepal, but it’s a rather dark fable about grown-ups who are disillusioned by society, very much a 20-something socio-political literary stance on my part. Every once in a while I reread it and am surprised by my own youthful poetic flashes of insight. But, like most self-published work, I also wince at certain cringe-worthy lines that could have used a no-nonsense editor, argghh! But what can you do when in Kathmandu with a three draft wonder for a manuscript, a willing printing press operator, and lovely sheets of rice paper? Youth triumphs over adversity.
My next children’s book was The Village of Many Hats, a chapter book for 8-11 year olds inspired by village life in New Denver, BC, where my husband and I founded and ran The Motherlode Bookstore for seven years. Whenever I read from a new book and am on tour, happily back in New Denver, I donate the proceeds of raffles and donations at the door to the small volunteer-run library there, which has been going since the 1940’s. Sensibly, I ask the women who run the New Denver Reading Centre if they would also run the refreshments table at my book events as well so they can sell their wonderful baking. For this book, I asked my friend Gary, the mayor at the time, to auction off five character roles for which I would use the actual names of the winning bidders in The Village of Many Hats. The bidding was especially ferocious for the evil character who wanted to tear down the heritage Bosun Hall, the very hall we were all gathered in built in 1906, to build a plastic fireplace log factory, boo, hiss! Bless them all, we raised over nine hundred dollars for the Reading Centre that evening. This book was my heartfelt tribute to the many kind and community-minded villagers who keep an eye out for the children, the elders and families coping with sick children, especially in Silverton and New Denver, BC.
Mary: I know it’s a small world, but New Denver is one of my favorite places in the world. And my husband’s uncle is the city’s current CAO/CFO. I never knew you had ties there. We plan to go up Goat Mountain there in August–can’t wait to go back! But let’s get back to you. You did a solo bike ride across Greece, which resulted in your first magazine article. You also hiked in Nepal. I’m interested in how being outside in nature inspired your art–your writing, singing, theater, and other work.
Caroline: I think it all goes back to those very early years of walking and riding on our farm at the end of a gravel road in the Peace River, with hundreds of acres along the Beatton River, three miles upstream from where it flows into the Peace. I just love big skies and boreal forest trees and sweeping viewscapes and the smells of wild sage and fermenting rose-hips and so many things, large and small, that I’ve yearned for the mind-cleansing, soul-uplifting experience of wilderness ever since. And after being in isolation, or relative isolation, it’s great to be with other people in community life, especially singing in choirs. I really miss singing with other people. The birds are not that impressed with my solo efforts. I need to be working with actors, workshopping, when I’m writing for theatre, but I haven’t done that for years and I so loved that.
I am a long-distance member of the Clayoquot Writers Group, and I chip in with ideas and poems for surfboards and, most recently, collaborative poems to celebrate a year in Tofino. It’s a wonderful group of writers, and it does give me that needed sense of community. My husband is my first reader and a very astute editor, and I have a good writer friend with whom I exchange writing plans and vows of completion at the beginning of every month–and a host of other writers I keep in touch with, thanks to email–so I have a good virtual community of kindred souls. I just “dream better” when I am living in the bush or on the edge of the ocean like I am now. It feeds my writing by expanding my stillness, if that makes sense, and wilderness puts many trivial things into better perspective for me.
Caroline: For me, half-introvert, half-extrovert, nature lover, and solo writer, it’s quite perfect! I do miss my family and friends, especially if there are health or emotional issues afoot for them, and all I can do is write and let them know I care deeply for them no matter what. But I don’t miss all the driving I used to do when I worked in publishing, and I don’t miss endless meetings and committees and working in a chair-shaped state for hours on end at all. As a lightkeeper, I work seven days a week, but we can pace our days and tasks because it is shift work and the weather allows us to do some tasks and not others. For the most part, we get to decide what to do and when to do it.
As the late shift worker, I start at noon with a weather report to radio in at 12:40 pm. I have four weather reports every three hours on my shift with my last report to Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio given at 9:40 pm, while my husband, the early bird, is up at 3 am and does his first weather report at 3:40 am. I loathe the early shift as I’ve been a night owl ever since I was that rural kid in northern BC, and I am forever grateful that Jeff, who is also a writer and photographer, is the early shift worker.
There are other tasks, which are mandatory no matter what, and they include (twice daily) checking the tanks and fuel lines and the amperage, pressure, and temperature of the duty engine, which runs the entire physical plant of our lightstation. There are eleven buildings on Lennard Island, and we maintain them and the grounds and gardens, so that means being vigilant about things like damaged windows or siding torn off by the wind or, worst of all, leaks. We constantly check on the state of roofs and basements. We do not want unchecked floods to damage floors and furnishings due to neglect on our part. We also ensure the helipad is safe and clear of fallen or flying objects so that our helicopters can land safely with supplies, like our once a month grocery order. The harsh marine environment means we are constantly pressure-washing the sidewalks and many steps, the sides of all the buildings, and the hand railings to prevent the slippery build-up of salt and grime. We use a winch engine and a high-line to winch supplies and our boat up and down from boat deck to the ocean below so we need to grease and maintain the line and ensure there is fuel at all times. Safety in an isolated spot is a vital concern, so we wash our radio room, engine room, and workshop floors and clean up grease and oil spills as soon as they occur. If we are socked in with fog or beset with high winds and big seas, nobody is going to be able to medi-vac us by air or sea if we have broken a limb after slipping on some greasy surface, so we are fussy about maintenance.
Oh, there’s just so much, but the exciting stuff, like Jeff spotting a runaway 18,000 pound American buoy this past week at 3:30 am, with high seas and dense fog one mile off our reefs led to an American Coast Guard ship coming up here today to retrieve it. Jeff’s alert led to our Tofino Lifeboat crew going out and locating it and towing it back to secure it in Tofino Harbour until their ship arrived. We spot marine mammals in distress and take appropriate action. We go out with binoculars to our look-out spots, one of us up in our tower, whenever a surfer is reported in trouble or his or her friends have lost sight of them. Once a befuddled father and his tiny shivering five year old child knocked on our door just as darkness was falling and fog was rolling in as well. I was quietly reading and waiting to do my last weather report of the evening. After I got over the surprise of other humans on the island, I was able to get hot chocolate and cookies into the newly blanket-wrapped pair and to rouse Jeff. Between us we summoned the Lifeboat crew to take them back to the big island from which they had rather unwisely set off late that evening without the proper equipment or means of communication (their cell phone was soaking wet) or understanding of where they were (no map or GPS). Thank heavens there was a staffed lightstation and that the little boy spotted our flashing light and alerted his panicked dad to the possibility of people being on this island.
Mary: I really need to come visit your lighthouse. Sounds like an amazing job. Now you are on the west coast of Vancouver Island, a mom, a wife, a writer, and a full-time assistant lightkeeper. And you write regular book reviews for BC Bookworld and a quarterly column for Harrowsmith. Your life really is surrounded by books and wild ocean beauty. Having visited that area numerous times, I know how lost in the moment one can get just stepping out the door. There are endless trails to hike, so many hours to stare at the ocean. It’s no wonder, with all this wild beauty surrounding you, that you live and write about it–I’ve read a few reviews and blog posts you’ve done about environmental fiction, in particular. In your mind, why is eco-fiction so important? And who are your favorite authors in the genre?
Caroline: Eco-fiction is important and will not stop being important because so many readers and writers do love nature and recreating in the wilderness and on the ocean or lakes or rivers, and we will not stop alerting others when destructive practices threaten to ruin these habitats we love, especially when we notice–or scientists, documentary film-makers and other citizens bring to our attention–that birds, bugs, mammals and everybody else is losing out, even dying out. I have been writing a lighthouse life column for the revived Harrowsmith Magazine for the past year, and my editor, Jules Torti, asked me for my observations and thoughts on climate change. At first, I demurred, thinking I had to be more of a trained scientist to comment, but the key word here of course is observation. And then I remembered the Humboldt squid washing up on our rocky island shores far from where it ought to have been, and I recalled looking down from a Coast Guard helicopter as I was heading up the west coast to work relief at another lightstation and seeing the eerie spectacle of large white sunfish, aka mola mola, flopping their way northward when they ought to have stayed off the coast of California.
However, human beings can only handle so much bad news, and some of us heave, let’s be honest, big sighs when our partner chirps, “Oh goody, let’s watch this documentary about the natural disaster in X.” We’ve worked a long day, perhaps, we’re tired, the daily news is grim, and we are not feeling kindly disposed to disaster porn, artfully photographed or not. We long for a narrative, a story that will hook us, engage and elevate us, that will illuminate a course of action perhaps, offer hope or even a way to cope with future extremes of all kinds. It’s why we read fiction and watch movies, to be entertained, true, but also to meld with other human beings, to comprehend and make choices from the safety of our armchairs along with the characters we most identify with. Empathy. Stories are about empathy most of all and skilled writers have us as children, consoling Bambi (I’m dating myself!). We can sublimate our anxieties about political strife, poverty, war, you name it, by sinking into a good story that tackles the villains and solves problems and offers a seamless blend of analysis, history, world-building, and compelling characters–and even shows the way to understanding ambiguities, contradictions, and the ‘greys’ of what may have been a black and white situation in our mind’s eye.
We also need humour, or at least I do, for laughter let’s us soar over the inanities of this life, and the pompous and mean are left far behind. This is a small planet and we, all species, are all connected and more and more of us understand that thanks to reading eco-fiction by authors, to list my favourites, like Barbara Kingsolver, Jim Crace, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and I’m sure looking forward to reading more books by young adult authors, American Marissa Slavens with her amazing debut novel, Code Blue, and Canadian Metis author, Cherie Dimaline, who won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature for The Marrow Thieves. Brilliant eco-fiction!
Mary: Very well said, and thanks for the plug for Code Blue. I had a chance to meet Cherie Dimaline here in Vancouver and will spotlight her soon on the site. She was at a speaker series at Vancouver’s Writer’s Fest, along with Omar El Akkad, whom I’ve also talked with in the past. She’s such an amazing person and spreads this wild enthusiasm and pure happiness to the crowd. I left really energized!
So what are you working on now? Any new novels or memoirs or children’s books?
Caroline: I am working on a new picture book with Salt Spring Island painter, Carol Evans, whose absolutely enchanting paintings of children enjoying life beside the ocean gave me the springboard for a story to accompany these images. It will be coming out in fall 2018 with Harbour, title to be determined. I love collaborating, and have yet to meet Carol, but thanks to the indispensable internet, I was able to collaborate with Carol on this book. I’ve also been writing on and off for at least five years on an eco-fiction novel that is set in 2060 on the north Pacific Ocean. It is now being scrutinized by a very smart editor, and I am cringing, daring to hope, then cringing again, in my writing office, awaiting her verdict! I keep a loose sort of journal about my lighthouse life so I won’t forget these days, won’t take this amazing place for granted, and don’t really know what I’ll do with it all, but it keeps my writing practice going. I have several young fans clamouring for me to do a rewrite of a book about our lighthouse cat as well, and I would hate to disappoint them, so I will apply myself to rewrite #19 of that in 2018 as well. And I write poems, mostly Japanese forms, when nothing else but a poem will do.
Mary: Please keep me updated on your books. Can’t wait to read this novel you have in the works. Anything else you would like to add?
Caroline: Just thank you, again, for supporting my efforts. It’s a lonely job as it is, and it’s just wonderful to have someone else shine a light on all the years of trying to get the best words written in the best way possible…elusive task but absorbing, as you know.
Mary: Thank you for gracing this site with your beautiful life and words.
The featured image is of Caroline on Nootka Island Beach, 2017. Credit: Jeff George. About the photo, Caroline notes: Nootka has some of the best beach walks of any lightstation we’ve worked on, but Cape Scott may be tied with it!