I’ve long admired the work and ethos of writer Malcolm Johnson (writing above for The Inertia). For a shorter time, from time to time, I’ve also enjoyed his company on trails, along which we’ve run and shared ideas. At the end of each of those too-rare meetups I’ve left inspired, challenged, lifted. So I wanted to meet with him again, to run again, and to ask him for the first time the story of his relationship with the coast. I asked him where, hoping for a place of meaning. He chose East Sooke Park, where we ran, and then as we stood in a shallow bay icing our legs, I listened.
“This is a place that makes me happy and makes me feel at peace - or more at peace - which I think can be a really hard thing to find in life, especially as you get older. I think having those places where people can find that is incredibly valuable and we’re incredibly fortunate to live around places like that here. I think we need to protect those places and I think we need more of them.
But...I guess it is more than that...I don't know…[pausing to scan the Salish Sea from east to west, along the Olympic Peninsula].
Last week there was a huge swell that propagated through the Pacific Ocean. It came from a really really big storm in the Southern Ocean and generated this big, long period swell. There were huge waves in Chile. There were big waves in Peru. Huge waves in Mexico. Big waves in California that came all the way up here. And then a few days ago guys were surfing that swell, that started in the southern hemisphere, on northern Vancouver Island. And my wife and I came and ran here last weekend. We were running along this trail that you don’t normally think about as being alongside open ocean, but from the higher points on the trail you could actually see the lines of that south swell as they moved into the Strait. You could see it.
I feel that this is a really unique spot because it’s a turning point between our inland systems and the oceanic system.
I think I was reading something that someone else you interviewed said - perhaps it was Pam? - something about us being on the edge here. People often think about the coast as an edge, or the end of Canada, or the edge of the world, but I think that that’s a relatively new thing, because in the past it was actually much easier to travel on the ocean than on the land. To me, I don’t see this as where things stop; the oceans is...possibility. It's just a road. It’s an opportunity.
When I'm here by the water I feel connected to other places I love, through the water. I feel like Jordan River is just up the way, Long Beach is just a little past that, the North Island is just a little farther, and then Hawai'i is just over the horizon and California is just a little ways down. It lets my imagination float over the water to these other places that I love too.
Farther up the coast is where my buddy Mark took me surfing when we were teenagers. And because of that simple thing, that action leading to something that I fell in love with, that completely changed my life. It took me a lot of places around the world. So to me the edge of the land wasn’t the end of something, it was the beginning of something new.
I don’t think about this as a special place or a place apart. I consider myself an environmentalist - I work around a lot of causes that are protecting wilder places - but I don't put a moral value on this place being better than another place. I think wilder, less developed places have high value and need to be protected, but picking out specific places and idolizing them or setting them apart, the way we do with parks, can make us neglect the fact that everywhere is connected and there's an imperative to keep everywhere in the world habitable and peaceful. You can't pick one spot, say Hey we saved it, everything's OK now and then proceed to fuck up everything else.
But it is a special place to me because of the history that I have here and the countless times that I've come here either solo or with others and had amazing times in nature. You and I came here this morning and we saw a beaver swimming in the ocean. Then we ran around a corner and two huge bald eagles flushed out of a tree, and we were in amazement for some time and that was beautiful. How often can you say that? “I spent some of my day in amazement.”
So I think about those times that I've had, I think about all the people that I love most in life that I've spent time with here. That's present for me whenever I'm here.
And I think of it as a place of preparation. A place that you come to to find your balance, to gather yourself, to become fitter mentally and spiritually and physically to face everything else that's going to happen in the world.
There have been a lot of changes out here. Last summer I was fishing right out of this harbour with a guy who’s getting on in years. He used to be a Navy diver and has spent a lot of time on the water and under the water here, a lot of time fishing - decades and decades of fishing out here. And he was telling me what the fishing used to be like here. It used to be so much more abundant. You talked on our run about shifting baselines...we come to a place like this and people say, “Oh, it's beautiful,” which it is, but it's been heavily impacted and that's always something that I'm conscious of here too. Because I can't look at the ocean now without thinking about what our impact has been and what it continues to be - especially seeing all the commerce that’s going by, all the ships of coal and tankers. So much of that stuff you look at and wonder, “Is that stuff actually necessary?” This is a place that has always made me happy and I think about what we are doing and wonder whether the stuff that we’re doing is making us happier. And if it’s not, then why are we doing it?
I think all of us know that our relationship with a lot of the other living things in the world is broken, but you can come to a place like this and you feel like it's a little more correct."
To read some of Malcolm’s latest work, a collaboration with photographer Jeremy Koreski produced for Patagonia, check out “In the Land of Misty Giants.”