I’m sitting in an “office” constructed entirely of small logs, discarded bottles, and a sawdust mixture to pack the dome together. The outside has been smoothed and sanded down while the interior is surrounded by edges of the logs. You can’t tell because personal photographs, memorable cartoons, and post-it notes act like colourful wallpaper. An ancient wood stove sits in the middle of the room. The afternoon light streams through the window and the glass bottles that make up the walls. I’m hunched over the paper-littered desk typing away on a laptop. It’s an odd feeling, checking my email in the middle of a forest in the British Columbian interior. But then again, many people would consider the place odd.
It’s called The Sanctuary, a small back-to-basics property I’d heard about from visiting my grandfather a few months ago. He knew my interest in alternative spirituality and living, and so he put me in touch with Sean, his longtime friend and creator of the property. After we traded a few initial emails, Sean suggested if I really wanted to understand the place and the philosophy behind it, I’d have to come visit for myself. Not long after, I packed my bags, loaded up the car, and drove the distance in just over 8 hours.
Twice I got lost. The third time I found the turn-off and slowly inched my way through the trees on either side of the dirt road. I crossed over a cattle-guard and passed between a barbed wire fence. In my head I had visions of stumbling upon a shack of shotgun toting locals, eager to give the “city boy” a hard time. Instead I eventually noticed some domed buildings emerging from the forest, and I pulled up to a sign pointing down a footpath to The Sanctuary. Looked like I’d have to walk from there.
I stepped out of the car and I was immediately struck by the silence. No honking horns, no barking dogs, no cacophony that characterizes city living. It was as if I was the only living being in the entire forest – until my ears attuned themselves to the chirping of crickets, the wind in the branches overhead, and the indignant rustling of squirrels. “We came in 1985 and just fell in love with the valley,” said Sean in an interview back in 1999. “We set up our Tee Pee on the banks of the [river] here and would go out looking for land in a 50 mile radius. Every time we came back to the Tee Pee it was the most peaceful and beautiful spot. Then after going out for a week or so and not finding anything better than what we were feeling around the Tee Pee, Esther [my partner] went across the river and talked to the owner and asked about selling us the piece of land, and he did.”
As I trotted up the dirt path and entered The Sanctuary I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, I’d only spoken with Sean over email and once on the phone. Yet as I stepped onto the sawdust covered paths of the property and gazed at the Hobbit-like houses hunched alongside, I felt at ease. Row upon row of sunflowers layered the gardens, while knick-knacks of all sorts hung from the roofs of the open-walled structures or sat on the edges of the path. It wasn’t long before I came upon two people, a man and a woman, chatting around a picnic table.
“Hello!” I said, noticing a touch of bewilderment in their faces. I quickly explained my presence and they welcomed me warmly. The man was named Peter, their Eastern-European neighbour who lives on the 25 acre property but not directly within The Sanctuary. He occupies a cabin left behind by the previous neighbour who had passed away some years ago, and comes over frequently to visit. Esther, Sean’s partner, pointed to the underground theatre where I would find Sean asleep before his television, a documentary on the coming oil crisis still playing on the screen.
Sean woke up with the sound of my footsteps. I learned the documentary was one of many left behind by an attendee to the just finished Gathering of Awed Birds of a Feather — a summer celebration described as interactive, spontaneous and participatory. “It was fantastic,” said Sean, ticking off the types of presentations on his fingers: dialogues on healing, homegrown music, biofeedback technology, shamans and holy persons from all over the world. It had been a celebration of community and communication, where none were barred from sharing what they had to offer. And I missed it.
Instead Sean promised to take me on tour of the Gathering’s aftermath in the morning, since the evening light was already fading fast. He showed me into the Library where I would be sleeping for the night, a large circular hut that hosted shelves of books he’d collected over the years. The walls were constructed of stacked firewood, which keeps the wind out and the wood dry. Much of the rooms furnishings were salvaged from the local dump, including the simple toilet that consisted of a metal frame, toilet seat, and an industrial bucket underneath. Sean pointed to an adjacent bucket filled with sawdust. “After you use it, just sprinkle a layer of sawdust on top. When the bucket’s just about full we take it to the compost pile and dump it in with the rest.” I asked him how long the waste takes to break down. “It takes a while,” he answered. “But we’ve been using this system for 20 years so there’s plenty to use in the gardens.”
He bid me goodnight and I browsed through the book collection until it became too dark to see. In the morning he offered me the use of his laptop to check my email, which is how I’m able to remain “connected” while sitting in a log and sawdust office in the middle of the forest. I finish with the laptop just as Sean pokes his head through the entrance curtain and asks if I’d like the tour. “Absolutely,” I say.
Sean leads me through the garden paths, briefly explaining each building: the library (where I slept), the kitchen, the sauna, the tool shed, the bedroom, the Grand Kiva (meeting dome), and the underground theatre, which features a television, DVD player, and some very comfortable couches rescued from the dump. The electronics are all powered by a large solar panel erected in the garden, which can be easily angled depending on the position of the sun. I ask Sean what happens when it’s not sunny, and he assures me the batteries store enough juice even on a cloudy day.
We continue wandering outside the main gates and into the ‘medicine wheel’ – a collection of rocks arranged to form an 8 spoked circle, each spoke symbolizing a virtue like ‘compassion,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘trust.’ Nestled among the trees sits a large teepee, constructed during the most recent Gathering. Various painted animals decorate the outside, along with overlapping hand prints of the visitors to the site, their individual outlines painted with crimson. We continue to make our way through the trees. Here and there are telltale signs of human activity – flattened grass, footprints in the dirt, blackened fire pits.
Sean and I chat as we walk. I ask innumerable questions, and he answers patiently, genuinely attending to my curiosity. He explains his lifestyle. “You move with the seasons, you are never doing the same one thing all the time. I could be digging in the beds or chopping wood or building another structure. You start to act according to your direct and immediate needs. If you are cold you cut wood and build a fire, when it’s spring you plant seeds and when fall comes you harvest so there is a very natural rhythm to it and no one needs to wait for a job to do,” he says. “We need so little to live really. A small shelter, good food, fuel, with the ability to exercise our creative gifts in a community. What else is there?”
Eventually we find ourselves approaching ‘Shangri-La’, home of their neighbour Peter (who I had met briefly on the first day). Sean calls out our arrival and he meets us at the entrance, smiling broadly. He invites us into his domain, though Sean stays only momentarily before leaving us on our own. I gladly accept when Peter offers to show me around.
Without any previous building experience, Peter had developed the modest house left behind by its past owner, integrating various techniques to keep it as self-sufficient as possible. The sun heats his water, unique ventilation keeps it cool, the toilet composts all human waste, and a special rock alcove for the stove retains as much heat as possible in the winter months. A large tent next to the house provides a shaded area for meditating and craft work, and a second Hobbit-looking hut I learn is a sauna. “Sometimes lots of naked people in there,” Peter says with a wry smile, then points to a green plastic pool beside the garden. “And after we jump in there to cool off.”
We spend the afternoon discussing everything from the origins of man, to the nature of awareness and the possibility of reincarnation. I’m fascinated by every detail. We talk about how our worldview inside directly relates to how we alter and develop our reality outside. “Anywhere you go in the world, you look at the organization of their structures, and their lives. They see the world in a certain way. Here we see the world in our way.” I ask if that means our reality is entirely dependent on perception. “Not exactly,” he says, mulling the question over. “You need two parts to create reality: consciousness and energy. When you realize that, you can do anything.”
Later on that evening I wandered, alone, into the Grand Kiva dome — 44 feet in diameter, 12 sided, constructed with determined effort and $700 of material costs. The circular floor is covered in sawdust. Around the outside are three rows of seating, forged of stone and cement, each row progressively higher, meeting with the cross-hatched log ceiling. A hidden hose produces a tiny waterfall that ends in a clear pool, various trinkets crowding around its edge: a handmade Jesus statue, a few Buddhas, some flowers in a jar.
It’s takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. I realize a silent audience of stuffed animals watches me enter the Kiva, collected from all over the world, now left here from the past Gathering. I know if I bother to check their tags, most will say ‘Made in China.’ A reality that seems an eternity away from the peace I see in their small plastic eyes. I pull myself up to the top row of seating and let my gaze settle on the entrance.
Raindrops begin their slow pattering on the roof. I sit and listen, feeling both indestructible and painfully vulnerable at the same time. War, famine, overpopulation, apathy, and the end of oil. This is what I’m told is awaiting us. Yet as I sit in the Kiva, among the animals and the earth, it’s as if I’m peeking through the curtain at the end of our age and the beginning of another. And if this is truly our destiny as a species then the future may not be so bad after all.