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Brookline, Massachusetts

Denman Island Lessons

Dennis Fox

June 16 , 2005


Denman Island Graffiti Wall

After visiting Kagoshima, Japan, last year, I wrote about Brookline's less ambitious recycling efforts, bicycle accommodations, and other practices. A week last month on Denman Island, a Manhattan-sized island with 1200 residents a short ferry ride from British Columbia's Vancouver Island, again has me comparing apples and oranges. Much can't be moved here -- views of snow-topped Canadian mountains, great weather, uncrowded roads -- but some Denman ways would benefit Brookline, if only we could figure out how to adapt them to our larger urban space.

Confirmed urbanites would feel out of sorts on the island, but plenty of Brookliners would enjoy visiting despite the lack of full-service tourist facilities. My friends took me wandering up hillsides, meandering along rocky beach, strolling through woods. Waking up in the morning to find three deer grazing beside the house was just one reminder I wasn't home anymore.

One of the benefits of island life is the easier creation of community bonds. Many Denman residents moved there partly because the counterculture-tinged society retains norms frequently outdated in places like Brookline. Both public and private pot-luck dinners are common, for example, more than making up for the absence of restaurants. People know one another. They can rely on one another. That's especially important after the last ferry pulls out at night.

Residents often support themselves by selling goods they grow or create. Locally produced or processed food products -- pies and jellies, organic chocolate, island-roasted coffee -- and a wide variety of crafts and art keep just enough money flowing in to maintain folks comfortably enough in this less consumerist society. A community kitchen lets residents who need commercial-grade equipment produce food items for sale. The Free Store lets residents drop off clothing, kitchen gadgets, electronic equipment and whatever else isn't needed for anyone else who can use them. The overall tone facilitates helping one another get by rather than looking out only for oneself and one's own.

Community self-sufficiency extends in other directions as well. No police officers are stationed on the island. When some pass through -- driving from the ferry toward a second ferry linking Denman to the larger tourist population on nearby Hornby Island -- they sometimes issue traffic tickets. But informal community intervention helps resolve most conflicts that otherwise would lead to court, making the intermittent police presence more intrusive than helpful. That's true even in towns on nearby Vancouver Island; one day in Courtney I was allowed to observe a community justice session designed to prevent a minor shoplifting incident from escalating to judicial involvement. Brookline could use something like that.

Not surprisingly, many Denman residents are politically aware and motivated. That resembles Brookline, but on Denman the many currents -- counterculture, pagan, anarchist, feminist, vegetarian, marijuana-using -- are more varied, accepted, and obvious than we're used to here. Ad hoc groups confront intermittent threats to island life, including proposals ranging from increased tourism to increased clear-cut lumbering. On the Graffiti Wall alongside the main road just past the island's few stores, residents paint everything from political commentary to notices of community gatherings to anniversary greetings; a free-flowing Graffiti Wall at Brookline's Town Hall would be a lot more creative and friendly than the regulated notice boards now dotting the town.

A Free Radio station lets residents create and broadcast their own widely varying but regularly scheduled shows. "Shtick with Us," put on by two of Denman's Jewish residents (one originally from Sharon, Mass.), is a hokey compendium of Yiddish slang and Jackie Mason tapes so politically incorrect Brookline would probably force it off the air. The host of another show, No Borders, interviewed me about my trip last winter to Israel and the West Bank, intermixing our conversation with Israeli and Palestinian music.

Back in Brookline's oppressive heat, the memory of Denman Island's low humidity remains strong. An early morning stroll around non-swimmable Brookline Reservoir is pleasant enough, but the short walk through Denman's woods to the public skinny-dipping lake was a lot more invigorating. Neither the natural lake nor natural swim is possible here in Brookline, but it's good sometimes to be reminded of what we're missing.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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