“What is it we are trying to sustain?” – Working towards understanding the ‘Pluriverse’

lime_kiln_lighthouse_by_rj – Picture courtesy of VisitSanJuan.com

Dr. Sara Friend
University of St. Andrews

Nootsack, a place truly set apart from the world I had known. As an island off the northwest coast of America the feelings of remoteness did not necessarily come from this area’s physical distance from central nodes of human activity. At night from North Beach I could see the flickering lights of Vancouver, Canada, with Seattle, Washington, lying about eighty miles to the south as the crow flies. But oceans, borders and the intent of a small community can all be great barriers.

Nootsack is a small northerly island in a large archipelago. With the main island of San Juan now a popular tourist and yachting destination, the San Juan Islands have been referred to as the ‘get-away-from-it-all’ islands. If this is true then Nootsack is the ‘disappear-from-it-all’ island, and this is exactly what Nootsack has been to those who have come to populate its land for the last two hundred years. Currently Nootsack is off-the-grid, powered by a mix of small scale solar and wind power devices, dispersed throughout the properties of the residents who live on the island. There are two organic farms, a one-room schoolhouse, a post-office, and a makeshift fire truck. All the roads are dirt, with only the gap in the trees above to guide one’s way home at night. It is a relatively unknown place, with no public ferry, commercial outlets or attractions on public land to draw uninvited outsiders in.
In this short article I seek to explore the seemingly archetypal sense of sustainability that has been cultivated and currently exists among the one hundred and twenty people who call Nootsack home. I will do this by considering the history of inhabitation and actions these individuals took to ensure their particular future. I will also question how Nootsack may fit into current discussions of sustainability, drawing inspiration from Gillian Conquest & Cathryn Townsend’s review of the Anthropological Visions of Sustainable Futures Conference (2015).

The first wave of Nootsack residents was part of the larger influx of pioneers and homesteaders that came to the San Juan Islands in the mid to late 1800s. While the region was originally populated by the Northern Straits Coastal Salish, the displacement of this population was not widely discussed, with the pioneers and homesteaders of the 1800s often marking the beginning of stories told about inhabitation. The next wave of inhabitants came in the middle of the 20th century.
Here Nootsack’s history departs, at least in my knowledge, from that of the rest of the San Juans. The settlers of the mid-20th century consisted of two Quaker and Mennonite families, conscientiously objecting to World War II . Their family names – the decedents of the homesteaders and the conscientious objectors – are subtle, yet prominent among the Nootsack community today. The next wave came in the 1970s, which provided a mix of back-to-the-landers and more contentious objectors, this time fleeing the North American draft for the Vietnam War.

Soon after the 1970s wave of incomers, the residents of Nootsack began to notice changes on the other islands in the San Juans. One woman, a descendent of the 1950s contentious objectors, described this change as ‘development,’ the same sort that had already happened on the mainland. “I think people realised that [Nootsack] was kind of special and didn’t want the same kind of … materialistic disruption that had happened on the other islands”, she explained. In 1976 the residents successfully moved to class Nootsack as a Limited Development District. Later, in the early 2000s the islanders petitioned for a more legally binding type of protection and submitted the Nootsack Subarea Plan land-use initiative, which was passed in 2001. The initiative describes life on the island and outlines further restrictions to development to ensure the continuation of their way of life.

The above history was told in overlapping fragments by four different members of the community to explain comments each made about Nootsack being ‘special’ or ‘different’. It is important to note that the hard-to-avoid idealisations of life were always accompanied by realistic caveats about hardships and hurdles, at least by long-term residents. But why exactly is Nootsack so idealistic? It is because the ethos cultivated there is one of an anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, low-impact existence, which fits neatly into current popular narratives of sustainability, or at least those veins that promote a pro-local back-to-basics type of lifestyle. As Nootsack shows, what are these current narratives if not a reflection or judgment on the past and present; a cumulative decision on future action?

Nootsack’s history presents an interesting alternative to development as a key element in the dominant global narrative of progress, growth, materialist consumption and economic gain. It reads as a testament to the longevity of the particular undercurrent in American culture, but it is not an uncomplicated one. The influxes of residents represent key points of defiance in the country’s history, or so it was presented. As one resident told me, each wave of incomers had chosen “to remove themselves from the insanity of the country”. While the pioneers and homesteaders were often identified as adventurous spirits, carving out their own place in the world, they were also thought of as individuals who left the established world-order in search of a different future, much like the conscientious objectors and back-to-the-landers that followed. It can be assumed that each wave of incomers to Nootsack reflected on their lives and made conscious decisions to change their future.

Yet in even this telling one can find faults and omissions. Removal and return are conflated; the manifest destiny of the early white settlers is forgotten in favour of defiance, with the fate of the indigenous Costal Salish swallowed up in the act. All are casualties of the prolific and almost unavoidable practice of reducing the plurality of history and existence into a simple and straightforward explanation.

Yet even if the history of Nootsack the residents told me is incomplete – like arguably all historical narratives (Ginzburg 2012) – the importance of its position as an alternative narrative of development should not be overlooked. If anything, Nootsack’s incomplete arc furthers its importance as an alternate narrative. While the conscious action Nootsack residents took to legally protect their way of life came from an observation about developments occurring on other islands in the archipelago, this does not mean there was stagnation on Nootsack. The residents clearly understand that their current way of life developed through the particular pattern of inhabitation that occurred in the 19th and 20th century. Likewise, the moves to protect and preserve this way of life should not be seen as a wish to stagnate. To do so would be to prescribe to the notion of development that has created a monopoly on the progression of time and relegated all alternatives to the state of regression. With the example of Nootsack there is hope of reclaiming the word ‘development’. This hope lies in the suggestion there may be other, multiple ways to go about this unavoidable process of change and continuation that is living.

On the surface Nootsack provides an archetype of sustainable living. The residents live an off-grid, renewable energy powered, low-impact, subsistence lifestyle. Through telling their history and the cultivation of life as it is lived today, the community of Nootsack provides an alternative to the pervading narratives of material and economic development and reveals how sustainability narratives often involve retrospection to constitute future action. However, Nootsack’s is not an uncomplicated alternative narrative. The gaps and inconsistencies point to inability for any one narrative to represent all aspects of reality, past or present. Maybe this recognition can be another productive step in realising Arturo Escobar’s “Pluriverse”?

Conquest, G. & C. Townsend 2015. Anthropological Visions of Sustainable Futures, 12-14 Feb 2015. UCL Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAOS) (available on-line: https://uclcaos.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/anthropological-visions-of-sustainable-futures-12-14-feb-2015/, accessed 9 April 2017).

Friend, S. 2012. Currents of an Off-the-Grid Socio-Environmental Ecosystem: The Interdependence Between Social Life and the Environment on Waldron Island. Undergraduate Dissertation, University of St Andrews.
––––––– 2017. Realities of an ‘Orkney Way’: Communicating Preceptions of Renewable Energy in Orkney, Scotland. Doctoral Thesis, University of St Andrews.

Ginzburg, C. 2012. Threads and Traces: True False Fictive. Berkley: University of California Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s