An eco-revolution is taking place in the small agricultural communities of the Pacific Northwest, with the return of traditional homesteaders. Chris Smaje spent an extended holiday as a volunteer, helping to transform the land

Let's not be fooled by the romance of the good earth. When God told Adam and Eve that life after Eden would be one of painful toil, He knew whereof He spoke. In the Pacific Northwest, the homesteading pioneers learned first hand the bold and biblical contrasts of elemental struggle as they tried to bring forth the fruits of the soil. Fighting against the rampant forests, they discovered that nature had the advantage when it came to the riches of the land.

With our modern worries about food miles, carbon footprints and junk foods, the idea of a small-scale local agriculture - the kind practised by those Northwest homesteaders - is gaining favour again. The richness of the region's ecology is matched only by the difficulty in gaining a human livelihood from it, which makes it an excellent testing ground for experiments in local self-reliance. Travelling with my family among the modern eco-homesteaders of the Northwest, we certainly had our share of painful toil, but also learnt new ideas that are helping to make small-scale farming a more eco-friendly way of life.

At the Bullock brothers' farm on Orcas Island, Doug, Joe and Sam Bullock are navigating their way back to Eden with their 10-acre garden of wonders. Conventional farming systems have put humanity's eggs into a worryingly small basket - around 90 per cent of our diet relies on just 20 plant species worldwide. You'd probably find more than that in a square metre at the brothers' place: familiar crops such as corn or apples, half-familiar ones such as quinoa or autumn olives, and plants that you never imagined existed, the product of Joe Bullock's regular botanical odysseys.

The brothers aim to turn problems into solutions, an important precept of permaculture, a powerful ecological philosophy which uses rigorous design to minimise the stresses that nature and humanity place upon each other.

From Orcas Island, the eco-traveller might be tempted northwards, trailing through the islands between the edge of continental Canada and Vancouver Island. Their mild climate and relative isolation have made them a laboratory for post-industrial living. At Seven Ravens Farm on Salt Spring Island, for example, Michael Nichols has mastered the occupations of several lifetimes - forester, gardener, furniture-maker, teacher. He showed us around his farm with a suppressed energy.

Another route heads inland from the coast, where the landscapes change from oils to watercolours. The coastal forests, with their hanging mists and enfolding chills, melt into gravelled, tottering precipices.

Arriving from Europe with an Old World toolkit, the pioneers tried to raise sheep and cattle here. They failed. There are trails scoured by cattle through the brush 80 years ago where the vegetation still hasn't returned. But with irrigation and the railroad, agribusiness eventually found its niche. In the arid Okanagan, fruit is king. Savagely pruned and uniformly watered, the trees are striped across the hillsides.

Orcharding, like any form of farming, can be done mechanistically, with imported energies, or it can be done in sympathy with the landscape, husbanding the resources of sun and rain and drawing on traditions which have produced a locally adapted agriculture.

To the untutored eye, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of organisations such as World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which offers listings of farms using sustainable methods willing to take on volunteers.

Finding such a farm is a shortcut to the experimental, the unconventional and occasionally to the downright wacky. With more than 300 to choose from in British Columbia alone, the eco-volunteer need never be short of somewhere to stay. But it can be a hit or miss affair. Memories of WWOOF farms tumble over one another - a week at Trevor Chandler's place in Lillooet, shadowing his spare, deft movements through the orchard as he nurtured his crop to its final perfection, and lingering too long over breakfasts as we put the world to rights.

But also a decrepit farm in the Kootenays, where we stayed for a month to give our children relief from the road, and spent our days amid rows of thistle-choked garlic while the farm community, despite its high ideals, consumed itself with squabbles.

Whichever route the eco-traveller takes through the Northwest they're sure to find a host of ways to learn from the land. But the larger direction of the movement is harder to discern. Is it enough? Can these small-time farmers fussing over nature feed the world as well?

Perhaps it will all unravel in the face of society's indifference, the eco-pioneers selling up to skivvy in the cities like their counterparts a century ago. A trip to downtown Seattle is enough for reassurance. Its gluttonous consumerism surely cannot last. And then the work of the modern eco-homesteaders - fragmented, piecemeal and imperfect as it is - beckons again, as if indeed they're true pioneers, poised on the verge of a great transformation in our relationship with the land.

For information on volunteering on the organic farms contact WWOOF (wwoof.org)

1. Seattle

Where better to start an eco-tour of the Northwest than Seattle, home of Microsoft, globalisation riots and all things post-industrial? "Chief Seattle's Reply", a speech by the eponymous 19th-century Suquamish leader, is widely quoted for its ecological wisdom, but was much adulterated from the original. Are native peoples like the Suquamish really indigenous ecologists? And how ethical is that fair-trade latte in a city of gleaming 4x4s? Scratch beneath the surface in Seattle, and the ecological conundrums begin.

2. Bullock Brothers' Farm

The bucolic landscapes of Orcas Island provide second homes for wealthy Seattlites and a holiday destination for the rest. The Bullock Brothers Farm (permacultureportal.com) showcases much that's good about low-impact living. Pay a visit or take a course to see how carefully its tangle of edible delights has been designed. The brothers' website is a good introduction to the world of permaculture.

3. Salt Spring Island

Study the pioneering lifestyle at old homesteads preserved for posterity, or volunteer at a WWOOF holding such as Seven Ravens Farm (wwoof.ca; organicvolunteers.com). At Salt Spring Seeds (saltspringseeds.com), Dan Jason labours in the cause of biodiversity, keeping heirloom vegetable varieties available to gardeners.

4. Oyster farming

Aquaculture (ecotrustcan.org/ aquaculture) holds much promise but intensive Atlantic salmon farming in the Pacific is an accident waiting to happen. Oyster farming is low on cost and relatively benign environmentally, it may be the key to a sustainable local industry. Discover more from a friendly local oyster farmer: try Desolation Sound, Northern Sunshine Coast and the Discovery Islands.

5. Tofino

Tofino, on Vancouver Island's wild west coast, hit the headlines in 1993 with mass protests against logging old-growth trees. The Pacific Rim National Park (pc.gc.ca) preserves one of the world's few temperate rainforests, its gigantic trees nourished by constant rains. Today, Tofino's attractions can't conceal the uneasy stalemate between loggers and eco-activists, white settlers and Nuu-chah-nulth Indians.

6. Linnaea Farm

Linnaea Farm (linnaeafarm.org), an ecological land trust on Cortes

Island, rambles across 360 acres of field and forest in a stunning lakeside setting. Pay a visit or, if you're in no hurry, apply for an eight-month internship to gain a thorough grounding in sustainable agriculture.

7. Eco-Forestry

Despite the wholesome, plaid-shirt image, Canadian forestry has been an ecological disaster. It doesn't have to be.Eco-forestry is one of the most promising approaches worldwide to sustainable land husbandry. The eco-forestry society on Cortes Island (cortesecoforestry.org) is a pioneer, and its agreement with the local Klahoose people a landmark in white/indigenous relations.

8. Telegraph Cove

The fishermen once thronging the North-west have largely faded into history, but the pretty boardwalk village of Telegraph Cove (telegraphcove.ca) has weathered the fishery's fall and the eco-tour's rise better than most. It's now a hotspot for whale and bear-watching, though conservationists worry that boatloads of gawping homo sapiens are beginning to affect the creatures' wellbeing. To tour or not to tour - another modern eco-dilemma.

9. Sointula

The Northwest is littered with abandoned pioneer settlements. Sointula (island.net/~sointula/) on Malcolm Island was the home of Finnish Utopians trying to establish a self-sufficient farm community. Now it's a museum of dreams ravaged by fire, community discord and the struggle to turn forest into farmland. It's easy to love nature when you can shop at the wholefood store. Sointula is the real thing.

10. Alert Bay

Near Sointula, Alert Bay is the centre of the Kwakwaka'wakw culture. The resource-rich indigenous peoples of the Northwest developed complex, hierarchical cultures, which powerfully invoked the natural environment, until they were ruthlessly suppressed during the 20th century.

The U'mista Cultural Centre (umista.ca) reconstructs their legacy - necessary homage for those coming afterwards to live from the land.

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