These fish, this water, this land – a Tribute to Charles Brandt (part 2)
Start by doing what’s necessary;
then do what’s possible;
and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
~ St. Francis of Assisi ~
~ the Brandt Series ~
Father Charles Brandt – 5oth Anniversary of his ordination to the sacred priesthood and consecration to the hermit life
November 5, 2016
A tribute to Fr. Charles Brandt
by Chris Hilliar
What does God look like? These fish, this water, this land.
Father Charles and I first met around 30 years ago when I worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I was working at the Puntledge River Hatchery in Courtenay and was in charge of taking water samples in the Tsolum River watershed. We were trying to determine levels of heavy metal pollution that were suspected of decimating our salmon stocks.
Charles, of course already had a deep relationship with the Tsolum River because of his time spent at the Hermitage there. And so, it was the Tsolum River that brought the two of us together and held us together over the years.
Like many of you I think of Father Charles first and foremost as a priest, but I also know him as a scientist with an analytical and keen problem-solving mind. I know him as a photographer with an excellent eye, and I also know him as, what I would call, a strategic environmentalist.
Charles wrote a letter that I think changed his life and mine – as well as the lives of many others. It was a short letter. He addressed it to the Honourable FC Austin Pelton, Minister of the Environment, April 24, 1985. “Dear Mr. Pelton: The Tsolum River is dead!”
Of course, Charles went on in the letter to explain the details and the science behind the copper pollution coming from the abandoned mine and the impacts on salmonids but he wasn’t telling the Honourable Minister anything that the Honourable Minister didn’t already know.
The Ministry was doing its own water sampling and already working on the mine site. But Father Charles wasn’t really writing to the Honourable Minister, he was really writing to “the world”. At least it seemed like that judging from his cc list; and those were the days when you actually mailed real letters to your cc list.
As a strategic environmentalist Father Charles knew that to restore the Tsolum River we would have to force government to act. And his “Tsolum River is dead” letter did just that. It gave newspapers all the facts they needed and it gave them a catchy headline. Suddenly the Tsolum was in the spotlight and government had their feet to the fire.
Today, 30 years later, the Tsolum is on the road to recovery. Salmon runs are on the rise and people living in the watershed are active in stewardship programs and in restoration work.
And it all started with a simple letter from a hermit priest.
In my role with Department of Fisheries and Oceans I ended up organizing a lot of community meetings – many of them were focused on the Tsolum River. They were seldom easy meetings.
We had forest companies; we had mining interests, government bureaucracies, farmers, residents, and environmental groups. Confrontation was always high on the list of potential outcomes, and as a facilitator I was acutely aware things could derail at any moment. But, for Tsolum meetings I had the advantage of having Father Charles on my side.
Father Charles attended most of those multi-stakeholder meetings and just his presence changed the atmosphere in the room. It wasn’t anything in particular that he said or did – it was just his presence. I think he made people want to rise above their natural tendencies and show their better side.
Father Charles brought with him a calmness that was somehow transmitted to the other people in the room. That was 30 years ago Charles, and I never thanked you for the spiritual presence that you brought to all those meetings. So, somewhat belatedly – thank-you.
At home my wife and I have a tall dresser in our bedroom. On the top I have keepsakes, memorabilia that remind me of past chapters in my life. I have pictures of all my family, art objects created by our two kids, a rolling-pin glass ball that I found in Haida Gwaii when I worked up there. And I have one book.
Now, Molly and I are both avid readers. Our house is filled with books. But only one small book has made it to my keepsake shelf. It’s called, “Meditations from the Wilderness”, a book of short quotations compiled and edited by Charles A.E. Brandt. I’m sure that lots of you have it too.
In preparing for tonight’s talk I thought I might find a suitable quote to share with you, but in the end the part of the book that spoke most clearly to me was in the introduction written by Charles himself. Let me read you a short paragraph. It will be out of context of course but I think you will get the gist of his sentiment.
“But we can have hope that as we enter into this new age, we will see a transformation of human consciousness. We will come to live fully in the present moment and embrace the spontaneities that the universe has poured – and is pouring – into us, that lead us into a loving relationship with the natural world and form a single, sacred community.”
I suspect that most of you have heard Charles utter similar phrases. Of course, other people have expressed this vision as well, but what is important is that Father Charles, to me anyway, has come to embody that vision. It is as if he is living the vision through quiet contemplation, through reading and note taking, through being present in the natural world and through communicating his thoughts to those around him.
From this mode of living a community forms – a circle of love that includes not just the people around him but all living things along with the water and the land itself.
The ultimate vision of a single sacred community will require the collective work of a large mass of humanity. We are not there yet, but we can take guidance from people like Father Charles.
In reacquainting myself with “Meditations from the Wilderness”, I did finally find a quote that I would like to share with you. It is probably the shortest quotation in the book but I think it speaks volumes about who this being is that we all know and love as Father Charles Brandt.
The quote is by Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw Native and it reads, “What does God look like? These fish, this water, this land.”
Thank you Charles for giving so much of your life to those around you both human and non-human. I believe your presence here has made the world a better place.
Chris Hilliar is retired from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He is long time community organizer, and a senior editor for TideChange.ca, a project of a Comox Valley non-profit society called World Community Education Development Society.