Earth flag-a-flyin’  – 1987


Slide of the cabin about 1985! -bruce witzel photo



“As people alive today, we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility toward others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than we found it.”

~ the Dalai Lama ~



~ My Earth Day story ~



Part One – Fire and Rain


Things are never dull living off-grid and I’d like to illustrate by outlining the evolution of our home power system since 1979. 

First to get your attention, let me be blunt. The off-grid lifestyle is not for everyone and it does come with serious challenges – like the small forest fire we had here on the day Francis and I got married.


Really, this happened – August 16, 1997 . . .

 Fighting the fire on our wedding day! (scanned photo) Aug 16-1997 - photo by wedding guest


Francis describes it here in our wedding album.


From our wedding album - by francis guenette


View of our wedding from the windmill tower on August 16, 1997 - dave witzel photo


Smoke began to rise just as my brother Dave took this photo. In those days we had a marine radio telephone. We put out the call “Mayday, Mayday” – just like in the movies.


It took about 10 minutes to get garden hoses over to the fire site – the younger women instantly formed a bucket brigade.


Bucket brigade on our wedding day (scanned image) Aug 16-2017 - photo by wedding guest


Meanwhile, a dozen young men literally tore off their shirts to smother the flaming branches. Then the the water buckets arrived. . . after that the hose. Thankfully, by the time the forest warden’s helicopter landed on the beach below, we had already doused the potential forest fire. Talk about a close call!


Wedding fire, August 1997 - photo by a wedding guest


It’s a wedding story we and our 70 guests never dreamed to tell. When we cut the cake I was shirtless and covered in soot. Still smilin’ though. By the way – we believe the fire was started from a cigarette butt. Yikes!


In life, often alongside hard knocks come numerous rewards.


 Bruce with fresh produce


For example, along with the trials like the fire (and we’ve had two) we can always enjoy fresh garden produce, an idyllic waterfront setting and forested trails that we can wander through daily.


Sunset at the lake, June 22-2017 - bruce witzel photo (3)


And it’s with this amazing view Francis is inspired to write her growing popular novels.


Click here to see the cover and story-line of her latest work, No Compass to Right.


Fran at the real Crater Lake, Oct 16-2012 - bruce witzel photo



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Part Two – Living Off-Grid


So now (as promised) I’ll illustrate some remarkable energy alternatives to the destructive manner in which society uses power today. Some I’ve covered previously, but never in one post.


Although these examples are rural based, most of this technology is appropriate for city dwellers as well – especially solar.


A unique pesrspective of the cabin Oct 2-2013 - bruce witzel photo 


By way of introduction to our off-grid power system, Francis and I never cease to be amused when we drive into our local community to discover a power outage.


We have been able to avoid such blackouts because we produce our own electricity from a variety of energy sources – primarily green renewable energy.


 Cabin, wind genertor and solar panels, Feb. 22-2010 - bruce witzel photo


First and Foremost is the Sun.


Lake at noon, Dec 14,2016 - Solar South - bruce witzel photo


Solar power provides clean, quiet and economical power with minimal maintenance. I’ve come to believe it’s a good ethical choice to help reduce climate change.  


Cabin with solar panels, Feb. 20-2010 - bruce witzel photo

Solar electric array (left), 30 gallon solar hot water tank (center ) with passive solar gain windows of the cabin


For Francis and I, here is how we use solar energy. When sun shines through our South facing windows it is absorbed into the cabin and provide us heat. This is known as Passive solar gain. Separate solar panels create electricity and also help heat our water.


The electricity created is stored in batteries and hence we are able to cook with an electric convection oven, an electric conduction hot-plate, or a crock pot. Also, we use two solar ovens that focus the sun and trap the heat to achieve cooking temperatures high as 325 degrees F. 


Solar cooking at Fran's old apartment at Universtiy of Victoria - Bruce Witzel photo



During rainy and windy times we also use water power . . .

(and previous to 2012, wind power).



Overview of  wier, flume, intake and overflow, March 24-2017 - bruce witzel photo


Here’s our hydro turbine water intake. (I’ll give details about this in my next post).


Water intake overflow, March 24-2017 - bruce witzel photo


Like many country folk we use firewood for back-up heating –

for us, 1 to 2 cords each year.


Drying our firewood supply, Sept. 12-2012 - francis guenette photo


I’d be amiss not to mention the most simple way we use the sun – via photosynthesis that happens in our garden – again, details of this for a future post.


In our rural landscape, bears are integral to the local eco-system.


Bear passing by coldframe, July 9, 2015 - bruce wtizel photo

Lucky that Billy–Bob the Bear doesn’t like the Zucchinii in the coldframe – or potatoes either.


Part Three – Looking back


I began to build the cabin and homestead about 1978, much before Fran and I were together. Every single piece of building material was carried in by hand and wheel barrow, 70 stairs down and a 10 minute walk from the gravel logging road.


Our old boardwalk, now obsolete - bruce witzel photo

Old board walk is now obsolete


Imagine this ethos – a trail through the forest arriving to a cedar shaked cabin perched on a lakeside cliff – rough finish inside with kerosene lanterns, a woodstove, a propane fridge, a gasoline powered generator and no running water.


For some of you baby boomers this might conjure up memories of the back-to-the land movement. I was fortunate to be able to stick with it and made gradual improvements. We now have a driveway, (thank the Good Lord).


cabin & solar panels - mid 90's - bruce witzel photo

Cabin in 1998 with 300 watt solar array. The Yagi Antennae (left) brought cell phone service, transformative at the time.


Power-lines are still far away and four decades later in 2017, we’re quite happy not being connected to the electrical grid. We rarely use fossil fuel, except for our transportation needs (which is substantial). I envision the possibility of charging a plug-in electric vehicle, maybe within the next decade.

But for now, I’m talking about back-in-the-day.


Coming down our driveway, March 6-2013 - bruce witzel photo



The first shift towards energy independence began in 1982 with the installation of Photo-voltaic (PV) solar panels (seen below). It may superfluous, but I so enjoyed listening to my favourite cassette – Heart of Gold, anyone?

However, Neil Young came at a cost – in those days two 50 watt solar panels were expensive – 750 dollars each.


 slides0079 (2)

 My first 100 watt solar array, with reflector.


Amazingly, today a person can purchase 40 times more solar electric output with the same amount of money as in 82’ (adjusted for inflation). In other words, the 1500 dollars I spent then for 100 watts of solar power would purchase 4000 watts today. Solar electricity has come-of-age.


Our 1 kilowatt Solar Array - bruce witzel photo

Now we have a 1 kilo-watt solar array, considered small by today’s standards.


The next addition to our system was a vintage used wind-charger. Placing the 50 lb. unit atop a 30 foot tower defied some basic laws of physics. Servicing it, took a bit of acrobatics. A downside to wind power, for sure.





One special joy came in 85’ when the solar water heater was added – it ended the dreaded body baths.


Solar Water Heater - circa 1986 - Bruce Witzel photo

 Solar water heater, 1986 


After 32 years we are still using this same simple unit that consists of a black heat absorbing water tank in a glass enclosure. I bought it second hand for $1200. It has no pumps or electronics. Each winter we drain the water out of the tank to avoid freeze damage.


Here on the west coast of Canada the weather is sufficiently warm now, so we re-filled it in mid-March to enjoy free hot water from the sun. 


 Solar hot water tank on Feb.18-2017 - bruce witzel photo


You can see the black tank behind the glass. It works like the solar oven. Focused and trapped sunlight heats the water. When we require hot water we turn on the tap at the sink – cold water enters the bottom of the tank forcing heated water out the top.


Of course as I continually mention, we always have unusual surprises. In 1987 a black bear attacked the propane fridge by tearing off it’s vent on the outside of the cabin. The damage the bear did to the back of the old fridge convinced me to change to a small but more efficient electric fridge now contained within the cabin – and 300 more watts of Solar Panels to run it.


Cubs - Bruce Witzel photo

Here’s Billy-Bob’s the Bear’s family. . . behind the cubs note the wind generator tower, now blown over from heavy winds.


When Fran and I got together in 93’ we plumbed in the main wood stove and the cook stove to provide even more hot water. We also added an on-demand propane water heater, which to our pleasant surprise we only need to use with company. (We average only 5 to 7 lb. propane per month). Oh – and Fran also bought her first pair pair of rubber boots.


Waterford cookstove - bruce witzel photo







In 97’ we converted the windmill to a state-of –the-art 300 watt air generator and to store all this energy we installed a newer (but used) battery bank. Unfortunately the wind tower was destroyed during an extreme wind storm in 2012.


Air generator and lake sunset -bruce witzel photo


In conclusion, conservation or living more with less – is key to our lifestyle. Over the years family and friends could attest to this, and also my constant reminder to turn off the lights. 


World spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis call us all to be better and more conscious conservers.


Dalai Lama - think of a mosquito



As Pope Francis has said in Praise Be: On our Common Home:


“A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions…”


Pope Francis also said this . . .








Thank you all, for taking time to read this.


Please remember – Earth Day is Every Day



Cheers – Bruce





A surprise – my Easter Reflection.


Is this a surprising revelation? Or not . . .


People often have surprising points of view – sometimes we’re even blind. What we believe and how we act can be astonishingly off-base. Although this article is written in context of the United States, if you are a well-to-do Canadian, Australian, or of another wealthy nationality, I hope this gives you pause for thought over the Easter weekend.


Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Civic Center, May 28-2010 - bruce witzel photo


Recently I subscribed to  E – the Environmental Magazine. They invite bloggers to use their magazine’s weekly EarthTalk Environmental Q&A column for free. 

There is no obligation to post and you may abridge the column and use your own photos to illustrate – the editors only ask that the essence of the EarthTalk message is kept and you link back to them.


So here it goes . . .     


Earrth Talk Logo


Dear EarthTalk: I read that a single child born in the U.S. has a greater effect on the environment than a dozen children born in a developing country? Can you explain why?—Josh C., via e-mail


  Zapotilan del Rio 1990 - bruce witzel photo-slide


Americans consume far more natural resources and live much less sustainably than people from any other large country of the world.


Woman and child, Montana USA, Oct 4-2009 - btruce witzel photo


“A child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil,” reports the Sierra Club’s Dave Tilford, adding that the average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.


   Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oct 17-2012 - bruce witzel photo


Tilford cites a litany of sobering statistics showing just how profligate Americans have been in using and abusing natural resources. For example, between 1900 and 1989 U.S. population tripled while its use of raw materials grew by a factor of 17. 


“With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper,” he reports. “Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world.”


Pulp and Paper Mill at Powell River, BC - bruce witzel photo


Tilford adds that the U.S. ranks highest in most consumer categories by a considerable margin, even among industrial nations. To wit, American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain and two and a half times that of the average Japanese. Meanwhile, Americans account for only five percent of the world’s population but create half of the globe’s solid waste.


Higway 93 through Kootenay National Park, BC Canada Oct. 24-2014 - Bruce Witzel photo (2)


Americans’ love of the private automobile constitutes a large part of their poor ranking. The National Geographic Society’s annual Greendex analysis of global consumption habits finds that Americans are least likely of all people to use public transportation—only seven percent make use of transit options for daily commuting.




Likewise, only one in three Americans walks or bikes to their destinations, as opposed to three-quarters of Chinese.


Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown San Francisco, May 26, 2010 - bruce witzel photo


While China is becoming the world’s leader in total consumption of some commodities (coal, copper, etc.), the U.S. remains the per capita consumption leader for most resources.


Big copper mine near Silver City, New Mexico Oct.11-2016 - bruce witel photo


Overall, National Geographic’s Greendex found that American consumers rank last of 17 countries surveyed in regard to sustainable behavior.


Empty vacation home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California Oct 23-2012 - buce witzel photo


Furthermore, the study found that U.S. consumers are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact they have on the environment, yet they are near to top of the list in believing that individual choices could make a difference.


Mary's Cabin in Lund, British Columbia Aug 25-2013 - bruce witzel photo


Paradoxically, those with the lightest environmental footprint are also the most likely to feel both guilty and disempowered.


“In what may be a major disconnect between perception and behavior, the study also shows that consumers who feel the guiltiest about their impact—those in China, India and Brazil—actually lead the pack in sustainable consumer choices,” says National Geographic’s Terry Garcia, who coordinates the annual Greendex study.


“That’s despite Chinese and Indian consumers also being among the least confident that individual action can help the environment.”




Readers can discover how they stack up by taking a survey on the Greendex website,  But brace yourself if you are a typical American: You might not like what you find out about yourself.



Mural in downtown LA - Saint Oscar Romero with cmpesinos and the Risen Christ - francis guenette photo


EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine ( Send questions to: Stay up-to-date on the latest environmental news and information as well as green living tips. Subscribe:



Cheers & happy Easter ~ Bruce


Jacks & Mary-Anne's Zen garden, Aug 23 -2013 - bruce wtizel photo



Our abode is the dense temperate rainforest of Vancouver Island. Here the rainfall averages 135 inches per year. Canada’s west coast is also the wet coast. The forest loves the rain . . . and the sun too.

How do trees and soil and relate to the ecology of our lives? Humus, human and humility are connected – each from the same Latin root word. Annie Dillard, John Muir and Franklin D. Roosevelt help us understand . . .


Cheers ~ Bruce


View from the repeater tower (2)- Bruce Witzel photo



Waterfall at the neighbours! Dec. 31, 2010 - bruce witzel photo (2)


View of Northern Vancouver Island (2) - Bruce Witzel photo



Prayer flags (2) - bruce witzel photo


We all travel the milky way together, trees and (people); but it never occurred to me until this stormday, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, our little more than tree wavings – many of them not so much.

John Muir


Northern Vancouver Island Storm (2) Dec. 9, 2014 - bruce witzel



Vancouver Island Lake on a calm day, with red alder trees in bloom - bruce witzel photo



Keith @ Old Growth trail2b


The present of our life looks different under trees. Trees have dominion . . .  Trees do not accumulate life, but deadwood like a thickening quote of mail . . .

We run around these obelisk-creatures, teetering on our soft, small feet. We are out on a jaunt, picknicking, fattening like puppies for our death.

Shall I carve a name on this trunk? What if I fell in the forest: Would a tree hear?


Annie Dillard


Prayer flags at the lake (2), Feb. 26, 2017 - bruce witzel photo



Spruce Bay old growth forest, April 10, 2010 - bruce witzel photo



Waterfall in the forest, Dec. 31, 2013 time exposure zoomed  - bruce witzel photo (4)


A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. Forest are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.


Franklin D. Roosevelt

Spring has Sprung


“Good People,

most royal greening verdancy,

rooted in the sun,

you shine with radiant light.”


~ Saint Hildegard ~


It’s amazing how things change. Two weeks ago at the cabin we were in the midst of snows of early March. Then I was out and about the garden a few days ago and there was yellow and purples, oranges and green. Spring had arrived here on the Northern Hemisphere – right on schedule with the Equinox. 

I was taken by the crocus and, as you’ll see, by the robin too;  it’s all coupled with the visions of Saint Hildegard de Bingen, 12th century Christian Mystic and Benedictine Abbess.


Cheers ~ Bruce


Crocus (backlit-2) March 20, 2017 - bruce witzel photo



Robin on the first day of Spring (2), March 20-2017 - bruce witzel photo


“Everything that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.”


Crocuses (backlit4) March 20, 0217 - bruce witzel photo



Robin on the pear tree (edited3) March 20-2017 - bruce witzel photo


“Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong.”


Crocus on the first day of Spring(edited), March 21, 2017 (2) - bruce witzel photo



Robin singing on a tree branch, March 20-2017 - bruce witzel photo

“The earth which sustains humanity must not be injured. It must not be destroyed!”



We had a late winter snowstorm this past week and I was home to enjoy it. Early February was so nice that we had a few weeks of solar hot water. Remember the Lake at Dawn photo 3 posts back? Here’s the flip side. Our neck of the woods is getting a slow start to spring . . .

Cheers – Bruce


“If snow melts down to water, does it still remember being snow?”

― Jennifer McMahon, The Winter People



Reflection on the lake (6), March 9, 2017 - bruce witzel photo



Snowing at the cabin, March 8-2017 - bruce witzel photo (2)



Cabin driveway (3) during late witner snow, March 8-2017 - bruce witzel photo



View of the deck and lake (3) March 8-2017 - bruce witzel photo



Reflection on the lake (8), March 4, 2017 - bruce witzel photo



Sunrise at the cabin (3) March 8, 2017 - bruce witzel photo



Lakeview from the bathroom, March 9-2017 - bruce witzel photo


Lakeview (2b), March 9-2017 - bruce witzel photo


A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.  

William Wordsworth


Lakeview snow and snag (4), March 10-2017 - bruce witzel photo



Cabin snow (5), March 10-2017 - bruce witzel photo



Lakeview & coldframe and front deck (2), March 10, 2017 - bruce witzel photo


Make your heart like a lake, with a calm, still surface,

and great depths of kindness ~ Lao Tzu


Lakeview panorama (4), March 10-2017 - bruce witzel photo

“Afoot and light hearted I take to the open road”



Song of the Open Road



by Walt Whitman

Public Domain (first published 1856)



 san josef wagon road @ ronnings garden - bruce witzel photo (2)




Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.


Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.


The earth, that is sufficient,

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.



Night-light on the Lake - Bruce Witzel photo (7)



(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,

I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,

I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,

I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)




You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,

I believe that much unseen is also here.



Road on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State - bruce witzel photo (2)



Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,

The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;

The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,


The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,


They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,

None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.



An autumn wedding in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Oct. 15, 2016 (edited)-bruce witzel photo





The earth expanding right hand and left hand,

The picture alive, every part in its best light,

The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,

The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.


O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?

Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?

Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?


O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,

You express me better than I can express myself,

You shall be more to me than my poem.


I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,

I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,

I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,

I think whoever I see must be happy.



Carson National Forest, New Mexico fall colour 2016 (4) - bruce witzel photo




From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,

Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,

Listening to others, considering well what they say,

Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,

Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space,

The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.


 Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, from Trail Ridge Road, Oct. 14, 2016 - bruce witzel photo



I am larger, better than I thought,

I did not know I held so much goodness.



All seems beautiful to me,

I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,

I will recruit for myself and you as I go,

I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,

I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,

Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,

Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.



Portland Rose Garden - bruce witzel photo




Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,

Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.


Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,

It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.



Riding down into the Grnd Canyon - bruce witzel photo



Here a great personal deed has room,

(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,

Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)


Here is the test of wisdom,

Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,

Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,

Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,

Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,

Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;

Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.


Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,

They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.



Near Big Sur, California - bruce witzel photo





Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?







Cheers ~ Bruce

OUR LIVES, WELL LIVED – Charles Brandt, at 94


A Single Sacred Community:

An Interview with Charles Brandt – Hermit, Bookbinder, Ecologist


(photos by Charles, except as noted)


Charles Brandt has turned 94 on Feb. 19th, 2017. Speaking about contemplation or to the local meditation group he facilitates, he often quotes his fellow monk Thich Nhat Hahn…

 Boat on the lale - bruce witzel photo

(bruce witzel photo)

In Being Peace, Nhat Hahn says,

“Our world is something like a small boat. Compared to the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the (stormy) sea… Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that to save us… You are that person… each of you is that person.”


Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 7.39.57 PM 2 - from Charles Brandt


The Catholic monk Thomas Merton once described Thich Nhat Hanh as “more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality because he and I see things in exactly the same way.”

In the mid 1950’s when Charles had intended to enter the Abbey of Gethsemini where Thomas Merton was novice master, he was advised by Merton “Don’t come here. We could make a good monk of you, but not a good contemplative.” Charles did become a Trappist, but in 1965 he left for Vancouver Island.


Comox Glacier (large)- by Charles Brandt


The well known Canadian activist Bishop Remi de Roo, who is now a good friend of Charles and also turns 94 on February 24, ordained Charles to the priesthood as a hermit monk in 1966 – the first time this happened in over 200 years.

This past November 21, 2016 Charles Brandt celebrated 50 years of his vows to the extended community of people and the earth. His testament on that occasion can be found here in Charles Brandt Speaks (part 3). At the event there were no less less than 10 tributes shared including Ecology, Spirituality and Sustainability (part 1) and These Fish, This Land, This Water (part 2).


A unique interview was conducted with Charles Brandt on Friday, February 12, 2016, and recently published in the Thomas Merton Annual Review. Below is a condensed version.


Conducted by Donald Grayston and David Chang


Charles Brandt is a Roman Catholic priest and hermit, a bookbinder and paper conservator, and an award-winning ecologist.

Since 1965, he has lived the hermit life, mostly at Merton House, his hermitage at Black Creek, British Columbia (a few miles north of Courtenay on Vancouver Island).


Charles Brandt Hermitage (thomas merton house)


When working elsewhere as a conservator, he would make his urban apart­ment his hermitage, always intending during those years to return to Black Creek.

Now 94, he says this: “I’m looking towards eternity now. . . . I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling.”

He is a beautiful old man…


From the film (4)Turning Point - Thomas merton & Cahrles Brandt by Geoffry Leighton


Interview begins:


Donald Grayston: First of all, thank you very much for giving us your time, and let’s cut right to the chase: why be a hermit? How do you ex­plain yourself to yourself?

Charles Brandt: Part of it, I think, is tradition. You know I was a Trap­pist monk for eight years at New Melleray, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to making final vows. During Vatican II [1962-65], monks were trying to discover their roots. So there was a kind of a movement among the Trappists to explore their roots, and they discovered the hermits. We went back, just trying to discover our roots as monks.


DG: That was then, as the teenagers say, and this is now: so why be a hermit in the twenty-first century?

CB: It still has its place, and I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world. I’m very keen on the natural world, and I think that the human community and the natural world must go into the future as a single sacred community or perish in the desert, as Thomas Berry says. Praying, living a life of solitude and stillness, quiet, is good for my soul; it’s good for everybody, I think.


Sunrise, Oyster River Estuary. charles brandt photo


David Chang: Did your interest in spirituality and your interest in the natural world – matters of ecology – did they always go hand in hand, or did one come first and feed into the other?


CB: I was a Boy Scout, and I spent some time in the summer at Osceola Scout Camp in Missouri, where I was called into the tribe of Mic-O-Say. The Osage Nation lived in that part of Missouri; they [the Scouts] had braves and runners, and they called them Mic-O-Say. You would come down as a camper, and if you did well, and showed exemplary character, you were called into the Mic-O-Say; and so I was.

Roe Bartle, the mayor of Kansas City, was the chief, and said to me, “You’ve been called, you do not know why, nor will you ever know, but thus far you’ve been considered worthy”; and then he gave me something to drink, bitter with the sweet, turned me around several times, and told me to keep absolute silence for 24 hours. Then I was to report to Blue-Eyed Otter, the medicine man of the tribe. He told me to go out and sleep in the wild, and to make medicine, and to take vows to God, to [my] mother, and [my] country. In terms of country, I wasn’t thinking of Missouri or America; I thought of the earth, and that was a revelation to me.

So it was through birding and Scouting that I got into contact with the natural world, and it always seemed to go hand-in-hand with what I was thinking about. And when I was about five years old, we moved out of Kansas City to a farming area, in the countryside, in the wilderness. Every tree had a bird’s nest in it. It was amazing to me, my real first contact with the natural world, moving from the city to a farming area.


Yellow Headed Blackbird (male) - charles brandt photo


DG: So it was important for you to grow up on a farm, and then have this exposure through Scouting.

CB: Very much so. And were you asking about the natural world and the spiritual?

DC: Yes.

CB: When I was quite young, I felt that we should have contact with God, that we should be able to communicate with God. Nobody told me anything about that, it was just kind of an intuition. I would ask pastors, do you know God? And it was kind of embarrassing, you know, it was sort of hem and haw, and I took it for granted that they should be able to communicate with God.


Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 6.56.20 AM (2)

(photographer unknown)

DG: Do you know The Way of a Pilgrim?

CB: Yes.

DG: The pilgrim goes to his priest and then the bishop and neither knows what to say; finally he meets somebody who teaches him the Jesus prayer. You had a similar experience.

CB: Then somebody told me about The Man Nobody Knows, by Bruce Barton; and it was the first time I realized that Christianity was more than just an ethical thing, that Jesus was really Son of Man, Son of God, he was God, and that was a revelation to me that he was divine. He never says he’s God [laughs], but that’s the theology . . .

DG: Divinity and humanity together.

CB: That’s right.


Detail of the interior of the Abbey Church - Photo by Thomas Merton

(thomas merton photo – detail of abbey church)


DG: You did tell us in your Time Line that you started reading Thoreau when you were 13. Now, what kind of a kid reads Thoreau at the age of 13?


CB: My mother’s brother’s wife, my Aunt Hildred, did book reviews for The Kansas City Star. She did one on Walden, and I read it, and I got interested then in Henry David Thoreau. He went to the woods to find out what life was all about, and that was really quite exciting, and a real challenge for me; and I wanted to do something like that. That was probably my first inroad into the hermit life. Then again in high school, we had to do a project on what was our vocation; and I wanted to be a fire-watcher, to live in a tower. So again, I guess that was sort of leaning toward a solitary life.

DG: Which was something that Thomas Merton discussed with Dom James (his abbot) about doing at one point.

CB: That’s right. Dom James thought that would give him kind of a footing.


Thomas Merton Centenary Icon painted by John Giuliani

Thomas Merton, original painting by John Giuliana


DC: I want to ask a question about Thoreau. The first time I read Thor­eau, I had a particular view of him. A couple of years later, I read him again, and I appreciated him differently. Did you find that? Or, have you revisited him?

CB: I think the big thing about Henry David Thoreau – I’ve been to Walden Pond, and I saw where the hermitage was – was that he went to the woods, and gave us a deeper appreciation of the natural world, what’s out there. We take it for granted, when they [the colonists] first came to America, they came to use it, and to conquer the First Nations people, and to use the land. But Henry David Thoreau went out just to appreciate what was there. I think that’s perhaps his great contribution, and I think that’s a big thing we could do today: show people the natural world so they fall in love with it. That’s the only way we’re going to save the world: to appreciate it. It’s sacred, and we only love what is sacred. I think Thoreau helped us, along with John Muir and Emily Dickinson.


Bleeding Heart (cropped) - charles brandt photo


DG: In your second year in high school, you became quite interested in bird study, and you had a very special experience with a stream of warblers.

CB: It was Sunday morning. My Dad was not very appreciative of my not going to church, but I really became interested in bird study, and I was out along the Blue River. I saw birds of different colors, maybe five or seven different species. These were warblers of different species which migrate though in the spring, different species each with its own coloration, oftentimes moving through together. It was a quite amazing thing to me that that should exist, and that I should see that, and it was kind of a breakthrough for me. It was an experience that lifted me out of the ordinary run of life…


Young Warbler Orange-crowned, hermitage, June 6, 15, charles brandt photo


DG: Aldo Leopold spent a lot of time observing birds. Do you still do bird-sound recording at all?

CB: I don’t, but I have a friend in the valley who does. You need some really special equipment for that. At Cornell, we had a sound truck with a parabolic reflector. When I was at Cornell, I won a scholarship in bird-sound recording.


Mallards in flight! - Charles Brandt photo


CB: When I was in the Air Force, I learned to build radios, so I did a lot of work with preamplifiers, built a couple of those. That was my primary work for the bird-sound recording at Cornell. At the time, they had finished pretty much all the birds, and they were getting into recording amphibians, voices of the night, frogs and toads and crickets and things like that.


DG: That’s what Merton calls “the huge chorus of living beings.” It’s a wonderful passage, in which he describes the sounds of the night.


Saw Whet Owl - by Charles A.E. Brandt


DC: What is it about birds that provide an entry point to a larger ecologi­cal consciousness?


CB: There’s something really magical about birds. The fact is, they can fly, they can move. That’s really an enchanting thing, but I think once you get interested in any part of natural history, then it opens you up to everything, to rivers and trees and plants.

DG: Because it’s all connected.

CB: It’s all connected . . . our community here by extension includes plants and soil and all sentient life, so it’s everything that’s connected.


Red Flowering Currant (large)at the Hermitage April 1 2016 - charles brandt photo


DG: Do the Buddhists have something to teach us about that?

CB: Oh, absolutely. What do they call it? . . . dharmakaya? . . . everything is connected, everything is compassion, and everything is emptiness, but I think the big thing that Thomas Berry – I’ve read a lot of Thomas Berry – would say is that the big thing with the Buddhists is their respect for life; that all life is precious, and that’s really influenced me. I’m a fisherman, and I used to do fishing, catch and release, and I’ve given that up now, because I realized that once that hook gets into that mouth, they feel some pain, and the Buddhists want all pain to cease, all suffering. Thomas Berry was quite keen on Buddhists because of that…


Pink Salmon spawning grounds Sept 24 Oyster River - charles brandt


DG: Back to you. You entered active service in the US Army Corps, and later the Air Force, and you had a number of military experiences, including bombardier training.


CB: I was a navigator officially, but I did have bombardier training. You had to have bombardiering to be a navigator, so you could understand what the bombardier was [doing] . 

DG: How do you feel about that now, looking back on that military period?


CB: You know, I never thought much about it. The war (World War 2) was going on when I was in high school. My father was an officer in the Air Force and I’d hear a little bit about the war. I never took it seriously; I never thought about it. Went to William Jewell College, went to the University of Missouri, joined the reserve corps, then I was drafted.

I finally wound up training as a navigator, and then about halfway through the course, I began to think, well what is this about war? Is this really right? Should we be dropping these bombs? So I went in to see the chaplain – and this wasn’t really down on my record, I know that. I said I may be a conscientious objector, I don’t really know, I haven’t really thought it out. So the chaplain said well, you go and think about it for a while. Then, I was shipped out to gunnery training and then finally navigation training.


Southern Utah - bruce witzel photo

(b.witzel photo)

CB: Things were really moving right along, and I really didn’t have time [to think about it]. Today, I don’t say I’m a conscientious objector, but I’m nonviolent. That’s what Merton was. Merton was nonviolent. That’s where I think I would stand. Merton might say there might be a necessity to take a stand, but he was really nonviolent. So that’s where I stand, and I would be there from the very beginning, I think, had I realized what was taking place…


DC: I was just wondering, whether bookbinding, as a form of practice, has any contemplative value for you.

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CB: I think it does. Probably the best contemplative part of bookbinding is sewing the book. It’s a very relaxing, I think a very meditative, contempla­tive aspect of binding. Literature is disappearing at a great rate from our libraries all over the world, and it’s our written record of humanity. So if you’re preserving that, as I am, you’re preserving humanity, the culture, and I think that’s really quite worthwhile. It’s like preserving the earth. It’s not just a job, it’s something that’s conducive to the prolongation of civilization.

DC: It’s an act of beneficence.

CB: Yes, and it’s a slow, methodical work. You’re not in any hurry, not working with heavy machinery. Merton, that was one of his big gripes at Gethsemani.




DG: Here’s one more question. You spent a number of years away from here, doing archival and preservation work. How does that fit with being a hermit?


CB: After I’d been doing some bookbinding for a couple of years, I real­ized I didn’t have a lot of experience working with paper conservation, and I wanted to get more experience. I had a friend who had a friend in Massachusetts at the New England Document Center, Dr. Cunha. I wrote to him and asked if I could come, that I knew a little bit of bookbinding, and that I would offer that skill if he would teach me paper conservation.

So I was there for about a year, and I kept getting jobs. I became head of the bindery. But it wasn’t what I came for, and I wanted to learn how to do fine binding, you know what I mean? You do binding, then you put designs on it with tools, and it’s called finishing. I wanted to learn that. They had said, we can teach you that, but they didn’t have anybody there to do that. So I went to Ascona, in southern Switzerland.

While I was in Ascona, I got a telephone call from Ottawa, from the Canadian Conservation Institute, asking me if I would like to be interviewed for a job as conservator. That was a big chance, you know? So they flew me to Ottawa, and I got the job, and then they flew me back to Europe and I finished what I planned to do, and started working for the Canadian Conservation Institute. I did that for five years, and got a pension from that. Then I went from there to Winnipeg, and set up a conservation centre for the [provincial] government there.


From Book Arts, 2014 - volume 5, number 1


DG: During this time, what about the hermit life?

CB: Well, in Ottawa, I had a flat. I didn’t do much parish work, and when I got to Winnipeg, I said a daily Mass at the cathedral there for a couple of years. When I was in Ottawa, I spent most of my weekends in Combermere: that’s where the Baroness was (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, founder of Madonna House, was also a major influence on Thomas Merton).


(thomas merton photo)

CB: So I was really in contact with the life. I wasn’t just secular, and I was, like St. Paul, a tent maker. I was a bookbinder, and trying to live a contemplative life in a busy world.


Ottawa - bruce witzel photo

(bruce witzel photo)


DG: Did you feel stretched by that experience? Did you have a sense of pull back to this place?

CB: Oh yes. I was always moving back. I was always coming back.


Black Brants near Georgia Strait - charles brandt photo] (2)


DC: At this point in your life, how you would say you’ve grown or changed in your appreciation of spirituality in relation to ecology, and in relation to your place here in Black Creek?

CB: In a way, I’m looking towards eternity now. I’ll be 93 on February 19, [2016], so I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling. And this is my place. I walk out and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community. I feel that I’m part of this community where the natural world and people come and go; and if we don’t, as Thomas Berry says, we’ll perish.


Red-flowering Currant (large) 2, hermitage. March 16, 'l5, charles brandt photo


DC: So, you know the birds: do the birds know you? Do they have a sense you are a person who lives in their neighborhood?


Immature Trumpeter Swans - charles brandt photo


CB: I think the deer know me more than the birds, because the birds are more skittish. But in a way, I’m sure they accept me into their community.


Four-pointer (med. large) Comox June 25 2015 - charles brandt photo


Donald Grayston:

It’s wonderful to hear your story. Many thanks.


~ with cheers from Bruce ~


Postscript from Charles: 











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