A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Utopia - Sointula B.C. - Faraway So Close!
Thursday, March 06, 2008

In the 15 years I lived in Mexico I never bothered to find out who Vasco de Quiroga was. I thought he was some old Spanish priest involved in the conquest of Mexico and I left it at that.

Some 12 years ago I visited Mexico City and in a shopping mall in the San Angel Inn area of the city I ran into a most unlikely event. In the mall cinema they were having a festival of the films of German director Wim Wenders. His two angel films, Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! are favourites of mine. While I did not have time to catch a film I bought what is now one of my most prized T-shirts, one about Faraway, So Close! but in Spanish, Tan Lejos y Tan Cerca. Reflecting on the T-shirt (I wore it last week) I thought of a place that seems remote in time and location and yet is relatively close. I thought of Sointula and utopias. Let me explain.

Two years ago Rosemary, Rebecca and I went to the state of Michoacán in Mexico and the presence of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga was everywhere. I found out that this priest, who came to New Spain in 1530, somehow had read a copy of Thomas More's Utopia and seeing the plight of the Mexican Indians he decided to communize them. Vasco de Quiroga staked not only his reputation but his money in this project. His communes somehow survived into the 1850s.

When I returned to Vancouver I found the most delightful biography on Quiroga called Thomas More's Magician - A Novel Of Utopia In Mexico. Writer Toby Green follows the footsteps of Quiroga from his birthplace in Spain all the way to Mexico. The biography is a novel in that Green injects conversations that Quiroga may have had in this account that suddenly made our trip to Michoacán and the cities of Morelia, Pátzcuaro and Uruapan make all the sense in the world.

Looking back I remember two other indications of utopia. One was my visit to Thomas More's Chelsea Old Church in London where I photographed the reflections of gothic windows on an illustration of Thomas More that was on the wall. The other connection with utopia was an assignment in December 1994 to illustrate an essay by Taras Grescoe on the utopian Finnish settlement of Sointula on Malcolm Island, B.C. for the Georgia Straight. Photograph, above left is of the graveyard in Sointula.

The founder of the settlement in the beginning of the 19th century was Matti Kurrica (below). Like all utopias this one failed. Its failure was hastened by a terrible fire in 1903.

I look at my picture of the two youngsters, Finnish descendants Jess Willims and Alysha Turner on the 3:40 pm school ferry from Port MacNeil (in 1994 there was no high school in Sointula) and I wonder if they are still on the island or if they have left to search for utopia elsewhere.

Why did Sointula fail? Taras Grescoe, concludes his story with this:

In British Columbia, there has never been much middle ground, no countryside between wilderness and the city. As the frontier shifted westward across North America in the 19th century, the province seemed to be one of the few places left where the remaining territory was commensurate with man's capacity to imagine a completely different social order.

Kurrika's utopia failed - as did thousands of other communes across the continent - because his dreams had something in common with the clearcutting and strip-mining of the most ruthless venture capitalist: they turned the "wilderness" into an abstraction, transforming it into a terrain for ideologies, an enemy to conquer rather than an entity to learn from. Utopia has always been the fragile, pastoral dream of city dwellers. As a site for transforming human nature, it demands a denatured environment. But utopia has a flip side: it is the blank space that appears on the map whenever an equals sign is scrawled between the words "resources" and "nature".

Unlike B.C.'s idealistic utopias this dystopia thrives by creating barren land.

Left a view of Malcolm Island and right, Mauno Ahola, a son of one of the original settlers.

Addendum, February 24, 2008

name: Nicole Laughlin

comments: Every now and then I like to return home and to do
that from Abbotsford it is always easiest to do so by
logging on to the net and typing in Sointula and
waiting to see what loads up. This is how I came to
your site. I am actually Jess' and Alyshas' cousin and
when I read your comment on wondering if they were
still on the Island I thought I would drop a line to
say... no, both have moved away and both now have
families of their own but no matter what, no matter
where you live... home is always Sointula and you
are drawn back for holidays and summer vacations.


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