Glenwood Inn and rematriation | Opinion

by Brynna Bird

In the winter months, the Northwest shore of Orcas Island is perhaps one of the quietest parts of the island — and the darkest as well, with no sunlight reaching the beach. The wildlife is abundant: deer, river otters, bald eagles, loons, and herons all thrive in the stillness. West of the airport, past the rocky point some know as “Stonehenge,” there is a string of houses whose windows don’t light up at night. Beyond that lies North Beach Inn, fronting a quarter-mile sweep of pebble beach, with over a dozen cottages that are also vacant in the off-season. At the end of this stretch, just before a second point (with the sheer cliffs rising to form Point Doughty visible beyond), there are three more cottages that have clearly seen better days. The otters found their way inside, and just a few years of winter weather with no maintenance has taken its toll on the buildings. With a steep wall of green behind the cottages hiding a driveway, passersby have no idea of the extent of the property which contains them.

But if you happened to follow an otter trail up the cliff just beyond the point, holding onto cedar limbs like outstretched arms, you would pop up into what feels like another world, lost in time. A century-old inn looks grandly across an expanse of meadow, then empty sky, then the ocean far below, more islands beyond, and the distantly glimmering towers of Vancouver at the horizon.

It is a fascinating sight, this building — architecturally beautiful, yet falling to disrepair, the tar paper of an unfinished addition sighing in the breeze. You might creep around the edges of the empty paddocks, past the stables and potting shed, until you decide that there’s probably no one watching you from an upstairs window. A deer will startle you in the overgrown garden, posing next to statues of a buck and doe. You might fall in love with this place over the months, then years, and find others like yourself who also walk the grounds in reverence. You will compare notes with them on what you have discovered about the history of the place, its deceased owners, and its possible futures. You may even begin to feel the spirit of the land, which seems lonely for all the families who used to visit every summer, and for the people who had longhouses and fishing settlements here since time immemorial.

It seems so obvious to you how much this property would benefit the community if it were preserved for the public domain. Oh, imagine the food that could be grown in these fields, and the nature-therapy programs! Imagine the makerspace that could go in that seven-car garage! The public could have real shoreline access.

The former owner was a philanthropist who was heavily involved in the early days of the food bank. In the will, with no heirs to speak of, the property must be sold for the highest possible price, with the proceeds going back to nonprofit organizations, including the food bank. Now, this plan will certainly be a boon for a few fortunate nonprofits, and local residents may benefit indirectly. But this means that our new neighbor will likely be someone who can afford to not be here for most of the time, someone we may never meet, and someone who might not feel compelled to share the bounty.

In my years growing up on Orcas, and (perhaps most importantly) with the perspective gained from time away from the island, I have come to realize a central conflict of values that underpins most of the public discourse — and county policy — on economics and land-use. There are those who see this place as an escape, a chance to “get away from it all” at a second home or vacation rental, or at a retirement estate after a long career. They may want to be anonymous, and perhaps never even see their neighbors.

Conversely, there are those who are drawn here, and remain, because of the lure of community closeness. They may wish to raise their children in a place where their names will be known, and may desire to live in a more sustainable, interdependent way. These are the kind of people who march in the Solstice Parade and create grassroots organizations to realize their visions of a connected island. And they have, over the decades, fostered the creative culture that is now quietly fading away. For the more people pay for a chance to live here, or even visit, the more they alter the nature of the place. Money speaks, and the culture listens. Those who tend to generate the most community spirit — for it is an active process, not a given — now must devote more of their energy to remaining housed, if they can afford to stay here at all.

Much like the way ecological succession works — where one or more “pioneer” plant species can affect a piece of barren land just enough for another set of plants to grow, leading to more plants and lifeforms, and so on, until there is a biologically complex ecosystem — we can think of this island’s history in terms of “economic succession.”

However, in this case, the process moves in the opposite direction, going from ultimate biodiversity and wild habitats to vast orchards of fruit trees to relatively sterile fields and forests. The way the land looks over time, of course, has everything to do with humans’ relationship to it, and this has been primarily driven by economic terms for the last two hundred years.

For the original inhabitants of the San Juan Islands, the health of the land and the sea was paramount. When all the creatures were thriving, when the forests and kelp-beds were rich, then the people were abundant. But when they were forcibly removed to reservations on the mainland, and the land was settled by homesteaders, the earth was no longer tended for its own sake, in a reciprocal and loving way, but purely for the economic gain that could be extracted.

Forests were clear-cut for timber (for boats and homes in Seattle) and to make way for the orchards that at one point produced most of the fruit for the Pacific Northwest. When new dams created more productive orchards in Eastern Washington, most of the homesteaders sold off parcels of their land as the economy shifted to resort tourism. (Both Glenwood Inn and North Beach Inn come from the same 200 acre apple farm, and both still contain heritage fruit trees.)

At present, residents of this island have many ways of making a living, but few involve working the land. Those that do have large landholdings frequently have their acreage preserved as “conservation easements,” receiving a subsidy in exchange for keeping the land undeveloped, including mowing the large fields that provide much of the charming views from the roads. This topic is explored in depth in the dissertation “Reclaiming Rural Character: Conservation, Conflict, and the Nostalgic Landscapes of Orcas Island, Washington” by Sharon L. Baskind-Wing. The economy that is now emerging on the island is that of the investment portfolio, where owning property on Orcas, even if one never or rarely visits, is seen as a status symbol. Unfortunately, this mindset degrades our connection to the land even further, making its value purely symbolic, and creating even more barriers to those who genuinely wish to farm and live in more ecologically-appropriate ways.

A huge part of the appeal of the San Juan Islands is the natural beauty, which feels wild and untouched in comparison with the greater Puget Sound.

In an environment like this, which looks healthy (to the untrained eye), it can be easy to forget how many of the world’s ecosystems are currently in crisis. Because of our county’s economic advantage, we have been spared from having any unsightly and polluting heavy industry in our backyard — yet our dependence on the ferries for importing food and mainland convenience makes our fossil fuel footprint much larger than we’d care to admit.

If we want to be as progressive and enlightened as we may claim to be, we have to accept this paradox: living “close to nature” is a lifestyle, not a real estate decision, and it’s nearly impossible to truly do it alone.

Furthermore, when we look at this beautiful landscape through different lenses, we realize just how much is missing from the picture. From a farmer’s perspective, those empty fields could be growing the island’s food. To an ecologist, the forests are crowded with immature trees, and critters that should be there are absent. To a dreamer, the meadows are clearly missing their Hobbit-houses and gardens. To those experiencing housing instability, the seasonally empty cottages and mansions can feel insulting. To any person of culture, the island’s population is overwhelmingly European-American, with a very obvious lack of representation of Indigenous people and history.

This is another paradox we must stomach: the reason we can exist here at all is because of someone else’s exile. According to the book “Rights Remembered: Memories of a Salish Grandmother,” eighteen longhouses on Orcas Island alone were burned to the ground by order of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the promise of compensation that never came. And what could even repay that loss?

Prior to colonization, Indigenous people across the world stewarded the land on which they lived as though it were a mother that loved them and provided their nourishment.

Remarkably, after wading through deep intergenerational trauma, the people who are now leading the movement for radical land stewardship are Indigenous- and Black-led cooperatives. If we truly want to learn how to live well on the land, and to heal in community, these are the people we should be looking to work with. For although many of their ancestral teachings were outlawed or discriminated against in previous generations, this new wave of stewards and healers are actively re-learning skills and growing bio-cultural diversity wherever they are rooted. Could we welcome them into our own neighborhood?

The Glenwood Inn property invites a new paradigm of relating to the land, even in purely practical terms.

Because of its acreage and the condition that most of the buildings are currently in, a significant amount of work will be needed to restore and maintain its potential.

For a buyer with unlimited funds, it would be no issue to hire a team of builders and groundskeepers — if enough workers can even be found. In this scenario, it may be necessary to create on-site housing for employees who are brought from off the island. If this is the case, could we not also imagine an alternate outcome, where the same number of people (or more) are living on and stewarding the property under much different terms?

If a community land trust administered the residential and agricultural portions of the property, existing housing stock could be renovated and further units built, according to current zoning and septic allowances, with sustainability and low-impact methods in mind. Initial residents would be individuals with relevant skill sets, as well as those who are eager to learn, and most or all of their rent would be paid through their labor investment. As the fields become productive, the bounty could be shared with the greater community, and this experimental model of land-based living and working could be replicated in areas across the islands.

We are at a crossroads as a community: we can continue our current trajectory and watch this island grow ever more exclusive and unattainable until we are also displaced from the land that holds our hearts. Or we can collaborate across our differences, try new things, and nurture the abundant harvest this island is capable of, having created a joyous, diverse culture in the process.

A word that comes up often in permaculture and regenerative agriculture circles is “rematriation” — returning to a way of living that honors the sacred Mother which sustains all of creation. When we breathe life into the matriarchy, we animate the values of consensus, reciprocity, and fair distribution of resources.

Considering the ecological and economic crises that we are bound to weather in our lifetime, these organizational principles are sure to help us survive with resilience. It will be a long process to reach this point, yet the mycelium is already growing, connecting well-established “mother trees” to juvenile saplings in a network of care — both in the forest and in our human community.

When we look at a property like Glenwood Inn, we must see beyond its economic value, and even beyond its past and the way it looks now. We are only limited by our imagination, and by the variety of minds we allow at the table. Let’s not allow this opportunity to go to waste — instead, let’s imagine the land rematriated, held by a community trust, and flourishing in relationship with the people and animals who love being there.