Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The teachers and the hippies

Argenta, British Columbia is pretty far away from almost everything that most people have heard of. One way to get there is to drive along the Trans-Canada highway until you get to Revelstoke (population 7500, located about six hours east of Vancouver and five hours west of Calgary). Head south on road 23. Argenta is 237 km (142 miles) to the south of Revelstoke. Figure on taking about four hours, averaging about 35 mph but often going quite a bit slower. Part of the journey involves taking the world-famous Shelter Bay Galena Bay ferry for about three miles across a wide spot of the Columbia river.

There is a Quaker Meeting in Argenta. It was established in the 1950s by three families who had been school teachers in California during the McCarthy Era. During the height of the paranoid dread of Communism that grabbed hold of the United States, the state of California required all school teachers and other employees of the school system, including janitors and bus drivers, to swear an oath of loyalty to the United States. Quakers do not swear oaths; to know why, read the Gospel of Matthew 5:33–37. People who did not swear oaths during the McCarthy era were not allowed to work for the public school system. So John and Helen Stevenson and George and Mary Pollard and their families moved to Canada and eventually settled in a tiny settlement on glacier-fed Kootenay Lake. They were joined by four other Quaker families and eventually founded the Delta Co-operativeand a small Quaker school.

I met John and Helen Stevenson at a Yearly Meeting of Quakers in the late spring of 1967, just a few months after arriving in Canada as a draft-dodger, and somehow an invitation to visit Argenta was offered and accepted, so my newly acquired bride and I drove from Winnipeg to Argenta, via the route that involves taking the Shelter Bay Galena Bay ferry. When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed and told we could stay for as long as we liked in any one of the unoccupied cabins.

Being accustomed to the ways of the world, I was uneasy about moving into a cabin before knowing who owned it and how much rent I would be expected to pay. I was stunned to learn that most of what was there did not belong to anyone in particular. Things belonged to the community as a whole. If a cabin was empty, we could stay there. Of course, it would always be appreciated if we pitched in with whatever work that needed to be done. I learned to milk the community cow and took on the responsibility of doing that twice a day, and I worked in the community garden for a couple of hours every morning. That seemed to be the only “rent” that anyone expected in return for having a place to sleep and joining the community for three meals a day, all cooked on a big wood-burning stove. As drawn as I was to theidea of radical communism, I never did get over being uneasy with the practice. I thought I needed money, even though there was no need to buy much of anything. I was used to making around $80 a week doing menial labor, and I could not adjust to the idea that the average annual income for the citizens of Argenta was around $600, about 15% of what I was used to making.

On First Day (which expression Quakers used to prefer to Sunday) we attended the unprogrammed meeting for worship in the Meetinghouse the Friends had built in the 1950s. It was roughhewn and simple, and it served several functions. It suited my tastes perfectly. The people who attended meetings for worship were delightful. When they spoke, it was always worth listening. One regular attender named George rarely spoke, but on most weeks he would stand and whistle a hymn. I had never heard anyone whistle so beautifully. George was a nudist. He wore a shirt and trousers to meetings for worship, but most of the time he walked around the wooded mountains wearing no more than he was born with. That feat amazed me, especially as I became acquainted with the thick clouds of aggressively hungry mosquitoes that drove both human beings and animals frantic. George did not mind them at all. He fed them with the same loving kindness that he manifested in everything he did.

Sometime during the summer of 1967, a van full of hippies pulled into Argenta. Like me, they were evading the draft and seeking sanity and refuge in Canada. They were lively, full of interesting conversation and open to experimenting with Quaker meetings for worship. The Quakers were every bit as hospitable to them as they had been to me—at first. It did not take long, however, to learn that the hippies also liked to smoke marijuana and use LSD, and—more alarming—that they were quite a bit more casual than the Quakers about sex. It was not long before some of the Quakers were expressing concern about the students attending the Argenta Friends School. It would not do, they reasoned, to send pregnant daughters and drug-using sons back to their parents in Philadelphia. Quaker parents, said the concerned Friends, do not send their children to Quaker schools to be turned into hippies. A crisis had emerged within the community.

A special business meeting was held to work through the crisis. Some Friends expressed the concerns outlined above. Others pointed out that Quakers have always struck mainstream society as radical, experimental, non-conformist seekers, and Quakers have a long history of landing in jail for their non-conformist ways. Hippies were not so different from the radical Quakers of the past and the present. Besides, they were in favor of making love, not war, and Quakers ought to embrace everyone who is dedicated to cultivating the virtues that are the occasion of harmony and peace rather than conflict and war.

The disagreements that arose at that meeting were expressions of deeply held convictions that seemed at first irreconcilable. And yet no tempers flared. People spoke. People listened. The atmosphere was charged not only with disagreement but with love. The love triumphed. A solution was found. Unity was reached. Now, more than forty years later, I have completely forgotten the details of the solution, but I shall never forget the love with which it emerged. The hippies continued to live nearby and to come to meetings for worship when they pleased, but somehow they were gently persuaded to keep some of their behavior to themselves, at least until the more cautious Quakers had a chance to make a more considered assessment of ways that struck them as a little too worldly and un-Quakerly.

Being in the presence of Quakers striving to reach unity on a perplexing and potentially divisive problem allowed me to witness a process that became for me a paradigm of how conflicts should be resolved. Even in years when I had almost no contact with Quakers, the Quaker process remained my model.

Turning points in one's life can be astonishingly brief. When I look back on the Argenta experience, it feels as though it had such a profound effect on me that I must have been there for years, perhaps decades. In fact, I think the stay in Argenta was not much more than six weeks. By mid-summer my bride and I were taking the Shelter Bay Galena Bay ferry in the opposite direction and heading back to Revelstoke and heading from there in the direction of Calgary. I have never been back to Argenta. There has been no need. Argenta has never left me.


pcn said...

What a wonderful post!
Thank You.

I had a brief expierence with Argenta in 1980. What a profound experience it was, almost life altering, and in a way I can't describe how or fully why.

I still feel heavily influenced by it. That was a three day camping trip, and a later visit on my own at Christmas.

It was vibrant in it's own way back then. And yes, the hippies and Quakers were co-existing well, from what I could see.

Personally though, I still love BC and that part of it. In a way I am looking forward to going back, and seeing new places too.
Odd, it's easier for you, but I am in Ont. right now.

Anonymous said...

I came upon your blog doing a google search on Argenta. I recently joined a spiritual group in Seattle and met a video editor there who was working on a project about a man in Canada who ran a program for troubled teens in the 70s and 80s. I said that I actually knew someone who was in Canada for those reasons. My younger brother Eric (the red head)was sent to Argenta in his teens because of drug and behavioral problems. He graduated from a school there but passed away tragically when he was 25. Our family lived in Montclair, NJ at the time he went there. Last year at my Father's 80th birthday he gave me Eric's memory book and it had many pictures of him and others at Argenta in the late 70s. Eric was definately in the middle of the hippie/Quaker thing there. he wrote a book about a guy who had a magic cowboy hat that would take him back to the Wild West. Fond memories made me go searching for the past and I came upon your nice post. Thanks! David Krause

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I've always wanted to visit Argenta (I grew up in Nelson) but it's not the easiest place to get to. Every Quaker I've met has impressed me with their welcoming nature and strong convictions.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Argenta in the early '80's and attended the Friends School.
I moved away from home at 17 to change a life ruled by drugs, anger, and teen confusion.
The school offered the prospect of renewal, a change to grow.I had never milked a goat, been a vegetarian , or baked bread. Let alone met others who lived this everyday.
I still can't get over the beauty and energy of Argenta. The many amazing people who were our teachers, mentors,and friends. Experiences, good and bad, that I would not trade for anything.

Paul evans said...

I went to school there in 1968-1969, was best experience ever, learn how to take care of myself in a,farm community,milking the cow in the morning and at night at the Posters. House for 4 months , then to new house house built that year run by the kinnards. Learning to make bread and yogart. Andy and Kristen. We're great house parents. Met exchange student Ishmel. Lebanon. Remembering the good time he like to walk around with no shoes , even in winter months. All the snow. Skiing up in the mountains with Dan Phelps , one of our teachers, there was only 3 of us in class. Me, Mary Winter from Ann arbor, and the Pollard son or grand son. The time the new sauna caught fire with me and Andy inside.

pcn said...

I was there visiting in late 1980-'81. I can only imagine what the energy was like there in the late '60's and 70's. And I wonder if i had ever met any of the people posting here.
I expect many people who spent time there have had profound personal experiences that can't be and shouldn't be put into words.
Last spring I made it to Kaslo, staying at Ainsworth hot springs. Didn't have the time to go over to Argenta, because when i get there again, i want to spend some quality time there.
(Paul E. - Did you mean 'Polster's'?)