Would You Give Up $25,000 A Year To Find'Peace'Doing Chores In An Island Commune?
THE HUMAN CONDITION
Ted Sideras gave up more than that. His daughter (left) and 50 others followed him, to build a mansionand a new life
ALAN EDMONDS Photographs by
WE’D LEFT THE Sideras Place after three days and taken the ferry from Nanaimo back to Vancouver. It was full of nice, normal people — women in pants and miniskirts and men with bulging bellies and sports shirts and business suits and happy kids eating candy and . . . and we couldn’t stand it. We found them — it, the outside — abrasive, even ugly. So we paid three dollars for a private stateroom where there were no people, where there was no outside. We took a reentry course by reading that day’s papers to reassure ourselves that Vietnam was still a mess, pollution had everyone worried sick and they were still walloping one another with hockey sticks in the NHL.
And I remembered George Orton, cofounder of the Sideras Place, saying: “Once I went to a lot of old people and said, ‘Look, you’ve lived most of your span and been places, and are you now where you wanted to be when you began? Are you happy? Was life what you wanted?’ All I got was tales of grief, troubles over money, hassles, regrets over missed opportunities. That’s when I began wondering whether it was worth it — life, I mean. I don’t wonder any more. For us here, it is.”
Before we went there, everything we’d heard about the Sideras Place was bad. In Vancouver, a commune enthusiast said Ted Sideras was a Messianic nut who prayed to the rising sun. A surgeon whose summer place is on the same island said the community had built a seven-foot fence around its land. The skipper of the ferry to the island — it’s between Vancouver Island and the mainland — said that by all accounts they were a bunch of weirdos.
But there remained the enigma: the Sideras Place has survived and grown for four years, a long time for any getaway-from-it-all group even in British Columbia, Canada’s commune country.
It is a North American dream of 1970 to escape the city, flee the rat race and get closer to the “reality” of nature. The cautious who can afford it buy red-brick schoolhouses or farms outside the city and commute. Others start communes, ►
‘Those who come with open minds usually stay. No demands are made
fou see them relaxing, relating to others, cutting trees. It’s nifty to see’
which rarely survive even one summer.
But the city man’s dream persists. When Toronto advertising man Angus Cherrington called a meeting 18 months ago to enlist recruits for an idealized community he proposed in BC, between 300 and 400 people turned up to hear his plan. Cherrington failed to get enough people to put cash where their dreams were. Even so, that was a big audience for a man who 10 years ago would have been called a crackpot. Today, even psychologists running grouptherapy programs — so-called sensitivitytraining seminars, for instance — find a rural setting as part of the communal treatment.
Perhaps, then, we have come full circle from the beginnings of our form of civilization around the fringes of the Mediterranean. The “rational,” precisely
structured cultures of ancient Greece and Rome eventually produced a corruption of moral values, and historians say the Christian ascetics who rebelled against “rationality” in solitary retreat in the deserts of Egypt were the saviors of the society — because they dramatized the prevailing disenchantment. Perhaps the Sideras Place is an example of a widespread rejection of today’s “rational” world and all the irrational conflict it has produced.
But if that is so, what does the Sideras Place have that enables it to survive and grow where other get-away-from-it-all communities fail? It was in hope of finding out why that photographer Don Newlands and I went there.
The islander who drove us 10 miles from ferry dock to colony said he’d heard the Sideras crowd were building a big house and didn’t welcome strangers. The unpaved road was pockmarked with puddles and lined with spruce and fir and birch, except for occasional summer homes. It’s easy to be isolated on those west-coast islands: the nearest neighbor (and phone) to the Sideras Place is a mile away.
The seven-foot battlements turned out to be a three-barred stock fence about four feet high. The entrance had no door or guard, and the house is the first thing you see — a massive schloss-\ike mansion of stone, roofed and half-paneled with hand-split shingles or shakes, and set on the lowest of a series of knolls covered with moss and lichen and struggling brush, all framed, when we arrived, by the deep, dark green of the forest.
As we walked to the front door a girl stepped out. She was, maybe, 22, and beautiful the way country girls are supposed to be: no makeup, naturally curly hair, rosy cheeks, smiling. “Hi,” she-said. “I’m Penny.” I said we wanted Ted Sideras and she said: “Oh, fine. You’re just in time for lunch,” then led us behind the house to a structure of tree trunks and branches covered in heavy ►
Sideras says his life is like gossamer — it vanishes if you try to touch it.
plastic, once transparent but now weathered yellow, cracked in places and patched with sticky tape.
We dodged a few chickens and went through the kitchen where wood-burning stoves were tended by more women like Penny, and then on into the dining area. There were perhaps 30 people there — boys, a couple of girls, but mostly men and women somewhere between 25 and 40. Some sat on benches at a 12-foot table, hand hewn from logs.
Like Penny, everyone looked . . . well, healthy. They also looked intelligent, which isn’t surprising since collectively the 40 adults there have more than 100 years of university education.
Ted Sideras sat at the head of the table. Ted Sideras — sun worshipper, messiah, hypnotic nut lurking behind a sevenfoot barricade? Hardly. Ted Sideras — going bald in front, stoop shouldered, crinkle-eyed, minus a few front teeth, wind-roughened face fenced by a motheaten beard. “Hi,” he said. “Hey, girls, have the locusts around here left anything for these people to eat?”
So we ate homemade bread and storebought butter and cheese, introduced ourselves and began what I came to think of as The Sideras Semantics Samba. What are you people doing here? “Living, and loving it.” What do you mean — do you have some special philosophy or formula for living? “What’s philosophy? A philosophy is a category, and to us there aren’t any. They’re self-defeating.” Well, are you the leader? “Leader my eye. Everybody’s their own leader. I just talk too much and I’m the oldest [he’s 48], so whenever anyone turns up like you, or a parent of one of the younger kids, it gets left to me to try to explain what’s happening. But there aren’t words for it.
“We’re here — 54 of us right now, I think, kids included — living in our own way without any hassle, not trying to live the way society says we should. It’s real nifty . . . but, aw, look, a word can conceal as easily as it can reveal. Just stick
around. Just don’t fall down any cliffs.”
Two bachelors moved out of their room in the main house so we could stay there, while they slept in one of the tents. It had two seven-foot beds built of hand-cut timber, barely softened by foam-rubber mattresses, walls paneled with the ubiquitous hand-cut shingles, an oil lamp. In the hall, school was in session. A dozen or so kids were being taught by the mother of two of them, a woman with a doctorate from Berkeley. The village school was so far away they had, she said, got permission to teach themselves.
Then Ed McClure, a 32-year-old graduate of Stanford University from Belleville, Ontario, showed us the tent area, where most people then still lived. All are set up on wooden platforms, hidden among trees behind the house. Each has a supplementary plastic shelter, is equipped with two or more beds, a handmade chest of drawers, a chair or two. The bigger tents, said McClure, were for families with kids. The others were either for couples or shared by two girls or two men.
One day, with the youngest of his four children on his shoulders, his second wife, Gayle, and a straggle of others along as an audience, Sideras walked by the ocean and talked.
“We’ve had about 1,000 people visit in the past four years,” said Sideras. “A lot of them have been long-haired kids all dressed in beads and things. They come up with all this stuff about pot and hash and acid and astrology and the new morality and doing your own thing — which seems to be a rhetoric that gives everyone license to make everyone else miserable — and when they find that’s not what we’re all about they tell me, ‘You don’t know where it’s at, man.’ Well, they’re not where it’s at, either. What matters is people learning to be what they are without sweat, without hassle, without having to be one up on the guy next door.”
Vhere he lives is secret
Wisconsin-born, he had most recently lived in Medford, Oregon, where he ran a restaurant, an employment agency and a credit-reporting business. He appeared on the brink of making a great deal of money. A key employee and friend was George Orton and the two men spent the summer of 1966 discussing what life meant. Sideras gave up his businesses and the two men and their families — Orton, now 31, has two children — spent a year on Sideras’ ranch. Their conclusion: “Basically we decided that a man is a man as he permits himself to be, not as society wants him to be.”
So in May, 1967, they came to Canada to find a place and bought 80 acres of island. At first they lived in tents. Sideras’ younger brother John joined them with his wife and three children. A couple of young islanders set up tents nearby. By the summer of 1969 there were almost 50, about half Americans, half Canadians. They came because a friend already there had written them, or because they'd heard about the Sideras Place in the so-called hippie underground across Canada. There were anthropologists, sociologists, a lithographer, ex-hippies, fishermen, a welder, a dress designer. Outside, they had been earning from nothing to around $25,000 a year. But there wasn’t a builder among them, and so when the house was begun last year they learned as they went along, and built it from local rocks and trees.
“Most who come to see us just want to reassure themselves that we haven't got something they haven’t, and they don't understand and go,” said Sideras. “The ones who come with open minds to look — they usually stay. They don’t have to pay anything, or do anything. After a while they find no demands of any kind are made on them, and you see them beginning to relax and start relating to the others and doing things they want to do and have to be done anyway — cooking, or cutting down trees, or the laundry, or helping with the house. It’s real nifty to see.”
The economy of the community is sustained by the capital brought by Sideras and Orton and by occasional contributions from newcomers. The mother of a teen-age boy arrived from California recently to take him home, and stayed — contributing a few more thousand dollars to the kitty. “It’s our home now,” she says. They buy food cheaply in bulk from mainland farmers. There is game on the island.
“I don’t see how anyone can say we’re opting out, running away,” said Sideras. “Hell, we’re trying to build something, and that’s a damn sight harder.”
They were dickering with the BC government to buy 640 adjoining acres on a lease-purchase deal, which would be financed at first by capital and maybe later on by marketing their own produce.
They also planned to run a few cattle. They had about five books between them — a dictionary, a book on forestry, one on animal husbandry and a couple of cookbooks. There were a few radios, but the batteries ran out and no one cared enough to replace them.
At the cookhouse door anthropologist Peter Pizey, a bachelor, quit hanging out the laundry to explain that in all formalized societies people were forced into role-playing because “we become what others want us to be.” But at the Sideras Place “we see people as people, perfection in themselves, and we don’t demand anything of one another. We simply love one another for what we are.” That was the nearest we ever came to a specific answer to the question: what does the Sideras Place have that the others don’t?
And then there was Penny: “I was told to go to college to achieve, to fulfill myself and be happy. I tried that at three universities, and it didn’t work. I tried booze and pot, too, and that didn’t work either. I got married — my husband’s a welder — and we weren’t making it, so nine months ago my husband came up here and I followed, to give the marriage a second chance. What did I find? I don’t know the words. Peace, I suppose. It’s like being comfortable all the time. The marriage? Oh, it’s wonderful now.”
Peace. They do seem to have it: they all fall back on the word in trying to explain their lives. They talk quietly, sit comfortably through long silences, and though the children know and live with their own parents they go happily and trustingly to any member of the Sideras “family.”
What was the catch? Was Sideras simply getting people to develop all this land he owned to make it worth thousands? He explained that Maclsaac, Clark and Sinclair, barristers and solicitors of Nanaimo, were presently setting up a cooperative that would own everything. All present residents would have a share at nominal price, perhaps a dollar, and newcomers could buy in only after they had lived with the group for a while. Taxes were low. The community could just go on growing.
What is special about it? I don’t really know why Sideras and Orton and the “family” seem happier than I or my neighbors. I don’t really know why, on the ferry, Newlands and I had to hide.
Ted Sideras said that he was a cynic until he realized that man was more than the society he had created, which sounds strangely like the philosophy of those Christian ascetics who rejected GrecoRoman civilization and went into desert solitude. Sideras also said of the way of life he and his “family” lead: “It’s like gossamer — when you try to touch it, define it, it vanishes.”
That’s why I haven’t told you just where the island is. □