Father Charles Brandt, who died in late October, was a tireless advocate of the idea of nature as a sacramental commons in which all living things, including us, have dignity and place.
Father Charles Brandt at the hermitage near the Oyster River
THE LAST TIME I went to see Father Charles Brandt, who died of pneumonia in Campbell River on the morning of Sunday, October 25, a stiff southeaster had come blustering up from Seattle and was pushing around a high tide.
White-laced rollers hissed over the shallows off the Oyster River estuary, the same shoals on which Jim McIvor’s schooner had wrecked in a similar sudden blow more than a century before.
McIvor came ashore clinging to a spar, abandoned his plans to join the Klondike gold rush and, from the salvaged wreckage of his ship, built a cabin in the giant timber where farm pasture now sprawls about halfway between Campbell River and Courtenay.
I was early for my meet-up with Charles, so instead of taking Catherwood Road to the secluded hermitage he’d helped found more than half a century earlier—and where he was the last hermit, sustaining himself by repairing rare antiquarian books—I took the old forestry bridge across the lower Oyster, parked my battered truck and killed time walking down to the river mouth.
I took The Padre’s Walk, the trail named for my wife’s grandfather, another man of the cloth who loved and fished the wild river as a way of bleaching the bloody nightmares of The Somme and World War One out of his memory back when McIvor still lived in his shack near the beach and Father Brandt was a toddler on Euclid Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Oyster is a river that wanders when it takes a mind to, so I dawdled through the back channels, stopped at the pool where Susan cast her grandfather’s ashes, watched the brindled backs of several small trout sheltering from a rising freshet in a back eddy behind a knot of willow roots and thought of her father, the grizzled old newspaperman who first brought me here to fish in my own distant youth 50 years ago. His ashes, too, and his wife’s, the life-long fishing companion he met on the Oyster as a leggy teenager, are scattered on the next beloved trout stream south, Black Creek.
I pushed on to the beach.
Wind roared through the canopy above, a strange counterpoint to the gloomy green silence below with its dripping underbrush adorned by glimpses of the river sliding past.
At the beach, a screaming helmet of gulls above the surf, their wings gleaming as the light from a westering sun slanted in under dark layers of cloud. The gulls dipped and wheeled before they dropped to the sea, taking nature’s allotment from the surge, a little epiphany of abundance emerging from chaos.
It struck me then that stepping out of the forest was a passage between worlds; a transition as abrupt as passing through the film that separates the world of fish from the world of birds, both of which Father Brandt thought as sacred as the world of humanity, to which he also ministered—as much by stepping outside its turbulent currents as by plunging into its chaos.
I’m not a religious man, far from it. I’ve lived my entire life in the gritty, utilitarian pragmatism of journalism where there’s little time for reflection, let alone deep meditating upon the natural rhythms of wild places. But I always looked forward to my meetings with Charles, the quiet spirit of contemplative calm.
He lived in a world as different from mine as the world of those noisy seagulls was from the world of those trout idling at the edge of the racing current, dreaming whatever fish dream. Yet after 30 years of talking about the natural world with the hermit of the Oyster River, I’m increasingly inclined to think that everything alive has some level of consciousness, even trees, however incapable we may be of discerning what that might mean or of translating that awareness into intelligible terms of human reference.
I picked up a cobblestone for my garden, one of the rounded Oyster River pebbles distinctive for the snowflake-like quartz intrusions created when the rocks were ejected from some ancient volcano, another reminder of natural boundaries, this one between ancient past and immediate present.
Every visit to Charles was rich with these puzzlements, they seemed to coalesce out of the air. He was 94 on this visit. Below the hermitage, the Oyster grumbled through its channels, the winter rains turning the sunny song of summer into something more ominous.
He told me about surprising a cougar in the woods nearby—it stared at him, a tawny apparition, then vanished into thin air. He told me about a visit by an exotic bird that sized him up and then departed, some passing migrant he hadn’t seen before. He showed me a photo of a lighting redwing blackbird and another of an owl taking unblinking note of its observer.
We chatted about an essay by the British writer Russell Hoban. He wrote about the moment, waking at night next to his sleeping wife in a hut on a Greek island, in which he realized that the world was talking to him in languages most of us have forgotten—the wind snuffling around the eaves, the water dripping into the cistern, the distant susurration of surf, the sound of rain spattering against the roof tree; how we use “our little language of words to describe the big language of nightfall”—or of steelhead cutting through surging rivers like silver scalpels or cougars that come and go from our noisy lives unseen and unheard.
Charles was always turning thoughts like these over in his mind, always considering meanings. He was a tireless advocate of the idea of nature as a sacramental commons in which all living things, including us, have dignity and place. And even things that don’t live as we conceive the notion: snowflake rocks, water moving over stone, the wind over vasty deeps, the rosy flush of sunset on a mountain glacier.
He brought a remarkable humility to these meditations.
One of the jokes he loved to tell on himself was the day he had travelled to Campbell River and was looking for the post office. He asked a young man on the street for directions and, as he went on his way, invited him to visit the hermitage.
“I’ll show you the way to heaven,” Charles said.
“No thanks,” came the reply. “You can’t even find the post office.”
Perhaps, though, that young man should have taken him up on the offer. Many have discovered that his teachings were really about self-worth—about how the sacred infuses the natural world and that to disrespect, degrade and destroy it is really to disrespect, degrade and destroy what is divine both in our shared humanity and in the home we also share.
Charles was 97 when he slipped away in the embrace of what some who see dying as a natural part of living call “the old man’s friend.”
I’m sad to have been deprived of his friendship but, as he’d have pointed out, that sadness is really a bit of selfishness, a desire to keep for ourselves something that was never ours to keep. Charles has simply gone where he was always meant to go and after a long, fulfilled and fulfilling life of helping the rest of us at that.
He was trained as a scientist, served three years as an Army Air Force navigator in World War Two, was ordained as an Episcopalian, found himself drawn to Roman Catholicism and then met the mystic Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who told him of the eremitic tradition in the early Christian church, the desert brothers who built huts in the wilderness, or lived in caves, or even holes in the ground in order to dispense with the busy distractions of civilization.
The idea stuck with him.
In 1966, he was ordained by Bishop Remi De Roo as the first hermit monk in several hundred years of Catholic Church history. The bishop granted permission to find an appropriate site and then found a hermitage. He did so, at first with eight and then with 13 other monks near Merville, a farming community founded in 1919 to settle returning World War One veterans and then razed by a fast-moving forest inferno in 1922, seven months before Charles was born. The Merville religious community dispersed, but Charles established an individual hermitage on the Oyster River in the spring of 1970.
Hermit monks are expected to sustain themselves. Charles found his way in his own past. He’d earned a merit badge in bookbinding as an Eagle Scout in 1937. It was a portable skill and one that loaned itself to solitude. He went back to school, refreshed his knowledge and became one of Canada’s leading conservators of antiquarian books and manuscripts serving as chief conservator for artistic and historic works on paper for the Manitoba Archives, teaching a course on curatorial care for ancient documents at the University of Victoria, and building a conservation lab with library and study at the hermitage.
Merton’s philosophy remained with him, too. In 1985, when he heard of the fate of the Tsolum River, a tributary of the Puntledge River in Courtenay that had been poisoned by acid leaching from waste rock at a briefly-lived mine on Mount Washington, he began to organize support for a local effort to pressure government to restore and preserve the river.
Today, salmon, trout, otters, eagles, bears and all the other creatures that the river sustains have returned.
On the Oyster River, he launched a similar initiative to restore a river that had been badly battered by heedless logging on the steep slopes of the upper watershed; by landowners who sought to tame the wild river’s propensity to wander by channelizing the lower reaches with riprap that speeded the flow and altered the natural hydrology; and by industrial recreation that gouged a boat basin into the previously natural estuary.
Some felt despair but Charles provided a unifying vision of what might be. He framed it with the idea of the sacramental commons. A community rallied, determined to do better by the little river—and by each other. Forestry workers, scientists, environmentalists, anglers, and farmers were encouraged to find common ground and so they did.
Collective management of the Oyster River watershed, still imperfect as human causes always are but nevertheless a remarkable coalition of interests, emerged as a model for cooperative stewardship of something that’s now alive as a stewardship idea, as a resource and as part of the bigger fabric of life itself.
There’s a popular misconception that hermits must cut themselves off from the world, rejecting the hurly-burly of living in society for asceticism and austerity. Hermits did once retreat to the wilderness so they could distance themselves from the distractions of humanity and so they could better dedicate themselves entirely to the service of God.
But sometimes God wants a more engaged service and so the completely isolated hermit was never the hermit that Charles became. If the world was infused with the divine, then that’s where he was called to be, deeply engaged with both the natural world around him—the society of plants and animals—and the human community with which that natural world is inextricably entangled. Father Brandt the hermit priest departs this world deeply esteemed for his great accomplishment: the reconciliation of factions that thought themselves opposed; the creation of consensus about what needs to be done to restore the natural world in sustainable ways; the persuasion of government, industry and community to take up the mantle of stewardship that he argued was their duty, as much to themselves as to the environment.
His friend Kathryn Jones tells me that Charles made arrangements to donate his property to the Comox Valley Regional District with a reserve around the hermitage established half a century ago. It’s to be maintained by the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society. I’m told another contemplative soul is already in residence.
And that’s the sacred mystery and wonder of it that Charles understood. We all must perish in this life. Yet life goes on. Our duty is to nurture it as best we can.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.