THE ORACLE OF OYSTER RIVER ~ Hakai Magazine

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Father Charles Brandt—a priest and modern-day contemplative—on the steps of his hermitage overlooking the Oyster River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by Grant Callegari

On Vancouver Island, a hermit-priest has spent a lifetime contemplating the natural world. At 95, he has come to believe there is a way we can save it.

by  Brian Payton
September 11, 2018

This article is also available in audio format. Listen now, download,

Congratulations to Brian Payton on winning a Digital Publishing Awardfor this article.

It is early morning with its quiet coolness. I walk out the old logging road. … The logging road along with other trails through the forest is where I practice walking meditation. I do not think of the road as leading anywhere. It is the road to nowhere, the path on which I journey and have been journeying for a lifetime. Although it is the path to nowhere, in reality it is the way to everywhere, because it enables me to enter into communion with the whole community of beings.
—from Self and Environment by Charles Brandt

Slow down. Take a breath. Attend. Insight takes time. Charles Brandt has been meditating and praying on the east coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island since 1965. Over that time, he has come to some elegant conclusions about our place in the natural world. He gathered them slowly, through solitude, study, and quiet contemplation. He has acted upon them. Brandt is a Catholic hermit, priest, ornithologist, flight navigator, book conservator, and naturalist. The solitary path he has taken in life can be seen as both a radical departure from and a return to first principles.

Brandt’s hermitage lies at the end of an old logging road near the Oyster River. Surrounded by coastal temperate rainforest, it is a simple, two-story home made of shiplap cedar planks. It has plenty of windows, indoor plumbing, electricity, and internet access. It is a very long way from the Egyptian caves of the Desert Fathers, the first Christian hermits, who inspired him. Brandt built it himself and named it Merton House in honor of Thomas Merton, the author of TheSeven Storey Mountain, the autobiographical account of a young man’s search for faith that is considered one of the most influential religious works of the 20th century.

Brandt is a calming presence, with eyes reflective of having reached both advanced age and wisdom. He seems perfectly present as he holds you in his gaze. He is tall and poised. He wears a loose-fitting sweater and old running shoes; not a clerical collar or habit. He appears not unlike other healthy people his age. And yet he is one in many millions—an ordained Roman Catholic hermit-priest. Although he relies on a walker, he does not hesitate to climb the stairs to his library where he keeps his copy of The Seven Storey Mountain as well as the other books on spirituality, philosophy, and ecology that have shaped him.

Brandt spends time in his study, to read, write, and work on his legacy. Photo by Grant Callegari

Back downstairs, he settles into a comfortable chair between his tidy desk and kitchen. Out every window is the view of understory and the trunks of towering trees.

“I was called to this life,” Brandt explains. “You don’t see anybody or hear anybody. [My hermitage] is on a beautiful salmon river. It’s just ideal for this kind of life.”

For over half a century, Brandt has walked the quiet road leading to his hermitage, his “road to nowhere.” As revelations of abuse and cover-ups eroded the moral authority of the Catholic Church around the world, he continued to meditate, pray, and observe the natural world around him. Over time, he came to consider himself not a theologian but an ecologian. Now, as he approaches the end of his journey, he is taking steps to ensure this land and hermitage are preserved in perpetuity. He also hopes the insights of his generation of ecological thinkers will live on beyond him.

Brandt was 13 when he fell under the spell of the man who famously went to live alone in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts—Henry David Thoreau, the renowned 19th-century American essayist, naturalist, abolitionist, and philosopher. Growing up on a farm near Kansas City, Missouri, Brandt was himself already a budding naturalist and avid birder in 1936 when he first got his hands on a copy of Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden. He was particularly taken with Thoreau’s attempt to develop awareness and empathy for the natural world, honing what Brandt calls the “latent senses.”

“He was my childhood hero,” Brandt says. “He went to the woods to find out what life was all about so that he would not have lived in vain.”

A bible bound by Brandt, a bookbinder by trade. The hermit has worked on near priceless tomes, including an original work by James Audubon. Photo by Grant Callegari

After high school, Brandt studied general science and biology at the University of Missouri, and soon realized that his true interest lay in natural history. The Second World War interrupted his post-secondary studies. Brandt enlisted in the US Air Force Reserve and trained as a navigator flying bombers. He did not declare himself a conscientious objector, but became deeply conflicted about his upcoming role in the war and sought the counsel of an Air Force chaplain. Then the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war came to an end. Brandt never saw active duty overseas. After his discharge, he continued to seek spiritual guidance. He also followed his interest in the natural world to Cornell University, where he studied ornithology, took part in a birdsong recording project, and earned a bachelor of science degree.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

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