You might say Ruth Masters, Comox Valley’s most loved, respected and despised environmentalist, was the first Comox Valley resident I knew anything of after moving to the valley in 1993. It was quite the introduction. After buying a building lot in Comox, I set up camp in a small shed to serve as home while I built our accessible home for four. Day two after moving into the 10’x10’,my neighbor came over to visit. He brought a six pack of beer and a friendly smile. After a hand shake and exchange of names, he got directly to the matter weighing on his mind. “You don’t happen to know that Ruth Masters do you?” he asked a bit suspiciously for the proffered beer, smile and hand shake.”No, I haven’t even heard of anyone by that name.” “Oh, good!” He seemed to give a profound sigh of relief at my reply.
Still not fully sure he found the answer he was looking for, though obviously relieved, he unburdened his deepest concern, “So you aren’t one of those ‘environmental types’ then?” Yikes, for a minute I was afraid someone had given him a copy of one of my “Ecoview” columns from the Grand Forks Gazette. I was evasive. Evasive enough. The neighbor relaxed and popped the tab on two of the six beer. Shaking his head he went on to explain, “We have this crazy environmentalist woman in the valley. Ya know she goes around saving bears and trees and, if she had her way, we’d all be living in tents until some bear or deer wanted our spot.” He was actually a gentle old man given to colourful hyperbole but a generous neighbor (brought me beer almost every day while I was building our family home. And he, fortunately, died at peace never having seen the engraved serving spoon hanging on my bedroom wall–the dearly treasured spoon Ruth Master brought around to my place after one of my hapless efforts to get Comox Council to expand their limited plan for greenways in the town.
Given that many of the details of Ruth’s life and dedication to a sustainable Comox Valley have already been written, I would like to share/remember a few memories that will likely not be mentioned in the eulogies and reportage of the life of this most enigmatic and wonderful woman.
For instance, Ruth’s devotion to outdoor hiking, canoeing, enjoying the natural world is widely known. Her name and naming is all over the mountains, lakes, glacier, trails of northern Vancouver Island. Many, many are the trails she helped to construct. However, few may be aware that as age began to crimp Ruth’s ability to hike herself she became a devoted advocate and supporter of those who were out enjoying the outdoors. Often knowing of a particular hike by the Comox and District Mountaineering Club–or any hike she happened to hear of, Ruth would slip off to the trail head just before the wilderness sojourners were due to return and leave cookies and apple juice for the tired and hungry hikers who had been living on the limited menu coming out of a backpack. What a gift it was to arrive back at the trail head after a week hiking over difficult terrain to find Ruth had been there with her little “reward.”
One really important part of the life of Ruth Masters that will likely go unnoticed elsewhere is the “Ruth Masters Chuckle”. It was a chuckle as only Ruth could chuckle. It started deep in her chest and just gurgled up, bubbling through her body, effervescing a deep joy and happiness with life that only Ruth could express. And it wasn’t just about a good or jocular event. Sometimes Ruth just bubbled with the chuckle when things were tough, when we weren’t winning. It wasn’t about an externally supplied happiness. It was much deeper and more pervasive. It was—well it was Ruth. It made even her severest critics stop to realize that they were dealing with a very different level of perception and commitment. It wouldn’t get discouraged and it wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t even burn itself out being angry. It was just vintage Ruth.
And that brings up the other incredible thing about Ruth. She could be as opposed as anyone could get to some proposed or in progress development, but–as far as I know–Ruth was neither angry nor unhappy; she was just determined—very determined. I could never get a direct reply from Ruth on this—if she even understood it well herself—but there was in Ruth a spirit, a rare spirit, that was happy that she could be here to care for this beautiful planet. Other people could do things that she opposed with all her might, but Ruth never took it in. It was good enough that she could stand up for what she believed in and she was happy–utterly happy–to be working toward a better world. I have seen so many environmentalists and social justice advocates get angry and unhappy and burn out because the world is so far sort of their ideals, but Ruth never burned out–it was enough for her to be doing what she believed was right.
For instance, you won’t likely hear this elsewhere, there was the harmonica—which she played well and used it to entertained many who needed the lift that only music can offer. But there were some she played the harmonica for who didn’t need a lift; they needed to know that the cigarette they were smoking was going to kill them. Many times I’ve seen Ruth approach someone smoking—she was aghast at environmentalists that smoked—she would pull out her harmonica, which she carried with her always, and approach the smoker with a smile–a disconcerting smile. She had a standard line, which she used over and over—like a recording, “Hello (she didn’t need to know the person to be concerned about their well-being); you know, I have so many friends for whom I have played the taps after they could no longer hear or be comforted by the music that I have taken to playing taps for all my smoking friends before that nasty weed puts them in a pine box. At which she would pull out her harmonica and play the taps (beautifully). I know of at least one person who quit smoking immediately after Ruth’s message and music.
Ruth had her flaws. Gads, my neighbor was right she was nuts about bears. One time we were out hiking a long way from any kind of road when we came on a very young bear cub that, seeing us, ran and scurried a long ways up a large Douglas Fir. I wanted to get out of there quick, but Ruth had to go over to the tree and apologize for scaring the poor little bear assuring him that we meant no harm. I was only thinking of the harm mother bear would mean on us when she saw us so interested in her cub. It all turned out well enough ( I don’t know why) and I never told–and Ruth never guessed–that I took to carrying a can of bear spray on hikes with Ruth.
Ruth will be greatly missed. We inherit a much better world for her being with us. We are much better people for having associated with her.