The Hermit Ecologist of the Tsolum River
“ Charles Brandt was born in 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri. He moved at the age of three to a small acreage where “there was a small stream where I fished for crawdads and perch and every tree had a bird’s nest.” At 14, as an Eagle Scout, he earned a merit badge in bookbinding. The Boy Scout tribe of Mic-o-Say had a big influence on his life. “I took vows to God, mother and country. The country meant the earth to me. It was a vow to preserve and save the earth and the great process of evolution that was unfolding.”
Studies in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Missouri were interrupted by war. In 1943, Brandt trained as a radar-navigator in the US Army Air Corps. In 1946 he was a Cornell University studying ornithology and became involved with its Bird Sound Recording Laboratory where he received the A.R. Brand Fellowship.
By 1948 he had decided to study for Anglican Holy Orders. After three years of Anglican Seminary at Nashotah House, Wisconsin, he travelled to England where he was ordained an Anglican Priest at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield. Upon his return to the U.S., he spent a year studying the Catholic faith at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Shawnee, Oklahoma.
While there he learned bookbinding from on of the brother months. On being received into the Catholic church he entered New Melleray Trappist Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa in 1956. “One of the monks there knew I had a bit of bookbinding experience so I was put in the bindery and at first made cloth case bindings but then leather – missals for the altar. We’d get parts from Belgium and put them together and re-sew them and make large choir books.”
In 1964, he heard about a group of hermits on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and decided to join them.
Later, he was to build his own hermitage not far away on the Tsolum River. In 1967 he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood by Bishop Remi De Roo, with the mandate to live the life of a hermit-priest, the first such specific ordination in the Catholic church in over 200 years.
Brandt discovered that not only did he have to build his own hermitage but had to earn a living. He had some equipment but not enough so he wrote to the monks in Lafayette, Oregon who had a big commercial bindery. “I asked them if they could send me any equipment, which they did: a job backer, a Kwikprint machine, and many papers. So now I had a hermitage and a bindery but no clients.”
“A long and winding driveway off Catherwood Road leads to the home of Father Charles Brandt, a priest of the Roman Catholic Church who lives a solitary life on a 30-acre spread next to the Oyster River.
He is a hermit priest.
A sliding glass door opens into a conservation lab at the front of a cedar house. It is where Brandt plies his trade as a book and paper conservator.
Along with an assortment of materials and tools, the lab contains a camera — evidence of a hobby at which the 88-year-old native of Kansas City, Mo. excels.
Upstairs is a library predominated by the writings of Thomas Merton — one of his heroes — and books about birds — one of his favourite subjects to photograph.
At the back of the house is the kitchen, where Brandt hosts twice-monthly meditation sessions with a small group.
It was through the sliding glass door in the kitchen where he once photographed a cougar that had followed him from the river. Brandt recalls it had been “absolutely quiet” that day while he sat on a bench above the river.
“I couldn’t see him,” he said of the cat. “I heard these robins excitedly calling. I looked over my shoulder, and couldn’t see anything. I walk into the house and closed the door. Then I looked out. At first I thought it was a deer — that’s the path they come up — but there was a cougar. And it stayed around for a while.”
Using a digital Canon Mark 3 with 200-mm lens, he snapped a picture of the approximately 15-foot cougar, which promptly fell asleep in the shade underneath a tree at the bottom of the backstairs.
“There’s no vibration, so I can get pretty good shots,” said Brandt, whose face and physique bely his age. “I always have a camera in the van, so if I see something I photograph it.”
Brandt started out by using a “simple camera” when he took a photography course at Cornell University in New York, from where he obtained a bachelor of science in ornithology. But he is mostly a self-taught photographer, as was his father.
“It’s an art form, I think. It’s interesting.”
Brandt became an islander in 1965. A year later, he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood at the Canadian Martyrs Church in Courtenay, which is now a theatre. He was mandated to live the life of a hermit priest.
“Which is pretty unusual,” he said. “I came from the Trappist Monks, that’s a Benedictine order. Everybody knew about the hermits on Vancouver Island from all over the world. It was a group that wanted more solitude that you couldn’t find in the big order…I came from New Melleray Abbey (Iowa) to join the hermitage on the Tsolum River — when the mine was going in on Mount Washington.”
As a member of the Hermits of St. John the Baptist, Father Charles first lived in a cabin he constructed near Headquarters Creek in the Tsolum River watershed before moving his hermitage to the banks of the Oyster River. Prior to moving to Canada, Brandt had served as a navigator with the U.S. air force during the 1940s. He later graduated with the aforementioned BSc. and a bachelor of divinity from Nashotah House, a theological seminary in Wisconsin.”
Charles A. E. Brandt (Editor) “Meditations from the Wilderness: A Collection of Profound Writing on Nature as the Source of Inspiration” [Harpercollins Canada, 1997]
“Charles Brandt, the first man to be ordained a hermit-priest, who leads a life of simplicity on Vancouver Island, has compiled a beautiful and diverse array of thoughts and essays from many cultures. Writers Brandt draws from include Thomas Merton, Chief Seattle, Henry David Thoreau, Black Elk, Chang Tsai, Linda Gupta, and Barry Lopez. A vibrant spectrum of philosophical and religious beliefs that articulate the search for the soul in nature’s vast and awesome landscape.”
Charles A. E. Brandt “Self and Environment. On Retreat with Charles Brandt” [Bloomsbury Academic, 2000]
Charles Brandt’s blog: http://throughtheluminarylens.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/the-brandt-series-meditations-from-the-wilderness-solar-sunday/