The first time I call Susan Musgrave at her home in Haida Gwaii, she can’t talk because she’s cooking dinner for John Vaillant, author of The Golden Spruce. The second time I call, she’s busy vacuuming, but is kind enough to spare a few minutes before she has to be at her bed and breakfast—the Copper Beech House.
I’m writing Sensational Victoria–a book about some of Vancouver Island’s oldest, most eccentric and quirkiest houses, and Susan’s North Saanich tree house more than qualifies. “I don’t understand people who move into key ready homes that are devoid of personality,” she tells me.
The internationally renowned poet’s home will nestle in between those of Bruce Hutchison and Alice Munro. This chapter, Bright Lights, also includes the childhood home so important to David Foster and his six sisters, the home that Spoony Sundher built before East Indians were allowed to own property, and the James Bay house where silent movie star Nell Shipman was born in 1892.
Susan has allowed me to pillage from her bio and it’s definitely one of the most colourful ones that I’ve ever read. She describes how she first met Robin Skelton—writer, poet, professor, artist, male witch—when she’s committed to the local psych ward at age 16. “You’re not mad,” he tells her after reading her poetry, “you’re a poet.” She publishes her first book of poetry three years later, and in 1975, she marries Jeffrey Green, a criminal defence lawyer.
Green is one of five lawyers hired to defend a bunch of American and Columbian accused drug smugglers, and “from across the courtroom,” Susan falls in love with Paul Nelson, one of the defendants. They run away to Mexico after his acquittal and Charlotte is born in 1982.
After Nelson is sent to jail for a previous smuggling charge and finds the Lord, Susan divorces him, and soon after, receives a manuscript from convicted bank robber Stephen Reid who is serving a 20-year sentence at the Millhaven Penitentiary in Ontario. She marries Reid at the jail, and when he is released in 1987, they move into Susan’s 900 square foot seaside cottage near Sidney. Sophie is born in 1989.
“I fell in love with the house, it has a 190-foot Douglas fir tree growing in the middle,” she says. “When I went in that day an eagle had landed in the tree and a piece of eagle down came floating down. I knew it was the house, it just felt so right.”
Robin Skelton arrives to bless Susan’s new home, built by Ernest Fern, a poet, in 1929. A neighbour tells her that pieces of Emily Carr’s Klee Wyck pottery were found in the attic when the artist had visited long ago. Other residents include an old lady who made herbal remedies for the locals, and a boat builder, who instead of fixing the leaking roof, filled it with roofing tar from the inside.
“The whole house creaks in the wind. It’s like being on a boat and the roots are the foundation of the house,” she says. “I absolutely love the house because it’s kind of like me lopsided and wearing down.”
Over the years, they have added rooms, but the feeling of privacy remains. Recently Susan’s daughter moved in with her two small grandchildren.
“I imagine it’s a house that will always be in my dreams,” says Susan. “It’s a really magical place.”
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