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Influential Islander: Joseph Bettis on Industrial Tourism

  • Written by Janet Thomas

Joseph Bettis is the next subject in Janet Thomas' ongoing Influential Islander series. The 84-year-old islander's background as a University Professor, Captain, author, and more, provides a perspective on the current state of island life.  

1. We are in crisis on the planet in many different ways. What advice do you have for those of us struggling to make sense of it all.

I like to reflect on Churchill during the darkest days and nights of the London bombardment. “Never give up, never give up, never give up, the ship.” During the dark Franco days the Spanish people had a saying: “Evil will not last forever.”

In the short range we are in a hell of a mess. And in the long term, What are we doing here anyway?” I get confused thinking about global warming and overpopulation and the destruction of our environment. I have enough to keep me busy answering how do I live today, this day, with honor, honesty, and compassion. What am I doing here? Think globally, act locally.

2. What do you love about the San Juan Islands? In the face of the impacts of ever-growing wealth in the county, what advice do you have regarding preserving the integrity of island life?

I love all the critters, human and otherwise, that call it home. And I love the earth, water and air that make it home.

All of this is in grave danger. We are destroying the things that make the San Juan Islands special.

Our home is being destroyed by industrial tourism and irresponsible development. The way we are living presently in the islands is not sustainable. We are destroying our foundation. Development and tourism are bringing island life to an end. Our infrastructure, water, refuse, power, roads will not support the present rate of development and tourism.

Maybe we have already passed the tipping point. Maybe the island life that we all love is already lost. Maybe the southern resident orca whales are already doomed. And maybe, if we change our ways we still have time. I don’t know.

But I do know that we are headed the wrong direction. We are on a self destructive course. We are headed toward a Disney Land island. Irresponsible development and industrial tourism are destroying island life. Where is Edward Abbey when we desperately need him. If we have not already passed the tipping point we are very close to it and although a few voices are raising the alarm, not enough people are listening. That is why voices like yours, Janet, are so important if the integrity of island life is to be preserved.

I hope for a new direction, but my hope is thin.

A seasoned sailor told me, ‘if the ship’s not sinking it isn’t a crisis. Well, our ship is sinking and it is a crisis. We are headed toward the rocks and unless we change course now our island way of life is doomed.

3. What brought you here and what is your history regarding living in the San Juan Islands?

I came for a job. I stayed because I found a home among these magic islands. I remember my flight to Bellingham from Seattle. Back then the Bellingham airport was a small cinder block building and the plane was a six passenger Cessna. But the flight was as spectacular as ever, over the blue water of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the green San Juan islands and between sparkling snow covered Cascade and Olympic mountains. I had never seen such natural beauty. I wondered how anybody could live here. By the time the plane landed I was hooked. Now I wonder how anyone could want to live anywhere else.

I had never been near salt water so it took me some time to figure things out. I was so green. But I bought a boat, my first of six, and my education began. I learned about port and starboard, tides and currents, and eventually got my skipper’s ticket. And I learned a bit about island people and first nations people and the other wonderful critters of the Salish Sea. There is magic here. If you feel it you stay, if you don’t you leave.

4. You have a most interesting background in the area of academic religious studies. Who and what influenced your choice to focus on religion? Could you please share your experience with us regarding what you learned and discovered during your academic career?

That is a good question Janet. I have always been interested in philosophical and theological questions, in what the great Protestant Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, called the depth dimension of life. I was born and grew up on a small ranch in West Texas. I did not choose West Texas, at least in the usual sense of the term. I just woke up there.

At the ranch the conversation around the dinner table did not consider the depth dimension. Rather it focused on the price of steers that day in the Fort Worth cattle auction and whether it would rain soon enough to avoid buying feed for the cattle. Neither of these subjects interested me.

My high school debate coach gave me a copy of Will Durant’s book, The Story of Philosophy. I was amazed that someone had written a whole book about these topics.

The West Texas culture was rooted in religion which meant that every Sunday we dressed up and went to services at the First Methodist Church in Brownwood.

Frontier Protestantism was about as close as I got to the depth dimension. Sometimes the preacher’s sermon interested me when he talked about life and death or good and evil or the virgin birth or life after death. These were things I was interested in, but even as a child I knew what he said didn’t make any sense. I mean, What about Jesus’s father? And coming alive again after being dead?

And an infallible bible?

As I grew older my father must have often wondered what planet I came from. He was happy to be a small time rancher, to spend his days with his horses and cattle, watching the grass trying to grow and hoping for rain. My mother had wanted a girl, but all her efforts toward gender identity were to no avail. I remained a boy, if not a cowboy.

So I didn’t turn out the way either of my parents wanted, but they loved each other and they loved me in spite of myself. Philosophy is a lonely pursuit under the best of circumstances.

I have found Buddhism to be especially meaningful and helpful to me. We are fortunate to have a beautiful Buddhist retreat center here on our island.

5. Where were you born and where did you grow up? Can you tell us a bit about your own children and your family life?

I think I answered most of this. My adult life centered around my academic career and later my fascination with the Inside Passage. Nevertheless, I did find time for five successful marriages to five beautiful and wonderful women. I have three sons who live in the San Francisco Bay Area and who join me in this magnificent Northwest whenever they can. Two of my sons caught boat fever from me.

6. Where have you traveled? How have your travels impacted your professional and personal life?

I have lived in Texas, Alabama, Nebraska, Washington DC, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, California, Switzerland, and now here. So I have something to compare with my life here on this very special island.

I have traveled literally around the world three times visiting Israel, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Nepal, India, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan. These trips, finding people and cultures so different from my own, were my real education, far more important than four years of college and six years of graduate school including a PhD from Princeton. Was it Mark Twain who said that his education began when he got out of school?

Life in the United States is unfortunately limited. We are isolated from Europe and Asia by substantial oceans. It is difficult to think globally when our experience is provincial.

If I learned anything from my formal education it was the value of open and critical thought. Rather than accepting conventional ideas and values I was challenged to think for myself and to examine and question what I was handed.

I also learned from two other experiences. I went to Alabama in 1964 to teach at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and to build a Department of Religious Studies. I was right in the middle of the civil rights struggle. At first I was totally concerned with my academic career. But I could ignore the elephant in the living room only so long. I got involved, I marched in Tuscaloosa past the office of Bobby Shelton, the grand wizard of the KKK, at the memorial for the death of Dr. King. I feared and fought the Ku Klux Klan and the police. I carried a gun. At the home of a faculty member I met with two leading ministers of the Black community. The ministers came after dark and entered through the back door so as not to be seen. I learned first hand something of the life of oppressed and marginalized people. My family and I were threatened. I finally got a trained Doberman who went with me everywhere, even to class.

I am proud that, against almost unanimous academic resistance, I hired the first Black faculty member at the University of Alabama.

This experience of systemic racism gives me a very limited but profound appreciation of the life of native people here, the original inhabitants of these islands.

I am proud of the fact that I ended my academic career teaching at Northwest Indian College at Lummi.

The second learning experience was my defense of new religious movements. I experienced my own prejudice against the Unification Church, Krishna Consciousness, the Love Family, and Ramtha turn to academic support and legal defence. I participated in an Amicus Curiae brief before the United States Supreme Court in defense of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

I helped found the academic study of New Religions at the American Academy of Religion.

7. You live on board a boat in Friday Harbor and your book, “Inside the Inside Passage” is about your many journeys through those waters. What drew you to the marine life? What first inspired you to explore the “Inside Passage?” What kept you returning there over so many years?

Here in the San Juans we live at the beginning of one of the great adventures in the world, the fabled “Inside Passage.” My boats were never just vehicles to get from one marina to another, from one yacht club to the next. They were platforms to carry me always to new adventures, new wildernesses, to live with and to learn about the eagles, salmon, bears, in their world. And significantly, to touch on cultures and world views more ancient and quite different from my own. From Friday Harbor to Ketchikan a thousand miles, seven thousand islands and a dozen ancient cultures wait to be explored, appreciated, and maybe understood.

I do not go to “get away from it all” as do many tourists and vacationers but rather to get into it all, to discover the whole new world of the largest temperate rain forest on earth, to listen to the last wild wolves, to lie quietly at anchor in some remote inlet and hear the breathing of an orca whale who chooses to share my anchorage, the whistle of a bald eagle, to find the remnants of a ten thousand year old civilization, the ancient burial site of the daughter of a chief.

8. Two years ago, you experienced a stroke. What was its impact—physically and otherwise? How do you manage the limitations after having non-stop freedom?

I have two thoughts:

On one hand the stroke was devastating. Three years ago I was anchored in Klekane Inlet, near an ancient hot spring, as far from our modern civilization as one can imagine when the unexpected and unanticipated stroke hit. I was immobilized and came close to death. The extraordinary efforts of the Canadian Coast Guard, Airlift Northwest, many doctors, nurses, acquaintances, family and friends pulled me through. I still struggle with the paralyzing effects of my disability every day.

On the other hand the stroke was just another bump in the path through life. We all have limitations we learn to live with—or sometimes not. The stroke just gave me some new challenges. I learned some patience and acceptance. We all have set backs, large and small. How we deal with them defines our character.

9. You are hoping to cruise the Inside Passage next year. What do you most look forward to regarding that trip ?

Another good question, Janet. With the stroke still in tow, it will be a challenge. That trip has been my life for thirty years. It is like asking me what do I look forward to in life. I look forward to visiting familiar anchorages and finding new ones. I look forward to being in spaces that have not been shaped by our materialistic and plastic culture. I look forward to hearing the call of a loon, not the roar of an airplane. I look forward to a life like it was years ago here in the San Juans before we were overwhelmed by irresponsible development and industrial tourism. I look forward to being with killer whales without being surrounded by whale watching boats. I look forward to being more free to be myself, undefined by society.

I have a quote from Walt Whitman on my desk—“from this hour, I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines.”

Of course I have limits—the big ones being the result of the stroked and age and also the requirements of the boat like the depth of the water, but they are not imaginary. They are real.

As I sit here with your questions, Janet, I look back—I’m now eighty-four years old—I look back and ask myself how often was I constrained by imaginary limits. Why did I not visit more of Africa, of South America, Australia, Scandinavia, Mongolia? What were my imaginary limits, my fears, my phobias?

10. Do you have religious/spiritual experience when you are off at sea?

The short answer: No, or yes. The long answer: Properly understood all experience is or can be spiritual or religious. It is easier when we get away from the noise and rush of civilization. What am I doing here? That is the ultimate spiritual question. We can ask it anywhere but to really let the question soak in, a quiet anchorage in the wilderness helps. The ultimate spiritual experience is when we really get into the question, not the answer. In the wilderness there are no answers, only more and more questions. The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.

Doubt is easier in the remote wilderness.

I have this in the pilot house of my boat,”Orina.”

It is far better not to know where one is and to realize that one does not know, than to be certain one is at a place where one is not. — Capt. Barrel, 1827


Last modified onSunday, 25 July 2021 22:45