Sonya McRae helps Shoreline students honour and learn about biodiversity and the Songhees and Esquimalt Peoples.
AT THE FAR EDGE of Shoreline Community Middle School’s fields, which run from the Old Island Highway down to the inner reaches of the Gorge Waterway, a Kwetlal ecosystem, or meadow sits atop a rise. Kwetlal is the Songhees name for camas, one of the key plants in native Garry oak ecosystems. The garden’s approximately 500 square feet abuts a vestige coastal Douglas-fir forest, with remnant species of arbutus, oak, fir and maple. When I visit with Sonya McRae, the garden’s co-creator, there are swaths of yarrow in bloom, as well as seeds forming on shooting stars, camas, barestem-desert parsley (Qexmim), and miner’s lettuce. Small stepping-stones mark a path through the thickest parts. This is where the kids are taught to step, McRae tells me.
McRae is an art and outdoor education teacher at Shoreline Middle School, where Songhees Nation kids number over half of its English program students. “It’s really important to honour [their culture],” she says, on a grassy knoll next to the garden project she has stewarded from idea to reality over the last two years. “We speak to that on a daily basis.”
McRae tells me that Sarah Rhude, the Indigenous Art and Cultural Facilitator for the Indigenous Education Department in School District 61, dreamed up the idea of planting camas meadows in multiple schools across the region. Rhude found funding through a Harvest 4 Knowledge Grant from the Horner Foundation. Then McRae and fellow teacher Brenda Pohl applied for and received a grant from Farm to School BC for the Shoreline site in 2018. Since Rhude’s initial work, gardens have gone in at Esquimalt, Spectrum, Vic High and Arbutus school. McRae also notes that both Butch Dick, as the cultural Liaison for SD61, and Cheryl Bryce worked on the project.
The Shoreline garden is a way of bringing Songhees culture to life within the school grounds, says McRae, and of offering children the opportunity to learn about biodiversity, history and relationships to the land. “This is my passion project,” McRae says, “It’s super rewarding being out here in this space.”
Another of the school’s projects is to slowly remove invasive ivy and blackberry from the adjacent forest. McRae chose the location so that the borders of meadow and forest could eventually blend. She wants to see edge species like thimble berry and salmonberry mingling at the meadow’s perimeter, allowing an existing ecosystem to merge into the new one she and her students have planted.
McRae has also produced a suite of learning resources about the meadow, including a map which goes beyond basic cartography. The map charts the history and importance of many of the species found within it. The Spelxen meadow is divided up into four quadrants, representing the seasons of the year and the stages of growth and rest of a Garry Oak meadow. In each coloured frame, there are drawings of people digging, planting, harvesting and tending camas, miner’s lettuce, bare-stemmed desert parsley, nodding onion, stinging nettle and yarrow. Drawings of birds and insects crowd the spring and summer quadrants. Wintering bulbs fill the “Earth Getting Cold” quadrant. Small stories detail the seasonal burning of the meadows to keep them clear of woodlands, pitcooks, varieties of grasses, and an acknowledgement in Lkwungen of the lands that South Islanders share with its many plant and animal species. “Hay’szw’qa,” or “Thank you” in Lkwungen (pronounced hai-sch-qua) concludes the map.
The Spelxen Meadow map. (Click image to enlarge)
“A lot of it was off the side of my desk, but the kids did all the work,” McRae demurs. She also gives credit to others, like Edward Thomas (Esquimalt Nation) and Diane Sam (Songhees Nation), for the knowledge they shared. McRae and her students sheet-mulched the grass, shovelled soil, spread seeds, and continue to weed and tend the plot, which has expanded from its original smaller circle into a larger plot as further grants came in.
The map she helped create with others, including students Marcus Atleo-George and Calvin George, will soon stand as an interpretive board by the meadow. She hopes to install split rail fencing to further highlight and protect the spot. “I would love the public to know that this is here, and there’s a very specific purpose for it being here. It’s not just landscaping. We’re trying to actively re-establish biodiversity on a plant and cultural level—a physical presence of what was here before settlers came and changed the land. To honour that in a way that’s beyond just plants,” she says, is integral to understanding kinship and relationships for the Songhees and Esquimalt Peoples. “It’s about the plant and animal nation all interacting together.”
McRae uses the garden as a teaching location with her students, learning about bugs and plants, harvesting techniques and propagation. At some point, she hopes that “we can cook [camas bulbs] and taste them and pass them around.” Site by site, schools are incorporating experiential learning opportunities for students on their grounds, helping to form a set of ecosystems that will help support this region’s species and its cultural legacy.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which just entered its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.