Mary Haig-Brown wants us to see vital connections in the natural world.
IN VICTORIA'S RICH WORLD OF CONSERVATION STEWARDS, whether talking with mycologists, fish hatchery volunteers or amphibian counters, one name keeps coming up. Mary Haig-Brown is a bright-eyed optimist who lives in the Prospect Lake region of Saanich. The daughter of renowned writer, naturalist and outdoorsman Roderick Haig-Brown, she grew up in Campbell River alongside its rivers, learning about local ecosystems from an early age. Her optimism about the future of the natural world and the region’s local ecosystems may be her most inspiring trait.
I’ve recently started teaching a workshop at the University of Victoria to help students deal with the impacts of environmental despair. After a semester of introductory geography lectures, many of them are left feeling hopeless; their potential to help the Earth survive the Anthropocene seems miniscule in the face of multinational mining and oil companies, falling biodiversity, or the innumerable pieces of plastic added to the world’s oceans each year. “It’s too late,” they tell me; “we’re inheriting a disaster.”
Mary Haig-Brown (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
When I share my students’ views with Haig-Brown, she replies without missing a beat: “Nonsense!” There is warmth and stubbornness in her eyes. For Haig-Brown, the knowledge people have about the natural world has done nothing but improve since her childhood up Island. “My father was a lone voice in the wilderness. Now there are so many people looking after the land and the rivers.”
Haig-Brown serves as chair of the Friends of Tod Creek Watershed Society (FTCW), where she helps steward the 23 kilometres of watercourses, wetlands, ponds and lakes that stretch across Saanich (as well as parts of the Highlands and Central Saanich), from the heights of Maltby and Killarney Lakes to Tod Creek’s flow into Saanich Inlet. The society, which has 43 members, logs over 400 volunteer hours a year. Through the FTCW, Haig-Brown has worked to restore the ecosystem of Whitehead Park on the north end of Prospect Lake. “I taught my family to swim there,” she tells me from her home on the banks of Killarney Creek. Killarney supplies 50 percent of the water that enters Prospect Lake.
Her home, lit with skylights and warmed by a woodstove, is a warren of books and comfortable chairs. From the living room windows, which hang out over the trout pond that connects the creek, all one can see is water and the dark cedars opposite. Two of her four children live as her and her husband’s neighbours. Haig-Brown also volunteers on the Board of the Peninsula Streams Society, and with Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT). For the latter, she counts bats that fly from their nests under the soffits of her roof in the summer—she just lies down outside her house. In recent years, the count has surpassed 400. “We still don’t know where they go when winter comes,” she laughs.
Haig-Brown has also collaborated, through FTCW, with Saanich’s “Pulling Together” program that sees volunteers remove invasive species from local parks (readers can also get involved through Saanich.ca), and worked with the SeaChange Society on advocating for the fish fence in Gowlland Tod Park (SNITE).
But right now, she’s most excited about the Tod Creek Flats, a swath of land owned by four separate land owners, which stretches behind West Saanich Road’s Red Barn Market. Originally a peat bog used by First Nations to harvest food, European colonial farmers drained the bog and used it for agriculture; the sisters of St Anne’s grew vegetables there for over 50 years, which they supplied to both St Joseph’s Hospital and St Anne’s Academy. Over the years, the peat levels dropped, due to oxidation and erosion, shortening the growing season to less than 100 days.
Thinking of watersheds as a whole, rather than by their parts (streams, lakes, ponds, wetlands) can help acknowledge the interconnectedness of action in a region. Cutthroat trout that use the fish ladder in Tod Creek can’t survive unless they have a quiet stream or pond like Haig-Brown’s where they can rear. Cutthroat are a blue-listed species in BC, considered vulnerable, with many of their runs extinct or in decline. Non-native species like Himalayan blackberry and golden willow can clog stream habitats and increase sedimentation and water temperature. Predators can disturb spawning grounds, and culverts prevent trout migration. Tree cutting adjacent to creeks spurs erosion. Haig-Brown has worked to remove golden willow from Killarney Creek that she says exists in an invasive line from Prospect Lake “all the way up to Cowichan,” somewhat like the Japanese knotweed now appearing in frightening clumps along the Cowichan and Quamichan Rivers.
Recent support by the Peninsula Streams Society and many volunteers has resulted in construction of channels and a berm next to Tod Creek, allowing cutthroat trout (some perhaps from Haig-Brown’s pond) to access the flats for winter habitat and return, as water levels drop in spring, to the creek. Now, Haig-Brown tells me, having managed to get all four current land owners together to support restoration of the area, “they are interested in either doing farming without pesticides or letting it go back to wetland.” Either would be fine with Haig-Brown and the FTCW. Imagine, she says, supplying Red Barn Market with vegetables by wheelbarrow rather than by truck.
Haig-Brown moved to the Prospect Lake area over 40 years ago. Visiting her home feels like stepping back in time, her rural road fortressed by Douglas-fir and rushing waters. But she’s seen tremendous changes during her tenure, including recent subdivisions and clearing of upland areas that turned a seasonal stream in her yard into a flooding gully. “I’d like to see everyone knowing the value of the natural areas, of every piece of ground,” she says.
Haig-Brown calls Saanich a “shining beacon” of environmental awareness. That is, unless one brings up the topic of the municipality’s recently rescinded Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw. Haig-Brown serves on the Saanich Environmental Advisory Committee, which helped to shape the current bylaw, and which sought to fold in previous iterations of wildlife, tree, and sensitive ecosystem protection into the EDPA bylaw. Now that it has been rescinded, these protections are in jeopardy. [See Briony Penn’s article in this edition for more on Saanich’s EDPA.]
People often don’t realize, she says, that the actions they take on their own land can reverberate and affect adjacent properties and parks. She invited Saanich’s Mayor Atwell out to view the damage Whitehead Park has sustained from flooding. Water which used to be locked into the groundwater system now flows off four adjacent properties where owners removed a number of trees. The tree removal caused erosion and flooding. Though she had warned the mayor, he didn’t bring his rubber boots. “I don’t think he understood,” she tells me, ruefully. It’s the only time during our conversation I see her hopefulness falter.
The answer, she argues, is learning how to encourage water to stay where it falls. “We’ve lost 85-90 percent of our wetlands,” she says. People don’t want to be told what to do, she acknowledges, but the more we learn—through volunteering or caretaking one’s own land—the more that knowledge helps bind us to our ecosystems. “If you can do something, then do it,” she argues. “You can’t get [involved] without wondering: ‘Why did it grow that way? What comes here at night? What’s going on underground?’”
The life she lives is one she’s embraced since her earliest days, hanging around with her siblings as her mother did the farm chores. “When my mother was milking the cow, and we were running around behind the barn, she’d say to us, ‘Go tell me what’s growing back there.’ We’d find yellow violets, other wildflowers. She taught me to look at the tiny things.”
It’s a technique that’s helping to save the region’s wild places, one volunteer hour at a time.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.