A plea for action on this column’s fourth anniversary.
I TEACH A GEOGRAPHY COURSE at the University of Victoria called Landscapes of the Heart. In it, I take my students out into local landscapes—Mount Tolmie, Mary Lake, Tod Inlet—with the goal of opening their eyes and hearts to this region’s species and ecosystems. We paint and draw in the field. We look at how poets, visual artists, philosophers and geographers are trying to connect us to place. Students spend the fall immersed in landscape, producing some of the most thoughtful, emotionally engaged work I’ve had the pleasure of seeing as a teacher. The course begins with a three-hour class called “Why are we in trouble?”
This issue, I want to posit some answers to this question. I’ve been writing a column on volunteer stewards in the region for four years with Focus and I love the work. It’s inspiring getting to meet so many people who are passionate about our local ecosystems and who try to improve life for the multitudes of creatures with whom we share these islands.
But this month’s column turns the lens on my own experience as an environmental steward. I think one answer to why we’re in trouble can be illustrated by my own history. In 2011, during the writing of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, I began nurturing a native plant garden in my 5,300-square-foot yard. It’s a project that has raised no end of protest from my neighbours. I live in Saanich’s Gorge-Tillicum neighbourhood, where former farmland was planted with houses in the 1930s and 1940s. The clay soil supports boulevards of blackberry. On my street, trees are sparse and gardens infrequent. People mow their dandelions.
Since I began the transformation of my sterile lawn into a wild ecosystem, I’ve been cited by Saanich bylaw enforcement officers twice. The first citation (for cultivation of noxious weeds) was in 2011, when I had let the grass grow long to see if camas lay buried in the lot. The fight I launched against the municipality’s citation landed me on the front page of the Times Colonist. I won. Since then, I’ve cultivated a native hedgerow (of Oregon grape, Nootka rose, snowberry, red osier dogwood, salmonberry, and Pacific ninebark). I’ve also planted 17 native trees. After eight years of seeding and growth, the hedge is 10-12 feet tall and supports a wide variety of bird species through the year. Camas, nodding onion, vetch and fawn lily bloom in the meadow. There are Garry oaks, Douglas-fir, arbutus, several mock orange, honeysuckle and ocean spray. When a kid entered my yard on Halloween last fall, he exclaimed, “it’s like walking into a forest!”
Left: The author’s front yard in 2011, around the time of the first citation. Right: Flourishing native plants, around the time of the second citation.
The wildness has encouraged more wildness. Last summer, I hosted a family of weasels. There are crickets (which I transplanted from Mount Tolmie), over a dozen species of songbirds, hummingbirds, lizards, raccoons, dragonflies, mason and bumble bees. A raven pair, a barred owl and a Swainson’s hawk use the yard to hunt. This fall, I harvested my first edible mushrooms (lepiota rachodes), which shows that the yards of mulch I’ve brought in and the undisturbed soil are now supporting a healthy mycorrhizal layer (which supports the health of trees). All this in a desertified neighbourhood largely barren of boulevard trees or anything approaching native habitat.
In April 2018, when Saanich council struck down the Environmental Development Protection Area bylaw (EDPA), along with it went changes to whole series of bylaws; they had been rewritten to exempt naturescaping property owners like myself from being cited. When the EDPA died, these bylaw changes died too. And so, I received my second citation from Saanich last summer, when at least two complainants reported me for noxious weeds and impingement of the hedge into the sidewalk right of way. Saanich sent a regular post letter, a registered mail letter, a bylaw officer, then two environmental services officers to the house. After their visit, charges were dropped. How many native boulevard trees could Saanich have planted for the costs of chasing an imaginary foe? How many camas bulbs?
Without the EDPA and associated bylaws, there’s little to stop developers and property owners from cutting trees, and little to encourage them to plant native species, other than their own stubbornness and vision. Fortunately, there is a great deal of that in the region (look to Oaklands’ Tamara Batory and her plan to transform boulevards on Lang Street into pollinator corridors as a recent wonderful example), but there needs to be more.
In September, Cornell University published a seven-university study showing that since 1970, bird populations in Canada and the USA have dropped by 30 percent. Billions of birds have vanished, including over 1 billion forest birds, 700 million grassland species, and 160 million dark-eyed juncos (a favourite at my feeder). The cause? Habitat loss. The results of the study, says its lead author, Ken Rosenberg, are “a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife,” indicating a “coming collapse of the overall environment.” The collapse isn’t limited to birds. Similar studies have shown precipitous drops in the population of insects, amphibians, freshwater, saltwater and terrestrial megafauna.
Last year, Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst—Quadra Island philosophers, poets and scholars—published Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. They mourn what they see as a fundamental change in how humans live on the Earth: a loss of “genuine connection to the natural world [that] is fundamental to human flourishing.” When we try to make something into what it isn’t (a lawn is a nostalgic memorial to England’s sprawling estates), we disconnect from what is actually here: moss, liquorice fern, fairy cup lichen—all the species Langford is mowing down for housing tracts and cedar hedges.
The planting I’ve done connects me to the Earth—to the place I’ve chosen in this world, with its rocky outcrops, its plethora of food sources, its clemency and beauty. It helps others do that as well. The Native Friendship Centre’s daycare leads kids past my house every morning. The teachers stop and point out the native species. They eat salmonberries in spring.
The collapse of ecosystems is being hastened by climate change, making our remaining natural areas (including those on private land) all the more valuable. The stewardship of parks in our region is laudable; we couldn’t do without the tireless volunteers who keep these places beautiful. But we need every single resident in the region—whether you rent or own or live in a condo—to plant and care for native species. Take a trip around the region and count the trees that have succumbed this summer to the increasingly unstable weather that climate change is bringing. I counted over two dozen on one walk in Thetis Lake Park. As species die, the pressure mounts on those of us who are still lucky enough to harbour some form of biodiversity in our yards.
What if we looked at stewardship as a task not just for parks? What if care of our yards and boulevards were a responsibility as profoundly important as that for the Sooke Hills or Playfair Park? I hear stories from neighbours who don’t water their boulevard trees because it’s “not [their] responsibility.” Actually, it is (both legally and philosophically). Our parks won’t compensate for Garry oaks lost to viewscape improvements or meadows lost to development. Or laurel hedges (a species on the invasives list in Washington State) and English ivy, instead of salmonberry and honeysuckle. Or Kentucky blue grass instead of bunch grasses and kinnikinnick. The rich complexity of nature needs to supplant our nostalgia for tidiness and control.
Why are we in trouble? We are adhering to outdated ideas, attempting to manage, not garden, the life outside our doors. We’re okay with wildness in parks, but fear its appearance in our own yards. Why does long grass look wrong to us? Why are Garry oak trees considered messy? It’s time to jettison these damaging preconceptions. Time to live in place, where we are, not some tidied-up version of suburban glory. Let’s bring the beauty of our parks home, so that other species can also live outside those refugia. We can’t support every species in our backyards, but we can certainly help. It’s not going to happen, however, if we keep mowing our dandelions, and everything else, into submission.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.