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  • The art of conservation: Mary Sanseverino

    Maleea Acker

    Photography gives this ardent naturalist an excuse to go to the wild places.


    AS JANUARY WINDS AND COLD TEMPERATURES hit the region, Mary Sanseverino is counting down the days until the bloom of the region’s first satin flower. The wait will be shorter than readers might think. The earliest appearance she’s seen was on January 24, “in a secret spot I can’t share,” she tells me over coffee in Oak Bay. From there, “the waves of bloom” come and continue all spring. Satin flowers (olsynium douglasii), are at the northern edge of their range on Vancouver Island. Their tiny purple blooms, however, can carpet the mossy expanses of remote locations in the Sooke Hills scant days after winter snowfalls melt. After the satin flower, she’s hiking all the time, searching for “blue-eyed Mary, shooting stars, chocolate tips, saxifrage—the year just spins along in the Sooke Hills.”

    Born in Revelstoke, and now a retired computer scientist from the University of Victoria, Sanseverino’s passion is the native flora that surrounds the city. She first tried photography in high school, with a “superb” art teacher, and started taking shots of landscapes and macro images of wildflowers in the Rockies soon after. Her macro shots in particular spurred her love of the natural world. “For everything a plant invests biological energy in, there’s almost always a reason. As soon as you start to look at that level of detail, more and more intricacy unfolds.”


    Mary Sanseverino with Garry oak, mosses and satin flower (Photo by Mike Whitney)


    Why do volunteers in the region work to save species, ecosystems, landscapes? What impels us to pull the invasive Scotch broom, count the limpets, lift the salmon over a fish fence to spawn? A need to preserve biodiversity, yes, and future generations’ need for clean air, intact plant communities, plentiful food. But there are other reasons. Like the feeling we get, walking through a flower-filled meadow in spring’s warming wind. Or standing on Empress Mountain, in the sunlight, after a swim in a secret lake, above a sea of green and blue that cascades all the way through the Sooke Hills to the Salish Sea.

    Ecosystem restorationists accomplish a great deal in our region. But all who work in this field are inspired by the aesthetic beauty of where we live. For Sanseverino, capturing that beauty and presenting it to the world is part of her identity as an amateur naturalist, botanist, mountain climber and researcher. She often returns year after year to photograph certain locations. “It’s such a sense of place, to go back to a spot that I know, and see whether there are more plants, or less; whether am I early, or too late. It helps me to align my natural clock,” she explains. Her primary destination, the Sooke Hills Wilderness (protected through two CRD parks and a provincial park) is visited by few: trails are unsigned, and suitable only for those accustomed to advanced hiking.

    I first encountered Sanseverino’s work when I worked at the CRD, combing the internet for representative photos of the region’s natural areas. Unconcerned with earning a profit, she granted creative commons usage of hundreds of her photos, which still grace CRD brochures and web pages today. She chooses native species for her subjects because, as she says, “you have to go to them. I’m always looking for an excuse to get out into the hills.”

    Sanseverino belongs to the Vancouver Island chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), where she leads regular flower hikes to the Sooke Hills’ Mount Braden, Grassy Lake or Mount Manuel Quimper. She has participated in the annual Christmas bird count for over 20 years, photographing birds on Scafe Hill and Stewart Mountain. Her photography also appears in field guides and brochures in the UK, the United States and across Canada. But her main contributions involve plant identification and historical photography, two kinds of citizen science she believes are integral to research in BC and beyond. She learned from local scientists like Richard Hebda and books such as Pojar and McKinnon’s indispensible Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, and credits her ability to identify most flower species in the region to the learning she received from these resources.

    Sanseverino is one of the main contributions to BC’s e-Flora Atlas (ibis.geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/eflora/), an online biogeographical atlas of the flora of BC, including vascular plants, bryophytes, algae, lichen, mosses, fungi and slime molds. The atlas, edited by Brian Klinkenberg of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Geography, operates with volunteers who check and process plant locations and photographs. To Sanseverino, a longtime contributor to the site, “it’s a gathering place, another form of citizen science where we do the legwork.”


    Calypso orchid (Photo by Mary Sanseverino)

    Sanseverino’s work also extends to the high alpine. Until recently, she served on a field team for the Mountain Legacy Project (MLP), based at UVic’s School of Environmental Studies. For over two decades, the MLP has documented landscape change by re-photographing landscapes portrayed in historical surveying photos. The comparison of images show changes in snow coverage, glacier movement and flora differences over the last century, providing a visual representation of climate change’s impacts. Though now retired from the team, she continues to visit sites, including Mount Assiniboine, near the Alberta border. Over 7000 historic glass plate images are available for research and download on the site: www.mountainlegacy.ca.

    Art is an integral addition to environmental stewardship, though Sanseverino isn’t convinced she qualifies. “Most photographs I like are beautiful. So I don’t feel like I’m a steward.” To Sanseverino, her work isn’t political because she purposefully cuts out any of the destruction she finds in wilderness. She frames out the ATV-damaged clearing, power lines, overused trails, or tracks made by dirt bikes or dogs. “I think it’s a little akin to only sharing one’s spectacular moments on Facebook or Instagram—I don’t show the grim part. I want to make people think, ‘wow, I want to go there.’ My goal is to inspire. And my lens is selective for the things I find beautiful.”

    Sanseverino doesn’t follow the path of Edward Burtinsky, with his apocalyptically beautiful landscapes of large industry damage like the tar sands, or of Chris Turner, who put Midway Island on the map through his photos of dead albatross chicks, their bellies full of plastic. Though arresting, these images don’t celebrate the beauty of species that are still flourishing. Perhaps, Sanseverino muses, we need to be inspired as much as we need to be chastised.

    But this inspiration, she points out, may also have unintended negative consequences. The more people learn about beautiful places in the region, she says, the more they want to go there. “I like the Sooke Hills the way they are. It’s a preserve for people who know where they’re going and what they’re doing. It’s selfish, but I’d like to keep it that way.” Having seen stark changes in degradation on local trail systems thanks to increased use, including Thetis Lake Regional Park, Sanseverino wonders whether sacrificing the species in one park (like Thetis) may help protect those in another (like the Sooke Hills’ Sea to Sea Park). “There are so many more of us now; we are loving the place to death.”

    Still, for many who have no ability to access far-flung wilderness locations, Sanseverino’s images provide a way of coming to know a landscape without having to visit. A calypso orchid (also her Flickr profile name) nods in a mossy clearing; arbutus trees stretch into the blue fall sky on the top of Mount Wells; raindrops shimmer on a shoreline pine in East Sooke Park. Sanseverino’s photos guide the viewer through the beauty of the South Island, her work a testament to the protection and restoration work of countless others.

    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.

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