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Maleea Acker

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  1. Posted August 6, 2020 Image: Map of the meadow Sonya McRae helps Shoreline students honour and learn about biodiversity and the Songhees and Esquimalt Peoples. Go to story
  2. 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 a teacher at Shoreline, 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, who is a teacher and cultural liaison for School District 61, tells me that Sarah Rhude 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. 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 created 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.
  3. Posted June 20, 2020 Photo: Victoria's Owl Clover, a red-listed (Endangered) plant Join a group of volunteers working to restore the Upland Park Garry oak meadow. Go to story
  4. Help restore—or just enjoy—one of the most intact Garry oak meadows on the island. LOOKING FOR MORE nature-bathing time? Residents can now socialize while staying safe during BC’s Phase 2 reopening. Margaret Lidkea, president of the Friends of Uplands Park Society is looking for more volunteers to help restore and maintain the beauty of Cattle Point and Uplands Park in Oak Bay. A 30.6 hectare municipal park, Uplands contains 17 rare plants in its vernal, shallow and deep soil meadows, and is one of the most intact representations of a south coast Garry oak meadow ecosystem on the island. In spring and summer, wave after wave of wildflowers bloom in its meadows. It’s one of the most spectacular wild areas on the South Island. Lidkea’s education and restoration programs came to a halt in March during BC’s COVID-19 lockdown. During the spring’s sensitive wildflower season, the society managed to get materials to rope off the most delicate and threatened areas of the park—including the main meadow—in anticipation of increased traffic from residents looking for places to escape their homes while physically distancing. Still, damage was done, as is being recorded in parks around the region. “Camas and other plants have undergone a challenge this year. There were many new visitors, and some trampled the wildflowers on the edges of the paths” in their attempts to distance from others. “We are hoping [the plants] will recover,” says Lidkea. Now that BC has graduated to Phase 2 of its reopening plan, Lidkea has restarted the Society’s volunteer program, as the park gives residents a perfect opportunity to physically distance while helping contribute to restoration projects. “It’s important we honour everyone’s needs,” she tells me by phone, “as some people are very anxious. We have to be cautious.” Still, Lidkea feels comfortable, given the precautions she is now taking. All materials are quarantined between events. No tarpaulins are being used, and a limited number of people can join each work party. Lidkea’s funding comes from the Federal Habitat Stewardship Project, Trees Canada, Telus and Oak Bay municipality. This past year, the Society began a larger restoration project in an area of the park overgrown with invasive species, including Norway maple, blackberry and Sow thistles. They removed 307 maples last year, and this August, a few more will come down. When I visited in April, the newly cleared area was already thick with new plantings of native sea blush, camas and other native species, as well as several sapling Garry oaks. Wylie Thomas and Matt Fairbairns, two local ecologists, serve on the Friends of Uplands Park board. “I feel very, very blessed to have such expertise,” Lidkea says. Thomas is keeping a record of rare plants and their yearly numbers. “COVID is going to trigger austerity,” says Lidkea. She worries that environmental programs and protections will be the first to be cut as the country attempts to restart the economy. Uplands has one of the greatest concentrations of rare species in all of Canada, including tall woolly-heads (Psilocarphus elatior) and Macoun’s meadowfoam (Limnanthes Macounii), and until recently was home to one of only four populations in the world of Victoria’s owl clover (Castilleja victoriae). The latter was destroyed by foot traffic in Uplands Park’s vernal pools. Victoria’s owl clover (Castilleja victoriae). (Photo courtesy of COSEWIC) The park has also been plagued with invasive species such as Daphne laureola, Himalayan blackberry, English ivy and carpet burweed, all of which have had special removal attention from volunteer parties since the Friend’s formation in 2009. In June, volunteers have been working in a rare species meadow, helping to remove crow garlic. Crow garlic sends up a stalk of tiny purple flowers that emerge from a cluster of bulblets, The bulblets develop green sprouts like the tails of a meteor, then eventually fall and colonize the surrounding area. Lidkea thinks that its presence may have resulted in decreases in the number of native flowers, which compete for space in the meadows. If you would like to help, send Margaret an email and grab some gardening gloves. “I know people are finding out the value of families and friendships during this pandemic,” she says. She hopes they also recognize the value of parks, and the volunteer hours that keep them beautiful. Events will continue every couple of weeks through the summer. Check the Friends’ website at https://friendsofuplandspark.org and watch a video here. To join a volunteer party, email Margaret Lidkea at mlidkea@shaw.ca. 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.
  5. March 2020 Two UVic librarians volunteering for Surfrider are leading the battle against industrial plastic on our beaches. DANIEL BRENDLE-MOCZUK takes a small jar from his office shelf and shakes it, his eyebrows knitting together. “This is from one site, one collection, ten litres of sand.” He hands me the 192 millilitres of small plastic pellets, about the size and shape of a Baby Aspirin. They are various colours of white, beige, pale yellow, and grey. They darken as they absorb contaminants from the ocean, he tells me. Brendle-Moczuk’s colleague, David Boudinot, walked into his office with a jar of the pellets in 2016. “I started going to monthly beach cleanups at Willows Beach,” Boudinot tells me. A foot down, the sand was saturated. “I didn’t know what they were.” The beach clean-up Boudinot attended was organized by Surfrider, an international organization started by surfers to clean up the places they love. Brendle-Moczuk soon joined in. Both are University of Victoria librarians, and their investigation into the pellets—called “nurdles,” or pre-consumer plastic pellets—have led them to surprising places. Brendle-Moczuk’s daughter calls him and Boudinot “Nurdle Man 1 and 2.” She’s picked up on their dedication to their work. Together, they are helping to illuminate an unfolding environmental disaster occurring quietly on southeast-facing beaches all over the region. Daniel Brendle-Moczuk holds nurdles found on the shore of the Fraser River near an Annacis Island facility that uses nurdles Pre-consumer plastic pellets are just that—plastic which has been produced by a refinery, but not yet made into the plastic bags, buckets, storage containers, and packaging we see in stores. The pellets are small and oval to facilitate easy transportation (imagine trying to ship, then melt, a giant plastic cube). Plastic consumer products are produced all over the world, including just across the strait, in Port Coquitlam, North Burnaby, and Annacis Island, which lies between Richmond and Surrey. Brendle-Moczuk and Boudinot couldn’t figure out how the plastic pellets were arriving to Inside Passage waters on the West Coast. At first, they looked to Asia. But there’s a commonality to the locations on the mainland: the Fraser River. Brendle-Moczuk took a trip to see his in-laws and stopped by Annacis Island on his way. With a ballcap pulled down low, he shot photos of several plastics manufacturers’ facilities grounds. Though they declined to give me company names, Google map lists Plasticon Plastics, ibox Packaging, Merlin Plastics Supply, and Plasti-Fab Delta as operating facilities on the island. Brendle-Moczuk’s photos show train tracks (where the pellets are unloaded into trucks), yards (where pellets are shifted from truck to facility) and parking lots littered with plastic pellets. At the edges of these stretches of sidewalk are storm drains—which empty into the Fraser River. When Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk took their research to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), they denied responsibility: the pellets, CPIA said, came from Asia. But intertidal movement wouldn’t push plastic pellets that far upriver, and certainly not into the canals of the island, or all the way into the storm drains. “This is an industrial solidified oil spill that’s been happening for decades,” says Boudinot, “and no one is doing anything about it.” David Boudinot holds a nurdle sample retrieved from a West Coast beach Since 2016, Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk have spent countless hours researching the spills, the types of plastic the pellets are made from (both high- and low-density PolyEthylene and Polypropylene), and monitoring spill sites. Brendle-Moczuk has watched pellets disappear from parking lots after staff pressure-washed them down the drains. Every time he goes to Vancouver, he does research on the sites he’s been keeping track of. Boudinot spends hours each month combing beaches and sifting sand to get an idea of pellet concentration. Last fall, he spent four hours walking the beach at Goose Spit in Courtney. “This is what we do, every time we go somewhere,” he says. They look for southeast-facing beaches without a hard edge (like a sea wall or rock face) where pellets tend to gather. Esquimalt Lagoon is a prime location. Cadboro Bay, Willows Beach, any southeast facing beaches on the Gulf Islands. Strong winter storms come from this direction, pushing the pellets onto the beaches. They are keeping a map of areas where pellets have been found, which includes locations all over Vancouver Island, the mainland, Sunshine Coast, and the San Juan Islands. It’s estimated that more than 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into oceans every year. Over 90 percent of sea birds have plastic in their stomachs. Photos from Midway Island, in the South Pacific, show wildlife that has succumbed to plastic ingestion, literally starving albatrosses to death. By 2050, it’s expected there will be more plastic than fish in the Earth’s oceans. Much of this comes from post-consumer plastic (plastic which has been made into a bottle or disposable food packaging, for example) but pre-consumer plastic pellets are just as dangerous—not to mention a totally unnecessary and preventable form of pollution. Plastic pellets absorb hydrophobic pollutants in water, becoming more contaminated the longer they float. These pellets have been found in 22 percent of marine fish, according to a 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin study. Ingestion of plastics can induce hepatic stress, intra-epithelial cysts, affect blood calcium levels, and cause endocrine disruptions in animals. Studies on humans wouldn’t be ethical to do, but many extrapolate the effect on animals to include humans. Bisphenol-A, one compound in plastics, has been found to increase anorexia nervosa, disrupt the endocrine system, and impact fetal development in humans. Recently, its replacement, Bisphenol-S, has been found to be just as (if not more) dangerous. This fall, Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk made a video, in collaboration with Surfrider, on plastic pellet spills in the Fraser River. Along with scenic shots of the West Coast, the video shows students from the 2019 Geography Sustainability Field School, who found hundreds of nurdles in just an hour of sifting. Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk are also working with law professor Calvin Sandborn to figure out how to best publicize the issue, since the plastics industry is notorious for fighting back against bad press (remember their challenge of Victoria’s plastic bag ban?). They’ve also enlisted the help of UVic’s chemistry students to analyze the pellets, and biology students to research the effects of plastic in fish. Geography cartographer Ken Josephson helped them put together their map. The Canadian Plastics Industry Association promotes Operation Clean Sweep, an international best practices program designed to prevent plastic pellet contamination in waterways and oceans. But participation is voluntary. The Ministry of Environment states that discharge of pollution to the environment is prohibited under the Environment Management Act. But it has not responded to Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk’s findings, other than to say it will be “looking into these concerns and determining appropriate next steps.” Last Fall, Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk sent their Surfrider video to the media. They held a media conference on Annacis Island in October. CBC and Global News turned up. Boudinot and Brendle-Moczuk recommended that industries should be required to install storm drain covers to collect pellets and prevent them from entering waterways. When Brendle-Moczuk returned to Annacis Island later that fall, he noticed that many of the work sites he had previously documented were suddenly cleaner. Some storm drains had felt filters installed (albeit not all correctly). But he and Boudinot worry this is a temporary measure, designed to ease tensions until media and public attention turns to the next story. “We’re calling on the Ministry of Environment and the Province of BC to investigate these spills and monitor them, and make sure they don’t happen in the first place,” says Boudinot. Their fears were confirmed last month. The heavy rains of late January and early February sent thousands of pellets into Annacis Island’s Audley Channel. According to Surfrider, the piles of pellets were up to three centimetres deep. They also want the public to be aware of the insidious nature of plastics production. “The oil industry is pivoting away from oil and gas for cars, and building plastic manufacturing plants instead.” Despite recent moves to reduce single-use plastics, the material is used everywhere. Brendle-Moczuk and Boudinot would like to see pellets labelled as an industrial pollutant. They encourage the public to call RAPP (Report all Poachers and Polluters) if they see a spill. They plan to liaise with First Nations and make another video about the spills happening in their traditional territories. And Boudinot has a simple solution for what to do when pellets escape. “When a spill happens, clean it up!” Residents can call RAPP to report pellet spills or the presence of pellets on beaches or waterways at 1-877-952-7277. 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.
  6. January 2020 A Fernwood well brings history lessons, community, and precious water together. AFTER A CAPITAL REGION SUMMER of near-normal precipitation and one of the wettest Octobers on record (though one of the driest Novembers), it’s easy to forget the troubles much of the world has with limited water supplies. California’s groundwater supply is dwindling; Cape Town is running dry; even Tofino has run out in the past. Climate change promises to bring water insecurity to much of the world. So when a water source is dedicated by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the people of Victoria for all eternity—a source that produces from a fractured rock spring in the middle of a growing city—it’s best to count your blessings, and perhaps even take a sip. Bill Goers was talking over the fence to a neighbour not long after moving to Fernwood in 1979 when he heard that Fernwood had once been the main water source for Victoria. “This was interesting to me,” he says when we talk at his store, Common Sense Orthotics on Fort Street. The water came from several springs on Fernwood’s Spring Ridge—from which Spring Street takes its name. Flowing from gravel deposits left from the last ice age, the water was collected and delivered first by bucket, and then by wooden pipe until the 1870s. “People have been meeting at wells forever,” Goers muses, “It’s very old stuff.” Less controversial than saving trees or protecting grizzly bears, water is basic. It draws people together and highlights commonalities. The springs in Fernwood—and the wells that were built over them—were a gathering place for 1800s settlers. Bill Goers (Photo by Tony Bounsall) During a Fernwood Community Association radio interview, Joanne Murray, Goers’ wife and vice president of the Fernwood Community Association, recounts the story of Englishman George Hunter Carey, a settler who attempted to privatize the springs. In 1861, Carey bought land that included a popular Fernwood spring. He fenced it off and tried to charge for water. Locals were outraged and burned the fence down. He was excoriated in Victoria newspapers. Carey had the protesters arrested, but the courts sided against him. Over 20 years after first hearing the story of the Fernwood springs, a friend of Goers was doing research in the UVic Law Library and found evidence of an 1866 land conveyance as part of the Act of Union. It dated back to pre-confederation, when the Hudson’s Bay Company passed ownership of Vancouver Island to the Crown. As part of the union, a well on Spring Ridge was set aside and dedicated, forever, to the people of Victoria. The dedication of the well by HBC was likely a result of the public outcry against Carey’s attempt to privatize a public water source. In the 1870s, when the city began drawing its water from Elk Lake, the Fernwood well ceased to be used; its location was eventually forgotten. Much of Spring Ridge itself was turned into a quarry. But Goers’ interest was piqued. He continued his research. Historical maps placed the well just north of William Stevenson Park, near the Fernwood Community Centre. Telling me the story, his enthusiasm spills out, fingers raking his hair until it stands on end. Goers relates how he gathered together local dowser Ron Welch and a few members of the Fernwood community to start planning. Welch dowsed the entire Fernwood neighbourhood, and eventually found water in a corner of Stevenson Park. The Fernwood Community Well project was born, ushering in the return of an old, old practice of gathering around the well. The group won a $3500 neighbourhood matching grant in 2005 and worked with Victoria’s parks department and gained permission to drill a shallow well of 25 feet. They hit water immediately, which explains why even in the heat of summer, you can walk through Fernwood and hear a trickling of streams under manhole covers. The area, says Goers, is one of Victoria’s only dependable water sources. In 2008, Goers was prodded by the City of Victoria to spend the rest of their grant money. He worked with Tri-K Drilling to drill a deeper well of 150 feet. Goers won the fourth annual World Water Day Award for his work in 2008. Yet the well still didn’t have a pump. Spring water, or well water, is still the primary source of water for most who live outside of the Capital Region’s urban areas. I used to live in a house in Willis Point that had one. Iron and calcium turned the linens yellow and scaled the inside of the toilet. It was worth it, though, for the minerals it infused into my garden and for the taste. But for those of us who don’t have our own free source, water remains an uncertain resource in the event of a catastrophic earthquake. Are we prepared to supply water in an emergency in the Capital Region, Goers asked the Emergency Preparedness team in the region? “Not really,” they admitted. Goers had been negotiating with the CRD, VIHA and the City for permission to drill the well, slowly gaining their trust. He finally convinced officials to let him build and fit the well with a pump by appealing to the need for an emergency source of water. At the end of 2008, Goers and the Community Association won funding to install a pump and cement footing. The CRD has stipulated that the pump can’t remain operational, for liability reasons. They tried locking it, but people kept cutting the lock off. So when it’s not in use, Goers keeps the handle at his house. A well dedication celebration took place in October 2008. Goers was joined by MP Denise Savoie and MLA Rob Fleming, Songhees Chief Ron Sam and Lieutenant Governor of BC Steven Point. “Water is a public resource,” Savoie said, “It just flows through, it can’t be owned.” As a crowd observed, the well was blessed in Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Wiccan ceremonies. Ceremonial cups were drunk by many, including Point and Sam. Goers, who is incredibly modest, watched from the background. “Officially, it’s not for drinking,” Goers tells me, “But it belongs to all of us; no one can take this away from us.” Goers thinks of the well as a 150-year project, and the community as its steward. Eventually, he’d like to see the well earn a series of good testing reports so that officials consent to keeping the well unlocked and available as a dependable drinking source. It could offer what so many towns in Europe offer: drinkable spring water as part of public infrastructure. In the meantime, Goers is out at 9am every third Saturday of the month, rain or shine, to reattach the well handle and pump for anyone who wants some water. You can join him. Many swear their tomatoes grow larger from the mineral content, and bring buckets. Though the water is not officially sanctioned as potable, some stock up, filling glass containers for an iron-rich drink. Some use it for the making of essential oils, which need chlorine-free water for distillation. I’ve joined him a couple of times this fall, and a varied assortment of people always show up. Kids like hanging off the pump while getting the water flowing. “People light up to the idea of what we have,” says Goers. “I’m always pleased to go, because every time, I meet someone I haven’t met before.” The five gallons I bring home tastes of rock and pine and minerals. It’s more thirst-quenching than water out of the tap. I fill my glass every day. Visit Bill Goers in Stevenson Park, below the Fernwood Community Centre, on Pembroke Street. He’s there on the third Saturday of every month at 9am. Bring a container. 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.
  7. September 2019 Saving forests and removing invasives in Saanich FROM HIS HOME IN EAST SAANICH, Harry Drage tells me “It’s fun to say that you worked your entire career in the forests of BC.” A member of the Saanich Environmental Advisory Committee for over ten years, Drage, a forester, has been an ardent volunteer in both Haro Woods and Konukson Park (in East Saanich) since his retirement. This summer, Drage received Saanich’s Individual Environmental Achievement Award for 15 years of leadership in stewarding invasive species removal in Haro Woods and Konukson, a testament to his dedication to local ecosystems. Together with local residents, Drage has removed invasive species, applied for grants, helped to inspire the community and supported student research in the parks. He and other volunteers have logged over 4,500 hours clearing large areas of invasive species from both parks. Konukson encompasses seven hectares of upland terrain in Ten Mile Point, with arbutus and rocky outcrops; Haro Woods is a large parcel northeast (5.6 hectares) of the University of Victoria, with tall stands of second-growth Douglas fir. Harry Drage (Photo by Tony Bounsall) “Haro is about half done,” Drage tells me, and now, areas that have been cleared of invasives are recovering well, with ferns, snowberry and other native underbrush sprouting up under the firs. “You can actually see the [restored] area of the park gradually moving through like a force not to be denied,” he laughs. Haro Woods was the centre of recent controversy during the planning for the region’s sewage treatment facility, which will see wastewater and biosolids pumped to McLoughlin Point in Esquimalt for treatment. As part of the plan, Haro Woods was proposed as the site for a series of underground attenuation tanks and an above-ground pumping station; the construction would have seen a significant portion of forest cut down. In 2009, public consultation around the Haro Woods site resulted in strong pushback by local residents. I remember attending those meetings (at the time as an employee of the CRD). Haro Woods, then an unprotected greenspace zoned for large lot residential development, was nonetheless known informally as a forested trail system, and supported a variety of uses (including mountain bike trails). Some of the meetings grew quite heated. Drage demurs talking about this period. “I know some people think confrontation is hard to overcome,” he says. He tries to remain optimistic, focusing instead on the cooperation between residents’ associations and developers, and the growing support for the environment, and biodiversity, by Saanich. “We have 50 volunteer projects [in the municipality] with people stepping up. They’re coming forward on their own. That’s a really good sign.” As a result of the community’s resistance to the proposed pumping station site, the CRD retreated from its plan. Attenuation tanks will still be built on part of the site, but they will be located underground in a previously disturbed area. In 2011, Saanich purchased the CRD-owned portions of the site for $7.6 million, allowing for protection of 94 percent of the urban forest as parkland in 2013. For Drage, who began restoration work long before the land caught the CRD’s eye as a potential sewage treatment site, it simply shows the commendable actions of Saanich, which, along with the acquisition of Panama Flats in 2011, added 79 hectares to its park inventory in one year. Drage applauds the purchase, and his experiences in the park mirror many I heard speak at those 2009 community consultation sessions. The decision to save Haro Woods, however, many not be as simple as portrayed by former Mayor Frank Leonard’s joyous announcement. Saanich is the largest municipality in the CRD, and its reach stretches beyond the high-value properties of Queenswood, Ten Mile Point and Cadboro Bay, where many residents have time to become organized defenders of local green spaces. There are numerous properties throughout Saanich’s land base that would also seem to demand attention. Priorities change depending on the lens through which we look. Haro Woods is a recovering second-growth forest. Drage’s work has rid approximately half the park of invasive species. The other half sits waiting, while Saanich concludes its park management plan. But damage to the park over the decades—by invasives, through the construction of mountain-bike jumps, and through heavy use by residents—is extensive. In contrast, one might look at the protection of Maltby Lake, also within Saanich’s boundaries (and covered in this magazine). From an ecological perspective, Maltby has a much higher biodiversity rating; it contains old-growth pockets of Douglas fir; it supports a colony of freshwater jellyfish and dozens of listed species. And it could eventually be connected to Francis King Park, forming a contiguous wildlife corridor through the area. Maltby is owned in part by the Land Conservancy of BC, and in part by private landowners. Should that $7.6 million have been put instead toward purchase of portions of Maltby, or of other parts of the Saanich Highlands, which are under increasing threat from development? Drage has another solution. As a forester trained in the latter half of the 20th century, he subscribes to management practices that see a forest as a resource or a crop, as well as an ecological refugium. For much of his career, Drage was district manager in the Salmon Arm and Shushwap Lake area. In Victoria, he worked as an analyst for the BC Forest Practices branch, including planning for woodlots. For him, city boulevards—and forests such as Haro Woods—provide an opportunity for use as woodlots. City trees could be a part of this plantation, offers Drage, with orchards planted on side streets (and even on some lanes of streets, he offers) and selective harvesting of larger forests. It’s a novel vision. But when asked, he doesn’t have a ready answer to the question of biodiversity levels in mature forests as opposed to woodlots. The former support species such as great horned owls and bats. The latter tend not to have the decaying trees and forest floor detritus necessary to house and feed these creatures. Still, planting more trees would certainly help bolster Saanich’s currently spotty record with boulevard tree planting. “To me,” he says, “[boulevard planting] isn’t moving very far very fast. The profile needs to be increased.” One of the simplest ways to combat global warming, he stresses, is through the planting of trees. As someone who’s been trying to get my nearly treeless street in Saanich planted for over seven years, I concur. Drage would also like to see more incentives for landowners and developers to choose nature-scaping and the retention of trees on their properties. When beginning work in Haro Woods and Konukson, Drage had to read up on invasives before he knew what to look for in each park’s tangle of English ivy, Daphne, Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom. In Konukson, he and other volunteers sectioned off areas to work methodically, somewhat like what’s happening in Cuthbert Holmes Park, in Saanich’s Tillicum neighbourhood, or the meticulous record-keeping that Jarrett Teague does for John Dean Park. “It’s almost a war, in some cases it’s so thick,” he says. “When the last invasive [in a section] comes out of the ground screaming in agony, it’s not fun, but it’s close to that.” Haro Woods and Konukson are all the better for his and his compatriots’ dedication. “It’s amazing to walk through [the park] now. The natural plants have come back—oh, it was fabulous,” he says. Due to the region’s deer overpopulation problem, the rebound of native species in some areas hasn’t been as quick as he’d like to see, but he has a solution for that, too. “Venison could become the feature meal out of the forest!” he tells me. I offer to provide the wild blackberry sauce to complete the dish. 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 social sciences and poetry.
  8. July 2019 A deep and abiding love for ȽÁU,WELNEW/John Dean Park is evident in the stewardship work of volunteer Jarrett Teague. IN OLD GROWTH STANDS of Douglas fir and cedar, interspersed with sunlit, mossy meadows of Garry oak and arbutus, Jarrett Teague is surveying a landscape that he’s helped restore into an archetype of Southern Vancouver Island. Free of mature Scotch broom and other invasives, it looks largely as it did before colonization. In winter, rains blanket the park’s forests and trails; in spring, calypso orchids dot the mountain’s slopes. This past May, the W̱SÁNEĆ name for John Dean Provincial Park, ȽÁU,WELNEW (pronounced Tlay will nook), was officially recognized and added to the park’s moniker; Teague was thrilled to see the acknowledgement of a place that has helped sustain him for decades. Over the last 30 years, Teague has logged nearly 13,000 hours of volunteer work in ȽÁU,WELNEW/John Dean, which includes a sacred mountain on the Saanich Peninsula that once sustained the W̱SÁNEĆ peoples during the Great Flood millennia ago. In 2012, Teague was named BC Parks Volunteer of the Year. This past May, his 30-year restoration and caretaking efforts were recognized in the Provincial Legislature by MLA Adam Olsen. In my interview with him at a Tim Horton’s this spring, Teague at first seems reserved, in fact he stops speaking as soon as I begin to write notes. But he visibly relaxes over the course of our chat. About an hour into the interview, I ask him what he remembers of me. Over three decades ago, we were students together at Sidney Elementary. We haven’t had contact since, but somehow we both recall one another. He was a dark-eyed kid; he took things seriously. He wanted to do good. Perhaps we recognized this in one another. He answers my question easily: “I knew you had good parents.” It is a moment that has stayed with me since. Teague isn’t a stranger to good shepherding. A 22-year service member with the Canadian Forces and a father of three, he’s been a doting caretaker of ȽÁU,WELNEW since 1989. “I used to spend hours on ivy removal, and I’d watch the sun move the whole way over,” he gestures, and looks up, as if into a forest canopy. “Different lights, winds, birds. If you’re there for that long, you really know it.” ȽÁU,WELNEW/John Dean Provincial Park was established in 1921, when John Dean donated most of his 100-acre property to the Crown. Subsequent donations through the 1900s brought the park’s size up to 173 hectares, encompassing the summit of Mount Newton and its surrounding forest. A “Class A” park, it was one of the first in BC developed by Forest Rangers for open access by the public; some of its trails are almost 100 years old. Teague, who is a fourth-generation Vancouver Island resident, now lives in East Sooke, but grew up in North Saanich. “In grade six, I did some scouting in the park. I learned how to light a fire in the rain with two matches. By grade nine, I found the Friends of John Dean and started working with them.” Building trails, picking up garbage, preventing erosion and pulling invasive species, Teague quickly became enamoured with the park and its history. He has published two books on the history of John Dean, John Dean’s Cabin Diary, and Camp 20, a history of both ȽÁU,WELNEW/John Dean and BC’s other Provincial Parks. Jarrett Teague clears tree roots from a path in the park following a storm Mount Newton’s original name, ȽÁU,WELNEW, means “place of refuge.” As Adam Olsen tells the story, XÁLS, the Creator, caused a great flood to occur, and told the WSÁNEĆ people to prepare themselves. Many gathered their belongings and wove a long cedar rope to attach to their canoes. As the flood waters rose, the people paddled to the highest mountain nearby, ȽÁU,WELNEW, and tied their canoes to an arbutus tree, surviving the flood. Today, both the mountain and the tree are sacred (arbutus is not cut or burned by WSÁNEĆ peoples). WSÁNEĆ means “the emerging people,” which comes from the sight of their land emerging in the distance after the flood. For Teague, work in the forest is also spiritually significant. He has served two tours of duty overseas in Afghanistan, as well as circumnavigating the globe with the Royal Canadian Navy. The second tour, in Kabul, was uneventful, but the first, to Afghanistan in 2002, left him shaken. “I was like a mouse in a shoebox,” he says. He demurs using the term PTSD, preferring to call it being “wound up.” For the summer after his return, he spent much of every other day at ȽÁU,WELNEW. “It helped me decompress and heal from the experience,” he says. Teague’s time with the military has influenced his management of the park in prominent ways. He refers to his two-hour commute to and from East Sooke as his “deployment.” He has a system to keep track of tasks that need doing in the park: a piece of garbage in the park for 45 days or longer is a “debt;” fewer than 45 days and it’s a “deficit;” when he picks it up, it’s “paid in full.” These categories apply to invasive species, trail washouts, or signage in need of repair (he takes down, dries, sands, paints and reinstalls all 32 signs in the park with new hardware on a yearly basis). He has spreadsheets to keep track of each task. BC Parks often comes to him for advice. Teague’s organizational skills keep him functioning as a manager, rather than reacting. “When you’re reacting,” he explains, “you’re dealing with the obvious, and you’re missing the details. Everything becomes a priority.” His professional discipline has inspired the trust of local history keepers. He was gifted with retired BC Park Ranger Davey Davidson’s photographs and records of both Manning and John Dean parks. Much of his learning was done at the side of elder volunteers for the Friends of John Dean Park. “I feel I’ve really lost that generation of people who knew me,” he muses. “They affected me.” Teague, at 43, isn’t as concerned about a succession plan for his work as some of the volunteers I’ve profiled in this column. He has no intention of letting go his post. But he is acutely aware of the passage of time. “I realize I only have 50 more Junes left. It spurs me to enjoy the day, to think about what [the park] will be like in 100 years, and what it was like 100 years ago.” This musing about time has led him to expand from restoration to teaching. He now leads Scout and Beaver troops along the same paths he was led along. His children are also learning with him. “It’s kind of a neat feeling for me to see [my son] discovering and connecting with the park. I don’t have to make him, or teach him; he’s just doing it on his own.” Upon Teague’s retirement from the military, which is an option in 2020, he plans to study as a horticultural technician, revelling in the opportunity to work in Royal Roads’ gardens as part of his training. On May 2, 2019, MLA Adam Olsen supported passage of a bill to honour the sacred mountain through addition of the WSÁNEĆ name to the park. During his speech, Olsen briefly lost his composure. Thanking the students from the Tribal School and Cordova Bay Elementary for the petition that spurred the change, he wiped away tears. “That’s the first time that’s happened,” he murmured to a colleague at his side, before continuing. Teague also recounts the moment in his blog, “at exactly 11:19:45 am, the new name “ȽÁU,WELNEW/John Dean Park” was spoken in the Legislature, it sounded perfect and beautiful…” More information on ȽÁU,WELNEW/John Dean Park and its history can be found on Jarrett Teague’s website, www.johndeanpark.com. 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 social sciences and poetry.
  9. May 2019 A molting elephant seal on Gonzales Beach offered lessons in nature and an occasion for friendship. FOR OAK BAY RESIDENTS Kerri Ward, Gina Lemieux and Stephanie Weinstein, April 2018 was an exhausting month that changed their lives. A female elephant seal arrived on Gonzales Bay beach to complete its annual spring molt. The three met on the beach, while trying to protect the seal. “I don’t think it was an accident,” Ward tells me, of the three women’s introduction to one another. I meet them in Ward’s kitchen, her character house surrounded by red-winged blackbirds, Garry oaks and early spring buds. “I think it was a kindred connection.” But despite their new friendship, the seal’s arrival is not an event they’re eager to repeat. Left to right: Stephanie Weinstein, Kerri Ward, Gina Lemieux Lemieux and Weinstein are biologists; Ward’s background is in conservation, but she now works as a museum curator and as a long- time volunteer for Wild Animal Rescue Centre (Wild ARC). Ward discovered the seal; Lemieux and Weinstein encountered her trying to erect a caution-tape barrier around the animal. A friendship blossomed from their shared love of the natural world. “We are part of nature, not separate from it,” explains Lemieux. “It was amazing to see this seal go through this phenomenal life process.” Ward’s ribbon barrier was a reaction to the frenzy that surrounded the seal’s arrival, which had quickly attracted attention from local residents and media. Even tour buses announced its presence during their travels through Oak Bay. Thanks to the media attention, crowds began visiting the beach, pressing closer and closer to the wild animal. “The behaviour of people was depressing and discouraging,” Ward says. “We’re invading their habitat!” And yet, she says, she encountered many people whose conception of nature was something closer to Disney—where wild animals can be approached for selfie shots or close inspection. Elephant seals go through a “catastrophic molt” every year, during which they lose their fur and their topmost layer of skin. It’s a painful and taxing process. Normally, they don’t eat during their month-long molt, and often lose 25 percent of their body weight. Males normally top out at 4,500 pounds, with a length of 13 feet; females can reach 3,000 pounds. During their molt, they loll on the beach or dip into the water, using the salt and sand to keep cool and relieve pain. Their bodies conserve water during these periods, concentrating their urine so that they excrete less and can go long periods without drinking. In the initial days after the seal’s arrival, Ward, Lemieux and Weinstein quickly formed a team, taking at least three shifts a day to ensure a barrier remained around the seal and helping educate the public. “For the most part, people were respectful,” says Lemieux, and Weinstein agrees, but those that weren’t led to a couple of frightening incidents for the women. The media attention culminated in a confrontation with the public on the sand beside the seal. “I could see the seal, and they were surrounding it, and it was stressed,” Ward recounts. Afraid a confrontation might occur between seal and human (or dog), Ward raced across the beach to ask people to step back. “People started swearing at me, they threw driftwood, they screamed. One guy stood up for me and they turned on him. It was sheer insanity.” Ward contacted Fisheries and Oceans to let them know what happened. The next day, there was a massive response by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Marine Mammal Rescue (an initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium), and local Bylaw enforcement. Pylons and signs were erected. Enforcement officers patrolled. The northern elephant seal’s range stretches from northern Alaska south to Mexico. Many molt at Race Rocks, off Metchosin. Mostly a solitary creature, they migrate as far south as Mexico, congregating to breed and feed. Once hunted for their blubber (like whales), they were nearly extinct by 1882. Less than 100 individuals found refuge on small Guadalupe Island, off the Baja Peninsula, where they were discovered in 1910. The island became a biological reserve in the 1920s, and since then the population has grown to more than 200,000 individuals, all descended from the Guadalupe population. This recovery from near-extinction makes the seals even more precious in Ward’s eyes. “They were here long before us. It’s not fair that we stress them out.” All three women credit the natural world as a guiding force in their lives. Lemieux has worked extensively in Southeast Asia in marine biology and education. After a masters in tropical conservation and development, Weinstein began working in environmental education, and now provides schools all through the CRD with techniques to connect kids to nature. Ward has transported seals, squirrels and countless birds in her car, through her work with Wild ARC. “This is the best place in the world,” they tell me, of BC’s South Coast. They are spider rescuers, snake and jellyfish befrienders, entranced with all that gallops, shimmies and glides. Weinstein and Lemieux qualify that Ward’s bad experience on the beach doesn’t represent the majority of their encounters with the public. Most were far less confrontational, though still lacking knowledge. “They thought the seal was sick or dead, so they went closer and were curious,” Weinstein explains. So she decided to set up an education table. She brought seal skulls, colouring books and information about the seals, gained from her work with the Habitat Trust Education Program and Wild BC. “One of the most positive experiences was talking to a bunch of teenagers, who all had their drinks,” she laughs. One interested girl kept asking questions, and then excitedly took the information back to her friends. It only served to confirm her optimism: how interested children can become in the natural world, and how much their behaviour can influence others. Unlike the Pacific harbour seal and California sea lion, who often get blamed (inaccurately) by fishers for eating salmon, elephant seals feed primarily on squid. Diving down as deep as two kilometres, they can hold their breath for up to two hours while in search of squid, as well as small amounts of fish and crustaceans. The inflatable snout of the male elephant seal amplifies his snorts, bellows and grunts, which help to ward off rival males. The females have no proboscis. After the seal left, the women breathed a sigh of relief. But it didn’t last long. A second seal arrived in May, staying for only a day. Another was seen in Gorge Inlet on May 30. And a third arrived at Gonzales Bay in June, staying for two weeks. The women’s daily patrols resumed. They were asked if media should be informed. “No!” they shouted. The seal left the Friday of the Canada Day long weekend. Weinstein smiles, “It was perfect timing!” Lemieux, Weinstein and Ward don’t know why the seals chose Gonzales Bay to molt. Are they confused about their location? Is the changing climate altering their habits? Or is this just the result of a rebounding population that now needs more beaches on which to molt? They relate the story of California’s Drakes Beach, which was taken over by elephant seals during the recent US federal government shutdown. A lack of park rangers meant the seals easily colonized the beach, mating and rearing their pups in what is normally a busy destination for humans. The park stayed closed until the seals and their young departed. Lemieux, despite the stress of monitoring and facing off with the public, looks at the seal’s arrival as a gift. “That’s been the silver lining, to connect with these two amazing women who I never otherwise would have met,” she says. “I’ve connected with local neighbours, seen beautiful spirits and hearts who have the same outlook on what we’re trying to do.” But that’s not to say they wish for another arrival on Gonzales, or any populated beach in the Capital Region. If an elephant seal does arrive, their advice echoes that of Fisheries and Oceans and conservation organizations: stay clear, keep your dog and children away, and let the seal endure its natural process without disturbance, and particularly, without having to appear in a selfie. 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.
  10. March 2019 Combining creative work with research, Estraven Lupino-Smith collaborates with HAT to monitor and celebrate bats. A FEW YEARS AGO, when Estraven Lupino-Smith was living in Philadelphia, they threw their back out. (Lupino-Smith is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.) Miserable, between contracts and home-bound in winter, instead of succumbing to depression, they fell back on their long history as an artist. “I’m going to make something,” they decided, “I’m going to do a series of prints on nocturnal animals.” Many are vilified, they explained, considered dangerous, part of the underworld. Lupino-Smith wanted to change the way we view wolves, bats, barn owls, raccoons. In particular, I learned during our conversation at a local cafe, they love bats. A lot. Estraven Lupino-Smith Lupino-Smith, a creative researcher with a degree in political science and equity studies, is currently completing an MSc in geography at Concordia, but art has always been a part of their research. “That’s how my brain works,” says Lupino-Smith. Focusing on bats and other vilified animals seemed an ideal way of combining creative work with research. “I think we don’t realize how much social context there is to issues of science and politics. This is a key reason people undervalue creative work.” Lupino-Smith’s Etsy website offers the artwork as pins, t-shirts and prints, but it was when they moved to Victoria (via Montreal) that things really came together. When Lupino-Smith arrived here, they emailed Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) and offered to volunteer, sending a copy of the linocut bat print they’d made. The HAT staff member who answered the email just happened to be wearing Lupino-Smith’s bat design t-shirt that day. A collaboration was born. With funding from a CRD arts development grant, Lupino-Smith gathered sound files on the bats using a heterodyne detector, which allows humans to hear the echolocation bats use to find food and move through space. “We can’t normally hear it, but they’re actually screaming; they’re quite loud!” BC is home to 16 of the 19 bat species in Canada—the greatest diversity of any province. Bats are the only mammal that can truly fly, and half of BC’s bat species (all insectivores) are listed as vulnerable or threatened. Coming from the east, where bat populations have been decimated by White Nose Syndrome fungus (recorded deaths total over six million), Lupino-Smith was eager to see a population that is, relatively speaking, still intact. “It will take 10,000 years, they told me, “to recover the population numbers on the East Coast.” Lupino-Smith counted bats with HAT over the summer, watching over 1,200 bats emerge from the attic of the Metchosin Community Hall, which the bats had chosen as their female maternity colony. That means there are both adults and pups in the groups volunteers count in summer. Some volunteers are retired, Lupino-Smith says, but many just like the work, which is communal and provides a chance to view the world in all its complexity. “You get your blanket out. You bring your dog.” Watching the pups learn to fly can also be hilarious. “They’re not great fliers yet. They hit things, they do loops to get higher,” laughs Lupino-Smith. White Nose Syndrome wasn’t initially found on the west coast of the continent. But in 2016, a sick brown bat was found by hikers near Seattle. The syndrome was confirmed a few days after the bat died. This means the disease has travelled over 1,300 kilometres past its last known western-most appearance. Bats keep mosquito and other insect populations in check, protecting crops from infestation and protecting us from vector-borne diseases. Many also pollinate plants and help with seed dispersal. A fall in bat numbers means diseases like West Nile virus could become a serious problem. If the disease becomes as wide-spread as it has on the east coast, the west coast of North America could lose 90 percent or more of its bat population. The culmination of Lupino-Smith’s summer work with HAT occurred at the Big Bat Bash in October 2018. Combining video files, footage from a slow-motion camera, and a sculptural piece, Lupino-Smith created a multi-media presentation meant to inspire and educate. The event drew more than 300 people and included workshops, dinner and a dance, with donations supporting the Metchosin Community Hall bats. Lupino-Smith’s plan, working with CFUV, the University of Victoria’s community radio station, is to create a podcast called “Mediated Natures” from the project, integrating science research with art creation. Lupino-Smith also works in sound, film, and text, providing workshops on the natural world to children, and nature walks with a political ecology component. Their plan is to eventually do a research-creation-based PhD. “Art is in the ideas. That’s where you start.” The HAT work was great, they explain, “because it was a rural project, not in a gallery. There was a bat cave, a bunch of kids.” The work made them realize the importance of outreach. Many landowners in the region don’t know that it’s illegal to remove bats from private property—even if they nest in the eaves of buildings. HAT provided training to Lupino-Smith that included a 14-hour session with other volunteers in Stanley Park, learning about bats, echolocation and data from scientists. “It made me realize that it’s all the work of these individual [volunteers] that makes the difference.” Lack of resources, social or political will, they argue, means that much of the data gathered by scientists is effectively lost if it’s not translated to the public. Lupino-Smith also admires the way HAT liaises with First Nations (with their restoration work on Senanus Island, for example). “I’d like to see more work on the part of settlers to follow Indigenous leadership.” One of the key changes Lupino-Smith would like to see in the non-profit world is a greater openness to art-science collaborations, which they stress are key to developing greater connection to place, and acknowledging humans as just one species in a large, complex ecology. Before HAT said yes to their proposal, Lupino-Smith approached another non-profit in the region. It turned Lupino-Smith down, worried they might compete with the NGO for funding. “There’s a funny thing in Victoria. Every organization looks fun, but then there’s a board of directors full of ancient white people who [work] to maintain the conservative frameworks that exist.” Part of being a queer, non-binary person, they argue, is an inclination to question the dominant power dynamic, which can see art and science as disparate fields. For Lupino-Smith, collaboration between the two is an integral step in dismantling colonialism and finding alternatives to institutionalized power. “Art is in creatively and critically thinking about things you don’t normally get to think about,” argues Lupino-Smith. “What excites you? What are your ideas? We’ll go from there.” This past year, they dreamed up the Artemisia Institute ( see estraven.ca/research), a name that gives authority to the work they’re already doing in various guises around the continent. So far, the Institute can only point to a research vehicle (the Research Creation Vessel Putt-Putt) and a business card. But if their track record is any indication, it won’t stay that way for long. “If a thing doesn’t exist, I do it. I’ve always had a DIY mentality.” If you have bats in your house or on your property, email HAT: hatmail@hat.bc.ca! They study and monitor bats, and need to know where they live. Bats are shy (and cute) and don’t want to harm you. Maleea Acker recently submitted the first draft of her geography doctoral dissertation on the intersections of art and science. One chapter of the dissertation is a manuscript of poetry.
  11. January 2019 Julian Anderson and Cuthbert Holmes Park AN IMPORTANT FACET OF ANY SUSTAINABLE CITY is its green spaces—providing opportunity for residents to step off a city bus and walk into wild areas to enjoy the ecosystems that make a region what it is. On Southern Vancouver Island, that includes salmon-bearing streams, Douglas-fir forests, wetlands, and habitat for a variety of bird and mammal species. Saanich’s Cuthbert Holmes Park, though sandwiched between a suburban mall, a residential neighbourhood and the Island Highway, satisfies all of these needs. But throughout its lifespan it has been both helped by its stewards and troubled by development. Julian Anderson, who directs the Friends of Cuthbert Holmes Park (FCHP), acts as main steward of the park. He made up the organization on the spot when asked to join the Gorge Waterway Initiative years ago. “Everyone else was part of a group already,” he explains, smiling, so he said he was part of the Friends of Cuthbert Holmes Park, which, at the time, didn’t yet exist. Julian Anderson (Photo by Tony Bounsall) Anderson’s invention of the organization, which shares its reports and findings with Saanich, was fortuitous. Anderson began a Restoration of Natural Systems diploma program in 2002 through the University of Victoria. Whenever he had a course project to complete, he used Cuthbert Holmes as the site location. Now, FCHP works in collaboration with Pulling Together, a Saanich invasive species removal program, and Anderson hosts work parties to plant native species, remove invasives, and generally care for the park’s ecosystems. Anderson and other volunteers have cleared large areas of the park, exposing native plants and stopping species like English ivy from smothering trees. Cuthbert Holmes is also home to a portion of the Colquitz River, one of the region’s primary Coho salmon spawning waterways. The park’s paths wind through forests, over two bridges, and out to a point where the Gorge waterway meanders past residential backyards. A fish-counting fence on the Colquitz helps keep track of returning salmon each year (see Focus’ October 2015 edition for Dorothy Chambers’ salmon work). Nootka roses and fawn lilies bloom in hidden corners of the park in spring. Anderson is no stranger to the area. He grew up beside the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club, in one of several houses along the Gorge that have since been demolished. “In those days, we’d get kicked out of the house [in the morning], and come back for dinner,” he tells me at a coffee shop in Tillicum. Roving around the neighbourhood as a boy, he learned the local animals and plants. After starting FCHP he found himself directing volunteers and often serving as nature interpreter for school and volunteer groups that visited the park. Saanich was all too happy to see someone take a long-term interest in Cuthbert Holmes, and collaboration with the municipality is something for which he’s also thankful. Saanich’s invasive species management program and their openness to volunteers working in Saanich parks makes them “the envy of the entire south Island region,” Anderson says. As an example, Saanich’s management of the ferociously invasive species Japanese knotweed has been relatively successful in comparison to the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s. On the Cowichan River, whole areas of streamside native habitat have been supplanted in the last five years by a monotonous sea of knotweed. Knotweed decimates biodiversity and grows through concrete, so Saanich has taken a proactive stance, working to eliminate every new infestation, whether on private or public property. Luckily, none has yet been found in Cuthbert Holmes. Anderson’s primary focus these days concerns a new (but familiar) chapter for the park’s borders, as the Ministry of Highways completes an interchange on the Island Highway at McKenzie Avenue. In 2016, the Ministry of Highways vetoed Saanich’s decision to reject a cloverleaf design for the intersection. The ministry used 1.4 hectares of the park, including an area with mature Garry oak trees and a stand of rare Oregon ash and trembling aspen, for the cloverleaf. Some of the land was replaced with Ministry of Highways land alongside the TransCanada, but Anderson argued that infringement into the park was unjustified. Additionally, a constructed berm along the park’s edge will be planted with cultivated grasses and groupings of trees. Recommendations by an ecologist to leave the berm “rough and loose” to allow for gradual growth of native species was rejected. “We’re an impatient species,” rues Anderson. It’s been proven that enlarging highways increases dependence on single-vehicle travel. More cars move in to fill the new space. The noise pollution from commuting vehicles is already extreme in Cuthbert Holmes. But “there’s no sound fencing planned next to the cloverleaf right now,” laments Anderson. The park’s history can be more easily understood, Anderson explains, through aerial photos of the land. Perusing his series of air photos of Cuthbert Holmes park from 1928 to the present is a sobering experience. Anderson describes the changes he’s documented as we leaf through the decades. The earliest, at 1928, shows tracts of farmland stretching out from the park’s original, larger borders; there is no housing to be seen. The neighbourhoods of Burnside, Gorge and Tillicum mostly haven’t yet been built. Then the island highway bisects Saanich in 1956. Greenspace that makes up the park continually shrinks, as development chips away at its edges. A drive-in movie theatre replaces a field, then Tillicum Mall replaces the theatre. Pearkes Recreation Centre lops off a forested edge; its parking lot takes over a further swath. Then in the 1990s, the Silver City movie theatre replaces another edge. As the decades tick by, the wide swath of fields and wetlands surrounding the s-curve of the Colquitz River slowly shrinks. Changes in the park’s boundaries have also affected its species. “I used to walk by the drive-in on my way to school,” Anderson tells me. “There were choruses of frogs” near where the Tillicum Mall parking lot now stands. “You don’t hear that anymore. That’s an incremental change.” Salmon, he points out, are resilient creatures, but “they handle change until they can’t anymore. They’ll reach a limit, too.” One of Anderson’s primary hopes for the park is that people step forward who can eventually act as his successors. Anderson is nowhere near burnout, but he recognizes that, as an introvert, the education portion of environmental stewardship is a challenge. “If I disappear, I want this to carry on.” This desire for a succeeding generation of knowledge-keepers is a common refrain among environmental stewards in the region; most of those I have spoken with in the last three years voice concerns about what will happen to their carefully stewarded ecosystems in future decades. Cuthbert Holmes is no exception. Two-thirds of the park belong to the Province, and is currently leased by Saanich. It’s hard to say what decisions future governments will make about an urban park beside a highway, even if it does nurture great-horned owls, nesting herons and other at-risk species. The park hosted the largest great blue heron rookery on the island until 2010. Anderson hopes they will return. “I want future generations to go into the park and see the same things I’m seeing. This is a salmon-bearing river in the middle of an urban area,” he pauses to let that amazing fact sink in. 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.
  12. November 2018 In the face of ecological disasters, art and science together can lead to hope and resilience. “I CAUGHT THE DREAM OF THE ORCA,” Robin June Hood tells me in Demitasse Café during Fall’s first rainy period, “and it was so full in meaning that I knew something had been transmitted. I had to do something about it.” Coming from a cultural geographer, a consultant for community-based research and development projects who holds a PhD in global education, this might sound like an odd thing to say. But Hood is anything but ordinary. She focuses her attention on protecting the natural world, but also on how the cycle of life and death make us the temporally-bound creatures we are. It’s this attention to deeper meanings—shaped by her learning, but also by her own experience—that makes her work so important today. Robin Hood Born in Quebec but a longtime resident of BC, Hood took a degree in geography and then began an activist career in Guatemala, where she was sent by an international aid agency. She arrived ten days before a major earthquake, and instead of fleeing, she stayed, travelling back and forth from Vancouver to Guatemala for years while working in war zones and refugee camps, setting up schools and “listening to people.” The experience cemented her respect for indigenous knowledge, community-based learning and grassroots initiatives. Two years ago, orca whales cried to her for help, Hood explains, a dream that occurred far before the recent and tragic events in the Salish Sea pod’s history. In August, a member of J Pod carried her dead baby for 17 days through the Salish Sea, capturing the world’s attention and bringing many to tears. In September, J-50, a four-year-old female in the pod died, bringing the population down to 74. All three pods—J, K and L—converged in a superpod off Race Rocks soon after she disappeared, some say to mourn her loss. Hood and colleagues from Salt Spring Island set about creating and carving wooden orcas, one to represent each member of the pods. They have been shown and circulated in events in Vancouver, Victoria, and Salt Spring, acting as a visual reminder of the orcas’ plight and endangered status. In September they fund-raised for RAVEN Trust, an Indigenous legal defense fund that supports First Nations’ constitutional rights. “We do education around acoustic noise, traffic and salmon habitat,” she tells me. “It’s been a dream and a heart project” that has Hood dipping again into art as a method of informing and impacting citizens through grassroots efforts—a track she’s been on for nearly a half century. “Art keeps me hopeful,” she explains. Hood put the knowledge she gained from Mayan communities to use after her return to Canada, consulting in education, community and international development, and teaching at Royal Roads University. For several years, she was director of the Community Based Research Institute at Vancouver Island University (before the university shut the program down). She has worked as a filmmaker, was part of the negotiation team for the creation of the Great Bear Rainforest, and has worked extensively with Indigenous peoples both here and in Latin America. “I tend to be a seeder,” she explains, “I like to get things started.” Hood’s doctorate work examined how to revitalize traditional ecological knowledge in Guatemala, a skill she has applied on the island with the Cowichan Nation. A book, For the Love of Nature: Solutions for Biodiversity, co-authored with writer and naturalist Briony Penn, appeared in 2010. Until last year, Hood was involved with the Xwaaqw’um project in Burgoyne Bay on Salt Spring Island. Xwaaqw’um is a historic Cowichan settlement that existed in the bay’s provincial park. The resurgence project is now a cultural learning hub for First Nations and settlers. “It’s an amazing project, where elders have put together a series of workshops, like ‘Cowichan 101,’ which are open to settlers and indigenous,” she says. The program recently received funding from the Vancouver Foundation to take the model to five other First Nations communities in BC. A year ago, Hood lost her husband, the social justice activist and The Land Conservancy director John Shields, to a rare blood disease. In 2015, they had survived a serious car accident only to learn he was terminally ill. A traumatic life event can be a catalyst—for refocus or for introspection. Many turn inward, eschewing community and work to heal on their own. The unexpected loss catapulted Hood into a period of flux. “I realized I needed a couple of years to be quiet and think about next steps.” But though she downplays her achievements when we talk, Hood has continued to be a force for positive change, mostly on a volunteer basis. Part of that work has been acknowledging the importance of slowing down, recognizing our bonds with the Earth, learning how to age and die well, and realizing that grieving, in the age of the Anthropocene, is an essential act. “I think we’re in the middle of a big [ecological] collapse. So I’m holding at the same time the grief and upset of this time.” Hood is a board member and facilitator for the Centre for Earth and Spirit, which offers workshops and programs on aging well, death and dying, community conversations and the importance of story-telling, and thus the importance of elder involvement in our society. “We are asking older people to step up, and to be mentors and create opportunities for younger people,” she says. She does not shy away from taking a hard look at her community. “There are very few mature, nurturing, regenerative adults out there.” The solution, she argues, is acknowledging our lack of deep environmental awareness. “We are in an age of education for global survival. We need to make sure people have knowledge of the Earth.” This education, she argues, is also tied in with grieving. “It is our belief systems and our philosophy that we need to change and align with the Earth’s carrying capacity…When I look at the lurch to the right, globally, the last gasp of capitalism…” she trails off, she looks grief-stricken, but recovers quickly, saying, “If we settle into touching how we’re feeling, then we become more whole, more mature, balanced, and resilient.” Resilience, for Hood, is about reconciliation—with nature, with First Nations, and with ourselves and our consumerist society. Hood is also a special advisor to the Greater Victoria Greenbelt Society, which has galvanized support across the region to save Mary Lake and its surrounding 67 acres of forest in the municipality of the Highlands. The Coastal Douglas-fir and related endangered ecosystems are increasingly imperiled by encroaching development in Langford (and recently, by a proposed gravel-mining operation in Highlands itself). The lake’s former residence, Highlands Nature House, will serve as a meeting space, artist-in-residence space, and environmental education facility. It’s that kind of mixing of art and science that makes so much sense to Hood. “Art has been a deep underground river that I’ve dipped into a few times. Now the river is turning into a waterfall.” When art and conservation is combined with Indigenous knowledge, like the learning she’s facilitating at the Centre for Earth and Spirit, or that’s taking place through Cowichan’s Xwaaqw’um project, her work becomes a way of not “discounting our time of dreaming, which is another way of knowing.” 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.
  13. September 2018 One woman’s commitment to de-colonization. SOME PEOPLE IN THE WORLD serve as profound role models. They embody our species’ best qualities—care, patience, empathy, tenaciousness, optimism—and they focus on doing “right work” that acknowledges the importance of all beings, that tries to decolonize settler relationships to the land, and that seeks justice and fairness for all. This column gives me the opportunity to meet a lot of these kinds of people. Marion Cumming, however, is one who comes frequently to mind, not least because I spent two years working as her gardener on her wild Oak Bay property at the foot of Walbran Park. Gardening involved copious tea drinking and cookie eating in her kitchen, while we caught one another up on our projects. Now that I no longer work for her, I thought it time her achievements came to light. Marion Cummings (Photo by Tony Bounsall) Cumming, who calls Oak Bay a miniature Disneyland, is known for her ability to gently, persuasively, and relentlessly achieve miracles for ecosystem protection, heritage conservation, and First Nations reconciliation. The latter is earning her a place in history. Born in 1936 in Toronto, Cumming completed a BA in visual art, and then spent two years as an exchange student at the Universidad de Las Americas, in Mexico City. Living with Mexican families, she “became aware of the vast disparity between the rich and poor, and—even in Mexico—racial discrimination.” After working for the Argentine Embassy and teaching high school art in Ottawa, she moved with her husband to a New Brunswick farm, where her lifelong dedication to First Nations took flight. Decolonization involves the un-settling of the settler mindset, which has silenced First Nations, taken their land, and used violence to attempt assimilation. In 2014, the landmark Tsilhqot’in Decision awarded Aboriginal Title to 1750 square kilometres in the BC interior. It has set a precedent for future rights and title cases, and grounds the reality that, as Cumming argues, all settlers live on “stolen land.” But Cumming started on her mission well before the court case. In 1990, Cumming and her (now late) husband Bruce put their beliefs into action. After she was bequeathed a house by her aunt in Victoria, the Cummings donated their 288-acre New Brunswick property and home to the Wolstokwiyik Nawicowok Indigenous Sacred Land Trust, to become a healing and cultural centre. “We don’t even think of it as a gift,” she says. “It was land that was taken unjustly to begin with.” Cumming’s daily work takes her in a dozen directions, as she petitions against development projects in the city that threaten many private parcels of the last remaining Garry oak stands by talking to mayors, councils, developers and landowners. Her sense of hope, her doggedness and her fearlessness can be awe-inspiring. In the 1970s, trying to fight development on the East Coast, she picked up the phone and asked the operator for journalist and activist Jane Jacobs’ number, which was easier to find back then, she tells me, blithely. They spent several years in conversation, Cumming consulting her when issues arose. High on her to-do list, she tells me during tea in her garden, is “encouraging Canadians to think about returning land to Indigenous Peoples. We’re learning so much from them about respect for land and wildlife, and they deserve to feel that they’re back on their own land, with their own culture once again.” Cumming also owns a small heritage cabin on land that fronts the Koksilah River. She and her husband agreed to give both it and her Oak Bay property, which overlooks the traditional Lekwungen village of McNeil Bay, back to First Nations upon her death. She wants both to “serve as a bridge for Indigenous Peoples and [settler] cultures.” It is, she says, “my life’s work.” Their decision has been lauded by Mohawk UVic Professor of Indigenous Governance Taiaiake Alfred, and master carver and Tsartlip First Nation member Charles Elliot. Locally, Cumming serves on the board of the Salish Sea Biosphere Initiative, the Oak Bay Heritage Foundation and its Commission. She was also one of the founding members of the Sea-to-Sea Green Blue Belt Society, which worked to secure the Sooke Lake Watershed Lands for protection, and had the vision to conceive of a swath of protected lands that now stretch from Sooke to Saanich Inlet, helping to limit sprawl and development past the Western Communities. The first meeting of the society was held in her living room. She and Bruce were also weekly speakers at the Water District board meetings, back when it was considering logging and developing large swaths of the now protected watershed. Cumming is an accomplished pen and ink artist and painter, and has exhibited across Canada. It’s a vocation she has used to prevent the demolition of heritage structures across the country, including the old Toronto City Hall, and the New Brunswick and the Stratford City Halls, as well as countless heritage houses. One way, she points out, of counteracting the destruction wrought by gentrification, is to get publicity for particular structures that merit being retained. In Fredericton, four months of weekly articles in the local paper, along with accompanying local art depicting the city hall, helped turn the tide. Developers nicknamed her “the velvet bulldozer” for her ability to portray the beauty and value of heritage buildings and lands. She sketches and paints every Sunday afternoon, seeking out “rambling properties in Oak Bay and Fairfield that lie on tiny lands, surrounded by towering Douglas-fir and which have been forgotten for a century, except by developers. It’s a form of expression,” she says, “the way that music is, and it can be so healing in some ways.” Cumming volunteered in the “worst” mental hospital in Mexico, El Manicomio de Mixcoac in the late 1950s. She can still name the children she taught how to express themselves through art. Her fight against development extends to the Juan de Fuca Lands, where her passion is leading her to campaign, along with Deborah Dickson, Stan Boychuk, Ray Zimmerman and Jacques Sirois, for the creation of a United Nations Biosphere that would encompass the CRD and the Salish Sea. Recently, the initiative received a $10,000 research grant to explore potential collaborations, including forming an Indigenous elders committee from the First Nations communities in the CRD. “The Juan de Fuca lands are of major concern. When you look at the map, you can see the area is just laced with streams and lakes, and it really ought to be preserved.” Cumming believes that those with a yearning to develop the area, if they thought deeply about it, would realize their actions “would devastate intentions of living up to our responsibilities where climate change is concerned,” and have a change of heart. Her idealism still seems at once innocent and indomitable. We bring the tea back inside. On her dining room table, which has become one of her desks, there are stacked books and pamphlets—on wolves, on the geology of Vancouver Island, on First Nations coastal art. She mentions the burial cairn she suspects lies in her garden, where a circle of boulders cradles a patch of bracken fern. She loads me up with two books on backyard birds and Tod Inlet and a handful of chocolates. Her optimism in the face of dark times—the Trump administration, Trudeau’s approval and recent purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the construction of Site-C dam—might be what impresses most upon meeting Cumming. She does not falter; she simply recalibrates and continues to work behind the scenes. To her, hope “means striving to be more loving and more humble and less selfish—it’s possible. If we’re to be serious about climate change and concerns about the environment, in a way it’s the only choice.” 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.
  14. July 2018 Digging, planting and watering together produces food, strengthens community and helps the bees help us. THERE'S NOTHING QUITE LIKE planting a garden in an urban area to garner attention. It raises interest, creates detractors and supporters, and gets people talking—to one another and to those doing the transforming. And when that garden gets built in a municipal park, over top of a former lawn, there’s a sense of revolution—taking back the history of lawns as European pleasure grounds, as demonstrations of wealth or conformity. We can do so much more with a patch of earth than grow a ground cover that doesn’t feed anyone. Thanks to the Gorge Park Community Gardens (GPCG) team in Saanich, led by Gabe Epstein, there’s a new example of what a lawn can become. The transformation is strengthening community, building biodiversity, supporting pollinators and providing a beautiful way of feeding a neighbourhood. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s giving people a concrete and positive way to connect with nature when they gather in a public space. “Because of this project, I now talk to my neighbours,” Epstein tells me, sitting with fellow GPCG members Jane Bond, Laurie Jones and Brenda Pilon in the shade of the gardens’ tool shed, as pollinators float through the warm air around us. All four serve as coordinators for the site. Pilon is the native plant expert. Bond, who is the site manager, concurs with Epstein: “We help each other. That’s what it’s all about here for me. I come down and get talking to people and build that association.” Jane Bond, Gabe Epstein and Laurie Jones (Photo by Tony Bounsall) Epstein, the spearhead organizer for the GPCG, first held a visioning workshop on the future of Gorge Park (at the corner of Tillicum and Gorge Road) in 2011. Epstein, who used to be president of the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers group, is a retired school teacher and was looking for a way to focus on food security in his neighbourhood. The park was underutilized, and drug use was common. One suggestion that came out of the visioning workshop was a community garden. After consulting with Saanich, whose vision statement includes a plan to create a community garden in 12 neighbourhoods by 2036, GPCG polled neighbourhoods to determine levels of support; after a two-year process, the gardens gained approval in November 2013. The difference between an allotment and a community garden is key for Epstein, who rallied during the gardens’ planning process for the latter. He wanted a garden that could serve the needs of a diverse population, including native species. And he wanted the focus to shift from only private plots to a more inclusive model. “Communities grow in community gardens,” Epstein tells me. Brown concurs, telling stories of apartment dwellers who met at the gardens, then ended up holding communal dinners with neighbours they’d previously only passed in the hall. Gardens are proven to help us connect to nature, even if we are growing kale and carrots, not camas. Soil microbes have been shown to have an anti-depressive effect on those who sink their bare hands into the earth. Learning the timing for plantings, ways of building soil health, and seed-saving connects us to the seasons and to our neighbours. Educational events held at the GPCG foster informal conversations, which build knowledge and passion. “There’s a thread of environmentalism spread out as we talk with one another,” says Epstein. Design of the GPCG involved consultations with First Nations; Earl Claxton and Judith Arney came and sat at the site before building began; Will George participated in the gardens’ groundbreaking ceremony. The coordinators are hoping that future collaborations might involve First Nations and nearby schools, which could use the site as an outdoor classroom. Several groups collaborated to initiate the GPCG, including the Gorge Tillicum Community Association, the District of Saanich and the Capital Regional District, along with many community members. Each group provided something towards the construction and maintenance of the gardens. In 2013, GPCG was awarded a $20,000 startup grant from Saanich, which paid for archaeological assessment of the 1600 square-metre area; the CRD contributed $10,000 in storm water management, and many of the supplies for irrigation and the garden shed were donated by local businesses. Total cost for the gardens so far has been about $65,000, says Epstein, with money now coming in from allotment rentals, plant sales and other fundraising activities. Community gardens have a long history in the CRD. The Spring Ridge Commons, a thriving food forest in Fernwood, was a parking lot rescued by nearby residents in 1999. Saanich’s Capital City Allotment Gardens were originally started in the 1970s on Crown land, which was transferred to the municipality in 2005. Many smaller gardens around the city have similar histories—locals gathering together to take back an unused parcel of land and make it productive and beautiful. But increasing development pressures mean that it is harder and harder to find an unused piece of land that a developer doesn’t already have eyes on. Hence, the transformation of grassy spaces in parks. What the GPCG plants in the gardens interests Epstein and his fellow coordinators as much as who comes to use and visit them. Saanich forbids any use of pesticides or invasive plants, but provides free deliveries of compost and wood chips for paths and winter mulch. The GPCG strives to use plants that either feed people or wildlife, and encourages drought-tolerant choices. It’s a choice that will contribute toward the creation of pollinator corridors that many are arguing are a way to save native bee populations, like the yellow-faced bumblebees that took up residence in my swallow nest box this spring. Use of native flowering shrubs in the GPCG—red osier dogwood, snowberry and red-flowering currant—also provides food for insects and birds, as well as nesting material. Readers may notice that non-native shrubs like laurel and boxwood hedges tend to attract invasive house sparrows; native bushes attract and support native birds and insects. The construction of the gardens has also had some fortuitous benefits. Hummingbirds, Jones tells me as we walk around the site, use the spider webs from the garden’s rock walls to line the insides of their nests. The plan includes a living arbor over the event space that could turn the gardens into a neighbourhood hub. That will take long-term vision, which the coordinators are hoping to receive from neighbours. “We want to encourage people not to just plant seeds, but to volunteer, and actually get involved,” says Jones. Epstein and his colleagues are happy about the outcome of the gardens, though they’re hoping that the model they’ve created—collaboratively managed, with opportunities for residents to become members even if they don’t have a garden plot—will encourage a succession plan that includes ways to get involved that are both large and small. When describing her hopes for the future, Jones quotes Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” She smiles, “There are people looking at this place and seeing what we’re doing, and it has an impact. It’s a way of modelling behaviour.” After our talk, I pluck a leaf of spinach from one of the common beds as I’m leaving. Nearby, kale flowers are loaded with bumblebees and mason bees. The leaf tastes like summer, and like hope. 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.
  15. May 2018 Colleen O’Brien is restoring Playfair Park’s Garry oak meadows—allowing the rest of us a walk back in time. COLLEEN O'BRIEN AND I SIT ON A BENCH tucked into a gap in the split-rail fence that surrounds the two-acre Garry oak meadow expanse in Playfair Park. It’s windy, but when the sun shows, it’s deliciously warm. Around us, the ground is thick with the new green leaves of common camas, great camas, Pacific sanicle, fawn lily and other rarer species she demurs mentioning. It’s beautiful, and by the time this article comes to print, that sea of green will be a sea of blue camas flowers—so blue that Sir James Douglas, back in 1849, mistook it for a lake. But it’s what is missing in this landscape, which O’Brien has tended since 2010, that makes it so rare. Camas, shooting star and fawn lilies flowering in Playfair Park's Garry oak meadows (Photo by Tony Bounsall) Using a variety of methods—some orthodox, some her own creation—O’Brien has made it hard to find a single introduced species in Playfair’s meadow. No orchard grass, no stubborn blades of couch grass, no creeping buttercup, no broom and no ivy. Hardly even any chickweed. Under the blades of native bulbs there is a thin skim of moss, but otherwise, the unblemished blue-green of camas leaves bent by wind presents a scene impossible to see anywhere else on Vancouver Island. Colleen O'Brien (Photo by Tony Bounsall) “Am I doing restoration or rescue?” O’Brien muses. She sees the habitat she is creating in collaboration with Saanich Parks as the first step in a kind of decolonization of the land—getting rid of the invasives and “seeing what is there.” O’Brien, a resident of Victoria since 1976, grew up in Metchosin, where as a child she cultivated satin flowers from seed and planted them out, caring for them “like they were my children.” Her 7000-plus hours of volunteer work in Playfair (since 2010) is mostly solitary, broken by spells of unofficial public education, when she tells people about the species they can find here, or asks them to keep their dogs from running through fenced areas. O’Brien is not a trained scientist, but has learned from some of the region’s best, including Hans Roemer, who did the first categorization of Garry oak ecosystems in the 1970s, and James and Kristen Miskelly. She also regularly researches using the Garry Oak Ecysostems Recovery Team’s website (www.goert.ca) and E-Flora BC. In 2003, after years of serving on various arts and environmental boards, she was asked by Saanich to be the lead steward for Playfair Park. Her restorations were unofficial at first, and gradually gained ground as she learned more. Intact, deep-soil Garry oak meadows are extremely rare in the CRD. Less than one percent remains of the original coverage. At Playfair Park, the sandy, loamy soil crumbles at a touch. It’s completely unlike the clay I wrestle with in my backyard, or the thin soil of Mount Tolmie. This deep topsoil supported a wide variety of native species, but it was also highly coveted when colonists arrived to the island. Most deep-soil sites are now lawns around houses in Saanich, Oak Bay and Victoria, or farming fields and large developments in Langford, Colwood and Metchosin. Those sites left are often highly degraded, O’Brien tells me, mostly because of human impacts from straying off trails and soil compaction. O’Brien’s work takes a different form than the restoration done in the Cowichan Garry oak preserve, where caretaker Irvin Banman has gradually convinced Cowichan officials to use fire to control introduced species. That’s not an option in an area so close to residential development. Instead, O’Brien started noticing that Garry oak leaves tend to fall after the fall germination of introduced weeds and grasses, meaning they’re too late to cover and shade these interlopers. Native bulbs go dormant by late summer and don’t reappear until early spring. O’Brien began covering the ground with one-metre test patches of black plastic, which killed existing grasses and kept the seed bank from germinating. She left the plastic in place for five to seven weeks and removed it by late January to allow native plants coming out of dormancy to grow. Her hunch worked beautifully, dramatically cutting down on weeding and providing a clear space from which native bulbs could emerge. Last year, she covered over 1000 square meters of the park’s meadows, keeping the ground weed-free until the early spring emergence of native species. The effect of the plastic is visible as a reverse shadow—swaths that have been covered are cleaner, freer of weeds, and native species are more plentiful. Saanich, which benefits from her techniques, also participates by keeping shrubs like snowberry from expanding their territory, and by employing a judicious use of grass-specific herbicides for stubborn species like couch grass, which don’t respond as well to mulch or cover. After introduced species are removed, O’Brien can start to add other natives—increasing the population of some, like chocolate lilies or spring gold, and adding others, like woolly sunflower. “To me, this is precious. It’s a small portion of land, but what I’m trying to do is show what is possible.” It won’t work, she asserts, without a lot of other people trying to affect change. If there’s one thing O’Brien wants to stress, it’s that these places, and the species in them, belong to everyone. “There was one purple sanicle in Mount Doug,” she says, “and someone dug it out.” The rare species has a tap root and she thinks it probably didn’t survive transplant by the collector. She shakes her head at the idea of stealing from a park. “These species are everyone’s!” Other jurisdictions are watching O’Brien’s work, especially to see how rare species respond to her restoration efforts. She is fortunate that Playfair, which is only 300 metres from her house, lies in the District of Saanich. Saanich’s philosophy toward volunteer labour differs considerably from other municipalities, such as the City of Victoria’s. By allowing volunteers to do what the municipality doesn’t have the human resources to achieve in the parks, Saanich is tacitly admitting that volunteer labour is key to management; union members have agreed that volunteers can do the work they don’t have the staffing to complete. Saanich’s Pulling Together program unites 150 volunteers from around the municipality to remove invasive species from parks. O’Brien works closely with Saanich, and it does not make changes in Playfair Park without first consulting her. She has recently convinced them, she tells me, to add aggregate paths with brick borders to the meadow portions of the park. These will hopefully convince visitors to stay on trails and off of the increasingly large number of rare species found within the park’s borders. In the City of Victoria, conversely, volunteer labour is seen as a possible infringement on union agreements. Cheryl Bryce, who volunteers in Beacon Hill Park (see Focus January 2016), described encounters with unionized park workers who were disconcerted, to say the least, by the work she was taking away from them. Thus, work parties within Victoria’s borders tend to be organized by “Friends of…” associations, such as the Friends of Uplands Park, which can result in fewer resources, including access to tools and equipment, and less funding for restoration efforts. “I’d love to see more people involved in doing this kind of thing—in Beacon Hill, in Uplands Park,” she says. “If restoration is going to work, it’s going to need to involve a lot of people or a lot of money.” As we tour the meadows, I remark that to walk through Playfair Park’s meadows is like walking back in time. Almost, O’Brien corrects me. “What did this ecosystem look like? That’s everyone’s question.” She isn’t sure anyone can answer it completely. Still, the work O’Brien is doing for Saanich and Playfair represents a profound respect for native species. Going beyond casual volunteering, she has completely transformed the site; it is an astounding example of a deep-soil meadow, free (in parts) of introduced species. The work is not easy, she admits. “It’s really hard to stay optimistic. But I refuse to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.” Thanks to her efforts, and the respect of those who visit, we have an idea of what this region might have looked like before colonization. Also at Playfair Park is a large grove of mature rhododendrons and azaleas. Access is from Rock Street and at the end of Cumberland Road. 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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