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Maleea Acker

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  1. A plea for action on this column’s fourth anniversary. I TEACH A GEOGRAPHY COURSE at the University of Victoria called Landscapes of the Heart. In it, I take my students out into local landscapes—Mount Tolmie, Mary Lake, Tod Inlet—with the goal of opening their eyes and hearts to this region’s species and ecosystems. We paint and draw in the field. We look at how poets, visual artists, philosophers and geographers are trying to connect us to place. Students spend the fall immersed in landscape, producing some of the most thoughtful, emotionally engaged work I’ve had the pleasure of seeing as a teacher. The course begins with a three-hour class called “Why are we in trouble?” This issue, I want to posit some answers to this question. I’ve been writing a column on volunteer stewards in the region for four years with Focus and I love the work. It’s inspiring getting to meet so many people who are passionate about our local ecosystems and who try to improve life for the multitudes of creatures with whom we share these islands. But this month’s column turns the lens on my own experience as an environmental steward. I think one answer to why we’re in trouble can be illustrated by my own history. In 2011, during the writing of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, I began nurturing a native plant garden in my 5,300-square-foot yard. It’s a project that has raised no end of protest from my neighbours. I live in Saanich’s Gorge-Tillicum neighbourhood, where former farmland was planted with houses in the 1930s and 1940s. The clay soil supports boulevards of blackberry. On my street, trees are sparse and gardens infrequent. People mow their dandelions. Since I began the transformation of my sterile lawn into a wild ecosystem, I’ve been cited by Saanich bylaw enforcement officers twice. The first citation (for cultivation of noxious weeds) was in 2011, when I had let the grass grow long to see if camas lay buried in the lot. The fight I launched against the municipality’s citation landed me on the front page of the Times Colonist. I won. Since then, I’ve cultivated a native hedgerow (of Oregon grape, Nootka rose, snowberry, red osier dogwood, salmonberry, and Pacific ninebark). I’ve also planted 17 native trees. After eight years of seeding and growth, the hedge is 10-12 feet tall and supports a wide variety of bird species through the year. Camas, nodding onion, vetch and fawn lily bloom in the meadow. There are Garry oaks, Douglas-fir, arbutus, several mock orange, honeysuckle and ocean spray. When a kid entered my yard on Halloween last fall, he exclaimed, “it’s like walking into a forest!” Left: The author’s front yard in 2011, around the time of the first citation. Right: Flourishing native plants, around the time of the second citation. The wildness has encouraged more wildness. Last summer, I hosted a family of weasels. There are crickets (which I transplanted from Mount Tolmie), over a dozen species of songbirds, hummingbirds, lizards, raccoons, dragonflies, mason and bumble bees. A raven pair, a barred owl and a Swainson’s hawk use the yard to hunt. This fall, I harvested my first edible mushrooms (lepiota rachodes), which shows that the yards of mulch I’ve brought in and the undisturbed soil are now supporting a healthy mycorrhizal layer (which supports the health of trees). All this in a desertified neighbourhood largely barren of boulevard trees or anything approaching native habitat. In April 2018, when Saanich council struck down the Environmental Development Protection Area bylaw (EDPA), along with it went changes to whole series of bylaws; they had been rewritten to exempt naturescaping property owners like myself from being cited. When the EDPA died, these bylaw changes died too. And so, I received my second citation from Saanich last summer, when at least two complainants reported me for noxious weeds and impingement of the hedge into the sidewalk right of way. Saanich sent a regular post letter, a registered mail letter, a bylaw officer, then two environmental services officers to the house. After their visit, charges were dropped. How many native boulevard trees could Saanich have planted for the costs of chasing an imaginary foe? How many camas bulbs? Without the EDPA and associated bylaws, there’s little to stop developers and property owners from cutting trees, and little to encourage them to plant native species, other than their own stubbornness and vision. Fortunately, there is a great deal of that in the region (look to Oaklands’ Tamara Batory and her plan to transform boulevards on Lang Street into pollinator corridors as a recent wonderful example), but there needs to be more. In September, Cornell University published a seven-university study showing that since 1970, bird populations in Canada and the USA have dropped by 30 percent. Billions of birds have vanished, including over 1 billion forest birds, 700 million grassland species, and 160 million dark-eyed juncos (a favourite at my feeder). The cause? Habitat loss. The results of the study, says its lead author, Ken Rosenberg, are “a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife,” indicating a “coming collapse of the overall environment.” The collapse isn’t limited to birds. Similar studies have shown precipitous drops in the population of insects, amphibians, freshwater, saltwater and terrestrial megafauna. Last year, Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst—Quadra Island philosophers, poets and scholars—published Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. They mourn what they see as a fundamental change in how humans live on the Earth: a loss of “genuine connection to the natural world [that] is fundamental to human flourishing.” When we try to make something into what it isn’t (a lawn is a nostalgic memorial to England’s sprawling estates), we disconnect from what is actually here: moss, liquorice fern, fairy cup lichen—all the species Langford is mowing down for housing tracts and cedar hedges. The planting I’ve done connects me to the Earth—to the place I’ve chosen in this world, with its rocky outcrops, its plethora of food sources, its clemency and beauty. It helps others do that as well. The Native Friendship Centre’s daycare leads kids past my house every morning. The teachers stop and point out the native species. They eat salmonberries in spring. The collapse of ecosystems is being hastened by climate change, making our remaining natural areas (including those on private land) all the more valuable. The stewardship of parks in our region is laudable; we couldn’t do without the tireless volunteers who keep these places beautiful. But we need every single resident in the region—whether you rent or own or live in a condo—to plant and care for native species. Take a trip around the region and count the trees that have succumbed this summer to the increasingly unstable weather that climate change is bringing. I counted over two dozen on one walk in Thetis Lake Park. As species die, the pressure mounts on those of us who are still lucky enough to harbour some form of biodiversity in our yards. What if we looked at stewardship as a task not just for parks? What if care of our yards and boulevards were a responsibility as profoundly important as that for the Sooke Hills or Playfair Park? I hear stories from neighbours who don’t water their boulevard trees because it’s “not [their] responsibility.” Actually, it is (both legally and philosophically). Our parks won’t compensate for Garry oaks lost to viewscape improvements or meadows lost to development. Or laurel hedges (a species on the invasives list in Washington State) and English ivy, instead of salmonberry and honeysuckle. Or Kentucky blue grass instead of bunch grasses and kinnikinnick. The rich complexity of nature needs to supplant our nostalgia for tidiness and control. Why are we in trouble? We are adhering to outdated ideas, attempting to manage, not garden, the life outside our doors. We’re okay with wildness in parks, but fear its appearance in our own yards. Why does long grass look wrong to us? Why are Garry oak trees considered messy? It’s time to jettison these damaging preconceptions. Time to live in place, where we are, not some tidied-up version of suburban glory. Let’s bring the beauty of our parks home, so that other species can also live outside those refugia. We can’t support every species in our backyards, but we can certainly help. It’s not going to happen, however, if we keep mowing our dandelions, and everything else, into submission. Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The Bateman Foundation’s new vision comes into focus. THROUGH ART, we can connect to the natural world. That’s the vision Robert Bateman has been creating his entire life. The 89-year-old artist, famous for his hyper-realistic portraits of wolves, bears, birds and iconic nature scenes, has been an outlier in the Canadian art world for decades. His work has always promoted the importance of nature more than it sought to further a specific style or school of art—he eschewed impressionist or modernist technique for exacting portraits that stay true to the plumage of a red-winged blackbird or the mists that crawl over a coastal bay. This year, the public charity he established in 2012 (and on which he serves as Honorary Chair Emeritus) has rebranded to more exactly attend to that vision. The former Bateman Centre has renamed itself the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature. Robert Bateman in his studio The gallery, until now home to a large collection of Bateman’s art, will begin showcasing exhibitions by a wide variety of artists (including photographers, painters and sculptors) for whom the natural world is their focus. And the foundation has begun reaching out beyond the art world. Its goal is to bring more people—especially children—into closer contact with nature, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of its power, and getting people off their devices and into the woods. When a stone is thrown into a pond, Tiffany McFadyen tells me when I visit the gallery, it makes a wave that ripples across the water. “Robert wants to be the stone.” McFadyen, the head of philanthropy and sponsorship for the foundation, confirms that Bateman is thrilled about the changes the Board is implementing, though “it’s been an interesting adjustment.” Many of Bateman’s works will move to other locations when the gallery begins hosting others’ exhibitions. But overall, she says he is pleased with the foundation’s wider reach. “We’re now not just a gallery, but an organization that offers educational programs with a tangible impact,” explains McFadyen. A large part of the foundation’s new work is with children. “Nature deficit disorder” is now recognized as an acute problem for all ages, but children are especially vulnerable. Children spend up to 2,783 hours per year in front of a screen, but only 183 hours outdoors in unstructured play. That’s less than many federal prisoners. Most children can recognize more corporate logos than they can native species of plants and animals. Last year, uproar followed the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to omit words such as acorn, heron and nectar from its new edition, replacing them with words like blog, celebrity and chatroom. The Bateman Foundation’s Nature Sketch program reached 3,000 children across Canada in 2018. Fees for the program are a modest $150 a classroom, which see a naturalist and a sketch artist accompany children outside to learn about ecosystems and species, and practice translating their knowledge into drawings. Adult Nature Sketch programs also run in spring and fall in Victoria (and Duncan), with outings to local favourites like Beacon Hill Park and Mount Tolmie. If you connect people with art about the natural world, Bateman proposes, they’ll be more likely to go outside. The foundation is also working in Vancouver with the BC Children’s Hospital and Anxiety Canada, facilitating Nature Sketch programs with adolescents who suffer from severe anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies. “The kids that weren’t showing up [to school] are now coming for art class every week,” says McFadyen. Engagement with the natural world through the creation of art isn’t so much about product as process, as Thompson Rivers University botanist Lynn Baldwin has recently suggested. Many naturalists argue that we are facing an “extinction of experience” with nature, which compounds the threats facing our planet. “Drawing draws us into the world as we pay attention to easily missed details,” she explains. Drawing rekindles a close relationship with the natural world, encouraging care, and helping us to acknowledge the complex ties we have with Garry oak meadows, Douglas-fir forests and even the backyard birds at our feeders. The Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature is ideally located for visitors—its waterfront perch occupies the second floor of the Inner Harbour’s historic Steamship Terminal and sees 25,000 visitors annually. Executive Director Peter Ord and the Foundation’s Board hope that more diversity in the gallery’s exhibitions will attract more people, and keep more in tune with the foundation’s vision. Until June, the Gallery of Nature will feature “Plumage: The Majestic Art of Birds,” which includes works by some of the world’s iconic wildlife artists—J.J. Audubon, Fenwick Lansdowne, and Bateman. In June, “Into the Arctic” will open, with paintings and film by renowned Canadian artist and explorer Cory Trépanier, who traversed over 40,000 kilometres of the Arctic during his travels. Cory Trépanier painting in the Arctic Next fall, a short exhibition of Kim Michelle Toft’s hand-painted silk depictions of the Pacific ocean will precede “One Tree,” a biannual celebration of a single tree, which is salvaged and sections distributed to artists. This year’s tree is a 200-year-old bigleaf maple from the Cowichan Valley. Eighty participating artists are creating furniture, musical instruments, and sculptures from its wood. Visit the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature at 470 Belleville Street or online at www.batemancentre.org. Maleea Acker studies the intersections of art and science.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Mary Haig-Brown wants us to see vital connections in the natural world. IN VICTORIA'S RICH WORLD OF CONSERVATION STEWARDS, whether talking with mycologists, fish hatchery volunteers or amphibian counters, one name keeps coming up. Mary Haig-Brown is a bright-eyed optimist who lives in the Prospect Lake region of Saanich. The daughter of renowned writer, naturalist and outdoorsman Roderick Haig-Brown, she grew up in Campbell River alongside its rivers, learning about local ecosystems from an early age. Her optimism about the future of the natural world and the region’s local ecosystems may be her most inspiring trait. I’ve recently started teaching a workshop at the University of Victoria to help students deal with the impacts of environmental despair. After a semester of introductory geography lectures, many of them are left feeling hopeless; their potential to help the Earth survive the Anthropocene seems miniscule in the face of multinational mining and oil companies, falling biodiversity, or the innumerable pieces of plastic added to the world’s oceans each year. “It’s too late,” they tell me; “we’re inheriting a disaster.” Mary Haig-Brown (Photo by Tony Bounsall) When I share my students’ views with Haig-Brown, she replies without missing a beat: “Nonsense!” There is warmth and stubbornness in her eyes. For Haig-Brown, the knowledge people have about the natural world has done nothing but improve since her childhood up Island. “My father was a lone voice in the wilderness. Now there are so many people looking after the land and the rivers.” Haig-Brown serves as chair of the Friends of Tod Creek Watershed Society (FTCW), where she helps steward the 23 kilometres of watercourses, wetlands, ponds and lakes that stretch across Saanich (as well as parts of the Highlands and Central Saanich), from the heights of Maltby and Killarney Lakes to Tod Creek’s flow into Saanich Inlet. The society, which has 43 members, logs over 400 volunteer hours a year. Through the FTCW, Haig-Brown has worked to restore the ecosystem of Whitehead Park on the north end of Prospect Lake. “I taught my family to swim there,” she tells me from her home on the banks of Killarney Creek. Killarney supplies 50 percent of the water that enters Prospect Lake. Her home, lit with skylights and warmed by a woodstove, is a warren of books and comfortable chairs. From the living room windows, which hang out over the trout pond that connects the creek, all one can see is water and the dark cedars opposite. Two of her four children live as her and her husband’s neighbours. Haig-Brown also volunteers on the Board of the Peninsula Streams Society, and with Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT). For the latter, she counts bats that fly from their nests under the soffits of her roof in the summer—she just lies down outside her house. In recent years, the count has surpassed 400. “We still don’t know where they go when winter comes,” she laughs. Haig-Brown has also collaborated, through FTCW, with Saanich’s “Pulling Together” program that sees volunteers remove invasive species from local parks (readers can also get involved through Saanich.ca), and worked with the SeaChange Society on advocating for the fish fence in Gowlland Tod Park (SNITE). But right now, she’s most excited about the Tod Creek Flats, a swath of land owned by four separate land owners, which stretches behind West Saanich Road’s Red Barn Market. Originally a peat bog used by First Nations to harvest food, European colonial farmers drained the bog and used it for agriculture; the sisters of St Anne’s grew vegetables there for over 50 years, which they supplied to both St Joseph’s Hospital and St Anne’s Academy. Over the years, the peat levels dropped, due to oxidation and erosion, shortening the growing season to less than 100 days. Thinking of watersheds as a whole, rather than by their parts (streams, lakes, ponds, wetlands) can help acknowledge the interconnectedness of action in a region. Cutthroat trout that use the fish ladder in Tod Creek can’t survive unless they have a quiet stream or pond like Haig-Brown’s where they can rear. Cutthroat are a blue-listed species in BC, considered vulnerable, with many of their runs extinct or in decline. Non-native species like Himalayan blackberry and golden willow can clog stream habitats and increase sedimentation and water temperature. Predators can disturb spawning grounds, and culverts prevent trout migration. Tree cutting adjacent to creeks spurs erosion. Haig-Brown has worked to remove golden willow from Killarney Creek that she says exists in an invasive line from Prospect Lake “all the way up to Cowichan,” somewhat like the Japanese knotweed now appearing in frightening clumps along the Cowichan and Quamichan Rivers. Recent support by the Peninsula Streams Society and many volunteers has resulted in construction of channels and a berm next to Tod Creek, allowing cutthroat trout (some perhaps from Haig-Brown’s pond) to access the flats for winter habitat and return, as water levels drop in spring, to the creek. Now, Haig-Brown tells me, having managed to get all four current land owners together to support restoration of the area, “they are interested in either doing farming without pesticides or letting it go back to wetland.” Either would be fine with Haig-Brown and the FTCW. Imagine, she says, supplying Red Barn Market with vegetables by wheelbarrow rather than by truck. Haig-Brown moved to the Prospect Lake area over 40 years ago. Visiting her home feels like stepping back in time, her rural road fortressed by Douglas-fir and rushing waters. But she’s seen tremendous changes during her tenure, including recent subdivisions and clearing of upland areas that turned a seasonal stream in her yard into a flooding gully. “I’d like to see everyone knowing the value of the natural areas, of every piece of ground,” she says. Haig-Brown calls Saanich a “shining beacon” of environmental awareness. That is, unless one brings up the topic of the municipality’s recently rescinded Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) bylaw. Haig-Brown serves on the Saanich Environmental Advisory Committee, which helped to shape the current bylaw, and which sought to fold in previous iterations of wildlife, tree, and sensitive ecosystem protection into the EDPA bylaw. Now that it has been rescinded, these protections are in jeopardy. [See Briony Penn’s article in this edition for more on Saanich’s EDPA.] People often don’t realize, she says, that the actions they take on their own land can reverberate and affect adjacent properties and parks. She invited Saanich’s Mayor Atwell out to view the damage Whitehead Park has sustained from flooding. Water which used to be locked into the groundwater system now flows off four adjacent properties where owners removed a number of trees. The tree removal caused erosion and flooding. Though she had warned the mayor, he didn’t bring his rubber boots. “I don’t think he understood,” she tells me, ruefully. It’s the only time during our conversation I see her hopefulness falter. The answer, she argues, is learning how to encourage water to stay where it falls. “We’ve lost 85-90 percent of our wetlands,” she says. People don’t want to be told what to do, she acknowledges, but the more we learn—through volunteering or caretaking one’s own land—the more that knowledge helps bind us to our ecosystems. “If you can do something, then do it,” she argues. “You can’t get [involved] without wondering: ‘Why did it grow that way? What comes here at night? What’s going on underground?’” The life she lives is one she’s embraced since her earliest days, hanging around with her siblings as her mother did the farm chores. “When my mother was milking the cow, and we were running around behind the barn, she’d say to us, ‘Go tell me what’s growing back there.’ We’d find yellow violets, other wildflowers. She taught me to look at the tiny things.” It’s a technique that’s helping to save the region’s wild places, one volunteer hour at a time. Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
  13. Photography gives this ardent naturalist an excuse to go to the wild places. AS JANUARY WINDS AND COLD TEMPERATURES hit the region, Mary Sanseverino is counting down the days until the bloom of the region’s first satin flower. The wait will be shorter than readers might think. The earliest appearance she’s seen was on January 24, “in a secret spot I can’t share,” she tells me over coffee in Oak Bay. From there, “the waves of bloom” come and continue all spring. Satin flowers (olsynium douglasii), are at the northern edge of their range on Vancouver Island. Their tiny purple blooms, however, can carpet the mossy expanses of remote locations in the Sooke Hills scant days after winter snowfalls melt. After the satin flower, she’s hiking all the time, searching for “blue-eyed Mary, shooting stars, chocolate tips, saxifrage—the year just spins along in the Sooke Hills.” Born in Revelstoke, and now a retired computer scientist from the University of Victoria, Sanseverino’s passion is the native flora that surrounds the city. She first tried photography in high school, with a “superb” art teacher, and started taking shots of landscapes and macro images of wildflowers in the Rockies soon after. Her macro shots in particular spurred her love of the natural world. “For everything a plant invests biological energy in, there’s almost always a reason. As soon as you start to look at that level of detail, more and more intricacy unfolds.” Mary Sanseverino with Garry oak, mosses and satin flower (Photo by Mike Whitney) Why do volunteers in the region work to save species, ecosystems, landscapes? What impels us to pull the invasive Scotch broom, count the limpets, lift the salmon over a fish fence to spawn? A need to preserve biodiversity, yes, and future generations’ need for clean air, intact plant communities, plentiful food. But there are other reasons. Like the feeling we get, walking through a flower-filled meadow in spring’s warming wind. Or standing on Empress Mountain, in the sunlight, after a swim in a secret lake, above a sea of green and blue that cascades all the way through the Sooke Hills to the Salish Sea. Ecosystem restorationists accomplish a great deal in our region. But all who work in this field are inspired by the aesthetic beauty of where we live. For Sanseverino, capturing that beauty and presenting it to the world is part of her identity as an amateur naturalist, botanist, mountain climber and researcher. She often returns year after year to photograph certain locations. “It’s such a sense of place, to go back to a spot that I know, and see whether there are more plants, or less; whether am I early, or too late. It helps me to align my natural clock,” she explains. Her primary destination, the Sooke Hills Wilderness (protected through two CRD parks and a provincial park) is visited by few: trails are unsigned, and suitable only for those accustomed to advanced hiking. I first encountered Sanseverino’s work when I worked at the CRD, combing the internet for representative photos of the region’s natural areas. Unconcerned with earning a profit, she granted creative commons usage of hundreds of her photos, which still grace CRD brochures and web pages today. She chooses native species for her subjects because, as she says, “you have to go to them. I’m always looking for an excuse to get out into the hills.” Sanseverino belongs to the Vancouver Island chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), where she leads regular flower hikes to the Sooke Hills’ Mount Braden, Grassy Lake or Mount Manuel Quimper. She has participated in the annual Christmas bird count for over 20 years, photographing birds on Scafe Hill and Stewart Mountain. Her photography also appears in field guides and brochures in the UK, the United States and across Canada. But her main contributions involve plant identification and historical photography, two kinds of citizen science she believes are integral to research in BC and beyond. She learned from local scientists like Richard Hebda and books such as Pojar and McKinnon’s indispensible Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, and credits her ability to identify most flower species in the region to the learning she received from these resources. Sanseverino is one of the main contributions to BC’s e-Flora Atlas (ibis.geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/eflora/), an online biogeographical atlas of the flora of BC, including vascular plants, bryophytes, algae, lichen, mosses, fungi and slime molds. The atlas, edited by Brian Klinkenberg of the University of British Columbia’s Department of Geography, operates with volunteers who check and process plant locations and photographs. To Sanseverino, a longtime contributor to the site, “it’s a gathering place, another form of citizen science where we do the legwork.” Calypso orchid (Photo by Mary Sanseverino) Sanseverino’s work also extends to the high alpine. Until recently, she served on a field team for the Mountain Legacy Project (MLP), based at UVic’s School of Environmental Studies. For over two decades, the MLP has documented landscape change by re-photographing landscapes portrayed in historical surveying photos. The comparison of images show changes in snow coverage, glacier movement and flora differences over the last century, providing a visual representation of climate change’s impacts. Though now retired from the team, she continues to visit sites, including Mount Assiniboine, near the Alberta border. Over 7000 historic glass plate images are available for research and download on the site: www.mountainlegacy.ca. Art is an integral addition to environmental stewardship, though Sanseverino isn’t convinced she qualifies. “Most photographs I like are beautiful. So I don’t feel like I’m a steward.” To Sanseverino, her work isn’t political because she purposefully cuts out any of the destruction she finds in wilderness. She frames out the ATV-damaged clearing, power lines, overused trails, or tracks made by dirt bikes or dogs. “I think it’s a little akin to only sharing one’s spectacular moments on Facebook or Instagram—I don’t show the grim part. I want to make people think, ‘wow, I want to go there.’ My goal is to inspire. And my lens is selective for the things I find beautiful.” Sanseverino doesn’t follow the path of Edward Burtinsky, with his apocalyptically beautiful landscapes of large industry damage like the tar sands, or of Chris Turner, who put Midway Island on the map through his photos of dead albatross chicks, their bellies full of plastic. Though arresting, these images don’t celebrate the beauty of species that are still flourishing. Perhaps, Sanseverino muses, we need to be inspired as much as we need to be chastised. But this inspiration, she points out, may also have unintended negative consequences. The more people learn about beautiful places in the region, she says, the more they want to go there. “I like the Sooke Hills the way they are. It’s a preserve for people who know where they’re going and what they’re doing. It’s selfish, but I’d like to keep it that way.” Having seen stark changes in degradation on local trail systems thanks to increased use, including Thetis Lake Regional Park, Sanseverino wonders whether sacrificing the species in one park (like Thetis) may help protect those in another (like the Sooke Hills’ Sea to Sea Park). “There are so many more of us now; we are loving the place to death.” Still, for many who have no ability to access far-flung wilderness locations, Sanseverino’s images provide a way of coming to know a landscape without having to visit. A calypso orchid (also her Flickr profile name) nods in a mossy clearing; arbutus trees stretch into the blue fall sky on the top of Mount Wells; raindrops shimmer on a shoreline pine in East Sooke Park. Sanseverino’s photos guide the viewer through the beauty of the South Island, her work a testament to the protection and restoration work of countless others. Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.
  14. Peter McCully and his volunteer team are passionate about their work with the Goldstream Hatchery. WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE FIRST SET OF GATES to the Goldstream Howard English Salmon Hatchery, weekly volunteer Steve Atamanchuk greets me with a wave and sets upon me with a dry sense of humour that pushes away the cobwebs of the morning. “Yup, I’m a volunteer here. Last year they offered me a 20 percent raise. I told them not to give me so much.” Atamanchuk is part of the “Tuesday Crew,” comprised of six retirees from the ranks of over 20,000 volunteers that work province-wide six days a week to restore habitat and run salmon hatchery programs. Atamanchuk and his cohorts are coordinated by Peter McCully, Technical Advisor, part-time contractor and volunteer with the Goldstream Salmonoid Enhancement Association, located at the Goldstream Hatchery, in the Greater Victoria Water District lands. “Teachers, engineers, posties, geologists, journeymen, ex-military; the membership is eclectic at best,” says McCully. The only thing they’re missing, he rues, is more young people. Atamanchuk, his voice full of respect, whispers McCully’s own background to me. McCully served with the Royal Canadian Navy for 25 years before retiring. He went back to school, finished his biology degree, and returned to the river he first visited during spawning season in 1949 with his father, who took him to see the magic of the run. This summer, McCully and his cluster of volunteers learned that the Goldstream’s education program, which allows school children to learn about salmon lifecycles and help incubate salmon eggs, was due to be cut. Countless volunteers and non-profits rose up to protect the outreach programs, which are part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ (DFO) education, stewardship and salmon enhancement programs. If the cuts had gone through (the activists won, this year), they would have saved the Federal government a mere $400,000. The costs, argue many, would have been immeasurable. Peter McCully (Photo by Tony Bounsall) McCully’s history as a uniformed serviceman seems incongruent with his gentle demeanor and incredible attachment to the natural world. While driving through the various locked gates that lead to the hatchery, he tells me of a conversation he had earlier that morning with a giant black beetle. To his amusement, a couple of park rangers hiking the Trans Canada Trail caught him bending over the road, asking the beetle how its day was going. “I believe everything can communicate on some plane,” he laughs, and gets out to open another gate in the watershed lands. “This keeps me young!” The Goldstream River cuts through the mostly pristine wilderness of the Greater Victoria Watershed Lands and Goldstream Provincial Park before emptying into Finlayson Arm, south of Saanich Inlet. Few invasive species grace its banks (though some yellow perch and bullfrogs have infiltrated), making it an ideal spawning habitat for five species of salmon, including prolific Chum and the many Coho. The hatchery program, BC’s largest, includes fish counting, a school education program, and the hatchery itself. Over 100 incubators currently operate in school classrooms around the region, nurturing salmon eggs into fry, which are released after 18 months into Goldstream River, Colquitz River and other salmon-bearing streams. “It’s almost laughable, the cutbacks to DFO in recent years,” says McCully. “Without volunteers to do citizen science, we’d be in sad shape.” With the recent escape of Atlantic salmon into West Coast waters, and continued concerns about open-net fish farms, watershed contamination, and pipeline construction, volunteer work at the Goldstream Hatchery is as pertinent as it was in 1971, when Howard English, a local outdoorsman, began streamside incubation of salmon eggs after noticing declining salmon stocks. Funding was secured for the rearing of salmon, habitat enhancement, and public education in 1977 from the DFO. Last September 19, the Tuesday Crew and volunteers from Stantec Engineering assembled a Japanese floating weir on the Goldstream River, just east of the hatchery. The weir is a removable fish fence that gets installed every September in advance of the fall salmon spawn. Originally, salmon were supposed to be corralled by the weir and driven naturally into a counting fence at the river’s edge. But, as McCully tells me, “Coho are tricky!” They didn’t use the fence. So now, volunteers in hip waders lift the floats and dip the salmon out along the wide expanse of the fence. They are sorted by species, gender and by whether they are hatchery or wild born. Hatchery fish have their adipose fins removed. Some fish are then selected for brood stock, and taken to the hatchery to collect their eggs and milk. The rest are returned to the river, where they travel back to the exact place they were born, spawning before they die. “It’s a magical part of the food chain,” says McCully, gleefully, watching his volunteers nudge sections of the floating weir into place. The Tuesday crew seem just as pleased to shoulder their work with enthusiasm. At the hatchery, the cookies (and the Lamb’s mickey) I spotted at 8:00 a.m. disappear from the lunchroom within the hour. An endless pot of coffee sits warm on its element, and despite the rain, the goofiness of the crew is contagious. The fall spawn won’t mark the end of the volunteers’ work. In January, McCully tells me, comes the fun part: the Carcass Toss and the Mark Recovery project. “It’s miserable work,” he says, grinning. To complete the Mark Recovery, volunteers walk the river, noting any Coho marked by a hole punched in their gill cover. Data provides a sense of how many hatchery and wild fish are returning. During the Carcass Toss, volunteers of all ages deposit dead fish into nearby waters, like Douglas Creek, in Mount Douglas Park. “Our rivers are low in nutrients on their own,” explains McCully. “Without these fish coming in, it would be a lot poorer environment. Wonderful fish!” “He’s an incredible teacher,” confirms Dorothy Chambers, who volunteers on the Colquitz River salmon count and whose own work on salmon enhancement on the Colquitz River Focus covered in October 2015. “He’s been my mentor for years.” McCully doesn’t see the hatchery program ever becoming superfluous, in part due to increasing population numbers in urban area, and in part due to our insatiable appetite for seafood. “You can have wild salmon, but you won’t be able to enjoy a harvest without artificially enhancing them,” he says. McCully seems resigned to open-net aquaculture techniques like those which resulted in an escape of thousands of farmed Atlantic salmon this summer. “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t be a booster of aquaculture. But if you want to enjoy seafood, then you have to have it. I don’t think we should be commercially harvesting our wild salmon. That’s my personal opinion.” McCully argues that Pacific salmon are much more aggressive than Atlantic salmon species. They outcompete in streams and don’t interbreed with Pacific wild species, thus posing less of a risk than some believe. (Biologist Alexandra Morton, for instance, cites piscine reovirus and sea lice as just two of the long list of reasons Atlantic salmon don’t belong in open-net pens. In late September, after a large escape from a fish farm, the City of Victoria Council passed an emergency resolution calling for an end to open-net fish farms in BC.) Thanks to pushback from local environmentalists and educators, McCully’s contract at the Goldstream Hatchery will continue for another year, and 35,000 BC school children will keep learning about salmon lifecycles through the incubation boxes provided to their classrooms. “This is a resource centre for many things beyond fish,” stresses McCully, citing research on the migratory habits of Rufus Hummingbirds and DNA testing of local waters. But salmon, for McCully, are the most beautiful of all. “If you don’t imbue in the children a sense of stewardship and the importance of this marvellous creature, you’re dead in the water.” 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. A field trip to northern Europe is “offset” by the ripple effect of knowledge gained. THIS PAST JULY, the Larsen C iceshelf calved, leaving a free-floating iceberg in Antarctica twice the volume of Lake Erie. Meanwhile, President Trump signed an order to take the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. Closer to home, BC faced a provincial state of emergency triggered by over 200 wildfires that saw the evacuation of Cache Creek and devastated Chilcotin Nation lands. Heading to press, BC’s wildfire total this season has exceeded 1000, and the heat of another dry summer has broken records. An article making the rounds on social media cautioned that we are in for cataclysmic global warming much sooner than we had thought; it won’t be pretty. One could be forgiven for feeling a little hopeless. Seeking reasons to be optimistic, however, I was fortunate in not having to look too far. This summer I acted as teaching assistant to 20 University of Victoria geography students who spent a month in Northern Europe learning about sustainable transportation, green building, pollinator protection, and inner city greenways. Because of their enthusiasm and dedication, despite this summer’s headlines, hope for the future still seems possible. With students bringing their knowledge back to the Capital Region, their international experience is contributing to local environmental needs. One student, Riley Thackray, is looking for suggestions on where to put her passion to work. The UVic Sustainability Field School takes place every spring, alternating between Northern Europe and the Cascadia coast (from Victoria south to San Francisco). This year’s participants landed in Paris and finished in Copenhagen. Along the way, geography professor Cameron Owens arranged meetings with planners, designers, food forest proponents and nature school teachers, allowing UVic students a first-hand look at how Northern Europe is building its cycling infrastructure, providing greenspaces for native species in Paris’ Clichy Batignolles, turning Rotterdam rooftops into gardens, and lowering Amsterdam’s carbon footprint through “Sustainist” neighbourhood design. Students gain credit for two courses during the five-week program, and then return to gain their third course by completing a legacy project in their local community. Riley Thackray Thackray, a 21-year-old geography student, received a $5000 grant from Nature’s Path’s Organic and Sustainable Food Systems Award for her project. She will build a rainwater harvesting system with a community partner in the CRD and document the process. “In places like Victoria, where we have wet winters and dry summers, rainwater harvesting systems can be designed to store water for the drier months and alleviate water costs,” says Thackray, who has studied these systems in her coursework. She hopes to collaborate with a local grower, farmer or community organization to support urban farming and pollinator habitat. “There are lots of negative connotations around sustainable practices that close individuals off to possibilities. I think we need more education…and community engagement.” International travel, even for the sake of learning, can be hard to justify on a warming planet. Virtual research can take the place of in-situ learning; meetings or tours can unfold via video. How can a field school in environmental sustainability rationalize the considerable carbon output of 20 students and two teachers heading overseas? Owens has led field schools for decades, and through UVic since 2009, when he joined the Geography faculty. “When I read recently about the Great Barrier Reef dying, I thought, ‘I never want to do another overseas field school again,’” he says. But he stresses that the consequences of the trip can’t be quantified only using carbon counts. Thanks to the hands-on approach he takes, including stressing “creative offsets” like legacy projects rather than simply buying carbon offsets, the reach of student learning often extends well beyond the field classroom, into the lives of those visited and those at home. Student-produced videos, interviews, improved critical thinking and empathy are just some of the outcomes of field learning. The reach and ripple effect from first-hand experience, says Owens, impacts a growing cohort of students who return determined to make a positive difference in the world. Thackray concurs. “I learned way more in the field than I would have ever learned in a classroom. I see a future for myself in this field.” Hosts overseas also benefit from the students’ visits. Field school students visited Pôle Innovant Lycéen, an alternative school in Paris, which uses recycling projects to help youth aged 16-24 integrate back into the school system. The school will now use a video created by Thackray’s cohorts as its first English language promotional material. The video could lead to additional grants for the school, which provides help to immigrant and low-income youth throughout the city. Thackray’s project is modelled for urban agriculture initiatives like TOPSOIL on Vic West’s Dockside Green development lands, or Spring Ridge Commons in Fernwood. But these growers already have systems in place. Thackray is hoping Focus readers might have an idea of where she could put her energy, creating a lasting legacy project that would see a reduction in the “urban heat island effect,” provide pollinators with habitat, and the city’s populace with healthy food. Thackray also hopes to create a simple infographic brochure on how residents can build their own rainwater harvesting system. The brochure will be distributed at irrigation supply and gardening stores. Her goal is to alleviate costs for the grower in the summer months, while also reducing the draw on the regional water supply—increasingly important in light of longer summer droughts. “I feel a sense of empowerment in myself, the community and my peers that we can create positive change,” she says. “I’m excited for the outcome of the project.” Bertrand Smith, whose image accompanies this article, is creating a photo series for the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, what he describes as a kind of “Bikers of Victoria” take on “Humans of New York.” Thackray is just one of dozens of field school students who have completed projects in the Capital Region and beyond. Scott Mellett now works on soil health at TOPSOIL. Sarah Lax came home from her trip and helped contribute to Biketoria, Victoria’s plan for an urban, protected cycling network. This year’s students Rylee Christensen and Natasha Ewashen are working on the creation of a community green map in their hometown of Creston, BC, with a focus on parks and wildlife corridors. Professor Owens provides significant support and direction to the students throughout the process to help beat the odds. “Seventy-five percent of these types of university-community projects are found unsatisfactory by the community partner…due to problems stemming from lack of effort and time invested, lack of communication, and unclear expectation,” he says. He recognizes that a new semester gets in the way. But with support, university students can gain the skills to facilitate a meaningful partnership. “I call it action with traction—action that is sustained,” says Owens. “I encounter a lot of doom and gloom in my class-based courses,” says Thackray. “This leads to a sense of hopelessness for the future of the planet.” The field school and its after-effects helped her regain “an immense amount of hope and confidence that sustainable practices are achievable in today’s world.” Personally, I watched students’ faces light up in disbelief, then joy, as the group arrived at one of Amsterdam’s city centre streets. There were no cars. Instead, a path of grass and wildflowers curved between two trolley tracks, with dual-direction bike and pedestrian lanes on either side. The urban landscape was so quiet you could hear wind rustling the trees. “Imagine this in downtown Victoria,” said Owens. Despite BC’s record-breaking temperatures this summer, some argue that the planet isn’t too hot, yet. A plethora of young students like Ewashen, Christensen, Smith and Thackray, thanks to inspiration drawn from Copenhagen’s nature school and Rotterdam’s songbird-filled rooftop meadows, are working to create a future we can feel hopeful about. Readers can offer suggestions to Thackray by email, at rileythackray@gmail.com. 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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