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  1. Maleea Acker

    Robin Hood's dream

    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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Maleea Acker

    For the love of salmon

    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.
  8. 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.
  9. Monterey Middle School’s nature-focused program nurtures a sense of place and a caretaking ethic. AUNALEIGH MACLUCAS AND SIDNEY HURST started taking sketching trips to Bowker Creek last fall with their middle school class. During each of several expeditions, they spent time drawing their surroundings from the point of view of one of the creek’s resident creatures—a dragonfly, a salmon, a raccoon. “It’s quite eye-opening, actually,” MacLucas tells me. “It makes you realize what a salmon might think of this area and what they would see.” These two passionate 13-year-olds, however, may not have dreamed they’d soon share their knowledge with an international audience. Aunaleigh MacLucas (l) and Sidney Hurst at Monterey Middle School This summer, MacLucas and Hurst are taking their knowledge to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM), volunteering along with their class and grade-nine students from Oak Bay High School to create a temporary exhibit on Bowker Creek that will display through the summer months. Bowker, a creek that feeds into Oak Bay, represents an ideal example of a degraded watershed that has recently seen significant restoration efforts. Thanks to their collaboration with the museum, Monterey students who attend school near its banks will have a voice in raising awareness about a hidden place most visitors to Victoria don’t know exists. MacLucas and Hurst are students in Monterey’s Grade Seven Ocean Studies program, an invention of Mark Brown, kayak-guide-turned-middle-school-teacher. “There was never any doubt that my meaning comes from the natural world,” Brown says. “I meet kids who don’t know how to be outside in nature. I want to give them a sense of place.” Brown’s class offers an opportunity to spend the entire year dedicated to learning about marine and watershed environments. Brown tailors all curriculum (science, writing, math, language) to focus on life science. A colleague joins every week to teach a class focused on marine biology. Even the French curriculum is geared toward the natural world, with lessons on les animaux en danger. “Kids need authentic experiences,” stresses Brown. “School shouldn’t extract them from their environment. And it should give back to the community, not create a bubble inside it.” Oak Bay High School students provided input to the CRD during the Bowker Creek restoration project, completed near the school in 2016. Thanks to them, an outdoor amphitheatre was constructed at the stream bank, offering an ideal location for outdoor education. Portions of the creek near Hillside Shopping Centre have also been restored with streamside native vegetation, removal of invasive species, and “daylighting.” The latter involves removing the culverts installed to contain the water’s flow. The 2003 Watershed Management Plan for the creek will take a century to implement. Though salmon may not spawn anytime soon in the creek, daylighting still represents an ideal opportunity to steward other native species like dragonflies, trout, juncos and mink, to improve water quality and to reduce downstream flooding. Restoration also helps provide greenways between neighbourhoods—the creek spans three municipalities on its journey from the University of Victoria to Oak Bay. Perhaps most important, restoration connects communities to their natural environment. RBCM Learning Program Developer Chris O’Connor connected with Monterey because of the school’s commitment to science and natural history education. Hurst is a long-time volunteer and mentor for the Museum’s summer camps. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to see Sidney [Hurst] not only put forward brilliant ideas, but to see her deepen into a ‘museum way of thinking’ more and more,” O’Connor tells me. “Aunaleigh and Sidney are both awesome,” Brown confirms. “They have a really good handle on the project.” O’Connor stresses that the project honours the learning process, amplifying ideas that youth bring, while focusing on real-world learning and authentic engagement. “It is such a pleasure to see the development of a project from an inquiry or guided question, to an ideation stage…to the hard work of getting it developed, to the even harder work of getting it finished,” he says. During this summer’s exhibition, thousands of people will see their work. Specialized learning classes aren’t new in the region. High-school students can participate in a variety of Programs of Choice, including soccer academy, arts specialties and environmental studies. But in the region’s middle schools, only Monterey students can enter a program like Brown’s, through a simple application form and a payment of $500 to cover the costs of renting kayaks and supplying an additional guide during trips. “It saddens me that we seem to be Oak Bay’s best kept secret in environmental education,” says Brown, who argues that focused middle-school programs create a highly developed sense of environmental responsibility and connection to place. He started the program in part to reverse a decline in enrolment at the school. When enrolment goes down, schools lose librarian time and the number of Education Assistants. Enrolment is now starting to turn around, and another teacher in the school has started the MIT classroom (the Monterey Institute of Technology) to complement Brown’s outdoor studies. Brown’s students also participate in six ocean kayak trips, including one overnight camping trip. For many, it is their first time on the water in a small craft. When I met with them at Oak Bay Marina, they had just returned from a paddle along the coast and out to a nearby archipelago of islets. The enthusiasm was palpable. Brown would like to see funding from government to support Programs of Choice in middle schools, so that his offering could be expanded beyond a high-socioeconomic school like Monterey, and subsidization could be offered to families when needed. He’d also like to see more teachers trained in specialized education. “What happens if I get sick?” he points out. He argues that rather than a “tracking program,” as many specialized courses at the high-school level are billed, the Monterey program is more about living in place. It’s also been a saving grace for Brown, who does a job known for its high burnout rates. “It’s only since Ocean Studies that I’ve gotten a glimmer of possibility that this job is sustainable.” This is year two of the Royal BC Museum’s Partner School Project, which engages students and teachers over the course of an entire school year. The museum engaged Monterey students specifically because of Brown’s program. “There’s a full science curriculum [in my class], but ocean ecology is a year-long theme,” he explains. “They make a diorama of tidal ecosystems. They show food webs. So by the time they started the [RBCM] exhibit project, they were ready.” Aunaleigh MacLucas, Sidney Hurst and their cohorts are thrilled to be writing the exhibit text, as well as researching, taking and choosing photos and illustrations, and creating a narrative that will focus on their understanding of the creek. “We have a lot of power as humans,” MacLucas tells me. “We have a creek we can go visit whenever we want to. It’s hidden away. I want to try to make people aware. There are so many things that depend on this ecosystem.” This summer, she and the other students will contribute to that awareness. 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. A century ago, Robert Butchart’s cement works used the inlet as a dump; help is finally on the way. TWO YEARS AGO, Alice Meyers had just arrived in Victoria to complete research for a PhD focusing on revitalization of the Sencoten language. On advice from Judith Arney, ethnoecologist for SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, she went out on a rainy Saturday and got drenched to the bone, working to remove invasive plants from the shores of an emerald inlet in Saanich. She lights up at the memory of sloshing around in the mud and the cold. “It was the best time,” she tells me. “It was like having a hazing from nature!” SṈIDȻEȽ (pronounced sneed-kwith), or Tod Inlet, forms the upper reaches of Saanich Inlet and is part of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. SṈIDȻEȽ is the area’s WSÁNEĆ (Saanich First Nation) name, and means “place of the blue grouse.” After that first visit, Meyers quickly became a regular in the park, removing blackberry and ivy in all weather and occasionally rewarding herself by planting native species. Working alongside volunteers from the Garth Homer Society and SeaChange, she developed a deep and sustaining relationship with the history-laden land. Now, her work has become one part of a significant ecological restoration project currently underway. Alice Meyers (l) and Nikki Wright at Tod Inlet. (Photo by Tony Bounsall) There’s an undeniable feeling upon arriving at the protected upper reaches of SṈIDȻEȽ—a ghostly sense of loss and palpable history, layered over one of the most beautiful watersheds in the South Island. Emerald Douglas-fir, cedar and spruce blanket the inlet’s steep surrounding Partridge Hills. Tod Creek, in late winter, runs thick and fast as a mountain river, and joins the bay at its southernmost reach. The inlet itself gleams. Deep, still and protected from wind and tides, it warms to swimming temperature in summer and is a destination for those who enjoy trilliums and rattlesnake plantain orchids in spring, or carpets of maple leaves in fall. But the water’s glossy surface hides a complex past that many are now trying to rectify. “This is a magical watershed,” agrees Nikki Wright, the executive director of SeaChange. Tides in SṈIDȻEȽ empty and change completely only once per year, helping to create the feeling of a place unhinged from time. But the inlet’s recent history also contributes to a feeling of loss. SṈIDȻEȽ was the place of creation of the first human, according to WSÁNEĆ oral literature. WSÁNEĆ peoples lived there until 1904, when, travelling back from their summer harvesting grounds, they found their winter village had been replaced by a cement quarry and pier, built by Robert Butchart’s Vancouver Portland Cement Company. The factory, using workers from China and India who lived in insubstantial shacks near the inlet’s head, operated until 1913. Typhus and tuberculosis were common. The park’s soil still yields artifacts of Chinese pottery, metal and glass. As Meyers notes, it’s both a gorgeous place and an amazing, sad story. The cement plant was only operating for nine years, but “100 years later we’re still cleaning up the mess.” Meyers, through SeaChange, has been involved primarily in the organization’s terrestrial restoration projects. But this year her work dovetailed with an ambitious foreshore restoration project. It’s one that everyone hopes will continue (pending funding) until the inlet’s ecosystem biodiversity is restored. When I visit with Wright, markers in the bay indicate underwater debris—concrete, sunken vessels and other navigational hazards—slated for pick-up by SeaChange in the coming weeks. The debris, left over from the cement factory’s tenure, provides an ideal surface for jellyfish polyps to grow, which eventually mature into moon jellyfish. Though a native species, overpopulation of these creatures, which feed on plankton, causes a trophic cascade in the ecosystem: Less plankton means less small fish, which in turn means fewer salmon. Though the inlet looks rich in wildlife, the ocean bottom is a moonscape low on biodiversity. Little life can survive the leachate from the former factory’s contamination of land and water. Jennie Butchart began her family’s gardens in the abandoned excavated limestone quarries after the cement factory’s closure, but SṈIDȻEȽ wasn’t acquired by BC Parks until 1995, during the NDP’s last push for parkland acquisition. Restoration of the terrestrial portions began soon after, including removal and burning of invasive species and plantings of acres of native species right up to the water’s edge by volunteers from around the region. “You develop a familial relationship with the plants,” Meyers says of the native species she’s added. Many of the plantings are tucked beside the remains of cement house foundations left over from factory housing and cottages that dotted the inlet in the decades after the factory’s closure (terrestrial cement remains aren’t as ecologically damaging as those in the inlet itself). On February 10 of this year, SeaChange arrived to haul concrete, contaminated soil, and abandoned bricks off the foreshore, piling it further inland at the park’s northern edge. The beach was then levelled out to a gradual slope and covered with gravel and sand, which will soften into an erosion-resistant shore. The soft shore provides protection against rising sea levels and creates an ideal habitat for marine life in the inlet. Wright said that less than a week after the restoration project was completed, she came down for BC Family Day, happy to see children playing in clean sand and families enjoying the beach’s gentle slope. Shoreline restoration funding for SeaChange’s project was provided in part by the Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnerships Program (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation. SeaChange partnered with the Tsartlip First Nation and BC Parks to complete the work. Tsartlip, Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations have all expressed support for the project. “The whole intent of our work is to bring it back to some semblance of health for First Nations,” explains Wright. Her hope is that management can eventually be shared or even pass from BC Parks to the Tsartlip First Nation, allowing the original inhabitants to take responsibility for and shape the future of their former village. Wright hopes BC Parks will agree to cap and cover the debris left on the shore, as trying to remove all of the contaminated material in SṈIDȻEȽ would be a monumental task, and one that would likely involve disturbing the returning Douglas-fir and other streamside ecosystems. Eventually, SeaChange’s goal is to restore much of the foreshore around the wharf, as well as to cap and cover the inlet’s sea floor, so that marine life can return. Stories abound of historical herring, oolichan, and salmon fisheries in the inlet, with abundant shellfish beds. The intertidal zone below these cliffs is currently littered with old bricks, concrete, metals, and potentially contaminated sand. “It’s a disgrace,” sighs Wright, “but what do you do with all that anger? You act.” For Meyers as well, who has returned to work at SṈIDȻEȽ time and time again, ecological restoration has become a way to connect with nature and history, to enjoy a sense of community, and to give back to the WSÁNEĆ Nation from whom she’s learning. “You can see that the land has absorbed this love,” says Meyers. “I feel a deep connection now that I’ve been out there for so many hours.” While visiting SṈIDȻEȽ, Wright brainstorms with my friend’s children on how to build an outdoor amphitheatre with some nearby abandoned stacks of concrete pilings. In half a minute they’ve come up with a new solution that won’t involve cutting any trees and could provide an ideal setting for sylvan performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If the dreams and energy of Meyers, Wright and SṈIDȻEȽ’s original inhabitants keep flowing, the future may indeed be able to heal the past. 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. Also see the Victoria Foundation's video on the Tod Inlet restoration project:
  11. Preserving the flora of the Garry oak meadow ecosystem in the face of development. WHILE COMPLETING A PhD IN WILDLIFE BIOLOGY between 1970 and 1985, Louise Goulet worked in some of British Columbia’s most beautiful and remote areas—including the Stikine, the Kechika and the Liard River valleys. She often travelled by helicopter or even by horse. Pilots would ask her and her female colleague if they were sure they wanted to be dropped in the middle of a remote BC valley, by themselves. “We’re sure!” she would chirp. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Goulet completed wildlife impact assessments and protected areas strategies, evaluating the impacts of potential infrastructure projects, like dams, while working for BC Parks, BC Hydro, and the Province’s Ecological Reserves program. She eventually became the first executive director for the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) after her move to the Island. Living through what she calls the golden time in BC (during the NDP Mike Harcourt years), her motto was “Now is the time.” In just over five years, the Province designated over 500 protected areas and doubled the BC parks system. When the Liberals came into power in 2001, she tells me, the Parks budget was cut by 65 percent. When asked if things are changing for the better in the Capital Region, Goulet doesn’t even pause: “If you’re in conservation, you better be an optimist.” Sitting in the vaulted-ceiling kitchen of her self-designed home, 20-foot tropical plants soaring in front of the back garden windows, her stories roll forward with the humour and excitement of someone who has long loved her work. Now she’s focusing that enthusiasm on southern Vancouver Island. But will her dreams for Island ecosystems come true? Upon her move to Vancouver Island, Goulet, turned her attention to Garry oak meadow species. “I wanted to contribute to conservation,” she says, “and I wanted to learn something.” Her husband, Michael, ran a surveying business that gave him access to many of the region’s large-scale land developers. Goulet used Michael’s contacts to establish plant salvaging arrangements on many large-scale development properties, often removing the entire top layer off shallow soil sites, saving native plants such as Roemer’s fescue, nodding onion, and camas. She even successfully transplanted Garry oak and arbutus seedlings—notoriously difficult because of their long tap roots. She stockpiled the bulbs, soil and seed in her own garden, giving them away to other gardeners, to Native Plant Study Group members, and organizations like GOERT. Now that she and Michael are both retired, however, their developer contacts have thinned. New methods of conservation will be needed if we are to protect the species that once thrived here. Garry oak meadows have been identified by many as the south coast ecosystem most likely to survive climate change. Both Goulet and Briony Penn have called the ecosystem a refugia that may act as a seed bank if other ecosystems—coastal Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, for instance—fail to adapt to the lengthening droughts and uncertain weather patterns that climate change is already bringing. In recent decades, however, Vancouver Island’s southwest coast has lost hundreds of acres to development, including many of the remaining shallow soil Garry oak meadows in Langford, Colwood, Saanich and even Metchosin. Losses include parts of Christmas Hill, Broadmead heights, and the current McKenzie interchange construction, for example. With last summer’s sale of 110 acres on Skirt Mountain (Bear Mountain) and extension of the Bear Mountain Parkway, more of these fragile ecosystems will disappear in coming years. Langford has shown little interest in preserving parcels like the south face of Skirt Mountain, which is currently used as a recreation and hiking area. Many other properties, thanks to the skyrocketing real estate market, are now out of reach of conservation organizations unless donated by their owners. Goulet rues that the next generation of environmental leaders don’t have as much time or money as did hers—the baby boomers. Her concern reminds me of a meadow on Mount Helmcken where I used to walk. Formerly a high mountain swath of moss and flower-covered bedrock with lodgepole pine and a small forest pond, it was paved and carved into lots just over a decade ago. When one day I emerged from a bluff on the trail to the blacktop road that had been cut across it, something inside me shattered. It took years to get back on the path of environmental action. “Frustration can keep you doing things,” says Goulet; but it can also stultify a generation into inaction or despair. As organizations like GOERT see precipitous drops in Federal and Provincial funding, it’s even more essential that public awareness and action do not falter. As a first step, says Goulet, the resilience these remaining species provide should be better protected by both Federal and Provincial governments. “At a certain point you have to secure the land base,” she says. “You need a good salesperson to convince developers to donate critical areas.” With a 123 percent projected growth rate in Langford between 2001 and 2026, remaining parcels are disappearing fast. The onus, however, doesn’t just lie with funding for protected areas. “We also need to get the public to value what’s out there. Then we steer the action. Perfection is the enemy of good,” she advises. Perfection, for ecologists, might include preserving every last acre of Garry oak meadow in the region, as well as restoring many other sites. Part of valuing native ecosystems, argues Goulet, means that every resident on the South Island should cultivate these species in their own yards. “When I talk to gardeners,” she tells me, “I have to remember that they want a garden.” So she advises them to plant native plants that have the colour and blooming cycle of a horticultural species, but the benefits of a native species. Common harebell is a perfect example. Similar to blue hyacinths, or bluebells, which are invasive, the harebell blooms for six months, supports native insects and looks good in a residential garden. Use of plants like the harebell contributes to the refugia that Penn and Goulet stress is so important, and adds to the seed bank in the region. Goulet would also like to see municipalities in addition to Saanich formalize a plant salvaging program, which, she says, should be mandatory before any development can occur. Saanich’s program, which residents can join for free through the municipality’s website, provides liability protection for developers after residents have completed a training workshop. Participants are notified by email when a site opens and can arrive, shovels in hand, for free plants. Goulet loves the physical aspect of salvage, and stresses that though native plant study groups and books are important parts of conservation, the key is getting people out on the land. “It will keep you young,” she laughs, “if it doesn’t kill you first!” Goulet now grows seed and parcels out bulbs to garden tour visitors (led by Habitat Acquisition Trust and the Native Plant Study Group) and through private visits by plant ecologists, Parks Canada staff, and the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, to name but a few. She also supplies growers like Kristen Miskelly and parks such as Playfair in Saanich and Uplands in Oak Bay with great camas bulbs, which can be difficult to locate in the wild. When planting natives in the garden “we don’t know what is going to happen, ecologically, with climate change. I’m confounded every single time,” Goulet says. Still, a seed bank that has its roots in all our gardens will help to assure the survival of not just Garry oak ecosystems, but the region’s diversity, beauty and health into the future. 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.