Gardens aflame

By Amy Reiswig, January 2013

The Garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island were shaped by more than nature.

Typically, January is a time for contemplating little life changes, when the expression “turn over a new leaf” is heard. While the saying refers to pages of a book—perhaps a blank page to write a new story, a new chapter for oneself—it might equally refer to the fallen leaf of a tree you’ve seen a thousand times but never taken the time to really notice, a leaf you turn over in your hand to experience fully and freshly for the first time. 

Both of these meanings are apt for writer and ecosystem restorationist Maleea Acker’s new book Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star Books, November 2012). In it she changes tack from a writer of poetry to non-fiction and explores a familiar and iconic local landscape that deserves a renewed look.

With an MFA in writing from UVic, Acker’s first book of poems, The Reflecting Pool, was published with Pedlar Press in 2009, and her second, The Almond in the Earth, is forthcoming with Pedlar later this year. She has also published poetry and interviews in a range of major Canadian literary journals, as well as several anthologies. However, locals may also remember Acker from her very public fight for the right to grow a native plant meadow in her Saanich yard in 2011. While Saanich bylaw enforcement said the garden had to go due to the “noxious weeds” bylaw, Acker made—and won—her case with the argument of ecosystem restoration, which, she notes, the city’s environmental policies actually encourage. Now Acker is taking that passion for native species and for what she terms “a landscape where people are doing good” to a new genre and wider audience. 

Acker acknowledges that for many gardeners, Garry oaks can be a bit of a pain: they shed leaves and bits of twig, making lawnscaping less than ideal. From Vancouver Island and with a long history of concern for the environment, Acker is acutely aware of how these trees can be perceived and of the ways in which they are simultaneously ignored in terms of their history, cultural significance and role in harbouring ecosystems and species under threat. 

Anyone who has looked at twisted, bare branches against blue sky knows that Garry oaks have a certain gnarled beauty—what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would call “inscape.” What you may not know is that Garry oaks are the only oak native to BC and have been decimated from 15,249 hectares (before European contact) to 1,589 as of 2006, with deep-soil meadows suffering even greater loss—from 12,009 hectares down to just 175 hectares. BC’s Garry oak meadows are also home to a number of sub-habitats and, as Acker explains, they “house 60 percent of the province’s endangered or at-risk listed species.” The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) notes that as of 2011, these at-risk species finding refuge in Garry oak ecosystems included everything from plants like white-top aster and Victoria owl-clover to reptiles like the Pacific gopher snake, birds such as the horned lark and yellow-billed cuckoo, insects including the blue-grey taildropper slug, and even mammals like Townsend’s big-eared bat. 

What the average islander may also not know about these species-sheltering Garry oak ecosystems is that they are, in fact, not the wild places they appear to be. Deliberately shaped and managed by First Nations for centuries, they were important sites for the cultivation of both food (such as camas) and medicinal crops, as well as symbolic places for meetings and burials. “They held those who attended their leafy rooms in an intimate but spacious embrace,” Acker describes. These meadows, maintained through fire and species selection, were passed down, we are told, “from generation to generation through the matrilineal Coast Salish” and thus “were seen as part of the fabric and body of a culture itself.” 

Therefore, when it comes to questions of why restore these ecosystems, the book provides more than just scientific reasons. “The idea of where humans fit into the natural world has been dogging me for decades,” the delicate-featured Acker tells me, and her book raises big questions about our response to nature, our desire to control it and impose ourselves upon it. And how we do so tells us a lot about our values. For instance, Acker’s historical research reveals that failure to recognize Garry oak meadows as aboriginal agricultural spaces “was key to legitimizing the European occupation…In 1868, Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, Commissioner on the Joint Committee on Indian Reserves, asserted that ‘we might justify our occupation of Vancouver Island by the fact of all the land lying waste without prospect of improvement.’” And she cites local ethnobotanist Nancy Turner (who, with Richard Hebda, also has a new book out on the importance of local flora, Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the WSÁNEC People): “Seen through European eyes, neither the Aboriginal peoples’ use of the land, nor their ownership of it, was considered valid.”

Gardens Aflame takes readers on a journey blending aesthetics, ethics, natural and cultural history, as Acker cites scientists, philosophers, taxonomists, explorers, poets, and her own experience living and playing in these vanishing environments. Her slim volume (104 pages) is about much more than plant and place, and the phrase “human nature” takes on new complexity.

The human “civilizing” trend toward destruction in the name of development, which reflects certain ideas about our dominant place in the world, continues today. It’s a trend Acker has witnessed in ways that have marked her deeply. “Growing up here in the South Island I’ve seen so much demolition,” she says with sadness, looking into a big glass of red wine at Ferris’ and noting the loss of natural places that to her were sacred spaces, eventually sacrificed to builders, to “progress.” “Seeing that destruction is how I became involved with land conservancy,” she notes, “and the book was a way to put into words my dedication to the South Island and the ecosystems that are there.” 

A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Acker worked in communications for the CRD, writing on topics like environmental education, wastewater, and how to grow a native plant garden. In earlier life she also worked in Northern Alberta for five years as a fire lookout, where her job was simply to watch the forest. There she experienced the need to “shut down and be very quiet.” But now she is speaking out to all who will listen. 

Describing the book as one-third natural history, one-third poetics and philosophy and one-third aesthetics—“But that changes every time I discuss it,” she laughs—she says: “It’s not really memoir or natural history. I wanted even the personal bits to be less about the seer than the seeing.” Taking the time to see and to appreciate, to value beyond scientific and economic reasons, should be part of environmental management and stewardship, she believes. Thus she redescribes, turns over for us, those familiar oak leaves: “They are saffron, copper, rust, yolk, gold or fire. They are furry as the underside of your childhood guinea pig, and just as bright orange.” 

“The book will appeal to natural history buffs and native species gardeners,” she knows, but says her hope is also for a different audience. “In developments and among the new generation, I’m not sure there’s that awareness of the land. If I had my druthers, those would be the people to read it—them and anyone who’s ever cursed the oak in their yard, who hasn’t let their grass grow long.”

Without a garden to tend, condo-dwelling writer and editor Amy Reiswig seems to be at least cultivating native mosses on her wet balcony.