Leaf Life

On Monday, I wound my way up the peninsula in the morning light, with a lazy fog licking at the cars peeking over the horizon before they murmured past me in a procession that snaked back towards the city.

Just south of the village of Brentwood Bay, I passed a gated trailhead. Familiar figures were receding into the forest. The air felt warm. I hurried to catch up, and soon the traffic noise had disappeared, forgotten, and instead there was the low and rhythmic intonation of a forest stream somewhere unseen to the south.

We walked for ten minutes, passing languid trees dripping with lichen and what looked like the remnants of some old stone foundations, the stream now sounding louder and then coming into view. The trail opened and I saw a truck, tailgate down, and beside it our instructors for the day: Judith Lyn Arney, Restoration Coordinator with the SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, and PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper, Education Coordinator with PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ Garden and Native Plant Nursery at ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School.

The Tod Inlet Nature Float, SṈIDȻEȽ, Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, with Purple Martin bird houses visible in the background. The Nature Float is managed by the SeaChange Marine Conservation Society.

We were here for our Wild Harvesting class – but this was really all I knew. Judith and Ashley welcomed us, in SENĆOŦEN and then in English, and explained that we would spend the morning at a nearby restoration site before doing a plant walk in the afternoon. We took a few minutes to wander around: straight on ahead there was a pebbled beach, part of a marine restoration project completed in early 2017, its still waters framed to the west by the sunny oak-lined Gowlland hills.

Judith told us that we were at SṈIDȻEȽ (‘place of the Blue Grouse’ in the SENĆOŦEN language, and called Tod Inlet in English), the site of one of the first villages of the local W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) people. Recent history has seen major change: in 1904, the Portland Cement Factory established a limestone quarry and cement plant here. Housing was established for the workers, a good number of whom were Chinese and Sikh labourers who had come to Canada to work and lived separated from their families by the immigration restrictions imposed by the government of the day (including the infamous Chinese ‘head tax’).

(L-R): The “Snoopy tree”, SṈIDȻEȽ (Tod Inlet); PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper, Education Coordinator at the PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ Native Plant Nursery and Garden, showing off the SENI,IȽĆ (Mahonia aquifolium, Oregon grape); a young Douglas fir trunk, with sap ‘blisters’ that can be punctured with a fingernail and used as an antibacterial wound healer (and which was traditionally used to seal canoes).

When the limestone was exhausted and the cement works closed in 1921, the old quarry was converted into what is today known as the Butchart Gardens, named after the wife of the company head. Industry had picked up stakes and left, but some scars remained: the once-plentiful blue grouse had been chased off by the dynamiting of the quarry, and effluviant from the cement plant contaminated the inlet’s waters and choked the shoreline eelgrass that was habitat to marine species and traditionally used by the W̱SÁNEĆ to make fishing nets.

A restoration push has been underway in recent decades. The SeaChange Marine Conservation Society undertook a major beach and eelgrass restoration project, and is now working in collaboration with the PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ Garden and Native Plant Nursery at ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School to restore inland parts of the site. It felt calm and sacred here, and it was difficult to believe that we were only a few hundred meters from the throbbing hub that is Butchart Gardens, whose ornamental flower installations receive over a million visitors each year.

We hiked over to the restoration site with secateurs and shovels in hand. Invasive Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) was growing in dense thickets among the trees and brush, and we spent a couple of hours gingerly tracing the spiky canes and disentangling them from native thimbleberry bushes before cutting them back and stacking them on a tarp. It was slow, meditative work – true thorn medicine – and working at such proximity to the forest floor offered insight into the simultaneous competition and cooperation (and diversity) of these ground-layer flora. Time passed quickly, I worked, and lunchtime arrived.

(L-R): A Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) with a visible strip where its bark was harvested; edible maple blossoms; an older Western redcedar that has grown around the site where its bark was stripped. Coastal First Nations regard the redcedar as a tree with strong spiritual significance, and would traditionally harvest its bark for use in clothing, blankets and baskets.

In the afternoon, we hiked the trails with PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper, who is a member of the W̱SÁNEĆ people from the W̱JOȽEȽP and Mowachat First Nations. We approached T̸ŦÁ,EL̵Ć (Bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum), and picked some of its young blossoms to eat. They tasted pleasantly astringent, broccoli-like, and though they can be cooked as fritters I’d eat them off the tree next time too. Ashley told us that the wood of the bigleaf maple was traditionally used for crafting canoe paddles.

Further down the trail, growing thick on the side of the path, was a patch of SENI,IȽĆ (Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium). Ashley explained that traditionally, all parts of the plant were used: its berries mashed and dried into suncakes, its root yielding a powerful yellow dye, and its leaves used to treat kidney and stomach ailments and as an antispasmodic for the heart muscle.

A vernal pool at the Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. Vernal pools are unique, seasonally flooded depressions that form on top of an impermeable layer like hardpan or bedrock. Because of the cool Mediterranean-type climate in southern Vancouver Island (relatively high precipitation through the winter and early spring, followed by dry summers), vernal pools are seasonally ephemeral and unsuitable for the tall woody herbaceous species that tolerate winter flooding – instead, they are home to rare specialized fauna such as Scouler’s Popcornflower (Plagiobothrys scouleri) and Macoun’s Meadowfoam (Limnanthes macounii).

In a clearing near the restoration site we found a patch of stinging nettle that had been badly overharvested. It was cut back low on the stalk, more vacant stumps than leaves, and Ashley paused to remind us that wild harvesting is an ethic, deeply rooted in place – a sense of which we’d gained through the day, but which I realized can be a faraway thing without a foothold and a heart in the history of the land.

Ashely is in the first generation of her family not to be forced into residential schools, and the first generation in two to speak SENĆOŦEN – a language she helps revive through this restoration work with students from the ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ Tribal School. This, I think, is a real kind of permaculture: a forward-looking reclamation that builds community and place while engaging with the thin fog of much contemporary life:

coffee-cup perched between Amazons of Grass – the contents of which quiver a little with the shadow of the tree. above the purple-white porch-chair, the solar system point-of-direction pierces the glades of Leaf-Life, luminescently revealing the innards of each branch so-as to witness the plant-bones in-stretch-divine oh the summer breeze! (i have no lessons to teach you)

[…]

                                                                                                                                                 –softcomponent

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.