Poet explores Garry Oak’s vitality

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March 19, 2013

Gardens Aflame
Garry Oak Meadows of B.C.’s South Coast
By Maleea Acker
New Star Books, 108 pages, $19

Reviewed by Susan Hawkins

“A Garry Oak meadow is a garden,” states Maleea Acker. And, according to Acker who cites local ethnobotanist Nancy Turner  “. . . they were constructed landscapes, created and managed through use of fire and species selection, in order to enhance their productivity and maintain their structure.” This understanding has gone mostly unrecognized since the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1718 until fairly recently as the consequences of aggressive development and environmental destruction have resulted in our current ecological crisis.

Acker lives in Saanich on Vancouver Island, where she has transformed her yard into a small Garry Oak meadow. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Victoria, and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Her first book, The Reflecting Pool (poetry), was published in 2009; Gardens Aflame is her first nonfiction book.

What can the pre-settlement, First Nations’ relationship with Garry Oak ecosystems teach us today? In Gardens Aflame, Acker explores this terrain through a combination of personal narrative, historical research, botanical referencing and regional politics, resulting in an effective overview of the remaining Garry Oak meadows of south Vancouver Island and the challenges faced by those dedicated to their restoration and preservation.

The relationship of First Nations Peoples with their environment on Vancouver Island, and globally, is indisputable. Deep soil charcoal deposits reveal that fire as a traditional ecosystem management technique has been widely utilized for millennia. But to what extent Garry Oak meadows represent “constructed landscapes” is not yet certain and remains a topic of much current research. According to Nancy Turner and Richard J. Hebda, in their 2012 publication Saanich Ethnobotany, Culturally Important Plants of the WSÁNEC People, Garry Oak meadows were “managed” in plots containing camas bulbs. Selective clearing and practices of controlled burning were limited to areas of harvest, not the entire ecological system.

Marguerite Babcock describes camas plot cultivation:

“. . . The plot from which the bulbs were to be gathered would be cleared of stones, weeds, and brush, but not of trees.  The stones would be piled up in a portion of the plot where there were no camas plants growing, and the brush would be piled up on one side, left to rot or to be burned… The brush was actually uprooted, not just cut down… The purpose of the clearing, said Christopher Paul, was to make the camas easy to clear [sic: dig?] when the camas was gathered intensively.”

The history of oak-prairie ecosystems throughout North American is inextricably linked with fire, both human and lightning generated, and some low-intensity fires have been used in Garry Oak locations. Nonetheless, in the 2001 publication, Towards a Recovery Strategy for Garry Oak and Associated Ecosystems in Canada, Marilyn A. Fuchs argues, “The efficacy of fire as a restoration tool is equivocal because some invasive plants are favoured by fire,” and ”invertebrates are vulnerable to direct fire-caused mortality.” Hence, Omar McDadi and Richard J. Hecha in, Change in historic fire disturbance in Garry oak (Quercus garryana) meadow and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) mosaic, University of Victoria, (2008), recommend adopting an approach that involves restoring landscapes to “mosaics of patches having different species compositions.” This requires “restoring patches of alternate stable states on the landscape such as Douglas-fir forests, rather than just one ecosystem variant such as a Garry Oak meadow.” Understanding ecosystems, like our relationship with nature, as Acker attests, “is complicated.”

Garry Oak meadows are one of Canada’s most endangered ecosystems occurring uniquely in the province of British Columbia on southeast Vancouver Island, adjacent Gulf Islands, and in the Fraser Valley. Urban encroachment, changes in landscape management practices and the introduction of exotic species threaten the ecosystem. A Garry Oak meadow is vested with a range of biological and cultural values conferring great significance and urgency to ecosystem conservation. Understanding and implementing Coast Salish ecological management processes along with the hard work of numerous volunteers will help insure their continued survival.

Gardens Aflame is an informative and thoughtfully written book, but it contains a comment that I feel must be addressed. Introduced species of flora and fauna are playing havoc on ecosystems throughout North America and the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is no exception. These birds found a niche in farms and towns and quickly multiplied, competing for food and nest sites, but the practice of catching sparrows, and “crushing them between two logs” is an unethical act of cruelty that should not be condoned.


Susan Hawkins is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria and a Landscape Horticulturist.


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