February Grey and Green

Reverend Connell paints a visceral portrait of the hills and farmlands of Strawberry Vale and the Colquitz River valley in late winter.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, February 22nd, 1942.

The bus as it runs along Burnside Road gives a broad view of dark sloughed fields with a background of dark timber. It is surprising how in spite of the steady advance of suburban building the old forest still dominates the scene. It is hard to believe that it hides rows and clusters of bungalows that rise with swift persistency along the main thoroughfares and along streets that, first figuring on a map, become realities overnight. Fields sweep up to the back fences and barnyards break the suburban precision. The leafless oaks still flourish as they did long before the earliest white men came to this coast. Occasional ones are older than the mightiest of the firs, and in fact the firs are mostly, in much of this region, modern interlopers who have [displaced the oaks as the Aboriginal land-use practices have changed and the camas meadows have no longer been burned]. We may talk as we will about the resemblance of this corner of Vancouver Island to the British Isles, but the presence of the primitive wild is still on it. So must parts of England have been when the Romans built their cities and towns among the ancient forests of oak, beech and Scots fir. True, it was a different landscape, but it was the aboriginal one, and the old forests lingered long until domestic fires and iron foundries ate them up one after another and King Coal came in.

This first Saturday in February is one of those grey and green days so frequent in our Winter as to be almost typical of it. The sky is broken grey with cumulus clouds round the horizon and an irregular pattern overhead. The sunshine is not brilliant, but a gentle radiance sliding down on the landscape from rifts in the vaporous ceiling. The far-distant hills are a soft pearly grey, and the forests on the nearer ones are distinctly blue. The rocks which are always with us are green and silver in their winter coat of moss and lichen and licorice-fern. The depth of green in the last gives almost a touch of Summer among its paler or lowlier neighbors.

Round Knockan’s Shoulder

Between the little valley at the south end of Wilkinson Road and Strawberry Vale rises the rock mass of Knockan Hill. This eminence is 260 feet high and at this elevation is a flattish glaciated surface partly hidden by tree-tops. The base may be said to begin at Portage Inlet, but actually it is the rocky summit rising 160 feet above Wilkinson Road that is denoted by the name. Its designation is a little memorial of the past history of the district, for it is of Gaelic origin and is actually the diminutive of Cnoc, “a hill”, and may have come from a village of Knockan in a corner of Southwest Sutherlandshire that protrudes into Ross and Cromarty. I believe Roderick Finlayson of the HBC was a Sutherland man, and there were no doubt others from that fruitful parent of pioneers.*

[*note- The cultural history of Knockan Hill of course goes back much further than the settler history of the region. It is now widely recognized that the name “Knockan” actually originates with the Lekwungen name for the hill, “Nga-kun”, which roughly translates as “piled-up rocks”, and may be a rare case where Aboriginal and settler place-names coincide phonetically . The fascinating First Nations history of the hill can be read about here.]

Knockan Hill is in its main part a block of volcanic rock surrounded by diorite-gneiss. On its north side, clinging to the rocks, there used to be a blacksmith’s shop where if the chestnut tree was absent there were at least abundance of sparks, much ringing of iron under hammer, and not a few curious children. It may be still there but the scene has changed much and identification is difficult. On the west side, where the bus runs, old farms and holdings still appear. Down in the valley it looks as if nothing were altered. The farmhouses, barns and outbuildings seem as they were thirty or forty years ago. Only here and there a bright new building peeps out of the woods.

A sharp turn brings us along the north side of Knockan Hill, and with this we leave the little wayside cottages with their interesting gardens and hedges. We have arrived where Wilkinson Road is intersected by the old interurban right-of-way, now used as an ordinary thoroughfare. Colquitz Valley spreads out before us to the east and although we see little or no sign of the stream that gives its name it is there nonetheless, running through the low alluvial plain.

“Across Colquitz Valley, Saanich, V.I.” by Robert Connell, Feb.6, 1942.

Over a wooden ridge appears faintly grey Christmas Hill or Lake Hill, as it is also called. The former is, I believe, the older name. The wooded ridge between Christmas Hill and the Colquitz Valley is unimportant in height and even as a landscape feature, but it shares with Christmas, and Knockan Hill as well as with Mounth Douglas and Mount Tolmie the privilege of being prominent parts of the rocky skeleton of this corner of the Island. They separate or bound the alluvial clay-lands in which lie certain small streams, the Colquitz and the Bowker or lakes like Swan and Lost (Blenkinsop) Lakes.

The first part of the right-of-way runs through high clay banks, so steep that a little path worn by animals along the face of the slippery stuff seems almost incredible. on the left a rank growth of escaped garden blackberry makes a coppery green cover. We get glimpses of houses standing in fragments of old orchards whose lichened trees have a primeval look about them. There is a smell of wood-smoke and the crowings and calls of domestic poultry are dispersed through the air. Now and then the scent of a barnyard comes across the wood-smoke aroma, and reminds you that you are actually in an agricultural region despite all the small suburb-like cottages.

Wilkinson Road in the 1920s. SA Image.

A new type of wood-smoke comes on the air as we arrive on a hillside where green branches of newly-felled firs are being burnt in bright crackling fires. The bright flames and the dense whitish smoke are singularly attractive with the figures of the workers now silhouetted against them and now passing out of view. Between us and them is a little hollow with water-loving shrubs, and from these rise a chorus of bird voices. Most of the sound comes from a flock of house sparrows. Overhead in a well-catkined willow sits all silently a robin whose ruddy breast gleams through the tracery of the leafless twigs. A downy woodpecker goes quickly and silently about his business on a grey trunk.

The road crosses the depression which runs down into the broad flats of the upper end of Strawberry Vale. Patches of water reflect the grey sky and break the monotony of the dark earth and the rushy fields. Flocks of gulls wander in a newly-sloughed field. In their grayness they look almost as if some of the smaller patches of cloud-reflected water had come to life and movement.

Panama Flats in the 1920s. SA Image.

Overhead fourteen wild geese fly southeast towards the Colquitz, their V-shape slightly broken. On the right is a hillside with oaks, large and small. Here are more birds; dozens of robins perched on the twisted branches, not a detectable sound from any one of them. But it is not so with a pair of meadowlarks. One of them has a singularly deep harsh song, the others is much thinner; neither has that rich liquid quality in its notes for which the bird is noted in spring.

A Double Track

From the hillside on the right comes the sound of an axe, a cheerful enough sound in its proper place, but mournful enough when it betokens the unnecessary destruction of either forest or individual trees. The handling of an axe by an expert is one of the most beautiful activities to watch. It was quite a new thing to me when I came to Canada. The only axmanship I knew was Mr. [Prime Minister] Gladstone’s in the woods at Hawarden and that, of course, only by the topical illustration or the political cartoon. But in Manitoba I saw the Eastern Canadian’s style, one had grasping the base of the helve, the other moving towards the head with the upward swing and then down with the fall of the axe. There, too, I saw a young Australian who swung the axe with both hands and who admittedly bore off the palm for speed and cleanness of work. No wonder the axe-work of some of us newcomers looked more like the gnawing of beavers.

Across this little hollow the interurban railway crossed by a trestle-bridge, of which now no sign remains except it be a few rotting foundation timbers half buried in the worn-down grade. The grade itself supports a thick growth of broom, at this season of a deep brownish green. A little bit of forest stands on the left, and on its farther edge a tiny brook or burn comes tumbling noisily down the hillside on its way to the flats below. Here cattle are lying in that meditative manner peculiar to ruminants. Their dark brown and red coats, still marked by the roughness of Winter, give a pleasing touch of warm color to the grey and green of the scene. The ridges that run out into the flats are crowned with dark fir and single trees are scattered picturesquely along their steep flanks. The main road evolved from the railway is paralleled here by a wagon trail which is separated from it by a few yards of damp territory supporting a lush growth of coarse grass and a succession of wild shrubs.

Panama Flats from Interurban Road in the 1970s. SA Image.

Clumps or aggregations of wild parsley with their peculiar bird’s-nest clusters of seed-vessels and of chicory give a shadowy reminiscence of last summer. Especially in this so with the chicory, succory, endive, or blue sailors, as it is variously called. Its bright china-blue daisy-like flowers must be found here in great numbers in Summer, always a delight to the eye. From its habitat of growing just as it does with us in large groups by the roadside the plant has been popularly called in some countries of Europe the “guardian of the ways”.

Blue blooms the succory,
each bud than sapphire lovelier.     

Some of the young oaks along here are still carrying their brown leaves of last autumn as beech trees are wont to do. Great bushes of red-barked willow, the osier rouge of the French Metis, are purplish. The lower thickets of hardhack are a warm grey. The bird-cherry is dotted with bright green opening buds. Tall cottonwoods lift their pale trunks against the sky, while the shining green of Oregon grape leaves is broken by little clusters of flower buds. Besides the catkin-covered willows are later kinds, one in particular with golden yellow branches and buds. A single hemlock droops its soft foliage over the undergrowth where a towhee utters its cat-like call and the green leaves of juvenile cascaras assert their survival of winter. Wild crab apple trees show the vestiges of last year’s fruit and aspen poplars are conspicuous by their smooth greenish white bark. The dead stalks of fireweed exhibit their opened seed-vessels to some of which the silky seeds still adhere.

Pondside Shells

In the corner of a small field is a pond formed by the winter rains and at the corner next to the fence is a little heap of blueish sandy clay dug up, it would seem, to make a water hole. Nothing peculiar about that except that the wet heap has some white marks on it that attract attention. They turn out on closer acquaintance to be shells, but not fresh-water ones such as you may find in ponds and pools, ditches and lakes. On the contrary they are saltwater bivalve shells of two species. One is Macoma nasuta, the other our old friend Saxicava artica, both found in the cold season of today. How did they get here, away from the nearest seashore? The answer is that our road is running in this little valley on an old raised beach formed when the post glacial sea came up all these depressions and even, strange as it may seem, covered Christmas Hill and Mount Tolmie and washed more than half way up the flanks of Mount Douglas. Our little white shells, some with the valves still together, are only a few of millions that lie just below the surface of our lowlands and are [regularly] brought up in the digging of even shallow ditches. In the vicinity of lakes or old swamps they often lie just below masses of fresh water shells that succeeded them when the land gradually rose above sea level.  

Hiatella (Saxicava) arctica, the arctic clam. Wikipedia image.

That our little glacial fossil bed is a good deal higher than the low flats of strawberry veil we now notice particularly as we return and on our way look down from the side of the little noisy stream. We can here picture to ourselves the tides running up and swinging around the points of land where are now farm buildings and cottages with their gardens. That would be long before trees grew as they do now.  

Going down into the valley and out into the flats by a cross road we find ourselves by a natural hedge of hardhack and willow at whose foot runs a stream of water draining from the uplands. The black peaty soil with it’s brownish green clumps of rush and sedge, the sombre lines of shrubbery, and the grey fences with strands of rust stained wire make a rather bleak picture. Even the numerous gulls, seen before as little more than spots of light colour solemnly stalking here and there or nesting on the dark earth, accentuate the sombre scene.

A Burnside farm in the early days. SA Image.

But not so the little birds in the thicket hedge. A flock of finches flits in their restless manner just ahead of us and then suddenly rises and flies back. A single song sparrow also takes the line of the hedge; only instead of flipping along among the upper branches our little friend of the black-spotted breast flies, disappears into the ticket, and then suddenly comes into view on the bank of the stream or on one of the branches just above it. These small birds take away the out-of-the-world feeling, for there is something cheery and homey about them. They are friendly as the gulls can never be.  

While the sparrow is under observation there is a sudden diversion of interest. A muskrat sitting on a board that crosses the stream dives with a loud splash and is lost to sight in the disturbed and muddied water.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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