In February Showers

In this article Reverend Connell takes a walk among the firs and oaks of a still-forested section of the old Hudson’s Bay Company lands on the Lansdowne slope, near the Saanich/Oak Bay border, almost exactly 80 years ago. His reflections on the historic landscape and the abundance of introduced species of flora and fauna that he encountered there show his keen perception of the natural world, including some sobering thoughts regarding the future.

From the Victoria Colonist, February 16th, 1941.

The shower had passed over and little patches of clear blue peeked out among the slate coloured clouds whose silver lining showed raggedly in places. The air had that pleasant freshness enjoyed by the pedestrian and there was no wind. At the corner of Davie Street- as all winter long to say nothing of other seasons- the leafless hawthorns were crowded with house sparrows. They maintained their customary chattering chorus made up of countless chirping repetitions of the single brief phrase that earned them in olden days the name of “Philip sparrows”. Burroughs pronounced the song of the English sparrow’s “crude”, but I never hear the cheerful chorus in these bushes without enjoyment. When we lived in California we used to hear the same concert from an evergreen bush across the street morning, noon and night in the winter, and it had an agreeably homey sound quite apart from its music.

Along the streets the little front-lot gardens were putting on the attire of spring, and being without fence for the most part they seem to invite the passerby to share in their pleasant optimism. Pink and mauve and purple primroses, modest snowdrops and yellow crocuses bloomed beside an occasional marigold. Old-fashioned names in England for the snowdrop are “purification flower” and “fair maids of February”. Both seemed most suitable since this Saturday was both the eve of the purification and the first day of February, but the snow drops have been in flower in Victoria and along these streets since December. The botanical name means “milk flower”. But whenever it comes up and by whatever name it is called the snow drop is lovely in its sweet simplicity.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) at Brodsworth Hall, UK. Wiki Image.

Cloudland Mountains

Beyond the city there are still fields to relieve the eye, both by their broad spaces and by their agricultural changes. I looked and listened in vain for a skylark, but then in spite of blue sky and the silver linings it was by no means a sunny day; on the contrary, it was of that peculiar dullness when the colours of objects are obscured, so that even with good glasses it is difficult to make out the gradations of hue in birds. A poor day for birds it seemed: a few gulls in the wetter hollows of the fields, some wandering crows, and a solitary towhee; and, almost missed, near as they were, a pair of cock pheasants feeding side-by-side just inside a fence. Ours is the China or ring necked pheasant, while the common pheasant of England is a species introduced there before the Norman conquest [c1066 CE] and whose history so far as its origin is concerned seems to be lost.

The Chinese or Manchurian Ring-Necked Pheasant. Wiki Image.

Our pheasants have been here but a short time, but they have quite made themselves at home without regard to difference of climate. I suppose 900 years from now they will still be feeding in the fields if fields there are any. If some scientific prophets are correct we shall, however, by then be living on synthetic foods and domestic animals will either have disappeared or be forced on the same diet. Under these circumstances wild life will probably have either ceased to exist, or, what is more likely, will be rapidly making an end of artificial man.

The reduced illumination of the landscape seemed to be more than recompensed for by the sky. It’s appearance in every direction was wild and bold, dominated by the dark slaty blue of the clouds. But in the east towards the entrance of Puget Sound there was a very extraordinary cloud picture. My attention was first attracted by curious mammillary clouds that lay just above a dark blue grey bank on so much of the eastern horizon as I could see beyond northern Oak Bay. They looked like low mountains but of an extraordinary formation, perhaps no more so than the Rockies appeared to those adventurers who first looked upon their east wall, for they called them the “Mountains of the Bright Stones”, or the “Shining Mountains”. Later came “Stony Mountains”, which appears to have been exchanged for the more dignified “Rocky Mountains”.

But still stranger were the clouds that rose from behind these and reached their full development just before being immersed in the general cloud-mass towards the south east. In these not only was greater height achieved, but the familiar terrestrial mountain forms were in the most extraordinary manner mimicked. Their models- if one may so-called what they resembled- were not what we locally name “mountains” (elevations of a few hundred to a couple of thousand feet) but such peaks as rise in the interior of our island like pinnacled Aerosmith or as we see across the Straits in the Coast and Cascade ranges. Profound valleys with broad sweeping flanks, serrated ridges and occasional pinnacles and pyramids were reproduced in the vast masses of vapour accumulating and dispersing over the Cascade region. It was just such a picture as has over and over again appealed to the poetic mind by its sheer fantasy. It must, of course, be remembered that this was a moving scene, not like a kinematograph landscape in which identity of form is retained for the eye though the picture moves before us. This cloudland alpine scenery was the counterpart of Tennyson’s imagery in Stanza cxxiii of “In Memoriam”, doubtless founded on just such a remembrance scene:

The hills are shadows, and the flow
from form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

“Cloudland Mountains” by Robert Connell, February, 1941.

It seemed almost incredible that these dark forms were not buttresses of solid rock above age-old icefields, and even as I wondered the great walls dissolved and the icefields moved its surface as if it were bleaching linen moved by a breeze. And the mountain forms were not all in one plane like an Egyptian frawing; over the long crests could be discerned far-off pinnacles rising and fading away like empires seen in the long perspective of history. I could hardly help feeling as I finally turned my back on the celestial scenery that when the landscape is dullest it is often only bidding us look upward and away to the beauty of the sky, of the vast masses of cloud with all their wonderful range of form combined with dazzling and elusive rapidity of motion, and of the strange range of colours far beyond what is seen on the earths surface, the prismatic breaking of the sun’s light amid vapour and the dust of shattered worlds.

The Wooded Hillside

Between the Normal School and the Uplands golf links extends, still open and wild, a piece of native woodland. The fringe of Garry oaks rises above rock and hollow and makes a picturesque setting for the cattle which, in larger or smaller numbers, you are almost sure to find in the vicinity. I had just got into this fringe when down came the raindrops again, and crossing the first of the little winter streams I made for the protection of an inner belt of balsam fir. The peculiar arrangement of the fir branches makes the trees excellent shelters in a shower and I was soon standing beneath one and looking out across an old fence on a piece of the landscape I had not seen before, many as were the times I had gone that way. Before me was a clearing in the fir woods made years ago with the living trees ranked about like silent witnesses of a domestic tragedy. When the shower lightened I made my way around to the road between the woods and the cultivated fields and there I found a good cattle trail leading into the heart of the open space. Now clearings vary a good deal in interest. When the forest is cut down the ground flora, such as it is, is more or less wholly destroyed and as a result the soil becomes a seed bed for certain native plants with suitable seed dispersal and adaptability to open area conditions as well as to a variety of introduced plants, chiefly weeds. Thus fireweed suddenly springs up where it has not been known before because its flumed seeds are so easily carried everywhere by the breezes of late summer.

Part of the oak and fir covered lands between the Normal School (right) and the Uplands golf course can be seen in this 1936 photo taken from the top of Mount Tolmie. Saanich Archive Image.

In this particular clearing the first thing that struck me was the large number of young hollies promiscuously scattered about, some a foot or so high, others as high as a man. Although I looked at all as I passed I was unable to find a single one with berries on it. Had the weather been better I might have sought for traces of flower buds. Young hollies are found in cleared or half-cleared spaces in the woods in and about town- for example, in the Pemberton Woods- but I had not before seen any of the seedlings as large as some of these. Other strangers brought into the clearing like the holly by bird-carried seeds are cultivated blackberries, both the plain-leaved and the cut-leaved, making great and impassable thickets with their great arched branches (which root at the tips) like so many gypsy tent frames. It was interesting to see among these escapees from cultivation another bird-carried shrub, the common hawthorn with its red berries, thus distinct from our native thorn which has black fruit.

As I strolled about I noticed that there were a few Douglas firs among the balsams. Some at least have been killed off by the overshadowing of the latter, and others were obviously weakened thereby and became scrawny. A good deal of grassy turf has established itself here and there, and in one place plenty of our little daisy, Burns’ “wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower”. Coming upon it in flower after seeing the holly and in such close proximity to it, and because a shower had driven me to an unwanted shelter, gave some lines of Wordsworth in his first “lines to a Daisy” a certain limited appropriateness:

If to a rock from rains he fly,
Or, some bright day of April sky,
Imprisoned by hot sunshine lie,
Near the green holly,
And wearily at length should fare;
He needs but look about, and there
though art! A friend at hand, to scare
His melancholy.

In his second “Lines” he compares the daisy to a nun, a spritely maiden, a queen, a starveling, a little cyclops, a silver shield, a star in heaven, and then finally he says:

Bright flower! for by that name at last,
When all my reveries are past,
I called thee, and to that cleave fast,
Sweet silent creature!

“Crimson-tipped” daisies.

Near the daisies were the sturdy rosettes of the thistle all ready for the coming season. These winter leaves are of a rather blueish green owing partly to the whitish colour of the slender spines scattered over the surface and partly to the fine hairs, some of which are like the web-threads of a spider, and some of larger size are chains of transparent cells. Below all this is the leaf surface lined with silver spots. But it takes a microscope to see these small things.

Under the Oaks

Another and heavier shower came down, but the woods were so free from underbrush that I was able to walk about very contentedly under the protection of the evergreen canopy. In one corner there were many oaks scattered among the firs and there the sheltered ground had a brown carpet of oak leaves very pleasant to walk on.

A Victoria forest in the early 1900s. Saanich Archives Image.

Underneath was the sound of dry leaves; overhead the patter of the raindrops on the foliage of the firs. It was a very soothing music these two made, the fan-shaped branches played upon the shower, the dry curled leaves trod on or scattered by the feet. It was of the same kind as the voices evoked by the wind among the trees of summer and the grasses of the field, the murmuring of streams, the soft lazy breaking of wavelets on a quiet shore.

The shower this time seemed unwilling to cease, so I left the shelter. A light wind was urging the rain on, and it appeared just so much the wetter as I tramped along the old road which long years ago was built across the face of the slope. It crosses a little stream where once was a bridge capable of carrying a team and wagon, but which is now reduced to a skeleton. The stream is one of several that assert themselves in winter, but which in summer are traceable only by the pebbles scattered along their beds or the rocks around which they have worn channels in the day of their pride. I was driven to take shelter again for a few minutes under some small balsam firs in a little colony of oaks. The cloudland mountains had disappeared in the driving rain and the suburbs of the city were hidden in an indistinct grey-ness. Then the raindrops sound grew less and less and I was able to step out again, but under a sky more monotonous than earlier in the afternoon. The grass and moss pads were like water-soaked sponge or like the firmer edge of a muskeg.

Taking a last look behind before leaving the top of the rise I saw in the distance the dark blue of the old forest by the Cedar Hill Cross Road at Cadboro Bay with its broken crest of lofty firs, against which lower down was the paler tint of leafless maples. Running up to the foot of the forest were pale green fields and between them and the cross fence I had a passed through was the brownish yellow of old grass only slightly penetrated by the new. The air seemed April, but the landscape was still unmistakeably February.

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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