Old Road and Veteran Oak

Connell ventures to the southern slopes of Pkols/Mount Douglas to see an ancient oak tree. He observes other flora and fauna along the way while sharing interesting pieces of European folklore associated with some of the introduced species he encounters.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, October 30th, 1938-

October days are the best of all for walking. I mean the days when the sky is blue or lightly fleeced with clouds, the air has just a suggestion of crispness in the early morning and when the shadows begin to lengthen towards evening, and all the countryside from the sea-girt rocks to the edge of the dark fir forest is decked out in the splendor of the dying year. A friend who has recently returned from Eastern Canada tells me of the wealth of brilliant hues in the landscapes of Ontario and Quebec, but if ours are pitched somewhat lower, as they no doubt are, they have at least a wonderful staying power; week after week the rose and gold, the russet and olive linger on as if Nature suffered from insomnia and could not fall asleep.

I walked the other day from the end of the Mount Tolmie car-line down a road allowance that was one green expanse of turf and where there was little road except for some barely distinguishable ruts. The lush grass, product of our first rains and the following warmth, seemed strange beneath the yellow and tawny foliage, as if spring had come so fast upon the heels of autumn that she had actually preceded the fall of the leaf and caught the last thistles in their careless undress. A goodly amount of the pastoral still lingers in the valley in spite of Shelbourne Street‘s fleeting cars and garish gas stations. A herd of black and white and brown cows in an enclosure are moving towards the opening in the fence where the dairyman waits to take them to their milking place. The Bowker is here a narrow ditch, but an object of beauty none the less. Off the road and across the hummocky grassy ground let us now go and look along this strange corridor of green broken with sun-rays that pierce through the canopy of foliage.

The Bowker valley in 1951 showing the “ditched” creek running on an angle into the distance on the right hand side. Saanich Archives image.

Notice how the shallow running water reflects the lights and shadows and then is lost momentarily in a brilliantly green carpet of water plants. Small as the ditch is, it suggests a tropical waterway, with its dark banks overrun with trailing plants and the bewildering play of sunbeams, obscurity and reflection. A bird rises from the water’s edge and suddenly disappears in the mysterious tunnel.

Cedar Hill Road

After a short distance along the highway I turn up a lane to the old Cedar Hill Road that keeps alive the pioneer name for Mount Douglas [“Cedar Hill“]. It is a capital route for the walker. Situated high up on the hillside it gives a fine view of the valley; it passes though a region of old homesteads, and it is singularly free from motor traffic, thanks to its proximity to Shelbourne Street and to its freedom from the attentions of the roadsmen. Down this slope from the little church of St. Luke I learnt to ride a bicycle a long time ago, when horse-drawn vehicles were almost as infrequent on it as cars are now. At that time bicycles were going out as machines of amusement and pedestrianism was coming in for a brief space, so that on holidays walkers, singly and in groups, were commonly met with along the roads. That was before the day of “hikers”, for our friends across the line had not yet established in colloquial use the old dialect word “hike” with its sense of “to go away, walk off, decamp”. No; these were leisurely walks, out to enjoy the country air and scenes.

“Looking Across Cedar Hill Valley in the Summer of 1903” with St. Luke’s Church in the foreground by Robert Connell

Ash Trees

The road runs here through the old Irvine and Merriman places, and the chief tokens of these pioneers are to be seen in the roadside trees, although some old grey barns still stand. The ash is represented by a number of specimens. I mean the true ash, not the so-called mountain-ash or rowan with its scarlet fruit. In the British Isles the ash has always been held in high regard for beauty and utility. Over against the mighty oak the ash has been the type of woodland grace because of its feather-like foliage and its soft green hue, and here where the Garry oaks still linger in the vicinity the contrast between the two can be well seen and appreciated. The ash comes into leaf late and its black buds in opposite pairs are conspicuous objects:

The buds on either side opposed
In couples, each to each, enclosed
In caskets black and hard as jet,
The ash tree’s graceful branch beset:
The branch, which clothed in modest grey,
Sweeps gracefully with easy sway,
And still in after life preserves
The bending of its infant curves.”

The Ash Has Fame

So wrote Dr. Mant, an Irish bishop, a hundred years ago, and in season you can verify his accuracy on the nearest specimen. The ash has fame, too, as furnishing a tough hard wood for bows and spear-shafts; an important thing in bygone centuries. But still more important are its uses to the farmer for hurdles and hop poles, handles and staves. It had a good repute in medicine, too, for leaves, young shoots and even seed-cases or “keys” were distilled and infused for various ills.

Queer Remedies

It seems almost incredible but down to comparatively modern times, as late as about 1850, the ash was connected with treatment of rupture in children. A young ash was split down the middle and kept open by wedges while the naked child was forced through the cleft twice by the father on one side and the mother on the other. The child was then bandaged and the tree bound up and if the sides of the ash grew together again the cure of the child was regarded as permanent. Another curious and very ancient use of the tree was that of the shrew-ash. It was in what may well be called pre-scientific days commonly believed that when that pretty little animal, the shrew, ran over the limbs of cattle of any kind it produced violent pains with subsequent loss of use of the parts affected. To remedy this twigs from a shrew-ash were gently passed over the stricken limbs until the pain was removed. Gilbert White tells us in his “Natural History of Selborne” how a shrew-ash was obtained: “Into the body of the tree a deep hole was bored with an auger, and a poor devoted shrew-mouse was thrust in alive and plugged in, no doubt with several quaint incantations long since forgotten.” The ash was the tree Yggdrasil, or “Tree of the Universe” in the mythology of the Scandinavian peoples. Its branches spread over the whole earth and reached into the heavens. Among its branches sat an eagle, a squirrel and four harts. An adder evermore gnawed its root, which penetrated to the regions of the gods, of the giants, and of cold and darkness.

Where the Elm Grows

The elm grows also along this old road, its darker foliage and trunk contrasting pleasantly with the ash, where they grow side by side. For the planting of shady avenues no tree lends itself so well as this.

A magnificent elm tree growing in Oak Bay, September 2021

Near the farther trees grows a single walnut tree, a fine healthy specimen, though of no great size, its large pinnate leaves making it conspicuous among its neighbors in the roadside hedge. Where between the road and the fence is a broad grassy space with a shallow ditch, a low thicket of privet has sprung up, I suppose from seeds borne by birds from one of the old farmsteads. It is a kind with rather longer and narrower leaves than usual in our trimmed hedges. At the summit of some of the stems are clusters of the small shining blackberries. The privet is a cousin to the ash, and both are of the olive family. A common hedgerow shrub in the British Isles, it looks quite at home here with our snowberries and wild roses, black, red and white fruits each making a patch of bright color, for even the privet berries are bright with the reflection of the sun on their shining faces.

Here is a noisy corner where the shrubs grow thick, for it is the junction of two of the wild hedges which are so common in the fields and upon which no pruner’s knife has ever come. The musical cries and calls of birds come from the bushes and especially from a wild crab apple that towers above the rest. It is evident what the attraction is, for though it is at least a hundred feet away, you can see distinctly the fruit that is still left on its lower branches. Robins flying to and fro seem to be the chief birds; at least they alone are clearly visible among the branches or on the wing. That there are other birds is plain from the mingled notes, and now and then a glimpse is caught of a sparrow or a towhee; indeed one of the latter comes close enough to show the red ring about his eye. The note of the meadow-lark comes across the fields with its clear liquid melody. I can catch no sound of the skylark but instead am rewarded with the sight of one perched on a fence’s top-rail not more than ten feet away. A demure bird it is with no showiness of form or color; not unlike our true native larks. The meadow-lark belongs to the starling clan.

Eurasian skylark

Orchards and Fruit

The orchards along the road are bright with fruit. Some of the trees are so laden that their branches touch the ground. Apples of bright red, gold, pale yellow, and crimson shine out from their leafy bowers. A man with a rake shakes the branches of a tree and brings down about him a rain of fruit that rolls along the ground like hailstones. A boy watches him with the detachment of one who feasts at his will on the superabundant fruit. There are even fruit trees in the roadside hedge. One has many little russet pears peeping from among its leaves. These old orchards of long ago are usually rich in almost forgotten kinds of apples and pears that have, since their planting, been crowded out by showier and more marketable fruit. I remember the fires in one orchard at the foot of Mount Tolmie when the rows of old-fashioned apples were cut down and burnt to make way for more popular stock.

Thicket Fruits

Turning off the old highway at Glendinning Road I come shortly to where it sends off at right angles an arm that follows the summit of a long gravel ridge to the south slope of Mount Douglas, passing by the way of one of the old corner posts marking the park boundaries. This is a delightful woodland road at all seasons, partly bordered by thickets and partly running through woods of comparatively young fir. On the right the thicket soon becomes tall and dense. Here the red-barked dogwood shows its autumn finery well. Its leaves, resembling those of the flowering dogwood, are already turning here and there to a rich purplish hue while the clusters of leaden white berries mark its distinction from its larger relative in color as well as in character and arrangement. The red fruit of the flowering dogwood is hard and dry but that if the red-barked has a watery pulp about the central stone; and while the red fruits are densely packed together so as to compress their sides, the white are dispersed in an open and somewhat flattish inflorescence like that of the black elderberry. In these roadside thickets the bark is scarcely so red as it is in the swamp thickets or along the margins of lakes or ponds.

Neighboring the dogwood is the cascara sagrada, one of the buckthorns. The popular name we owe to early Spanish missionaries on the Pacific Coast who first discovered the laxative qualities of its bark and so named it in Spanish the “holy bark”. Botanically it is Rhamnus purshiana or Pursh’s buckthorn. The berries of common buckthorn of Europe, Rhamnus catharticus, were at one time used medicinally. The large silky leaves of the cascara and the unenclosed next year’s shoots are interesting to note. Young specimens often carry their leaves though the winter quite green in spite of their apparent delicacy.

“Autumn Wild Fruits” by Robert Connell

Across the road is a dense thicket of wild rose, but not of the species to which most of our thickets about Victoria belong, namely, the Nootka rose. That species has large globular or flattened hips, the latter about half an inch in height and three-quarters in diameter. They are either single or two or three together. But these we now see reddening the bushes are about the size of a garden pea but often a little longer than broad, sometimes even pear-shaped. They grow in clusters of from three to nine or ten; occasionally on a bush a single one or a pair may be found but it is not characteristic. The color is more orange than that of the Nootka hips and the thick clusters give the thickets they decorate a particularly bright color. This is the pea-fruited rose, to translate its botanical name of Rosa pisocarpa. A good and expressive popular name would be “wild cluster-rose”. It blooms later than the Nootka and has smaller flowers though of course not so small as those of the wood rose.

A Veteran Oak

This is the best district in which to see the gradual disappearance of the old oak forest before the invading firs. All through these woods stand the forms of dead or dying oaks with some rotting on the ground. How many have already returned to the soil it is impossible to say. There is one extremely fine specimen of the past still standing partly alive, a short distance from the road, but difficult to find in the dense growth of broom and other shrubs. When I first came on it some years ago it was fairly well foliaged but each year seems to see fewer leaves. It grows at the edge of a low terrace with young forest on its west and a sprinkling of smaller oaks and aged broom in the east. Gradually the area its great boughs once overshadowed is being restricted and today it is difficult to run a straight line across. The tree is characteristic of the short-trunked sinuous-branched oak, but its features are now much obscured by the damage done to its huge branches. Apparently it has been struck by lightening or caught in a cyclone wind, for everywhere the branches and leaders have been snapped off. The height of the trunk is about seven feet, its circumference seventeen feet and its diameter five feet four inches. Its spread of branch today is roughly sixty feet. As to the age of the tree all I can say is that according to Sudworth an average oak is 250 years old with twenty-seven inches diameter which corresponds very well with my own figures for local trees. From this, allowing for the slower growth with increasing age, I should say this oak is not much less than 800 years old; and it may have been a seedling at the time of the battle of Hastings [1066]. It ought certainly to be preserved as a natural monument. More than thirty years ago I found a still larger stump on this ridge to the south, but I have not been able to re-discover it and it has no doubt crumbled away.

“The Veteran Oak Near Mount Douglas Park” by Robert Connell, 1938

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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