These Enchanted Woods

The tragedy of a clear-cut and burned out forest is contrasted with the healthy ecology of a unique bog forest and Garry oak woodland on the outskirts of town.


From the Victoria Daily Colonist, October 16th, 1938-

The charm of the forest has been sung by the poets and felt by most of us. From the ancient woods and feudal parks to the wind-swept pines of the rigorous north, and from the poplar groves of the prairies to the vast coniferous rainforest of our Pacific Coast, the society of trees casts its peculiar glamour on the wanderer and invites him to share its mysterious aloofness. The protest heard on all sides against the ruthless exploitation of our timber is not by any means wholly explainable by reference to the physical needs of later generations; there is in it something of regard for the trees themselves, for their age, their beauty and their symbolism.

A forest scene by Emily Carr.

There is a finely suggestive picture of a woodland scene in [Dickens’] Martin Chuzzlewit which, with the great writers art, captures something of this deeper connection:

It was so very quiet that the soft and stealthy moss about the trunks of some old trees seemed to have grown out of the silence and to be its proper offspring… Vistas of silence opened everywhere into the heart and inmost recesses of the wood beginning with the likeness of an aisle, a cloister, or a ruin open to the sky; then tangling off into a deep green rustling mystery, through which gnarled trunks and twisted boughs and ivy-covered stems and trembling leaves and bark-stripped bodies of old trees stretched out at length, were faintly seen in beautiful confusion.

Up Into the HIlls

With a friend I went the other day up into the hills where once there was one of the most delightful of forest walks; the trees of great size, but not too dense in formation. Banks of green moss where in summer you came across companies of Indian-pipe that looked as of carved out of alabaster; clusters of lady-fern and wood-fern high as your waist or higher; yellow violets, snowy trilliums, perfumed twinflowers, shy orchids, each in due order greeted the visitor. In secluded stream-beds the graceful oak-fern and the robust false hellebore led another group of plants, and in deep hollows around whose edges the canes of the salmonberry raised their soft green leaves and rosy flowers you might come across cool soft beds of yellowish green bog-moss or sphagnum, concealing the hidden water with its ever-moist spongy pile. Here too the modest little sundew with its mustard-spoon leaves covered with crimson glandular hairs would be found by the knowing on the sphagnum’s surface.

But all this is now a thing of the past. This favorite haunt of many an older Victorian is irrevocably gone. We found it a scene of desolation. A recent fire, so recent that its flames still crackled among the needles of fallen trees, has made of hillsides and valley a dreary waste of grey ashes and carbonized wood, out of which the once mossed and lichened rocks stood starkly naked. The smoke that still rose from the smoldering timber and burning ground filled the air with its acrid odor. Here and there a remnant of the forest stood out green on a protected spot or a little island of shrubs and herbs still lay untouched on the sea of hot ash.

“A Glimpse of the Straits From the Logged-off Lands — Gold-back Hill” by Robert Connell April 25, 1942.

These islands of vegetation, if they are spared till the fire exhausts itself, will form the centre from which a new growth will spread. On them we saw the dainty leaves of evergreen violet, the spreading runners of the twinflower, and various other plants as well as grasses, but the most plentiful was the tall groundsel, with a seed supply in its ripened heads sufficient for many acres of barren ash. Further back, larger areas on higher ground were still unscathed. Still there was enough expanse of burnt and ash-smothered country, and in the most beautiful portion of the forest, to sadden one. Of this woodland scene before axe and fire laid it low might well be used the words appended to a forest picture in a National Geographic Magazine of many years ago:

Dead indeed must be the soul of the person whose heart is not quickened, whose spirit is not moved to reverence, whose thoughts do not reach out and beyond, and whose inmost being does not look up through Nature to Nature’s God amid such surroundings as these!

At Rithet’s Bog

And now I ask you to accompany us to another scene, or group of scenes, where neither the axe nor the fire has brought desolation. It is on private property within a few miles of the city. In a broad hollow, encircled by low hills of arable land and grass, is a forest of lodgepole pine which has established itself where once was only an open expanse of swamp.

Rithet’s Bog in the 1930s with the unique stand of lodgepole pine described by Connell at centre. Saanich Archives image.

Of the older condition there is still abundant and substantial evidence, for as we push our way in among the dark pines we find ourselves in a thicket of Labrador-tea whose leaves, with their lining of delicate wool of creamy white or golden tint, fill the air as we brush past them with a pleasant pungent odor that, once inhaled, is never forgotten. At a lower level in the thicket the blue-green leaves of the kalmia shrub are visible: instead of wool they have a white bloom on the underside. Still lower, upon the ground itself, trail the wiry branches of the wild cranberry, and here and there its red fruits may still be seen. In among the cranberry appears a slender plant, sometimes with its leaves still intact, and varying from its summer green to the pale yellow of the season, but often leafless. It bears upon each of the flower-stalks that crown it tiny white seed capsules which are very well worth examination under a good magnifying glass, when it will be seen that they are covered with close-fitting plates with from four to six sides, and that these plates are of the texture of exceedingly fine lace. Each plate is the outer side of the delicate cover of a little black seed, rounded on one side, flat on the other. The plant is the white flowered Arctic trientale, the bog representative of the pink-flowered American trientale of our shady woods: both are known as starflowers.

Lysimachia (Trientalis) borealis, the starflower.

Pine in Profusion

We have seen the pine in profusion, the dominant tree of the swamp. It has a companion in the birch, a rare tree in our district. Some of these are quite handsome small trees, but have not the white bark generally associated with the birch. I am in some doubt as to the species, since I have not been able to procure catkins, but they are apparently too large and tree-like in form for the dwarf birch, and the leaves are not so rounded, and more like those of the Alaska species in shape. The hardhack or Douglas’ spiraea is very abundant, while about the outer edge of the shrubbery the black twinberry appears. Willows are scattered about, and aspen poplars give a pleasant touch by the quivering of their bluish green leaves and their pale trunks.

The sides of a ditch cut in the swamp show the rich dark soil, typical of swamps. In texture it is inclined to be peaty, and is probably quite so deeper down, for in its original state the swamp was, no doubt, a real bog with sphagnum.

Another view of the Bog in the 1960s. SA image.

Today ordinary mosses are found on its surface, and in places we come on a thick cover of one of the real water-loving kinds found submerged in the wet season in low hollows and in the beds of streams. Today the water is gone, though the ground is damp, and the moss is almost black, except at the tips, where an olivaceous green holds the promise of rejuvenation when the winter rains once more submerge it. It lies now like the hay in a windrow. The leaves of the water-moss are arranged in such a way as to form three vertical rows, which in cross-section give a triangle with concave sides.

Crab Apple Trees

Leaving the swamp, we follow one of the inlets the grassland makes in the neighboring woods. Overhead the wild crab apple trees rise loftily, bearing a heavy crop of their small fruits. It is interesting to know that the [First Nations] had a way of their own of using them, according to Robert Brown the explorer: “The fruit of the crab apple is prepared for food by being wrapped in leaves and preserved in bags all winter. When the apples have become sweet they are cooked by digging a hole in the ground, covering it over thickly with green leaves and a layer of earth or sand, and then kindling a fire above them.” Roasted “crabs” were one of the winter dainties of our forefathers, as the songsters show, and it may be that originally they were cooked in the “Indian way”, as were many other articles of food. [Early BC botanist] J.R. Anderson says they were “generally boiled and, in the North, mixed with oolichan oil as a substitute for cream. In that form was considered a great luxury by the native gourmands.” They have been much used for jelly. The crab apple of our Western country is said to resemble that of Siberia rather than those of other parts of this continent or of Europe, but the resemblance is evident only to the specialist.

An ancient crab apple tree.

We are now on a slope lightly covered with firs and shrubbery. The country rock here breaks through its general covering of soil and exposes its rugged, shattered form, grey with lichen and moss, though the latter begins to show a greenish tint and the trailing selaginella is already a deep green. Down the middle is a little stream bed, now dry, but showing from its conformation that in winter it will be musical with the sound of running and falling water. Once across the ridge, we find ourselves in a park-like area, where between sheltering belts of trees extends a strip of turf broken by shrubs.

Part of Rithet farm in the 1960s. SA

The older Douglas firs raise their dark brown trunks and crowns against the soft October sky, while those of younger growth show that variation of color and form that is always attractive to the observant mind. Some are of a yellowish green, others show a decidedly blue or glaucous tinge; in some the branchlets droop slightly, while in others they stand our stiffly almost like those of spruce. Balsam firs are less frequent, but their fan-like foliage with its rich, glassy green, always makes them conspicuous. In a mature tree it will be noticed when it is viewed from a sufficient distance that it has a dense conical crown; sometimes a pair of leaders break the normal shape and bear much diminished crowns.

Some Nootka Trees

Thickets of Nootka rose are reddened by the large scarlet hips, which fairly glow in the sunshine, while in striking contrast the snowberry carries its load of pure white fruit. The two, so almost universally associated on our Island, make one of the chief charms of the autumn and winter landscape. The bracken is still green beside our way, modest in height, not the soaring giant of richer soils. An opening on our left reveals a steep hillside ahead, and we pass under the shadowing edge of a group of lofty cottonwoods and alders, the former a tree delightful alike to sight and smell. It is often fitly called balsam cottonwood because of its sweet, honey-like scent, but it is specifically different from the balm-of-Gilead, balsam, or tacamahac of the prairies and Eastern Canada as well as of the North. But our woodlands scene is becoming more and more marked by oaks, increasing in size as we approach our first broad valley.

Rithet farm looking north west in the 1960s. SA

Already they show traces of autumnal colors where the soil is particularly dry and exposed, but this is in the small, shrubby youngsters: the older trees are still dark, perhaps even darker than in the height of summer. Their picturesque shapes, their sharply furrowed trunks, the effect in mass of their clustered leaves, and the area covered by the broad spread of their branches, combine to make them everywhere objects of interest and dominating features of the landscape, and especially to people from the British Isles, where the oak has been associated with the deepest interests of their ancestors from the dawn of history.

Artists rendition of an ancient European place of worship surrounded by oak trees.

The Druids’ relation to the oak we all know, and some of us remember when we wore in our buttonholes a sprig of oak on Royal Oak Day, and why. Scotsmen will recall how the intrepid Wallace, after his defeat at Falkirk, took refuge in the hollow oak of Torwood. Its acorns were, however, at the time perhaps more appreciated by the people than by the historical events connected with the tree. In the economy of Saxon days, and for centuries afterwards, the acorn had an important place for its food value. On it, with beech-mast, countless swine were fattened on it in the oak forests of Britain, and even well down into the last century the swineherd was still a familiar figure in some parts of England. The pasturage of the pigs was among the woods of the common land, and it was one of the quarrels of the English with their Norman kings that by their enclosure of royal game preserves the ancient rights already encroached upon by the pannage or mast-feeding laws of Saxon rulers were still further restricted.

Swineherds knock down acorns to feed their swine in this 14th Century illustration. Wiki image.

Our local oak, whether in large trees or small scrub, is all of one species, Quercus garryana, the Garry oak, a native of the Pacific coast from Comox to the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, and is quite distinct from the British oak. There are still trees within half a dozen miles of the city that began to grow centuries before any white man set foot on Vancouver Island. The Garry oak, like all other trees, shows interesting variations in manner of growth and in shape of leaf, but the decisive characters of flower and fruit remain constant.

A mature Garry oak on the Rithet farm in the 1890s. SA

As we come back to our starting point we see the sheep resting in the shadow of a group of large oaks, while above on the hillside cattle are grazing among other more scattered ones. The rich notes of a meadow-lark seem to fill the valley so that one scarce knows from whence they come; and the wild cries of a little flock of killdeer plover ring out as they pass above us in swift curves of flight.

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.

2 thoughts on “These Enchanted Woods

  1. Thank you for publishing this. I look frequently to see if there are any new posts about my great grandfather and I was thrilled to find this one. He was my mother’s (Geraldine Connell) grandfather.

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    1. Hi Peggy, thank you so much for commenting. How wonderful that you have this connection with Reverend Connell! I was so excited when I first came across one of his articles almost a year ago. I knew that I had to read them all and I am still making my way through the incredible 377 articles that he wrote for the Daily Colonist alone. His literary legacy is a remarkable and valuable treasure trove of local history for our region and for the Province and I’m so thrilled that you are able to enjoy them as I and many others appear also to do. I plan on sharing many more articles in coming months and I feel that some of the best is yet to come. 🙂
      Ben

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