Some Wayside Notes in Town

Join Connell for a wander through woodlands and meadows on the edge of a newly suburbanized section of Fairfield.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, Dec. 10th, 1939-

The sky is overcast with soft grey clouds broken by warm yellow, and in the air there is a softness and mildness as of veritable spring; but the woods are strangely silent except for the call of a towhee in the thicket. The path has lost its green borders and now is decorated with rose hips and snowberries. The cottonwood trees still bear their golden-green leaves in great profusion. I never tire of the beauty of our cottonwoods, symmetrical in form, bright in color, pleasant in scent and reaching truly noble proportions at maturity. Past the cottonwoods and the alders the path leads between a ploughed field and a Chinese garden to one of our newer suburban streets. The native oaks standing here and there are bare of leaves and the anatomy, whose knowledge is indispensable to the landscape artist, is now clearly discernible.

Oak trees at sunrise in Uplands Park, November 2021.

It is not necessary to look far to find two distinct types of growth which, to a large extent characteristic of soil and situation, are nevertheless often to be found in close proximity. One is erect with the branches springing from the trunk at a sharp angle. A fine example of this is to be seen opposite the end of Davie Street at its junction with Leighton Road. The other type we are familiar with at the Uplands and on rocky hills, but it also occurs, though in not quite such fantastic fashion, in less exposed places. Our oak differs in several respects from the English oak. I remember as a boy having my attention called to the horizontal position of the branches of the English oak, and along Despard Avenue here in town are a number of young trees of this species showing this feature quite well. The ground is strewn with fallen leaves and examination of one will show at least two important points in which it differs from the leaf of our native or Garry oak. One is that the lobes of the native oak’s leaf are rather more deeply cut than those of the English, and another is that in the English oak’s leaf at the base the blade or broad part of the leaf is separated from the leaf stalk for a fraction of an inch, a sixteenth to an eighth or more, and the edges of the blade next the stalk are curled over backwards so that on the under side of the leaf appear two little ear-like appendages.

The leaf of an English Oak tree [Quercus rober] on which the small “ear-like appendages” can be seen at the base of the stem.

A flock of crows passes slowly overhead; from the distance can be heard faintly the cawing of others. Their flight is very different from that of the gulls. The gull seems to fly with more of pure pleasure. There is not only a sense of freedom and wonderful agility; we get the impression of enjoyment in the exercise of flight such as we get from watching a skillful dancer or skater. Like the dog taken out in the country for a run who dashes hither and thither, doubling or trebling the necessary distance, so the gull wheels and soars and dives as if time and space were but to be played in. The crow, on the other hand, moves slowly and determinedly as if the attainment of his journey’s end, be it long or short, was the only business of flight. Only occasionally and seasonally do we see him indulging in those queer tumbling capers in the air which, because of a certain awkwardness of action, have something more of the comic than the aesthetic. Even when a gull is obviously on business intent he proceeds gracefully and as a thing of beauty. Swinbourne is, so far as I know, the only poet who has sung the flight of the seagull. He calls it “To a Seamew” – an old English name for a gull – and here is a verse from it:

The lark knows no such rapture
Such joy no nightingale,
As sways the sonless measure
Wherein thy wings take pleasure;
Thy love may no man capture,
Thy pride may no man quail;
The lark knows no such rapture,
Such joy no nightingale.

Down the seaward slope of St. Charles Street the wayside tree is for some distance the rowan or mountain ash, known too of old among British people as the quicken or quick-beam because of its resemblance to the whitebeam in its scarlet fruits. But the whitebeam has not a compound pinnate leaf like the rowan. The name “quicken” is connected with the old “quick”, meaning alive or living as in the phrase “the quick and the dead”, and it is associated with the powers formerly ascribed to this tree of protecting against witches and warlocks. It is supposed to have been one of the sacred trees of the Druids, and Bishop Heber tells of finding a tree very like it in Upper India to which remarkable powers and properties were ascribed by the natives. They said that it sleep all night, but was awake and alive all day, and that whoever wore a sprig in his turban or slept with one over his bed was secure against the evil eye and the spells of wizardry.

Rowan Tree by WHJ Boot

Here, just past the middle of November, the leaves are completely stripped from the majority of the St. Charles Street rowans and this brings into all the greater prominence the magnificent crop of berries. Looked at up or down, the street exhibits two lines of scarlet, the fruitage of the individual trees merging into one continuous band of color. Strange to say, the birds have in no wise disturbed them as yet, the pavements below are quite clear of the usual debris that follows the foraging of the robins. In Scotland the rowanberries are very commonly used to flavor as well as color apple jelly; it may be an English custom too, at least in the North. The rowan tree has indeed a warm place in Scottish folklore apart from cookery. Caroline Oliphant, afterwards Lady Nairne, who wrote some of Scotland’s well-known songs, has one on this very subject, “The Rowan Tree”:

Oh, Rowan tree! Oh, Rowan tree!
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
Intwined thou art with many ties o’ home and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ Spring,
thy flowers the Summer’s pride;
There was n’er such a bonnie tree in a’ the countrie side…

   Grass in a Hollow

There is a fascination about the flat lands bordering Ross and Foul Bays. In spite of the paved streets, something remains of the old swampy character though, of course, it is well drained now.

The Ross and Foul [Gonzales] Bay district seen from Gonzales Hill in 1910. CVA image.

At one place towards the foot of St. Charles Street there is a little patch of slough grass in a shallow hollow. Every now and then ditching in the black soil opens up to the observer a cross-section of the past. Most of the district is between twenty and forty feet above sea level, and still bears all the appearance of an elevated sea bottom. This is confirmed by the excavations which show just below the surface a considerable thickness of lake and swamp deposits such as shelly marl containing millions of fresh water shells and below these marine deposits with sea shells similar to those occupying our coastal waters of today. The succession parallels that in the district north of Shoal [McNeill] Bay and west of the Oak Bay golf links, where in places a thick deposit of peat occurs just below the present surface, while below it are the marine deposits.

The black soil of these low-lying lands was, of course, once fruitful in species of plants and shrubs that delight in such an environment. Drainage and pasturage, clearing and gardening, have combined to remove most of this, but nevertheless traces are to be found of the primitive conditions.

Chinese market gardeners at work in a meadow near Ross Bay in this beautiful painting by Georgina de l’Aubiniere, c1880s. BCA image.

Thus, on the south side of Fairfield Road just east of St. Charles stands a very fine crab apple tree whose dimensions suggest a century’s growth at least; a younger tree is close beside it. Stripped of leaves, the branches are now to be seen loaded with fruit clusters whose dull yellowish color shows that they have been touched by the slight frost of a few weeks ago and have therefore become somewhat sweeter and juicier. In this condition they attract the birds, and it is not surprising to find among the little apples purple finches, feeding as we saw them recently along Blenkinsop Road.

“Purple” House finch. Chris Charlesworth photo.

Here on Fairfield Road it is possible to see one or two with the beautiful coloration that has earned the appellation of “purple”. It is, however, not the hue we commonly associate with purple but rather a rosy red. I record this meeting with the “purple” finch chiefly to give an example of the many beautiful and highly interesting birds there are about us in town, in our gardens, as well as in the patches of woodland and grassland still left in the suburbs. This particular group of finches was feeding within less than twenty feet of a house and quite close to sidewalk and streetcar. While I was watching them a pair of crows flew into the upper branches of the tree, but the smaller birds went on feeding undisturbed. The crows apparently did not like my presence and immediately moved off. The crow has learnt by experience that man generally dislikes him and often enough carries a gun; this makes him shy among trees. But in the open, as on our streets and larger lawns, he will walk about quite unconcernedly, and even jauntily.

Pavement Crevices

Among the small sights, so to speak, of the rainy season in its earliest beginnings is one that always gives me pleasure. Our older sufficed streets are not infrequently irregularly patterned with small fissures, some of which cross the road while others run lengthwise, but none of them are straight. On the contrary, they curve and interlace endlessly. As they are the effects of shrinkage and pressure, the fissures, small as they are, are interesting to the student of earth structures, for he sees here in little something of the processes and effects that are so strikingly manifested in our terrestrial crust. But it is not in this mechanical exhibition that I find chief pleasure, but in the life that shows itself in the fissures as soon as the more or less permanent condition of moisture is reached.

In the fall the fissures suddenly and overnight take on the aspect of bright green velvet in place of the dull dustiness of summer. The beauty of the filling of the fissures is even greater if a piece is removed and examined in the hand, for as the light falls on it a beautiful gleaming texture is perceived. Under an ordinary magnifying glass it is possible to make out tiny rosettes of transparent pale green leaves of a somewhat pointed oval shape, or if we look sideways we may see in other places little towers of green young shoots whose leaves are still more or less closely folded. The little moss plant whose clustered masses thus decorate the fractures of our modern streets is common also on stone walls and along the base of old fences, constituting part of the palette with which Nature through some months of the year brightens the otherwise dull places with varieties of the green she loves so well. This transformation of and by mosses, liverworts, ferns and lichens is one of the wonderful features of our coastal winter.

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 “Some Wayside Notes in Town

  1. A wonderful read, enjoyed every word. Crabapples are the one thing I remember and miss from my childhood days in Yorkshire, ate them by the ton…3p for a bag full. I must try to find that tree just to taste one for old times sake.

    Liked by 1 person

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