New Star Blogs

Garry oak meadows: A tender preoccupation


Maleea Acker’s Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast was launched November 16, at the Moka House Cafe in Victoria. The author of two books of poetry, The Reflecting Pool (2009) and The Almond In the Earth (forthcoming in 2013; both from Pedlar Press). A writer who identifies as a poet, and who works in environmental communications, Acker was trying her hand at something new — non-fiction — when she agreed to write about the Garry oak for New Star’s Transmontanus series. Here Maleea offers a few reflections on the process of coming from poetry to writing non-fiction about the natural world. — Eds.

Maleea Acker and friend, Victoria, BC, Summer 2012.

Jan Zwicky once told me that poetry is a political act. When I think of the trajectory of this book, and my life in the last two years of researching and writing it, what comes to mind is my slowly evolving relationship with writing, art, society and the world.

My work has always built upon the suspicion that I was unwanted in wilderness. Natural landscapes seemed jarred whenever I entered them. My solution was to stay as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, while attending, hoping things might reveal themselves. I did not imagine, however, that my presence was improving things. To paraphrase Mark Strand, I moved to keep things whole.

A Garry oak meadow, however, is an ecosystem that would not exist in its current form without human intervention. Cared for using controlled burning and selective harvesting, these “wild” meadows owe their existence — including the largest variety of flora and insects of any ecosystem in BC — to human participation by First Nations, stretching back thousands of years. And the meadows are but one example of many ecosystems around the world which humans have had a collaborative role in tending and perpetuating — ecosystems previously understood as untouched wilderness.

This book has helped to cement my belonging in the world. It has taught me about collaboration, the  slow work of philosophy, and the ways in which our species actually makes the world a better place. Writing this on US election night, in the face of Mitt Romney, the Northern Gateway Project, global warming and the long list of errors we have committed, these are teachings to which I cling. Lined up together, they acknowledge that there is no possibility of living an uncomplicated life.

But the feeling that this belonging produces in me is akin to the fierce hope I have when I drive past a picket line, or when I see another municipal garden bed planted with native plants or with food. This book is a political act. And because I’m a poet first and foremost, it quotes poets and philosophers alongside scientists and politicians. We’re going to need them all.

In my front yard, three new freshly mulched garden beds now sit between the stretches of long grass that got me in so much trouble last summer (you can read about that story in the book). In the beds, there are camas bulbs, rescued from a development property on the other side of Saanich. Someone in Queenswood has chosen to build their new house on top of a coastal Garry oak meadow bluff. But before they did, they opened their property to the Saanich Native Plant Salvage Group, so that the bulbs, ferns and shrubs could be relocated before earth was scraped from the rock. Now some of the bulbs live at my house. The roots were three inches long when I planted them; hopefully, next spring they will flower.