3. Turdus migratorius

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June 19, 2016

At 6:30 a.m., water hissed from spray heads as I sat on the front porch. The watering schedule for Capital Regional District gives us Sunday morning from 4:00 to 10:00. From the major streets at both ends of Fern Street, I heard occasional vehicles. The Fern Street block connects two big arteries that carry traffic between downtown and residential neighbourhoods. Hardly any traffic on Fern at this hour. The other sound was robin song.

I didn’t see the robin. He sat high atop a Garry oak in the front yard. To see him would have meant standing on the sidewalk on the far side of the street with binoculars, which, in front of all the balconies and picture windows of Queen Margaret’s Apartments, in my pajamas and bathrobe, I was unwilling to do.

He had been already vocal in semi-darkness around 4:30 when I was placing a sprinkler.  A song it truly was, clear and melodic, spritely and committed. He repeated his version of the American robin territorial song. It announced his claim to this block. Faintly, I heard an answering song from another guy with the next territory uphill to the northwest. I am guessing that the neighbour was perched on the ancient Garry oak halfway up the block on Begbie Street.

Some of the lawn and garden belonging to this robin here, I maintain. No, to be accurate, I semi-neglect it, with a pervading sense of guilt, broken by occasional rushes of satisfaction when I actually do a couple hours gardening. The Resident Friend role at the Meeting House comes with minimal garden duties. Sherryll’s application letter described me as a “passionate gardener”. A dozen years ago, that description greatly stretched the truth, but I may be growing into it.

When we moved here, the garden had languished for several years. Quaker green-thumb stalwarts of the 1970s and ‘80s had aged and left it. The Friends community had lost its energy for work bees in the yard. I didn’t have much time either, fully employed in schools. On weekends I whacked at the garden and enjoyed it. Considering my horticultural ignorance it was a good situation; anything I did around the yard improved it.

I found a landscaping plan. Installing shelves in the Archives room upstairs, I happened upon a foam-core presentation board with a diagram. It lies here on the kitchen table. Beautifully hand-drafted and hand-lettered, beat-up, stained and so faded that I use a magnifying glass and my imagination to read its title, we have:

VICTORIA FRIENDS

MEETING HOUSE

1831 FERN STREET

GARDEN MASTER PLAN

DATE     15-05-96

PROPERTY     VMM 6696

DRAWN BY      PATRICE HAAN

On the plan, half the front yard, including the robin’s perch, is local native plant habitat. Some native plants grew there already: snowberry thick around the base of mature Garry oaks. Even so, I had to dig up all the snowberry bushes and shake the soil from their roots. European colonists lodged everywhere among them. I still pull out remnants of periwinkle and bluebell every year. They will outlast my tenure at the Meeting House probably, as will robin song from those Garry oaks.

Fifty years ago I listened for robins on American elms. At Andover in Massachusetts, pre-dawn in spring, solitary, I walked with a clipboard, marking robin calls on a campus map. Mr. Sanborn, our Biology teacher, had involved the Natural History Club boys in a nesting study. It was the DDT era. Dutch Elm Disease was killing Andover’s great elms, and the school was fighting back with aerial spraying overnight. In the morning pesticide lay in milky puddles on the paved paths.

I don’t remember the DDT puddles; Mr. Cone told me about them on our bird watching walk at the reunion. I do remember finding a robin on the lawn, lying on its back, twitching. My brain is great at inventing memories, however. Picking up a dead robin from the grass beside the path really happened I think. Twitching? Perhaps I must attribute that image to Mr. Cone’s description, and to Rachel Carson’s writing.

Mr. Cone has confirmed to me that Biology classes of our era read Silent Springas part of our curriculum.  Rachel Carson’s book and the robin nesting study altered permanently the mind with which I construct my world. Silent Springshowed North Americans the devastation we were strewing with chemical pollutants. Before the book appeared in 1962, few of us, certainly not me, had any idea we were decimating the natural world.  My sisters, in their twenties when it appeared, and my mother, in her fifties, all viewed it later as a turning point in their lives.

Reading Silent Spring in 1965, in Chapter 8, titled, And No Birds Sing, Mr. Sanborn’s students learned what DDT was doing to robins. We saw our pleasant New England campus as a death trap. Robins would return to it in spring, announce their nesting territories atop our majestic American elms, dine heartily on worms from our expansive lawns and die in convulsions. Successive waves of migrant robins would find territories available, stake their claims, eat our worms, et cetera.  The Natural History Club monitored robin population over several years. Our study allowed the Biology department to show school administration what DDT was doing.

Mr. Sanborn retired a few years after we graduated, and Mr. Cone carried on the nesting study. He also sponsored an Ecology Action Club that campaigned against DDT until its ban in 1972. That year the Ecology Action Club led Andover’s first Earth Day celebration.  Even the club’s name reflects a new notion that Rachel Carson brought to millions of North Americans. Silent Springintroduced us, in Carson’s words, to “the web of life – or death – that scientists know as ecology”.

Previously, few of us understood that all living things, including us, might inter-depend. Rachel Carson changed our minds. Fungus was killing American elms. DDT spray on the elms to kill the beetles that carried the fungus from tree to tree covered the leaves that fell to feed the bacteria that fragmented the leaves to feed the worms that fed the robins that died. All connected. Seems obvious now. Most of us carry DDT in our bodies even today. Carson awakened us to ecosystem.

Mind, thus awakened and thinking decades later as Fern Street, would picture Garry oak ecosystem previously thriving here. The mind would see scattered oaks on dry summer hillside; shrubs in mixed thickets of snowberry, Nutka rose, ocean spray, Oregon grape, mock orange, red-flowering currant – all plants that live again today in the Meeting House yard. Most of the hillside, the mind would picture as grassy meadow, in June already tawny among the oaks. Children run on the meadow. Women use wooden tools to lever flower bulbs up from the soil.

The women gather camas. All April, this hillside was a purple glory of camas bloom. Now in summer the family that tends the Fern Street hillside digs bulbs, drops the big ones into baskets and tucks the little ones back into the sod. Camas bulb is good food, sweet and starchy. On this coast, so rich in protein and fat from fish and shellfish, seal, elk and bear meat, duck and goose, the family values sweet camas, feasts with it and trades it across the Salish Sea.

Among the women who dig, the grandmother has observed the meadow shrinking in recent years. Thickets of bush expand and encroach. She decides they need burning-off this year to reclaim ground for camas. The oaks, she knows, will withstand the fire, blackened at the base but otherwise unscathed. They survived fires in her mother’s day, and in her grandmother’s. Again next year atop a Garry oak, deep-green glossy-leafed, as women dig bulbs a robin will sing.

This Fern Street memory, is it from 5,000 years ago, 3,000, perhaps just 300? Throughout that era people participated actively within the ecosystems of our valley. Human economy shaped nature here and was shaped by it. Any grandmother, managing the camas meadows, understood the path of well-being for her family: engage respectfully with other beings in complex community. That knowledge was basic to the stories by which she lived.

She would hardly recognize the hillside today. In the 1840s, fur traders arrived and built Fort Victoria beside the harbour. Their leader chose the southern tip of Vancouver Island partly for the beauty of its camas meadows and scattered oaks. The scene reminded him of parkland of Britain’s great estates. He brought with him agrarian, industrial, global economy and the stories that reflected it. Almost instantly, city sprouted and spread up Fort Street, over the hill and across this valley.

Global economy engenders worldwide stories. Science now reveals global ecosystem. It reveals, warm, alive, aware and somewhat lonely in so absolutely cold and fiery a universe, a little family planet. The grandmother knew that all the creatures of the valley were her relatives. The humans, she believed, prospered within the prosperity of the extended family of creatures. The new science of Ecology verifies the grandmother’s belief worldwide.

All those ecology action groups that sprang to life in the 1960s and ‘70s served Earth in speaking-out our inter-dependence. After I retired from full-time teaching, I joined the Ecology Group at the Meeting House. I brought Patrice Haan’s garden plan to the Eco Group. We decided to develop the native plant area out front. We pitched our idea to the Meeting and sold jam and white elephants to raise money. A helper found us.

A young man named Todd, walking by, noticed me replanting snowberry bushes along the sidewalk. He lived on the far side of Begbie Street and worked downtown for HAT. Habitat Acquisition Trust helps property owners around Victoria care for natural habitat. Our 4×10-metre project was not too small for Todd. He brought us shrubs and bulbs, including camas. After Quaker Meeting on a Sunday morning, the Friends gathered in the front yard, and Todd led us in planting.

A placard on one of the Garry oaks now identifies the Meeting as “Habitat Stewards”. A picture frame in the entry hallway displays the Landcare Agreement, signed by Meeting trustees and by Todd for HAT. Its background artwork is a Garry oak meadow scene. Sherryll had me fade it to sepia to suit the quiet ambiance of the Quaker entry hallway. The Landcare Agreement lists ways that “the Meeting will strive to protect nature and care for our land.” The first bullet in the list says, “maintain abundance and diversity of native plants.”

Those are just words. Nailed to a tree, hung in the entry hall, drafted on foam-core presentation board, words may or may not do much. These are just 40 m2of bushes, trees and flower bulbs between sidewalk and building. They don’t put humankind into harmony with nature. The Meeting may forget them. An excavator shovel may scoop them. Any mark I make will fade like Patrice Haan’s ink on the diagram.

Word, picture, sprinkle as droplets from spray heads. Soak, vanish into soil that grows mind. Camas flower, chocolate lily, shooting-star, western trillium, blue-eyed grass, fawn lily, Pacific columbine, catch the eye and whisper the story. One bacterium billions of years ago in hot, orange ocean discerned and engulfed a particle as food, discerned and bounced off another as poison. Two robins this morning sort out territory by singing at one another. Consciousness evolves. Ecosystem complexifies. It’s what Earth does.