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Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast

By Maleea Acker

Review By Jenny McCune

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 215-216

The Garry oak meadows of southern Vancouver Island are among the rarest ecosystems in Canada. In Gardens Aflame, Maleea Acker takes on the ambitious goal of relating the history and ecology of Garry oak meadows, their current and past cultural and spiritual meaning, and the controversies regarding their conservation. She also weaves in her own entertaining personal story of moving to the Saanich peninsula and attempting to establish a miniature meadow in her front yard.

Although Acker states that her main objective is not to summarize the scientific understanding of Garry oak meadow ecology, she must do so in order to tell the story. There are a few things she doesn’t get quite right. These include little slips like referring to the house sparrow as an invasive mammal, and more serious misrepresentations, such as the anthropomorphic characterization of invasive species as “marauders” and “bullies,” that are “just as eager to take over every square inch of land as they were when first transported here on Europe’s ships” (28). Ascribing evil intentions to the species themselves takes the emphasis off the real cause of invasions by exotic species: humans introduced them and humans changed the environment in ways that have favoured their spread.

Acker suggests that Garry oak meadows should be seen as “gardens,” to which people connect spiritually via caring for them. She quotes extensively from literary works by philosophers on the cultural and spiritual meaning of gardens in general. The poetic musings of these academics provided far less insight for me than a single quote from Cowichan Tribes member Clayton George, who, when asked about the beauty of Garry oak meadows, replied “I’ve never heard that idea from our perspective. I just heard my grandparents talk about living off the land and working together” (81). Acker argues convincingly that the first European settlers to Vancouver Island were blind to the fact that long-term management by First Nations peoples was responsible for the beautiful openness of the Garry oak meadows. George’s comment makes me wonder whether what Acker is advocating is a replacement of that Eurocentric view with a new, equally Eurocentric one: the romantic notion of Garry oak meadows as “a version of Eden, defined by spiritual connection and aesthetic pleasure” (17).

Vancouver Island’s Garry oak meadows are a perfect local example of the clash between the traditional ideal of conservation as a return to wilderness untouched by human presence, and the realization that in some cases, the ecosystems we want to conserve were created and/or maintained by the actions of human beings. Acker aptly describes this conflict, and highlights the resulting controversies over how best to manage the small fragments of Garry oak meadows we have left. As far as I am aware, Gardens Aflame is the first book outside the academic literature to tell this story. It has the potential to introduce the fascinating environmental history of Vancouver Island’s Garry oak meadows to readers in British Columbia and beyond. I hope it will also inspire more people to consider creating a Garry oak meadow in their own front yard.

Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast
By Maleea Acker 
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2012. 108 pp, $19.00 paper