the oaks on Christmas Hill

When I was a teenager, I had a horse, a black Anglo-Arab gelding I bought as a two-year old from a breeder in Yarrow. My family lived then in Matsqui (my father was in the Navy and was stationed at the radar base there). We rented an old house on a farm and the farmers who owned it allowed me to keep my horse in a small orchard. When we moved back to Victoria after that year in Matsqui, my parents bought a house on half an acre in Royal Oak. My dad fenced part of it for the horse. It wasn’t really enough room for him and the neighbour across the road, Bill Mahon, said I could use one of his fields, also an orchard. His family had been Saanich pioneers and he said that the old house behind the one he lived in was the oldest house in Saanich.

I tried to confirm that a few years ago when I was writing Euclid’s Orchard but the archivist I wrote to insisted that the street hadn’t existed before the 1950s.(This is the newer house on the property, probably dating from the early years of the 20th c.)

mahon house

It was useless to argue, though I tried, remembering that Bert Footner, the man who’d built the Colonial bungalows at Walhachin also lived on the street in a house he’d built for his wife and daughter Molly after they’d left Walhachin in (I think) the 1930s. Anyway, Bill Mahon said, Oh sure, use the field. So I did. I turned my horse out into a beautiful old orchard populated by a few steers. Horse and cattle ignored one another.

But then someone knocked on our door. It was a man who was so irate that my horse was in the field that he rented for his steers. It turned out he had a proper lease agreement for the land and that Bill Mahon hadn’t consulted him. And it was not ok with him to have my horse in with his cattle. The two species treat land differently and he felt my horse would dig up the soil with his hooves and ruin the grass. So I moved my horse back to the little paddock my father had fenced, though eventually I found a barn and large field on Glanford Avenue, so that story ended well.

The man who was so irate turned out to be a very nice guy. He farmed on Christmas Hill — I think he might have been Tom Pendray?– and rented the extra grazing for some of his animals. He told me about some areas on Christmas Hill where I could ride and I remember how beautiful the area was. Garry oaks, camas in late spring, the scent of wild onions underfoot as I cantered my horse along the ridge of the hill. In those years there were lots of wild spaces close to the city. The area above Rithets Bog was one of them. I rode there too and you could go all the way to Blenkinsop Road through golden grass and oaks. Occasionally someone would spot a cougar. Often pheasants. I dream of these areas still.

My daughter Angelica knows how much I love Garry oaks and she sent me a little box of acorns before Christmas. Some were from Christmas Hill, the part of it that’s now a nature sanctuary. I planted them and am happy to see them sprouting up in the sunroom.

Christmas Hill oak 1
Look at the little root sprout at the bottom of the pot!


Last year I meant to plant out the other Garry oak I grew from an acorn pocketed at Rithets Bog but somehow didn’t get to it. This summer I will. There’s a mossy area just to the south of my study and I think a little grove of oaks would be ideal there. A haunt of Pan, of the memory of riding through dry leaves, one hand on my horse’s damp neck, the oaks remembering an older soil, Christmas Hill and Rithets Bog and older, older, people gathering camas roots, bull rushes at Swan Lake, chocolate lily roots, fern rhizomes, crabapples and salmonberries.

Christmas Hill oak 2

There are days when I live in the moment, as most of us do, and there are days when everything I do is in service to memory, little scraps of it here and there until there’s enough of it to make a story.

2 thoughts on “the oaks on Christmas Hill”

  1. One of my first memories of you is reading of yourself on horseback in “Euclid’s Orchard”, and in my mind that wild girl underlies all your writing I’ve discovered since. I’m sure you know the country is full of ones like me who would have given anything, even a kingdom, for a horse and the thought of an arab still excites my heart. Thanks for remembering those days and bringing the horse back for both of us.

    1. Apparently I asked my father for a horse when I was 2 and he said, One day…We weren’t well off and it took ages for circumstances to come together. I taught riding, babysat, all sorts of things to help pay for feed. I think of the world I saw on horseback, the back roads of the Saanich peninsula, the rise of James Island from Ocean View Beach as I rode my horse in the tide (saddle removed and waiting on a log), practicing kissing on his neck. There are times when I wish I still had a horse but these days I am actually looking for a dog….

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