moss and oak: a love story

this year

This morning, walking over to my vegetable garden, I surprised a chestnut-backed chickadee pulling tufts of moss off a rock. I feed the chickadees all winter and the reward is that there are usually pairs nesting in the boxes John built years ago for violet-green swallows. He built to the specific requirements for the swallows and yes, they’ve used the boxes a time or two, but mostly the chickadees raise their families in the nest-boxes. And the swallows? They swoop over our house in April, testing the ambience—quiet, gracious forest all around, a small pond— and then most of them nest down by the Italian resort on Ruby Lake where red-painted birdhouses fill the trees like a version of a Neopolitan neighbourhood. Go figure.

And then as I repotted plants from the sunroom for their summer season on the various decks, I could hear, then see, the chickadees delightedly discovering the nest-box on a big fir near the house. It’s the same box they nested in last year (if this is the same pair that raised 7 young and whose first flight we were lucky enough to see) but it’s been moved from an arbutus that is due to be tended to by an arborist in early June. (Some of its lower limbs are dead and we can’t get at them to cut them away. The arborist is coming for some other work too.) They make the most delighted sounds as they enter the opening, and then come out again to report on its conditions. Clean! Ready for occupancy!

After watching them for a bit, I went back to my work. And the best part of it? Repotting a tiny Garry oak seedling I grew over the winter from an acorn gathered last fall at Rithet’s Bog in Victoria. We often walk around the bog when we’re in Victoria and it’s bittersweet. Before the subdivisions that have taken over the slopes of what used to be Broadmead Farm, before the townhouses and churches and a street named for Emily Carr, it was a wild area. Here’s what I wrote about it in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees:

In the late 1960s, I used to saddle my horse early on weekend mornings and ride him across the Pat Bay Highway to a gate leading up onto the old Rithet’s farmland. I was in my early teens, a lonely girl in search of lonely places. Someone told me that it was fine to ride there, but that the gate had to be kept closed, as there were cattle grazing in the area. I don’t really remember the cattle, but I occasionally saw deer in the tall grass. There were many oaks growing up the slope. In the spring, there were expanses of blue camas, yellow buttercups, and odd brown speckled flowers that I now know were chocolate lilies.
I loved the open beauty of those meadows, where pheasants roamed and flew up, sharp-winged as we approached. The meadows smelled intensely dry, fragrant as hay, though not dusty. I’d let my horse canter up the long slopes and loved the way sunlight filtered through the trees.

I’ve missed Garry oaks, their shape in winter, the branches gnarled, and the elegance of their leaves in summer. When we go to Victoria, I bore my husband and daughter with my stories of where I used to ride, where I walked among Garry oaks, which shopping centres were once dense with oaks and wildflowers. When I was writing Mnemonic, I kept a map of the tree’s historic range on my wall and I’d look at it daily, tracing the routes of my walk to school, my weekend rides, the private places where I’d go to get away from the clamour of my life. They were everything I wanted a tree to be, carriers of history and memory, my own and the city’s, and the acorn I brought home in my pocket held those things as potently as a seed can ever do. My small plant is so hopeful in its clay pot and I look forward to the day when it’s big enough to plant in a dry area behind the house.

garry oak