Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fallen Giants: Haig-Brown Legacy

a circle of firs growing on the Haig-Brown property

This morning on Michael Enright's Sunday Morning (which is one of the best things on CBC radio), he hosted a discussion on Leo Tolstoy. His two guests, academics who have studied Tolstoy's life and writing, spoke about his family land, Yasnaya Poliana, where he lived most of his life and wrote his great books. They made the point that Tolstoy's writing and life were greatly enriched by dwelling where his family had lived for generations, and that today we have trouble understanding the influence of such a relationship.

Here, where conservationist and writer Roderick Haig-Brown lived and wrote his 25 books during the mid-twentieth century, the larger community of Vancouver Island people, as well as fly fishermen, and environmentalists from all over the continent, have come to see the property as a spiritual home.

Lesley, a naturalist friend who knew Ann Haig-Brown and lives north of the river, told me today that when she lived in the house for a year she would often run into American fishermen while she was walking along the river trails. "I'd see them casting into the Line Fence Pool. They'd come all this way just to have the experience of fishing in this little pool in the river because it was in all of his [Haig-Brown's] books."

The Line Fence Pool

This town has had a couple generations of passionate defenders of salmon and the Campbell River all following Haig-Brown's example. Every creek has its committee of volunteers and there are brass plaques everywhere along the river in honour of people who gave their time and resources to protect and restore salmon habitat.

Here is one on the bridge at the outlet of Kingfisher Creek, which itself runs through the Haig-Brown property and was restored by volunteers in the decade after Roderick died.

During a walk on the property today, Lesley showed me where the great tree Haig-Brown called "the Big Fir" blew down many years ago. It was a Douglas Fir, which people here tell me is not a true fir, not that I would know a true one from a false one. In the late 1940s. Haig-Brown wrote lovingly of the great tree in the August chapter of Measure of the Year:

The Big Fir is slowly dying. It is dying because it is old, because it has a disease woodsmen call conk, and probably another disease called stump rot.

Then he talks about it being spared by the first generations of woodsmen, about people advising him to cut it down, and why he does not listen to their logic.

My guess is the tree has another fifty years of dying ahead of it, or somewhat more than I have. So long as any part of it is green I want it to stand.

The Big Fir was a good-sized tree before Hamlet was written and has managed to hold not only identity but life far longer than Hamlet's author held either. More human identities have been lost in every year of the tree's life than the tree itself has shed seeds. . . .If it were young and vigorous, I think I should not een resent its permanence. It is only just mortal, it is also only just living. But its enormous substance, lasting so long, yielding so little, seems to emphasize how short a time there is to look at things, to feel and know and think things.

But it did fall before Haig-Brown did. A winter storm took it down years before a heart attack laid Roderick on the earth not far away.

Here are two images showing all of the life growing from the nurse log formed by the Big Fir. In its death it is nourishing dozens of trees and shrubs all along its 130 plus feet. Large maples now reach for the sun, their roots feeding on the nutrients being released from the old fir.

How many writers and defenders of this good earth have been and will continue to be nourished by Haig-Brown's life on this land, his own time of standing tall here with "enormous substance. . .yielding so little," feeling, knowing, and thinking things?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Birds of Christmas: Haig-Brown House, Campbell River

Hooded Merganser on a side channel of the Campbell River

On the 2nd of January my wife Karen and daughter Maia and I had a chance to join some new birding friends here in Campbell River to take part in the Christmas Bird Count for the city and surrounding area. Kim, Lesley, and Vicki are responsible for counting birds in the area north of the river's estuary and then the side of the river from the Haig-Brown House on Campbell River Rd up to the dam.

We were lucky with the weather. It was a bit windy, but warm and no rain. During the day I got my best looks ever at Golden-crowned Sparrows coming to the feeder of a friendly old gentleman who enjoyed our stopping by and especially the hug from Kim.

We ended the day with a race against darkness to see if we could locate at least one American Dipper on the upper river. We looked at all the usual spots near the dam and the bridge and were heading back to the car when Kim spotted on sitting on a metal platform at the base of a stairway. I took this photo of a dipper singing in the same general area a few days earlier.

Other highlights included great flocks of siskins buzzing overhead in the hundreds, and good looks at hooded mergansers.

But for me the highlight was here on the Haig-Brown property when we found a bird who, to me embodies the contemplative, insular spirit of this place. We were making our way through the brambles on the eastern side of the property, and looking at kinglets. We had just counted 20 Golden-crowned and a single Ruby-crowned flitting through the mid to upper storey of the woods, when I came across a lone bird that looked much like another Ruby-crowned, except that it was moving very slowly and sitting still for a few seconds at a time. The broken eye ring looked different and it did not have the dark patch below the bottom wing bar that Ruby-crowned Kinglets show. But the thicker, vireo bill was the main feature that cinched the ID--a Hutton's Vireo.

This odd little bird has caused some confusion because after being vocal and easy to find all spring and summer it goes all quiet and solitary in winter, leading naturalists to assume originally that it was migratory.

Here is a note from an account of the vireo in an online atlas of B.C. fauna:
This species is generally more common than records suggest due to its quiet and retiring nature throughout much of the year, especially during the winter and in mid-summer when it is particularly difficult to detect.

Once people learned its call notes and how to separate it from the kinglet hordes, the Hutton's Vireo was established as one of the more interesting resident species of Vancouver Island.

In fact, the island has its own sub-species, vireo huttoni insularis. It is one of only four endemic birds on the island.

Kim, Lesley, and I stood transfixed as this quiet little greenlet foraged through the blackberry and rose brambles a few feet away. He was in no hurry to move on and in that moment seemed to me a wise forest hermit and I wanted to ask him what he knew of this place, this mid-winter of rain-drenched leaf and mossy branch.

I didn't have the camera with me, but made this drawing when I got back at the end of the day.

It was a fun Christmas Bird Count, and we recorded 48 species in our area alone, as well as this Red-throated Loon just outside our area.

Share this post

Get widget