Eden from the Ashes
A Review of Maleea Acker’s Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast
by Stefanie Brook Trout
Last winter, New Star published the twenty-first book in their twenty-one-year-old “Transmontanus” series: Maleea Acker’s Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (2012). Like the rest of the books in the series, Gardens Aflame is short (97 pages), illustrated (with black and white images, mostly photographs), and focused on a unique aspect of life in British Columbia (a special ecosystem I didn’t know existed).
In Gardens Aflame, Acker raises awareness about the human role in creating the Garry oak meadows. Acker seeks to teach readers a lesson about “how to live in the world” through a close study of the contested meadows. “This book could have been written about my lost Douglas fir and arbutus forest,” Acker writes. “It could have been written about our urban creeks—Bowker, Millstream, Craigflower—or about the Southern Gulf Islands’ aquamarine coves and shell beaches.” But it wasn’t. Acker focuses on the Garry oak meadows because “it is an ideal microcosm for examining the aesthetic, ethical and economic preoccupations that have dogged our species.” The complex historical interplay of humans and nonhuman nature makes the Garry oak meadows worthy of Acker’s close examination.
The First Nations created the Garry oak meadows though careful cultivation and management. Fire was the crucial element to the genesis of this ecosystem: “Before the arrival of Europeans, fires, both naturally occurring and set by First Nations, rolled through Garry oak meadow ecosystems at three- to five-year intervals: a process the Cowichan call ‘sweetening the ground.’”
The meadows were gardens that fed human populations but also served as hosts to biodiversity. Hundreds of plant and insect species, plus various birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians still call the meadows home, though many are now at risk thanks to the invasive Scotch broom, house sparrows, and English ivy—not to mention a host of other problems including fire suppression. When Europeans settled the land, they removed the delicate balance that had worked for thousands of years. Though the gardens reminded the Europeans of the pastoral English countryside, it didn’t occur to them that the gardens could be anything but pristine wilderness.
By now, many meadows have been lost to development, but many more were lost due to neglect, settlers not realizing the responsibility they had to cultivate and manage the land in the absence of the First Nations. Without humans playing their role, the Garry oak meadows ecosystem could not sustain itself. Recent restoration efforts have successfully saved some of this diminishing ecosystem. Restoration is a complex effort, however, complicated by competing aesthetic values. “Essentially, to think of restoration, we are forced to consider not just how it should take place, but in whose image it should be made. As ecologist Dave Polster said […], when we restore an ecosystem we are always playing God; to move forward, we must admit this, and somehow decide to get on with the work.” Bold gardeners like Acker have gotten on with the work and cultivated Garry oak meadows in their front yards—to the unfortunate dismay of neighbors and bylaw enforcement. Instead of seeing the landscape as an Eden like the European settlers, many today see only weeds in the prairie grasses.
Acker organizes Gardens Aflame into six chapters, each exploring a different aspect of the Garry oak meadows’ significance. Photographs and illustrations accompany historical quotations, Acker’s dated journal entries, and the narrative that links all of these pieces together in a patchwork meditation on a specific place at a specific point in time.
In the epilogue of Gardens Aflame, Acker addresses “the crux of this story: we love what is beautiful, as so many have argued. We love what is rare and fleeting.” Acker argues a place like the Garry oak meadows “gives us not just physical sustenance, but a sense of emotional or spiritual connection and belonging to the place we live,” and she supports this claim with experiential evidence—not just her own but that of First Nations and those European settlers who followed as well.
In Gardens Aflame, Acker explores the paradox of humans’ role in natural environments: “Wherever humans had landed and stayed in stable, resident populations for the longest time,” like the First Nations, “fewer plants and animal species had become endangered. This opposes the views of environmentalists who favour wilderness parks as untouchable refugia for nature. It questions the thinking that to truly care for a place, we must leave it alone.” Humans evolved with our natural environments, altering them without always destroying them, sometimes improving them in the ecological sense of the word. Acker issues a call to action to her readers; she writes, “As gardeners, we must cut the branch, pull the weed, shape the look and feel of a landscape. We must participate.” In this way, nature takes on a democratic world. Wildness is not something merely to be observed; humans have the power and thus the onus to create it.
I’ve lived in the Midwest all of my life and have never been to British Columbia; I’ve never seen a Garry oak meadow except through Acker’s words and images. But Gardens Aflame is relevant to my life, as it will be to yours no matter where you live. The book is a case study of one ecosystem, but Acker draws conclusions with implications for a global audience. Better known for her verse, Acker brings her poet’s pen to nonfiction and shows readers a new way of nature writing, acknowledging that humans too are a product of nature.