A healing place

By Amy Reiswig, June 2015

A visual and literary homage to Tod Inlet, its history, nature, and people.

Here in the capital region we hear a lot about land value. Whether it’s changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve, provincial government surplus asset sales, or residential real estate, the conversation often revolves around what land is worth—dollars paid, dollars made. But as Brentwood Bay artist Gwen Curry shows in her new book about the natural and cultural history of Tod Inlet, some of our land’s greatest value lies precisely in qualities that cannot be measured or monetized. 

Tod Inlet is a small fjord less than half an hour from downtown Victoria. Curving around one of the centrepieces of Victoria tourism and history, Butchart Gardens, the inlet and trails along its shore provide a lesser-known place of beauty and peace, but also of struggle and forgotten stories. These stories, from First Nations and industrial development, call out from footpaths in the form of shell middens, shards of Chinese pottery, rusted cables, or construction ruins lushly reclaimed by the earth.

The Victoria-born Curry has been coming here for 40 years, walking, watching, learning. A visual artist whose work in drawing, printmaking, sculpture and mixed media has primarily been informed by environmental themes, Curry has come back to photography at Tod Inlet, compiling about 7000 photos over the last six years. “I was just having fun doing it,” she tells me, “and I realized there was a much bigger story.” She also realized that being a longtime local (despite a break to take her MFA in Arizona) means she had become well positioned to tell that story. “When I’d be out walking, people would often ask me: ‘What’s that?’ and I found I knew the answers.”

As a result, Tod Inlet: A Healing Place (Rocky Mountain Books, May 2015) features two kinds of storytelling: approximately 180 of Curry’s colour photographs and four seasonally-structured chapters of prose, her first extended work in writing. It’s a visual homage to a place she loves, but also a blending of sensitive personal observations and an education into how this place has shaped—and been shaped by—local history. Ultimately, it’s also a story about resilience—the people’s and the land’s—and Curry reveals Tod Inlet as “a healing place” for each. 

Present-day Tod Inlet, part of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, is a spirit-healing refuge for the city-weary, an Eden tucked away within reach but out of sight. “Decompression begins as soon as I enter the trail to the park,” Curry writes: “traffic sounds are consumed by the dense vegetation, and the shushing sound of the stream becomes the new reality. My breath deepens, shoulders relax and my mind begins to receive instead of transmit.” Curry’s descriptions of her nature immersion make me, too, exhale deeply, remembering why I and so many others moved here from big cities. 

Meeting Curry at Spinnakers I learn why the place is so important to her. Behind her camera lens and calming words is a woman of intense gaze and thought, lit with passion for the environment and concern for what we do to it. While part of the book is her journey as a photographer transfixed by, say, a rare phantom orchid or chain links bound by barnacles, Curry’s lessons are for all of us: “My gear is strewn around me…How often do I just sit?”

The book follows her eye, mood and mind, from the tiny to the timeless. She delights in the details of lettuce lung lichen as much as in learning about the ways Tod Inlet—“Place of the Blue Grouse”—has nurtured the WSÁNE? people for more time than we know, and is doing so again. As John Bradley teaches about uses for local plants or John Elliott Sr brings students from the Tsartlip LÁU,WELNEW Tribal High School, Tod Inlet again becomes a living part of First Nations cultural life, and Curry notes that after a history of dispossession, residential schools and more, “It is a triumph of the human spirit that native culture today is being remembered and passed on, and Tod Inlet, as a spiritual sanctuary for the WSÁNE? people, is a part of that rebirth.”

Stepping over relics in the trails, she is also reminded, though, that “this Eden fulfilled its role in the industrial birth of British Columbia.”And so she also relates the less peaceful story of the Vancouver Portland Cement Company’s clay mill, railway, factory, dock—even a small town—and the living and cultural conditions for the Chinese and Sikh workers. 

After the limestone quarries came Jennie Butchart’s massive project. Various developers have since pitched plans for marinas, golf courses and hotels by the waterside, while nearby creeks have been under threat by pollution from Hartland landfill and other human activities. One fed-up would-be developer—a company owned by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia—eventually wrote off Tod Inlet as “a sick piece of land already despoiled.”

Here we come to the second meaning of the book’s subtitle, for Curry shows us that Tod Inlet is undergoing its own process of healing. Yes, we get a history of the area’s agonists, but we also get a history of activism, organized opposition and community loving care. From repatriating indigenous plants, reintroducing salmon to the creeks, planting eelgrass meadows or fighting for marine park status, the organizations and individuals Curry introduces us to are bringing Tod Inlet back to blooming, burgeoning life. “Tod is almost like a being, an entity,” she tells me with a warm, satisfied smile, “and all these people love it.” 

While this is Curry’s first book, it’s not a huge step sideways from her previous work. A professor in UVic’s fine arts department for 15 years and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy (artists and architects), Curry is an experienced educator, and as an artist (and, briefly, a journalist) she’s been deeply involved in environmental and First Nations issues. For example, she was part of the CPAWS-sponsored three rivers project in the Yukon to raise awareness about conservation and protection for the Peel watershed area, with her work featured in the subsequent touring exhibition Three Rivers: Wild Waters, Sacred Places, and in the books Three Rivers: The Yukon’s Great Boreal Wilderness and Rendezvous with the Wild: The Boreal Forest. 

“People my age can get weary,” she tells me, “because we’ve been fighting the same battle for 30 years.” Curry’s book shows that that battle—to respect the land for its intrinsic value to animals, ecosystems and all of us—is being slowly and beautifully won at Tod Inlet. 

 

On June 18 at 7:30 pm, there will be a book launch of Tod Inlet at Russell’s Books, 734 Fort Street.

A happily transplanted former Montrealer, writer and editor Amy Reiswig feels, like Gwen Curry, a profound humility and gratitude at being able to live on this land.