Caring for Kwetlal in Meegan

By Maleea Acker, January 2016

Cheryl Bryce’s Community Tool Shed.

Last November a group of volunteers, spearheaded by Songhees Band member Cheryl Bryce, gathered at Beacon Hill’s Petting Zoo parking lot. As usual for these monthly gatherings, someone brought tools, including shovels, gloves, loppers and a tarp. Others brought tea. There were geography students, Sierra Club members, and ardent restorationists. All were looking to make a difference to a south coast ecosystem that used to supply food to entire nations of indigenous peoples before the arrival of European colonists. 

When I joined that chilly morning, the group of 11 chatted amiably, waiting for Bryce before advancing into the open fields to work on the hillsides where restoration efforts over the last ten years have seen huge reductions in Scotch broom, English ivy and other invasive species. The gathering of volunteers is part of Bryce’s Community Tool Shed, an initiative started under the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group’s umbrella ten years ago, though Bryce has been working with her family in Beacon Hill for much longer. 

Bryce values the Kwetlal food system, the Lekwungen name for camas, for its cultural history and traditions and for the food that bulbs like camas provide, as well as the medicines made from trees and other plants in the ecosystem. The Kwetlal food system, she tells me during a conversation at the Songhees Band office, where she works as lands manager, was “always taken care of. The [meadows] are really living artifacts of my ancestors that require constant interaction.” Bryce is reinstating harvesting in the meadows for food and medicine, as well as removing invasive plants and educating First Nations and their allies.

The Community Tool Shed received a special projects grant from the City of Victoria in 2011; it has also received funding from UVic’s Indigenous Governance Program, its Sustainability Project and the Sacred Land Society. 

While preparing to remove a small Scotch broom infestation, volunteer Joanne Cuffe tells me that she loves seeing a meadow change from broom-infested to nearly broom-free. Cuffe has attended the Community Tool Shed for years. She was interested, like Bryce, in supporting traditional food networks. Region-wide, support is also growing. In November, two Victoria councillors and Mayor Lisa Helps supported a resolution to return the top of Beacon Hill to the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations and to replace the Checkers pavilion with a longhouse. 

Garry oak meadows comprise some of the CRD’s most beloved and beautiful ecosystems. Dotted with oaks and patches of native brush, the meadows include camas, chocolate lilies and a host of insects and birds. What the first settlers didn’t realize (or more accurately, refused to recognize) however, was that the meadows were a managed landscape kept clear of brush and Douglas fir through use of fire, weeding and selective harvesting by Bryce’s ancestors. Camas bulbs were historically a primary source of carbohydrates; baked in pits, they taste somewhat like a pear.

As a child, Bryce frequented local meadows like Beacon Hill (Meegan in Lekwungen) with her grandmother, learning the plants and harvesting in early morning to prevent confrontations. That tactic didn’t always work. “I was chased by a vehicle once,” she tells me. On another occasion, yanking out a broom plant, she heard someone speak into a walkie-talkie behind her. “I saw these boots come up.” She heard a woman say, “She’s just pulling invasive plants,” and the boots walked away. That was when she realized someone had called the police. Bryce eventually started bringing non-indigenous people on her harvests and invasive pulls, finding she was less harassed when they were present. 

Today, she tells me, there are still challenges, but none as extreme. When I accompanied the volunteers to Beacon Hill, small groups attacked patches of ivy, blackberry and broom, but not in the ways taught by some ecosystem restorationists. Bryce advocates a complete removal of plants, including roots. This disturbs the soil, and can add to its seed bank (broom seeds remain viable for up to 50 years). Volunteers dug several foot-wide holes on the south-facing hillside of Meegan. This, says Bryce, is just what the ecosystem needs to stay healthy. Digging and removing larger camas bulbs and replanting others with seed loosens the soil, allows native seed to penetrate, and adds to the soil’s fertility. 

Digging may help native species, but what if this work takes place in a post-colonized world? Marianne McCoy, local conservation ecologist tells me, “Digging is not an advisable approach,” because it can help invasive species to spread. On Observatory Hill, an upland meadow site in Saanich, McCoy used the “stick” method, where broom is cut to knee height. When all green branches were removed, mortality was 90 percent. McCoy says digging can also allow introduced grasses to crowd out native plants. Scattered in today’s meadows are the seeds of 150 years of colonialism. McCoy wonders whether we have arrived at a point where uncovering the organic layer in a meadow does more harm than good. Nonetheless, argues Bryce, leaving fields untended hinders camas production. Thomas Munson, environmental technician for City of Victoria parks, supports her work; parks staff dispose of the invasive species piles Bryce leaves. 

Last fall, Bryce also assisted geography students at UVic, who completed an “Edible Geographies” mapping course, taught by Jennifer Bagelman. Students created an interactive digital map that shows the stories, history and results of the Tool Shed project. Part of the reason the stories are important, stresses Bryce, is that “there have been people who have challenged whether we have the right to do this,” citing not just restoration guidelines but unionized job protection for parks staff and the park’s official status as a protected area. “It’s an ever existing battle,” says Bryce. “That’s the battle with colonialism, to live, to exist as the old ones did.” 

Community toolsheds aren’t a new idea. Hundreds exist across Canada and the US providing tools for lending and resources for communities in need. Bryce’s idea for the toolshed solidified as she realized how much teaching she was already doing in the community. Giving her work a name helped obtain funding, but also provided space for common ground. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. Speaking to those interested in joining, she adds, “You can come and help, whoever you are. It’s up to you to make that decision.”

I asked Bryce if she thought colonial settlers would ever be able to live as people at home rather than as settlers lacking the knowledge or right to occupy the territory. She smiled, and asked a question in return. “Is it possible to have the invasive plants living among the Garry oak ecosystem” without taking over, without destroying what is already there? The question hung in the air. Some “trimming,” we eventually laughed, of species like the Himalayan blackberry, would be essential. 

Bryce also holds pit cooks through the University of Victoria and Songhees, demonstrating how to prepare camas, or Kwetlal, for eating. She visits the region’s school systems, giving lectures, but her favourite thing is to be out in the meadows with the students. She shows me a black planter full of earth and camas bulbs on her office table, “It’s a good way to have conversations in a different way. You have a whole different type of communication when you’re doing things on the land.” She smiles, “A Garry oak ecosystem needs to know that we need it. We are part of it. It is a part of our community as much as we are a part of the plants and trees.”

 

The Community Tool Shed meets on the first Sunday of every month to work together at a different location. Meetups are open to all, provided you are willing to approach the work respectfully and with a willingness to learn. Contact mapping@lekwungenfoodsystems.org and see www.facebook.com/CommunityToolShed.

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.