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Nature Literature and Living with the Land: Perspectives from the Haig-Brown Family

Mary Haig Brown Volunteer CounterA writer, fisherman, and conservationist, now recognized as a National Historic Figure for Canada, Roderick Haig-Brown said this about conservation:

"I have been, all my life, what is known as a conservationist. It seems clear beyond possibility of argument that any given generation of men can have only lease, not ownership, of the earth; and one essential term of the lease is that the earth be handed down to the next generation with unimpaired potentialities. This is the conservationist’s concern."

We spoke with the late Mr. Haig-Brown's daughter Mary about her family's involvement in protecting nature and about her father's inspiring writings. Mary Haig-Brown a HAT supporter and Habitat Steward not only protects important space for wildlife on her land, but also takes the lead actively volunteering with Friends of Tod Creek Watershed alongside Peninsula Streams Society for the restoration of Todd Creek.

 

Bufflehead duck maleFrom her cozy home Mary has the view of a lovely pond frequented by many denizens of the wild. Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Mallards and more. A tributary of water called Killarney Creek runs through the pond, and lends its trickling sound to the peaceful scene. It has a healthy run of land-locked native Cutthroat trout. Beyond that is a forested area she leaves natural. Even her home itself provides a roof over the heads of over 500 roosting bats, a number that keeps HAT's annual bat counters on their toes! Mary says, "I sweep up their guano and put it in the compost. If that's the price of having the bats, well I'm game." Our bats need more people like Mary to look out for them, and accept their need for shelter in an increasingly difficult landscape for animals to make a healthy living.

"We had some young boys helping out with the bat counts one year, and they were laughing away," Mary tells me with a smile. "We have a male and female Bufflehead on the pond, and they were together for a while, but the male has left now. My husband thinks he's unfaithful, but I like to think he's said, 'oh sweetie, you wait here while I go find us a nice nest." What a gentleman!

Recalling another encounter with wildlife in her backyard habitat Mary recounts, "I had company over from Peninsula Streams and we were gearing up for a nature walk when an otter came right up within view of the livingroom window, and with a big trout in it's mouth. I said, 'oh that? It happens all the time.'"

 reduced size Frances Hunter Covenant Mary Haig Brown"HAT did a Good Neighbours project in Tod Creek twice now, and it was good. I am a member of the Friends of Todd Creek Watershed I think one of the things that these projects do is raise awareness and provide education, saying, 'hey, these places are here and you can do this too.' Friends of Todd Creek uses HAT as a wonderful resource."

This year Habitat Acquisition Trust focuses the Good Neighbours project in Metchosin, to give landowners guidance on how to be a Habitat Steward like Mary Haig-Brown in their neighbourhood.

When asked about her parents' role in conservation Mary says, "My father was a writer and my mother was a teacher. He wrote what he believed in, both fiction and non-fiction. He based some of it on fly-fishing, because that was kind of an excuse to get on the water. He wrote a novel about the Columbia River from the perspective of the salmon for example. My mother would keep the place going while he was busy with visitors from around the world, she is probably the most intelligent person I ever met. She knew everything! I was waiting to be old enough to come home and say, 'mom! guess what!' and not have her go, 'oh yeah, I know.'" 

Mary's mother Ann Haig-Brown was well-known and well-loved in her community. "She was a great conservationist herself. She was, I think, the original tree-hugger probably."

"Campbell River asked my mother to make a list of trees that she thought were important. They'd lived in Campbell river since 1934, she started and then when she got to the end she said, 'I don't know why I'm doing this, every tree is important!' So she wrote that in a letter to the city." With the important role urban forests play in any city, the same is true here today. Mary said unfortunately the council didn't know what to do with this recommendation so it was shelved, but she ends the story with the notion that we just have to keep trying.

When asked about what it was like to grow up with such intellectual giants and well-known parents Mary says, "Well, I only grew up once. So, I don't know what it's like to grow up with other parents. But we were aware from the time we were born practically that there's a beautiful world there, to look at it, enjoy it, and try not to wreck it."

Her family home has been partially protected as park for people to visit and enjoy, and through the Haig-Brown Institute, of which May is on the board, the history and ideals of her parents carry on in a wonderful legacy. 

Bilston Creek Resized Adam TaylorMary came to Victoria to visit a property described as a, '20 acre dude-ranch and hobby farm with a year-round trout stream'. 5 days later, they owned the place. "The Kids would go out the back of the property through the forest to meet their friends on the other side."

Mary did a fair bit of ecological restoration on her own property, as the area was full of invasive blackberry bushes, and is now transformed to a slice of riparian paradise. Anyone who has dug out invasive blackberry root crowns can appreciate that this is tough work.

Mary laments that the surrounding area doesn't look quite like it used to, as adjacent land that was once natural has been sold off and subdivided. But she remembers fondly a neighbour who owned many acres. He left the land to nature except for occasionally strolling through. "With the moss under the trees it was really lovely," says Mary. It's easy to imagine a mossy fairytale landscape that comes true in protected areas around the region.

Talking about sharing a conservation ethic with those around us Mary explains her method, "meet each person at their own speed, and you meet them where they are, you walk along with them a little ways." 

Mary is currently working to restore the flats at Tod Creek for fish habitat. Reintroducing Coho which were extirpated from the area by the 1970's with Friends of Tod Creek and Peninsula Streams. Part of their work was encouraging Butchart Gardens to install a fishway for the fish. Previously the Butchart's dam, which now has a lovely fishway around it, was a major barrier to their lifecycle. The fishway enables the Coho to go out to sea and return to spawn. She is passionate about daylighting creeks that have been hidden away in culverts and bringing awareness to our hidden creeks with signage and education. Keeping in the loop about stream restoration projects like Rock Creek, Cecilia Creek, and Bowker Creek.

"Creeks are so much better than fish farms. I'm not a fisherman, and I'm not hung up about fish, but they are a great indicator species. If they're okay, a lot of other things are okay."

 Listening to Mary speak and having read some of Roderick Haig-Brown's prose, there is a family resemblance about the way they relate to rivers and streams. There's a tenacity of caring and connection in their words. "The creek is life, it's the start of it all. As you say things are connected, well, it is the connection. Water runs downhill and it gets to everybody." explains Mary.

“A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart” – Roderick Haig-Brown

Mary Haig-Brown has always lived by the water, from Campbell River to her own backyard stream, water flows refreshingly through her entire life. In truth, it flows through all of our lives, whether we realize or not. 

cutthroat trout Tod CarnahanI asked Mary, if she could recommend one of her father's books which one that would be. "If you were just going to read one, I would go with Measure of the Year. Published in 1950, it goes through a year of living divided by the months. It's very approachable and family-friendly," she says.

If there's a fisherman in your life, Mary says they might enjoy A River Never Sleeps by Roderick Haig Brown. Many of Roderick's books will appeal to someone that enjoys fishing. The first book he wrote at the age of 22 was Silver, featuring the life of a salmon. He also wrote about logging and commercial fishing, two vocations he pursued alongside writing during his younger years. His love of the land grew out of working and playing on the land. Stewarding the land was a tradition in the family, even Roderick's Grandfather in England owned a swath of property that he planted trees on and cared for that still remains in the family. 

These concepts of enjoying and using the land in a low-impact way had always been around. But Roderick Haig-Brown was among the pioneers putting these concepts into words and sharing them in a way that recognized conservation for its own value. His words are still relevant decades after their first printing, perhaps more relevant with an audience familiar with the idea of caring for the natural world.

"I think in some ways he's getting more well known now than he was when he was alive," says Mary of her father. "He died in 1976, at that point there weren't a lot of people thinking about nature in the way he did. It's not like today where every little creek has its group. A lot of people before just thought he was against progress and logging." 

Do you have a book that you would recommend to those interested in habitat stewardship and conservation? Send along your recommendations and a small write-up for a chance to have your conservation book review featured by HAT to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tod Creek GN Wallace Planting Volunteers Mary Haig Brown"I really like all of these little groups that are springing up. Volunteering is something I've done all my life, and my parents, they did all their lives, and my grandparents. So the more groups that are doing small-scale hands-on stuff, as long as they have the resources to know what's right, the more people that get their hands dirty, the better. Because until you get out there and really look at it, see what's in the water, see what's growing on the side of a tree, it doesn't really have much meaning. But when you're there and being a part of it, then you're wondering how does that work? What's a lichen? You're going a little farther and a little farther. So I think it's wonderful." 

"My mother taught me about the native plants and their names. We'd be playing by the barn while she was milking the cow and she'd say, 'Come, come! Look what I've found!' and she would tell us about the plant growing there."

Mary shared this advice for parents looking for ways to connect their children with nature, "stop looking and just go. At the side of the road, the gap between the sidewalk and the street, there's always something. If you're looking at just seeing what's there, that's all you really need to start. Then when you go for a walk in the woods, you're still seeing what's there. It's quite interesting."

Returning to the words of Mary's father, he wrote, “I have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water … has a fascinating vitality." If we all took the time to appreciate the waterways around us, then turned that admiration into action, wouldn't that be something special? 


You can take action for HAT by having a look at our calendar of events and signing up for a volunteer activity like this one:

Join us May 6th for a habitat restoration volunteer day at Ruby Creek, removing invasive plants and learning about the rare Blue-grey Taildropper Slug. For those interested, head down to nearby Witty's Lagoon for a beach day afterwards. RSVP to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or 250-995-2428.

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