Research and Memory(1): a small project in recollection

Photo by Kate Williams

 I’ve fallen into the habit, when I travel and research, of taking photographs of the rooms I stay in. I like the stories they tell me—tales I will likely never get around to writing—and the objects in these rooms bring back time and place for me in a way nothing else can. Sometimes, too, I make little sketches in my journal: these also fix the moment in mind although this may have more to do with the attention it takes to draw them. I don’t believe I have ever tackled a room. Landscapes more often: the particular curve of a bay, or perhaps a field, buildings, a church. I think, in the case of the photos, that the objects in them act as reservoirs of thought, not unlike the much more disciplined practice of those Rhetoricians Francis Yates talks about in The Art of Memory who had only to contemplate objects previously stored in a constructed mental space to recall –well, almost any thing they wanted, including entire books.

Recently, I came across an image of my work space, taken in 1988 by the photographer, Kate Williams, for an article in Monday Magazine. Although the same floor space exists in my house today, it has been transformed into part of a larger room. For me, the photo is a time capsule, a section of personal history and I’ve decided to examine objects in that photographed room, from time to time and in whatever order they strike me, and see what I can find.

The View Out the Window

It makes sense to begin here, with the forest pressing close to the glass. The trees are Douglas Firs and cedars, and mixed in with them the alders that line the stream banks at the bottom of a steep drop about twenty feet beyond the window. In winter, after heavy rain, they become markers in the middle of a rapids-filled river. Since the photo was taken, several of the trees—some now over a hundred feet tall—were taken out after sections broke off during a storm. Most wind storms come from the south-east; but over the last few years we’ve noticed a change: a shift to warmer winds from the south-west, to which the trees aren’t habituated, and resulting greater tree-damage.

If the wind is from the north-east, it is cold; the cats come indoors and we have to watch that the pipes don’t freeze.

When this was my work-room, I’d watch the birds in the branches eating pine-nuts, and it was here that I noted the first of many annual visits from a nut-hatch.  ‘Noted’ doesn’t quite cover it as it hammered for hours at a knot-hole in the house siding. I could see it from upstairs when I leaned over the balcony. I don’t see how it could have been the same bird, but ‘someone’ returned every year to embark on the same useless project. I used to worry that the time it wasted could have been better used to build a nest.

I still look out at the forest when I work, but from the other end of the house and at a desk with a three-ways view: south and north to the trees, and west to a fern-strewn hillside. A small current bush grows tightly against my window and for some reason, it attracts small birds. In summer, especially, feeling watched, I’ll turn and find one examining me at eye-level.


A Commonplace of Hills
a non-fiction work-in-progress

I’ve lived in the middle of the Sooke Hills on Vancouver Island, at one end of the Sooke basin, on and off over a period of thirty-five years. During that time, I’ve been aware, with more or less intensity, of the landscape that surrounds views of the sea, trails along the beach, and framing the distant vista of the Olympic Mountains. I’ve hiked various hills in East Sooke Park and climbed Mt. Maguire numerous times. I’ve driven up, and admired the view from, Mt. Matheson. What I had never done until I began this project, was to explore the hills that are hidden by dense second growth forest, or are a little further away from the main road.

It’s clear that this period of relatively untouched landscape—an in-breath after the logging a hundred years ago of the first growth forest—is about to end. Some of the more visible of my nearly invisible hills are beginning to sprout subdivisions. Areas once only accessible to logging, are becoming parks and attracting tourists. I have a sense of something precious that’s been at my fingertips and is about to be taken away.

I began thinking about these hills with a view to climbing them and writing about them several years ago. It began with the above awareness of what I could not see yet lived so close to, and with an observation made from my house just above the Sooke basin (the harbour), that the hills form a rough series of concentric circles with the harbour at the centre of the ‘bowl’. I thought it would be interesting to consider the hills from the point of view of geometry. Others have done this in other places and found (apparently) meaningful connections between landscape features.

I bought several large scale maps and drew lines from the tops of the hills and saw that I could connect these points to form pentagons and decided that this was the shape that would determine the order in which I tackled the hills. So far, so whimsical, although because I was living in the countryside where it was possible to watch the night sky, and likely because I was sleeping beneath a skylight that gave me a window on the heavens, the pentagonal star-shape seemed an appropriate way to try to read the land: as above, so below, as is said in philosophy and metaphysics.

I drew up a list of hills (ten originally), and while I was still thinking about all this, a First Nations acquaintance told me stories of the hills being used for refuge after confrontations with Europeans in the first decades of the 1800’s; and then in order to hide from American First Nations Bounty Hunters, and to protect First Nations women during the 1850’s local Gold Rush. I began thinking about the hidden cultural history of the hills apart from records of European ‘discovery’. Later on, I learnt that the hills are still used as refuge, or as hiding places, and that sometimes people also need to escape from them as well as flee into them.

Because of the heavy forestation and isolation, the geological history and composition and to some extent the flora and fauna of the hills was also not commonly known, although this too, through the use of new mapping technology is changing. This is an earthquake region: and there have been, historically, vast alterations in the shoreline regions at the foot of these hills from earthquakes and tsunamis. One of the world’s great earthquakes (estimated at 9 on the Richter scale) took place here in January 1700. It is a landscape that sits at the edge of a fault, and slippage and landscape fluidity are part of its nature.

Other aspects began to interest me: for instance, the alteration in the nature of my village from a pioneering farming, fishing and logging community, to a tourist based bedroom community for an urban population. The original settling families, of which there are a few remaining, hiked, camped and explored these hills as a matter of course; in the early years of the 20th century there were climbing, hunting and skiing clubs and even lodges in the area. Most of these have vanished, nearly out of recollection. Nonetheless, my first hikes were made after making contact with people who still knew and climbed the hills in the old way– without much in the way of trails, and with few signposts.

By this point, I found that for reasons of seasons and weather, and because of the changeable physical abilities of me and my climbing companions, and for various other unpredictable causes, I had to let go of my detailed original plan and just see what happened. I have softened the conceit of making geometrical and other connections in favour of describing what I find. I have discovered that each hill not only comes with its own geology, topography, plants and animals and history, but with a relationships to the others; and often with people who live in or explore them, all with stories of their own. I will still, when I am done, make a drawing of the climbs in triangle groupings—just to see.

The list of hills has been added to and subtracted from: some remain inaccessible to me but others have popped up to take their place because someone knows the way and will take me, or an access to private land has been obtained or denied. Illness, accident and dispersal have played their part in changing both what I thought the book could be, and me as its author. I have not finished the climbs (two to go) and may or may not be able to: either way, that will be part of the story, too.

Since A Commonplace of Hills is a work-in-progress, I’ll post an inspirational photo of my path-finding friend, Alan Danesh.

Alan Danesh on Mt MacDonald, as Alpine Guide