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