Modeste Demers in Bowker Valley
by Gerald Harris, British Columbia
For Gerald, unity with Earth life is based in physical engagement and contact. He works and leads in native habitat renewal projects in urban watersheds, and supports the work with prose, poetry and many committee meetings. Participating in Earth Literacies programs strengthens and clarifies Gerald’s calling to reconnect himself and others with the community of life, local and global, inner and outer.
Gerald has been volunteering in Bowker Creek restoration for more than a decade. He serves as a Director of the Friends of Bowker Creek Society.
Sister Gertie Jocksch and Gerald are colleagues.
Historical records show Bishop Modeste Demers as the first farmer in the valley where I live; they show that he grew potatoes here. I grow potatoes too. I feel the connection and it disturbs me.
The Bowker Creek watershed is a valley in recovery. It functions now as a stormwater management unit for a thousand hectares of urban Saanich, Victoria and Oak Bay. Pavement and other impermeable surface cover almost half of the valley. Its creek functions as storm sewer. For more than half its length from the source at University of Victoria to the sea at Oak Bay, 8k, Bowker Creek flows underground in culvert.
The recovery plan for Bowker Valley bears the title: Bowker Creek Blueprint – a 100-year action plan to restore the Bowker Creek watershed. Municipal engineers recently begin to recognize that the valley had done a lovely job of managing its own stormwater for about 6000 years before Modeste Demers and I broke its soil for potato growing. In 150 years, we’ve made a mess of it.
The creek now rages, floods and shrivels by season, and sends polluted water into the Salish Sea. As a freshwater ecosystem, it’s broken. We haven’t seen a salmon run for a century. So now we have the Blueprint. Saanich, Victoria and Oak Bay municipalities all endorsed it in 2012. We have officially committed ourselves here to a process of returning some natural functioning and ecological health to stream and valley.
My personal involvement in the process is with Friends of Bowker Creek Society, an advocacy group. We do what we can to enlist popular support for Bowker Creek Blueprint goals and to remind the municipalities to keep implementing them. One of our initiatives this year is a Chum Salmon Recovery project to bring back those fish to the lower reaches of the creek. Another is a Creekside Concert series, with bicycle-powered music events, Covid-aware, at outdoor locations along the creek. The site of Modeste Demers’ potato patch is one of our concert locations in July. The Diocese of Victoria has kindly permitted us to use a field adjacent to St. Patrick’s Elementary School playground.
That connection of potato-growing, Bishop Demers and Bowker Valley recovery prompted me to write this poem:
The bishop’s potato patch, he dug right here.
Newly consecrated Bishop
Modeste Demers in his new-made Diocese of Vancouver Island,
of only two priests, one at Fort Nanaimo,
one at Fort Langley, and its Bishop, here, parish priest
to the village on the other side of the hill around the Fort beside the harbour,
Victoria, 1852, impoverished but energetic,
repaired clocks and watches and took out a land grant
in Bowker Valley at this place, cleared away willow thickets,
straightened out the creek as ditch to drain swampy land,
fenced a field beside the ditch, broke and turned the soil
and grew great potatoes.
Land – the valley never pictured
itself, until then, as land.
Bowker Valley had seen itself
more as relationship among place and creatures
interdepending: humans, cutthroat trout,
Yellow warblers, willow thicket, across millennia, linked and bound
by fibres of obligation.
Land – property –
the concepts muted the valley,
froze it like an object
people could own and treat like dirt, rendered it comatose,
faded it invisible,
until this century
when Bowker Valley awakens, and speaks up inside people,
speaks out now:
Listen to your valley,
local adaptive capacity, in this concerted rush
into super-abundant messy, super-diverse
unity, which is life, which is intelligence,
to this remembered wetland, willow swamp, abuzz,
adrone with so many insects, asplash with cutthroat
that leap for insects in the air, attwitter with yellow birds
that pick insects in June for nestlings, in October to fuel flight to the Andes.
Restore our relationship; take up your obligations;