No writer wants to admit that one of the reasons people are drawn to the trade is that while one can live a relatively boring life, it’s a legitimate practice to expose the lives of others. Not that that’s my goal here (and there’s no way I’d get away with it anyway because my subject is a fine writer and would be on to me in a flash). But a garden does reveal much about a gardener, and this is a story of a man, his family, and their garden.
We’ll start at the beginning.
In 1936, Iain Hunter’s parents pulled up to a new house in south Oak Bay. Legend has it that when Dr. Hunter asked his wife if she’d like to go in, she replied firmly, “no.”
“What do you mean ‘good’?”
“I like the tree.”
The tree was (and still is) very, very good – a widely branched Garry oak. The trouble was, it wasn’t technically on the property, so the Hunters bought the adjoining lot as well. Three generations of the family have lived on that acre of land ever since.
It was a windy evening when I visited, the sea breeze blowing in from the ocean. I noticed first the rustle of leaves and I thought of how rarely we consider that part of the urban forest, the soundscape trees create, the soothing ebb and flow of nature’s silence. Not a car could be heard.
Sitting by a small pond in the backyard, Iain told me that his mother planted the trees: birches, copper beech, Sequoia metasequoia (the ancestor of the great Californian redwoods), red maples, dogwoods, apples, a rambling Parrotia, a tall Eucryphia, Magnolia grandiflora, and a lovely flowering Prunus. A number of native trees and shrubs added a valuable wild side to the garden including a tall Grand fir, oaks, poplars, Nootka rose and Indian Plum.
The Scots have a great expression for taking a ‘look about’: having a wee nosey. As we ducked under the shrubbery and poked about, Iain (Scottish spelling, of course) told me how his mother had hired Alfred Edward Horner to assist with the early work of the garden. Horner designed what was once the Provincial Normal School’s campus – now Camosun College.
During Iain’s childhood, quail and pheasant skittered around the garden. More recently eagles, hawks and herons have made appearances. And in the last 10 years, deer: Iain uses a water spray system to scare them off of the roses and herbaceous plantings, but otherwise lets them ‘prune’.
The pond – a small pool set into a rockery of heathers – also carried a story of old Oak Bay: before the Hunters’ street was redeveloped in the ’60s, it was once a spring.
In many ways, the Hunters’ garden honours the past and so it was hard not think of the future, how such properties are increasingly under threat in Oak Bay. Iain revealed that his land was assessed as if the property were already subdivided – a structural disincentive (in my opinion) to protecting the living and built heritage of our community.
Now 80, Iain says he’s trying to keep the garden up for his wife and two daughters. He spends about two hours a day working outside. “If the weather’s nice,” he said, “sometimes five.” It was hard not to marvel at such a commitment to land.
Later, we watched his dogs lap up a bit of water from the pond and I listened to the trees singing in the wind. I asked Iain about his mother.
“What do you think gardening meant to her?” The low sun had forced his eyes into a squint, but he opened them with a kind of reverence.
“Oh,” he said. “Everything.”
Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid Oak Bay gardener.