An Artist’s Thoughts on Mapping Cherished Places

by Briony Penn

This piece was originally published in Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places, edited by Sheila Harrington, LTA Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia, copyright 1999.

Mappping cherished places you feel are at risk is not new. This occurred to me when I read about an archaeological discovery linking some cave paintings with drastic environmental changes. At the time when the cave paintings of what is now the mid-Sahara were being etched upon the walls, the desert had apparently already begun to sweep in from the north into the once bountiful land. The painters were in retreat, leaving a record of a lost place. When I see the paintings now, I have a lot of empathy; I can just hear the sound of sand swirling in at the mouth of the cave, feel the grit in my nostrils, and the red ochre paint as it dries on my palms. I can imagine their need to pour out their longings in a map of where they used to go, what they used to see, hoping some force out there would stop the sand.

There have been lots of artists since then, hoping to halt the advance of various metaphorical sands. Homer orated his epics about the golden age of Greece at a time when all the Elysian fields were getting subdivided into bourgeois stucco villas. When Elizabeth I was busy converting forests into clearcuts, there were bards writing poems about how the trees had once been so numerous that red squirrels could travel across England without touching the ground. When the Victorians were busy converting wildflower meadows into suburban lawns and petunia patches, Ruskin and other Romantics were painting and mapping the last vestiges of pre-industrial Britain. In Canada, we now have come of age too, faced with the end to our “inexhaustible” supply of natural wealth. Given this time of land use conflicts and endless mapping of economic resources, it is not surprising that artists are getting in on the act and mapping what they value as well.

The Southern Gulf Island Bioregional Project sponsored an art exhibition, “Mapping Cherished Island Places,” in addition to the workshops and material printed in this manual. Twenty artists submitted pieces, only samples of which we could print in this manual.

The artist’s role, I see, is in supplying the special information that isn’t included on the maps that tell us what highways to drive on, where to drill for oil or where our property lines lie. We have to create our own maps to record the name of the old growth forest or the tiny creek that ran by the school where kids caught cutthroat trout and the huge arbutus tree that the locals claim is the largest in the whole wide world. A map can convey where the flock of buffleheads would overwinter annually and where a patch of rare wildflowers grew. By drawing an ancient stump with spring board holes now overgrown in huckleberries, we can begin to tell the story of past land uses. Once recorded, the hope is that it is easier to generate an empathy and raise awareness about saving these special places – the wetlands, heritage apple trees or Salish middens – as the landscape undergoes rapid change.

The essential impulse for creating a map is a strong interest in the place, the inhabitants, and the flows of life in an area. I collect anecdotes from the old timers, interview the local experts on geology or pre-history, and scour old book shops for old accounts of the area. I ask tourists what they think are the landmarks in the area, and most importantly, I keep a journal of what I see as I wander around my neighbourhood, day after day, year after year.

Share your map with the neighbours and your local realtors, and next time a planner proposes to “improve” your neighbourhood, you can rush into the municipal hall, waving your map as a record and perspective for an alternative community plan.

Judith Borbas

Judith is a Salt Spring Island artist who loves paint­ing and nature. The project appealed to me because It combines two loves – art and nature. The Weedens stewardship of the Whims farm has highlighted the history of crops grown, preserving and enhancing the land.

Ronaldo Nordon

Ronaldo has lived at Montague Harbour, Gallano Island, since 1971. Through art, he enjoys sharing what he sees with other people, and this is how he makes his living.

In this map, Ronaldo has chosen to share with us the effects of the glacier on the valley leading into the harbour, the cliffs, and what grows and lives there. He has a great love for this land, and he feels that it holds great variety due to a grouping of three distinct ecologies:

1) moist green lung of the lower level 2) shaded shelter of the middle shelf 3) crisp, arid clifftop.

Ronaldo, who has also done embossed maps, feels that they are another language – another way of understanding a situation. A map is a form of visual linguistics which Is a neutral way to convey what Is Important.

Briony Penn
Briony Penn

I grew up between Victoria and Salt Spring Island. My great grandmother, Maud Bridgman, was an early B.C. artist who lived at Kingfisher Cove near Beaver Point, a property which Is still In the family and remains virtually unchanged since she lived there. She did hundreds of landscapes of Fulford Harbour, and now I am living across the bay In Isabella Point watching the same scene she painted nearly a century later. She loved this place as I do and as probably hundreds of generations of people did In the past. My greatest wish is that In another century, a great-great grandchild can gaze out upon this place and say the same thing.

I am a geographer by training and teach In the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Victoria. I also write a natural history column for Monday Magazine and design Interpretive exhibits for clients like Parks Canada. My Interests are in recording a “sense of place” through the traditional mapping arts of calligraphy, illustration and Interpretation of landscape. I Interviewed several old-time residents of the Harbour to determine old place names and anecdotes of the cultural and natural history. Through this map, I hope to record what this place has meant to those who live here and provide the means for those who come here to get to know It.

Peggy Frank

I have always loved water: the ocean, ponds, lakes and even the mucky areas where water meets land – like the Upper Booth Canal. This love of water brought me to the west coast In 1976 and since then I have worked as a biologist, both in the water and on land, Illustrated plants and animals and worked planning for wise use of the land and water in the Gulf Islands.

Upper Booth Canal Is one of my favourite quiet places. Perhaps because It Is surrounded by large parcels of farmland, I seldom see another human as I explore this estuary and Its many transitions: from fresh to salt water; from water to land; from air to water; and from land to air.

Dianne Laronde

Dianne was born In the West Kootenays, near Nelson, and presently works as an artist. After living overseas for several years, she and her family found Gallano Island, where they have since lived.

I regularly walk through this piece of land, purchased by my family, which because of the hydro lines, Is generally considered worthless! I was interested in making some record of all the life that is supported by a place that Is considered low value. What Interests me is all the little dally changes that I see as the year goes around – the plants that suddenly grow up in spring when the day Is a few minutes longer and the soil a degree warmer, and the small creatures that turn up out of nowhere on a rainy day. In real estate terms it wouldn’t be termed “special,” but there is all this going on there.

Pamela Williams

Pamela runs a design/build landscape business on Pender Island, after having spent many years as a graphic artist. Her interest In mapping her neighbourhood was sparked by the Bioregional project.

She says: “The process of mapping was tremendously Illuminating to me. I thought I knew this area, but as I started to draw In the patterns of tree cover versus cleared land, with this tattered little riparian zone running through the middle, I was amazed at how shrunken the forest was becoming. All the wild creatures are trying to hide In the ravine. The ravine is getting smaller with each tree my neighbours cut. What used to be forest all around me is now almost suburbia. I think the map Is an effective way of drawing attention to the overall picture. It Is easy for people to Ignore the big picture when Involved in the “frenzied development syndrome” afflicting our islands.

Michelle Marsden

Michelle has been a resident of Pender Island since 1982, living “…more on the water than onshore.” “Since an extensive sailing journey to the Pacific In 1988, I’ve been full-on into marine preservation and founded an annual beach cleanup on the Penders as well as help other B.C. communities get Involved with beach cleanups and surveys of the marine litter found. Medicine Beach on Pender Island Is a favorite spot that we’ve been enjoying and surveying since 1989.”

Medicine Beach is one of the few remaining coastal wetlands. My own personal push to preserve the area began when a development was proposed at the head of the marsh. This prompted me to compile an environmental impact study which I did and submitted to the Islands Trust. Because of letters and information presented regarding the marsh and beach ecosystem, enough interest was generated to enable the Pender Island Conservancy to gain the option of purchasing the 21 acre parcel of significant quality. The development was turned down, and the people of Pender have raised over one half the $380,000 needed to purchase this rare coastal wetland area.

Annette Shaw

Annette came to Gallano Island five years ago In search of a quieter, more natural lifestyle. A former graphic designer, she now does environmental art and cartoons.

Peregrine Ridge Is a cherished neighbourhood walk, where peregrine falcons are seen and thought to be nesting. Annette feels fortunate to have been shown this beautiful place by a friend who was also a neighbour. There is no public access to the ridge – the only way to get there Is through another neighbour’s property, who very kindly gave us permission. Because of this, and the fact that Peregrine Ridge is on private property, I wish to send a respectful letter and a good copy of my artwork to the owner. It may Inspire him to see this special place with new eyes.

Robert Burbidge
Robert Burbidge

Bob has been a resident of Croftonbrook for the past seven of his thirteen years on Salt Spring Island. He is a retired art teacher. Now a practicing Watercolourist, he has had several one-man shows. Active In environmental concerns, he designed “Bridge of Tears” sweatshirt based on his painting depicting Clayoquot protests at Kennedy River Bridge In 1993. He supports this boregional project as a means of informing the public on environmental changes.

Briony Penn (b. 1960) is an author, activist, and professor. She earned her Ph.D in geography from the University of Edinburgh and teaches environmental studies at the University of Victoria. She co-founded the Land Conservancy of British Columbia and serves on the board. Her book The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize. She lives on Salt Spring Island.

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