I’VE SPENT FIVE YEARS WORKING ON A NOVEL PARTLY SET IN VICTORIA during and just after the First World War, though the memories of some of the characters go back into the previous century. The main character, Flora Oakden, lives across from Ross Bay Cemetery, a place I loved as a child in the early 1960s. My mother would tell my brothers and me to go play in the cemetery, knowing there wasn’t traffic on its narrow lanes, and that children could roam its hidden corners, staying out of trouble.
My father was in the navy and my family moved every two years until I was a teenager. But Victoria was our home, the place we returned to when the postings in Halifax or elsewhere had finished. We lived in several neighbourhoods; the one I remember best, the one that imprinted me forever with its buildings, its plants, its weather and its geography, was Fairfield. I walked to school, sometimes along May St. to Moss, and sometimes I took a path that went up and over Moss Rocks. I loved this route because of the vistas of Ross Bay and across to the Olympic Peninsula and because of the wildflowers in spring. I remember Easter lilies and the occasional clump of blue camas.
Sometimes I wake in the night from such vivid dreams of that time that I try to dream my way back to the damp moss punctuated with magenta shooting stars. Several times I’ve dreamed of the Fairfield that Flora would have known, a neighbourhood I sense in the shadows of my own memory.
When I was searching for that earlier Victoria, I came across a map held in the Hudson’s Bay Archives in Winnipeg. Drawn by Joseph Pemberton in the early 1860s, it shows Victoria District, Section 1: Clover Point is a long empty finger of land; the waterfront along Dallas Road and where the Ross Bay Cemetery is now located is all indicated as pine land and swamp. But interestingly, there are creeks threading through all this. I know that native people used these creeks to move from one area to another—some of the creeks empty into Songhees (now the Inner Harbour) as well as Ross Bay and Foul Bay. Most of them have been buried, given passage underground through culverts. Like our memories, they resurface in unexpected ways—a sunken area in a garden or a wild tangle of mint in the corner of a park.
As a child, when I lay on the grass of Bushby Park with my ear to the ground, I swore I could hear the passage of water. And in one section of the cemetery, I used to listen to water among the graves. In my novel, Flora’s lover followed these creeks to both their sources in the swamps near what is now Government House and to their arrival at the sea.
It’s a long time ago—those years after the map was drawn and my character Flora Oakden watched the darkness settle on the cemetery following her lover’s death in the Battle of Festubert; and years later when the child I once was climbed Moss Rocks on her way to school. Places change. Or do they? Certainly buildings are torn down, new ones are built, streets are re-routed, trees fall in storms and young ones are planted. But surely everything a place was is sheltered in some way, as photographs shelter earlier versions of ourselves.
I am beginning to think that a place that has witnessed significant history in its time—and by significant, I mean the passage of natural landscapes to human ones, from Aboriginal village to modern multicultural locus for industry and culture, from pine land to streets like Linden and Moss and Eberts—must retain all these incarnations within: a texture, a layering of imagery and tone. We mourn for that older place but what we love is in some sense an accretion of everything that has been. The Moss Rocks have outlived whatever names they might have been called by those earlier people walking towards Songhees with berries or wild onions.
And a woman in her 50s walking through the cemetery to gaze out towards Clover Point knows the route water takes to the ocean and knows where a child might stretch out on grass to listen for it.