Saturday, 27 February 2021


Arbutus tree, Arbutus menziesii, reaching out to sea, Hornby Island
Windswept, peaceful, stormy and abundant, Hornby is a mix of everything desirable about the northern Gulf Islands of the west coast of British Columbia.

It is a very green island, both in the practices of those who live here and in the mixed forest that covers the land. 

We see the large conifers, Western red cedar, western hemlock, grand fir and lodgepole pine on the island.

You also see lovely examples of the smaller Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, a small evergreen that is used by First Nations carvers for bows and paddles for canoes.

 Many spectacular specimens of arbutus, Arbutus menziesii, grow along the water's edge. These lovely evergreens have a rich orange-red bark that peels away in thin sheets, leaving a greenish, silvery smooth appearance and a satiny sheen. And these trees, like all trees, have kin recognition. They can swap nutrients with one another using mycelium, the neural network of fungi, as their go-between. Arbutus, the broadleaf evergreen species is the tree I most strongly associate with Hornby. Hornby has its fair share of broadleaf deciduous trees. Bigleaf maple, red alder, black cottonwood, Pacific flowering dogwood, cascara and several species of willow thrive here.

There are populations of Garry oak, Quercus garryana, with their deeply lobed leaves, on the southern end of the island and at Helliwell Provincial Park on a rocky headland at the northeast end of Hornby. 

The island has about 260 acres (1.1 km2) of undisturbed stands of older forests. They take up a relatively small footprint, just under 3.5%, of the island's overall size. 1,330 acres (540 ha) of older second-growth stands cover just under 20% of the island. 

Beneath these ancient wonders are mycorrhizal networks, communicating, gathering and sharing nutrients between these ancient stands of trees. The fungi break down the plant matter and animal species that have lived and died since time immemorial. The ground you walk across is a patchwork of the true essence of Hornby — unique steps across this terra firma records the island's long history. 

Here, embedded and imprinted within the ground are the stories of its geologic past, a time of history of being beneath a great sea, uplifting, the scrapings of the ice ages. Higher still are the hydrocarbon remnants that record the ebb and flow, lives and deaths of the K'ómoks First Nation, who called this island Ja-dai-aich — then European explorers, Americans, farmers, fisherman and artisans who have explored or called Hornby home.

Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii
Most of the trees you see on the island are Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, an evergreen conifer species in the pine family. The common name is a nod to the Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who collected and first reported on this large evergreen.

Sadly for Douglas, it is Archibald Menzies, a Scottish physician, botanist, naturalist — and David's arch-rival, whose name is commemorated for science. He's also credited with the scientific name for our lovely arbutus trees.

Menzies was part of the Vancouver Expedition (1791–1795) a four-and-a-half-year voyage of exploration commanded by Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy.

Their voyage built on the work of James Cook. Cook was arguably the first ship's captain to ensure his crew remained scurvy free by implementing a practice of nutritious meals (those containing ascorbic acid also known as Vitamin C) and meticulous standards for onboard hygiene. Though he did much to lower the mortality rate amongst his crew, he made some terrible decisions that led to his early demise. Cook was attacked and killed in 1779 during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific while attempting to kidnap the Island of Hawaii's monarch, Kalaniʻōpuʻu.

During the four and a half year Vancouver Expedition voyage, the crew and officers bickered amongst themselves, circumnavigated the globe, touching down on five continents. Little did they know, for many of them it would be the last voyage they would ever take. 

The expedition returned to a Britain more interested in its ongoing war than in Pacific explorations. Vancouver was attacked by the politically well-connected Menzies for various slights, then challenged to a duel by Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Baron of Camelford.

The fellow for whom the fair city of Vancouver is named never did complete his massive cartographical work. With health failing and nerves eroded, he lost the dual and his life. It was Peter Puget, whose name adorns Puget Sound, who completed Vancouver's — and arguably Cook's work on the mapping of our world.