#790 Enter Douglas, Garry & Menzies

In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island
by Michael Layland

Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2019
$40.00 / 9781771513067


On March 2, 2020, it was announced that Michael Layland’s book, In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island (Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2019) had won the 2020 Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize for outstanding scholarly book on British Columbia.

A review of In Nature’s Realm will soon follow in The Ormsby Review, but for the time being we are pleased to reprint (below) the book’s foreword, contributed by Ormsby editor Richard Mackie. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of TouchWood Editions. — Ed.

April 17, 2020. PS delighted to add that In Nature’s Realm has been announced as winner of the 2020 Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing.  — Ed


On reading the proofs of Michael Layland’s In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island, my first thought was, “Why hasn’t this book been available for 50 years?” Scholars of early British Columbia tend to be compartmentalized into some aspect of archaeology, anthropology, ethnobotany, or into the specific histories of the maritime fur trade, the land-based fur trade, the colonial era, or the early provincial era. For 18th- and 19th-century studies alone, scholars are further pigeonholed into specialists in the Spanish, British, or American expeditions, or in the main land-based fur-trading companies—the North West, Pacific Fur, and Hudson’s Bay companies. Such scholars tend to be familiar only with the naturalists who intersect with their particular era or interest.

A Garry oak in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, named after Nicholas Garry. Photo by Janis Ringuette

What Layland has done here is consider the botanists of Vancouver Island, starting with Indigenous people, “the island’s first true naturalists,” and continue through the voyages and trading expeditions of the first century of contact, to end in the 1880s with the formation of the Natural History Society of British Columbia and the British Columbia Provincial Museum. He examines the broad continuum of naturalists and natural history regardless of the national, regional, or temporal specialties that scholars traditionally work within. He collects and unites many individual strands to tell a larger overarching story of naming and species reconnaissance. In the process, he provides an overdue public service to anyone interested in the natural history, history, and achievements of the early settler culture of Vancouver Island.

But the audience for In Nature’s Realm will extend far beyond Vancouver Island. The island was, after all, the linchpin and physical centre of the entire ethnographic “Northwest Coast” and the historic “North West Coast.” Therefore the book will be of particular interest to all coastal British Columbians and to our neighbours in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

Indeed, I can think of no more accessible introduction to the early history of coastal British Columbia than In Nature’s Realm. The many colour illustrations—painstakingly gathered from dozens of archives, museums, and galleries—of botanists, Indigenous hosts and traders, ships, birds, mammals, plants, and sea life make for a work of great range, breadth, and synthesis. But In Nature’s Realm is more than this. Layland has resurrected the careers and contributions of the scientific intelligentsia that helped define and name the natural variety that, as newcomers, they encountered in this ancient landscape.

Douglas-firs at Cathedral Grove, west of Parksville on Vancouver Island. Photo courtesy CBC

For example, Layland features two eminent naturalists whose names are commemorated in the trees that are most representative of the Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem or biogeoclimatic zone, which stretches in a narrow low-elevation coastal strip from Victoria to Bowser and includes the many Gulf Islands south of Cortes Island as well as a narrow band along the Sunshine Coast near Halfmoon Bay. The smallest major ecosystem in British Columbia, the Coastal Douglas-fir zone occupies only 0.25 to 0.3 per cent of the province.

To the west, the Vancouver Island range and the Olympic Mountains in Washington State create a rainshadow that protects the Coastal Douglas-fir region from incoming precipitation and the raw and exposed power and fury of the open Pacific. This major outer mountain barrier creates a large, sheltered, and temperate refuge characterized by warm and relatively dry summers and long, mild, and wet winters. The result, on the leeward side of the mountains and the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, is a Mediterranean-type climate.

Arbutus on Edith Point, Mayne Island. Photo by Rupert Mackie
Pinus douglasii, the fir renamed for David Douglas but first reported by Archibald Menzies. From Flora Boreali-Americana, plate 183. Image from Layland, In Nature’s Realm

The characteristic trees of the Coastal Douglas-fir ecoregion are the coastal variety of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), the Garry oak (Quercus garryana), and the arbutus (Arbutus menziesii). Douglas-fir—which is hyphenated because it is a member of the pine family and not a true fir—is the dominant tree of this ecosystem; Garry oak and arbutus, which are found nowhere else in Canada, tend to grow in well-drained, sunny, dry, and rocky sites within this ecoregion.

The common English and Latin names are, of course, absent in the Indigenous languages of the region. For example, in SENĆOŦEN, the Saanich language, Douglas-fir is JSȺ¸IȽĆ, Garry oak is ĆEṈ¸IȽĆ, and arbutus is ḰEḰEYIȽĆ.

The English and scientific names reflect the visits and connections of the working naturalists. The Latin names of arbutus and Douglas-fir honour Archibald Menzies (1754–1842), the Scottish botanist and surgeon who accompanied both James Colnett’s fur-trading expedition to the North West Coast between 1786 and 1789 and Captain Vancouver’s expedition of 1791–1795. Douglas-fir was named for the botanist David Douglas (1799–1834), who, like Menzies, came from Perthshire. Garry oak was named by David Douglas after his patron Nicholas Garry (circa 1782–1856), the deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for helping him arrange his travels to the North West Coast.

Michael Layland

Thus the three iconic trees of the Coastal Douglas-fir ecoregion owe their names to two botanists who visited the North West Coast with the maritime and land-based fur trades between the 1780s and the 1830s. In this way their names have entered and persisted in the everyday lexicon of millions of people on Canada’s west coast.

But this is just a teaser. This beautiful book, In Nature’s Realm, provides the full stories of Menzies, Douglas, and Garry — and many more naturalists and their important work of reconnaissance, collecting, and naming.

Richard Somerset Mackie
Editor, The Ormsby Review
June 2019

Reprinted with permission from In Nature’s Realm by Michael Layland, TouchWood Editions (2019).

Old-growth forest on Edinburgh Mountain, near Port Renfrew. Photo © courtesy of TJ Watt. Image from Layland, In Nature’s Realm


Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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