1833 Mack Laing at home
Baybrook: Life’s Best Adventure
by Hamilton Mack Laing, edited by Barbara Elaine Price
Comox: Comox Archives and Museum Society, 2005, 2022
Reviewed by Sage Birchwater
Hamilton Mack Laing’s memoir, Baybrook: Life’s Best Adventure, is perhaps best viewed through the lens of a love story. Laing had a deep love affair for the place where he lived for 26 years on the shoreline in the village of Comox on Vancouver Island, and the precious 17 years he spent there with the love of his life, Ethel May Hart.
Mack Laing, as he was better known, was born in February 1883, and was in his 100th year when he died in March 1982. His memoir Baybrook, only touches on a quarter of that time frame, from 1922 to 1948, unequivocally, the best years of his life.
To add spice to the mix, Laing’s memoir only emerged when relatives of the man he entrusted with the manuscript, brought it forward to the Comox Archives and Museum Society in 2005, 23 years after his death. In 2022 the photocopied rendition was edited and published in book form.
Hamilton Mack Laing, was an institution in Comox and further afield. His curriculum vitae is long and varied. Naturalist, author, educator, ornithologist, artist, hunter, photographer, adventurer, orchardist, collector, writer, and mentor to Ian McTaggart Cowan, one of Canada’s foremost naturalists.
It’s a long list.
Laing was 39 years old when he purchased five acres of Salish Sea beachfront in Comox in 1922 and became a landowner for the first time.
Born in Ontario, he grew up in Manitoba and spent ten years as a school teacher and principal there, before turning his attention to other pursuits. He took training as an artist in New York City, learned photography, traveled the American west by motorcycle, and developed his profession as a writer and naturalist collecting bird species for the National Museum of Canada, and writing for almost every North American nature magazine.
It was in this context that he happened to be in Comox Valley studying the globally significant bird habitat and migration patterns there, when the opportunity to settle down for the first time, presented itself.
Laing seized the moment and began his life at Baybrook.
It helps that Laing was a prolific note taker writing daily in his diary. The descriptions of living in a tent while building his house and gardens, working with neighbours cutting down immense trees using crosscut saws and axes, dynamiting stumps, cultivating his land with horses, and excavating his basement in an ancient Indigenous midden are conveyed in meticulous detail.
In Laing’s near century of life, he experienced both World Wars, the Great Depression, the invention of the internal combustion engine, and the birth of the automobile. He was also alive during the 1960s and 70s back-to-the-land movement.
In the opening sentence of the book’s preface, he makes reference to this. “So much has been written about going back to the land” that he questioned the value of sharing his own back-to-the-land experiences.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Laing’s record is invaluable and insightful.
Many of us who were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and 80s, can identify readily with Mack and Ethel’s struggle to live self-sufficiently on the 10 acres they cultivated into a nut and fruit orchard and large vegetable garden, complete with a milk cow. Confronted with pestilences like insects, deer, raccoons, and birds competing for their crops is reminiscent for those of us who once strived for self-sufficiency and independence on small plots of land across the British Columbia landscape in the past half century.
Laing captures the step by step development of his landholding and farming efforts while at the same time spending months earning a living elsewhere, away on trips during the summers collecting bird species for various museums and private collections.
In 1927 everything changed for him when he brought his bride Ethel to share his Shangri-La on the Comox middens. It was Ethel who came up with the name Baybrook to christen their place, where a small stream entered the bay. By that time Laing was turning 44 and Ethel was 31.
For reasons Laing doesn’t explain, the couple never had children. When Ethel died 17 years later in 1944 at the age of 48, Laing was 61.
A year or so after Ethel’s death a young high school kid, Don, came to board with Laing. Don grew up in Yukon and was very capable and bushwise, and also a serious student. More significantly they hit it off beautifully and for two years Don became the son Laing never had. Besides helping around the farm they shared a passion for hunting and cultured an intuitive, close relationship.
“My young friend needed little instruction. In a few days he fitted like a hand into an old glove,” Laing describes.
In June 1947, Don graduated valedictorian of his class, and sadly for Laing he had to move on. This left a big hole in his life. A second high school boarder came to live with Laing. Though he was capable as a worker, he never had the passion and camaraderie that existed between Laing and Don.
In 1949 Laing says he made the toughest decision of his life – to leave Baybrook. At 66 years of age the workload of maintaining the farm and orchard was too much.
“I saw a Y in the road ahead,” he writes. “Baybrook and I must go our separate ways. I had put a lot of myself into that little bit of ground. I had loved it from the first time I had seen it; I had glorified in the hard work and hours it demanded; I had spent the best of my life, the years with Ethel here; and the thought of selling it was like a betrayal.”
Then he met the right people to take over his cherished and sacred ground. A young couple, recently married, not afraid of hard work.
He says he swamped out a truck road to a nearby summer cabin he had constructed known as Shakesides, and concludes his story, writing by the light of an oil lamp in his new abode. “I realized that Baybrook, the best adventure of my life, needed one more descriptive word: Finis.”
A century ago Hamilton Mack Laing began his adventure at Baybrook, and fate and good fortune preserved his manuscript describing of those times and adventure for us to enjoy today.
A park in Comox has been named in Hamilton Mack Laing’s honour, and a viewing platform has been erected where Baybrook once stood on the midden overlooking the Salish Sea.
Copies of Laing’s memoir Baybrook: Life’s Best Adventure can be purchased from Comox Archives & Museum Society for $20, which includes GST. Cost of shipping a copy within B.C. is $5.50
The museum is located at 1729 Comox Ave, Comox, BC V9M 3M2 and their website is https://comoxmuseum.ca
They can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 250 -339-2885.
Sage Birchwater, a long-time resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). Born in Victoria in 1948, Birchwater was involved with Cool Aid in Victoria, travelled throughout North America, and worked as a trapper, photographer, environmental educator, and oral history researcher. Sage served as the Chilcotin rural correspondent for two local papers for 24 years while raising his family south of Tatla Lake. He has also lived in Tatlayoko, where he was a freelance writer and editor, and Williams Lake, where he was a staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune until his retirement in 2009. His other books include Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin (2004, with Stan Navratil); Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin, (2009); Double or Nothing: The Flying Fur Buyer of Anahim Lake (2010); The Legendary Betty Frank (2011); Flyover: British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2012, with Chris Harris); Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin (2013); Chilcotin Chronicles (2017), reviewed here by Lorraine Weir; and Talking to the Story Keepers: Stories from the Chilcotin Plateau (Caitlin Press, 2022), reviewed here by Richard T. Wright. Editor’s note: Sage Birchwater has recently reviewed books by Mykhailo Ivanychuk, Adrian Raeside, Matti Halminen, Erskine Burnett, Paul McKendrick, and Hiram Cody Tegart & Andrew Bruce Richards for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster