You are invited to unlock the landscape with language

We’re halfway through our 30 day immersion in local plant knowledge, and happily, I can now recognise the Coastal Douglas Fir by its gnarly-thick bark. Thanks to a great conversation with Dawn Johnson about the project, I also realise that it’s okay to approach this kind of learning in small chunks. It won’t all stick this month. But I also know that I love berry-season. I love knowing what berries I can forage, when they come up wild in the woods behind me, or in a neglected corner of my yard. So I can start there.

If you pick up a copy of the Question newspaper this week, you’ll see this latest Wellness Almanac column, in which the project is described, where Dawn shares some of her recommendations for any other nature-newbies like me out there.

image003What does it mean to ride your bike past a ditch full of flowers and feel the words rising unbidden: western trumpet honeysuckle, tigerlily, yarrow, false Solomon’s Seal… Or when you know that the Squamish trail Pseudotsuga is the Latin for Coastal Douglas Fir?

What does it mean when those words come in Ucwalmicts, the language of the Lil’wat Nation?

That’s the sign that you are truly rooted in this place.

When Dawn Johnson, of Stewardship Pemberton, was growing up in Williams Lake, her mother would shoo Dawn and her two sisters out of the house with an ice cream bucket and the simple instructions to fill it up with something they could eat. (Preferably not frogs.)

On their return, they’d make Saskatoon pie, choke cherry jelly and wild strawberry shortcake.

More recently, leading a group of children on a hike, Dawn realized that not everyone has that same familiarity with the landscape. The saskatoons around Pemberton were prime for picking, yet many of the kids had never eaten a berry in the wild before.

It reminded Dawn of the importance of that knowledge — to know what you can eat in the woods, what can nourish you, heal you, harm you.

The idea for a Native Plant Garden at the One Mile Lake Nature Centre took root.

After the Nature Centre was built in June 2011, the first project that Stewardship Pemberton took on outside the building, thanks to funding from the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation and the Community Foundation of Whistler, was a Native Plant Garden.

Four hundred different plants were put into the ground in 2013 — a project to enhance the space, without ongoing landscaping requirements, and to offer visitors to the nature centre an experience regardless of whether or not a public program was running.

“We thought it was a great opportunity to celebrate what was already there,” says Johnson. “We wanted to incorporate ecological knowledge on the signs. But we also wanted people to be able to learn about these native plants, know their uses, and their names in English, Latin and Ucwalmicwts.”

Johnson reached out to Lois Joseph and the Lil’wat Nation’s Culture, Heritage and Language Authority, to talk about the possibility of naming the plants in Ucwalmicwts.

“We did not expect to have the honour of also receiving extraordinary cultural and ecological knowledge,” says Dawn. “Knowledge that has been passed on from one generation to the next through oral stories, medicine gathering and berry picking. These plants founded generations of people. This is how they lived. To have that intimate knowledge of how things were used here shared with us, is amazing. It’s a gift. I was in tears when I received that first draft.”

The signs, featuring 31 native plants, are being shared daily throughout April on, and will be installed at One Mile Lake in the Native Plant Garden in May.


“People can come and wander through the garden at any time,” says Dawn. “It’s all bite-sized pieces of information and a great way to learn and pique an interest in ecology or the culture.”

Getting “grounded in place” doesn’t need to be daunting, she says. It’s as simple as accepting the invitation to come and share the knowledge.


Sharp-tailed snake.

“Just pick one thing to start with. Maybe this year, focus on conifers, or shrubs, or edible berries,” she says. “That’s how I got started. Berries are tangible and they’re quite easy to identify, and there’s that survivalist aspect, the satisfaction of feeling like you could feed yourself if you had to survive in the wild, like people did not that many generations ago. You can start to monitor things for yourself. Keep track of when the first salmonberry blossoms appear. Start to collect that baseline information.”

The important thing? Just go outside. You grow into it. Just like a born-and-bred local does. With wide-open eyes and baby steps. A handful of new exciting words. Eventually, fluency will come.


Chocolate lily.

#30DaysofNaturePlantLove, a special month-long stewardship adventure, continues throughout April. Spread the native plant love and knowledge by sharing these posts, or liking and sharing on Facebook.