Acorn Award September 2008: If you go for a walk on Christmas Hill in spring, you’ll see a dazzling variety of native wildflowers in bloom – purple, pink, yellow and white – in the beautiful open landscape of a Garry oak savannah. You could be forgiven for assuming that it had always been like this. But go for a walk with Willie MacGillivray, and you’ll begin to understand how much effort has gone into restoring the landscape before you.
In the beginning
When Willie first began his work as Site Manager at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary in 1981, the invasive Scotch broom on Christmas Hill was taller than he was. At first he and his staff tackled the broom head-on, but were dismayed to see it coming back full-force in the ensuing years: “I had a bunch of paid staff (this was a time when there was grant money). There were ten people working every day with me. Over one season, we made a huge effort and removed all the big broom plants, and I thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got it all under control. Now all I have to do is pull out the flowering ones every year.’ The next couple of years looked pretty good. Then year three came. I was all by myself. All the staff were gone. The hill was a sea of yellow broom flowers. I went up there with a pair of loppers, trying to make my way up the hill, working hard and sweating and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous; I can’t do this.’ I turned around and left, and came up with a new approach.”
A methodical approach to restoration
“I got a little group of volunteers, and we did a small section at a time, and removed the flowering plants in subsequent years. This method has worked much better. In the last three years, all I’ve had to do is pull out the re-growth. We’re coming into year 14, and this is the first year that I’ve said: ‘I may be getting somewhere. There’s still a lot to do, but I’m feeling a little better about it.’”
In the community
Long-time colleague Terry Morrison, Executive Director at Swan Lake, says: “Willie is one of the first people I know of who took an interest in Garry oak ecosystems in a community context, recognizing that we could all contribute to their preservation by creating a patchwork of backyard gardens that would interconnect and create a whole.” Willie adds, “I was a student at UVic in 1987, writing a paper on urban forestry, when I saw Briony Penn’s article on Garry oak meadows in Monday Magazine. I looked her up, others joined in, and we founded the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society (GOMPS).” When you put yourself out there, and you have something that you believe in, then people will join you. Step forth and say ‘this is what I believe’, then you find other people of like mind, and as a group you’re stronger than several individuals.”
Since then Willie has gone on to participate in many facets of Garry oak ecosystems recovery: he has served on one of GOERT’s Recovery Implementation Groups (the Restoration and Management RIG), and has contributed to GOERT’s Decision Support Tool for invasive plant management and to the development of UVic’s Restoration of Natural Systems program. He is a member of Naturescape BC Advisory Committee, and was on the Development Committee for Naturescape BC’s ‘Caring for Wildlife Habitat at Home’. In 2006, Willie was honoured with a Long-term Environmental Achievement Award from the District of Saanich.
Upon receipt of his Acorn Award at GOERT’s first AGM, Willie quoted Wendell Berry: “Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence.” (from What Are People For?). Willie explains what it means to him: “You pick something you think you can achieve, and you do that, and then you maybe expand a bit more, and find your edge, and work with that. I do know that everybody’s edge is a lot bigger than they think it is.”
An ounce of prevention
Before moving to Victoria, Willie was a social worker in California, working in the fields of juvenile delinquency, alcoholism and drug abuse. “I decided I wanted to prevent people from becoming down-and-out in the first place. I wanted to create opportunities for people to be in natural surroundings.” Over the years Willie has guided many groups of people at the native plant garden, up on Christmas Hill, and around Swan Lake. And he works with volunteers who come and work in the native plant garden, taking the opportunity to teach when he can.
“People put other people up on pedestals and assume that they know all this stuff, but here’s a little story that will tell you where I started: When I moved to Victoria around ‘74, I was living beside Swan Lake and I dug up a broom plant and transplanted it into my garden. So you can see I started below zero, and worked up to this different place. I learned through school, reading, talking to others, and having a genuine interest in what I was doing. I once went to hear Buckminster Fuller talk in the ‘70s, and in his preamble he said: if you have a burning desire, something you’re really interested in, move towards it, and it will happen.”
In the future
After 27 years, Willie is gradually phasing out of his position Swan Lake. What’s in store for the future? “I would like to focus on the artistic side and combine that with landscape; I’m going to put myself forward a little bit, say ‘this is me’, and if anything comes along that’s interesting to me, I’ll go towards that and see what happens.”
Willie and his wife Susanne (of 27 years) and their two daughters (25 and 12) have just moved into their 100-year-old house in Esquimalt, which needs about 2 years’ worth of restoration work and renovations. He’s looking forward to working on it. “I’d like to connect art and the knowledge that I have, and add some money. Put those things together and see what happens.”
Many thanks Willie for your outstanding contributions to Garry oak ecosystems recovery, and all the best for the future.