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A Community’s Hopes for Self-Sufficiency

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irst Nations people have harvested seaweed, oysters and dandelions for centuries. They catalog these three species as sources of food and medicine. As I climb across an intrusive coastal granite outcrop off the Coast Trail on Vancouver Island’s southernmost tip, across the water from the T’Sou-ke Nation reserve, my focus today is to learn more about local food systems, sustainability and the traditional ecological knowledge of the region.

From the trees behind, a raven swoops down near where I’m hunching over the tide pools. Bright yellowish-green tube weeds with unbranched, elongated hollow blades reach tendril-like from the flat shoreline to a freshwater seep that comes from up the ravine behind me. Some blades of the confettilike seaweed are bleached white by the sun, and the seaweed is acting as an epiphyte, growing on other species of algae in the tide pools.

Milky juice spurts when I pull off a taproot of wasankswak. Wasankswak, the Crow Indian word for the plant also known as wild lettuce or wild spinach, burgeons its basal, saw-toothed leaves. Scrambling up the jagged outcrop before I hit the road again, I’m wading through a sea of salal, another edible species of great local importance. What salmon is to British Columbia, salal is to First Nations communities.

I look next for Olympia oysters (Ostrea conchaphila). Also known as native Pacific oysters, these round, gray elongated shells spread like wildfire. I find shells all over the mud and gravel flats and in between the tide pools. Native to the marine areas of the coastal Douglas fir ecozone, extending from where I am in the intertidal zone to depths of 50 meters (about 165 feet), Olympia oysters can be eaten raw or cooked.

By accident, I hurt my ankle. Knowing that wasankswak is used to treat sores and swelling, I open the stem and rub some on my ankle bone.

Saturday, March 31

I’m watching, through the dark, as the waves of the ocean dance beneath us. The clear light of the moon shimmers brightly on the white crests rolling and falling like silk around the Spirit of Vancouver Island ferry. I’m traveling from Vancouver Island back to the mainland, reflecting on what I’ve learned about sustainable community development on the coast of British Columbia these last two weeks. A bird is following us.

A Vancouver city beach.Aliette FrankA Vancouver city beach.

At the stern of the boat I’m gazing over the open ocean, south from where I came on the island. Three stars, Castor, Pollux and Procyon, look down on me. The bird moves closer to the ferry. It’s an eagle flying to the wetlands. Sustaining these wetlands is going to take an integration of the natural and social sciences, a mixed-methods case study methodology that maps both demographic and biological community characteristics.

T’Sou-ke First Nation reserve.Leslie KingT’Sou-ke Nation reserve.

As we pass the mouth of the Fraser River, freshwater from the inland yawns wide from the Pacific Flyway bird sanctuary where the eagle flies. The Fraser River usually flows at a rate of 3,972 cubic meters (5,195 cubic yards) per second. At that rate it can fill three backyard swimming pools every second. As I learned from the T’Sou-ke First Nation, it costs one-tenth as much to conserve energy as it costs to produce it; the human patterns of consumption and production up that river are driving what I’m seeing here hundreds of kilometers downstream. My next trip, in May, is to the head of the Fraser, to the sub-boreal spruce biogeoclimatic zone. Prince George, with a population of 75,828, is home to the at-risk wolverine and woodland caribou. I will be speaking there with community members about innovations in logging, mining and other resource-extraction industries. Sustainable community development in the name of coastal biodiversity is about addressing questions that are not always measurable, and are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.

The lights of the ski resorts on the three peaks above North Vancouver beam into view as the ferry leaves the main ocean current toward the hard soil of the British Columbia mainland. On the horizon is Vancouver Island’s thin, dark thread. The ferry announces its arrival. We’re officially back on the mainland.

Ny Times