Elsie Watson, a retired Oak Bay resident, never lived near Rithet’s Bog nor did she skate, but as a girl she accompanied friends as they slogged up the streets to the Bog, their skates casually and stylishly thrown over their shoulders. She remembers the sheen of the ice, the sounds as sharp as whip cracks flying through the air, and the crisp ozone scent of the cold atmosphere. With so much open water at the Bog this year Elsie’s memories are keener than ever, like the tinkling of bells heard from a great distance. Most of all, she remembers the laughter.
And so it goes. Rithet’s Bog is part and parcel of Victoria’s collective memory, in all of its many facets, whether that of a productive cranberry bog for the First Nations, as farmlands, or recreation spot, or endangered wetland. In it and through it we see the constancy of change and also permanence, a natural wonder that has survived so far no matter how we have used or abused it. The Bog is a witness to ourselves and our works, and to our joy in nature. Vic Griffin, himself a ninety-something-year-old force of nature, has lived above the Bog since the early 1950s, and remembers with extraordinary clarity the days when there was nothing between his house on Royal Oak Avenue and the Bog, the days when tobogganers and sledders could whistle down the slopes unimpeded, careering and careening to crash or glide onto the frozen water. He will, when asked, proffer snapshots he himself took from his garden of skaters and hockey players out on the ice, tiny figures in a landscape fitted to the geography of our memories and imagination. And indeed, there is nothing save the land between Vic and them. As he talks and fondles the photos anyone listening gradually becomes aware of the love he has for the Bog and its environs, a feeling he shares with all who speak of their days living near it.
One of those is Gerald Kelly who lived in Vic’s street for twenty-five years. Talking to him one notices that his sharpest memories seem to be of winter and frozen ice over which the intrepid happily glided. But there was summer too with its golden light and shapes and hues, and flights of trumpeter swans.
One of the most striking images to come out of this exploration of memories is of a little boy, a pre-teen, in the springtime and early summer of his life, astride his horse above the Bog on many a morning, looking down into it, deciding whether or not to defy his father’s order not to ride into the Bog with its hidden dangers of sodden earth and sudden drops in levels. Bryan Burkinshaw still lives on the perimeter of the Bog, his affection and care for it undiminished after a span of six decades.
For long-time resident Jack Burdge the feelings and memories are more complex than most. His family farmed at the site for many years and he remembers the hard work, the occasional disappointments that are a part of every farmer’s life, and the sheer joy and wonder of working so closely with nature. His love for the place is evident in his voice as he speaks of it, and in his face with its barely suppressed smile as he recalls family members, crops, and even the disastrous autumn when one of his barns burnt down and the family lost all of its recently stored hay.
Equally complicated are the memories of Eric McMorran whose father managed Rithet’s Farms for many years. At the family restaurant on Cordova Bay he proudly displays a splendid photograph, circa 1960, of his handsome father sitting on the steps of the old farmhouse, a man clearly contented with his life and happy to be exactly where he is. Mr. McMorran is a storehouse of tales about the Bog, the farm and the people who were part of its story. His memory astonishes as he identifies every character in a photograph no matter how old or obscure. And like the others who shared moments about the Bog, his voice and words are suffused with affection and love.
Happy, that’s what these keepers of our history are. Happy to recall what Shakespeare might deem “the lovely April” of their prime, and their role in the history of Rithet’s Bog. Happiness, according to the great diarist Gerald Brennan, requires as one of its constituents the feeling of permanence, the belief that this or something like this will go on forever. Seen in this light the timelessness of Rithet’s Bog’s beauty cheers and comforts us.
BARA Bugle (Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter), Fall 2004 – John Lucas