A light rain was falling in Victoria, but it wasn’t keeping anyone inside on a Saturday afternoon. The horse-drawn carriages and pedicabs were out in force, a ska band was tuning up by the harbor, and all along Wharf Street, people strolled, most of them without umbrellas. This was British Columbia, after all, and no one was going to let a little rain get in the way.
Fresh off the ferry, a friend and I joined the other sodden tourists heading to the Inner Harbour where some of the city’s most splendid buildings are gathered: the British Columbia Parliament complex, with its arched windows, domes and oceanic lawn, and the Fairmont Empress, a grande dame of a hotel, with its own set of weathered domes and turn-of-the-last-century details, a place where afternoon tea, with all the attendant rigmarole, is a ritual kept alive and well by those seeking to immerse themselves in a city that Emily Carr once called “the most English-tasting bit of all Canada.”
And who, you might ask, is Emily Carr?
She is the unexpected element in this scene: an aging woman with a monkey on her shoulder, a dog at her feet and a pad of paper on her lap. She sits – or rather a bronze sculpture of her sits – in the center of everything: on the grounds of the Empress, a place where she had experienced both intense joy (in the former conservatory) and acute boredom (in the tearoom).
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Painter, writer, admirer of forests and totem poles, dubious observer of human nature, environmentalist before the word was popular and, above all, an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own: Carr, born here in 1871, is an unlikely symbol, not just of Victoria and Vancouver Island but also, some would say, of the whole of British Columbia. How she attained that status is a tale of devotion – her own devotion – to her crafts, certainly, but also to the nature and culture of the region.
On a recent visit, I relied on some of Carr’s paintings as guideposts to southern Vancouver Island (her oeuvre depicting First Nations artifacts could be the focus of an entirely different journey), along with her memoirs and journal, an excellent West Shore Arts Council map and a biography by Maria Tippett. This wouldn’t be the strictest of Emily Carr tours – I was intent on driving the Pacific Marine Circle Route, which didn’t always follow her path. Ultimately, my aim was to get a sense of the land through her eyes.
The next morning dawned gray but dry, so we paid a visit to James Bay, a pretty neighborhood of old houses and tidy gardens. In 1863, Emily’s father, Richard Carr, arrived here with his wife and two oldest daughters. He purchased a sizable plot, erected an Italianate house and turned his land into English gardens, cow pastures and fields.
It was a magical place for Emily. She writes about the flowers (“our wild Canadian lilies … white with bent necks and brown eyes looking back into the earth”), her older sisters, her gentle, unwell mother and her visits to her father’s import business on Wharf Street; from there she could observe the Songhees First Nations reserve across the harbor.
Carr would eventually travel to places like San Francisco and Europe, where she studied art; to eastern Canada, where she was featured in exhibitions and was befriended by landscape artist Lawren Harris; to Vancouver, where she taught art; and to New York, where she met Georgia O’Keeffe. She also took arduous journeys to remote areas of British Columbia and Alaska to sketch indigenous artifacts. But most of her life was spent in James Bay, where she lived, worked and, in a priory that is now an inn, died, in 1945.
Painting didn’t pay the bills, and so she ran a boardinghouse where her tenants ranged from “inanimate, mincing ninnies” to “door slammers.” Nearby is the Emily Carr House, with its small rooms crammed with books, prints, old china, furniture and, in high season, Emily Carr fans. In cooler months, the house is closed, but do walk by; in the yard, you might glimpse the “Elephant,” the trailer-like caravan that Carr acquired in 1933 for sketching trips.
But inspiration was also nearer at hand: Beacon Hill Park, the subject of many Carr paintings. Western red cedars, Douglas firs, ponds, peacocks, frothy fountains and stone bridges (one is named for Carr): It is an enchanting park and, occasionally, a place of high drama. As we strolled, a terrible screeching arose. It was nesting season, and dozens of great blue herons burst from the mid-reaches of some tall trees. The reason for their frenzy: a bald eagle circling overhead patiently, menacingly. It was a drama that showed no signs of abating by the time we left.
When Emily was a teenager, her mother died, and she became mysteriously distant from her father. Although she would remain close to her older sisters and had a few close friends, loneliness remained a constant theme in her journals; marriage and a life of afternoon tea at the Empress seemed unlikely and undesirable. She once compared herself to “a lone old tree.”
But she also took pleasure in solitude, writing stories deep into the night and sketching during the day. Although her work received praise, she trusted none of it. Success for her was a complex, spiritual matter; the business of melding art and godliness was an unending quest.
She did have her animals for company: a Javanese monkey, multiple dogs and a white rat. And, of course, there was the forest. “I sought my companionship out in the woods and trees rather than persons,” she wrote. “It was as if they had hit and hurt me … so that I went howling back like a smacked child to Mother Nature.”
And so, with the aid of the Elephant, she began producing some of her best work as she entered her 60s. “Nothing ever, ever stands still,” she wrote, “and we never, never catch up.”
It doesn’t take long to find wilderness on Vancouver Island. On yet another overcast afternoon, we pulled into a parking lot about 10 miles outside Victoria and walked down a wide trail. This was Goldstream Provincial Park, more than 900 acres of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock and other trees; through it all runs a river where salmon spawn.
Emily Carr loved to anthropomorphize; after reading about brown-eyed lilies and screaming trees, it was easy to imagine that the giant fern fronds on the trail weren’t just brushing against our legs but reaching out beseechingly, or at least curiously, trying to get as much a visceral sense of us as we were of them.
In 1933, Emily had the Elephant towed to the Goldstream River flats, and she settled down for a lengthy visit. It wasn’t her first. A few years earlier she had been here, producing sketches in which, say, a cedar branch was not a static thing but a moving wave of foliage.
No doubt she expected to experience the same productivity two years later, but a parade of parkgoers wasn’t helping. “They started early this morning – the Public,” she wrote. “The air is riled up with motor snorts, dog parks and children’s screechings.” Add to that the antics of Woo, her monkey – who consumed her green paint and had to be treated with Epsom salts – and the rain and the darkness. “I am not afraid, but it’s creepy,” she wrote.
To us, nothing seemed creepy, and there were few people. We arrived at the visitor’s center, which smelled of damp, fragrant wood. Everything inside, it seemed, had been made either by or for visiting schoolchildren: Nature paintings hung on the walls, and exhibits – most of them handmade – focused on things like bald eagle counts and the salmon life cycle. Outside, a deck overlooked the river; in the distance, three eagles soared above the trees.
Our goal was to reach the artsy resort town of Sooke before night fell, but we decided to backtrack in hopes of finding Esquimalt Lagoon. On the way, we stumbled upon the Royal Roads Forest, a hauntingly beautiful woodland where some of the largest Douglas firs on the island are found. We wandered among the trees, forgetting about our schedule.
The lagoon itself is a fragile place, a bird sanctuary protected by a wisp of land. Carr, seduced by the “wide sweeps of sea and sky,” arrived here on a beautiful spring day in 1934. Her caravan was deposited on a field of daisies. “Woo rolls among the daisies with her four hands in the air,” she wrote happily. But that night, an epic storm rolled in: “Everything inside blew out and outside things blew in till in and out were all mixed up.” Soon enough, the caravan was hauled to higher ground on a farmer’s field.
A few years later she would return to the surrounding area and find inspiration in something that was basically ugly: gravel pits. Paintings called “Above the Gravel Pit,” show scenes of denuded land and tree stumps, all beneath a brilliant, rippled sky. There would be more paintings of bare landscapes, some with spindly second- or third-growth trees struggling upward beneath a blue sky.
Michelle Jacques, the chief curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, said the environmentally themed exhibition “Picturing the Giants: The Changing Landscapes of Emily Carr” – which includes two gravel pit paintings – is based on “the hypothesis that Carr was thinking about logging and environmental issues in a real way.” Jacques noted that in British Columbia there are many concerns: debates over an oil pipeline and increased shipping, salmon farming, land and resource rights for indigenous groups and, of course, protection of forests.
“There’s a torn and splintered ridge across the stumps I call the ‘screamers,’ Carr wrote. “These are the unsawn last bits, the cry of the tree’s heart, wrenching and tearing apart just before she gives that sway and the dreadful groan of falling, that dreadful pause while her executioners step back with their saws and axes resting and watch.”
Later on our trip, those words would resonate.
We arrived in Sooke an hour before sunset, too late to explore Sooke Hills, which Carr had visited. We stayed at a rambling hotel on the wedding circuit with wide porches overlooking the water. On a Monday, it was nearly empty. By the water, four harbor seals bobbed and rolled between moored boats. The clouds had dispersed, revealing a Prussian blue sky and the glimmer of stars. On a part of the island where the weather is known to be moody, the clear skies that had evaded us in the supposedly milder Victoria area, would, with luck, greet us in the morning.
“You will lose coverage,” our waitress told us later that night in the hotel’s restaurant when we described our plans. She was referring to cellphone service on the farther reaches of the Pacific Marine Circle route. “But you will see animals, guaranteed. I saw elk and eagles and bears last time.”
We stopped for breakfast the next morning at the Sooke Harbour House, a beautiful inn with handcrafted details, a lauded restaurant and an Emily Carr guest room. Below it, Whiffen Spit, knitted with beach grass, juts out between the calm Sooke Basin and the wide open Strait of Juan de Fuca. Our map indicated that Carr may have been here.
Later we passed a road that led to a place called Malahat Farm, where, the Carr map said, the artist had signed the register in 1920. The farther west we went, the more nebulous the recordings of her presence became, yet the more we felt immersed in what we saw in paintings like her “Wood Interior” series and in journal entries where she wrote about “the awful solemnity of age-old trees,” or the forests’ “helter-skelter magnificence.”
We found both magnificence and solemnity on trails along the road, places where the trees closed around us, and the forest floor was laced with ferns. Some led to desolate beaches like Sombrio Beach, strewn with driftwood and coffee-colored ribbons of kelp, as shiny as glass in the sun. Farther west, in Port Renfrew, was Botanical Beach, where tide pools were filled with limpets, mussels and sea anemones.
No doubt, Carr would have loved Avatar Grove, situated off a steep and deeply potholed road. Here the nonprofit Ancient Forest Alliance has recently completed a boardwalk and stairs that lead to ancient Douglas firs and red cedars. Solemnity, magnificence: Carr’s words certainly applied here.
We drove on, past valleys, sunlit meadows, streams, grazing elk.
And then, abruptly, the landscape changed. Felled trees, like matchsticks, tumbled messily down steep slopes. It looked like a massacre, limbs strewn carelessly, gnawed bones after a meal. Shadows of clouds rippled across the bare hills in the late afternoon. So, this was what clear-cutting looked like. We were speechless. “They are their own tombstones and their own mourners,” Carr wrote of the remnants of trees that had been cut down.
We remained silent as we drove through the Cowichan Valley wine-growing country. And then, all at once, we were on the last stretch, lined with gas stations and motels, back to Victoria. We would be busy there in our remaining hours. We still needed to find Emily’s grave site and, if time allowed, return to Beacon Hill to check on the herons. To the south, clouds were rolling in off the water, but we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us.