I’ve lived in Woodhaven for 14 years. There, I got it right this time. People ask me how long I’ve lived here and every time they do I have to do a subtraction in my head from the year I arrived until whenever it is that they ask. And the question of how long I’ve lived here is always followed by two other questions, everyone asks the same thing and generally in the same order. The first question is, “How long have you lived here?” (that’s when I do the subtraction part). The second question is, “Do you live alone?” The answer is, yes. And the third question is, “Aren’t you afraid?” This is my favourite question. I always say, “Of what?” and the women always say, “bears” and the men always say “people.” And I’m always amazed at how this conversation goes. The women want to know if I’m afraid of the biggest, scariest, animal they can think of, which is a bear, and the men want to know if I’m afraid of the biggest scariest animal they can think of, which is them! because for the men, when they say ‘people’ they certainly don’t mean women. I can tell that sort of thing.
Woodhaven is a twenty-two acre Nature Conservancy nestled into a neighbourhood. The land is fenced on three sides with the back section of the park opening onto a steep hillside. Woodhaven is land that is preserved in perpetuity, which means it can’t be logged or mined or sold for anything, ever. The whole twenty-two acres was saved from being developed by Jim and Joan Burbridge, the people who lived here before me. Jim and Joan were wildlife photographers and naturalists. Joan worked at the hospital as a physiotherapist and Jim was the mosquito control guy for the Regional District but really, really, they were wildlife photographers and naturalists the both of them. They found each other because Joan wanted to see snakes and Jim was leading tours into the desert. Man, woman, snake, idyllic natural setting with butterflies and spotted fawn prancing about, how Edenic!
Jim and Joan slept on the patio all year round and loved the critters, the bugs, the birds, the trees and the dirt. They loved it all until the bulldozers came, and then they loved it more. Jim and Joan launched a community rebellion to save the land. That rebellion went all the way through the city up and over the provincial government and landed in the hands of the Greenbelt Protection Fund, the Canadian Nature Trust and the Second Century Fund. These contributions along with money raised by the community purchased the land for $120,000. When the dust finally settled all twenty two acres were saved from the axe and Jim and Joan became caretakers here for life. Jim died in 1989 and Joan lived on in the house until the fall of 2001. I arrived the following spring.
When I first moved into the house there were empty long-lens cases and a portable light box, evidence of their passion for photography. I mused at the furniture; a matching chair set, one a rocker and one a regular chair both covered in garish orange and yellow faded flowers with pleated cushion covers and elbow-worn armrests. Both sat low to the ground and they were perfect for me because I’m not very tall. Next, I discovered a secret wall below the bathroom sink with a hole in the panel. I stuck my finger in and pulled. Lo and behold out came a little step stool, pretty handy I’d say. It’s just the right height so I can reach into the top of the medicine cabinet above the sink. It wasn’t until I realized that the wooden chair in the kitchen could be flipped up and inside out to convert into another step stool that I clearly understood how much I was meant to be here. Joan was only 4 foot 11 and I am 5 feet tall. I fit it, and it fit me.
There are four bio-geoclimatic zones all inside the fence line of the park. Outside the fence line Woodhaven is bordered by clay and gravel cliffs to the north, Bellevue Creek in the south, to the west is Raymer Road and north west opens to a residential development built in the 1970’s. The far eastern edge of the park is the corner of the fence line and at that point it snuggles up against the neighbour’s land which goes back fifty or so acres and into a canyon with a waterfall. The house I live in, where Jim and Joan lived, is made of stone and wood and was the summer home for the first Mayor of Kelowna, Harry Raymer. There is a concrete pond built against a flagstone patio and the whole house camouflages effortlessly into the wild land that surrounds it. Along the Raymer Road fence line there’s a parking lot for people to leave their cars when they come for a walk. And the way into that parking lot is through a seven foot swinging gate with a lock on it.
I pull on a pair of tights under my nightie, slip into flat shoes, grab a cardigan and head into the morning. It’s just past 5:30 and the gate and I have an appointment. It’s my job. Actually, it’s one of a handful of jobs I have here. Officially I’m the Security Contractor, that’s the title at least. Queen of the lock, undo-er of the barricade, opener of the day, welcome witch. For twelve months of the year I open the gate when the sun comes up and close the gate when the sun goes down.
There’s a big bold sign on the gate that lets people know the park WILL BE CLOSED if there’s a ‘wind event’. What that really means is that if the wind blows more than level five on the Beaufort Scale that I will go and close the gate so no one will get smacked by a tree crashing down on them. After I close the gate I travel backward through the trails and shuffle people out safely where we all meet in the parking lot. I open the gate so they can all leave then close it again until the hazardous tree assessors arrive to signal the ‘all clear’. It’s a hazardous job to walk through in strong winds but better to do it than see someone harmed.
There’s another equally as serious looking sign a few feet away from the wind event sign and that one lets people know there’ll be a dastardly fine if they bring their dog into the park. Currently, it’s a one hundred dollar per dog punishment. People always think it’s the poop thing, “I promise I’ll pick up after “Fido,” they say to me. But it’s not about the poop. It’s good to have this conversation because it gives me an opportunity to talk about the life of Woodhaven. Picking up the poop would be good if that were the issue but I tell them it’s more about lingering scent and wild versus domesticated animals. Everything touches everything here on planet earth and the lives of domesticated animals and wild animals are light years apart. The mere scent of dog piss that’s been through the internal system of an animal fed on corn, chicken lips and cow entrails is disconcerting and foreign to a deer that munches on fresh green spring leaves. It upsets the balance and can’t be a part of the Woodhaven culture. There are baby birds, racoon, deer and bunnies, and just the thought of a dog snapping a leash and running amok makes me shudder. No Dogs Allowed.
There’s little brown birds this morning gorging on wads of berries up the Saskatoon tree next to the gate. They make the teensiest of peeps or I’d never know they were there. They have contortionist claws that cling to almost anything and they travel in huddles of ten, sometimes more. I see them way at the top of fir trees behind the house, flitting about back and forth, twisting up and around, landing, flying, landing, flying all in about 10 square feet. After a while they parade every which way through the air and in and out of branches until they finally land all together in a group on another tree to start all over again. Sometimes the little brown birds come to the pond to flit about and take turns for a bath and a drink, but mostly I see them at the gate or way up high. I don’t know what they are, little brown birds that’s all. There’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief foray as a human and that is, even though I may want to, I don’t have to know everything.
The little brown birds are here all year around. There’s people in the neighbourhood that have feeders for the birds that stay in the winter and the little brown birds take full occupancy on them. I don’t feed the birds. In fact, I don’t feed anything here, I never interfere. They are the four-leggeds, the swimmers, the wing-eds and the standing ones. I just happen to be the two-legged one in equal occupancy. As Jane Goodall says, “It’s a wuzzy line”.
The opening and the closing of the gate has long ago lost its lustre of ceremony and ritual, nowadays it feels more like the relationship I’ve never had. You know, the one that’s reliable and friendly, the one that’s agreeable in the worst of circumstances and gives way with the gentlest of suggestion. It’s like the relationship that’s always there at the start and end of the day, the one that opens with slightest of pressure applied and then opens wide just when you least expect it. Apparently it’s also the relationship that has the big sign that says it’s closed when the wind is howling and especially no dogs are allowed. Maybe that’s a good thing.
I pop up the latch and push the long side over so it swings toward the foot brace and walk the shorter side over to the post. With a flip of the tip of my shoe I drop the u-brace around the galvanized steel frame. I do the same on the other side of the gate and I’m done my job.