06 February 2005

Bournemouth-on-the-Pacific: Victoria, B.C.

The Britishness of Victoria, the main city on Vancouver Island (and the official capital of British Columbia), seemed exaggerated to me. With its red phone booths, wrought-iron pavilions, pubs, Wax Museum, Crystal Garden, afternoon tea, and kilted bagpiper playing Christmas tunes out of season, Victoria was a Busch Gardens version of England. But the cloying atmosphere was not wholly invented; there were historical and social reasons for it. Though the Canadian Pacific had hoped to extend the transcontinental rail line to Vancouver Island, the railway had never gotten this far; it had terminated in the city of Vancouver, on the mainland. From that point onward, Vancouver projected itself into the future, as the rail bridge across the continent is now being reconceived as an air bridge across the Pacific. Meanwhile, Victoria, in its isolation, clung to the comfortable colonial past, redolent of the Hudson's Bay Company and the British Navy. By the turn of the twentieth century, Victoria was a Bournemouth-on-the-Pacific, a clubby haven for "remittance men," the unemployable sons of wealthy English families.

Elizabeth Archibald, a medieval scholar from Cambridge, England, who teaches at the University of Victoria, told me that when she had been at Yale, "Everyone was enchanted by my English accent. In Victoria it's not even noticed. The flights between London and this part of Canada are full. Many Britons come here to live."

The abundance of Britons in Victoria, along with the nicely cadenced speech of English Canada, has produced a wonderfully clear local accent. The words slip from people's mouths like springwater vectored by rocks in a stream. This, at any rate, is what I thought when I met Douglas Homer-Dixon, who has spent his life as a forester on Vancouver Island. He escorted me for a walk along the coast in East Sooke Regional Park, pointing out the western cedars with their fanlike, matronly branches, the gnarled, sienna-hued arbutus trees, and the Pacific yews, whose coat of carbohydrate-rich lichen deer feed on. A gentle wind blew through the fog and ash-blue Strait of Juan de Fuca, connecting Puget Sound with the Pacific; it had been named for a Greek explorer who had sailed for Spain and adopted a Spanish name. Unlike the eastern fog, weighted with heat and humidity, the fog here is a silken lacework, draping the hillsides. I watched a Steller's jay, described by Meriwether Lewis, land silently on a branch, its fabulous midnight-blue color clashing with the green background. Each rain droplet seemed to have hardened in the cold air, as if millions of glass beads rested upon the leaves.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 324-325

And, speaking of Vancouver Island, the Dictionary of Received Ideas alerts us to an online exhibit of the Virtual Museum of Canada entitled Graveyard of the Pacific: The Shipwrecks of Vancouver Island. The South Pacific has quite a few nautical graveyards as well.

No comments: