My family background is pretty diverse (stretching across Europe, from Spain, France, Greece to Eastern Europe and Russia) so I harvest and write about the many foods my ancestors have eaten for literally thousands of years. But I also resonate deeply with the food cultures of the Coast Salish Peoples whose territories I occupy. How could I not? These are the lands I live on and harvest from and love with all my heart. I recognize the stories of their ancestral foods are not mine to tell, but I offer these cakes in gratitude to this beautiful land of plenty, in the hope we can restore the ancestral food wisdom of the Lekwungen people.
Hidden in an enclave of bushes along the lush walkways of the Gorge is a beautiful sculpture of a young girl seated on a rock engraved with plants and animals. Below her, the plaque reads: ” There is an ancient Songhees story of a young girl named Camossung turned to stone by Hayis the transformer. Camossung is believed to have spirit powers and is associated with protecting the local food resources (Coho Salmon, Herring, Oysters and Ducks) of the Songhees people. The sculpture symbolizes the significance of this location. A unique place where fresh and saltwater merge with each other and flow into the Gorge Waterway. A place where animals thrive and historically, people sought food and a spiritual connection.”
The location referred to is a large rock that lies only a few hundred yards away, beneath a reversible waterfall (flowing backwards and forwards with the tidal flux). Long revered as sacred, swimmers would dive down into the whirling waters in hopes of gaining spiritual power from Camossung. The colonizing settlers, however, saw the rocks as a hazard as they hampered their boats from passing through the narrows. In 1960, the rocks were blasted with dynamite and according to this website, the Songhees concerns about the spiritual significance of the blast, as well as its possible effects on food security in their community, were not heeded.
In 2010, as part of a public art project, Camossungs statue was erected to commemorate the history of the First Nations People who first inhabited the area “ as a display of one of Saanich’s goals; to be a steward in the protection of the natural environment.” But standing before this statue always makes me wonder how Camossung feels about the way things are going.
This traditional food gathering ground was once a literal land of plenty, important hunting, fishing and gathering grounds for the Songhees (Lekwunden) and Esquimalt First Nations. Lekwunden means the land of the smoke herring – and millions of herring once passed through the narrows, feeding the many other animals, birds, fish, vital to the Lekwungen food supply. Beneath the left bridge support is a midden (shells, bones, refuse, utensils and artefacts) dating back over 4,000 years, testifying to the ancient use of this area.
While we think of public parks like these as getting back to nature – we forget they are part of a colonial legacy which imposed a numbered grid on the land, from the crisscrossing streets to parcels of farmland, all zoned for appropriate use. And this entirely obliterated the traditional food gathering grounds of Camossung’s people all of which from the seashores, forests and fields was a garden.
Within their traditional food gathering practices, each season and place had a purpose, part of a system of food production that moved through the landscape, respecting its intrinsic right to exist as is. But when the pioneers arrived they only saw a “wilderness” ready to be carved up and brought under control.
As a wildcrafter or forager, someone who gathers food outside of culturally designated areas of food production, I am regularly reminded of how this colonial legacy still shapes the way nature is managed and accessed. Not far from Camossung’s Rocks, is a “community garden”. Here people tend private beds, growing food for personal consumption. Anything growing outside this postage stamp size zone for food production is no longer considered food. Foraging for any of the fruits, berries or herbs growing naturally in this park is not permitted.
August is salal berry season here in the PNW. This pulpy sweet mild blue-black berry was eaten fresh, used to sweeten other foods and dried into cakes for the winter, and was one of the most plentiful and widely used fruits on the coast. Today it still grows wild throughout the park and is also heavily planted in ornamental beds as part of restoration projects. All of which are meant to be looked at – but certainly not eaten.
Meanwhile, many of the plants I harvest (many brought by early colonizers as food) are now classified as dangerous invasives. Escaping domestication they have gone “wild’ and along these waterways restoration efforts have seen the large scale application of pesticides and herbicides, none of which I see as particularly “restorative” to the local waters and environment. And as esteemed ethnobotanist Nancy Turners many books demonstrate, many of the plants and herbs brought by settlers and pioneers were not originally seen as “bad plants” by indigenous peoples but were adopted and utilized as food and medicine.
Whether they are native, ornamental or invasive, food plants grow in abundance in every glade, nook, cranny and garden bed along these shores. Here’s a shortlist of what I found near Camossung’s statue the other morning: salal berries, Oregon grape berries, salmonberries, native trailing blackberries, thimbleberries, elderberries, rowan berries, Himalayan blackberries, rosehips, wild greens such as orache, dandelions, nettles, sea vegetables and sea lettuce, burdock, camas, feral apples, and plums and wild fennel. Clearly, we still live in the land of plenty – though we’re no longer allowed to touch.
In a region which proclaims food security as a top priority, and waiting lists for community gardens are long, perhaps we could imagine an alternative? How about a city in which parks and green spaces are gardens filled with accessible foods? Where you could stop on your way home at the local “food forest” and harvest some fresh berries along with fresh produce for supper. An unlikely vision? Well, it is already being realized.
Part of local grassroots initiatives to strengthen food security by returning public land to public access, salal grows free for the picking in many “common ground gardens” in the city along with fruits, nuts, berries, herbs and greens of both indigenous and colonizer varieties. Unlike privatized “community gardens” this food is grown by volunteers for access by the entire community, and they fly in the face of a food system based on privatization, economics and profit.
The original foodways of the Coast Salish People are now divided into concrete grids and municipal zones and are likely impossible to restore. I can’t help but wonder what Camossung might think of this topsy turvy world where the food that grows here is now strictly off-limits. Perhaps despite our efforts at reparation and restoration not much has really changed since the days access to their traditional food gathering grounds was terminated? Maybe its time to envision new/old methods of food stewardship and production?
I offer these sponge cakes on their silver tray to acknowledge the colonial legacy my forbears spread across the land. And in the spirit of food sovereignty, our human right to define our own food systems, I‘ve topped them with a simple compote of salal, blackberries, chokecherries and adorned them with flowers I found growing along the Gorge waterways. So arrest me!
I don’t want to be glib about the serious environmental challenges facing indigenous plants and I certainly don’t espouse taking to the woods and harvesting everything in sight, but perhaps it is time to dismantle the colonial legacy which imposes divisions of public and private, between good nature and bad nature, between food and not food, between plants to be “looked at” and plants to be eaten, and plants without any useful value at all.
I offer these cakes to Camossung in gratitude for the abundance of foods she still nurtures and protects, and to the herring, oysters, and salmon which are returning to this beautiful land of plenty. But mostly I offer them in deep gratitude to those people who are working to restore the foodways and ancestral food wisdom of the Coast Salish people. May Camossung be with you.