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Briony Penn

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Briony Penn

 

 

Briony Penn is a naturalist, environmentalist, teacher, map-maker, artist and geographer whose approach inspires the Islands Institute.

 

For a book review book with fascinating biographical information about Briony Penn, see: http://www.abcbookworld.com/?state=view_author&author_id=2937

 

She is a map-maker who initiated artistic mapping projects in the region.

 

 

 

 

In 2001 Penn gained national attention for a Lady-Godiva inspiried protest against clear-cut logging on Salt Spring Island in which she donned panties and an ankle length blond wig and rode a horse through downtown Vancouver

See http://www.savesaltspring.com/godiva.html

 

This article on Briony Penn was published in March 2003 in Focus magazine - a magazine that celebrates Victoria's creative and community spirit with diverse, intelligent editorial coverage. See www.focusonline.ca.

 

featured interview March 2003

 

At home with enviro-diva Briony Penn

by Leslie Campbell

 

Over the phone, Briony Penn had given me her address, directions from the Fulford Harbour ferry landing and a hint: “Look for an old, abandoned-looking house in a meadow.” She’s invited me for lunch at her Salt Spring Island home so I can wrap up my interview with her.

 

The ferry ride from Swartz Bay to Fulford Harbour gives me time to review notes from our first interview. After obtaining a doctorate in geography from the University of Edinburgh a dozen years ago, she helped found The Land Conservancy of BC, the Garry Oak Meadows Preservation Society and launched many community mapping projects. For over 10 years she’s written and illustrated the popular Wild Side column in Monday Magazine—some of which became a book that spent six months on B.C.’s bestseller list. She was intensely active in the Save Salt Spring campaign (from logging by Texada Land Corporation) including a Lady Godiva-like ride down Vancouver’s Howe Street. And for the past year, as co-host of the NewVI’s Enviro/mental show, she’s been taking her issues and messages to TV-viewers. In everything she does she expresses her understanding of the planet and its inhabitants and concern for their health with reverence, artistic creativity, intellectual clarity and plain old good humour.

 

Driving along the winding tree-lined road that goes southeast from Fulford Harbour towards Isabella Point, I keep looking for abandoned houses in meadows but at the address she’s given there’s a solid-looking white house with dark green trim. In the front yard there are swings for children and saplings rising up above their deer-discouraging cages. An old-fashioned verandah wraps around two sides of the house—which looks like it would be just as happy in a heritage neighbourhood of Victoria.

 

Briony greets me at the back door and I’m ushered into her kitchen, a high-ceilinged room; on one side there’s a wood-fired heating stove casting warmth into the room on this grey day. A pot simmers on the electric stove; there’s the aroma of a hearty vegetable soup. Briony’s husband, Donald Gunn, has made the soup and gone off in search of fresh bread and goat’s cheese for our lunch. While we await his return, Briony shows me around the house which, it turns out, is 102 years old and has a rather surprising story.

 

After Briony and Donald returned to Victoria from Scotland, they were pregnant and broke and living in Oak Bay. Briony went on daily walks in the neighbourhood and always passed a gracious old house, nestled in a grove of Garry oaks. The house had a wide verandah; she says she visualized sitting there with her new baby. When she learned the owner was going to tear the old house down and replace it with what she describes as “a monster home,” her instinct for preservation kicked in—after all, the house had been designed by the famous Francis Rattenbury’s architectural firm. “The house really should have been designated a heritage house,” says Briony. Penn and Gunn bravely offered the developer a dollar for the house and it was theirs. Almost. They still had to find a place to move it to. They decided on affordable land on Salt Spring and arrangements were made to barge the house there. The move, including cutting the house in half, removing the roof, a stormy 36-hour crossing from Oak Bay to Fulford Harbour, and hauling the house uphill along an old logging road—on which, of course, it got stuck—cost close to $50,000 in the end, borrowed from family and friends.

 

It’s easy to imagine this solid old house with its warm wooden floors, big windows and long, rich history playing an important role in the lives of its inhabitants—past, present and future. Twelve years ago, the house seemed fated to end its life as landfill, the natural outcome of “progress.” But here it is, defiant, filled with life. The spacious rooms are crammed with books, desks, drafting tables and the flotsam of two active boys and highly creative parents. The wide, central hallway contains a piano, a giant dolls’ house, and is lined with artwork by friends, Penn’s great grandmother and Gunn.

 

A large living/dining room, papered in burgundy, still has garlands of hanging Christmas cards on the last day of January. Artwork graces all the walls, including three impressive mandala-like pieces of Briony’s as well as work by her children. Creativity is bursting out everywhere, a little dishevelled, but obviously central in the family’s life. The spacious wrap-around verandah features a rustic double-seater “sunset watching” chair as well as a very funky Briony-made driftwood table that she jokes would sell for $1000 in New York.

 

This old-new house is now a repository of artifacts from Briony Penn’s rich family history on Vancouver Island, which reaches back five generations. Her great great granddad was the first Supreme Court judge in B.C. Her grandfather penned poems about “this place.” Her great grandmother was an artist in the same painting group as Emily Carr and traveled up the coast painting watercolours—some of which I see hanging in the big central hallway. A painting of Mount Claxton depicts a grand temperate rainforest which Briony notes is now, after logging, just big mudslides.

 

“Our family photo albums are full of pictures of what this place used to look like,” she says; “If you don’t know what this place used to look like you don’t know what’s gone.” But she does and knows that “what’s left is unbelievably precious,” and that she has a responsibility to save it.

 

Her mission was evident at an early age, including indignant letters to editors advocating the preservation of wild spaces. “At age eight,” she recalls, “I was trying to save Christmas Hill from development, but it was destroyed and I never quite got over that. It was stunningly beautiful!” This was where she hung out as a young girl. Though her family owned some of the property (her granddad acquired Christmas Hill on a bad debt) Briony says a long convoluted story of old wills, grandchildren and greed ended with part of Christmas Hill being sold and developed. She is still upset about this 30 years later.

 

Her mother was headmistress of Norfolk School and her dad a physician. She says she was the kind of kid who was always in trouble and left home at 16 for UBC. At 17 she studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts. She mentions two strong women besides her mom, as important mentors during her early years: first, her sister Caroline, 10 years her senior and now a physician in Vancouver, who started Victoria’s first recycling depot in the family home. “People would deliver their cans and even bones to our place. My dad never quite understood what we were doing.”

 

The other woman she describes as “absolutely the strongest influence on me” was her paternal grandmother in England with whom she spent many memorable summers. Briony’s intense love of nature was nurtured by this keen naturalist who took delight in all flora and fauna and lived in a “voluntary simplistic” fashion influenced by her devout Anglicism (she had once been a missionary). Briony admits she dropped the Anglican part.

 

But it’s not just family and photo albums that stimulated her interest in the natural world. In a recent essay in B.C. Naturalist, she writes: “Like many Victorians growing up in the 50s and 60s, we all entered the expansive kingdom of natural history under the generous canopy of B.C. Parks naturalist Freeman (“Skip”) King. I have very early memories of going to Goldstream on those stunning golden October afternoons, when the sweet smell of rotting flesh becomes synonymous with a grand pageant of scarlet eggs, bobbing dippers, mewing gulls, thrashing fishtails, and gorging eagles; and there in the middle was Skip, one of the big bears of the forest, with large, calloused hands full of fir cones, salmon bones and eagle feathers, spinning stories about the place. Those were the times in which the solid little black camas seeds of ecological understanding were planted, later flowering into the more abstract adult concepts of connectedness of all things, the cyclical nature of life, a sense of place and spiritual awareness. Skip showed me life, death, competition, cooperation, and a whole chaos of beings and relationships. What else do you need to know about life?”

 

Back in the kitchen, Briony heads to the stove, stirs the soup and realizes it is burnt. I know I’m distracting her with my questions so give it a rest while she salvages the soup, adding water and transferring it to another pot. She sighs and says this is typical: “Donald makes the soup and I burn it!”

 

I sense this is typical, for Briony is often so deep in thought about the “whole chaos of beings and relationships,” that the minute-to-minute aspects of running a household are perhaps not her forté. She says, “I think all the time about where society is heading,” and mentions some books she’s recently read, including The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (by Geoffrey Miller); Biomimicry—Innovation Inspired by Nature (Janine Benyus), 2030—Confronting Thermageddon in our Lifetime (Robert Hunter); and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

 

She believes we might be entering a period reminiscent of the Dark Ages with much of consumer culture breaking down but—just as after the fall of the Roman Empire—with pockets of enlightened cultural “refugia” surviving. “Our biggest trouble is with the loss of the wild—it’s the basis of evolution; without it, humans can only go so far.” There are simply too many humans on the Earth, she remarks, adding “I hope we’re smart enough to reduce our numbers without crisis.”

 

While Briony stirs the soup back to life, I sit at the kitchen table and ponder refugia. Refugia seem central to Briony’s ideological and practical underpinnings. I know that during the last ice age when much of the northern hemisphere was covered with a thick ice sheet, it’s believed there were small ice-free areas along the coasts where plants and animals survived. When the ice sheet melted, those areas that still harboured life—the refugia—assisted in the biological recovery of lands scoured barren by glaciers.

 

Modern industrialism has been compared with the glaciers in its fragmentation and destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity and many scientists believe we must find ways to preserve land so that biological recovery can happen after industrialism runs its course.

 

My refugia reverie is broken by the sound of a car pulling up outside the house and soon Donald Gunn comes through the door—laden with fresh still-warm bread, locally-produced goat cheese and Briony’s favourite smoked oysters from Cortes Island, all in keeping with her “bioregional consciousness” which entails supporting home-grown and produced food and other materials of life.

 

I’ve been curious how Briony Penn fits in all that she does and soon realize that Donald, a big bear of a man with a gentle Scottish burr, is an important part of this puzzle. Briony says she’s still amazed at the incredible insight she showed in marrying Donald. “He’s my rock,” she says. Whereas she, on the other hand, wishes she could lose a little of her fervour: “That’s my worst problem. I get so excited about things.”

 

As we sit and eat our lunch, we talk about how the two met and their time together in Scotland. Penn found Gunn (there are jokes about the Penn being mightier than the Gunn) early on during her seven years in Scotland (1983–1990) where she did graduate studies in geography at the University of Edinburgh. Donald was studying architecture and loved to draw wildlife. Of Donald the artist, Briony has written, “I eventually married a man who could draw the raised eyebrow of a raven with such precision and care that I knew he would be as steadfast in a rapidly-changing world.” Eventually the two formed a company that designed interpretive installations for parks and communities, a business partnership that continues today.

 

In Scotland Briony was exposed to the community mapping concept she would introduce to British Columbians. The Brits called them parish maps, and every week the newspaper in Edinburgh would print a map created by the community which showed all the favourite haunts including pubs, fox dens, trails and views. “They were beautiful,” Briony says, who as a geographer and artist already had a penchant for maps. She saw how they could empower a community, enabling inhabitants to examine how they see their land and share with each other what’s important to them.

 

Briony also brought back from Scotland her missionary zeal. “Living in Scotland was an incredibly sobering experience,” she says. Her father-in-law’s ability to translate Gaelic place names into English gave clear clues to what once had been on those barren moors: Valley of the Bear, Mountain of Elk, and Tall Trees were all names of places where nothing but a bit of heather now occupies the land. “Scotland was once a temperate rainforest and now there’s nothing there—no wild salmon, no bear, no beaver, they are all gone,” she says emphatically.

 

She fears that with our “malls and dull, mindless suburban culture” we’re already on the same path which lost Scotland its natural heritage.

 

Between spoonfuls of soup, the conversation drifts to Briony’s new work as cohost with Rick Searle of the NewVI’s Enviro/mental show. She crams her full-time workload into three long days in Victoria so she can be at home with her family for the rest of the week. Donald keeps the home fires burning.

 

When asked if Penn is harder to live with now she’s a media personality, Gunn says—good-naturedly—“She had already maxxed out in that department so it makes no difference.” He’s due back at the school where he teaches art but promises to return later for “tea and cooo-kies.”

 

Through Enviro/mental, Briony has added broadcasting skills to her tool kit—which is a bit ironic since she’s a self-admitted snob about TV and the only TV in her home doesn’t even work.

 

But, she says, she gets excited about things and can’t say no to including them in her life. When her old friend Penny Murray suggested she submit a proposal to the NewVI during its formation phase, she did so because she realized TV has a huge influence on people’s lives. Both she and Murray (who became Enviro/mental’s associate producer) were impressed by the NewVI’s dedication to local programming and its willingness to involve people who often had no official training in the medium but could bring a passion for the issues.

 

Lunch over, Briony cleans off the table and fills the sink for washing the dishes. I had talked earlier with Penny Murray who said Penn has adapted well to TV and is developing a unique style. “It’s not about ego with Briony,” said Murray; “She’s so willing to play that viewers can’t help but warm up to her.” From being mesmerized with wolves and their pups frolicking north of Bella Bella, to skipping with bull kelp on a west coast beach in a story on local seaweeds and their uses, Briony puts both her old love of Disney shows (“When I was a kid, if it was a choice between Walt Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, I’d choose Disney,” she says) and creative metaphorical flourishes to use.

 

Her first interview for Enviro/mental was with one of her idols and fellow rebels-with-a-cause, writer Tom Robbins. He was in town for a conference but had proclaimed he wouldn’t do interviews. Murray persuaded Briony to write him and send some of her own writing. It worked—he agreed to an interview. The resulting tapes show her a little tongue-tied at times, being as she admits “in awe” and still figuring out what questions a journalist should ask, but plunging into both the interview and a frog pond, discussing the disappearance of frogs all over the world. She thinks he must have been amused with her because they have continued to correspond.

 

“The greatest part of the job is I get to meet all my heroes and heroines,” she tells me, naming Joanna Macy, Robert Bateman, Julia Butterfly Hill, Bristol Foster, biomimicist Janine Benyus, Ian McTaggart-Cowan, Betty Krawczyk and John Ralston Saul (husband of Canada’s Governor General).

 

“Ralston Saul is like a born-again environmentalist! He talked about how people who understand old growth forests have a wonderful metaphor for how society can work because it’s integrated, diverse and complex, not simplified into monocultures.”

 

Besides Enviro/mental, Briony does a couple of environmental news stories each week, often involving interviews with politicians. It’s been an eye-opener for her. Mincing no words, she says, “They’re not capable of deep thought; they are stunning in their lack of imagination. The other thing I’ve noticed is that not one of them is free to speak—they all have their minister’s assistants right beside them, tape recording them and they report back to Gordon Campbell’s office.” She fears their ideology is getting in the way of sound economic decisions, and gives as one example the lifting of the moratorium on grizzly bear hunting: “One grizzly viewing resort generates more revenue than all the grizzly hunting licenses in the province.”

 

Like so much of life, however, her new job is not without its paradoxes: “I climb into an SUV the NewVI’s to go do a story on climate change!” She tries not to judge others because she understands how hard it is to be perfect.

 

She washes and I dry. I ask what her most proud accomplishments are and, after a moment she says her two boys—and helping found The Land Conservancy of BC (TLC).

 

The latter was influenced by her exposure to Scotland’s National Trust. Soon after her return to Canada, she teamed up with Bill Turner (who is still TLC’s executive director), and they “tried like crazy to buy up properties while the window to buy them was still there. I brought the scientific contacts and Bill brought the development and real estate contacts. TLC was five years of my life,” says Briony, who served both on the board and in the field.

 

Bill Turner had told me earlier that “Briony was always there when we needed support, enthusiasm, passion or just plain wisdom,” adding, “she always brought humour with her wisdom.”

 

TLC is a widely regarded success story, protecting from development over 82,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands throughout B.C. (including nearby Sooke Hills). Briony tells me, “Government policies that we’ve worked years to get can be erased overnight by an order-in-council. It’s important to have an area of hope and control that is separate from government. We can save land, and that’s one of the most important things we can do for the future of the planet.”

 

She spins me a metaphor: “If we think of the Western World as a glacier, concreting the world up with malls, these little nature refugias that people have saved will help to repopulate landscapes if they become dead. It can have huge repercussions in the future because you’re saving the blueprint for evolution, and things can spread out from these pockets.” Again she points to Scotland’s experience. There is now a strong restoration movement happening in Scotland in which sea eagles, wolves, pine and birch are being reintroduced to areas where they once thrived but have been long absent. The biological restoration material is being taken from “tiny little refugia” in Scotland. Without those refugia, restoration would be impossible.

 

Briony Penn’s love of metaphor is apparent in her Monday magazine columns which she has written for over 10 years and from which her B.C. bestseller A Year on the Wild Side was drawn (a second volume is planned). She found the column a welcome respite from training manuals—“I was encouraged to be playful and creative.” In it, she uses metaphor to help explain, entertainingly, the natural world and the challenges we face. Disney programs helped her understand that it doesn’t hurt to include a little of the human drama either.

 

She admits to using devious tricks to lure her readers, including references to sex and rock stars. “Most people think nature writers are sexless, earnest sorts of people. And that nature writing doesn’t relate to their lives, though really it is the crazy comedy that surrounds them.”

 

It’s after three by the time Donald and 7-year-old Ronan return from school. Ronan is full of energy and exuberance so Donald suggests he walk with Briony and I down the road to meet 11-year-old Callum on his way home from middle school.

 

On our return, the comforting smell of cookies baking in the oven greets us—Donald is already dropping a second batch on a cookie pan. The big kitchen begins to fill. A white dog comes through the door and wanders knowingly into another part of the house. Kids from the neighbourhood drop by, begging cookies from an obliging Donald. Ronan does a kind of sideways dance from the kitchen into the laundry room accompanied by a vigorous huffing and puffing, apparently to cool the hot cookie in his mouth. Callum liberates a cookie or two and wonders out loud about where his sleeping bag might be. He’s going snow boarding the next day at Mt. Washington. Donald gets him going in the right direction, then puts another plate of cookies on the table. Now everyone is eating cookies, maybe even the white dog. These treats are rightfully famous as “Donald’s cooo-kies” around the community and a hit at bake sales for local causes.

 

The couple have grown deep roots in the Salt Spring community and have used their many talents to protect its wild areas and nurture its community. A few years back, along with thousands of other Salt Springers, Briony rose up like a mamma bear to protect her beloved island when Texada Land Corporation started to clear-cut a large tract of land it owned. Help poured in: artists, writers, scientists, filmmakers and personalities who could command media attention (e.g. Robert Bateman, Arthur Black, Randy Bachman) all helped raise funds—in the end millions—to buy land from Texada before the company could log it all. Briony, Birgit Bateman and other island women even doffed their clothes for the cause in a highly successful calendar (over $100,000 was raised).

 

But, Briony tells me, even with all that money, talent and determination, success was not assured. “We had raised all of the money: federal, provincial, regional, and had all the structures in place and an appraisal, but Texada wouldn’t negotiate. Our negotiators finally walked away because it was clear the other side wasn’t acting in good faith.” That’s what prompted her famous Lady Godiva ride down Vancouver’s Howe Street. Islanders decided to shame the logging company’s backer—ManuLife—into urging Texada to sit down and complete negotiations. As former rocker Randy Bachman said “that’s what it took” to get their attention. Briony noted at the time that she wasn’t commanding much attention with her PhD in geography, but taking off her clothes sure did. Eventually, 32 hectares of Canada’s largest Garry oak woodland, next to the Mt. Maxwell ecological reserve, was protected, as were other areas.

 

Between cookies she shows me a poem by one of Texada’s owners which disparages the community and Briony Penn in particular. She recalls how hard the logging company found it to relate to the community, in part because they had no traditional leader—they were a grassroots collective intent on consensus and power sharing.

 

Briony worries how other areas will be protected from over-development, given that even though Salt Spring had absolutely everything going for it, it still took two years of blood, sweat, tears and dollars to save itself. “With most environmental protests the protester gets six months and the corporation walks away and continues to rape the land. Endangered ecosystems get no protection in law. You can destroy the very last butterfly in the world and you’ll walk away with no penalty, but if I try to block you from doing that I’ll spend months in prison.”

 

The cookies and rising pandemonium in the kitchen remind me of an earlier discussion with Briony during which I inquired how people who are concerned about the health of the natural world—but feel so overwhelmed they don’t know where to start—can get involved. She acknowledged that the first step is the hardest. While exposure to the beauty of nature can convert us to lovers and protectors of it, she also thinks it should be fun. “Go and have fun in the environment you want to get to know.” She suggests working with others in the neighbourhood to clear ivy and other invasive species, or restore a wetland. “Have potluck parties—then it’s also part of your social life. Everyone’s busy, so find something that fits into your life and isn’t depressing.” She concluded her advice by saying, “Always make sure you have cookies and tea and friends with your enviro work!”

 

Ronan appears from outside with a grievance. Donald diffuses the situation by suggesting Ronan may be “disturbing the decorum of the tea party” and so should go back outside to play. He and his two friends return to skateboarding.

 

More visitors have appeared with more children in tow. They include Karen McAllister and her sister-in-law Victoria. Karen is a few days away from giving birth to her first child. She tells me she looks to Briony as a role model on how you can remain active even with young children—especially if you have a supportive partner. Briony says “I was a good mom when they were little and I could walk miles with them in my back pack.” But she admits the kids have been known to say to her, “Mommy you care more about nature than me.” She says, “they are surprisingly well-balanced.”

 

McAllister, who works in Bella Bella for the Raincoast Conservation Society, tells me how valued Briony is as a director with the organization (along with other B.C. enviro-divas Alexandra Morton and Misty MacDuffee). Briony’s experience with TLC was helpful in the purchase of an old lodge in the Koeye Valley, subsequently turned over to the Heiltsuk Nation. McAllister tells a story about Penn’s first visit as a director and how she and Karen talked into the night about ideas for the ethnobotanical garden planned for a clear-cut area near the lodge. McAllister says she lay awake a good part of the night she was so excited by the ideas Briony had given her. Finally, at 5 a.m. she got up only to find Briony already hard at work drafting detailed plans for the restoration project.

 

The tea party continues; children come and go while Donald works away at the kitchen counter making a mammoth apple and blueberry pie to take to friends for dinner. After it’s in the oven, he disappears. Later, when I am finally saying my good-byes, I find him in his studio—aka Ronan’s bedroom—working on an illustration of a hummingbird as part of a design contract. While the children are his priority he still runs their design firm, teaches art, occasionally designs small houses, and is making plans to renovate their unfinished attic.

 

Briony now lives three days a week in a co-op house in James Bay with four other women, and four days a week with her men on Salt Spring. She jokes that when she’s had enough testosterone, she gets to go to Victoria and be with women, and then when she’s had enough exposure to female hormones, she’s back to the men.

 

And down the road, when her own hormones have calmed down, she foresees a new career as a funeral director. She was so impressed with what she discovered while researching England’s green burial movement for an episode of Enviro/mental, she wants to help her friends avoid the corporate “death care industry” and have instead soulful, affordable funerals. Her vision is complete with black horses wearing feathery plumes pulling a carriage she drives to the doors of mourning Islanders.

 

Meanwhile, like a hummingbird, she buzzes back and forth, sipping the nectar on both sides of the Salish Sea.

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