Playfair Park

 Flower pix by WDV

Playfair Park is about one acre. A pocket park. Gorgeous summer and winter. A five minute walk from my house. If there had been time, I’d have asked everyone coming to Atli and Þruður´s reception to meet at the park for a walk around the gardens. We could have done an easy stroll about the park. If we had done that, it would have been with a purpose. I´d have used the opportunity to tell everyone about Christian Sivertz and his family and Victoria.

Wherever you live, demand pocket parks. Big parks are nice but pocket parks are secrets hidden in neighborhoods where people picnic, throw balls for their dogs, lie on the grass, admire the flowers, play with their children.
Once, I was surprised to see a wedding, ceremony and all in Playfair Park. I thought it a fine place for a wedding. I watched the wedding ceremony, the guests in chairs set in a crescent, children running about, the flowered gardens as a backdrop, the bride and groom a bit giddy with happiness.
There’s a small playground for children with a slide and a teeter totter, a bench for parents. There are benches here and there and, if you follow the paths that weave through the rhododendron forest, you’ll find rocky outcrops on which to sit.
In May, the gardens will be at their best. I’ll miss them this year. I regret that. Today, I had to make a circle around the park, filling up my eyes and soul with the colours. Whose heart wouldn’t pause slightly when they see the purple rhodo arching over one of the paths? 
That´s when I thought of Icelanders like Christian Sivertz (in spite of the adopted name, he was an Icelander) who worked as a farmhand and tutor in Iceland, came to Winnipeg in 1883, to Victoria in the 1890. He’d had time to adjust to the New World in Manitoba, working at the Winnipeg Gas and Electric Plant, with summers as a fireman and 2nd engineer in small steamers on Lake Winnipeg.
He’d read about the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. People had started coming here by train in 1886. That’s only eleven years after the first settlers landed at Willow Island in Manitoba.
Christian´s parents, three brothers and a sister soon joined him in Victoria.

Photo credit: J. O. Magnusson

Playfair Park was still wilderness then but Victoria was already the flower capital of Canada. If I still am amazed by places like Playfair Park, by rhodos ablaze with bloom, what must he and his parents and siblings have thought?    

West Coast Icelanders

I was on Salt Spring Island the other day planing arbutus. My friend Richard was putting the planks through the planer and I was catching them and holding them even so they wouldn’t snipe.

If you haven’t lived on the West Coast, you probably don’t know what an arbutus is. . It doesn’t shed its leaves seasonally. Instead, it sheds its bark. The old bark is often deep red or purple and comes away in long strips. The new bark is a pale, yellow green, smooth, sensuous.

All around us are majestic firs with salal filling any open spaces. To my right the ground drops away in a tangle of deadfall, sea spray and cedar. Between the trees I can see Galiano Island, then in the far distance, the mountains of North Vancouver. Below us on the sharp falling ridges, the tangle of salal is so thick I can’t push my way through it. Before cutting down a tree, I have to hack an escape path in case the tree twists as it falls. Hacking through the salal isn’t without its risks. The ground is riddled with wasp nests. Twice now I’ve stepped on a nest. The wasps swarm out, yellow and black and angry. In places where trees have been removed, there are tangles of blackberry canes rising up to six feet or more. Large mounds of canes covered in sharp, curved thorns and delicious fruit. For those who haven’t seen them, picture black raspberries, but much larger than most raspberries. In blackberry season, it’s easy to tell who has been picking, because their arms are covered in long scratches and their hands are stained purple.

This is the world of the Icelanders who kept traveling West, from Kinmount, to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to the Pacific Coast. Some Icelanders came first to Winnipeg, then hearing of the West Coast continued on. There were those who chose the Coast as their first destination, however. Some came in the 1880s – enough that Victoria had a vibrant and viable Icelandic community with Sunday musicals and poetry readings. A recession drove many of those people to Point Roberts and to Boundary Bay in the USA.

This was a world as different from Manitoba as Manitoba was from Iceland.

Ben Sivertz was part of this world. Although his name doesn’t sound Icelandic, his father and mother both came from Iceland. After graduating from high school he was a seaman and ship’s officer in the Merchant Marine. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy and ran a school for navigation. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. I wouldn’t have known that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire if I hadn’t asked about a picture on the living room wall.

His obituary said that “he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946 and moved to the Department of Northern Affairs in 1950. He served as Director of Northern Administration from 1957 until 1963 when he was appointed Commissioner. He was Commissioner of the NWT from 1963 to 1967. He came to the post after a career as a foreign service officer in the Department of External Affairs and Chief of the Arctic division in the Department of Northern Affairs.”

The arena in Hay River is named after Ben.

He was also the only person I’ve known who owned an original Van Gogh.

Ben took Mattie Gislasson and me on a walkabout in Fernwood. He pointed out each house in which Icelanders lived and named the families. He even showed us where there used to be an Icelandic store.

On our tour, I saw Ben’s pride in the Icelandic community, in his Icelandic roots, in the Icelanders who came to the edge of Canada to settle. He was ninety-three when we did that walkabout and when he used to walk two kilometers uphill on a Saturday morning from his retirement home to my place. We’d have a visit then at noon I’d drive him back to his retirement home so we could have lunch together.

True to his roots, before he died, he wrote three books, one about his mother, one about his father, and an autobiography.

Sitting in the truck on the way back to Swartz Bay, listening to the throb of the engine, the dark shapes of the islands slipping by, I thought of how different was the experience of the West Coast Icelanders from those who stayed in Gimli or Winnipeg, how they had adapted to this world of forests and mountains while keeping their identity as strong as did those who had stayed in Nýa Ísland.

(This essay first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla)