Register Saturday | July 13 | 2024
For Peat's Sake Illustration by Lisa Vanin

For Peat's Sake

When a bog is transported to Montreal only to be abandoned, there's much we can learn about our approach to nature.

If there is one thing I was sad to leave behind when I moved from Montreal in 2018, it is the way the city’s landscape remains a little wild in places. I like this not only for the spaces themselves—which are more quiet and mysterious than you’d normally find in a big city—but also for the way they remind you that there is often more to urban landscapes than what you see at first glance. 

I am thinking in particular of a place on the southern end of Île Notre-Dame—the smaller of the two Expo 67 islands, located east of the Port of Montreal. Along with Île Ste-Hélène it makes up Parc Jean-Drapeau, a multi-use park whose historic landscape has been augmented with performance venues, recreational amenities, pavilions from Expo and sports facilities from the 1976 Olympics. Just east of where the bike path that crosses the island turns off toward the beach, between the racetrack and the river, there is what looks like a small woodland. This woodland has grown around a peat bog that was transplanted to the island in the spring of 1979, as part of the Floralies Internationales—a horticultural exhibition previously hosted in several European cities. I know about it because I studied the gardens and installations that remain from the Montreal Floralies as part of my PhD research. I spent a lot of time in the bog, both during my studies and after, intrigued by the story behind the transplant and the way the bog became something quite different over time.

If you go looking just off the bike path, it’s not too hard to find a didactic panel describing how over a thousand cubes were cut out of a peat bog in the James Bay region of Quebec and transported 1,500 kilometres south to the island. However, even if you manage to push past the thicket of shrubs and birch trees growing across the entrance to the boardwalk that traverses the bog, stepping over fallen branches and avoiding rotten boards to stand at its centre, you won’t see much in the way of plants typical of northern bogs. Surrounded by eight-foot-high reeds and shaded by wild grape vines that hang like curtains from trees along the bog’s perimeter, you might find yourself feeling a bit disoriented—claustrophobic, even. Unlike a ruined building, which holds a place for what has been forgotten, an overgrown landscape tends to hide what it remembers. This one is so tangled and dense it’s hard to know what, exactly, you’re looking at, and you would be forgiven for focusing instead on how to get out of it. 

The story of the bog is so surprising, it is tempting to consider it a charming anomaly and be satisfied with the surface facts. However, if we dig deeper, there is a lot we can learn from it—not only about restoring and recreating wetlands, but also about the ways of thinking about nature that tend to accompany those efforts.

A bog is a wetland composed primarily of waterlogged mosses and the partially decomposed plant material known as peat. In addition to being very wet, and therefore oxygen-poor, a bog’s only source of water is rain, which makes it low in minerals. Aside from sphagnum mosses—which grow to form soft green hummocks, raised areas that tend to be drier, and lower, wetter areas called hollows—not many plants can survive in these conditions. Among those that do, some are quite special. Carnivorous flora such as the sundew and the purple pitcher plant are often found in bogs, where their ability to derive nutrients from insects allows them to thrive despite the environment. There are also several edible and medicinally useful plants—like cranberry, blueberry and Labrador tea—that benefit from the acidic conditions maintained in part by the fact that sphagnum mosses secrete acids as they grow. The low oxygen levels in the waterlogged soil mean that plant matter decomposes much more slowly than usual, compressing to form a thick layer of peat in a process that can take hundreds of years.

Wetlands—which include ecosystems such as marshes, swamps, bogs and fens—have considerable ecological value, and their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of southern Canada’s wetlands have already been lost, largely due to development. Wetlands are in general great reservoirs of biological diversity, partly because they provide habitat for an extraordinary range of animal species—over six hundred in Canada, including one-third of species considered to be at risk. The plants that grow in them also act as natural filters that remove excess nutrients that would otherwise contaminate lakes, rivers and groundwater. When it rains, wetlands also absorb and hold water that might otherwise cause flooding. In addition to these ecological functions, peat-forming wetlands store twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests. When bogs are destroyed, the exposed peat releases carbon and methane into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. As extinction rates accelerate and the effects of climate change become more dire and widespread, bogs are among the ecosystems we most urgently need to learn how to protect and restore. 

In 2015, an article in the scientific journal Le Naturaliste canadien confirmed that the Floralies bog is not really a bog anymore. According to Stéphanie Pellerin, a botanist from the Montreal Botanical Garden and the lead author of the article, the bog no longer contains any sphagnum moss, and of the fifty-six other species that were originally present, only five remained as of 2014. There is, however, still something to be learned from the bog; particularly if we follow Pellerin in considering the transplant as an instance of ecological compensation, before the time when the concept became an intentional framework. It refers to the practice of restoring or creating an ecosystem in one location to compensate for another ecosystem that has been or will be lost in another. The practice has become increasingly common in North America, particularly where development or resource extraction projects are expected to result in the destruction of wetlands. Unfortunately, the success rates for wetland restorations or recreations are disappointingly low—recent studies have shown that restored or created wetlands are often around 25 percent less functional and biodiverse than undisturbed ones.

In 1978, when Pierre Bourque, the at-the-time director of the Montreal Botanical Garden, came up with the idea to transport a northern bog to Île Notre-Dame, he had somewhat different goals in mind. Bourque was also the chief horticulturalist for the Montreal Floralies, and he saw the exhibition as an opportunity to not only promote Quebec’s nascent horticultural industry, but to raise awareness of the beauty of plants and the ecological value of gardening among the general public. As he put it in an article he wrote in French at the time for the Hydro-Québec publication En grande…, the bog transplant was an opportunity to show visitors a “living example of the flora that is so representative of the nordic regions of our country.”

Bourque undertook the transplant in partnership with the Société d’énergie de la Baie James (SEBJ), a Hydro-Québec subsidiary tasked with building and managing a series of massive hydroelectric complexes in northern Quebec known collectively as the James Bay Project. The project, which also included mining and forestry initiatives, was envisioned as a means to grow the provincial economy. The first of the complexes, La Grande-2 (LG-2)—now known as the Robert-Bourassa generating station—was commissioned between 1979 and 1981. In early 1979, workers cut and excavated the blocks of frozen peat and plant material from a bog near Lac Hélène and the LG-2 site, which was, according to Pellerin, doomed to flooding. The blocks, approximately 120 cm2 and thirty–fifty centimetres thick, were then loaded onto trucks and driven to Île Notre-Dame, where a crane was used to place them into a basin lined with plastic, layers of sand and commercial peat. 

Once assembled, the bog, which covered a surface area of about 2,000 m2, required substantial watering as well as additions of sulfur to maintain appropriate levels of acidity. According to Pellerin, this was because the basin was permeable, and the existing soil at the site was both porous and basic. What Bourque and the SEBJ achieved, then, was less the transplant of a self-sustaining bog ecosystem than the creation of a bog garden that required constant human maintenance. The setting for the bog was landscaped in a manner that resembled the other installations in the exhibition: it was ringed with trees and shrubs that enclosed it as if it were a garden, and low embankments planted with wildflowers provided separation from the adjacent Laval Garden.

The vegetation of the bog was implanted approximately three feet below the level of the viewing platforms and the boardwalk, so visitors could look down at the plants or see across the bog in its entirety from any given vantage point. Spindly, lichen-covered trees, low-growing shrubs and reeds grew out of expanses of moss cut across by small streams. Here and there were purple pitcher plants, their dark red, almost leathery flowers nodding atop long, bare stems, while at their bases were clusters of water-filled pitchers that trap insects. The bog was very clearly a different kind of landscape than was represented in the other Floralies installations. However, in some photographs, taken through the trees that encircled it, their branches framing the view, it looks like a traditional garden—just one with different kinds of plants. 

In 1982, the bog went from being treated as a garden to an untended “natural” landscape. As the didactic panel euphemistically puts it, after the exhibition, nature went to work and “a new landscape evolved.” Unfortunately, the new landscape was one dominated by species that thrive not in bogs, but in the conditions that were created when certain features of a bog, such as dampness, were combined with the exhibition landscaping and plants from the adjacent garden, which was also abandoned. The majority of the bog’s original species were sun-loving plants; as the trees planted around the bog’s perimeter grew, many of the plants were thrown into shade. When the deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall, they add nutrients to the soil not normally found in a bog, thus favouring the encroachment of non-bog species.

When I last visited the bog in the fall of 2019, many of the trees had begun to lean inward, further reducing sunlight and providing scaffolding for the rapid expansion of native vines. I climbed down from the boardwalk to explore and found no moss, though the ground was still spongy with peat. Behind the wall of reeds and birch saplings that grew along the boardwalk, a couple of black spruce trees remained from the transplant, tilting or fallen over with their roots exposed but disguised by the vines that grew overtop them. The only other original species I managed to locate was sweet gale—a low-growing evergreen shrub with fragrant, greenish-grey leaves. Most of these plants had been reduced to only three or four live branches as they struggled beneath the shade of the reeds and vines.

The transplant was meant to express appreciation for the beauty of northern landscapes, but it was also celebrated as an impressive feat of human engineering—a supposed taming of nature, as Bourque described the Floralies. The thing is, nature can only be tamed if humans are considered to be separate from it. This is a way of thinking that tends to consider natural things and places in abstract and ahistorical terms, and to assume that we can control them. As we grapple with the effects of climate change, it has become much harder to ignore the extent of our interdependence with natural systems; nonetheless, the same abstract way of thinking about nature that underlay and enabled the bog transplant, and its abandonment, remains surprisingly hard to shake. 

For example, a 2018 assessment by the Société du parc Jean-Drapeau blamed the deterioration of the Floralies bog on the fact that it had been invaded by the non-native European common reed. However, invasive species are generally only able to take over an ecosystem after human actions have created conditions conducive to their spread. In the case of the bog, the design of the site, which lacked the conditions bog plants require, left the bog vulnerable to incursions from neighbouring ecosystems. To leave out this information is to suggest that the bog is a natural space, acted upon by natural as opposed to human forces; a notion that imparts a sense of inevitability to what happened to the bog, erasing the events and circumstances that shaped the space. 

Tracing the history of the Floralies bog is a way to unpack some of the complexity disguised by this way of thinking, and to understand how the same perspective still influences some restorations today. Reflecting on its history is also a way to see the bog as much more than a wetland overrun with invasive species, and to expand and complicate how we think of restoration projects in general—particularly in urban settings, where more people interact with them, and consequently where we might learn something about the social and cultural as well as ecological value of restoration.

When the Floralies came to Montreal, the city was in a somewhat sad state. In addition to rising unemployment, the administration was struggling with debilitating post-Olympic debt and decreasing revenues. Families and businesses were moving to the suburbs as taxes went up, infrastructure deteriorated and city services decreased. Campaigning for the first referendum on Quebec sovereignty—held just three days after the Floralies exhibition opened—generated high emotions and social discord among Montrealers. At the same time, the environmental movement was gaining momentum: following the first Earth Day in 1970, a variety of environmental organizations and government departments began to appear. Hydro-Québec’s 1977 announcement that it planned to build about thirty nuclear power plants in the province further galvanized this organizing, leading to the creation of several ecologically oriented radio programs and magazines and a greater awareness of the extent to which local environments were polluted and unhealthy.

For Montreal, hosting the Floralies became an opportunity not just to encourage Quebec’s horticultural industry and boost tourism, but to inspire a sense of renewal and social harmony within this fraught context. Organizers emphasized the unifying power of a shared love of nature and promised that the exhibition would provide a transformative experience to all who visited. 

In many ways, the Floralies delivered. In less than two years, Île Notre-Dame, which had been closed to the public since 1972 due to the dilapidated state of its buildings and infrastructure, was transformed. While the canal system and some of the pavilions from Expo were retained, small hills, embankments and water features were added to create a more varied terrain. Twelve countries, four provinces, ten cities and numerous institutions and corporations created gardens designed to reflect the floristic and horticultural achievements of their organization or people. The overall effect was spectacular; a film documenting the exhibition likened a visit to the gardens to “an enchanted voyage through a land of the imagination.”

With its moss, small lichen-covered trees and very few flowers, the bog stood out from the other gardens, with their densely planted vibrant flowering plants, as something quite different. Its inclusion made sense because of the way the Floralies organizers characterized gardening as an act of environmental care. As then-premier René Lévesque put it in French in the introduction to a souvenir photo album commemorating the exhibition, gardening is a practice “where each of us has the ability to understand and sustain nature, and to act as the guardian of its integrity.”

Bourque may not have conceived of undertaking such a project had it not been for his involvement with the SEBJ. As the director of the Montreal Botanical Garden, he sat on a committee of scientific and horticultural experts advising the SEBJ on its redevelopment of the landscape surrounding LG-2. This included the planting of gardens to beautify the complex as well as other landscaping and tree planting. Bourque arranged for some of the tree seedlings to be grown on Île Notre-Dame, and suggested that the SEBJ should have an installation at the Floralies.

The SEBJ’s landscaping work was in part a response to the considerable controversy surrounding LG-2 and the James Bay Project as a whole. Criticisms stemmed not only from the negative environmental impacts of the river diversions and flooding that the dams required, but also from the cost of the project, the long work stoppages by dissatisfied workers and—most egregiously—the fact that the government had not consulted or even notified the Cree and Inuit communities who would be profoundly impacted. In the end, the SEBJ undertook a great deal of scientific research and committed to some environmental mitigation measures; and the provincial government, under substantial pressure from Indigenous groups, negotiated an agreement with Cree and Inuit leaders that recognized certain Indigenous rights (such as retaining some access to traditional hunting and harvesting activities) and committed to paying the groups $225 million in compensation. Strong criticisms of the project persisted right up to the dam’s commissioning. When Bourque suggested that the SEBJ participate in the Floralies, it was an opportunity to rehabilitate its image by demonstrating its environmental expertise.

Reading the promotional materials and newspaper coverage of the bog transplant, it is remarkable to see how easily horticultural and hydroelectric interests could be aligned. Across several articles, the story was told in terms that strongly resemble the heroic narratives of hydroelectric development put forward by politicians and Hydro-Québec. The decision to undertake the transplant was characterized in French as “audacious,” “a world first” and—in multiple articles—“a crazy dream.” Much space was given to describing the procedures in detail, evoking the personal commitment and engineering prowess of the horticulturalists and workers involved. Considerable attention was given to the difficulty of cultivating, and special character of, the bog’s plants, many of which visitors would be able to see for the first time.

Also common across the media coverage was one rather conspicuous omission: not one article interrogated the circumstances that made it acceptable to extract a piece of this very special ecosystem and move it south just so people could look at it. Pellerin states that the transplanted bog came from a location scheduled for flooding. But the Hydro-Québec publications contradict this, reporting that the SEBJ had committed to “re-naturalizing” the hole left behind, and assuring readers that the transplant only amounted to a hundredth of the larger bog from which it had been extracted. 

The lack of consensus about what happened at the site of the transplant, and the decision by journalists not to raise the question, says a lot about the transplant’s politics. Given that the flooding of wetlands was directly connected to some of the negative impacts of hydroelectric development, leaving that part of the story untold meant avoiding criticism or controversy for Hydro-Québec. More importantly, the transplant was consistent with the way Hydro-Québec was operating in the north: it treated the bog as an abstract entity, and acted as if the land from which it was taken had no history and belonged to no one.

When the announcement about the James Bay Project was met with widespread criticism, a joint federal and provincial committee was formed to investigate. That committee issued a report in 1972 that proposed the region be transformed into a “living laboratory”—meaning it would become the site of wide-ranging research to ensure that the environmental impacts of hydroelectric development would be minimized, and that with this research, scientific understanding of northern ecosystems would improve. While extensive, the research tended to be supervised by Hydro-Québec engineers. It took for granted that dams would be built, and that the project had to be realized on a massive scale in order to be cost-effective.

As geographer Caroline Desbiens describes in Power from the North, her book on hydroelectricity in Quebec, the knowledge of northern landscapes that this research produced tended to lack history or any connection to Indigenous realities. While it helped to improve some forms of environmental decision-making in the north, and in some cases to repair damage, it also had the effect of erasing or marginalizing the long history of Indigenous interaction with the land. The reports and studies published did not include, for example, the kind of intimate and detailed knowledge that Indigenous hunters have of animals in their territory, their changing numbers, the way they move across the landscape and how they interact with their surroundings through the seasons. As Desbiens writes, “such knowledge not only guides practice, it also generates meaning and preserves cultural memory.” Because it excluded this kind of knowledge, scientific research in the James Bay region could not convey the character and scale of loss that dam construction entailed for Indigenous peoples.

Scientific knowledge of the north featured prominently in the films, magazines and travelling information kiosks produced by the SEBJ and Hydro-Québec to improve public perception of the James Bay Project. The erasure of Indigenous presence in the region was particularly problematic because it contributed to many southerners’ perception of the north as a landscape devoid of human activity that would be improved by hydroelectric development. Part of what made the transplant both conceivable and acceptable was the fact that the north had been presented to southerners as a laboratory rather than a historical place. The bog could be treated as a thing, or a collection of things, to be experimented with—an approach that ultimately resulted in a gross oversimplification of what a bog is, and inadequate provisions for its care. 

In her book Gathering Moss, Indigenous biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the role of sphagnum moss in bog creation: “I know of no plant, large or small, which has the ability to engineer the physical environment more thoroughly than Sphagnum through the remarkable properties of the plant itself.” Perhaps the most important quality of sphagnum moss is how only one in twenty of its cells are actually alive; the rest serve to absorb enormous quantities of water. This absorption causes the soil to become waterlogged and oxygen-deficient, which slows the activity of the microbes that otherwise enable decomposition, thereby allowing for the formation of peat and the storage of carbon. In the hundreds of years that it takes for an adequate layer of peat to form, subtly different microclimates appear within a bog depending on relative moisture levels and the formation of hummocks and hollows. Kimmerer reports that there are different species of sphagnum, each adapted to a different microclimate. Bogs are, in short, very slow-growing, finely tuned ecosystems that can be enormously difficult to replicate.

Restoration methods have advanced since the time of the Floralies transplant, but the prospects for success with bogs and other peat-forming wetlands like fens remain uncertain. In bogs or fens where peat has been harvested for commercial use but a layer remains, restorations have an average success rate of 82 percent in reintroduction of native species. In places like Alberta’s oil sands, however, where mining has stripped or degraded most of the peat and left behind sodium-rich sand, it is much more difficult to find species that will survive and reliably form peat. 

So far there have only been two projects globally—the Sandhill and Nikanotee fens in northern Alberta—that have successfully established peat-forming vegetation overtop mining sites. The larger Sandhill fen, at seventeen hectares, saw initial success, but the majority of peat-forming mosses were lost in subsequent years due to changes in water chemistry. The Nikanotee fen has had greater success with transplantation, though the proportion of moss is still lower than typically found in fens in the region. At only two hectares, it is a very small site relative to the over twenty-eight thousand hectares of peat-forming wetlands that have been lost to oil sands development in the province. 

While research into new methods for restoring complex ecosystems such as bogs continues, it is even more important to commit to speaking more honestly—and possibly with greater humility—about what we mean by restoration and what it can actually achieve. Given the highly specific conditions found in bog ecosystems, it was experimental in the extreme to dig up a part of a bog, place it into a basin lined with plastic and commercial peat in a very different ecosystem and then abandon it. Considering the prospects for the bog’s survival beyond the exhibition, there was also a certain arrogance in calling it a transplant of a bog, rather than the creation of a bog garden or a collection of bog plants. If there is one thing we can learn from the way the bog turned out, it is that while dealing in abstract terms allows you to get away with certain things, those things can’t be sustained in the face of what actually happens in natural spaces, particularly in cities. Plastic-lined basins leak; trees mature; plants in neighbouring gardens go to seed. What you called a bog quickly reveals itself as something else. 

It is tempting to think of the Floralies bog as a special case, but all restorations have their politics. The reasons that ecosystems need to be restored or replaced are never neutral; they have to do with the interests of one group, like developers and fossil fuel or hydroelectric companies, being prioritized over those of another, like plants, animals and the people who depend on them. When the plan for a restoration makes use of vague wording, it provides cover for those whose actions make restoration necessary, leading to a lack of accountability. It can also be a means of glossing over a lack of tested methods for carrying out a restoration. 

As biologist Margaret A. Palmer and PhD candidate Graham Stewart write in a 2020 editorial for the journal One Earth, “it is the careless use of language that misleads perception and guides the public to support propositions veiled in empty suggestions of health.” The authors argue that in order to be successful, restorations need to be focused on the re-establishment of processes rather than on the performance of simple actions; for example, restoring nutrient cycling, site hydrology or plant-microbe interactions instead of just planting trees. Targeting specific processes requires a deeper understanding of ecosystems and leads to interventions that are more likely to return full ecological functioning over time. 

I wonder if we need to go even further than this. It seems to me that if we want to have a chance of succeeding in restorations of complicated ecosystems, we need to complicate our understanding of them; not only with knowledge of the ecological processes we wish to restore, but with a sense of how different events and actions shape ecosystems over time. We need to think of bogs and other instances of “nature” as places and beings with their own histories.

According to environmental studies scholar Eric Higgs, while most restorationists agree on the importance of history in a practical sense—as a way to establish ecological reference points against which the success of a restoration can be evaluated—its philosophical importance risks being neglected. In his book Nature by Design, Higgs emphasizes the connection between a site’s history and questions of continuity and responsibility. He explains that part of what people value about ecosystems is their continuity over time, the fact that we can return to them again and again and rely on them in various ways: “Respecting this connection to the past is what prevents us from creating nature solely according to our present interests.” Acknowledging the importance of history also implies a certain responsibility to the future; that a restoration should, in addition to returning something of value from the past to the present, ensure that it will continue to persist in a meaningful form.

This way of thinking suggests an acknowledgement of the loss implicit to a restoration. Identifying and experiencing the impact of loss is how we know what we value and become motivated to protect or recreate it. If people had known that the larger bog from which the transplant was taken would be lost, might they have found it worthwhile to properly tend to the bog on Île Notre-Dame? Or, could the Floralies bog have been a chance for visitors to reflect on the accelerated loss of wetlands closer to home? Although Bourque called the plants in the bog representative of northern landscapes, they were in fact representative of bogs in general. Many of the species that people saw for the first time at the exhibition could have been found in their backyards, had the wetlands of the south not been drained or filled for the purposes of building or farming over them.

In urban settings, where the sites of restoration are accessible to more people and community involvement is more feasible, a historically grounded, future-oriented approach can help change how ecosystems are valued and the extent to which people notice the ecological wellbeing of their surroundings. Higgs sees the work of restoration in social and cultural as well as ecological terms, believing that “by restoring ecosystems we regenerate old ways or create new ones that bring us closer to natural processes and to one another.” This sounds almost too good to be true; except that there is a bog in Vancouver, not far from where I live on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus, that bears this hope out.

The Camosun Bog is a remnant of a much larger wetland known as xʷməm̓qʷe:m to the Musqueam people, whose land was endowed to the university without their consent in the early 1900s. Located on the far west side of Vancouver, on the edge of one of the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, the bog suffered a variety of encroachments and developments throughout the twentieth century, shrinking from its previous size of over twenty hectares so drastically that it nearly disappeared. In 1990, just when it looked as if the last piece would succumb to colonization by forest species, a small group of volunteers stepped in to begin the long journey of bringing it back to health. For over thirty years, the Camosun Bog Restoration Group has worked to raise the water level, establish a healthy population of sphagnum mosses and other bog species and install a boardwalk with educational signage. 

Part of what made this a feasible restoration, despite the amount of work required, was the extent to which the history of the site was known to those involved. This was due in part to its location at the edge of a temperate rainforest which local people had fought to have protected as a park. Many of the restoration volunteers were amateur naturalists or retired scientists who had worked on that campaign. They understood that what remained of the bog was a fraction of what had been there before, and that if there was no action it would disappear completely. 

According to Audrey Pearson, a sessional lecturer in UBC’s geography department and a student at the time the restoration began, the project also benefitted substantially from research conducted by UBC students like her. The volunteers knew that the bog had formed as a result of a glacial depression over two thousand years ago, and that it consequently contained unusual species such as the amber-coloured cloudberry and the tiny, white arctic starflower. Both of these species are low-growing plants normally found in more northern or alpine regions; their rare presence made the bog more clearly worth preserving. The volunteers also knew what environmentally impactful events had taken place in the surrounding area during the twentieth century—logging, a forest fire, the installation of residential drains and dumping of excavated earth—and had an idea of what would need to be done in order for the bog to regain ecological health. 

Today, the Camosun Bog is a destination not only for wetland enthusiasts, but also for tourists, school groups and locals who enjoy the unique plant species and large variety of birds it attracts—including several species unusual to Vancouver, such as the barred owl, peregrine falcon, belted kingfisher and red-breasted sapsucker. As Pearson emphasizes, the restored bog is “a beautiful demonstration of the fact that people can make a real difference, which is so important as we try to figure out how to deal with problems like climate change.”

The research taught Camosun volunteers some very important lessons about the behaviour of sphagnum moss in relation to the site’s hydrology: when they dug down to the level where water remained even during some of the drier months and transplanted plugs of moss, that moss spread and formed mini bogs, or “boglets.” Insights such as these have informed restorations in other places, such as the Beaver Lake Bog in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Now that the Camosun Bog is restored, ongoing research has identified a new variant of oval-leaved blueberry and thirteen species of sphagnum moss—both remarkable findings for such a small site. Though the Floralies bog presented all kinds of logistical and ecological difficulties not seen at Camosun, it may still have had much to offer to researchers; like the development of techniques for increasing moisture and acidity in compromised locations, or, given its northern origins, insight into the behaviour of certain species in response to climate change.

An urban restoration also becomes a space of learning for local people and visitors. The Camosun boardwalk, with its educational signage, teaches visitors about the plants the bog contains, the processes that make it unique among wetlands and its cultural and historical importance to the Musqueam people. Many of these visitors, like elderly people and wheelchair users, would not have otherwise had the opportunity to experience a bog ecosystem.

This was exactly the kind of benefit that Bourque was interested in providing with the Floralies bog. But by making no real provisions for the bog’s long-term survival, and promoting it in a manner that highlighted its novelty and the engineering feat of its transplant—without putting it in its full political and historical context or being honest about what was missing—its educational potential was constrained alongside its chances for survival. As long as exhibition organizers and visitors thought of what they were looking at as a real bog, they could not come to terms with the resources and labour required to ensure its survival, with its complexity as a landscape that was simultaneously natural and cultural, or with its politically charged history.

Had the Floralies bog been presented more honestly for what it was—a bog garden that would not survive beyond the exhibition—it would have been an opportunity for visitors to reflect in a more complicated way on the idea of gardening as a form of care. Some restoration practitioners, including those involved with the Camosun Bog Restoration Group, see restoration as a kind of gardening: a practice of tending to the land while attending to what its plants, animals and processes have to communicate. This way of thinking acknowledges human responsibility for the actions and circumstances that make restoration necessary, but also understands that it is largely the work of non-human beings and processes that makes the recovery of a particular ecosystem possible.

In its master plan for 2020–2030, the Société du parc Jean-Drapeau proposed to gradually restore the Floralies bog as part of its redevelopment of the southern end of Île Notre-Dame. Details were not included, as an in-depth study will be required to determine the precise approach, but the intention is to remove the invasive species and preserve certain features from the exhibition as well as the enclosed character of the bog and its surrounding area. This sounds like a promising starting point for restoring some of the ecological functioning of the bog while respecting at least a part of its history.

In the meantime, while the bog remains overgrown, it’s still worth visiting; particularly if you are a good listener. During a visit in the late spring of 2018, I decided to make a list of all the sounds I heard from within the bog. Despite its proximity to the traffic on the Victoria Bridge, there was a noticeable concentration of birdsong and insect activity among the trees and from the adjacent Laval Garden. I pushed my way through interlacing birch branches to find the entrance to the boardwalk, pausing a few steps in to take some notes. There was the ever-present trill of red-winged blackbirds, the long, mournful whistle of white-throated sparrows and the occasional squawking of a raven or crow; all kinds of twittering, squeaking and chattering. In some areas, there was a soft clattering of thousands of tiny wings as little brown moths flew around in frantic clusters above my head—mating, I realized when I saw them fall to the ground coupled. 

I stepped carefully across vines and a fallen tree to make my way to the far end of the boardwalk, so I could take a photograph where there was more light. For the first time in my ten years of visiting the bog, as I was getting my camera out, my foot went through one of the boardwalk’s rotting boards. It was a shocking experience: the sudden collapse of the ground beneath my feet, the surprisingly tight hold the boards gained around my ankle as a result. I was forced to sit down, momentarily but thoroughly trapped. Held in place by the boardwalk, birch branches and reeds like curtains on either side of me, the whirling moths above and birdsong all around, I remember feeling grateful—though at the time I wasn’t sure what for. Now, I think it was for the sense of being concretely and indisputably in the middle of things. For the physical feeling of being included in the whole complicated but beautiful mess of the bog and its transplant: the mistakes that were made, the losses that occurred, but also, what could have been. What could perhaps still be. ⁂

Erin Despard is a writer and research associate at UBC Botanical Garden. She lives on Musqueam land in Vancouver.