Online teaching brings out the restorationist in students as participation soars
Second-year environmental studies and biology student Larissa Bron is starting the first coordinated effort to restore and monitor the UVic Garry oak meadow through the Ecological Restoration Club (ERC), a groundbreaking student-led research and restoration effort on campus.
For the next five years, the ERC will be participating in the UVic Garry Oak Meadow Restoration Project, a long-term initiative involving multiple university and community groups that aims to restore the culturally important and ecologically valuable area situated a short stroll away from the theatre and fine arts buildings.
The ERC has existed under different names and iterations for almost a decade and is dedicated to the restoration of nature on campus and beyond. Previous campus projects have ranged from fighting invasive English ivy in Mystic Vale to removing Himalayan blackberries at the West Campus Gate.
For Bron, restoration means taking the time to assist degraded ecosystems in recovering from neglect and the changes wrought upon them.
Through a partnership with the Restoration of Natural Systems program, which is offered through the Division of Continuing Studies at UVic, Bron spent her summer planning the restoration project. Bron’s work included preparing for comprehensive invasive plant removal, seed collecting, plant identifying, and community outreach for the UVic Garry oaks meadow.
“I’m a bit of an older student, and I didn’t even really realize that I liked being out in [the living world] until I was in my late twenties. So now I’m making up for that time,” said Bron, who is also a co-director of the ERC this year.
Though the student-run club has been slowly growing over time, Bron says that participation has gone through the roof with online school. This year’s first event — a restoration work party on the campus Garry oak meadow — was at full capacity, even after a rescheduling due to the forest fire smog in early September.
The pandemic has changed priorities, with more people finding their way outdoors. “People really want to be outside. They really want to be a part of campus,” said Bron.
ERC events are now conducted with full UVic Occupational Health and Safety-approved COVID-19 protocols, which include two-metre distancing, separated work areas, and the disinfecting of tools.
“A hundred fifty years ago this would’ve been a flourishing, managed meadow,” says Breila Pimm while methodically disinfecting a secateur during a lull in an ERC work party. More disinfected tools are scattered across the meadow nestled within UVic’s southern woodlands, lying in wait for the afternoon volunteers. Pimm, a geography and RNS student at UVic, has been volunteering with the ERC since 2018 and is also working with Bron on the meadow restoration plan.
Beyond the long-term restoration effort and research project at the meadow on campus, previous ERC excursions have included visits to the invite-only Trial islands, Galiano Island, and the Sidney Spit. “We try to get out and meet different people that are active in restoration,” said Bron. This year, events will be limited to locations where ERC can effectively comply with COVID-19 safety measures.
In the past, this Garry oak meadow was a critical source of kwetlal (camas), an essential part of life for Lekwungen peoples. Only five per cent of the original Garry oak ecosystem cover remains today in the Pacific Northwest, a product of ongoing colonization of the land. What little that remains is in danger of disappearing entirely: among a range of other factors, Victoria’s obsession with green lawns is incompatible with the delicate and water-sensitive Garry oak ecosystem.
Currently, the club has no consultation or involvement with the First Nations that hold ties to the lands that they are working on. “That’s something that I feel really needs to change,” said Bron.
Bron has been reaching out to Indigenous community members since the project’s start this year, but due to the Wet’suwet’en crisis in January and the ongoing pandemic, progress has been difficult.
“The only way I’ve been really able to do that [now] is through email. Normally I’d try to visit people,” said Bron.
“We’re working in a really culturally important area and we’re trying to bring back features that support [Indigenous] land ethic,” said Bron, who hopes that Indigenous community members will engage with the club however they feel comfortable.
“If you come here in the spring, you’ll see huge patches of camas — they’re like a sea of blue.”