Perched atop a fir tree, overlooking an isolated harbor on Vancouver Island, a hungry raven calls out for its breakfast. Peter Buckland gets up from his morning paperwork and fishes a chunk of bread out of the compost tub. Stepping onto the deck, Buckland waves the bread overhead as the raven bounces excitedly from branch to branch. Buckland tosses the bread in the air. The bird swoops, catching the bread just before it hits the ground.
This is a ritual on sunny mornings at Boat Basin, the remote site of Cougar Annie’s historical garden set in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound. The raven is lucky today. The sun has made an appearance—rare weather so late in October. Buckland quickly finishes his own breakfast, keen to take advantage of the dry weather. There’s always much to do in this garden.
It was another clear day back in 1968 when Buckland first discovered this unusual parcel of land and its inhabitants. Buckland, a Vancouver investment analyst, often accompanied prospector Bus Hanson on treks to secluded parts of Vancouver Island. On that particular trek, Hanson suggested they drop by Boat Basin to visit Cougar Annie. Buckland had no idea the visit would change the course of his life.
Fifty years before Buckland’s first visit, Cougar Annie, more formally known as Ada-Annie Rae-Arthur, arrived on the beach of Boat Basin in hopes of starting anew. Her husband was a drunk and an opium addict and they moved to the wilderness to escape the temptations of the city.
On this isolated plot, Cougar Annie hewed out a life amidst unyielding rains and dense old growth forest. She raised eight children, outlived four husbands (three of whom were mail-order grooms), cultivated five acres of land and fiercely fought off any cougar that dared set foot near her garden.
Life was hard for the pioneer family. Supplies were acquired by rowing 6 miles across the harbor to meet a coastal steamer. Consequently, the Rae-Arthurs grew much of their own food. They kept a constant watch on their garden and livestock to protect them from predators: stellar jays, bears, and of course, cougars. They also operated a mail-order nursery, sending bulbs to customers as far away as Ontario. And most ingeniously, they started and ran the Boat Basin Post Office, collecting money from the government despite having little postal business in that sparsely populated corner of Vancouver Island.
Time moved at a different pace for the Rae-Arthurs. While less-secluded parts of the island had been exposed to new technologies such as central heating and washing machines, the Rae-Arthurs lived by candlelight and collected drinking water from rain barrels on the roof.
The isolation and pioneer spirit of the small blue-eyed Cougar Annie immediately impressed Buckland. “It was like going back in time. There was no visible sign of contact with the outside world. They didn’t seem to follow newspapers or radios. It was like going into something out of the Ozarks,” says Buckland. “To see a family having eked out in the middle of nowhere and still going at it as if they were living in the ‘20s was pretty amazing.”
Buckland returned to Boat Basin once a month for 20 years. Cougar Annie grew old and her house and garden started to deteriorate. Her children were grown and all but one had left. Buckland helped out when he could—bringing supplies and helping run the post office. Cougar Annie recognized Buckland as a potential successor to her land and encouraged him to buy her out. In 1981, he bought the property and gave the old woman a life estate.
In the autumn of 1983, Cougar Annie, at the age of 95, left her life’s work. She died two years later.
Cougar Annie devoted nearly 70 years to her garden, rarely leaving the site. Nestled in the old growth forest, she created a palette of color, planting whatever she could lay her hands on: dahlias, daffodils, irises.
Yet when Buckland arrived in 1968, Cougar Annie, nearly blind, was unable to contain the ever-encroaching wilderness. The indigenous species—the salmonberry, salal and conifers, in particular—crept in and engulfed the area, smothering the once nurtured plants. No one thought the garden would recover from its years of neglect. But it did.
“It’s been liberated. It has found light and air. It was Peter. It was entirely Peter. He worked in that garden five hours a day for years in a bull-like fashion,” says Margaret Horsfield, author of Cougar Annie’s Garden.
In 1987, Buckland left Vancouver accompanied only by his cat, “The Mouser”, and moved to Boat Basin full time. After building a house for himself, he began to restore the garden.
In the late eighties, the garden was, according to Buckland, a “sleeping beauty jungle” because Cougar Annie’s plants lay seemingly dead, beneath the overgrowth. “There was so much more variety here than anyone ever anticipated. I would come into an area, rough clear it and two or three years later, up comes say these hostas, totally unexpected having been dormant for 50-60 years.”
Instead of clearing out the garden immediately, Buckland patiently calculated the best design for each part of the garden. Once he discovered a planting—a shiny green leaf of rhododendron for instance—he would restore the garden around it, making the resurrected plant a focal point. He cut back the weeds with his patented method of “chainsaw gardening” and shaped them into hedges, rather than eliminating them entirely.
The result of Buckland’s labour is more than 1.5 miles of moss-covered trails running through restored garden set against a backdrop of rainforest and mountains. The trails wind, often through tunnels of young conifers or rhododendron, from one cleared vista of the garden to the next. They lead to Buckland’s enchanting additions such as the Japanese Garden (complete with a 25-foot yellow cedar sushi table). Buckland’s contributions are impressive because they don’t impose on the natural surrounding. Instead, the designs, like the cedar-shake woodshed shaped like a giant raven, appear to have emerged from the earth itself.
“Nature has the best form and teaches the best design…Nature gives you the views and balances things better than anything,” says Buckland.
As Buckland moves through the garden on this October morning it’s apparent how his monumental endeavours came to life. He’s constantly at work—clearing weeds from a bed of lilies, measuring the space for a new outhouse with his well-worn walking stick. He’s in tune with his land and is as much a part of the property’s history as Cougar Annie. Buckland’s so familiar with Boat Basin that when an airplane flies overhead, he can identify the aircraft without leaving his kitchen table.
“Peter knows that piece of coast probably better than anyone. He knows what type of rocks are on the beach, where to dig for butter clams. He knows when the last time the herring visited the harbour. He’s very much in sync with the physical world around him,” says Horsfield.
“He’s a larger than life character,” says Stuart Wilson, a longtime friend of Buckland’s. “He’s a sort of modern day version of Cougar Annie.”
Buckland, now in his early sixties, knows that he won’t last forever. He also knows finding a successor for the garden is unlikely. Hence, the plan for the Field Study Center was born.
“I knew that if I restored the garden it would take 10 years, and well, it took 15. I knew I had to have an exit strategy because I would be out of energy and the whole thing would just revert and be overcome by the forest again. So that’s when the idea of the foundation and center first arose,” says Buckland.
The Boat Basin Foundation and Field Study Centre consist of six cedar bunkhouses and a main hall perched on the ridge overlooking the garden. It’s the perfect location for students and scientists to study the area’s rich natural diversity.
It is, however, expensive to maintain the center and the garden, and money is limited. In addition to the financial strain, development pressures are threatening the garden. A road from a nearby village is being punched through the forest to allow the Hesquiat Natives access to their traditional land. This means more traffic in an area that has long remained isolated. (Boat Basin is still accessible only by boat or floatplane.)
“I hope it remains alive,” says Horsfield. “The work the foundation envisions could be hugely important in bringing a lot of polarized interests together.”
Many years ago, when Cougar Annie walked her traplines with a rifle, a light held to its barrel to catch the reflection of a cougar’s eyes, she probably never envisioned her subsistence garden as a kind of ivory tower in the bush. Ironically, it may be cougars, or the wilderness of Clayoquot Sound in general, that assures the preservation of her beloved garden. Today, thanks to Peter Buckland, students may walk the same lines, flashlights aimed into the night, hoping to spot a cougar.