Gilean Douglas: Writing Nature, Finding Home (Sono Nis $21.95)
Robert Dunsmuir, a 19th century immigrant from Scotland, became a mine-owner, railway-builder and one of the wealthiest men in British Columbia; Gilean Douglas, a 20th century heiress from Ontario, chose to live in seclusion on Cortes Island. Taken together, these two subjects stand as emblems of two opposing ways of life.
Gilean Douglas is a less obvious candidate for a book than Robert Dunsmuir, since she left no spectacular physical monument or groundbreaking political legislation. But as any nature lover who lived on Vancouver Island during the Fifties and Sixties would agree, her life and work deserve to be recorded in Gilean Douglas: Writing Nature, Finding Home (Sono Nis $21.95) edited by Andrea Lebowitz and Gillian Minton.
For 30 years Douglas wrote a popular column, ‘Nature Rambles’, for the Victoria Times-Colonist. A contemporary of the Campbell River lay magistrate and outdoorsman Roderick Haig-Brown, Gilean Douglas was a literary force at the dawn of nature conservancy in B.C. This book fulfills Douglas’ request for reprints; excerpts are interspersed with photographs and biographical summaries.
More interesting than her journalism is the record of her life that she scripted in defiance of tradition. She was born into the staid Toronto of 1900, a child of wealth and privilege, who attended Glen Mawr, the same progressive private school at which Dorothy Livesay was later a student.
Her mother died when she was six; her father when she was 15. Perhaps it was these losses, or her father’s alcoholism, that made conventional society distasteful to her. Either way, her inheritance of more than $100,000 enabled her to follow her own desires and gravitate to the West Coast where she became associated with Cortes Island.
Douglas made four brief attempts at marriage. These unions were strictly on her terms. Very much ahead of her time, she successfully insisted that two of her husbands take her name. As well, she meted out some advance stipulations, the equivalent of today’s ‘pre-nuptial agreements’.
She and her first husband, who may have been a gold-digger, soon went their separate ways. Assuming he’d died, she neglected to seek a divorce. When Husband #1 resurfaced at a dance she was attending with Husband #2, her second hubbie disappeared. She proceeded to marry twice more.
Gilean Douglas spent more than 40 years at Channel Rock on Cortes Island. At first her cabin was only accessible on foot, by boat, or by plane. The island dramatically changed with the arrival of ferry service in 1970. Every new subdivision, marina or supply depot, and every tree that was felled, gave her a stab to the heart. “Although I have lived here for 22 years,” she said, “sometimes I feel like a stranger now.”
She translated her regret at seeing her island becoming more populated, into vigorous action. By participating in local politics and community service, she was influential in guiding local development. Her goal was to ensure a healthy balance between the natural and the human world.
When young people—“long hairs and granny gowns”—flocked to Cortes Island to seek an alternative lifestyle, she became their ally, friend, and mentor. She was ahead of her time in some ways, while staunchly traditional in others.
When she had started writing, Gilean Douglas used various male pseudonyms. Many of her early columns and her first book, River for my Sidewalk, were credited to her favourite pseudonym, Grant Madison. The name Grant was that of her first serious boyfriend; the surname Madison was the street of her birth.
Douglas died on October 31st, 1993. This retrospective insures Douglas’ own name will be remembered and her major contributions to the development of B.C.’s strong environmental consciousness will be appreciated. 1-55039-096-1
[Joan Givner / BCBW 2000]