For millennia, the land has lived, and people have come and gone. Once, the hunting grounds - around the banks of our lake, known as Showe’luqun, and down the bournes and rivers of the Koksilah - were shared by the coastal peoples of the Malahat and Cowichan Tribes. Ravenwood Farm was carved here at the north end of the Lake, and in 1916 – our visionary founder, CW Lonsdale, created a humble school here in the Canadian wild – an educational investment in the next generation at the time of the senseless sacrifice and destruction of the First World War.
Buildings and educators have come and gone. Our archivist, Ms. Dolman tells me that over 8000 alumni have graduated over our 106-year history (I share a birthday with the school), with a further 140 of you here tonight.
You – as boarders and day students - have followed in the foot (and boot) steps of others and yet, as the Class of 2022, have carved your own distinct and unique contribution with the backdrop of a seismic pandemic.
One of my former students once held the highly coveted position of College ‘Tortoise Keeper’ at Oxford University. Generations of students have come and gone but Emmanuelle, a 100-year-old tortoise, has seen it all from the vantage point of the quad.
But here, it is our trees that have observed Shawnigan’s history and the passing of time.
I never thought I would deliver a speech on trees, but here I am, inspired by the treescape around me and inspired by the compelling messaging in this April’s student-led Earth Week chapel service.
Trees continue to amaze me with their ability to grow and adapt through decades, and in many cases centuries, of seasonal change.
And I do come from a household of unashamed tree shamans and tree huggers and forest bathers - and I think Treebeard is my favourite character in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.
Here on campus, we have so many different types of trees: arbutus, cherry, ash, maple, Douglas fir, grand fir, cedar, oak, redwood, copper beech, alder and hemlock - and the blossom of the dogwood tree (the emblem of British Columbia) this May reminds us that spring has sprung and that a graduating class is soon to leave – our darling buds of May.
I often say in Chapel that here at Shawnigan, diversity is our strength. The biodiversity of our trees on campus reflect the extraordinary diversity of our graduating class. Explore our campus, and you will find trees with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other. Each of you is unique with your own individual set of inner rings, shaping each other - and our hope is that all of you have felt that you have belonged here.
You will have explored our wild places on campus during your Shawnigan journey, and I hope, at some point, that you clambered up a tree to sit, think, observe and get perspective – looking down on a campus that we usually look across. These days, Poppy explores the furthest branches whilst I find a point of observation a little lower down!
You probably think my favourite tree is Lonsdale’s English oak outside Lake’s House – the acorn taken from Sherwood Forest of outlaw Robin Hood myth and planted here in Canada’s ‘green and pleasant land.’ It isn’t the most majestic of trees, and I suspect that House Director Plater has been secretly – in an act of extreme sacrilege for an alumnus – poisoning it to increase the sunlight in his family garden.
I love this rainforest.
I love the semicircle of towering trees that creates a natural amphitheatre for the statue of our Founder.
I love the sun-burst cherry blossom trees that stand sentinel at the bottom of my garden and opposite the statue of the stag.
I love the Douglas Fir tree base by the flagpole and its carved message to our Grad 2020 Class - and [Klassen] I love the rings and its history. It reminds me of the story of the Giving Tree, which many of you know well, with each of you as the child who grows up. When you read the story to your grandchildren, tell them the tree was based on ancient Douglas firs that, with their last act, give all their secondary metabolites back to the community. Shawnigan strives to be a giving tree for you – and will continue to be for years to come.
But, most of all, I love the gargan-tuan king of trees - the Shawnigan tree of life, our Yddragsil, our protector tree, the western red cedar - that stands beside it and which will stand guard for you as you drive out of the gates on Closing Day. Its base is wide (I measured it with my Grade 12 advisee, Gabriel Au!) and from the main trunk emerges seven separate trunks – all healthy, thriving, tall, proud, and resolute (and one with a bit of a kink in it!). Western red cedars are long-lived, sometimes living for over 1000 years.
And I take it as my metaphor today. Your family – many of them here tonight - have ably provided you with the roots and foundation essential for growth. They have nurtured you and trusted us here at Shawnigan to provide you with the core (trunk) of education and values, your bridge®, your keys to the future.
For this is where you were made.
When I came to Shawnigan, a friend sent me a poem for good luck by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in lieu of a gift. It is called ‘The Moment.’
I have asked Seb Stowe, Head of our student-led and run Sustainability Council, 1970s fashion guru, and perfect Pan or Ariel emerging from the cloven pine, his Dry-den of a hiding place.
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
After four years here, I now understand the poem. A bell has finally sounded.
It speaks to an indigenous way of knowing, to First Peoples’ principles of learning around connectedness, reciprocal relationships and a sense of place. Atwood creates a moment through her words that challenge the nature of nature, of ownership, and of human society. According to the whispers of nature, humans are not separate from nature; we are a part of nature. Humans are temporary guardians of the world - the world is not owned by humans at all.
Put simply, we don’t own Shawnigan and its land, and the poem warns us against this thinking. This place found us. We are all simply visitors passing through….
…Staff as temporary custodians of this remarkable place.
You, as student travellers, rushing through but, vitally, feeling that you belong to this place. A home-away-from-home.
All interconnected in tangible and intangible ways.
You (and our departing colleagues) will become the past - with your photos caught immortal in a time and place in the yearbook and down the hall: Old-growth and new growth.
Shawnigan is, in many ways, like the wood wide web (the underground network of tree communication) – a lifelong, sharing and nourishing network linking alumni, young and old, helping them flourish in life.
So three things to remember:
We hope you fell in love with Shawnigan, the place and the people.
We hope you felt that you belonged.
We care deeply about each and every one of you.
And now, with one month to go,
‘All [you] talk about is how [you] are leaving,
All that I know is – no matter how far away – this is the place [you] were made.’
#This is the place you were made
Richard D A Lamont
Head of School
Grad Dinner – Friday, May 20th