LITERARY LOCATION: Cougar Annie's Garden, at the head of Hesquiat Harbour, near Estevan Point, north of Tofino

In 1915, at age 26, Ada Annie Rae-Arthur settled with her first husband here. Cougars prowled nearby and she shot dozens of them. She became known along the coast as 'Cougar Annie'. She bore eight children at her Boat Basin retreat, plus three others, and she outlived four husbands, one of whom she is rumoured to have murdered. She eked out a living on five acres by trapping, running a post office and store, operating a mail order plant and bulb business and by keeping a remarkable garden. "She was a wily, feisty, tiny pioneer,"; says Margaret Horsfield, author of Cougar Annie's Garden. "She was a conniving, charming, brave and impossible woman. A real wheeler-dealer. Her extraordinary garden was the love of her life for more than 60 years.";

Cougar Annie stayed in her remote garden until her mid-90s and died in 1985. Her overgrown garden was resurrected as an unofficial 117-acre heritage site. The owner of Cougar Annie's wilderness, Peter Buckland, transferred the property to a non-profit society, the Boat Basin Foundation, for a research facility. Horsfield's coffee table book and biography called Cougar Annie's Garden, financed by Buckland, won the Roderick Haig-Brown Prize in 2000.

ENTRY: According to Margaret Horsfield, Rae-Arthur, born Ada Annie Jordan in Sacramento, would never have moved to her remote homestead in 1915 if her ne'er-do-well first husband Willie hadn't first become addicted to opium. Cougar Annie blamed their Chinese servants for introducing him to Vancouver's opium dens. To continue receiving Willie's remittances from Scotland, Annie removed Willie from the fleshpots of the city to the edge of the western world-and she refused to leave. The garden became her passion and cougars approached at their peril.

Cougar Annie's five-acre bush garden became the real-life counterpart to Northrop Frye's famous theorizing about the nature of Canadian society--an unending struggle to create civilization from wilderness. She thrived on adversity and became inventive by necessity. When her first husband died, she placed an ad in The Western Producer: "BC Widow with Nursery and orchard wishes partner. Widower preferred. Object matrimony." She made her choice from various candidates but her second husband died in 1944 as the result of allegedly accidental gunshot wound. A similar ad procured a third husband who died of pneumonia in 1955. Her next advertisement produced a fourth husband who robbed from her, so she ran him off the property at gunpoint (the story goes).

"She was an extraordinary person,"; said Horsfield. "Very powerful, very small, very wily. She cleared her land at Hesquiat Harbour more or less singlehandedly, despite four husbands who were not as good at working as she was."; Cougar Annie finally died in 1985 at age 97.

Two years later Peter Buckland took up permanent residence at her Boat Basin property. "I said it was hopeless,"; Horsfield recalled, "The garden was overgrown and Cougar Annie's story was going to die. And I was wrong. Peter laboured for nearly 12 years, day in and day out, developing the art of what he calls chainsaw gardening."; Gradually Buckland pushed back the rainforest. He didn't plant anything new; Cougar Annie's garden slowly resurrected itself, given light and air.

On April 29, 2000, at the 16th annual B.C. Book Prize gala hosted by John MacLachlan Gray, more than 400 people gathered in Vancouver to see Margaret Horsfield receive the Haig-Brown Prize for Cougar Annie's Garden, the first time the prize was accorded to a self-published book.

"I find myself wondering what Cougar Annie herself would have made of this evening,"; said Horsfield, received the Haig-Brown Prize. "I suspect she would have had a difficult time assessing this gathering--but she would have known how to assess each and every one of us. She grew blind in her latter years. When she met you, she would shake your hand. If you had calluses and strong hands, she would spend time with you. If you did not, you were not worth her attention. If you had calluses, of course, you could dig a fencepost, build a garden, turn the soil, cut firewood. Having spent far too much time on a computer, I've always been slightly terrified by the idea of meeting her.";

In accepting her prize, Horsfield thanked designer Vic Marks, researcher Claudia Cole, editor Gordon Elliott ('the most merciless editor I have ever met'), members of Ada-Rae Arthur's family and her mother who showed her, "you can make anybody's story come to life if you pay close attention to it and take it seriously."; Finally she thanked her publisher Peter Buckland, without whom Cougar Annie's 'bush garden' couldn't have been resurrected. "It has been a very great honour, and a very humbling experience, to write about Cougar Annie. I never realized the appetite in British Columbia for stories of our own people, our forerunners. I have been very shaken by the response of readers, all of whom are reminded of stories of their own pasts. It makes me realize how many of our stories are lost, how many of them die. We don't record them enough. I hope we are getting better at that--and I think we are.";

Two kilometres of interconnected trails now meander hypnotically around the garden. The trails are soft underfoot, carpeted with lush moss, and not at all as Cougar Annie would have made them. It's the only pioneer homestead that has endured in the region. In the summer of 2010, the 117-acre property, including five acres of historical gardens, was placed on sale, listed with Land Quest Realty, for an asking price of $2.2 million. It has since become a tourist location, accessible via charter boat from Tofino.

In her book Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History (Harbour 2014). Horsfield, with Ian Kennedy, has explored the rich heritage and captivating past of the Vancouver Island regions of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino. Starting with the dramatic geological upheavals of nature, Horsfield delves into the people, events and industries that shaped the area. It's an extension of her earlier book, Clayoquot Sound and Tofino 1899-1929 (Salal Books, 2008) based on long-forgotten letters, diaries and memoirs. It brings alive many stories and personalities from the West Coast in the early twentieth century.

"In my research," she wrote, "I unearthed so many obscure documents in so many unlikely locations that at times I felt nearly deafened by all the chatter, all the voices. I met many characters who have become part of my life, and I learned an enormous amount about the underlying social and economic realities of the West Coast. Because the research was so intensive and detailed--and because I am so slow--this book has occupied seven years of my life."

Margaret Horsfield of Nanaimo was born in Port Alberni, B.C. on December 1, 1953. She attended high school in Terrace, received her B.A. in English from Simon Fraser University in 1974 and her M.A. in Shakespeare Studies from the University of Birmingham in 1978.

She worked as a staff producer for BBC Radio (1983-84), having freelanced in Birmingham and also worked for French language CBC in Vancouver. Since 1984 she has written and presented more than 40 radio documentaries on BBC and CBC, winning a Gabriel Award for best North American radio documentary for her CBC series The Book of Job. She has also contributed to many well-known publications in Canada and England.

Horsfield's survey of the origins of the stories about the birth of Jesus, Beyond Bethlehem, was co-written with her father, an Anglican minister. They teamed up for a follow about the origins of stories about the death and resurrection of Jesus, Beyond Golgotha.

Her 'quizzical and critical examination of housework', Biting the Dust, was published in England, then in the United States by St. Martin's Press in 1998.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Cougar Annie's Garden
Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History


Beyond Bethlehem (CBC Enterprises, 1989). With Peter Horsfield.
Beyond Golgotha (Brechin Books, 1993). With Peter Horsfield.
Biting the Dust: The Joys of Housework (Four Estate Limited, 1997)
Cougar Annie's Garden (1999, self-published, Box 1021, Nanaimo BC, V9R 5Z2) 0-9697008-1-4
Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino 1899-1929 (Salal Books, 2008)
Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History (Harbour 2014) With Ian Kennedy $36.95 978-1-55017-681-0

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Classic" "Gardening" "Local History" "Biography" "Religion"