Controversy surrounds Comox’s serene Mack Laing Nature Park

This is the beautiful view from Mack Laing's final home, Shakesides

This is the beautiful view from Mack Laing’s final home, Shakesides

I have come away from Comox’s serene Mack Laing Nature Park conflicted, to say the least.

We recently enjoyed a visit to this tranquil refuge stretching along Comox Bay, where early Spring sunshine filtered through tender green leaves and blooming lilac, splashed against the huge abandoned vegetable garden, infused Laing’s two former homes with a soft light. It is those beautiful old structures that have left me arguing with myself about what their future should entail.

The ghost of Mack Laing lingers in Shakesides, his final home and one of the two he built that is slated for demolition

The ghost of Mack Laing lingers in Shakesides, his final home and one of the two he built that is slated for demolition

Hamilton Mack Laing was an internationally-renowned artist, naturalist and ornithologist who purchased several acres along Comox Bay in 1922.  He developed a thriving nut farm and lived a simple life, collecting specimens for museums and harvesting much of his food from the woods and waters that surrounded him. He wrote copious numbers of feature articles for nature publications, developed relationships with other artists and naturalists, and has been described as the forgotten Roderick Haig-Brown (also unknown to most for his conservation work and writings).

Laing eventually sold off some of his holdings, which he originally purchased for $150 an acre, and ended up with several acres of sweeping waterfront featuring wind-blown sea grass, tidal flats and saltwater marsh. In the 1970s, well before his death in 1982 at age 99, Mack Laing donated the property and the last of the two homes he had built there to the town of Comox.  Apparently he had hopes that at least one of the houses would be used as a natural history museum.  To ensure that his wishes would be honoured he bequeathed $55,000 to the township upon his death in 1982, with the stipulation that it be invested in order to fulfill his wishes for the property.

Baybrook, Laing's first home, sold off after his wife died of cancer. The memories of their happy years together there were apparently too much for him to bear.

Baybrook, Laing’s first home, sold off after his wife died of cancer. The memories of their happy years together there were apparently too much for him to bear. Built in 1923 from a house kit, it is also slated for demolition

The house was not maintained, and early this year the Comox council voted in favour of tearing down both houses, which have been vacant for years. There has been much controversy over the decision, and much bitterness amongst Comox residents as to what should happen and what the house should be used for, if at all.  Which….is why I am conflicted.

These days when you visit Mack Laing Nature Park there is nothing but the soft sigh of the wind, calls of bald eagles and pileated woodpeckers. The ghost of Mack Laing lingers in Shakesides, his final home – he lived independently until his dying day and although access to the home is blocked you can still see remnants of his life through the windows. The huge lilac continues to thrive, part of his woodpile remains out back. There is/was a massive vegetable garden, still protected by high deer fence but growing little but horsetails these days. Look around and you see the signs of a life that was well, but simply, lived.

This memorial cairn was erected in the park by friends of Laing after his death in 1982.

This memorial cairn was erected in the park by friends of Laing after his death in 1982.

The park also features meandering trails and all manner of flora and fauna, enhanced by large picture boards. A productive salmon stream bisects the property. There is a commemorative cairn in honour of Laing.  A wander to the waterfront offers vistas of mountains, glacier, the town of Comox and Comox Bay.  There are a couple of benches and a short boardwalk, maybe a couple of other visitors but essentially, the place is much like it must have been when Laing first saw it almost a century ago. Quiet, peaceful, with nothing but the sounds of the natural world to enhance a soul-reviving experience.  Sit in the sunshine on one of those benches and you come away a changed person.

 Information boards about the flora and fauna of the site make this a true nature park - an excellent but unobtrusive addition

Information boards about the flora and fauna of the site make this a true nature park – an excellent but unobtrusive addition

So, my question is this: although it appears that Mack Laing’s wishes will not be fulfilled, would he be so upset about it?  While we abhor the destruction of anything that has an historical footnote and we certainly don’t advocate flying in the face of final wishes, I find myself wondering how distressed he would be.  The property is safe from development and will, house or no house, be preserved as a calm natural oasis for humans and wildlife. Perhaps that is going to have to be enough; at the very least, it is something.

Further information on Mack Laing, his activities and the current controversy can be found at the excellent website of the Mack Laing Heritage Society of the Comox Valley at:

http://macklaingsociety.ca/about-mack-laing/

 To access the Mack Laing Nature Park, go to the far end of Comox Road, park your vehicle on the street and enter along the path adjacent to the park sign.

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. 49.671781  Long. -124.912534

N 49 40.307  W 124 48.443

Shirley

About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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10 Responses to Controversy surrounds Comox’s serene Mack Laing Nature Park

  1. Loys Maingon says:

    Thanks for taking an interest in Mack Laing. Some points about your impressions:
    “Would Mack Laing be upset?” You can bet he would be. Mack Laing was an austere meticulous man, who was always quite explicit about what he wanted. If you care to read the 1972 conveyance document – he was quite explicit about the preservation of the house and all buildings on the property. That was the essence of the “trust” he entered upon with the Town of Comox. His correspondence from1972 to 1982 makes those wishes extremely explicit. The final will fills in all details confirming this. There is no way that he would have spent so much ink and effort, if the current betrayal of trust and vandalism of his home would have not mattered to him..
    With regards to what the town has done with the “park”, in the 1972 conveyance it was explicit that the park was to be kept as a “nature conservation area”, not as the suburban park they have turned it into.. He was adamant that no trails should be build through it. The trail system with paths on both side of the creek for easy walking is actually contrary to his stated wishes.
    It is no doubt a lovely place, but it is extremely different from the original lot he found in 1921. The vegetation is completely different. Apart from the many exotic plants that he and others introduced, pictures of the 1921 site show that it was heavily covered old growth fir, covering the site of the old First Nations village.
    Finally, the houses were fully occupied until quite recently. Baybrook was occupied until June 2013. The tenant at Shakesides was evicted in June 2014. And on that matter the rental of Shakesides from 1982-2014 was contrary to the directive in the 1972 conveyance document that the house be used as a public building, by a local group.
    I hope that when I write my will, that will will be respected by people of greater moral integrity than the people in whom Mack Laing placed his trust.

    • Shirley Shirley says:

      Thank you for your comments and for providing more detail on this story. We always welcome input from folks who provide additional information on places we write about.

      • Loys Maingon says:

        I don’t know if you have seen this week’s news. BC Heritage has weighed in and written to the Town of Comox asking them to stay demolition, because “Baybrook is a significant heritage site for the province of British Columbia.” Thanks for your interest and support.

        loys

  2. Mary Sherlock says:

    Are both houses (Baybrook and Shakesides) demolished? If not could you give me clear directions as to how to get to them – or the site where they were. We are not residents of Comox but coming to stay there over Easter. We would love to explore this park. Many thanks.

    • Shirley Shirley says:

      Hi Mary – we haven’t been up there for quite some time, so not sure about whether the houses have been demolished or not. However, if you go to the end of the article on our website there is a link to a website about Mack Laing Park that may give you more recent information. Also, the GPS co-ordinates to get to the park are at the bottom of our article. Enjoy – it is a lovely park!

  3. Carla Flegel says:

    What a pity the town did not maintain the homes and offer them for “artist in residence” programs. You would have welcomed artists from around the globe to soak up the beauty and nature this man tried to preserve.

    • Shirley Shirley says:

      It would have been a wonderful idea Carla, but unfortunately there didn’t seem to be the motivation to save the homes. Such a real shame – I think of how beloved Roderick Haig-Brown’s Campbell River home has become, both as a bed and breakfast and writer in residence site and it saddens me to think that Mack Laing’s homes could have served the same purpose but were destroyed instead.

  4. Monica Carew says:

    Comox Valley Naturalist Society has stated it’s objection to the town’s application to change the trust. They will be applying for intervenor status in a judicial hearing. This after finding 2 letters that were stored in Victoria Museum that show communication between Mack Laing-CVNS and the town of Comox.

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