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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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