Reflections on Shakesides – by Richard Mackie – July 2016
[Please note: The following details are from my biography of Laing, published by Sono Nis Press in 1985: Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist].
The naturalist, writer, and biologist Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982) built and lived in two houses on the Comox waterfront. He moved to Comox in 1922 because it was then the “bird mecca” of the BC coast. There he helped form a formidable resident community of ornithologists that included Allan Brooks, Theed Pearse, and Ronald Stewart, as well as many seasonal visitors. Of all the places he knew in Canada, Comox was where Laing decided to put down roots. He built his first house, “Baybrook,” in 1923 and lived there until 1950, when he moved into his new house, “Shakesides,” which he built next door on the waterfront meadow where previously he had kept Daisy Mae, his cow. Baybrook was demolished by the Town of Comox in 2015 and Shakesides is now threatened with the same fate.
What prompted Laing’s move to the new house was the death of his wife, Ethel Hart Laing, of cancer in 1944 after a rapid illness. In the 1970s he recalled how he stated work on Shakesides in the spring of 1950:
For the first 6 weeks I did nothing but split cedar shakes, knowing I would need so many of them. I used again the blueprint of my first home – an Aladdin Readicut – but turned the house broadside to the bay instead of end-on as before so that with my south-west glance I would see Mt. Arrowsmith’s snowy crown and, south-west, close-up, the grand old Glacier and the Queen. The creekside where the birds come to drink is midway. In building I used the new solid, cedar construction: the walls of heavy cedar, tongued and grooved vertical planks clamped together, and the weather coat of tarpaper and shakes. Every stick of timber that went into housebuilding was nailed by my own hands.
Despite Ethel’s death he carried on writing at Shakesides. Four of his nine books were written there. Baybrook: Life’s Best Adventure, written soon after Ethel’s death, was the story of their married years (1927-1944) at Baybrook. Written in the 1950s, My Neighbours of the Western Shore, a true naturalist’s book, describes the animals, birds, and plans living or visiting his waterfront property. In the 1960s, Laing and his old colleague from the Smithsonian Institution, Francis Harper (1886-1972), wrote up the story of their 1920 expedition to Lake Athabasca as The Birds of Lake Athabasca. In the 1970s, he wrote the biography of his friend, the artist and naturalist, Major Allan Brooks (1869-1946). The only one of his “Shakesides books” to be published in his lifetime, Allan Brooks: Artist-Naturalist was published by the British Columbia Provincial Museum in 1979, when Laing was 96.
Shakesides was, then, a writer’s house – not a retired writer’s house, but the residence of an active and engaged intellect between 1950 and 1982. In these years, many naturalists and ornithologists came to visit him there. His old summer students from the National Museum, Charles Guiguet, Allan Sampson, Elgin Hall, and Ian McTaggart Cowan visited regularly. Local biologists Allan Brooks Jr. and his wife Betty Brooks (nee Hatfield) visited often, as did the bird painter Robert Bateman and the post-war generation of BC naturalists including Bristol Foster, Harold Hosford, Yorke Edwards, and Fenwick Lansdowne, all from Victoria. He also received visits from Manitobans Clarence Tillenius, David Hatch, and Albert Hochbaum, from Earl Godfrey and George Holland from Ottawa, and from naturalists Tommy and Marion Walker and mountain climbers Don and Phyllis Munday.
Laing also, in these years before the internet and cheap telephone calls, kept in touch with a remarkable number of correspondents. Letters exist for all the names mentioned above as well as from many relations and friends – as a young man he had been a rural schoolteacher in Manitoba for ten years — including J.A. Munro, Cecil “Cougar” Smith, Ronald Stewart, Theed Pearse, and Hoyes Lloyd, Dave and Lynn Hancock. In 1968 he was featured on the CTV’s program, W5. In short, he spent almost forty years writing and keeping up an astonishing correspondence with everyone he had ever met – or so I felt as his biographer! Laing’s two large collections of letters are now at the BC Archives in Victoria. They are catalogued as mss 1309 and 1900, and together they amount to 7 metres — about 25 linear feet of letters, a major collection in Canadian natural history and ornithology between 1910 and 1980 that scholars have barely started to grapple with. His photo collection is also at the BC Archives and his nature diaries are at the Royal BC Museum.
Over his lifetime, Laing published at least 1,000 articles in newspapers and magazines, 22 of which were featured in scientific publications of his day. His output secured him a high reputation: his scientific publications included articles in The Canadian Field Naturalist, The Murrelet, Condor, The Auk, Scientific American, the Canadian Geographical Journal, and the Canadian Alpine Journal. He also collected over 10,000 vertebrate specimens in his lifetime, the majority for the National Museum in Ottawa. His importance lies in the strength of the friendships made over his long life, in his collections of birds, mammals, and plants housed in Canadian and American museums and universities, and in his influential nature stories published in newspapers and outdoor magazines.
First and foremost a teacher, Laing knew that teachers need a place to teach. And naturalists need a place to teach. He hoped that Shakesides would be the ideal place for all that and more. In 1973 he bequeathed his Shakesides property to the Town of Comox and kept living there until his death in 1982, aged 99 years. His decision to leave it to the Town of Comox was unpopular in some quarters: in 1972, for example, an opponent wrote to him as follows: “Mr. Laing, you are a very brilliant man, but I am out and around the world much more than you are. So that I think leaving your property as a park for Comox is a very bad idea. It will become nothing but a bum’s roost and a curse to your neighbours. There will be drunken parties — they will destroy the flora, and leave debris around, making it look like a dump.”
His colleagues, students, and fans from around North America visited him there. It seems indisputable that Shakesides should be preserved, as Laing hoped and provided for, as a shrine to this remarkable naturalist whose influence and contribution continue to be revealed. As guardians and beneficiaries of Laing’s estate, the Town of Comox is treating this legacy with contempt by proposing to demolish this house. They need only look as far as Campbell River for a suitable model and consider the success of the preservation of Roderick Haig-Brown’s house, “Above Tide,” which now acts as an anchor for Campbell River’s annual Haig-Brown Festival, the Haig-Brown Lecture, and the Haig-Brown Writer in Residency. Comparisons between Laing and Roderick Haig-Brown of Campbell River have always been made and are certainly warranted, but whereas Haig-Brown was primarily a popular writer about fly-fishing and a magistrate in Campbell River, Laing in many ways had a deeper and more varied talent and influence. His life and work are all about potential. Whereas Haig-Brown’s career and corpus is known, studied, and appreciated, Laing’s primary achievement as a collector is still largely unexamined, unpublished, and waiting to be explored. His full impact and contribution as a popular and scientific writer have not yet come into focus. I can see Shakesides as an ideal base for a writer-in-residence, and especially for the future exploration of the many facets of the impressive career and output of this important twentieth century Canadian.
Surely the Town of Comox can abide by Laing’s wishes, honour his will, and harness the energy and goodwill of the Mack Laing Heritage Society and of Comox Valley Nature to preserve Shakesides and retain Comox as a naturalist’s mecca.