At home with enviro-diva Briony Penn

by Yule Heibel on April 8, 2003

Briony Penn is a geographer with a sense of the mythic and the poetic: to protest the logging of Salt Spring Island, she rode her horse through a downtown Vancouver street in January 2001, (un)dressed as Lady Godiva (the picture suggests that perhaps the wig provided some measure of warmth). As the title article indicates, Briony-Penn-the-enviro-diva doesn’t shy away from combining outrageous actions with humour. She and Dame Edna would get on really well. Here are some ideas of her’s worth thinking about (click on title link for full story): “She believes we might be entering a period reminiscent of the Dark Ages with much of consumer culture breaking down but—just as after the fall of the Roman Empire—with pockets of enlightened cultural ‘refugia’ surviving. ‘Our biggest trouble is with the loss of the wild—it’s the basis of evolution; without it, humans can only go so far.’ (…) Refugia seem central to Briony’s ideological and practical underpinnings. … during the last ice age when much of the northern hemisphere was covered with a thick ice sheet, it’s believed there were small ice-free areas along the coasts where plants and animals survived. When the ice sheet melted, those areas that still harboured life—the refugia—assisted in the biological recovery of lands scoured barren by glaciers. Modern industrialism has been compared with the glaciers in its fragmentation and destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity and many scientists believe we must find ways to preserve land so that biological recovery can happen after industrialism runs its course.” Penn took her doctorate in geography in Scotland. “’Living in Scotland was an incredibly sobering experience,’ she says. Her father-in-law’s ability to translate Gaelic place names into English gave clear clues to what once had been on those barren moors: Valley of the Bear, Mountain of Elk, and Tall Trees were all names of places where nothing but a bit of heather now occupies the land. ‘Scotland was once a temperate rainforest and now there’s nothing there—no wild salmon, no bear, no beaver, they are all gone,’ she says emphatically. She fears that with our ‘malls and dull, mindless suburban culture’ we’re already on the same path which lost Scotland its natural heritage.” “’If we think of the Western World as a glacier, concreting the world up with malls, these little nature refugias that people have saved will help to repopulate landscapes if they become dead. It can have huge repercussions in the future because you’re saving the blueprint for evolution, and things can spread out from these pockets.’ Again she points to Scotland’s experience. There is now a strong restoration movement happening in Scotland in which sea eagles, wolves, pine and birch are being reintroduced to areas where they once thrived but have been long absent. The biological restoration material is being taken from ‘tiny little refugia’ in Scotland. Without those refugia, restoration would be impossible.” Oh, and the Lady Godiva ride? It happened thus: “A few years back, along with thousands of other Salt Springers, Briony rose up like a mamma bear to protect her beloved island when Texada Land Corporation started to clear-cut a large tract of land it owned. Help poured in: artists, writers, scientists, filmmakers and personalities who could command media attention (e.g. Robert Bateman, Arthur Black, Randy Bachman) all helped raise funds—in the end millions—to buy land from Texada before the company could log it all. Briony, Birgit Bateman and other island women even doffed their clothes for the cause in a highly successful calendar (over $100,000 was raised). But (…) even with all that money, talent and determination, success was not assured. ‘We had raised all of the money: federal, provincial, regional, and had all the structures in place and an appraisal, but Texada wouldn’t negotiate. Our negotiators finally walked away because it was clear the other side wasn’t acting in good faith.’ That’s what prompted her famous Lady Godiva ride down Vancouver’s Howe Street. Islanders decided to shame the logging company’s backer—ManuLife—into urging Texada to sit down and complete negotiations. As former rocker Randy Bachman said ‘that’s what it took’ to get their attention. Briony noted at the time that she wasn’t commanding much attention with her PhD in geography, but taking off her clothes sure did. Eventually, 32 hectares of Canada’s largest Garry oak woodland, next to the Mt. Maxwell ecological reserve, was protected, as were other areas. (…) She recalls how hard the logging company found it to relate to the community, in part because they had no traditional leader—they were a grassroots collective intent on consensus and power sharing. Briony worries how other areas will be protected from over-development, given that even though Salt Spring had absolutely everything going for it, it still took two years of blood, sweat, tears and dollars to save itself. ‘With most environmental protests the protester gets six months and the corporation walks away and continues to rape the land. Endangered ecosystems get no protection in law. You can destroy the very last butterfly in the world and you’ll walk away with no penalty, but if I try to block you from doing that I’ll spend months in prison.’”


Katie Watt April 9, 2005 at 12:40 am

I have just finished a refreshing semester at the University of Victoria with Briony for a professor is a Sustainable Communities class and she was brilliant. She kept us awake with her humour and occasional references to sex. She is a brilliant woman and I believe in her.

Yule Heibel April 17, 2005 at 8:40 pm

Hi Katie, glad to hear from someone who has taken classes with Prof. Penn. Sorry this page is so discombobulated now, with funny question marks and other markers having crept in where quotation marks should be, etc. But if it contributes in any way to letting any other individuals read a fan tribute to Briony Penn, that’s still a good thing. We need more people like her, and more people need to know about what she works on and does.

Caffyn August 5, 2006 at 6:26 pm

Hi Yule,
Thanks for the great article on Briony Penn. I was hunting around the web for information as I am trying to put a biography of her in our library, which is a wiki. Your text is so great, I wondered if there is any chance that you would post it at Thanks! Caffyn

yulelog August 6, 2006 at 11:56 pm

Hi Caffyn, thanks for stopping by!

You might want to find a copy of Focus on Women magazine from April 2003 (or at earliest March ’03), because all of the quotes in this blog entry come from an article about Penn in that magazine.

The magazine is still published by Leslie Campbell here in Victoria, and it’s now simply called Focus. The original links I included in this blog entry seem to have gone AWOL (hence you couldn’t tell where the quotes came from), which may have happened over time and more especially after I transferred the original Manila blog over to a WordPress server a couple of months ago. It’s also the case that the article was online very briefly, then disappeared, and now Focus doesn’t seem to put any of its stuff online.

If I had any say in the matter, Focus would have an online archive of articles, but they don’t, which is really a shame. The offices should have back copies available, though, and maybe you could get permission to put the whole article as it appeared in the original Focus on Women on your wiki. Failing that, put this blog entry on (but format some paragraph breaks in , please!, they seem to have gone as AWOL as the links…!). I did quote quite a bit (for the same reason you noted, but erroneously ascribe to me: it’s a great article), but I think it’s still within the limits of fair use, so should be ok… The credit has to go to Focus on Women and the author, though — and, alas, since the links have rotted away and I don’t have a hard copy of the article, I can’t tell you anymore who it was. It might have been Leslie Campbell herself. Best to get in touch and find out from her!

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