Living on settled land

A Sumas Mountain resident wrestles with what it means to live in a place of sacred importance for some

Photo by Grant Moshonas

Natalie Lang’s parents spent their first night on their new Sumas Mountain property sleeping in a tent.

It was the 1980s and like thousands who had come before them, the couple had just purchased land where they hoped to build a home, a life, and a family. Natalie Lang grew up on that land and that mountain, walking its trails, smelling the air from the surrounding forest, and watching her father occasionally fell trees for firewood.

Lang, now the author of a deeply personal new book, still lives on—and loves—Sumas Mountain. But she has also grown much more aware that she’s not the only one—and that many, many people have come before her.

All of which prompts more questions than answers.

“I desperately want to know how I, a settler, should approach and live on the land,” Lang writes. “I want to feel the earth as I struggle with this question, as I struggle to place myself in this world.”

Current editor Tyler Olsen talks to Lang about Sumas Mountain, the wider public’s increasing interest and awareness of its long history, and why asking unanswerable questions is still important.

Some people bristle at discussions about the unceded nature of British Columbia, insisting that they are not responsible for their ancestors’ decisions. For Lang, though, the discussion matters, even if one bears no personal fault for colonial and settlement decisions that pre-dates one’s birth.

Sumas Mountain is considered sacred by local Indigenous communities. But widespread recognition of that—and the rarity and delicacy of the nature that lives on the mountain—is relatively new.

To start the conversation, Current editor Tyler Olsen asked Lang about living in a place with a complex and imperfect history.

This interview has been edited for clarity, concision and to simplify Tyler’s overly wordy questions.

FVC: How do you feel about living your life on a mountain that you highly value and you know, other people highly value? And how do you balance those and do the best you can as a human being?

Lang: “The point is to struggle. It's not one way or another… These are the questions and we have to address them, and we have to consider them. And there is no true answer that every living person and every living thing can understand and agree with.

“It's not the answer that's the point. It's the inquiry. It's the journey through it and the awareness of it that matters more to me.”

FVC: There are related questions that come up when it comes to things like logging, which you write about, where you use resources from the land at the same time we might not want to do so.

Lang: “It's that tension that exists in the contradictory moments of being alive, of being a human. I am human, and I shop and I eat food, and I heat my house with wood. But I am also cognizant of the impacts of that. And because I'm aware of that, I feel like I can make certain choices that have a lesser impact.

“And yes, I live on unceded territory, and I'm super aware of it. But I can't go back and change it. All I can do is recognize what's happening, learn and educate myself. And then use that information, use that history to try to make better choices for myself.

“In writing this book. It's kind of bringing all that together to say look, ‘Yes, we do these things. Yes, this is our history. No, it's not perfect. No, none of it was good at all. We shouldn't be cutting down trees and we shouldn't be taking other people's land. But the past existed, and we can't erase it, but we can start from that frame of mind of awareness and then make different choices and move forwards.”

Natalie Lang speaks with fellow Sumas Mountain resident John Vissers. 📷 Grant Moshonas

FVC: Is that how you process recent talk about future development on Sumas Mountain?

Lang: “Yeah. Sumas Mountain is getting developed. There's a lot of new builds up here, and people need to live somewhere. If I had it my way, I would say that Sumas Mountain should be protected and nothing should change ever. But 30 years ago, somebody else probably said that about the property that I'm living on now. And 150 years ago, other people said the same thing. Change is inevitable, growth is inevitable, but the way that we do it, the steps that we take, the thoughts that we have, and the vision that we create, we can be better informed. And we should be and I don't think that we are currently.”

Remnants sprung initially from a university project as Lang pursued a Master’s degree that focused on her personal experience of the land on which she grew up.

But 2021 and the floods that ravaged the valley below brought more attention and a more urgent need to reconsider how people exist on a unique part of British Columbia’s landscape.

That focus on the mountain has only been intensified by the development and publicity surrounding the McKee Peak Neighbourhood Plan, a controversial plan to guide development on the lower reaches of the mountain.

FVC: You started this process before the floods so how did [2021] change your thinking? Both about this project, but also about the mountain and the valley in general?

Lang: “The initial project was more of an observation of land and place and my interpretation of those observations. When the flood happened, and the heat dome, it changed the tone slightly, because now it's not just a passive observation, it became a little bit more political, it became a little bit more urgent. Because, you can't just go out into the woods now and go, ‘Oh, that's a nice tree. And that's a nice pine cone. And there's another squirrel.’

“[Now] you walk through the woods, and you go, ‘Oh, that's where the flood came.’ And, I walk up to this hill at the top, and I can see the valley and I can remember when it was all water. And then the heat dome, and all the creatures that died and all the trees and plants that are still suffering. But also, this area used to be lake bottom, this area used to be a lot wetter than it was and then you go ‘OK, well how does that factor in? And how did that change?’

“So it turned into something more urgent, into something a little bit more critical than I had initially planned.”

FVC: Had you considered or fully appreciated the scale of changes that can occur so quickly?

Lang: “So quickly. I know that change happens fast sometimes.

“Typically, I find that change is really slow—it takes forever for things to move until something chaotic happens until something tragic happens until a switch is flipped. Then suddenly everybody realizes, ‘Oh, wait a minute, change can happen really fast, it can be out of our control.’

“At the same time, change can also happen really quickly when there is will behind it. So we can see how quickly the Earth moves, we can see how quickly there's lake bottom, and then there's no lake bottom and the lake bottom again. And we can take stock of that and maybe make some changes that are a little bit more pressing with our choices.

Everyone thinks change is really slow. And sometimes it is, but it can happen quickly if we're willing and able, and I think we are. I think we just look the other way. We believe that change is slow. We accept it. But it doesn't have to be that way. There's a lesson in the heat dome that came on really fast, in the flood that came on really fast.

“All of these things happened in the blink of an eye and yet we're still stuck in that mentality that ‘No, no change is slow; you've got to be patient. You’ve got to wait. And I disagree.”

Lang’s book is now available online and in local stores. On May 6, Lang will host a book launch for Remnants on Sumas Mountain beginning at 4pm. You can find more details by contacting Lang by email.

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