“Stories of the ‘More-than-human’ World”, CCENA’s Second Long Table Gathering of the Year

I had a great time speaking at this event, the organizers were enthusiastic and devoted to bringing out engaged conversation, as is their goal: The Centre for Community Engaged Narrative Arts is a work in progress and the feedback after this event was delightfully encouraging for future long table gatherings. I can’t say enough about how great it was to share the table with fellow presenters Kaitlin Debicki and John Terpstra.

I’ve agreed to share my prepared text with CCENA, so I’ll share it here as well. We were tasked with speaking for 10-12 minutes each, and then the panel opened up for discussion. I think I even encouraged civil disobedience at one point, so it was definitely moving places none of us had likely considered. Thanks again for the giving me the opportunity!

Coldstream of Consciousness

Places

I feel it is significant to share that I haven’t owned a car for 20 years; I mostly ride a bicycle, walk, and occasionally take buses or borrow a vehicle. I’ve found that the way I get around provides me with a specific understanding of where I live.

I have distinct memories of walking with my kids on particular trails to get places: The Spencer Creek Trail through the heart of Dundas to go to the library, a favourite route to escape roads and cars, walking through tall wild grasses and stopping to listen to the rushing water in the creek. We hardly saw anyone else on the trail. Sometimes my kids would make us late — when the blackberries were ripe — so that we’d arrive with purple-stained fingers and mouths. It was like returning to a more restrictive world where this tasty burst of gathering and eating suddenly became a problem of decorum, and some of the primal joy washed away.

20161108_125527
Randy talking about Coldspring Valley on History and Science Hike

A combination of Conservation and unofficial trails between Governors Road and Highway 8 was our route to William Dam to buy our backyard garden seeds in the spring. An epic journey lasting hours, but full of poetry from my young daughter who memorized full passages from Lord of the Rings; and questions, and snacks, and walking sticks borrowed from the forest returned as we left the path and rushed toward home ahead of threatening clouds.

Unpaved earth provides an intimate experience and surprises. It could be the stick on the path that suddenly slithers to life to escape our approach (I brake for snakes). Or the bee flying beside me, matching my speed as I pedal along the Rail Trail, sharing a journey for a few magical moments. Or the night on my way home I decided to leave the comfort of street lights for the darkness of the woods and was rewarded with undulating lights of hundreds of fireflies.

But there are other encounters. In particular, roadkill becomes an almost daily, up close, slow, occurrence as I commute beside Cootes Drive on my bike. It makes sense. The highway was jammed through a biodiverse marsh in the 1930s, and the legacy is noise, depleted habitat, and carnage teetering towards species extinction.

The sight of, and then horrible realization that, the dead raccoon, crushed by a vehicle, had its insides forced out in a stream of bloody organs behind its body. The audible buzz of flies. Or the strange variation that appears one day among the grassy centre median, which turns out to be a road-killed snapping turtle – the top of her shell smashed open, the briny scent of water, and inside, among other intestinal debris, the small white unlaid eggs.

These are crime scenes. Hit and run except no one stops to care.

Names

How many of you know where Coldspring Valley is in Hamilton? If you know, how do you know?

There’s a creek there. Farmers of the past called it Red Creek. Some ecologists might have referred to the same waterway as Coldwater creek, or Coldstream creek. We know it more commonly now as Ancaster Creek. It is, as you might have guessed, a cold water creek, very rare and specialized habitat.

How many of you have heard of McMaster University’s Parking Lot M? Or as it was previously know Parking Zone 6?

These mundane and blandly descriptive place names literally buried the naturally evocative Coldspring Valley, after stripping the land of vegetation, moving the creek out of the way, filling in the messy floodplain to ensure it never floods again.

From 1958-1963 the Royal Botanical Gardens called it Coldspring Valley Nature Sanctuary, a place for nature hikes, learning, and scientific discovery. After McMaster bought the land from a reluctant RBG, they parked vehicles. The name fell off the face of the earth.

Now, after several decades, references to Coldspring Valley have made a modest comeback, you might think the place is back from the dead.

Scraping By

lotmdepave
In April 2014, heavy machinery trundled onto the parking lot and started tearing up chunks of asphalt. In a few days, a few hundred parking spaces had been removed to create room for the naturalized buffer.

My initial vision for removing the scar of pavement had started in earnest only a few years before, in 2011. The moment had been rising to surface like the cold water seeps that trickle past skunk cabbage on the side of the north facing slope for a long time before. Everything had changed.

I’d hiked through the large parking area many times, entering at different points where the various footpaths to the west ended in asphalt. Through the valley following the creek from Osler Drive, or down a trail from University Gardens crouched on the plateau above the valley. Or a side trail branching off lower Spencer Creek Trail and Cootes Drive.

There must have been a buried pang of sadness, or anger, or some mixture, every time I made the transition from the fields and surrendered to the expansive, flat, ugly parking lots at McMaster. I’d seen deer, coyotes, beaver, a noisy belted Kingfisher, and once a bald eagle drifting majestically overhead. I’d also rediscovered lost trails, remnants of the area’s past as a nature sanctuary.

The details of the journey that has seen the parking lot retreat to open up space for the minimum requirement of a 30 metre naturalized buffer is detailed in many places, including the Restore Cootes blog.

But we are here to talk about land as teacher, land as pedagogy. I am taking this in its most literal sense. The land does what it must. We can change it, control it, rarely do we get an opportunity to improve it by our actions.

So, for someone who researched the history of the area, wrote letters and blog posts, connected to politicians, and professors from several faculties, from art to engineering, I’ve helped move the discussion and the project forward. I just saw the recently updated campus master plan and it includes formal acknowledgment of MacMarsh, a wetland project that developed as a part of our collective work on Lot M.

But the university also gives itself ecological rewards for new buildings, or permeable paving in parking lots, when the true ecological thing might be not to build there, or to help encourage a shift away from car dependency, to undo the damage.

I am happy that there is now a 30m buffer, researchers and classes are there doing valuable work, but if I think of the parking lot as another crime scene, they are like EMS or emergency room staff, experts patching things up. The work takes place on top of the gravel fill, the floodplain remains buried, it will not serve its purpose, it is dead.

The lesson is an old one: land is cheap to develop, expensive to rehabilitate. RBG director Leslie Laking said exactly this after they lost the eastern shore of Cootes Paradise to the Chedoke highway and the land at McMaster in the 1960s: “Pressures to develop expressways or parkways or other engineering works…have been and will continue to be encountered, and almost invariably it is the ‘undeveloped’ natural areas which are sought for such purposes…. An arboretum and parkland generally are vulnerable targets because only trees are in the way” (“The Future”, RBG Special Bulletin No. 20, March 1968
p.32-34)

It seems utter madness now, but “In 1925, a proposal that the city build an incinerator was turned down on the grounds that when existing dumps were full, the entire Dundas marsh was available for garbage disposal.” (Emergence of the Modern City, Wood, Harold A, in Steel City: Hamilton and Region, Dear et al, University of Toronto Press, 1987, p131)

We have trouble with the world. Where will we take it?

LESSONS

buffer
McMaster student volunteers helping build turtle nesting habitat on former parking lot, now 30m naturalized buffer in Lot M/Coldspring Valley

“Beginning where it is easiest,” advises a landscape architect, “Successes in small things can be used to make connections to other larger and more significant ones. This is, consequently, an encouraging environmental principle to follow in bringing about change. It is, in fact, the only practical basis for doing so.”(Out of Place: Restoring Identity to the Regional Landscape, Michael Hough, Yale, 1990, p194)

I can confess that getting the parking spaces removed from Lot M was a side-project, a diversion, something to try. If that seems like a brag, no one was more surprised than I was when it succeeded. But my real goal, which began back in 2001, is to have Cootes Drive removed. It seems impossible but it also seems like something that should happen. I had good company in Bruce Duncan, Hamilton Conservation Authority ecologist, who supported the idea when it was first announced, and he is quoted saying nice things about it in the Dundas Star, advising me “to propose it to the city, and work cooperatively with them. That’s the way things happen.”

I need support. This is why I really loved John’s book Falling Into Place, and when I read his Submission to an Unannounced Competition for Proposals Toward a Vast and Total Redevelopment of Niagara Falls, I was instantly and at once a fan and inspired to continue to be unrealistic in my demands.

I feel I have failed to deliver on the promise of the talk’s theme, unless I can say that walking on trails is the way the earth instructs me: I can’t speak for the land, but I can observe and interact with this space, become more aware. I know that walking has provided inspiration for my actions relating to Cootes Paradise, and brought my focus to these degraded scenes of environmental destruction.

Let me end on a hopeful note: at a recent history and science hike in Coldspring Valley/Lot M, we saw signs of life on the buffer beyond the tough plants and hardy trees trying to reestablish their presence. Evidence of turtle eggs, hatched, or more likely predated by Raccoons, but turtle eggs had been safely laid in the sandy mounds that we built where cars used to park.

I’m happy to arrange a tour of the area, if anyone is interested.

Thanks.

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