Sometimes a bad idea just won’t go away. Though Vancouver’s future has been looking a lot greener lately, with the expansion of bike lanes and improved municipal composting, I was dismayed to learn that a city-proposed road expansion is threatening to wipe out Cottonwood Community Gardens, one of the Vancouver’s best-known examples of citizen-initiated urban greening. As a founder of Cottonwood, twenty-one years ago, I have fought this fight before.
Back in 1991, I started a campaign with a rag-tag group of East Vancouver residents to take over a three acre strip of city land on the southern perimeter of Strathcona Park, which had become a study in urban blight. The city had stopped enforcing anti-dumping bylaws in this industrial neighbourhood and mountains of jettisoned construction debris, landscaping waste, rotten furniture and junked cars were continuing to accumulate on the property with no end in sight, accompanied, unsurprisingly, by an increase in the rat population and the incidence of petty crime.
Tired of this officially sanctioned neglect, our little group of volunteers rolled up its collective sleeves, borrowed some wheelbarrows and shovels and got busy. With an enormous amount of hard work and a sense of community pride, we gradually transformed this unprepossessing piece of urban wasteland into an award-winning public garden and arboretum. It is without doubt one of the things in my life I am most proud of having done.
We called the place ‘Cottonwood Community Gardens’ as a nod to the giant cottonwood trees that tower over its northern edge, their rustling foliage a reminder of the area’s rich ecological past, when it was the marshy edge of False Creek, which once extended as far east as Clark Drive.
When word of our initiative got up to City Hall, we were informed that City Engineering had made plans to turn the dusty lot into a heavy equipment training area, despite being right beside a major park with heavily used playing fields, to which the dust churned up by the machinery would surely have drifted.
But those were the days of ‘recreational apartheid’ in East Vancouver, when the right-wing, Non-Partisan Alliance dominated city council and played favourites with the prosperous areas of the city that voted for them while turning their backs on neighbourhoods (like ours) that didn’t. The NPA dominated Parks Board was at that time busy assembling million dollar beachfront properties for parks in Point Grey and Kitsilano, while neighbourhoods on the East Side had to grovel to get broken teeter-totters replaced in their over-used inner-city playgrounds.
What we started out with
And if that wasn’t enough reason to continue with our intervention, a friendly Vancouver Sun reporter had tipped us off that City Engineering was quietly hatching a plan to build a major new truck route through the nearby Grandview Cut and run it right through this ignominious little property, funneling yet more smoke-belching transport trucks into our already polluted and congested environs.
Clearly City Hall was making some terrible decisions at the expense of the neighbourhood, so we needed to act fast. Whatever automatic legitimacy they may once have had was eroded by the pernicious neglect with which they treated the area, offering it up as a kind of sacrifice zone for their 1950′s vision of a vehicle-dominated city.
The ensuing work was very hard. We pulled out dumpster loads of every kind of disgusting trash imaginable – piles of moldy drywall, engine blocks, bloody syringes, used condoms – even a dead cat in a plastic bag – before we could do much actual gardening. And once we had dealt with all that insalubrious garbage, we hauled in wheelbarrow loads of rotten vegetables, gleaned from the produce warehouses on nearby Malkin Avenue, to make compost to enliven the impoverished soil. To water our initially meager crops, we had to haul buckets from the public washrooms in the park or wait for the rain to eventually fill them.
building the garden
composting with salvaged tofu
Yet we persisted, and despite some initial push-back from a few NPA councilors and some grumbling from City Engineering, we managed to prevail and marshaled the considerable public support we had been generating into a long-term lease. This gave us the security and the legitimacy we needed to get some small grants, with which we bought a few tools, installed an irrigation system, a greenhouse and a garden shed. The Environmental Youth Alliance joined our effort and soon started transforming the eastern flank of the property that had been covered in dense, trash-filled thickets, into what would become a thriving centre for youth-focused environmental education.
Gradually but steadily, the sun-baked and squalid expanse of dust and garbage we started out with gave way to groves of exotic trees and carefully tended allotments. The sounds of unfamiliar birds started to fill the morning air and there were cool pockets of shade with benches, where weary passers-by could sit and enjoy the slow resurgence of nature.
Two decades later, Cottonwood Gardens stands out from its surroundings as an oasis of biodiversity, a verdant interruption to an otherwise dreary vista of sterile playing fields and low-rise industrial buildings. A few years into our project, a pair red-tailed hawks built a nest in one of the large cottonwoods only to get evicted, a few seasons later, by a pair of bald eagles that still are there today, their sprawling twig nest and squeaking eaglets adding to the Edenic vibe of the place. I’ve often caught sight of visitors to the garden stopping and staring, incredulously, as these majestic raptors soar over the heat haze that simmers up from the factory roofs and then alight high on one of the cottonwoods to feed their young. It’s just not what you’d expect to see in what was long one of the city’s most deprived and green-space deficient districts, and yet even this is still relatively early in the long process of ecological recovery and one can only wonder what might eventually be possible – if, that is, we are allowed to continue with our long-running experiment in community ecological repair.
The seedlings and saplings we fussed over and watered all those years are now mature trees – a rich variety of them such as the blue-flowered Empress trees I grew from minuscule, milkweed pod-like seeds I picked up from under a gnarled, old specimen that still survives in Thornton Park. There are multiple kinds of mulberries, edible chestnuts, persimmons, Asian pears and groves of rare bamboo, along with extensive plantings of native species; all of them chosen for their ethno-botanical significance to the diverse heritage of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
In their well-tended garden plots, people from all walks of life coax forth a bounty of blooms, fruits and vegetables from what was once sterile rubble, sharing the food and recipes with their friends and neighbours in a living paradigm of what a green, inclusive city is supposed to be. This is an ‘open-source landscape’ that continuously evolves as a function of those who participate in it, with no real need for the top-down ministrations of bureaucrats, engineers and other members of the professional class. Cottonwood has always just run itself, a self-declared ‘autonomous zone,’ which is its true beauty but also makes it a threat to those who have a vested interest in maintaining the traditional power relationships that have controlled the evolution of the city.
Despite some headwinds at the start, Cottonwood has mostly had a cordial relations with civic politicians of all political stripes, and it didn’t take too long for even our foes to realize that the garden, which is essentially self-maintaining, creates environmental benefits and opportunities for community-building far beyond what is possible within the traditional parks system – at almost no cost. Cottonwood has been a very good deal for the city. With the rise of Vision Vancouver and their explicit advocacy of urban agriculture, I thought we were home free. During the last civic election, they even featured Cottonwood on their party web site as a prime example of a successful policy.
Imagine my shock then, when I found out last month that Cottonwood – despite all the accolades, the myriad hours of embodied volunteer energy and the many politicians who have schmoozed with us there, getting their pictures taken with babies and flowers – is once again on the chopping block, threatened by the same road, (though it’s now called a ‘super road’) we fought off all those many years ago. I was doubly surprised to learn that Vision Vancouver was behind the new spin on this same bad, old idea.
So how did we get into this ‘déja vu all over again’ situation?
Over the past year, Mayor Robertson and the rest of the Vision organization have been publicly promoting the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, a pair of concrete flyovers that are architectural relics of a proposed downtown freeway that got quashed by public outcry during the 1970’s. Though ridding the city of these monuments to twentieth century car culture might seem like a swell idea, (I got so excited about it, I even proposed to re-purpose them into a Highline style elevated garden), their removal will initiate a cascade of outcomes, not the least of which is that a substantial acreage of valuable real estate, now languishing as parking lots beneath the viaducts’ perpetual shadow, will get ‘day-lighted’ and hence available for development.
The viaducts, though not a freeway as such, do convey a substantial amount of traffic via Prior Street, a busy arterial that runs through the rapidly gentrifying Strathcona neighbourhood. Against the background of the viaducts’ proposed removal, the Strathcona Residents Association initiated a vociferous media campaign to get traffic calmed on Prior, to which the mayor responded with a proposal to build a so-called ‘super street’ that would divert much of Prior’s volume onto a newly widened Malkin Ave, whose right-of-way happens to pass right through the middle of Cottonwood Gardens. So we’re right back where we started from 21 years ago, only this time with a lot more to lose.
map showing road allowance
It has to be said though, the SRA has some valid arguments about the perils of Prior. It is a fast moving, high volume street with all the attendant traffic casualties, pollution and noise one might expect; hazards it shares with other high volume arterials in the area, where commuter and commercial traffic is routed through residential zones, as is the case with 1st Ave., 12th Ave., and a large section of Knight Street. To add to the complexity, the Province newspaper reported that traffic calming on Prior could add an average of $100,000 to the property values there, a not inconsequential outcome in a neighbourhood where real-estate prices have already skyrocketed.
Though this muddies the waters somewhat, it doesn’t negate the SRA’s safety concerns, but further underscores the need for Vision to step up with a much more innovative solution than the robbing Peter to pay Paul approach they have thus far hinted at, sacrificing Cottonwood, by now one of the city’s best-known ecological landmarks, for the uncertain outcome of traffic re-routing. Even without the Malkin ‘super street,’ the city itself anticipates the removal of the viaducts alone could actually contribute to a moderate decline in vehicles on Prior St.
as today (they) act as a magnet for commuter traffic with some commuters going ‘out of their way’ to access the viaducts via Prior St. With (their) removal, a significant proportion of commuters will naturally redistribute to other routes.
So the entire Prior issue may in fact be a red herring, with no real connection to what happens along Malkin except to add an unwarranted hysteria to the decision making process that plays nicely into the hands of the pro-development lobby.
a recent upgrade to enhance accessibility
Along with the local concern about the viaduct removal and its effect on Prior, there is massive pressure being exerted by the federal and provincial governments, who are pushing a multi-billion dollar ‘Pacific Gateway’ program to expedite truck and rail traffic into and out of Vancouver’s port, with the aim of facilitating Canada’s growing trade with the Pacific Rim. The widening of Malkin has already been floated by City Engineering as a desirable way to meet these goals along with an overpass to ease the indignity of traffic jams at the at level crossing on Prior.
While Vision has not yet announced a decision on what they have already christened the ‘Malkin Connector,’ there is a creeping air of inevitability to their public communication on the subject. Mayor Robertson has made it clear he wants to expedite the matter and on a recent CBC ‘Early Edition’ interview, Vision councilor Geoff Meggs showed an alarmingly wishy-washy attitude toward Cottonwood and its future, telling his audience that Malkin has ‘always been seen as a future major arterial’ for ‘improving goods movement, (and that) ‘there will be impacts’ so that ‘the area can be set up properly (emphasis mine) to support jobs and development opportunities.’ These are the chosen words of an individual who has already made up his mind, though Meggs did add, rather noncommittally, the garden will be given ‘serious consideration,’ which is not, on its own, hugely encouraging.
In the end though, what we have here is not so much of a political issue, but a problem of urban design, which therefore should be solvable, if enough creativity and resources are directed at it. A ‘win-win’ outcome here would be a huge boost to Vision’s green credibility and give a clear signal they were serious about moving away from the traffic-centric, development driven, business-as-usual approach to running the city that has been so prevalent in the past.
Conversely, it would be wrong-headed in the extreme for Vision to sacrifice Cottonwood for the sake of a ‘super roadway,’ no matter how highly the engineering department recommended it. Given the by now iconic nature of this garden, I can pretty much guarantee there would be massive protest should it come down to the bulldozers moving in, and the spectre of photogenic young environmentalists and outraged senior citizens chaining themselves to the garden’s greenery to ward off city road-building crews would be death to Vision’s green brand and a gift to the right-wing forces so eager to unseat them.
So Vision had better come up with a solution that lives up to its party name – an imaginative solution that doesn’t pit neighbour against neighbour or trash this beloved oasis of urban nature – for the sake of vehicles. A world-class, ‘green’ city deserves world-class design that is both environmentally and socially at the cutting edge – a standard that may be beyond the tired, old orthodoxies the traffic engineers have had to offer. We can’t let Vision cut corners here, despite mounting pressures on them to do so from some very powerful players. But will they have the foresight and creativity to get this right? There is a lot riding on the outcome. Vision got a substantial mandate on their pledge to make Vancouver ‘the greenest city in the world.’ How they deal with Cottonwood will show us all how committed to their values they truly are. I for one will be watching very closely.
what we stand to lose
If you’d like to weigh in on this issue and help prevent Vision from making a terrible mistake, here are some links:
There are few things as lovely as the annual eruption of cherry blossoms – a time of year I very much look forward to on Canada’s West Coast. Vancouver is well known for its cherry-lined streets, which at this time of year can make moving through the city an almost psychedelic experience, with pink and white blossom clouds floating everywhere just overhead and petals drifting down to the rain-beaded pavement like kisses on tears.
Sakura zensen refers to the front of blooming cherry blossoms that creeps from south to north up the Japanese archipelago every spring. Blossom time is eagerly awaited all over the country and is marked by hanami celebrations, during which people eat and drink under the trees, whose short-lived flowers are revered as symbols of ephemeral existence. There is even a mathematical formula to predict blossoming time as a function of temperature and latitude, and the blooming is tracked with a precision that might elsewhere be accorded to dangerous weather systems.
For me, as for many others, the arrival of the cherry blossoms, no matter where I am, serves as a welcome harbinger of the season – a real sign the glumness of winter has been banished by the nascent radiance of spring. With this year’s unseasonably early warmth on North America’s east coast, the sakura zensen there seemed a little rushed. The Okame cherry sapling that had been planted a couple of years ago in front of Ruthie’s East 7th St. apartment was already sending out tendentious blooms by mid February, and by the time the end of March came around, the collection of weeping cherries at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens was in full display. Laid out in the classical ‘hill and pond’ style, the BBG’s Japanese garden is one of the oldest of its kind in North America, having been established in 1914-1915 by the seminal Japanese landscape designer Takeo Shihota. By now, many of the trees are splendidly old and have a picturesqueness in their gnarled trunks and arching branches that contrasts beautifully with the delicacy of their pastel-hued, floral cascades that strew their petals onto the surface of the quiet pond, to be nuzzled by the whiskered snouts of carp.
In a kind of meditation on ephemerality, filmmaker Lucy Walker has released a most poignant movie she calls The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, which Ruth and I recently went to see at the Japan Society. Walker interleaves the joy of witnessing the cherry blossoms’ annual return with harrowing, first-person accounts by tsunami survivors who witnessed their friends and family get swept away to their deaths, and who must now manage somehow to get on with their lives. Though it is hard to see how anything good could come from such an epic disaster, Walker’s film gives us an insight into the Japanese sensibility of mono no aware; literally ‘the pathos of things,’ reminding us, even in the face of catastrophe, to love each other and to value each precious moment we are allotted, before it too drifts away like a petal on the wind.
The hot breath of a globally-warmed, East Coast spring brings with it many surprises. A friend of mine, a young woman, writes to me from the surreal mid March heat of Montreal, the doors and windows of her apartment all open.
‘Is it you who once spoke of the new phenomenon of grieving natural landscapes? How about grieving a Season? Winter is a part of me. A genetic part I must say too! Culturally, winter is at the center of so much life around here. So many memories about Winter. So long Winters. Skating on the river near my parents house when I was a kid… haven’t skated there since 1998…why? Because the ice hasn’t been thick enough to be safe to skate. Or there was just plain no ice at all. What about the ice fishing villages? What about hockey games outside? What about maple syrup…the sugar season has lost nearly a month in the past 10 years! This year it was a little more than 2 weeks. Spring won, Winter was too tired to fight back.’
Here in Manhattan, the leaves and flowers have been unfurling far, far ahead of schedule. The daffodils, usually in their prime by mid March have already come and gone in nearby Tompkins Square Park – a full month earlier than is usual. It didn’t take long for my sinuses to react to the the pollen billowing in from the park’s stately American Elm trees (Ulmus americana). These venerable giants, planted by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, still flourish in the city’s metropolitan parks long after their rural brethren have succumbed to the 20th century plague of Dutch Elm disease. On the island of Manhattan, the elms are protected by encircling rivers and a miles wide cordon sanitaire of buildings and pavement that prevents the elm bark beetle, which spreads the disease, from infecting them. It’s delightful to me that all those crushing tires and stomping feet are actually aiding conservation.
East Village spunk trees
As soon as the elm pollen fades, the cloying pong of Callery Pear(Pyrus calleryana) starts wafting through the East Village’s streets, the skeletal branches erupting into billowing, white flower clouds seemingly overnight, pushed into bloom by the strangely overheated breezes. Callery Pear is commonly known as the ‘spunk tree’ in these parts and the semen-like scent is strongest when the pollen starts going rancid after a bit of rain. The odor along St Mark’s place was particularly pungent this year, adding a whole other dimension to what some would say was an already rather skanky stretch of street. Once the trees stink themselves out, they become quite pleasant, bearing tiny Asian pears, from which my friend Marina Zurkow concocted a delicious alcoholic drink, after we foraged for the fruits on the shores of Brooklyn, last November.
A close second in the ejaculatory odor department is the Ghetto Palm, (Ailanthus altissima), which is found throughout the city’s waste places and terraines vagues. Thankfully it doesn’t flower till a fair bit later in the season!
How concerned should we be when the spring arrives so suddenly, so many weeks ahead of schedule? For someone like me, who hates extreme cold, this year’s eastern ‘non-winter’ should have seemed like a gift from the gods – a welcome break from the tedium of snow shoveling and galoshes. There have always been periods of aberrant weather – so why worry now?
The big picture on climate change is indeed concerning. Weather all over the planet has become increasingly extreme and records are being shattered left, right and center. The common denominator to all this chaos is global warming and it seems clear we are at the beginning of an epic shift. A recent study published in the New Scientist predicted an average 3 degrees C rise in global temperatures by 2050 – a scenario far worse than even the direst projections of a few years ago.
In addition to the ecological and economic effects, I wonder what will be the psychological outcomes of such aberrant weather? A certain predictability to the seasons seems necessary for our sense of well-being and if we can’t take some consistency for granted anymore, would it be any surprise if some of us go a little nuts?
Though we might be ‘grieving a season’ now, what will it be like when we forget completely what was once considered ‘normal’ and settle into a state of climate amnesia?
On a recent visit to suburban Toronto, I reminisced with my elderly parents over photos taken during my childhood. Forty years ago, we skated every winter on the ice of the nearby river. It was always thick enough to support the weight of snow clearing tractors and kiosks selling hot chocolate. Such reliably cold conditions seem almost inconceivable in that region now, a climate reality resigned to a distant past. An entire generation has grown up there since with no experience of the joys and tribulations of a reliably frigid winter. Perhaps the climate will someday settle into a newer, hotter ‘normal,’ but in the meantime it seems we’ll have to endure the instability of the current ‘abnormal,’ with plenty of unanticipated weirdness to come.
Vancouver Island style old growth forest liquidation
detail of a Japanese demon scroll from the Metropolitan Museum
I’m in New York again and have been here for a while. Right now, it’s about 3 pm, outside Washington Square Park, on the first day of 2012. A man wearing an expensive overcoat is projectile vomiting against a tree – a linden, I believe it is. An eager pug strains at its leash to lap up the mess, but the firm hand of his mistress snaps him back at the last instant.
New Year’s eve—the East Village was full of young women in spangly short skirts and tottery high heels, throwing up in the street and crying, while their boyfriends bellowed primal indignation at the indifferent, night air. Overhead, police helicopters rumbled and sirens caterwauled from all directions as Zuccotti Park, one of the city’s parsimoniously conceived ‘privately-owned public spaces’ got temporarily re-occupied by the anti-Wall Street protesters, before the riot-garbed might of New York’s finest wrested it back from the dangerous band of raw food enthusiasts and bicycle couriers (who posed such a clear and present threat to the security of this, the most powerful nation on earth), while each round of pepper spray and arm twist got live streamed into the ether by a hovering coterie of electro-pundits. All in all, it was a hell of an evening.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much purging. It is said that Tibetan soothsayers and the Oracle of Delphi vomited after making their prognostications. The future made them sick, but then the past isn’t always so great either, and in 2011, the world seemed thoroughly to have gotten sick of itself. Though Occupy and the Arab Spring reminded us that entrenched, globalized systems of neo-Liberal economics and authoritarian government have (to quote Zizek) “lost their automatic legitimacy,” the outlook for the global environment has never, in the history of humanity, been so grim.
While some still pine for the evaporating American Dream, the opportunity to avert catastrophic climate change and forestall the extinction of countless fascinating species is slipping through our fingers like so many Styrofoam peanuts. Of course, at least subconsciously, we can all sense it, and to cope with the ubiquitous sensation of doom we sedate ourselves with apocalyptic pop culture, never more prevalent, as a casual perusal of Wikipedia’s listing on apocalyptically-themed video games will attest. These digital dystopias of burned out cities and smouldering, post-ecological terrains have infiltrated our optical-subconscious to the degree that we now feel increasingly at home in them, making the vestiges of the real, biological environment seem aberrant and atavistic.
You’re wondering now,
What to do,
Now you know,
This is the end.
Not to be outdone, I recently arranged my own ‘Apocalypse-athon’ watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, more or less back-to-back, and I have to say the experience left me feeling strangely numb, as if someone had thoughtfully smeared Novocain on the insides of my wrists before handing me the X-acto knife to do myself in.
Let’s face it — contemplating the end of the world can give us a kind of frisson by stoking our anthropocentric egos, because after all, on some level, we would like to think the world will end with us. But that’s not likely to happen. There are plenty of tougher organisms out there who’d be happy to feed on our heaped, irradiated carcasses, while they watch us fade into geological history. Perhaps the rats and kudzu vines or whatever else moves in to take our place as the planet’s most visible organisms can work out a more sustainable contract with the planet than we did. One can only hope.
Barring all-out nuclear war or withering pandemic, our world, as we know it, will continue to diminish in increments —a forest here, a coral reef there, a watershed in some distant part of the world or maybe a bit closer to home.
A sad and perhaps typical small example of such ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ is taking place right now on Cortes Island— a mostly overlooked, densely forested blob of rock, off the inner coast of Vancouver Island, where I live part time. With its abundance of wild mushrooms, smurf-like New Age seniors and flaxen-haired hippie children, it can sometimes feel like living in the label of a Celestial Seasonings tea box, yet through good fortune and its reputation for a fierce culture of environmentalism, Cortes has been left with a few tracts of magnificent, old Coastal Douglas fir forest, a type of habitat largely extirpated from its former eastern Vancouver Island range. This enchanting ecosystem, where individual trees can tower to 200 feet, is the habitat of mountain lions, a unique maritime race of timber wolf, the endangered Queen Charlotte goshawk, rare bats, and an amazing diversity of fungi —some of them, such as the medicinally potent Agarikon, exclusively dependent on this age class and variety of tree.
Yet precisely because of their rarity, these large old trees are now valuable on the international timber market and have of late been under the acquisitive scrutiny of the corporate Eye of Sauron.
The Eye of Sauron
In a twist of globalized connectivity, Brookfield Asset Management, the company behind the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protestors from New York’s Zuccotti Park (which they own) recently bought up much of Cortes Island’s standing inventory of mature forest, which also contains most of island’s remaining old growth, particularly of Douglas fir.
One of the best sources of large Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar in North America for a broad customer base primarily located in Asia and North America…
Brookfield’s business model is perfectly clear: buy up the last commercially available pockets of ancient forest and liquidate them for maximum profit. This is eco-cide, pure and simple, but there may be little the good people of Cortes can do about it, save for physically blockading the logging equipment as it arrives in, to delay what perhaps is inevitable. In British Columbia’s privately owned forest lands, property rights trump all other environmental and social concerns, a status quo the forest industry lobbied hard to achieve, with substantial contributions to the governing Liberal party, who rewarded them by gutting regulation and oversight in a revised Private Managed Forest Land Act.
As outlined in their prospectus:
Brookfield focuses on investments in the region with a strongly embedded concept of private property rights generally supported by effective legal and land title systems.
By effective, they of course mean ‘industry friendly’ and the legal system in British Columbia is definitely that. Yet 2011 was the year people the world over stopped seeing the property rights of corporations as ‘self-evident’ and ‘automatically legitimate,’ when such rights override the well-being of communities and the environment. That is what the OWS movement was all about. What Cortes needs right now, is a massive ‘Forest Occupy’ response from those committed to maintaining the integrity of the vanishing ancient Coastal Douglas fir ecosystem in the face of a determined corporate assault. But will the islanders be able to muster the hundreds of occupiers it will take to pull this off? We’ll have to wait and see. Island Timberland plans to start its operations later this January.
What we will lose
But what if Brookfield/IT prevails and logs off the venerable trees from its Cortes lands? To be sure, investors in its Timberlands private funds will get a little richer as the ships full of ancient logs ply their way across the Pacific and get fed into the maw of the Chinese construction industry. There is a painful symmetry in the fact that the profit squeezed from liquidating some of the last 1% of the original, ancient Douglas firs left on British Columbia’s coast will further line the pockets of society’s wealthiest 1%.
They probably won’t even notice. Environmentalists and bird-watchers will likely get a little more depressed as the sitings of Queen Charlotte goshawks and rare bats decline with the elimination of their prime breeding grounds, but even these people will start to focus on other things as the giant stumps sink slowly into the shrubby verdure of second growth. The timber company might even replant the ravaged land with industrially reared seedlings, each one secure under its own deer-resistant plastic cap. Gradually, what Jared Diamond calls ‘landscape amnesia’ will settle in and the degraded, industrially abused landscape will simply become ‘the new normal.’ And that to my mind is the greatest tragedy of all. We’ll lose something once basic to the human experience— the sense that a truly wild and ancient landscape can exist solely on its own terms, for everyone to appreciate, and not be sold out for the financial betterment of a wealthy few.
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper…
I suppose you could say I am a patient man. I am fond of things that grow slowly like tortoises and ancient rainforest trees.
For the past couple of decades I have been absorbed in the hobby of growing various extremely slow growing plants from seed. These ones are from the driest parts of Southern Africa, an extreme environment in which they’ve evolved curious structural adaptations to survive during long periods of drought. Euphorbia obesa has done away with all manner of leaves or even spines and bides its time hunkering between the pebbles of its native Karoo region trying not to get noticed. Just in case, it protects itself with a toxic milky sap should anything want to give it an exploratory nibble. Once a year, toward the end of summer, a tiny cluster of flowers forms, male and female on different plants, and they await the visitation of some specially adapted insect to pollinate them. As these particular insects don’t inhabit the environs of my office, I hand pollinate the female flowers be means of a tiny sable paint brush which I carefully dust with pollen from the male one. Timing is everything and I have to be lucky enough to have a male and a female flowering simultaneously in my little collection. The result, over the past fifteen years, has been a number of bulbous progeny, and I feel proud to be propagating this strange little plant that is critically endangered in the wild and doing it right here on my Canadian windowsill.
Hailing from the same general area is the Haworthia truncata, whose contractile roots pull it down into its gravel habitat when things get a bit too hot. In order to absorb enough light for photosynthesis in its partially subterranean situation,H. truncata has evolved translucent windows at the end of its truncated leaves, which funnel light deep down into the plant.
Though it may take a long time, I find growing these odd plants to be intensely rewarding. They ground me in time and I love the thought of them sitting there stolidly in their pots adding a scant millimeter of growth each year, or maybe putting out a brief little inflorescence, while the world of humanity whirls frantically around them. They must experience time quite differently from you and I. Some of I’ve had for over 20 years, germinated from seeds ordered from long-vanished seed merchants. Yet even in the relative safety of my home, the existence of my botanical companions still hangs in the balance. Knocked to the floor by a rambunctious cat or infected with rot by some malevolent spore, each potentially ancient life could be snuffed out in a precipitous instant. This makes me love them all the more and I hope to be able to tend them for many years to come.
Much has been made of the damage caused to ecosystems by so called ‘exotic’ species but things can get pretty complicated when you look at them more closely, particularly in urban environments, where the built landscape so obscures the preexisting ecological underpinnings that all kinds of strangeness can result.
During the early days of Cottonwood Gardens, we had a hard time growing such common natives as Oregon grape (Mahonia) and Salal (Gaultheria) because growing conditions were too hot and dry and the degraded urban soil too alkaline for the comfort of these native woodland plants. Even the ubiquitous Red alder (Alnus rubra) hadn’t yet managed to move in, though it flourishes in the Grandview Cut, just a mile or two away. Instead what had established itself was a so-called ‘ragamuffin’ ecology dominated by exotics such as Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), tansy (Tanacetum) and Scotch broom. Black cottonwoood (Populus) was the only native growing widely on the site, though I did find one stressed-out looking clump of sword fern and a straggly Nootka rose hidden among the dense thickets of blackberries.
In the intervening 20 or so years, conditions at Cottonwood Gardens gradually changed enough to allow the establishment of native species, due largely to the increased humidity under the maturing canopy of trees and the soil becoming more acid with the accumulated inputs of leaves and compost. Yet is this natural? Of course not. It was a completely man-made intervention, albeit one that might well provide ecological benefits such as furnishing habitat for native butterflies and other pollinators. I would argue that Cottonwood’s combination of native and exotic species is a ‘hyperecology,’ potentially more ecologically diverse than the native ecology that long ago preceded it. On my several visits to Cottonwood this year I was once again delighted to see bald eagles, icons of British Columbia’s wilderness, soaring over the exotic groves of Chinese chestnut, Paulownia and bamboo. It is important though to note that the native keystone species, Black cottonwood, is still part of the system and indeed a necessary one because it provides the lofty nest sites required by eagles and other native raptors.
Yet exotic species often do become invasive and a threat to biodiversity. But why? Take English Ivy (Hedera helix) for example, widely reviled for its invasive tendencies in the Pacific Northwest. It is most troublesome in areas where the ungulates, such as the native black-tailed deer no longer no longer are allowed free reign. In such places ivy can soon overwhelm even the tallest trees, sometimes literally pulling them down with its sheer rampant mass. English Ivy is much less a problem where deer are still abundant and the native ground covers such as salal have already filled any available niches. On Cortes Island where I live, in second growth, coastal rainforest, any English Ivy that grows beyond my garden fence gets immediately eaten by hungry black-tails. As a result, it manages to establish itself in the wild only occasionally, in places that deer have trouble reaching and where some other disturbance has taken place. In that light, English Ivy should be considered invasive only when the host ecosystem is already compromised through other factors such as fragmentation and the removal of key herbivores.
Instead of expending a lot of money and effort pulling out ivy, why not bring ungulates back to such out-of-whack ecosystems? In places like Vancouver’s Stanley Park, where the re-introduction of native deer might not be practical, why not bring in goat herders to take advantage of the ivy’s vegetative bounty? According to the old song: “A kid’ll eat ivy too. Wouldn’t you?” Well I wouldn’t but I’d certainly eat some delicious chèvre prepared perhaps by a cadre of anarchist urban goat herders, who might one day tend their flocks in the dappled groves beneath the din of the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Though this has yet to happen in Vancouver, Los Angeles has already instituted a trial program to use goats for weed control, a strategy particularly effective on highway hillsides where mechanized mowing can be hazardous. A few crusty kids with mountain bikes and herding dogs is all it would take to start a goat-based ivy control program in Vancouver. Maybe they should be allowed to live in Stanley Park too, in picturesque goat sheds of their own construction, lovingly fashioned out of cob and wattle. Are there any takers out there? The tourists would love it!
Licorice fern in artificial cliff habitat with pigeon
Glaucous-winged gull on rooftop
Though it it might not be obvious, the coastal rainforest is always angling for a foothold even in Vancouver’s most built-up environs. I have posted previously on how black cottonwood and big-leafed maple form emergent forests on disused parking lots and vacant industrial lands. Lately, I’ve been encouraged to find licorice fern, usually found growing on drippy forest cliffs or festooning ancient trees, happily attaching itself to concrete warehouse roofs and (horror of horrors!) the crotches of much loathed Chinese Elm. It is just a matter of time before more rainforest species make the jump to live among us in the West Coast’s cities. We certainly could design buildings to be more amenable to such natural re-colonization, perhaps creating buildings that more overtly emulate sea cliffs and nurse logs. Certain sea birds such as glaucous-winged gulls have already made themselves at home in our built environment’s plethora of niches. Why not start attracting others through the deliberate inclusion of nesting shelves in buildings? The guano could be harvested to amend plantings in city parks and community gardens and the bird watching opportunities might be mind-blowing! One thing is for certain though: as native species return, exotic species will always be part of the mix, resulting in more examples of hyperecologies where they gradually learn to adapt to each other. To keep things in balance, the occasional, mindful intervention such as bringing in a few goat herders might be just the thing. But mostly we should just sit back and watch. Nature in the city will always surprise us.
Revered as ‘the flesh of god’ and ‘the furry thing’ since ancient times, Lophophora cacti are amazing for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they are powerfully psychoactive. I always keep a few around as ‘pets,’ though they are sadly too slow growing for me to be able to harvest more than once every quarter century. One of their appeals is that the flowers have thigmotactic anthers, which curl over onto the pistil when touched, depositing pollen. This allows Lophophora to self pollinate so they can set seed even if there aren’t others of their own kind growing nearby. Please enjoy my little video of this rather intimate botanical moment.
On another note, sound collage artists Negativland are all over things thigmotactic and have even released an album of the same name. As an added ‘Show So Far’ bonus, you’ll find that knowing the word ‘thigmotactic’ should enable you to kick some ass in your next Scrabble game.
For all of my plant geek readers, here are a few shoots of some of the various bamboos I have growing in my yard… Needless to say I love the stuff but it’s kind of taking over the place. My house is surrounded by big thickets and pretty soon I won’t be able to find the door…..
Another spring is upon us here on Canada’s West Coast, replete with its promise of respite from the brooding winter sky and the months of cold, slimy rain. The occasional few hours of sunshine, the unfurling of tender buds and in the hollows – the din of tree frogs in their tremulous nuptial chirping; it all reminds me that this is the season of new life and new beginnings.
Though Timothy Morton describes the current ecological moment as a kind of planetary ‘charnel ground’, i.e. we have basically already died and just haven’t realized it yet, I am perhaps stubbornly holding out for some hope. Despite the epic damage our species has wrought on its fellow organisms and on the very climatological systems that keep everything in its finely tuned balance, I am seeing signs here and there that the processes of planetary repair are kicking in, and that one day, the worst of what we have done will be obscured beneath layers of unquenchable biomass.
Which is not to say I am in denial about the severity of our present situation. Accelerated extinction and human-induced climate change are all too real and many of earth’s more fragile ecosystems have been badly diminished or at reduced to ‘museum’ status, surviving as relics only within the confines of national parks, constantly under threat from illegal logging, poaching and the abrasions of excessive tourism. Though I think it premature to declare the ‘end of nature,’ it is safe to say we are at the end of wilderness.
But what does this mean exactly? To be sure the figure/ground relationship between man and nature has changed fundamentally, perhaps irrevocably, as Bill McKibben pointed out in his prescient book, way back in 1989. A single species, ours, is now the greatest driving force behind species biodiversity, climate change and even geomorphology, via the amount of the earth’s crust we move and the structures we build, activities that geologists calculate now use up more energy annually than is expended by the natural growth of mountains and the deposition of sediments. Yet there are also signs that species are responding to us by evolving at an unprecedented rate. The New Scientist describes a type of ‘fast-track’ evolution, in which significant morphological traits of animals can evolve in mere decades to help them adapt to changing environmental conditions, provided there is enough genetic diversity in the original population to allow the expression of ‘back-up’ genes. Several of Darwin’s iconic Galapagos finches are already changing their beak sizes as they literally evolve into new species as the conditions of their Galapagos habitat are altered by changing climate and by the selective pressure of being fed leftover rice by the throngs of eco-tourists who have come to see them. The article also cites the now classic case of ‘industrial melanization’ in peppered moths, which rapidly evolved darker pigmentation in response to the contamination of the English Midlands by coal soot during the Industrial Revolution. Blackness too confers a survival advantage to organisms, especially birds, living in the ‘zone of alienation’ around the Chernobyl reactor site. It turns out that darker pigmentation frees up a molecule called glutathione (GSH), an antioxidant which protects tissues from radiation damage. So darker birds succeed, while their lighter cousins don’t, which has already skewed the way birds in the area look in the past twenty-five years since the explosion. Amazingly, a conspicuously black, radiotrophic fungus now thrives in one of the most radioactive places in the whole disaster area – the inside surfaces of the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed to contain the radiation spewing from the stricken reactor as they continued to melt down.
As well as appearance, animal behavior is rapidly changing as the evolutionary pressure to adapt to the ubiquitous humans presence steadily mounts. These ‘cultural’ shifts are cropping up all over the place as in the case I wrote about previously concerning the extirpation and subsequent recolonization of wolves on Cortes Island, BC (where I live part time.) What is amazing about this situation was not that the wolves came back; they weren’t after all extinct on the nearby mainland; but that they adapted their behavior in response to the denser human settlement they encountered on their return. They now unabashedly lope through populated areas even during daylight hours to feast on a bounty of domestic animals, yard-fattened deer and household trash. Though normally a shy, secretive species, wolves on Cortes are now pushing the envelope in their interactions with the people, maintaining very little distance between themselves and us, their primary predator, and acting nonchalant. I’ve encountered them several times now and I have to say it is quite something to be given the once-over by one of these iconic predators, as is saunters nonchalantly down the same dirt road I frequent on my morning jog. The wolves’ adaptive strategy is clearly working on Cortes as the numbers of wolves remain more or less stable, despite occasional shootings by locals and Provincial Conservation officers, who get called in to cull overly habituated ‘problem’ animals. On the whole, the benefits of associating with humans must outweigh the risks them. The population of their main prey items, raccoons and black-tailed deer, explode in the disturbed, edge habitats humans create such as residential gardens and former clear-cuts that come up in lush alder groves after the conifers get logged out. Though not nearly as successful in our presence as their smaller cousin, the coyote, it’s only natural, I suppose, that some wolves; which are after all a highly intelligent species; have learned to live in our midst. Yet it is an open question as to whether this has a genetic basis. They sure are acting differently though. During the past week, I have heard two reliable reports of wolves, individually and in packs, chasing cars along the roads of Cortes. Clearly their behavior hasn’t stopped evolving yet.
A similar situation has arisen in upstate New York, where fishers, previously trapped out from much of their North American range due to the demand for their valuable furs, are returning in droves – not to the remote wildernesses we thought they preferred, and where they continue to decline, but to the fragmented suburban forests and the margins of golf courses of cities like Albany. Like the Cortes Island wolves, these over-sized weasels are learning to exploit the rich food resources available in the interstices of human settlement, hunting down house cats and dodging highway traffic, in marked contrast to their secretive wilderness cousins who abandon habitats frequented by people. These are decidedly cultural shifts from a species we thought categorically could not co-exist with us. Something has definitely shifted within this eastern population of fishers. Human induced hyper-evolution seems a likely explanation.
Perhaps most lovely of all is the oft-blogged spectacle of the thousands of Vaux’s swifts that have colonized the disused smoke stack of a school in Portland Oregon. Swifts, small, swallow-like birds, traditionally need the large hollow trees, once characteristic of the region’s now largely extirpated old-growth forests, in which to communally nest and roost. Yet the Portland population has somehow transposed this crucial requirement onto what seems a very different set of circumstances.
It makes me wonder how many other species are rapidly adapting to our built environment to use as their primary habitat, in the face of the massive evolutionary pressure to do so. Hawks certainly seem to be making this adjustment. During my last few winters in New York City, I was delighted to observe red-tailed hawks roosting in the stately American Elms of Tompkins Square Park, disemboweling the rats they’d snatched right in front of squealing crowds of spectators. These magnificent birds have spawned a new class of paparazzi, who blog their behavior in minute detail and lobby for their protection. A similar situation arose after a group of fellow squatters and I started Cottonwood Gardens in Vancouver. For a short while we were plagued by rats, attracted by the sudden availability of compost piles and the produce we were trying to cultivate. Just as we were about to despair, a pair of red-tailed hawks established a nest on a nearby cottonwood tree and they soon made short work of the rodents. They resided there every nesting season for several years until they were themselves supplanted by a pair of bald eagles who increased the size of the already enormous nest. Twenty years later there are now two bald eagle nests at the Cottonwood Gardens site, in close proximity to each other and one can regularly thrill to the site these apex predators soaring over the factories, warehouses and trash-littered terraine vague of what at first glance seems a most unprepossessing habitat from a wildlife point of view.
Tompkins Square hawk with rat
A recent report in the Guardian described a heavily contaminated refinery site, near Rochester in the UK, as a ‘Lost World,’ of critically endangered insects, which have been all but wiped out in so called ‘natural areas’ elsewhere. There is something about this ruin ecology’s unique interplay of disturbance and neglect that makes it an ideal habitat for these rare creatures. Yet perhaps it is the creatures themselves that have also changed, slowly adapting to live among us in the wastelands and ruins we have worked so hard to create. Our abandoned industrial sites and DMZs have become ‘disaster edens’ – a new frontier in ecological study. My first inkling of this happened during a visit to Berlin in the early 1980’s. I was astonished to observe a thriving diversity of wildlife in the land mine studded strip of no-man’s land between the two sections of the Berlin Wall. Clearly visible were scores of European hares grazing freely on a verdant meadow, too light to trip the lethal devices hidden mere centimeters beneath their twitching noses. They did not however escape the notice of the squadrons of kites, falcons and honey buzzards who regularly patrolled the air above them to pick off any stragglers. Though the Wall has long since been down, Berlin has lately been overrun with native wild boars who swarm in from the countryside to avail themselves of the city’s leafy boulevards, parks and gardens. Their population has grown so precipitously that urban hunters have been contracted to keep the numbers down.
In cities we get a preview of the larger trend toward ragamuffin ecologies or what has been called ‘Nature 2.0.’ Here native and exotic organisms co-mingle in hitherto unheard of combinations resulting in meta-ecologies that are adaptive and emergent. These are ecologies of disturbance, often first colonized by fast growing, cosmopolitan so called ‘invasive’ species such as Ailanthus (a.k.a. ‘Ghetto Palm’), Scotch Broom and Buddleja. These are blamed for wreaking all kinds of havoc, though I am increasingly convinced they often stabilize damaged landscapes long enough until native organisms can regain a foothold. I’ve seen this happen in the urban steppes of East Vancouver; abandoned car parks and railway sidings, which are first colonized by the nitrogen fixing Scotch Broom that move in quickly to cover exposed ground until the native Cottonwoods eventually dominate. Though they look different from the cathedral like groves of ancient conifers that are associated with the BC ecological brand, these emergent, pavement loving forests soon attract native birds such as the northern flicker and white-crowned sparrows as well as other creatures such as the coyote, only recently native to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland where it migrated from the province’s interior. Exotic species will forever be part of the mix though, despite the efforts of botanical nativists to ethnically cleanse the landscape of them.
Well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species (Himalayan Blackberry, English Walnut, Big-leafed Maple, Castanea, Corylus, hops etc.) - East Vancouver (1994)
Such processes of colonization and re-adaptation are important to track as they fall outside canonical notions of ecological restoration, which generally presuppose a return to a ‘native,’ prelapsarian kind of species composition, which is becoming increasingly meaningless in the now overarching context of the Anthropocene. I find these new hybrid realities fascinating and hopeful. It means we can do more than just wring our hands at the decline of nature as we thought we knew it. We might as well face it. There is no going back. Now is a good time to intelligently assess our limits and ask ourselves the Zen question: “What can I not do?” Nature might already be several steps ahead of us.
BTW: If any of you are in Vancouver from June 20th- 24th of this year, I am teaching a little Continuing Ed Course at Emily Carr University entitled: Open Source City: Field Studies. We’ll travel around town on the Skytrain, examining various emergent landscapes and also examples of temporary autonomous zones – places that people have created as urban commons, which exist outside the mainstream models of planning. I promise it will be a lot of fun, so please sign up if you can!
emergent cottonwood and birch grove in East Vancouver industrial zone
northern flicker using the emergent forest habitat
a canker after being treated with copper wire for a few years
A penny for your thoughts?
From the earliest times we have valued the stuff and in many ways it has helped shape what we call ‘civilization.’ Two of the great ages of man – the Chalcolithic and the Bronze Age – are named after it and its subsequently discovered alloy, and it is so archetypal that the chemical symbol is the same one we use for ‘female.’ Yes copper is pretty amazing stuff and has a myriad uses. Because of its handy ability to conduct electricity, it is indispensable to modern life and it is almost unimaginable to think of how we would do without it. Aside from its technological utility, copper has some interesting biological properties. You might have heard how copper is a key component in the blood of Vulcans and prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs, but more importantly it is lately being re-appreciated for its remarkable antibiotic qualities. Those brass doorknobs on old buildings weren’t just installed for their warm, burnished glow but because the copper in the brass actively kills microbial growth. With the increasing incidence of antibiotic resistance among pathogens, diseases we had been confident we could control are re-emerging with a vengeance threatening to reverse a century of progress in the control of infection. For some of these superbugs there are no new antibiotics in the pipeline and the potential for untreatable epidemics has now become worrisome. The evolution of drug resistant organisms is sped up substantially in hospitals because they provide ideal environments for many iterations of germs and antibiotics to interact. Through the brute force mechanism of Darwinian selection, a few bugs survive every exposure and pass their genes on to the next generation. Repeated enough times, this creates pathogens that are pretty much un-killable with conventional antibiotics, which has already happened in the case of MRSA and Clostridium difficile.
Enter copper. The New Scientist reported on trials at the University of Southampton, UK that demonstrated virulent MRSA bacteria are quickly killed simply by placing them on a copper plate. If it turns out that copper actually kills the bacteria before they get a chance to reproduce, it could precipitate a major re-think of infection control in health care facilities. Trials are currently underway. If they work out, it would mean that medical instruments and hospital surfaces could be made with enough copper in them to garner this effect, stopping the spread of superbugs before it even starts.
Though the copper industry will likely be quick to capitalize on this, there is really nothing new about the phenomenon and the curative effects of copper were well known even in ancient times.
As well as being bactericidal, copper is active on many other pathogens, including fungi. Where I live, in coastal British Columbia, fungal plant diseases like the late blight and anthracnose canker present a significant challenge to growers of fruits and vegetables. Whole crops of potatoes and tomatoes can be wiped out, if the weather gets damp at the end of summer and the blight sets in. In the case of tomatoes, there is a local folk remedy I have tried which involves sticking a short length of copper wire through the base of each plant, just above the ground. A variation of the technique is to use a longer bit of wire, inserted the same way but bent down to touch the soil. I’ve tried both ways and have found them to slow the onset of disease significantly but not to eliminate it, especially if the weather socks in for a long time. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth doing. Sometimes a few extra days of ripening can make the difference between a usable harvest and a waste of effort.
Anthracnose canker afflicts fruit trees badly here in coastal British Columbia, particularly apples, and I have tried various sprays with little or no effect. A few years ago a number of my trees got so badly infected I considered tearing them out and burning them to limit the disease’s spread. In a last ditch effort, I wrapped copper wire around the lesions to see if it might have the same beneficial effect to what it did with tomatoes. It took a while, but after a few months, the cankers I treated stopped spreading and the bark at the edges started growing back. My feeling after experimenting with this for a number of years is that the copper wire (and strapping) I am wrapping around the wounds doesn’t actually cure what is after all a systemic fungal infection, but rather limits the surface manifestation of the disease, preventing it from girdling the tree and allowing the cambium to continue its life-giving function. In any case, I’ve managed to save (or perhaps more accurately- extended the life of) many apple trees with this simple technique and it has paid off by giving me a lot of fruit. I realize this isn’t standard arboricultural practice, but if anyone out there in slobber space is doing similar experiments, please let me know via the comment feature of this blog. Sometimes it takes us plant geeks to move the knowledge forward!
a lovely crystal of copper sulfate (via Wikipedia)