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bonfire of the crocodiles

bonfire of the crocodiles

bonfire of the crocodiles

 

“What remains is the red wind in the field with the name of the rose upon its lips”

(Russian metaphorical poem)

It’s an unspecific hour; morning probably, but not according to my biological clock, which is still mired in the mudflats of sleep. I’ve just touched down at Helsinki Vantaa Airport and outside the glass curtain walls, an anemic subarctic sun washes across tidy parking lots and spills over the crowns of the birch trees that quiver golden against the cold blue vault of the Nordic sky. It’s only mid-September yet fall has locked itself in.

The life force seeped out of me somewhere over Greenland and I need somehow to absorb enough caffeine to re-start my misfiring nervous system and begin to part the skeins of translucent eye plankton that drifted across my field of vision since I stumbled off my Finnair flight. Not that Finnair is a bad airline -far from it! My flight had none of that Nilodor meets stale sweat and leatherette odor that greets the nostrils on the cheap airlines I usually take, where the business model increasingly seems focused on finding new and exquisite tortures for us coach class customers so that we’ll start coughing up money for what used to be free:

Want to eat something?  Check baggage? Board in a timely manner or sit in a seat that won’t cut your circulation off?  It ‘ll cost you.  The limits of human endurance have already been reached though I can’t help wondering what the next iteration of airline indignity will be. Perhaps a charge for using the toilets or maybe getting rid of the seats entirely and piling us up like sacks of UNHCR rations to be lashed into the hold with bungee nets.

I try to get my mind off these things as I settle into the first coffee shop I see, maneuvering my espresso and wheelie bag toward a vacant table.  It is quiet and ordered here. The men’s room is awash with simulated birdsong and the beautifully designed faucets and the hand dryers actually work.  There is none of that under-serviced, held together with duct tape and gum quality that pervades most American airports these days.

There’s not many people in here – some airport guys in orange safety vests and a large, older black woman in a black raincoat and multi-colored headscarf. She seems to be wearing a lot of layers.

On the TV monitor above us, there’s a morning talk show in progress, which the cuts to the image of a helicopter pulling a very large and very dead crocodile up from a muddy waterhole with a long steel cable. The Finnish celebrities discuss this for a moment as the shot goes to a close up of the  cable tightening around the monstrous animal’s neck and then pans out to the silhouette of its great carcass swinging back and forth beneath the helicopter until both are engulfed into the vast pink inflammation of a tropical sunset.

The guys in the orange vests next to me have stopped talking and seem riveted to the screen.

The shot now is of the mountainous dead reptile slumping down in front of a group of park ranger type people dressed in khaki safari gear. A couple of burlier guys unhook the cable and the helicopter rises up out of the screen and we zoom in on several of the ranger people clamber over the tree trunk sized corpse with calipers measuring tapes and syringes. A dour looking guy in a blue uniform talks into a walkie talkie and looks on. A young ranger woman aims the lens of her large camera at the once mighty creature’s head and we cut to a close up of the sad, shrunken eyelids, which have deeply into the sockets underscoring  that it has been dead for a long time. A florid faced man with a large pair of pliers pries out one of the crocodile’s enormous scales and drops it into a jar of liquid.
This seems somehow cruel and disrespectful but the crocodile is dead after all.

The scene changes and we see more dead crocodiles this time scattered like logs along a wide river bank. There are dozens of them and many are belly up, their lighter colored undersides looking swollen and puffy in the high contrast light, the armored skins seeping sickly death fluids, though this is only visible for an instant and perhaps I am extrapolating.  Something is clearly killing those crocodiles and everyone seems to get that.  It is being made very obvious.  Carrion birds circle and land to prod haphazardly at the carcass but they don’t look too enthusiastic at the quality of what lies before them. Perhaps the crocodiles are poisoned or the corpses are not appealing to them or  just too far gone. Too far gone for carrion birds? I find that hard to believe. The camera zooms in on some foot tracks and pans toward another muddy pool where we see the corpse of a smaller crocodile, six feet or so in length, festering in stagnant water. ‘It has crawled off to die here’ the narration must be telling us, albeit in Finnish, which for me is completely inscrutable, and anyways the sound is turned way down.

A ranger guy in very short khaki shorts (what is it about tropical Caucasians and their really short shorts?) loops a cable under the smaller  creature’s forelimbs and watches it get winched up, deus ex machina, by the helicopter hovering overhead, which then ascends as before, dangling its payload against the picturesque, distant thunder clouds, pregnant with rain. This smaller croc gets dumped into the back of a pickup truck.

In the next shot we see a very large pile of dead crocodiles, which have been accumulating at some kind of a staging area. The helicopters keep arriving bringing more of them in. A couple of grad student type women are stacking logs and branches into a conical pyre type arrangement. We see a section where the crocodiles of all shapes and sizes are being dragged toward the pyre, the smaller ones being dragged by their tails the larger ones hauled in on buckets of heavy earth moving equipment or pulled in winches. The camera zooms in on gasoline being poured on the pyre. We pull out to a long shot of the burning pyre with its oily smoke roiling into a peach colored sky. People are milling around beside the conflagration in a kind of agitated way though some are just standing there with their hands on their waists.

It is night time now and we see a crocodile, apparently alive with its jaws fastened together with heavy duty duct tape. We cut to a flashback of it being pulled out of a waterhole and it is wrapped up in a painful-looking ensnarement of ropes and cables, which makes me think of Japanese rope pornography and its trussed-up women, only this time it involves an antediluvian reptile, so there is nothing sexual about it, at least not obviously so.  With an electric drill, a man bores a hole through one of the larger scales on the dorsal crest through which he loops some kind of an electronic tracking device. This crocodile will probably never enjoy privacy again, I imagine, but this is probably ‘for the good of the species’ or something like that. The men finish calibrating the tracker and unfasten the ropes before gingerly backing away. The crocodile stays motionless for a moment then explodes into the dark water in a burst of spray. The men wander off with their flashlight beams bobbing up and down against blurry vegetation and everything seems calm for the moment.

The celebrity panel starts their banter again and the spell of the program is broken. The guys in the orange vests resume their gruff, unintelligible man talk and I can’t tell at all whether they were appalled by what we all just saw or are just talking about work. The black woman with her many layers of clothing stands looking at the screen a moment longer then gives out a long, sad sigh and slowly walks away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

slime oracle

Fuligo

Fuligo septica in my back yard

slimecu

Physarum polycephalum close up

Those of you who’ve followed my blog for a while will know I am fascinated by the intellectual capabilities of slime moulds…
This is the time of year when the dark coniferous forests near my house get brightened up by their white and yellow blobs of sentient goo. Around here, they are mostly the common slime mould Fuligo septica – otherwise known as  ‘Dog Vomit slime mould,’ a rather harsh name,  in my opinion, for such an engaging life form.
Far from being vomit or mould, these slimy masses are actually swarms of social amoebae that have combined their protoplasm and nuclei into a single super-organism called a plasmodium.

Once formed, the plasmodium creeps along the forest floor until it reaches a tree stump or log, at which point it climbs to a high enough vantage point from where it releases its spores into the slightly more active air. These drift, land, and eventually germinate into another generation tiny amoebas that one day will seek each other out, meld together and then start their complicated social migration process again.

This is all very fascinating, but the reason slime moulds have been the subject of such intensive research is that their plasmodial masses show an uncanny ability to solve computational problems – which is all the more remarkable given that slime mould  has neither brain or a nervous system and its constituent amoebae are about as rudimentary a life form as you can get. But when large numbers of these simple beings are networked into a swarm, the principle of emergence takes over and we begin to see a unified intelligence.  The rules governing emergence are fairly simple – as long as each individual is aware of and able to exchange basic sensory information with its neighbours, stimuli can be transmitted throughout the network, which can then react as a sentient whole, flowing toward attractants or away from danger.
This simple yet powerful mechanism is behind the flocking of birds, the flow of traffic and the evolution of memes on the internet. It is a non-hierarchical, ‘ur’-intelligence, an organizing tendency imbued in the very vibrancy of matter itself.

The lab rat of the slime mould world is the easy-to-raise species Physarum polycephalum and as such it has been the subject of much experimentation.  Lured by oatmeal flakes, Physarum can outperform robots in solving mazes and it will figure out mathematically complex problems such as how to most efficiently connect an arrangement of arbitrary points, making it astonishingly good at designing highway networks and other mesh-like systems.  Though brainless, Physarum has a rudimentary spatial memory. It recognizes where it has already explored by sensing the slime trails it has left behind, allowing it to focus its foraging energy on covering new ground.

Inspired by my time hanging around with the bio-geeks at Brooklyn’s GENSPACE, I decided to put old Physarum to the test by giving it some problems I thought worthy of its impressive powers.

slime mould navigating a model of an IKEA

slime mould navigating a model of an IKEA

1) The IKEA vexation:
For years I have been irked by IKEA stores. What is the most efficient way to navigate through one of them? I find IKEA to be especially frustrating and always have had trouble finding my way toward the exit without being overcome by an anxious ‘trapped’ feeling. For me, IKEA is prime habitat for what it called the Gruen transfer – a deliberate architectural strategy aimed at disorienting people in shopping malls; an invocation of spatial confusion that makes us lose track of our original intentions and buy stuff we don’t need. I wondered if the slime mould could resist such distractions and efficiently find its way through an IKEA without getting sidetracked? To put this to the test, I built a tiny petri-dish sized model of the floor plan of the IKEA, modeled on the store in Richmond, British Columbia, which is more or less typical. Each department was baited with an oatmeal flake and I plunked a little bit of Physarum culture down near the store’s entrance to see what it could do.

slime mould says 'yes!'

slime mould says ‘yes!’

second choice 'hazy!'

second choice ‘hazy!’

at the moment of 'yes or no?'

at the moment of ‘yes or no?’

2) The Future is out there:
Decisions involving the future are hard for me to make, especially if there are a lot of equal seeming options. Throughout history, we’ve consulted soothsayers, fortune tellers and ouija boards in hopes we might get some guidance on how to choose between those many forks we encounter in life’s road.  I’ve often despair and then make a seemingly random choice. If slime moulds are so good at solving problems in the here and now, how might they do in sussing out what hasn’t yet happened? Could they help me ‘Magic 8-Ball’ style make decisions on what to do next?  Well, I was a little too clumsy to build a proper ‘8-Ball’, but I managed to make a reasonably convincing ‘6-Ball’ simulacrum, by cutting six (approximately identical) radial paths into the agar of a petri dish and having the slime mould choose which one it wanted to go down. I baited  each ‘choice’ with a flake of oatmeal and labelled them: ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘outlook good,’ ‘reply hazy,’ ‘somewhat likely,’ and ‘don’t count on it!’ I’d ask the slime mould a (secret) question then wait a few hours to see what it decided.
Well those of you who have had scientific training are probably about to bust a blood vessel about now, but bear with me!

ballistic behaviour

ballistic behaviour

Perhaps predictably, the IKEA ‘maze’ problem was quickly solved by Physarum. It relentlessly streamed from one ‘department’ to the next in search of its oatmeal rewards and within a couple of days, it arrived at the exit hungry for more. This is a very basic slime mould-solvable problem. Physarum tends to behave in what is called a ‘ballistic’ manner; once they have sensed a stimulus they will try to flow toward it taking the most direct route possible.

Except when they don’t
Because unlike a non-sentient being, slime mould will often abort its migration toward an attractant, if it senses a rival has gotten there first. Sometimes though, competitors will merge into one happy super organism and share the the love and the bounty.

logic gate inputs A and B

inputs A and B seeking oatmeal

A and B combining to one output

A and B combining to one output

This makes for some interesting possibilities for ‘non-digital’ logic. Let’s say we place slime moulds, (let’s call them ‘A’ and ‘B’) in each of the two forks of a ‘Y’ shaped path and put an oatmeal flake in the remaining leg. If the slime moulds were to behave consistently that is to say ‘digitally’, you would have the basis for what is called an Exclusive ‘OR’ gate, a common component of computer logic. There has been some great research done on this by Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England.
Given the slime moulds’ usual aversion to the presence of a rival, the one that gets to the bait first will dissuade the other. So in logic gate terms the presence of ‘A’ or ‘B’ (the inputs) will generate an output, i.e. either ‘A’ or ‘B’ gets to the oatmeal.

‘A’ and ‘B’ can’t both reach the oatmeal because the presence of one will (most of the time) repel the other, so the gate is considered ‘exclusive.’

But because slime moulds, though simple, are living things, with their own agency, they don’t always do what we expect. When the slime moulds ‘A’ and ‘B’  break convention and flow together to share the oatmeal, the logic gate becomes ‘non-exclusive,’ i.e input ‘A’ or ‘B’ or both can appear as outputs. Sometimes even that doesn’t happen and a slime mould gets distracted and decides to loiter around the perimeter of the petri dish, boycotting the experiment despite the presence of oatmeal. Who knows why? Are they following their bliss? Or are they just confused? To my mind, these ‘exceptions’ to the behaviour we deem ‘logical’ are the most interesting results. If we develop a new class of biological computers based on slime mould logic, the outputs generated might have a charming and useful variability. This could be used to more closely emulate the real world ‘twitchiness’ of such social  phenomena  as how people behave in the marketplace (they don’t always act rationally or in their self interest), or how they participate in riots or elections, which are also less than rational processes.

this time- both outputs are generated!

this time- both outputs are generated!

And as for predicting my future, the slime mould oracle was initially quite decisive.  It answered my first (secret) question with a resounding ‘Yes,’  but then started creeping around to investigate other nearby possibilities. To me that seems like a perfectly reasonable approach.

 

 

forests, trees and time

Vancouver Island highway scene

Vancouver Island highway scene

At this ardently bright juncture of the year, there is something quite delightful about gazing up into the cool, rustling canopy of overhanging trees. It is a very deep memory for me. I must have been an infant, lying on the back bench seat of my parents’ old Buick, gazing up through the rear window at the dark tunnel of foliage billowing overhead, flashing here and there with orange bursts of interpenetrating sunlight. The dust from the road was starting to smell like the softer evening version of itself and the roadside insects, cicadas probably, hissed in their enormous, invisible numbers.

In my recent journeys between England and Canada, I have been struck by the contrast in attitudes toward what one might call ‘arboreal heritage’ between the two places. When driving on Vancouver Island I am inevitably torn between throwing up and crying whenever I see, as I almost always do, some of the last old growth Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) getting hauled down the highway on some logging truck. Their rate of felling has been accelerated recently by a growth in demand from overseas, particularly Chinese, markets and the provincial government’s stupendously short-sighted decision to relax restrictions on the exporting of raw logs.

Each one of these ancient trees is a monument to the passing of centuries, a lynchpin around which complex ecological processes have evolved and yet we are losing the last primeval stands right at this very moment. To see one of those loaded trucks is like witnessing the carcass of a blue whale or a rhinoceros trucked off to a dog food factory but what more is there to be said? We have pointed our fingers yet the market economy has triumphed and the trees continue to fall. Soon all there will be left is a lingering sense of shame until that too eventually disappears. Outside a few relic specimens that happen to find themselves inside parks, the ancient fir groves of Vancouver Island will soon be obliterated. The Island Timberlands company continues to be a key player in this campaign of ecological extermination and is specifically targeting the large old trees on its vast private holdings to service an international market growing all the more lucrative as the global supply of first growth trees plummets.

ancient linden coppice

this linden (lime) tree has been coppiced since at least the 13th century!

While British Columbia has been embarrassingly and heartbreakingly remiss in its protection of Vancouver Island’s ancient firs, there are pockets of silvicultural enlightenment elsewhere in the world that can restore one’s faith in humanity. Last month Ruth and I spent a memorable afternoon at the Westonbirt Arboretum and got introduced to some of its innovative programs by director Simon Toomer. It may sound odd, but one of the highlights of our tour was seeing the manifold stumps of a recently harvested lime (Tilia sp.) tree, which has been harvested using the coppicing technique since at least the 13th century. The tree itself, which has spread out into about 60 individual stems, could be over a thousand years old! Coppicing (periodic cutting from regrowth regenerated from stumps or ‘stools’) is an ancient technique, suitable for a variety of mostly broadleaf trees, which paradoxically causes them to live much longer than if they were allowed to grow uncut. The practice periodically opens up parts of the forest canopy, allowing for an influx of light and a host of species dependent on brighter conditons, which enhances diversity in the forest, without massacring the entire structure over a large landscape as is done during industrial clear cutting. In British Columbia, it would definitely be worth testing out large-scale coppice management of Big-leafed maple (Acer macrophyllum) and Red Alder (Alnus rubra), both of which are capable of rapid regeneration from stumps and which have the potential to produce a range of sustainable wood products.

Westonbirt is also engaged in pioneering research on how forests will be affected by climate change and have initiated a series of long term trials of trees, hailing from a spectrum of locations, from the southern to northern parts of their present day ranges. If conditions continue to heat up, it is likely that trees evolving in more southerly latitudes will increasingly thrive within the British landscape, while more cold-adapted ones will only do well at higher latitudes and altitudes.

Back in British Columbia, I am beginning to draw similar conclusions. Though still in its early stages, the initial results of my Cortes Island ‘Neo-Eocene’ project indicate that some tree species now native to more southerly latitudes, such as Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Metasequoia (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) might actually grow faster under West Coast Canadian conditions than varieties currently prescribed for re-forestation, such as Western Red cedar (Thuja plicata). The difference is likely to intensify as northern climates continue to heat up. Climate warming is already causing massive mortality in northern populations of the native yellow cypress/cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis), because spring snow cover is no longer thick enough to protect their delicate roots from late frosts.

The premise of ‘Neo-Eocene’ is that we need to examine longer, more geologic time spans for guidance on how ecosystems might deal with the rapidly unfolding effects of anthropogenic climate change. During the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago, taxa such as Sequoia, Metasequoia and Gingko, which are now extremely limited in natural distribution, did in fact range far into northern latitudes; so it makes sense to experimentally reintroduce them, especially to areas where the extant forest has been compromised by industrial logging or climate-change induced die-offs. Our concept of what is considered ‘native’ needs to be rethought,  and we’ll have to expand our definition to encompass organisms that have been ‘prehistorically native.’ So bring on the Giant Ground Sloths! If only we could!

Apropos of the topic of ‘Deep Time,’ I have been invited to Finland this September to participate in the Field_Notes – Deep Time residency in subarctic Kilpisjärvi Finland. Along with the Smudge Studio folks and a bunch of other amazing people, I’ll be considering how developing a more ‘geologic’ perspective might help assess our trajectory into the deep future. As the world heats up again to levels seen only in the geologic, pre-human past, how will we cope? How long will it take for a subarctic place like Kilpisjärvi to feel like Lisbon or Lagos? Will more southerly latitudes, once temperate and agriculturally productive, become thermally uninhabitable? Will climate refugees, human and non-human, flood into the formally frigid northland? How might the northern biota adapt? Or can it? Anyway, I am endlessly excited.

Davidia tree in Wiltshire

Davidia tree in Wiltshire

Another refugee from deep time is the wonderfully flamboyant Davidia tree, which dates back all the way to the Miocene, when it was much more widely distributed. Miraculously, a few groves somehow survived the intervening millennia deep within the gorges of Szechuan China. The tree with its magnificent, floppy white bracts, which some liken to handkerchiefs or doves, caught the attention of a French missionary, Abbé Armand David. He sent some dried samples back to Europe and a botanical sensation promptly ensued. It wasn’t long before a plant hunters from England and the United States were dispatched to what was then a very remote area, charged with collecting Davidia seeds for cultivation. In the Davidia’s case, this proved to be a boon for the global population as there are now fine specimens of the tree flourishing in parks and gardens throughout the temperate zones of the world, thanks to those early batches of seed. Davidia, as is the case with Metasequoia and Gingko are considered vulnerable in their native habitat, and it is only through their widespread cultivation outside the small territories in which they still naturally occur that their future remains assured. Yet who knows? These curious and obscure trees might contain within them a genetic willingness to reestablish themselves in vast swathes of the northern hemisphere, as the climate of the distant geologic past becomes the climate of the not so distant future. Here is a picture of the biggest Davidia I have ever seen. It was in full, glorious bloom, when I visited the the grounds of a lovely Wiltshire property, owned by the Guinness family. Judging by its size, this specimen seems likely to have been one of the first ones propagated – an ambassador of sorts from the distant geologic past that once again has a role to play in the beauty of the wider world.

a flurry of doves or handkerchiefs!

a flurry of doves or handkerchiefs!

a gathering of wool

James Turrell ‘Meeting'

James Turrell’s ‘Meeting’

sheep in the landscape

a vast meadow, English, with sheep

It seems like forever since I’ve posted to this blog and so much has happened. A lot of ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’, most of it delightful, in addition to my usual hunkerings down in Whaletown and old Alphabet City. Everywhere there is strangeness and beauty and I am increasingly unsure what to make of it all, how to narrativize what I am seeing into some kind of coherent whole. So the phrase ‘wool-gathering’ has come to mind. I guess that is what I am doing. Yet there have been such fascinating moments:

These little faceless lions on St. Marks Place:

faceless lions

faceless lions

A message (anguished? ironic?) scrawled on an aluminum box in the subway:

eaten alive

?

Back on the West Coast, the Paulownias bloomed in record numbers, purply blue and headily fragrant yet somehow sad against the tattered span of spring sky.

paulownia blossoms

paulownia blossoms

 

Ruth’s book ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ unfurled its pages into the world like some great nectariferous flower and for that and other reasons there has been a flurry of occasions for me to travel and meet delightful and interesting people. For the second time in the past few months I found myself in the storied environs of old Blighty, with its history oozing from every crack and crevice. In Norwich’s ancient cathedral, a man named Colin from the Norfolk Mediaeval Graffiti Society showed us a rich palimpsest of mason’s sketches, people’s names inverted into curses, pornography and devotional iconography scratched over the centuries into the cold stone of its walls. Almost invisible under ambient light, this filigree of subtexts comes alive when illuminated sideways using an iPhone’s flashlight app; the story of the nation furtively inscribed by those left waiting in the shadows of its history.

Mediaeval Graffiti Society

Mediaeval Graffiti Society

I’m gazing through the window of a train car chugging through the viridian English countryside. Tidy villages, picturesque hedgerows, church spires and mustard fields drift by and I realize I have seen all this before, long before ever having set foot on this historically freighted little island, somewhere deep in my mind’s eye where there exists an inner England, an ingrained point of aesthetic reference I’d long ago absorbed from having grown up in one of its former colonies, where ‘English-ness’ was a pervasive value uneasily superimposed onto the vastness and anomie of the great New World.

When I was a child, Canada was still referred to as a ‘dominion’ and at the start of each school day, ‘God Save the Queen’ came wheezing across the tinny public address system and we were obliged to sing along, while Elizabeth’s diamond tiaraed, porcelain-skinned portrait beamed beatifically down at us from it perch at the front of the room. Toronto’s older streets and buildings have a defiantly English quality about them, as do many of the place names, even some of the social mores; the curious ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ style of passive aggressive apologizing, that I still find hard to understand. Though I was a non Anglo-Saxon child of working class immigrants, somewhere between ‘Rupert the Bear’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ a sensibility must have seeped in and now the real English landscape seems to me archetypical and somehow soothing, verdant and bucolic yet a bit chaste in the way that nature is so obviously confined within the dominion of man.

neolithic horse

neolithic horse

This aesthetic of control helped spur colonialism and the British Empire which was not without its brutalities. It caused landscapes all over the globe to be transformed into ‘neo-Englands, regardless of climate or the aspirations of the indigenous people. Yet the English landscape is itself a palimpsest of outside influences: much of its now open country was initially deforested by incoming Neolithic pastoralists, its stately chestnut and walnut trees a legacy of invading Roman Legions and its imposing ‘motte-and-bailey’ style earthworks on which so many of the country’siconic castles are built, introduced by the Norman conquerors

A compulsion to amass and showcase objects to reflect the breadth and splendor of the realm is characteristic of many an empire and in England this impulse has been particularly strong. Its museums and galleries know few equals and contain some of the world’s most exquisite treasures. I’ll expand on this later but I just had to draw your attention to Tippoo’s Tiger.

Bringing to mind some of the themes in Taussig’s ‘Mimesis and Alterity,’ sometimes an appropriated object is itself fashioned in the image of appropriator. This is the case of Tippoo’s Tiger, on display at the Victoria and Albert; a curious, almost life-size automaton of a big cat plunging its fangs deftly into the neck of a prone British Soldier. A curious hybrid of Indian and European technology, the tiger contains clockwork mechanisms that make the soldier wail and thrash his hand around while the tiger grunts with gustatory satisfaction. Here is a link to a video of this amazing contraption at work:

The object’s original owner, Tippu the Sultan of Mysore, was clearly no fan of the English and it eventually made its way to England as plunder of war in 1799, after his death in the battle of Siringapatam. Tippu might have the last laugh however; his whimsical, anti-colonialist tiger still raises eyebrows, right in the heart of the now vanished empire, over two hundred years after his death.

Though two hundred years seems to me a very long time, in a country where Neolithic tumuli and Mediaeval cathedrals coexist with Tesco parking lots and ‘The Shard,’ one’s experience of history, that is to say the kind of history measured in the accumulation of visible human artifacts, has a much different feel to it from North America, where the built and unbuilt environments have a rawer, less resolved relationship with each other and there is a tentativeness to the human imprint as if everything, even big cities, might revert to wasteland or wilderness if we just looked the other way. On our side of the pond, some of the most iconic cities such as Detroit are already devolving into atavistic, less populated versions of themselves, barely two centuries after their incorporation, with once prosperous neighbourhoods and industrial parks reverting into landscapes of ruin and weed fields – prime habitat for pheasants!

At least here nature is regaining a foothold.

Yet more affluent areas of North America continue to metastasize toward that most banal of common denominators – the vast, unplanned sprawl of the edge city; a privatized, drive-thru landscape, deliberately generic and purged of history, devoid of landmarks and deficient in public spaces.

England, despite its tumultuous history, has looked like England for a very long time. According to W.G. Hoskins in his ‘The Making of the English Landscapes’:
‘outside the industrial areas most of the settlements in existence today were founded between the fifth and eleventh centuries and mentioned in the Domesday Book.’

Given the density of the population it is astonishing to see how much of the English countryside remains intact. While most of the forests and fields I knew as a child growing up on the rural fringes of Toronto have been subsumed by the worst kind of strip mall and tract home hideousness, the English have managed to legislate anti-sprawl policies and enshrine footpath laws to guarantee public right-of-way through vast tracts of their landscape. The contrast with our private property-obsessed culture in North America couldn’t be greater.

the marbles

 

IMG_2358
IMG_2357
 

The British Museum is astonishing, housing some of humanity’s most culturally significant objects, more than a few of which found their way there under what one might now call dubious circumstances.

Either through the machinations of a once vast and pervasive empire or more directly through the spoils of war, precious objects converged here in unprecedented quantity, particularly during the 19th century. The Rosetta Stone is a case in point. A dark, dull slab of a thing, it is the museum’s most visited object, not because it is particularly beautiful but because the text inscribed into it was written in three languages – Ancient Egyptian, Demotic and Ancient Greek, which gave scholars a key to decoding the vast compendium of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which they had been badly mistranslated since at least the fifth century. It was re-discovered in Egypt by the French in 1799 but then wrested away to Britain, along with other antiquities, as part of the French Capitulation of Alexandria a few years later.

rosetta stone

rosetta stone

The museum’s acquisition of the so called Parthenon or ‘Elgin’ Marbles, (depending on what side of the fence you are on as to their rightful ownership), has been a source of controversy since their arrival during the first decade of the nineteenth century. They were brought to London by Lord Thomas Elgin, who had them pried from the Parthenon, while Athens was under occupation by the Ottoman Empire, who allegedly issued a permit to him, though this still can’t be entirely corroborated. Lord Elgin, who was there originally there simply to document the Marbles and take plaster casts of them claimed he had to act to save the works from destruction as some sculptures nearby were said to have been burned into lime for construction. In the end, despite shipwrecks, massive personal expense and the initial failure of negotiations with the British Museum to pay for them, the Marbles ended up where they are now and the Greeks have been trying to get them back ever since.

And it is no wonder.

The Marbles are utterly magnificent. Despite their great age (dating from circa 447 – 438 BCE) and the many bits that have fallen off over the intervening millenia, they seem somehow to have transcended both time and material. The British Museum is chock-a-block full of some of the finest examples of stone sculpture mankind has ever produced, yet the Marbles, particularly the figures of the three goddesses from the East Pediment, are in a class by themselves. Their clothing seems to float over the bodies, each muscle, nipple and fold of flesh looking like it might suddenly shift beneath diaphanous cloth that alternately clings and billows in a way that is uncannily and rapturously alive. One has to remind oneself one is looking at cold, hard stone. The dissonance between the obvious materiality and the skill of the artifice creates something truly transcendent.

Despite the endless evil our species has promulgated, the existence of such objects gives me hope. Being in the presence of them, if only for a short while, is a privilege that should be available to all. It is to the credit of the British Museum (and many of the other major London institutions) that they open their doors free of charge. This is something that has always irked me about many museums in North America, particularly those of my native Canada where the collections tend to be pretty mediocre to begin with. To put humanity’s cultural heritage behind a pay-wall entrenches a kind of petty elitism that distances us from the hope and inspiration that cost-free access makes possible. With their focus on admission receipts, too many of our North American museums have slid into the shrill, overly mediated territory of theme park(ism) and ‘edutainment,’ robbing visitors of the simple pleasure of enjoying objects of beauty, antiquity or scientific interest and experiencing them on their own terms.

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the old world

London Shard and cenotaphs

Renzo Piano’s ‘Shard’

lil' dragon

A lovely little dragon!

 

I have been imagining London for probably as long as I can remember but I had never set foot in the place until last week when I arrived there with Ruth, who is on tour promoting her new book – A Tale for the Time Being.

The novel, which is a multi-layered affair, incorporates among many other things, fictionalized versions of me and Ruth who through happenstance come across the jettisoned diary of a troubled Japanese girl, who may or may not have ever existed. So far, the reviews and personal feedback have been great, though sadly I won’t be seeing much of Ruth over the next months as she travels far and wide.

The distinction between existing or not existing is, as Ruth’s book points out perhaps a false one. According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual world or universe. At the point of something happening, there is a kind of branching in which the thing that happens happens and yet the things that could have happened happen also in an infinity of alternate realities, which can of course include the option of nothing happening at all, as the protagonist in Michel Houllebecq’s bleak little novel Platform reminds us : “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.”

Yet while on the plane, I anticipate that something will happen, though air travel these days is an exercise in forbearance; an interstitial and excruciating nothing that only ends when the landing gear thuds against the tarmac with the promise of fresh, albeit jet fuel-infused air wafting into the cabin to displace the bacterial foulness in which one as been roiling for the past however-so-many hours. Until then I am a bit like Schrödinger’s cat, the London I am about to experience and the London I am still imagining coexisting in a quantum state pregnant with potential, which thanks to ‘many-worlds’ won’t collapse completely into hard reality when I step out the airplane door. Or so I hope. I like to think that somewhere in the multi-verse is a place for my illusions.

The late winter metropolis into which we glide via taxi from the bowels of Paddington Station seems hyper-illuminated, suffused with a golden oceanic glow which I never would have imagined. I had after all spent the last month beneath the sepulchral skies of Cortes Island where there was pretty much no light whatsoever. At this time of year I was expecting London to be all fog billowing across cobblestoned squares and gas lights winking on conspiratorially in picturesque mews at three in the afternoon. But passing outside the window is a shifting sunlit cityscape of splendidly diverse architecture, its streets full of angles and curves so eccentric they look as if they had been laid out by some mad geometer. Oldness! Newness! A brilliant palimpsest of edifices jostling like icebergs in a sea of history. What a contrast from the dreary, machine-like rectangularity that characterizes the average North American city! Delightedly catatonic, yet still in the thrall of our movement, we drop our bags in the hotel room and proceed more or less immediately to the nearby British Museum. There we will allow ourselves a quick commune with things truly ancient before collapsing at last into our waiting beds.

the synthetic forest

 

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The old growth forests of Vancouver Island are almost gone. The overwhelming majority have already been cut down and in many cases what has grown back has been whacked back several times over, leaving us with a landscape which, while wooded and at times even beautiful, is basically a ravaged, stunted version of something that was once truly glorious.

On Cortes Island, British Columbia where I live, the forest is an unusual ‘dry rainforest’ known as the (the very dry eastern variant of the Coastal Hemlock zone), which has less than 1% its original forest cover remaining. Some of the finer groves are about to be razed, put on container ships and shipped overseas by a company called Island Timberlands, itself set to be partially bought out by the $480 billion China Investment Corporation (CIC). Under the rules of globalized, neo-liberal economics this is all perfectly legal and in fact encouraged by a compliant provincial government who have been major recipients of forest industry campaign donations during the last election. To reward their benefactors, the BC government further gutted the already weak legislation governing the protection of the environment on private forest lands to the point where it has essentially been left to regulate itself.

The destruction of Cortes’ forests might have started any day now, were it not for outraged citizens physically putting themselves on the line to prevent Island Timberlands from starting its logging operations. This is truly a last ditch effort, noble but doomed to failure unless someone in political power steps up to the plate and comes up with a way of saving this piece of a vanishing ecological heritage.

Yet in a bizarre mirroring effect, as the real world’s ancient forests disappear before our eyes, they proliferate like never before in the simulacrum world of video games and fantasy films.  From The Hobbit to World of Warcraft the old growth archetype lives on as a majestic and mysterious backdrop for the exploits of our avatars and fictional heroes. We are drawn to the these places in our imagination, yet can’t prevent ourselves from destroying the last examples of the real thing. Perhaps we will come to prefer them pixellated. Perhaps we already do.

worlds, ends etc.

drunken santas

drunken santas

Kentucky Coffee Trees

Kentucky coffee trees in Brooklyn

It’s the last day before the NYU students’ Christmas break and the streets of the East Village are full of drunken Santas and inebriated elves vomiting, fighting and staggering into traffic. For some reason this makes me very happy – a debauched anti-Christmas that serves to de-alienate me from the saccharine strains of seasonal Muzak and ersatz bonhomie that are so hard to get away from at this time of year. In keeping with the looming end of the Mayan calendar, a young hipster is getting his picture taken next to the Meso-American themed ‘portal’ he has pasted onto the old bank building on the corner, complete with the now obligatory QR code to link our smartphones to his on-line brand. And he is looking mighty pleased with himself. Sadly, the real Armageddon turns out to be a much slower, more painful, affair, which we’ll have to spend many more years enduring, despite all the prophesying and anticipatory hippie dancing down there in the Yucatan. A day after the anticipated end of the world, the ‘portal’ is already peeling-  its wheat paste no match for the dampness of the winter weather.

portal

the ‘portal’

So where does that leave us?

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, providing an object lesson in the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to climate change. I was at a panel discussion at NYU, itself having suffered over 1 billion dollars in damage, and heard how the emergency generators failed at several major hospitals necessitating massive evacuations of patients, many of them critically ill, from the suddenly elevator-less buildings.

Though there was a sense of where the flood waters would impact, it was the social dimensions of the disaster that had been poorly prepared for. According to Kizzy Charles-Gusman (a recent environmental policy adviser to Mayor Bloomberg), Sandy had a disproportionate impact on the elderly, people of color and low-wage workers, who predominantly inhabit the city’s flood-prone public housing complexes of which 402 buildings lost power, water and heat for extended periods of time, which resulted in an epidemic of cold-related illnesses such as hypothermia and respiratory infections, as well as cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in people trying to rig up impromptu heating arrangements with insufficient ventilation. Chronic conditions got dangerously exacerbated in many of the low-income residents who depended on itinerant home care workers, whose visits the storm interrupted. The take-home message was that it was neighbors knocking on doors who provided the best line of defense during the sometimes considerable time spent waiting until the disaster relief agencies could deploy their resources. Climate change, increasingly means we have to get better at taking care of each other, particularly the elderly and the house-bound.

Coney Island parking lot

Coney Island parking lot

Even without extreme weather, current global warming commits us to a major sea level rise simply due to the thermal expansion of water, contributing at least as much as that to be added by melting ice shelves and glaciers. So it is inevitable New York City and other low lying, coastal areas will get inundated with increasingly regularity and as a result epic and costly engineering interventions will have to implemented that such as moveable flood barriers and relocating and flood-proofing critical infrastructure.

salt marsh

brooklyn salt marsh

Landscape ecologist and director of the Manahatta/Welikia Projects, Eric Sanderson, suggested ecological solutions to make the New York waterfront more resilient to the effects of climate change, chiefly re-restoring the now largely vestigial salt marshes and oyster reefs that once ringed Manhattan Island, which can soften the impact of storm surges in a self-adjusting, literally rhizomatic way. After a disturbance, the various species of cord grass (eg. Spartina alternifolia and Spartina patens) can redistribute themselves based on their different tolerances for submergence and salinity, forming a self-healing structure that shields the shore behind it. Sanderson pointed out a direct congruence between Manhattan’s mandatory flood evacuation zones and the location of long vanished wetlands, where not surprisingly, the water still collects. As usual, nature knows best and we ignore that at our peril.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for wanting to give things a tweak from time to time though. For better or worse, it is in our species’ nature. Genetic engineering is a case in point. It is controversial, yes, and fraught with danger, not the least of which is the threat posed by big biotech companies patenting the living shit out of everything, recombining what is essentially the earth’s genetic commons and declaring it their intellectual property. The technology to re-splice genes has been around for a good while now and the genie can’t easily be put back in the bottle. So given what’s at stake – and there is a lot at stake – why let big corporations dictate all the terms? There is a small but growing movement of bio-hackers who dedicate themselves to promoting an open-source, democratized biotech. They are educating and empowering ordinary citizens with the tools they need to counteract the hegemonic, capitalistic tendencies of the industry and encourage creative investigations into bio-tech that may not be explicitly utilitarian or commercial, but artistic or otherwise conjectural.

The folks at GENSPACE epitomize this emerging aesthetic and in their funky Brooklyn biolab they offer workshops in isolating, amplifying and re-combining DNA to artists, high school students and just about anyone else curious and patient enough to learn some basic molecular biology and acquire lab skills. By promoting this kind of literacy, GENSPACE includes whole new communities in a practice once relegated to the cloistered labs of the academy and the corporate sector and in so doing democratizes the discourse around this controversial yet epochally significant technological evolution. Though I personally have grave concerns about the release of novel genetic material into the biosphere, the likes of Monsanto have already made that decision for us and we now live in a world where transgenic pollen billows through our air and super weeds erupt between rows of genetically engineered crops, whether we like it or not.

Yet on the other hand, under the guidance of GENSPACE’s Ellen Jorgensen, I was quickly able to learn some basic techniques and sequenced a portion of my DNA, which when analyzed yielded some interesting results:
I carry, through my long chain of ancestral mothers, the H1a3 maternal haplogroup, which originated in the Younger Dryas Cycle – a cold snap occurring between 12,900 and 11,500 years ago that interrupted the general warming trend near the end of the Ice Age. Which means (not surprisingly) that my genetics are deeply and anciently European. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. (Sorry!) If I had run a more comprehensive analysis, (or sent a sample of my spit to some commercial personal genomic testing company, like 23andMe) I could uncover a wealth of nuanced, highly individual information, including my probability of contracting various genetically determined diseases, susceptibility to allergies, candidacy for certain medications and even how much of my DNA has been contributed by Neanderthals.

Clearly this might be useful, not to mention interesting… If I knew I had the genetic proclivity toward diabetes or heart disease, I might keep a closer eye on my diet or even start taking preventative medicines. Yet the larger motivation for me to start learning about genomics is one of basic literacy. As biotech becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it will be imperative for an engaged citizenry to have a basic grasp of its underlying principles, so we can at least filter the signal from the noise at both the Luddite end of the environmental movement and the slick, self-serving communiques of a multi-billion dollar industry.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, genetic processes prove to be an immensely design tool, even outside the test tube. An entire technology of computation has evolved using genetic algorithms, basically simulations that create powerful synthetic evolution machines that can be deployed to solve complex computational problems. I attended a fascinating lecture given at EYEBEAM by the Deluezeian scholar Manuel deLanda, who explained how genetic replication algorithms can be applied to architectural design. For example, the biological principle of heterogeneity occurs when populations of organisms reproduce sexually and shuffle the genetic deck to create occasionally novel outcomes that sometimes confer adaptive advantages to offspring. This principle can be incorporated into form-finding programs such as those that generate solutions to structural problems. These organic algorithms have the benefit of coming up with answers designers didn’t even they were looking for, in as much as they may have been shielded by educational or cultural predispositions. The algorithms can also be set to evolve in the manner of a neural net, interacting with the designer as in: ‘do you like this?’ to refine outcomes iteratively.

Artificial life when it is left to evolve can be quite uncanny, yet when it does, as in this vintage Karl Sims project from the 90’s, one can clearly see that there are some universal principles at work. These simulated beings can evolve and even reproduce but will we ever get to the point where we need to give them rights?

punk past, punk present

 
OCA now pimped out with polka dot office thingy

OCA now pimped out with polka dot office thingy

punks feeding the hungry at 9th and C

punks feeding the hungry at 9th and C

 

Though I was headed back to New York, Hurricane Sandy had other ideas and I got stuck in my hometown of Toronto for a few days, waiting for NYC’s airports to reopen. I have to say it was refreshing to hear a Jamaican guy outside the Lansdowne subway station cursing at random passersby, calling them ‘bloodclots’ as they rushed for the bus. Life on the West Coast is just so insufferably white bread and I miss these idiomatic Caribbean speech patterns, not to mention the great goat and okra rotis I tucked into at Vena’s – the local hole-in-the-wall Trinidadian place. Don’t even get me started about the West Coast’s lack of subways….

I had come to Ontario in the first place to attend a thirty-two year reunion of my long dead punk band ‘The Enemas’ (wince, wince) which happened in the smallish rust belt city of London. Though my own memories of 1979-81 were a bit on the sketchy side, my former band mates managed to play through our set with astonishing verve. Though I am less than sure of my musical talent these days, it was heartening to share memories of those early punk days with former demimondaines and be introduced to a whole new generation of aficionados who weren’t even born when we last played. More than anything, it is the punk rock aesthetic that has stuck with me all of these years – a sense of anti-authoritarian glee and the joy of improvisation; of not doing things by the book. For that sense of empowerment, I am eternally grateful.

Frida Kaho's portrait of Luther Burbank

Frida Kahlo’s portrait of Luther Burbank

Back in Toronto after the London event, my hurricane-induced hiatus allowed me to reacquaint myself with old Hog town, the city that essentially molded me as a young artist and writer. As well as viewing a lovely exhibition at the AGO, (curated by my old friend Dot Tuer) of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, I swanned about some of the neighbourhoods I used to frequent and I couldn’t help noticing, (as I sometimes do after absences from once familiar places) that the remnants of my physical past – the buildings, the faces I once knew – have receded strangely into an aggregated matrix of history, obscuring what was once there – what is still in my mind – like a translucent veil or an alternate quantum state that oscillates in and out of the present like the cronosthesia suffered by Chris Marker’s protagonist in La Jetée. One of the few consolations to getting older I find, is that this ability, in one’s mind’s eye, to zoom in and out through one’s own history becomes astonishingly acute. The present more and more resembles the skin of some translucent, temporal onion, containing the nested layers of the past still glistening inside it, each existing as it once was, but within the corpus of a unified whole.

And that goes for the future too because as Baudrillard pointed out, the unimaginable has always been imagined to some extent. Which brings me to New York. Finally! After days of hurricane Sandy induced flight cancellations, the flooding had receded from the airport runways enough that I was able to board a plane for the short flight. Upon arrival at La Guardia, at first everything seemed more or less normal, but as the taxi crossed the Williamsburg bridge into the Loisaida it was as if I had entered a parallel, crepuscular universe. Though it was already early evening, there was no electric light to be seen anywhere and it felt as if I had traveled backward in time to some earlier, pre-electrical Manhattan. Traffic signals and street lights were all out and the windows of the storefronts and apartment buildings stared darkly into the shadowy streets. Knots of people sauntered along the sidewalks, at much slower than the usual frenetic Manhattan pace, and here and there as a diminished reminder of the historical present, a tiny cell phone screen glowed from the darkness, borne by unseen hands in search of what had become almost a memory of formerly ubiquitous reception.

 
Alphabet City in the blackout

Alphabet City in the blackout

punk phone charging setup at 9th and C

punk phone charging setup at 9th and C

 

As night fell further, I could see the darkness would absolute, save for vehicle headlights, a few wavering flashlights and the twinkle of candles in the windows of the occasional bar that stayed open, catering to the many in the neighbourhood who suddenly didn’t have much to do, except shiver in their cold, dark apartments. Being the nexus of entrepreneurialism that New York is, there were itinerant ice men driving around (where do they come from so suddenly?) hawking their now highly coveted wares to whomever would agree to their exorbitant prices.

“Ice – Ten dollars a bag!”

But cold beer is a welcome distraction from any disaster and I soon found myself atop a bar stool, enjoying a Pabst Blue Ribbon around the glow of a tiny tea candle in the otherwise Stygian darkness of Avenue B at 7th Street, joined by a friend from our building and a professional pet sitter named Nanette who drank her gin and tonic with a snuffling pug named Olive, perched on her lap like a furry, drooling accordion.

The next morning, the power was still out but I could see that the urban immune system had kicked in. While the ConEd trucks and National Guard vehicles went about their business, the punks at 9th and C have had barbecues going in front of their building and were attending to the many hungry people in the neighbourhood who had been having to make do without light, heat and in many cases water for these three days. The corner was one of the only localities in the neighbourhood in which get a cell-phone signal so it was full of people milling around with their handsets pressed to their ears or frantically texting. To my delight, the punks had provided a pedal-powered cell phone charger next to their outdoor kitchen, helping us all to maintain our tenuous links to the outside world.
Go Punks!
I’m so glad to report that at 9th and C at least, the punk spirit is alive and well and maybe it’s stronger now than ever. As climate change continues to heave and buckle the aging infrastructure of American capitalism, it is these anti-authoritarian ragamuffins who will increasingly be called upon to step up and save us. Welcome to the future. I think I like it!

Update: Though the power came on Friday night for many buildings here in Alphabet City, things are still very much sucking for the folks in the nearby PJs, many of whom live along the East River where the worst flooding happened. Along with the lack of light and heat, these unfortunates had to endure the exceptional torment of not having running water. To me, this was yet another object lesson on how, within the context of climate change and the general lack of readiness of North America’s tax-starved, aging infrastructure, it will be the poor who will disproportionately bear the brunt of what is coming. Tuesday’s coming election here can be seen as a referendum on how America views its social contract. Will the state make some committment to its historical responsibility to look after those less fortunate, or will be headed for a more brutal, individualist future? No matter what the outcome, I think we’ll be needing the spirited, do-it-yourself public service of those punk kids more and more.

cottonwood: oasis in peril

a green oasis

a green oasis

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

What we started out with

cleaning up

cleaning up

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

building the garden

composting with salvaged tofu

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.

eagle's nest

eagle’s nest


 
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

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

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

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:

‘Save Cottonwood’ Facebook group:
http://www.facebook.com/SaveCottonwoodCommunityGarden

‘Save Cottonwood’ Twitter feed:
https://twitter.com/SaveCottonwood

Geoff Meggs e-mail:
clrmeggs@vancouver.ca

Gregor Robertson e-mail:
gregor.robertson@vancouver.ca

Mayor and Council e-mail:
mayorandcouncil@vancouver.ca
(this isn’t the greatest way to get attention. It’s much more useful to e-mail individual councillors directly)

Here is a link to all the individual City Council contacts:
http://vancouver.ca/your-government/city-councillors.aspx

Also here is a link to my own history of Cottonwood:
http://www.oliverk.org/page/cottonwood-community-gardens