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Haunted by “ruins” in Beacon Hill Park

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Gene Miller

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THREE SHORT MONTHS AGO (I write in early May) we were wishing for spring, starting to form Easter long weekend and, maybe, summer holiday plans, privately sniping, as we read the newspaper, over some local political misstep or gaffe, writing a shopping list for the next Costco run, mulling dinner options, and mentally organizing tomorrow’s office or workplace tasks.

All of that now has been scrubbed. Habits erased, purpose and convention stolen, we barely know who we are. Still, we do what we can. We play by the rules, wear masks, stand six feet apart, ring bells and bang pot-lids at 7pm in a ritual designed to show support for front-line workers and to convey social connection and optimism. And now, with the onset of warming weather and a lot of free time, we recreationally swamp places like Beacon Hill Park. That’s all we have.

British settlement created a colony here in 1843 (by sheer coincidence, exactly a century before my birth). Just under 200 acres surrounding and including Beacon Hill was set aside for park by then-Governor Sir James Douglas in 1858, a mere 15 years after colony founding. (God, what instincts for the future!)

My wife and I live beside the park in Victoria’s 1936 art deco masterpiece, Tweedsmuir Mansions. In an act of caretaking and grateful stewardship, we walk through and clean rubbish from the park once or twice a day, doing our small part to sustain the park’s undeniable “Behold!” qualities, like this:

 

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Intensified (but not created) by the pandemic, the park has become a place of semi-permanent repose for upwards of 50 campers and tenters—some quite visible, others shrouded by the park’s various copses and woods or given privacy under the broad, falling skirts of its evergreens. Some are tidy and respectful, some have bad and nasty habits. As we “garbage walk,” my wife and I come across discarded parts from stolen bicycles, items boosted from neighbourhood homes and yards (once, a looted wall safe), campfire pits, soiled, discarded clothing and plastic sheeting, bushes everywhere used as toilets, ominous warning roars and screams emanating from certain tented enclaves, and terrifying messes like these:

 

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Oh well, it’s a big park.

Funny, we rarely consider the idea of a park—what a park is, exactly. Wild, confected, or both, a park is common ground, a reminder and instance of community; free to all users, and expropriated by none. A park keeps the monsters of commerce at bay; a park, however faintly these days, is return and renewal, a reminder of Eden, the Garden of God, home of the deep-rooted Tree of Life. We recapitulate all of this, even with the most prosaic of visits.

In “The End of the World—From Revelation to Eco-Disaster,” Simon Pearson comments:

“Like the traveller in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, we are haunted by ruins because they expose the fragility and illusoriness of human power and pomp. Lost jungle cities, ancient temples and monuments to the ‘King of Kings’—all these bear witness to the fact that all civilizations have a beginning and an end.”

Now, again, ruins haunt us: our own. Place yourself in a drifting frame of mind that allows you to feel these earlier ages and empires: the Ottoman, Han, Byzantine, Mongol, Holy Roman, British, and our own Modern Empire. Can you feel all that aspiration and hubris, through so many ages and places—each the “forever” of its time?

And here we are, you and I, living in this nearly perfected place, Victoria. So close (but no cigar)! Now, we take scraps of pleasure from the social near-ruins of Downtown and from our increasingly perforated and dis-patterned neighbourhoods.

There’s diminished social coherence now. It’s harder to argue purpose, harder to enlist. So, we disappoint the public realm. We fail urban design and the city’s social promise. We fail safety. We fail the homeless. We fail story and ceremony. Oh, well.

Now, where did I put that Costco list?

Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.

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