The fight for ecological limits is really the fight for cultural maturity; and that fight is never won for long.
IT’S A CLOUDY THURSDAY, JUNE 3rd, and gusty in Beacon Hill Park. The onshore winds are having their way with the place; paper litter takes off on eccentric sailing voyages, and empty beverage cups invite you to chase them along the paved park drive. The peacocks are already in full strut at dawn, squirrels busy doing squirrel work, noisy crows making life miserable for the prehistorically large herons that nest in high branches near the bandshell.
The number of tents is down to a dozen or so, one’s and two’s still boldly pegged on various lawns, a few cleverly hidden in the park’s forested sections. All of these will soon be gone if the City sticks to its intention to rid the park of daytime and overnight residents.
The stated objective is to give the park two years to regenerate and free itself of the physical “scars” of intensive camping. What remains unknown is whether two years is enough to wipe the memory of the social occupation of the park from the public’s mind. The park, after all, is not just landscape, but mood, as well.
The camping has altered the public’s perception of Beacon Hill Park. It’s not the same place it was; and now, if no longer a landscape filled with threat, still not safe, either; a psychologically contested ground, maybe; and whether the previous image and character of the park regenerates in park users’ minds, or long-term grooves are left upon the public memory, making users just a bit tentative—walk here, don’t go there—is hard to know at the moment.
Tents on Beacon Hill Park playing field in 2020
There is extensive professional and popular literature about loss and (sometimes impossible) recovery from loss. Still, loss in this, rather than the profit-and-loss sense of the word, is an under-considered subject. There’s diminution, but also disruption and vacuum, something taken away, a hole where one didn’t exist. “Sorry about your loss,” we say from our hearts, if parents lose a child, or a spouse a partner, or a family home taken by fire. The discovery of the skeletal remains of 215 First Nations children in Kamloops defines loss. The 80-year-ago extirpation by the Nazis of European gypsies, Jews and others defines loss. Such loss represents something diminished and not restored, taken away and not returned.
When a person’s loss is neither fatuous nor self-absorbed, we don’t say, “Oh, get over it.” We resonate and understand they may not get over it and we place them under no moral or emotional obligation to do so.
In the case of the park, what was damaged was a social assumption about behavioural boundaries, freedom of use, safety; an assumption that not one square inch of the park required you to think twice about, or bring the skills of caution to, your footsteps.
How did you receive those messages of safety? Atmospherically. Through your skin: itself a cognitive organ. Writes Lydia Millet in her extraordinary story, Thylacine: “Skin, he thought, was the organ that met the world. Everywhere on you, soft and porous and bristling with nerves. Easy to set afire.”
By casual visual inspection, the park has returned nearly to its previous state. The tents are gone, more or less. The extraordinary quantity and spread of litter is gone. The sense of loss, though, has diminished, not vanished.
He stands on a mowed area shouldering Heywood/Park Boulevard and screams: “FUCK YOU!” And a moment later: “FUCK!” And a moment later: “FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKIN’ CUNT!” No filter, nothing that says: “You don’t behave like that here.” He kneels, picks up a stone at the curb and heaves it at some cars parked beside the cricket field. Do I intervene, say something? What if he has bad brains? What if he has a knife?
Look on the bright side: if all his circuitry melts, this isn’t the US and he’s not packing. As you’ve likely noted, the US these days is a powder-keg—and a reminder that social conditions everywhere are tectonic and that people can be moody, crazy, driven and dangerous.
Yes, some of this is COVID-induced, or -intensified. Some of everything is, right now. Most of us have never had this experience, an almost wartime loss of normalcy, the disconcerting loss of facial reading and recognition. We’re all masked men and women, banditos, now, in this unusual state of proscription, prohibition and lockdown accompanied, contradictorily, by a comfortless holiday from routine. It’s weird, spooky, a dry run for End Times. No wonder alien sightings are up.
VICTORIA, RECENTLY EAGER TO ACHIEVE, to accomplish something, to declare itself a fully-invested stakeholder in the 21st century, has severed its narrative, parted with its memory, abandoned its story, and is now busy transforming Downtown. Talk about alien sightings: a bad crop of 15-25-storey towers springing from holes in the ground. Character and singularity gone, the place feels more like every other city and ever-more-divorced from the civic identity that gave resident and visitor alike some redemption from the world’s despair. Sorry to deliver such a cold thesis but, as someone writes in a letter to the Times-Colonist, Victoria is being transformed into a “mini Toronto,” adding: “Victoria is getting uglier by the day.”
How modern of us.
This new class of towers Downtown is stealing something from us and reinforcing a deep set of worries. I borrow an idea from Greg Jackson’s Prayer for a Just War, that we are suffering an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in North America, and that our urban design guidelines, zoning code and architectural requirements need more than anything to address despair. What else did you imagine Langford and Colwood as existential human acts were clumsily (and unsuccessfully) attempting to address? Why else do you imagine your heart breaks here in Victoria when you travel along a street of beautiful traditional homes or filigreed commercial frontages? Did you think it was to shop with the Government Street crap merchants that a zillion admiring visitors walked our streets?
This city breaks hearts because it still, if diminishingly, holds promise in a world falling apart. It offers the gift of memory, connection, social compass.
And what does the City do? It permits, if not outright encourages, developers and architects to create ice-cold buildings that steal the remaining warmth and emotional messaging, the embrace and maternal protection from the city and reinforce the same grounds for urban isolation perfected in a hundred other places.
A worldwide mobilization will (presumably) eliminate the global pandemic health threat in another year, three years overall. But how difficult it seems to be to confront and counter the somewhat more ambiguous social health threats, matters more susceptible to opinion than verdict or vaccine. It is a tragedy that such threats present in the abstract, and not as specific acts or conditions with measurable consequences. But some trends and social threats—loss, pain and harm—won’t quantify, lack quantifiable features. I’d love, in Victoria’s behalf, to make something clever of the fact that “harm” is made invisible by “charm,” but I lack the wit.
We seem to be caught in a time that feels heavy with metaphor. We, all of us, have been busy making our doom, manufacturing an ecological crisis; and to borrow a remark I’ve made before, catastrophe is ecological. It seeps into everything. That is, catastrophe is not just consequences, but purpose, too, not just what happens, but also what’s intended.
The Great Fire of London, Lieve Verschuier (1627–1686)
Victoria stood—residually, stands—athwart catastrophe. Catastrophe, at least in its gathering stages, as with global warming, is a caution designed to signal some pending greater damage or intolerable imbalance, and to stimulate conditions that make further damage more difficult or impossible. That is, catastrophe, within limits, buys time…until it can’t.
Victoria said, and still in places says to all who would listen: “No, no, no, don’t go that way! Don’t do that, do this!” (Rachel Carson, remember, wrote Silent Spring in 1962.)
Why Victoria’s fit of civic amnesia, when Europe’s best cities with their ancient roots show that it’s possible to achieve greater density without jettisoning history or losing identity? A fair question.
It’s in the setting of history that you can begin to divine if not purpose or plan, at least pattern. And from its ability and willingness to embrace history, to be history, Victoria made and still, fadingly, makes one dizzy with excitement and hope for social possibility. This is a place where you are surrounded by dream, both human-made and natural, and where you can exhale, let the poison go…if right now through a mask.
After all, don’t you carry a feeling, flickering just at the edge of intuition, that some epochal page is turning? Our changing relationship to nature; all the environmental damage; socially, culturally, the sense that we have hit the limits of freedom, despite the nagging hunger for more freedom—that is, altogether, some new and possibly concluding human chapter. The fight for ecological limits is really the fight for cultural maturity; and that fight is never won for long.
I’m so sorry for your loss.
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.