Have we overlooked the obvious in the “story” of Victoria—our region’s rootedness in a thousand miles of adjacent coastline?
OPINION COLUMNIST Carlos Lozada writes: “In the realm of folklore and ancient traditions, myths are tales forever retold for their wisdom and underlying truths. Their impossibility is part of their appeal; few would pause to debunk the physics of Icarus’s wings before warning against flying too close to the sun.”
In the spirit of Lozada’s commonsense treatment of fabulist matters, I would like to take you on a journey, local and distant, that may offer you a more dimensioned understanding of this place, Victoria, and of your important role in its history and community.
We begin with excerpts from a note prepared by cultural historian and university academic Martin Segger for the panel responsible for reviewing proposals from cities and other places seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site status (Victoria is currently in the midst of such an appeal):
Victoria has branded itself variously over the years: “Little bit of Old England,” “City of Gardens,” “Follow the birds to Victoria.” But branding is not a story that roots a community in its place. If the City has a story about itself it is fractionalized. Popular local cultural sites provide episodic moments, often maddeningly superficial. Some historic house museums hint at the Hudsons Bay Company fort; HSMB plaques on Wharf Street reference the heroics of frontier gold rushes; the Royal BC Museum focuses on the Northern coastal First Nations and presents a vague nowheresville ‘Old Town;’ numerous scattered monuments memorialize victims of nearly forgotten wars. Civic studies school curricula reveal a parade of elderly white men who plod through an increasingly contested continental history in search of our manifest destiny, Confederation.
We look to our historic urban landscape to provide glimpses of a mostly fantasized past: exotic Chinatown, Victorian economic boom-times leaving a romantic picturesque legacy of elaborate rooflines, garden suburbs laced with middle-class Tudor cottages and robber-baron manor houses. All a dislocated and incomprehensible palimpsest of exclusion and entitlement, from an elitist viewpoint and an icing of racism and class privilege.
All the while we have overlooked the obvious: the region’s rootedness in a thousand miles of adjacent coastline and a geopolitical reality that embraces the world’s largest ocean, its adjoining lands, its peoples and a thousand other stories.
In the setting of Segger’s thoughts, is it too much to view the European “discovery” of Victoria as the recapitulation of an ancient and primitive biological ritual repeated countlessly across a vast ocean and its framing continents: the spermatic quest of male-prowed ships in search of welcoming, receiving harbours promising the bounty of a fecund and resource-rich inland?
The calm, safety and provision of Victoria’s Inner Harbour…what a place to drop your anchor!
And when was all this? In what dim and distant past? Why, six grandparents ago, roughly.
Architect and architectural thinker Chris Gower, who has spent a professional lifetime listening to the hidden voices of historic places and buildings, undertakes his own meditation on the same harbourscape:
“Victoria's Harbour was the wellspring of the City—for all of its eras. Two waterfront Urban Design Studies, initiated some years ago in my time as a City Urban Design Planner, and updated as part of site reviews for the Maritime Museum, focused on:
1. Maintaining a large, multi-use Urban Festival Plaza for Ship Point. Long a public open space on the Harbour—how might this be newly presented for the future?
2. Examining potential for a modern reconstruction of the original 1858 Hudson's Bay Company Warehouse below Wharf Street. How might a lost pivotal frontier building provide a reference, to pivot towards times to come?
Illustrating his two points, Gower offers this gull’s-eye view of the subject area, capturing a warm, civilized and cultured welcome from the land; views out to the harbour puddle and the westering ocean distances that brought us here a short century-and-three-quarters ago; the site of our first mercantile footfall (the HBC warehouse); and an overall expanse offering prompts to the imagination, if you’re the kind of person who thinks of history as purpose, however indecipherable, flowing through time.
(Am I blind to the fact that other peoples called this place their home, long before we showed up? Aw, c’mon.)
My point is this: each of us is a citizen of the past and the future, and we abandon and leave to others the extraction of meaning from history and the projection and production of the social (or political or economic or other) future only to risk our status as fully-subscribed members of the human team.
We relinquish our compass—the meaning and impact of the legacies we inherited and those we will leave—at our peril. To sense the risk, you need only acknowledge as three (among many) worrying conditions currently shaping the human project the worldwide spread and expanding influence of autocratic government (with concomitant threats to democracy), a growing desperation and dismay regarding livability (environment, health, community) and, in the face of the right-wing blitz, the fading potency (or relevance) of progressivism as a liberating social force.
I invoke my own fabulist tendencies to state that I believe we are in the closing chapters of our species’ mission, our biological job. Why else—please, soberly and seriously ask yourself this question—would we be suicidally engaged, as we are now, in the destruction of the ecospheric features and conditions that sustain us on this singular planet? We even name it: ecocide.
The New York Times recently carried a lengthy report on the looming emergence of consciousness in Artificial Intelligence—consciousness, that is, self-awareness, in AI, in machines. Not biological life, as we currently consider or define it, but life nonetheless. At current speeds of development, the article suggests, AI consciousness—a machine entity capable of thinking of and experiencing itself as a ‘me’ and, presumably, with growing self-regard and a will of its own—is only a decade or two out. And what does humanity do in an increasingly work-less world? Make ever-worse trouble, is my guess.
Truly, all of this is myth-worthy content, and it’s in the context of such evolutionary developments that we—each of us—are invited (or required) to consider and understand our citizenship in the past and the future, as these tenses give meaning to the moment. As you walk and drive around our city, and particularly as you find yourself anywhere close to the Inner Harbour, imagine the last stupid thought that may have floated up from the sixty-five million-year-ago blanket of mesozoic palms: “I’m Tyrannosaur! I’m not going anywhere! Ever!”
When citizenship—engagement in story—lapses or dies, the moral or, less gratingly, the situational or even ecological roadmap blurs. All options seem equally credible and valid. Story no longer defines our social prospects, no longer answers the questions: “Where did we come from?” “Where do we want to go?”
And what are we left with if we run out of story?
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.