Meditations on “why” while collecting trash in Beacon Hill Park.
OVER THE SUMMER, someone tagged a large rock in Beacon Hill Park with black spray paint:
I know we’re not acquainted, but can I call you D and ask what were you hoping for? Were you looking for presence, identity, substance, legend? I know, anonymity’s tough, D. Who wants to be a nobody?
After you sprayed the rock, did you feel manifest and three-dimensional, more real? Or maybe this is a territorial thing, something like flag-planting: “I am here! This is mine!”
Of course, I hasten to advise, you’re not here, and it’s not yours, and if “DVS” in black paint on a rock is the best you have, it might as well be CBC, or OMG, or RIP.
What, no half-written novel, or sheaf of poems? Still, you wrote. It has to mean something. After all, it was transgressive, a knowing act of sacrilege, so it must have given you a tingle. Of course, I’m not ruling out the possibility that it simply meant “Fuck you,” addressed to no one in particular; as if the spray paint can itself was empowering, talismanic, your Canadian Beretta. American novelist James Boice writes, “…walking around with a piece, having the ability, the option, of killing anyone at all whenever he feels like it but choosing not to, allowing them to live, makes him feel much better about himself.”
Elsewhere in the park, however, love and sanity reign: Someone has strung a dozen twig whirlygigs on the low-hanging branches of a tree.
So, half-empty or half-full? Author Darran Anderson, in his almost-600-page, high-wire-act of a book, Imaginary Cities, writes, “Banished to the innards of the Earth, Milton’s fallen archangel Lucifer declares, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’”
On a spring day, you’re standing beneath a leafy poplar. Sensing movement, you look up and see one, just one, of the tree’s healthy tulip-shaped leaves doing a zigzag air dance on its way to the ground. Why that leaf? Why that moment? In spite of science, Nature won’t answer why. A perverse, infuriating, answerless silence—a cosmic “why not?”—hangs over all of this, is built right into existence. All of us are managed by some code, a mix of genetic tattoo, strange organic prompts and non-negotiable physical have-to’s—conditions governing all matter and all life. Why a heart beats, why you suddenly feel horny, why there aren’t bright blue chickens that cackle perfect major thirds, why people pucker when they kiss, why waterfront homes sell for a premium (sorry, “Because it’s waterfront” is not an answer).
Why, why, why? Or, as the spiritual have been attesting for a very long time, there’s a mystery at the heart of Creation.
Doesn’t it seem a miracle how reason has managed to find a tenuous foothold in such randomness, illegibility and chaos?
Over coffee, in meetings, or visiting with our own thoughts, we produce gorgeous, perfected plans. We have a remarkable ability to define problems, sense possibility and potential, and craft elegant responses. Housing and social management for the pinballing homeless is half the cost of cleaning up after their free-range street life—not just the physical mess and behavioural emergencies, but also the ominous, shadowy, Dickensian, social worry-fever they represent—but we don’t make the commonsense moves. Some obstacle—inertia, other demands on attention, limits to social energy, maybe a failure of values or courage—subverts the intention. Or it just might be that humanity’s a work-in-progress, “evolution’s plaything,” someone quipped.
Writes Valters Bruns, “With cities as with people, the condition of the bowels is all-important. Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium.” In other words, half-full and half-empty are not adjacent conditions, but a wide gulf apart.
It’s a challenge to be a successful, modern city when ancient drums—sub-cellular, murky and primal—are still beating far underground.
A few months back, Jim Geiwitz (a friend of the now-deceased local legendary social systems thinker, Mike Littrell) loaned me a copy of The Biology of Desire by Marc Lewis. Jim may have offered it at some earlier time, but I was busy with other pursuits and never cracked the cover.
This time, I did.
Lewis, a neuroscientist, makes the case that addiction is not a disease, a “sickness” from which people “recover.” He argues that the human brain is wired for desire; that is, desire has its own neural circuitry that selects for and reinforces around pleasure; it stimulates an architecture of preferences built on attraction. As with drugs or booze, so with love, Lewis contends. It makes me wonder about other behaviour shaped by various neurological preferences and predispositions—which is to say the very way our human material is put together, implying natural forces not so easily governed by will or won’t-power.
We see an intimate narrow treed street, and we say “How lovely!”—shorthand and reflex for something hidden and more complex. The eye delivers a view of a small-scale street to the brain, and the brain, perhaps our entire physical system, somehow absorbs this street image as code for safety, intimacy, human warmth, protection.
Of all of our clever human arts, marketing and advertising, I suppose, have come closest to making a science of these mysteries: “Come Home to Arbor Village.”
And so back to the park. I’ve spent a lot of time this summer cleaning litter in Beacon Hill Park—a couple of large garbage bags daily. As any end-of-day walkabout will show, un-mindful visitors of every type and stripe can diminish the park’s appearance, power and value.
One beautiful August evening, I cleaned out a long-abandoned nest of junk accumulated by one park denizen under a tangle of bushes at the Southgate end: a fetid and repulsive accumulation of papers, rotting clothing, bits of wire and wood, spoiled and mouldy food in bags, plastic cups and containers, syringes and other drug-taking discards—in all, enough to fill four large garbage bags.
Park campers with their leave-behind fungus of crud; tissue-dropping joggers; beer-can-hucking partiers; disposable-diaper-tossing mommies; walk-away dog-owners who find the treetops infinitely fascinating just when their pet is taking a crap on the lawn…the park asks all of you: “Are you in or out?”
In or out of what?
We’re perpetually at risk. Danger stalks the verges of the narrow path of the human endeavour. It takes the form of an essential truth about the elemental forces that we call energy and matter: Everything has a life cycle, an arc of existence. Things become tired of being what they are. They lose intention, yield to fatigue. Rocks crumble, we die, stars wink out, civilizations collapse. We know this intuitively. For every religious Creation myth there is a Destruction myth.
The writer of the liner notes to some Scriabin piano music claims that the composer “began to believe he was a messiah whose music would restore human beings to Paradise.” If this is true, Scriabin may be chided for crafting an over-ambitious job description, but there’s no gainsaying his hopes. The composer himself wrote program notes describing the last movement of his “Sonata No. 3”: “The soul is thrown about in a storm of unleashed elements, and in the ecstasy of struggle suddenly begins to sing with the voice of the Man-God. But the song of victory is cut off when He falls back into the abyss of nothingness.”
Danger stalks the verges.
Consider all of this an effort to frame our civic mission, our task, as the urban social experiment called Victoria. To protect the rhythms and scale of this place, to retain its heritage, to preserve its connection to nature? Of course. But maybe also to refine and broadcast a fresh understanding of what it means to be a city.
If we were to produce an energetic map of Victoria, the Inner Harbour and its surroundings is where we as a city, a community of people, perform our ceremonies and rituals of commerce, political management, social power, and cultural expression. Beacon Hill Park’s our Eden, where we conduct our rites of renewal and return. It is a perfected place. All the park workers mowing, pruning, seeding, fertilizing, planting, cleaning: View them as performers in a Breughel painting, a vast and complicated tending effort to preserve this Eden, to maintain its fecundity, its ability to deliver the seasons and cycles—really, a message and promise of renewal. Crud and litter profane the place, subvert the park’s effort to fulfill its purpose. How might a city more palpably convey this symbolic meaning and importance of the park? Clearly, parental signage isn’t the answer.
In taking on this challenge, we could open up an entirely new industry of transcendental tourism, make Victoria an intentional living laboratory for the study of the Question of the Ages: How do we not fall back into Scriabin’s “abyss of nothingness”?
The highway sign itself could introduce our new exegetic mission: “Welcome to Victoria. Why, why, why?”
A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.