Slow trickles of water seep out of the softened soil from everywhere in our watershed. Drops collect and build in power. Water bursts from long-frozen escarpment rocks, racing towards the lake. Spring is here, and so let’s walk towards the limestone cliffs of ‘the Mountain’. The perfect place to celebrate the melt of winter.
Wandering from the downtown, energized by the sunshine, we move against the flow of the watershed, heading south on Ferguson street. At the very south end, we come to a place where, until just a few days ago, an old pumphouse stood surrounded by a patch of forest. But over those few days, a large chunk of the forested hillside there was torn out as the pump station was demolished. Among the debris, a starling stands on the body of a member of its flock, pressing down with strong claws and relentlessly pecking the weaker bird’s eyes. Two giant yellow machines knock around clumsily, compressing the soil. They dig a deep hole in the hillside, leaving behind an unstable, crumbling cliff more than ten feet high.
Today, the exposed earth is still damp and cool and alive with the billions of microbes, nematodes, and fungi doing the work of filtering, fixing and cycling all that is essential to life on earth. But with trees removed and roots upturned, life in the soil cannot last. Soon enough this land– a large section of the two remaining patches of forest left on the east side of St. Joseph’s Hospital– will be trapped beneath a new water processing facility.
Seeing this destruction, the murder of some of the only wild land left at the escarpment’s base in this area, our first reaction is anger. Anger is a healthy and natural reaction to seeing things you love be destroyed, and anger can be an important first step and a useful guide in learning. So we sit on the escarpment watching the machines below. We sat with our anger, then try to transition into questions:
Who owns this land? Why do they think that this destruction is ok? Who else, besides these traumatized starlings and soil bacteria, lived here until just a few days ago? Should we even care about sixty or so trees? What is the history of this land? How does this new destruction fit into that story?
Before long though, we decide to leave that sad scene. We find the Bruce Trail at John St, then move south and west and higher up along it. But there is not much forest left here now, so before long, the trail leads us to an overpass, at the top of the James St stairs. This stretch of pavement is the only path between two disconnected sections of forest. We stand looking down from the guardrail to the stand of trees left untouched only because of their usefulness in holding back the erosion that would cause the collapse of the overpass. Imagine this land before the shorelines became manufactured rectangles. The inlets from Hamilton harbour used to stretch past Burlington Street, spilling into wetlands all throughout what is now the lower city.
We transition from standing on pillars of the overpass, the backbone of industrial civilization– to a wall of escarpment limestone, the beautiful backbone of our watershed. The city and the wild are two competing forces along the escarpment, their interests are not the same and probably never will be. The forested trail we walk today was once called the Beckett Dr. Escarpment Access, built in 1894. The Bruce Trail from Queen St to West Fifth follows the route of Beckett Dr – it has turned back into forest, its route flows with meltwater. In the forest today, as the sound of the road fades behind us, we imagine the days when the forest will reclaim it, too.
As we continue along the trail, we come to waterfalls – their sound rises through the trees similar to the road sounds before, but these sounds indicate a rushing of life, a powerful rebirth and reawakening. Soon we crest the hill, and can see the water in the gorge below, water running fast and high with the spring melt. There, watching the water, we remember something we heard from some of our friends and mentors – they had told us to remember to play, to find joy. So we take off our shoes and wintery clothes, and play in the water and climb the boulders. To play is to form a relationship and connection with the land. Because the land does not heal out of bitterness or anger, but out of bottomlessly, exuberant joy.
All the land here has been hurt and recovered so many times. The hill being dug out where the starlings fought was formed artifically during the construction of the Claremont Access, and was the site of an even older pump house, dating 1878. But after that building was removed, the forest reclaimed the hill as part of itself. Before destroying that site yet again, the city conducted an ‘achaeological assessment’ of the site. They came to the decision that the land there had been disturbed so many times that it was insignificant, and therefore unworthy of being simply left to heal again.
The anger we felt at that destruction has been carried away by the river, leaving us glad and calm and curious. As we sit on the rocks and dry in the sun, we watch the water swirl intricate patterns, watch the clouds wander above, and we consider how the pumphouse development fits into the larger pattern of colonial destruction of the wild in this watershed.
When the colonizers set out to exploit the land and drive back the humans and non-humans who live in it, they seldom do so all in one blow. Colonization is a death of a thousand cuts, with each little piece fully justified, even though the whole is unjustifiable. The Haldimand Tract, given to the Six Nations, was originally more than 950 000 acres, but was leased out or given away by bureaucrats or was outright stolen, in tiny pieces at a time over a hundred years, until only 48 000 acres remain in their control today. Should we care about the death of sixty or so trees? Yes we should, because it’s sixty trees today and sixty more tomorrow, each time with a study showing its economic necessity and the insignificance of the land in question.
We must know this land as it is now, and we must defend it. It is true that the land is disturbed, that the water and soil are poisonned, but it is alive and is doing the important work of healing, for the good of us all. The forest reclaimed that that hill and old Beckett Drive, and someday it will reclaim the Queen St. access and the pumphouse. If we want to ally with the earth, we must learn to see that the way the land heals itself – relentlessly, yet joyfully — is a form of resistance. It is the land’s way of pushing back against the city.
It can be easy to accept seductive excuses for the ‘development’ of wildlands. Allow yourself time to work through questions, talk to friends and mentors, and decide what matters. If you feel angry, let that anger guide you towards learning about the land. One thing we’ve been doing, like in the interview alongside this article, is to connect with people who’ve lived here longer than you [we’ll post this interview soon]. To quote my self-proclaimed ‘radical octogenarian’ Grandmother, as she looks down over the pumphouse site from her apartment window, “well, I don’t know what’s going on down there, all I know is we need those trees.”