Play is Resistance: Don River 2 – Sept 2010

Dear readers, how wonderful that you have rejoined us to continue the quest to discover the patches of life that cling to the Don River! We left off last month knowing many reasons to celebrate a faint pulse returning to this river that was once deemed dead. But our commitment to staying by the river’s side means we must also face the horrors the river run through. Our story left off as we entered a golf course, ever nearing the downtown. So have courage friends, as we step into the openness of the golf course, towards the fate of this water…

After following a raccoon trail, these neat, paved paths feel strange underfoot, and the suspicious eyes of the golfers make us aware of our tangled muddiness – as if we’re the ones behaving strangely! The Donalda Golf Course seems to strangle the river forever. At last, we reach welcome shade at the end of the course, but what we find certainly offers no relief for the river. Just out of view from the golfer’s world, the ground is carelessly flooded with a blue liquid – the infamous Monsanto’s Roundup. Beyond the spill our feet sink deeply into a sod graveyard. Weak mats of grass cannot survive long in the desolate golf course environment. Here, right beside the river, is where the used-up bits of greens are dumped, forming huge mounds of rotting topsoil.

One inch of topsoil, the vital essence of our land, can take centuries to form naturally. A sickening feeling washes over us in confronting this abuse of such a precious resource. Even the invasive plants we considered last month, like Manitoba Maple and Garlic Mustard, build up soil, taking on disturbed sites and contributing to the re-accumulation of biomass. In fact, many of these first-succession plants native to Europe have the longest experience of healing land that’s been damaged by industrial civilization. In the tiny wild pockets bordering the golf course, these familiar foreign species enthusiastically grow among the litter of golf balls, water bottles and styrofoam. Here, the presence of these oft-hated plants seems hopeful, little pockets of health and sanity. The creation of landscapes like a golf courses shows just how alienated our culture is from the land it depends upon.

We breathe out our frustrations and move deeper into the thicket, connecting once again to the joyful spirit of the wild. Is golfing with your officemates play? What game is so great to necessitate scarring the earth so? The golfers offer an example of a bad relationship with the earth. But in the forgotten corners and scrublands of the city the resources for games and play are plentiful! One of the most wonderful secrets is that playing can provide us with what we need—we realize this as we round the corner and find a glorious wild asparagus plant. The need to reconnect with the land is fueled by the need to restore what spirit and autonomy has been taken from us. But what role can we play in a process of healing the land and ourselves? We move forward, inspired to seek a path towards this goal through some good ol’ playing outside.

Keeping low in the valley, we cross under a giant cloverleaf of Don Valley Parkway, a noisy dirty parody of a plant’s shape. Beyond this, the Don Valley gets wider and deeper, and the river is joined by more and more streams. We come to a steep muddy incline, and the narrow path is blocked by a happy family of geese we don’t want to disturb. So we pick our way up the hill to walk under the Red Oaks at the forest’s edge, in the shadows of enormous apartment buildings. We can still hear the river below, and we are anxious to return to its side. A promising trail back down into the forest ends up just leading to an accumulation of old couches and broken appliances from the transient flow of humans in and out of the apartments. But we go past the wreckage and lower, running steeply down, bouncing from tree to tree, falling into the arms of a wonderfully healthy grove of Eastern White Cedars.

This grove is big and old, many with trunks much wider than our bodies. Almost all of the ancient cedar forest has been harvested from the great lakes region, a community that had been growing here since the 15th century. A few specimens of the oldest generation remain in Ontario. Yet the spared trees—some more than 1200 years old— are dwarfed, clinging to rock faces along the Niagara Escarpment, out of reach from the relentless saws of colonial lumber barrons. We try to imagine giant Cedars, and our minds wander to the massive west coast Sequioa, of which a few protected stands still remain – these ancient trees offer a starting place for imagining the wildwoods of the west. But here, not one ancient tree remains after over 195 million cubic board feet of cedar lumber was extracted from this land. And yet, in this unassuming place between burdened river and apartment buildings, we stand among hope for a return of the giants of the east.

Below us, closer to the water, the cedars mingle with then give way to twisted old hemlocks. We find a faint raccoon trail sloping back towards the river. There, we run into a fat old raccoon coming towards us – he’s pretty surprised to find such big scary giants using his trail, and stares at us a moment before stepping off to watch us pass.

We find wonderful dense patches of Stinging Nettle, and Flox. Everywhere we look there are flowers in bloom – we examine them carefully, then try and close our eyes and picture them, in hopes of remembering them well enough to identify later. Cow Parsnip is one delicious new friend we would learn this way. After the recent rain, mushrooms are bursting from every fallen tree, drawing air into their deep soil, transforming toxins into nutrients, and teeming with every kind of insect. We walk more and more slowly, trying to take it all in – everything we see or hear sparks into a dozen questions, as the things we know quickly give way to the endless volumes of things we don’t.

The Forks of the Don is a place of humble significance. Very close to the parkway, the West Don tumbles off an artificial weir to meet the East Don flowing under bridges among concrete banks. Startling a turtle who splashes into the strong current, we try to imagine the stories of the two arms of the rivers, mixing here and traveling together now, faster and faster towards the downtown.

Forks of the Don - east

Beyond this point, the character of the Don Valley changes rapidly. On the Don’s west bank much of the land seems to have been recently cleared to accommodate electrical and railway infrastructure – as land in Toronto becomes more expensive, the places that were once undevelopable become opportunities. We imagine the glee of the clever, near-sighted urban planner who realized they didn’t need to take up valuable downtown real-estate with hydro towers – they could just put them out of sight beside the river, which is just an open sewer anyway, right?

But even here, the land is recovering, shooting up fields of wildflowers – the Milkweed is just beginning to bloom, and we see our first monarch butterflies of the season. Tangled Willows break under erosion pressure from the damaged banks; they fall and re-root themselves, forming a dense hedge along the river and preventing further crumbling. Higher up, Staghorn Sumac grows tall alongside Manitoba Maples and Trees of Heaven creating shade and beginning the transition from meadow to forest. It is haunting to remember that this meadow and scrubby forest is what the Meadowlands shopping centre in Ancaster looked like, before it was paved over and strewn with big box stores.

At last we reach the Bloor Viaduct. As we stare up at this terrible, awesome structure, we connect the history of the land to the history of our culture. The Bloor Viaduct is a bleak and fitting monument for where the Don River enters the downtown. Where it stands, the Don Valley is almost a kilometre wide and quite high. For a long time, this valley divided the city of toronto and limited its growth, because there was no reliable or fast way to cross it. In 1918, the Bloor Street Viaduct was opened, a massive bridge spanning the valley and opening the possibility of mass transit. This colossal piece of infrastructure was one of the keys to making the modern city of Toronto possible. But it is perhaps better known as a site of death – the Bloor Viaduct has the honour of having hosted the most suicides of any site in the world. At its peak in 1997, one person killed themselves there every 22 days. Now, the bridge is adorned with a series of fences designed to make this more difficult, and these fences transform the massive bridge into a grim statement on the misery and isolation of city culture that it helped to create. Only by understanding what this land once was can we understand what has been done to us and what we have lost. The mindset of the golfers and of the clever urban planner represents a gap— a fundamental alienation from the natural world.

River Meets Lake

What strategies can we learn from the wild communities along this urban river? Spending time sharing the path of the resourceful raccoon, the joy of the family of geese, the cedar stand’s strength, and the selfless giving of plants in the meadow are all ways to unlearn the profound sickness of this culture’s association with the land. As we play in wild spaces with patient and open hearts, these friends whisper their wisdoms to us. True play asks for nothing from a place. Instead, to play is to find joy in that place without trying to control or change it.

If we love the land and recognize our survival as humans depends on the health of the wild, then we must act in all ways as allies with the earth. We can start by carefully listening to what the land needs, and observing the ways it is already healing and already resisting destruction. We must plant the seeds of these joyful secrets deep within our own communities. The consequences of committing to a process of listening closely and knowing the land can only be to encourage the healing of both the land, and of ourselves.

[this article is the second of a two part series. Check out part one, Of Settlers and Foreign Maples]

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