April 20, 2010
by Allan Casey
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On Foot Abroad, 2: Leaving Glasgow

Cities can be enduringly fascinating, like London, or ineffably beautiful gems, like Edinburgh, or brash and youthful like Glasgow. And yet, having lingered in all these during three weeks abroad, I was reminded that cities are, in a profound sense, all the same. They are machines for the sorting, movement and interaction of people. If you can find your way in one big city, you can find your way in any. Moreover, cities have no meaning without the context of the countryside, the wilderness, that surrounds them. One of the great ironies of nature stewardship is that the biosphere is managed by an urban intelligentsia that seldom strays the confines of the pavement or the cobblestones.

I have always been fascinated by the relationship of city to country, and I thought about it as I set out from Glasgow on an eight-day hike into what Sir Paul McCartney called the heart of the country. My work in the UK all done, I was going to complete the Scottish heritage trail called the West Highland Way. The Way is like a trip through the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson, passing through the lands of Rob Roy and along the famous shores of Loch Lomond. It crosses some of the most rugged and remote parts of Great Britain. Like “sustainability,” “rugged” and “remote” are wonderfully relative terms. I would be staying in country B&Bs each night, eating hot food and sleeping in a proper beds. For a small fee you can even have your backpack transported from inn to inn — though I drew the line there and carried my own.

The Way officially begins at a suburb north of Glasgow, but I chose to walk from downtown so as to observe the transition from city to country. Emerging from the Kelvinbridge underground station, I took a photo to mark the start of things, then picked up the route north along the River Kelvin. It was oddly similar to my day walking to Wanuskewin (written about in an earlier post), down to the paved path, the graffiti, even the wrecked car.

Those first few kilometres were also sometimes demoralizing. The river and the rowan shrubs along its banks were appallingly strewn with plastic bags, bottles and cans. The trail led tediously alongside golf links and depressing suburban retail of a kind I hoped did not exist in Britain. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant attached to a garden centre, a commercial enterprise that could have been on the edge of Calgary. The roaring motorway was never far off, jets descending to Glasgow airport moved overhead all day, and I passed many places where selfish urban citizens had illegally dumped loads of garbage on the edge of town. North Americans do the same thing, of course. I just thought Europeans knew better.

In fairness, I should repeat that this was not the official start of the West Highland Way, and the trail did become much cleaner and gradually more secluded as it progressed northward in the days that followed. From certain vantage points in the highlands, you could convince yourself Scotland was wild and empty still, though in truth the trail never strays far from towns . . . . at least by North American standards.

Frame of reference is everything in such comparative matters. We have to guard against putting whole countries, whole regions on a pedestal. Or vilifying them. Or ourselves. Or failing to see the country from the city. Today I received an journal containing a glowing report on the sustainability of European cities. The author lauds the subcontinent for all sorts of green-looking urban initiatives. The corollary is that North America is far, far behind. But the report never once leaves the city. It never really factors in all the agricultural inputs to the urban space, questions the impact of, say, the produce flown in from Africa that makes European food markets so lovely. It does not tally the embodied energy of the leather, plastic, metals and precious stones in the high street shop windows, the things that make urban life so refined on the subcontinent.

Sustainability is an infinitely complex mathematics. It is a word much used, rarely defined, never quantified.

It is easier to lop off whole categories than wrestle with variables. For example, few writers mourn the passing of European forests, nor reckon the loss of connection to nature that it may cost school children today. It was all so many generations ago, who remembers?

Having walked through some of the forests that remain in that part of the world, I will explore these topics next time, a little further along the trail.


March 31, 2010
by Allan Casey
3 Comments

On Foot Abroad, I: London

When it comes to smart environmental policy, we often look to Europe for leadership. They drive small cars over there, live in wee houses. Even their shoes fit narrower. Their ratio of wants to needs just seems more sensible. I myself have long put this subcontinent on a sustainability pedestal. These old societies watched their natural spaces shredded in the jaws of industrialism long before the New World was open for business. Logically, they had to address sustainability much earlier, before every last tree was gone. Having already been to the brink, they know better, in the way a parent knows what the child has yet to learn.

Well, that was my theory. Recently, I decided to test it with a visit to England and Scotland. The trip was what you might call practice research for a book I might like to write. Like Lakeland, it would explore the ways we use the land for pleasure and profit. What I found was more complex and surprising than my hypothesis, and the trip to the Old World reaffirmed my faith in the new one.

Splitting my time between city and country, I started in London, getting my first glimpses of its brown suburban row houses from the windows of the speeding Heathrow Express train from the airport. I had not been to Europe in many years, and never to England. Coming into Paddington Station, sensing the buzzing labyrinth of the mammoth city waking up just overhead, I was resigned to being disoriented and sweaty before reaching my hotel. Instead, the timeless atmostphere of a real European station platform brought back a flood of pleasant and familiar memories from my youthful backpacking days. The oily smell, the echoing smack of pigeon wings, the soft blue illumination under platform skylights, the smell of foreign cigarette smoke and strong coffee on the ramp up to the street . . . . I felt somehow at home.

Certainly Europe’s great gift to the world are its fabled, inviting and ultimately human-scale cities. Whereas typical North American streets invite the automobile, European ones invite the person. They are somehow both living museums and models of modern efficiency and sensible resource use. The narrow streets built of old, the attached town houses with main-floor shops, the dominance of public transit, bicycles and pedestrians over cars — all of this is the antithesis of the sprawl that so demoralizes the New World and burdens its resources.

Moreover, it delights the senses. I was staying at the Quaker-run Penn Club in the London neighbourhood of Bloomsbury, from which I explored the city almost exclusively on foot, walking about 40 hours all told over parts of five days. Going afoot in this multicultural place is to be fully alive as a citizen. “A man who is tired of London is tired of life,” said Doc Johnson. You sample passing conversations in many languages, and the smells of many cuisines, you read newspaper headlines and historical plaques, you partake in the art of statuary and wrought iron, you weigh Georgian against Victorian design vocabulary, you take the temperature of the current fashion season. You shop as you walk, whether for oranges and milk or cellos and oil paintings, your consumerism deeply tied to your pedestrianism. We North Americans are so starved for these pleasantries that a walk down a European street can be virtually intoxicating, especially when the spring sun is shining, the crocuses are stirring and beautiful bright people are on every corner. Not knowing when I might ever return, I attempted overdose. I did the same thing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where I also spent time.

From a land-use, resource-use perspective, urban efficiencies abound to delight the waste-weary North American. The demand for personal space and material wealth is less per-capita, a happy cultural norm which yields everything from small pubs to short commutes. The fabled double-decker buses are marvels of compaction and manouverability, and noise abatement laws have made the city significantly quieter than in Margaret Thatcher’s time. The Underground, the world’s oldest subway system, and the various other commuter rail networks, are utterly comprehensive. The wealthy still have taxis and private automobiles despite the heavy taxes against these modes, but one can take pleasure in overtaking them on foot. It is delightful that walking is still the fast option for most people, for most journeys. When you reckon the fitness this arrangement produces — which is readily measurable in the girth of the average citizen versus a North American one — then you can add healthcare savings to the list of efficiency benefits. It is hard to imagine cramming more functionality, living history, excitement, commerce and culture into a unit of real estate than they do in London.

It all feels so right, so sensible. Yet there are niggling doubts that this may not be a perfect world after all, omens small and large. Recycling bins, even regular trash bins, are largely non-existent, and seemingly respectable English men and women casually drop their unwanted Cafe Nero cups, orange peels and cigarette ends at their feet. Many bicycle riders wear masks to protect their active respiratory systems from the damaging particulates in the urban air. In the sky, the numerous contrails of commecial jet traffic in the world’s busiest airspace permanently occlude London’s few naturally clear days. Visitors, whether for business or pleasure, are the London economy. While the total UK carbon emsisions have gone down since 1990, air traffic has doubled, and will easily double again if the powers that be chose to build enough infrastructure of airport runways and gates.

Sensible and efficient as great cities like London are in so many details, you cannot assess them insolation, nor glorify them, without reference to the countryside that feeds them, gives them life support. After a dreamy weekend walking the old streets, I caught a train at King’s Cross, bound for “England’s green and pleasant land.”

March 3, 2010
by Allan Casey
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Big world, small cabin

Whenever I have to drive north through the Nesbit Forest, I try to bring my skis along for an outing on Eb’s Cross-Country Ski Trails. These are found in that glorious belt of mature-growth parkland that spans the two arms of the Saskatchewan River. Not far down the trail you leave the noise of the highway behind and reach a small rise. There, tucked among some ancient spruce, you find the little cabin pictured above. I have passed this way many times over the years and am always cheered to behold this little building. Small, picturesque cabins appeal to cranky idealists like me who desire proof that simplicity is alive and well.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it struck me on the most recent trip that this particular cabin is the real estate deal of a lifetime. You can have a piece of this timeshare — not to mention the 50-plus kilometres of groomed trails, the hundreds of square kilometres of undeveloped forest — simply by joining the Nordic Ski Club of Saskatoon. The annual fee is $35, or $60 for an entire family. This gives you access to the cabin (in fact there are two on the Eb’s Trails system), which has an airtight woodstove for heating and cooking, benches inside and out, and outhouses for necessities. And as you can see it has pretty window boxes and red-checkered curtains. What more do you need?

In my part of the world, folks jump headlong into resort property purchases — places that cost a whole lot more than $60 a year — without fully considering this very pertinent, very simple, rather profound question. What do you need? Why, if you already have a solid roof over your head in the city, do you want some kind of retreat more or less away from the busy centre of things? In fact, there are many wholesome reasons to want a place in the country. However, thoughtless resort development does more permanent damage to natural areas than logging or mining. Ugly resorts are just the sum of many over-hasty decisions. Any realtor (my dad was one) will tell you that most people put more thought into buying a car or a TV than into a house purchase. The situation with resort properties is worse yet, a marketplace of daydream and whim.

Resorts have always existed in some form or other. The Roman gentry kept villas across their empire. I once stood amid the lonely ruins of one in the hills near Fez, Morocco, the white marble floor tile still gleaming like a page out of Martha Stewart Living after two millennia. Royalty have always kept summer palaces or country estates, and sometimes tied their image to them, like sunny Louis XIV and his Versailles. The Soviet intelligentsia were given dachas as party favours; mobsters own them now. In India I saw how the well-off go to hill stations to escape the heat at lower altitudes, and the seashores offer the same kind of respite.

As the examples indicate, resort property owners tend to have plenty of money. Two houses cost more than one. Moreover, they cannot be considered in insolation, but rather refer back to the primary, urban residence of the owner. Inevitably, then, such places are status symbols in terms of both money wealth and territorial control.

If showing off was the only point, resort properties might not exist. There are easier ways to puff out your plumage within the city limits. No, I think such places are vestigial echoes of a time when human beings were still migratory, a hunter-gatherer source from which we all spring. That is the healthy motivation behind it all. Resorts are a way, more or less metaphorically, back to nature.

If you want a real showpiece, then the little place at Eb’s just won’t do. Purchase a mansion, and may God bless you. Yet, if the purpose of a cabin is to cultivate humble pleasures, to find silence, to take our entertainment in each other’s company, to exercise fully and rest deeply, then the Eb’s cabin may be just right. My point here is not to prescribe. I am only making a plea for clear thought. If we honestly appraise what we need, we often settle on something simpler than what the market suggests we want.

Cabins like Eb’s open the door of resort property ownership to families of very modest means. Yet I happen to know that persons of fairly significant means also make use of the little cabin. They have simply made a conscious choice, that’s all.

Small, cheaply accessible cabins are found upon prime real estate all over the world. On Emma Lake, which I describe in my Lakeland book, you can partake of the prettiest point on the whole shoreline via membership in the very unpretentious Prince Albert Sailing Club. Humble sailing, rowing, and canoe clubs all over Canada offer similar access. Small cabins — or big ones, for that matter — are a form of ethos. In Quebec, people revel in the tiniest of cabins, places little bigger than tents. It’s simply the done thing. Some cottage communities have organized themselves into co-operatives that bind their members to communal development standards that are relatively inexpensive and sustainable. I have seen examples on Toronto Island, within swimming distance of Canada’s largest city, and Lake Winnipeg. Or consider the famous shack-tents of Prince Albert National Park, a wonderful small-house ethos sadly brought to an end by short-sighted park officialdom of a bygone era. Now much the wiser when it comes to sustainable access, there is no reason why park officials could not bring shack-tents back to the campground.

In the more crowded theatre of Europe, sustainable, shared access is standard. Walking trails in most parts have organized systems of shared huts or inns that provide the hiker shelter and a bit of camaraderie each night at minimal impact. I will be walking some of these myself very soon and will report.

February 12, 2010
by Allan Casey
1 Comment

Citizen Science, Last Part

You will have noticed that the picture is upside-down. When I was small, my mom showed me the magic trick of inverting a photograph with glassy water in the foreground. When the world and its mirrored reflection switch places, a new reality ensues. All the elements of the picture remain familiar and sensible. Yet, simultaneously, the totality becomes exotic, novel and strange. Our human ability to flip images and ideas around, to look from the “wrong” angle to find fresh insight, is a great gift. I believe this is why yogi’s stand on their heads.

I have held back for weeks in writing the third and final introductory installment under this heading, held back for fear of seeming naive and childish. I have this rather ideal mental image of citizens doing the daily science needed to save the world. But then I also have ideal mental images of world peace and the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. Frankly, I just don’t know if my ideas about citizen science are at all practical. My critiques of existing environmental science in the preceding posts are at least rooted in realities. Well, at the risk of foolishness, let’s flip the world upside down, and see what happens:

Let’s imagine a person — Jane — who lives somewhere in the vicinity of the picture framed above. Let’s say she grew up nearby, feels connected to this land in a deep way that has become almost spiritual over time. She feels a certain duty to conserve the beauty, the essence and potential of this place for her children, for their generation. However, Jane also sees the forces of change, of development at play in the world. She is not necessarily opposed to change or development, but she wonders how the consequences of change can be understood without some kind of on-going environmental monitoring. Without scientific baseline data, how do we measure our own impact, make wise choices? How do we aim for sustainability if we’re never measured what we hope to sustain? Jane guesses (rightly) that current science technology is quite equal to this monitoring task. She wonders (rightly) why science, so fundamental to modern amenity, so prolific in its production of gadgets, seems seldom to be applied in this simple way. She would apply some of it herself, if only she knew how.

There are people like Citizen Jane to be found all over the world. I am one myself, and I’ve met lots more. We are civic-minded people eager to do right by the biosphere — if only we knew how. That last part is the kicker. Now let’s imagine there was some framework in place to train and organize such people to gather data about the environment that belongs to all of us. Does that seem far-fetched? Maybe it is. But when people see a clear path to doing good work, they will do it eagerly. They join service clubs, build parks and children’s hospitals, fund-raise for medical research, coach kids’ sports, bring meals to the elderly, create fellowships, campaign for justice, populate school boards and parent councils, fight fires, search for missing persons, give their holidays to international aid work, clean the litter from highway ditches . . .

Such unpaid work by average Janes is the glue holding the world together. It profits neighbourhoods and whole societies in ways that transcend capital. It does so from decade to decade, from parent to child. If people will Adopt a Highway, they might just as well like to spend a Saturday taking water or soil samples, doing angler creel surveys.  I think the conservation potential in that is thrilling.

As to the types of data that should be collected, the methodology and standards applied — I have no clear idea. (This is where looking utterly, foolishly naive comes in.) For such things we need trained scientists to guide us. If there are any reading this, please comment on the possibilities — or the impossibilities, if that is how you see it. In future posts under this heading, I will be seeking such scientists out, and reporting on their work. In fact, I just met a most interesting scientist right here in my own city who is trying to develop a somewhat related set of broad data-compiling and data-sharing tools, and I will introduce her soon.

When it comes to the storage and sharing of data, I think we citizens must take the leadership. We must look upon environmental data as a fundamental democratic right. Such baseline data — in whatever forms it might take — must move from dusty shelves of universities, move from the back pages of industry-funded impact assessments, from unread government background papers — and into the public domain. The internet makes possible so much open access, and at so low a price. The wiki- and open-source models of intellectual property transfer and development have already done much to empower, engage and enlighten people on previously obscure topics like globalization, genetic modification, health care, etc. These seem like good models for citizen science.

Finally, it is exciting to consider citizens taking local environmental data gathering into their own hands for one more fundamental reason: because nobody cares about a given place more deeply than the ones born and raised there. Nobody is more likely to pass that care to the next generation.

January 13, 2010
by Allan Casey
2 Comments

Welcome back, Wanuskewin

From my house in the city, it is a long walk out to Wanuskewin — about 17 kilometers along the South Saskatchewan River valley. I have made the hike many times over the years. I like the fact that I can set out from my front door, pick up the thread of nature down by the water, and follow it right out of town. You hardly know you are in the city over much of the route if you stick close to the water, following the maze of informal trails through the willows and dogwood of the valley bottom where the chickadees romp. Yet the urban setting re-asserts itself — when you pass the graffitied mouths of storm sewers, the rusting hulks of automobiles abandoned in the valley in decades past, or under the exhaust plumes of the chemical factory on the city’s north boundary.

On Sunday, I joined up with my good friend Mark Nicholson to make the walk for the first time in several years. The occasion was the re-opening of Wanuskewin Heritage Park, our destination at the end of trail. Wanuskewin is a wild coulee where Tipperary Creek joins the South Saskatchewan. Paleo-indian Plains cultures sheltered in this vale as much as 6,000 years ago, hunting bison by driving them over the steep bluffs, gathering berries, fishing.

The Cree “Wanuskewin” may be translated as “seeking harmony” or “seeking balance,” and the walk to get there provides the pilgrim with four of five hours to meditate on what such words really mean in modern times.

Unlike me, my friend Mark grew up in Saskatoon, has watched the city’s boundary sprawl away, year by year. North of the University Bridge, we came upon the rusted remains of the old ski lift that used to pull the daring up to the ski jump that once was installed on the river bank. With time, nature has all but erased evidence of this recreation area. The next generation of skiers would have to drive in their cars all the way to Blackstrap Lake, which itself has now fallen into disuse, has its own rusting ski lift. One door closes; another opens.

We watched goldeneyes diving in the icy water below the weir. The concrete dam was built as a Depression make-work project. To my eye it is ugly, but many people think it is an attractive urban site. Pelicans certainly do. In summer, they commute from their nests at Redberry Lake to feed here.

When Mark was growing up, North Park was the last neighborhood. Today there are several more kilometres of residential housing beyond the north rail bridge. We trudged along the east-side dirt trails, crossed over the pedestrian walkway under the 42nd Street bridge, and continued on the west side on the paved walkway of the Meewasin Valley trail system. As we rounded the river bend under the ramparts of River Heights, a bald eagle came upstream. Dams on rivers, like the weir and the Gardiner Dam hydroelectric station to the south, create year-round open water and feeding opportunities that keep such magnificent predators in business here in January. Returning to the dirt tracks at the latitude of Lawson Heights, we passed many bird feeders hung in the diamond willow by local people hungry for the signs of life in winter. The chickadees seemed delighted to patronize these establishments, bar-hopping noisily along the river.

Where the river narrows, we passed the long fence — and the long stench — of the sewage treatment plant, just one of a thousand such burdens heaped upon the South Saskatchewan by communities along the water course. Then you come to the Akzo Nobel chemical plant. A company with roots in the Netherlands going back to the 18th centrury, Akzo makes industrial chemicals for potash refinement, among other things, and potash is used to fertilize crops. Akzo has placarded a section of the river bank as private property, but Mark and I take our commonwealth rights of access to riparian zones very seriously and we walked right on past. Probably the company has posted the area to decrease its legal liability in case of a toxic leak, in the event of which an alarm will alert you to take flight.

We walked on until just past the warning sign at the north end of the trail and sat down to enjoy lunch, and a bit of still-warm coffee from our Thermoses. The air was still enough that we could feel real heat in the noon sun. The old moon, the last of 2009, was somewhere in its glare, though I had seen the sliver of it while getting ready before dawn. The new decade seemed fully underway, and it was possible to imagine that days were actually getting longer.

The riverbank is wildest north of the chemical plant, the banks steepened into bluffs, the river frozen right across. Rounding a bend, we saw movement on the ice and Mark got out binoculars. Three coyotes were feeding on some kind of kill in the middle of the ice, ravens too getting in on the action. All withdrew into the thickets of the opposite bank as we approached along the ice margin.

Our legs were feeling the distance by the time we reached the Wanuskewin trails network; the climb up the coulee to the main building seemed to take a long time and the very last of our strength. At a bend in the trail, we passed a porcupine sound asleep in the sun. I was looking forward to sleep myself. After nearly five hours, we reached the glass doors of the building. Inside, dancers in costume were doing a performance for visitors gathered in the main hall. It was good to see Wanuskewin open again.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park had funding challenges from its inception back in the nineties, challenges which led to its closure a few years ago. I hope they have found a financially sustainable business model, because the facility is a fine place think about sustainability in a wider sense. Wanuskewin used to be a bison-hunting camp. The bison and its culture bowed to European agriculture, a story that still unfolds today. How much potash do we need for agriculture, anyway? How much water to treat how much sewage? And what price shall we pay? The answers are not easy, so we must meditate hard upon them, and walking is good for that. “What does Wanuskewin mean to you?” their brochure used to ask.

It was too far to turn around and walk home again — at least for us. My wife had agreed to pick us up, and we waited in the coffee shop until she came walking up through the Lloyd Pinay bison sculptures of Wanuskewin’s entrance. A long walk in the sun gives us time to think about what the world ought to be. Asking for a ride home by car reminds us to think with humility, to admit how deeply we are tied to all that modern society provides as we try to negotiate with ourselves what we want versus what we need.

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