#816 Walking through the pandemic
Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests
by Ariel Gordon
Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2019
$20.00 / 9781928088752
Reviewed by Jaime Yard
It took me an inordinately long time to read Ariel Gordon’s Treed. This does not mean that it isn’t a good book. In truth, I think the pace may have been set by Gordon herself. I now feel like Gordon and I have spent significant time together sharing long strolls and playdates with our kids in the park, for this is the experience — or at least the effective illusion — engendered by reading Treed. Through sixteen essays, the author invites us to move with her on wooded walks following her attention to particular histories and signs of life within, as a way of getting to know the urban forest.
For Gordon, the urban forest is “all the trees and shrubs on public or private land within city limits” (p. 12), a definition that reminds us of how ecological relations exceed human systems of organization. In these essays, a trail through the woods becomes a site for contemplating the ethics of everyday life in a more-than-human-only community of care. For example, the paths in my local urban forest have been rather more crowded lately. Today, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, is a date that positions the writing of this as over a month into COVID-19 social distancing measures. Like Gordon, I am an avid walker-hiker on urban trails and in provincial parks. Time has opened up lately for local urban forest wandering, and I want to suggest here that Gordon offers us some tools for making this newfound national pastime a lot more interesting.
At the time of my writing, whole streets that provide access to popular hikes in North Vancouver have been blocked by local authorities in response to the lack of adherence to social distancing measures. Stephen Hui, the author of 105 Hikes In and Around Southwestern British Columbia, recently published an article in The Georgia Straight entitled “Hikers, Please Stay the F Home,” urging readers to explore their own backyards and follow the BC Government advisory to stay out of the wilderness. First responders don’t need to be rescuing hikers with sprained ankles right now, when they have other vital work at hand. Whatever urban forests are accessible and available from our homes, we are about to get very familiar with them — perhaps, for some, for the very first time.
Through Treed, Gordon explores an itinerant philosophy that develops from walking the same trail many times. She urges us to embrace walking as a good unto itself, and one that requires no other justification or outcome. She juxtaposes this inherent value with the performance anxiety provoked by the act of writing:
When I sit down to write my goal is to write something. Something worth all the sacrifices of the writing life, which means I am inevitably and irrevocably disappointed, even if I wind up with a couple of poems or even this essay. But when I go for a walk in the forest, my goal is to go for a walk in the forest. And so, having met my goal the moment I get under its trees, I’m content to spend two or three hours wandering around, getting sort of lost in the woods (pp. 1-2).
While Gordon opens with this lament that writing can’t possibly be as pleasurable and automatic as the gratification one gets from going for a forest walk, Treed is her best attempt to bridge the gap between the two activities. The book begs a question that I think has been on a lot of minds lately: how might things change for the better if we can really start paying attention to the systemic effects of our lives, and embraced more fully our capacity to care and to be affected?
The pages of Treed are populated by fascinating interlocutors and friends. From Icelandic-Métis poet Jónína Kirton, a fellow Winnipegger; to best-selling author John Vaillant; to Mike and Anna, Gordon’s partner and daughter (her roots travel with her through forests not only in Manitoba but also in Hamilton, Banff, and rural British Columbia). As I read Treed, I made cryptic notes about what I might write up in this review — only to find that in the next essay Gordon touched on the very thing I thought I might say or add. “What about new experiences of nature mediated by technology?” I asked myself while reading through the early pages, only to find a playful essay “Pidgeys, Pigeons and Inside Cats,” that explores how Pokémon Go augmented Gordon’s urban forest wanderings with Anna, to resist any romanticized notion of a pristine nature or a screen-free childhood.
Early on I wondered, “What about histories of settler-colonial dispossession and erasure in these landscapes?” only to be surprised by a careful and reflexive dialogue between Gordon and Kirton about intergenerational effects of the Métis Scrip system upon local communities and identities. In a later essay, Gordon includes a nod to Canadian literary giant Rudy Wiebe and his essay, “The Sweet Fiction of Owning Land,” flagging that she is all-too-aware that much of our lives are based on expedient but ultimately destructive colonial enclosures.
It has become a staple of discussions of decolonization that settlers need to explore their own identities, histories, and attachments in order to interrupt the processes of cultural appropriation and assimilation so often confronted by the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Gordon acknowledges that “[e]ven though people’s tenure on this land is the thinnest layer of ice, like thousands of people before me, I’ve walked the riverbanks in all seasons” (p. 87). She describes volunteering to salvage fruit from unharvested backyard trees, mushrooming, and foraging dogwood bark for basketmaking, implicitly suggesting that these attachments can be the basis of better settler-Indigenous relations, for they are based in making a home rather than simply a profit from place.
Which begs the questions: what if more of us were to take the time, as Gordon has, to know where and who we are in more historical and relational depth? When to intervene and interrupt parasitic and abusive relations, such as those of cankerworms to elms, or Jian Ghomesi’s to women (both are covered in the text), and when to let be and cultivate curiosity about the significant otherness that surrounds us?
Equal parts reminiscent of the relational ecological work of anthropologist Natasha Myers on High Park in Toronto, or of eco-critic Catriona Sandilands on Point Pelee National park, or BC author Theresa Kishkan’s deep descriptive sensibility for landscape and communing with animals, Gordon’s Treed enriches both the places it is written about and the reader’s attention to the places where we dwell and wander.
Gordon’s perspective is perhaps exactly what we need in this spring of 2020 to turn urban forest walking — which some might experience as an obligatory pandemic-time outdoor activity — into the more significant, if slow, work of learning to be more present and responsive in the here and now. Therefore I highly recommend that you read Treed – and as slowly as needed.
Jaime Yard is a full-time faculty member in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, and the Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies program at Douglas College in New Westminster where she was honoured in the fall of 2019 with a faculty-wide Humanities and Social Sciences teaching award. A cultural anthropologist specializing in environmental anthropology, she is interested in Anthropocene feminisms, the anthropology of work, and any story you might have to tell her about herring. She has published in the journals TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies and Emotion, Space and Society. She is currently socially isolating with family in Burnaby on the traditional and unceded territories of the Tsleil Waututh, Musqueam and Squamish Coast Salish Nations.
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