The Political Ecology of Green Space in Vancouver

“Why is everything in the woods with you people?”

–Cruella Deville, Once Upon a Time, Season 5, Episode 19

For all the photographs I take and writing I do about trees, forests, theology and walking, I must admit that I also love watching movies. Netflix has been a regular guilty pleasure for me, one I eschew during Lent (a great sacrifice!). I have watched a lot of shows, and I find Netflix’s original series to be mostly very well done, interesting and timely. One thing that I keep noticing in many of the more recent shows, is that the scenery and cityscapes are very similar to my own. It is no secret that Vancouver, British Columbia has become “Hollywood North” and movies and TV producers flock here during all months of the year to set their stories in our futuristic skyline, our gritty downtown eastside and Chinatown, or, our majestic forests.

Sometimes Vancouver itself serves as a substitute city for where the film is supposed to be based. Other times, the vast forests of our Pacific home are the setting of post-apocalyptic or fantasy concept films. Interestingly enough, British Columbia’s official tourism slogan is ‘Super, Natural’ riffing on the Supernatural. Major films and TV shows have taken advantage of Vancouver’s diverse settings: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Twilight, various X-Men franchises, Dirk Gently, Deadpool, Supernatural, Jumanji, have all been filmed in or around the Vancouver area. For a full list see this very long Wikipedia page.

I grew up in Southern California, a place that is also steeped in Hollywood imaginaries. Even my own neighborhood growing up even gave a nod to fantasy. The architecture and landscaping were mostly done according to the taste of the owner, not necessarily according to the region. We had country style homes with wrap around porches and horse corrals, sleek modern glass boxes, New Mexico style adobe and cactus gardens, and Spanish colonial style with evergreen pine trees or tropical ficus. Our backyard pool gave the impression of an alpine oasis, in the middle of a Mediterranean desert. Pine, palm or eucalyptus trees lined many of the streets so that we felt like we were in a land of eternal green and eternal summer.

And of course we kept our lawns pristine year round. Nature was malleable because we had the climatic flexibility and the water resources to adapt the place to our preferences and imaginations. And don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! My neighborhood was a lush arboretum of vastly more tree and plant biodiversity than ever existed before settlers arrived. There were also many fruit trees as well: Pomegranate, kumquat, fig, loquat, persimmon, orange, lemon, apple and nectarine trees, all of which we enjoyed as roving bands of pre-teens.

Three shows that I have watched in the last few years have really got me thinking about the way our imaginations shape nature in a place like Vancouver which has world class natural beauty. Once Upon a Time, a clever mashup of just about every classic European and Disney fairy tale with a modern and overtly feminist spin. The 100, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series where the last humans fight to survive on a toxic planet among hostile rivals; and The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), a fascinating historical sci-fi drama that imagines a North America where Japan and Germany won WWII. However, an alternative reality which shows a different outcome to the war has been captured by a series of 16mm films which a small but dedicated resistance must gather at any cost.

Each of these series makes use of the urban and forested landscapes here in BC. But what is it about this landscape and our modern understanding of nature that makes British Columbia such a hotspot for sci-fi and post-apocalyptic themed shows? I propose that our modern understanding of nature as ‘greenspace’ is the imaginative descendent of our more overtly colonial-era notion of Terra Nullius, or, nobody’s land. The only way we could be convinced of a landscape’s authenticity in a film is if it holds a cultural significance that is stripped of its previously rich cultural meanings. During colonization and conflict between European powers, if land was understood to be unoccupied, it was annexable by the state. Roman law applied a similar concept to abandoned building or recovered slaves. It was basically a legalized version of finders-keepers.

Joseph Trutch was the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. He believed that First Nations peoples did not actually own the land, because they didn’t have the concept of private property, so it was fair game for settlers. Governor General James Douglas characterized indigenous people as “mere wandering denizens of the forest.” Douglas like virtually all settlers who arrived here, could not see just how lush with food production zones the place actually was. What they saw was unkempt, untidy and un-owned wilderness. This is why much of British Columbia territory remains ‘unceded’ today, because no treaties were seen as necessary in lands where no one lived.

As is commonly known, many indigenous communities were decimated by diseases even before settlers arrived in BC, but during their pre-colonial civilization, which had been more or less intact for 10,000 years. First Peoples held clan and kin-based usufruct rights to land as berry, salmon, hunting or other food gathering territories. These were for the most part demarcated and understood by First Peoples.

In fact, what the Europeans mistook for vacant wilderness, for Terra Nullius, were the neglected remains of deeply human-influenced food forests, pharmacies, woodshops and shore gardens. As disease swept over the region, traditional food production methods and zones became neglected. Before disease hit, massive old growth Western Red Cedars were used for cordage, canoes, and long house planks. Fire was used to keep trees out of hereditary berry patches and camas bulb gardens. Herring and salmon spawning sites were enhanced with tree branches, which created more surface area for fish to lay their eggs on. The local breed of Salish Wooly Dogs (now extinct) were bred for their hair, and packs of the adorable creatures sometimes occupied entire islands. In addition, Coast Salish and inland peoples actively cultivated groves of crabapple and hazelnut trees which were traded north to south making their way as far as what is now the Yukon Territory. And lastly, thousands of kilometers of coastline were modified to enhance clam productivity by carrying large rocks to the low tide mark so that steeper shorelines would eventually level out, creating more surface area for clams to breed.

In addition to their pervasive agro-ecological influence, for all First Peoples, the features, creatures and places of the land were alive with personhood, significance and story. These are not my stories to tell, but I can say that for example, many creatures such as orcas, wolves, frogs, ravens and bears were totems of family lineages, and were thus often portrayed on long house, shaman and village poles.

Prominent geological features, rocks and peaks were often understood as ‘transformer sites’, or sites where legendary people and creatures were either punished or rewarded by supernatural beings and consequently converted into the feature as it appears today. This is widely understood to be the origin of Skalsh rock (called Siwash rock in signage), located off the shore of Stanley Park. For geologists, the rock is a basaltic obtrusion of volcanic origin, which resisted erosion in the mostly sandstone foundations of the rest of the park. A large Squamish village was located in Stanley Park, and for Coast Salish peoples, the site commemorates the transformation of Skalsh by Xaays, a supernatural being, to memorialize the ideal of Fatherhood and the warrior. However, various nations have their own stories associated with this rock.

Other places such as obsidian deposits are places where Thunderbird shot lightning from its eyes. Other sites are the very places where humans emerged from the watery chaos of their respective creation stories. The land was not the background of the human story, it was itself an actor bursting with uses, meaning and stories of its own.

This is what I mean when I marvel at how easy it is for us to see the forest as a kind of neutral space. Vancouver has maps with detailed streets and addresses, but forested areas are often blocks of monochromatic ‘green space.’ This simplified representation renders these rich places as essentially culturally neutral, primordially natural where we stressed out urbanites can come to relax, hike, run or walk our dogs.

If Once Upon a Time had shown a scene of Mount Rushmore, and claimed it was an ancient pagan shrine to unknown deities, Euro-North Americans would understandably balk unconvinced. That is simply not believable given what we know about the presidential persons whose likenesses are carved into the living rock of that monument. Yet, if Once Upon a Time flashes a scene with a Musqueam or Squamish Transformer site that is clearly identifiable within those worlds, we settlers see beautiful scenery. This goes for The 100 and Man in the High Castle as well. A post-apocalyptic landscape and an imaginary Nazi regime are just as believable in these forests to eyes that see only green space.

Clearly I too enjoy spending time in these beautiful places, and I have gotten to know their contours and inhabits to some degree during my 6 years in Vancouver. I have done this largely within my own Western scientific and religious paradigms, both of which have served me quite well. I am not seeking to fully enter into the worlds of indigenous peoples, or assume their significance. However, I would like to be better equipped to respect the rich cultural history of this landscape, just as I would if I entered a cathedral for the first time. While some sites should not be publicly known because of their sacredness, others could be more widely popularized through interpretive signs, greater cultural and historical awareness campaigns and bi-cultural place naming initiatives. And perhaps some of these shows could begin with territorial acknowledgements of the traditional territories where their heroes are winning hearts and minds.


What’s in a Name? Decolonizing Personal Spiritual Ecologies

Standing on the creaky porch of Park Butte fire lookout, it felt like I was face to face with the southern slope of Mount Baker. Thirty miles east of Bellingham, Washington, on this 4th of July, the trail had been practically empty. I stayed the night in the lookout, and watched the colorful flicker of fireworks on the coast below mirror the twinkle of the stars above. As I began my hike down the next morning, I wanted somehow to reverence the commanding presence of the mountain in whose close proximity I had slept. I asked myself a simple question: Does it matter if I think of the mountain by its Settler name? Or, should I refer to it by its Lummi name: Kulshan?

I didn’t really know anything Mr. Baker, except that he was English; or much about the word Kulshan, except that it was one of the hip new breweries in town. So, I mustered a hasty sign of the cross, brought my hands close to my heart, and said ‘thank you.’

After my trip, I began to do a little research. Mount Baker is a 10,700 foot, relatively young at 100,000 years, active strato-volcano. Which means it is made up by layers of igneous rock, lava and pumice. It is glaciated, and snow-covered year round and has one of the highest snowfalls in the world.

Coast Salish peoples have dwelt in the area for at least 14,000 years. The Lummi word for the peak is as I already knew Kulshan, but it doesn’t mean White Sentinel, or The Shining One as I had heard. The word means something closer to ‘puncture wound.’ For the nearby Nooksack people, Kulshan actually refers to the area around the peak, used for hunting and gathering. Kweq’ Smánit, which simply means ‘white mountain’, is the name for the summit.

There are at least two stories associated with Kulshan. A 1919 ethnography recorded a retelling of the story of the Thunderbird, a supernatural being who dwells in the tops of mountains. A Lummi man related

“Thunder is caused by a great bird…the thunderbird is many hundreds of times larger than a fish hawk. It is so large that it can carry a large whale in its talons from the ocean to its nest….This huge bird has its home yonder on Mt. Baker, where you see the clouds piling up now. Whenever this bird comes from its nest and flies about the mountain top it thunders and lightnings, and even when it is disturbed in its nest it makes the thunder noise by its moving about even there…. The lightning is caused by the quick opening and shutting of its powerfully bright, snappy eyes and the thunder noise by the rapid flapping of its monstrous wings” (Reagan, 1919, 435).

The Thunderbird is a being in most if not all Coast Salish cosmologies, and it is often both a respected and feared presence in the land that demands respect and sometimes placation through the burning of ceremonial fires. For the Squamish peoples, the rich deposits of obsidian are places where lighting that shoots from thunderbirds eyes hit the earth.

The ethnographer Charles Buchanan in 1916, recorded another story of a man named Kulshan who had two wives; one beautiful, and one kind. Kulshan loved the kinder wife more, and the beautiful wife grew jealous and decided to leave him, hoping he would realize what he lost and come after her. As she walked south, she turned back many times to see if Kulshan was looking, and as she got farther away she had to stretch higher and higher to see Kulshan. Eventually she made camp on a high outcropping and stared back at Kulshan, waiting for him to come. Eventually she turned into the peak we today call Mount Rainier, and he into Mount Kulshan.

During the age of conquest, the mountain was sketched by Gonzalo Lopez de Haro on a Spanish voyage in 1790. He named it ‘La Gran Montaña de Carmelo,’ in reference to both Mount Carmel, but also the Carmelite Order, home of Saint John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. In 1792, it donned the now familiar name of Englishman Joseph Baker, who was Captain George Vancouver’s Lieutenant.

Over the years, Anglo mountain climbers, ethnographers and history buffs have been in favor of renaming the peak Kulshan. Proof of this are the dozens of local businesses, mountaineering clubs, or botany societies who have taken it on as a namesake. But in doing so are we paying deference to an authentic place-name tradition? Or feeding our own ideas about indigeneity? Perhaps both.

Personal Spiritual Ecology

Acknowledging indigenous place-names certainly look toward a reconciliatory stance, provided it is accompanied by respect for sacred sites, more resource management autonomy, and Treaty and Title rights if possible. However, phenomenologically, a place-name does not automatically give us admittance to the world the name upholds. For example, Coast Salish place-names are fairly simple descriptives: ‘white mountain’, ‘place for herring fish’, etc. It is rather, the activities of dwelling that accumulate around those place-names that give rise to an experience of the world. This is beautifully illustrated of course by Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places but unlike Basso’s semiotic approach, Tim Ingold’s insights show us that landscape is not just a cultural layer we project onto the physical world, but the world itself. While I might be able to understand or recall certain Coast Salish place-names or stories, I must admit that I do not dwell in that world, and an attempt to do so for my own academic or spiritual curiosity carries with it the weight and suspicion of the colonialism of the last 200 years. In addition, in retelling these stories, there is the danger not only of losing details in translation, but importing my own world into the telling. And yet, are there any ontologies, especially today, that are not plural? Hybrid?

Learning about the history of the mountain, I confess that Mount Carmel resonated most with me. I am of course aware that to stick with ‘Carmel’, is to return to where we started, to run the risk of perpetuating imperial Christianity; but it is also to connect the place to the rich contemplative spiritual tradition of which I am a practitioner. John of the Cross’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, features the mountain as a symbol for our longing for union with God.

Lastly, regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, the land can speak to us in ways that we cannot always predict. I recall sitting in a discussion group at a Salish Sea conference. I made some point about place names. A Nooksack woman responded patiently that it was not we who named places, but the places themselves that gave people their names as gifts when they are ready. Translated into contemplative spirituality, this is the practice of attention, or, Prosoche (pro-soh-KHAY) in Greek. Being present a person, place, or organism, we listen to what they might say about the world, about ourselves, or about God. Perhaps it is with this practice that new names and thus, new worlds might arise.

This paper was presented at the recent Mountains and Sacred Landscapes Conference at the New School for Social Research in New York City.