Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Earth Works Like a Poem

Winnipeg is infamous for its 1919 general strike, but what really moves us to action is trees.

"If you ever want to lose elected office in Winnipeg," said [former] mayor Glenn Murray wryly, "say something bad about a tree."
Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection

Case in point:

In 1957, the city announced that it would cut down a large elm that stood in the centre of Wolseley Avenue and Greenwood Street. It had been planted in 1860 by horticulturalist and market gardener Mary Ann Kirton Good but by the turn of the century it was considered a traffic hazard.

As city crews arrived, a group of women led by Mrs. Borrowman, gathered around the tree: “They are going to have to chop us down too if they want to chop our tree,” said the women.

According to George Siamandas’ Winnipeg Time Machine:

“As the city employee approached the tree with his buzz saw, an old grandmother with an axe shouted out ‘We don't think you should do this.’ A crowd of three hundred had gathered to support the 12 women that were now guarding the tree. [Newly elected mayor Stephen] Juba then emerged from the crowd and was convinced by the women to find a way out of it. On the premise of public safety, Juba put an end to that day. Mrs Borrowman kissed the mayor on the cheek and invited him to her place for tea.”

On Hallowe’en 1958, the tree was dynamited by an unknown arsonist. Mrs. Borrowman asked to have a piece of the tree so she could have an “electric lamp made.”

Case in point, this one from 2014:

There is a 25-metre elm in front of Patricia Kuzak's West Kildonan house.

In April, the 76-year-old woman ran out of her house barefoot and in her bright red housecoat to rescue her tree. Sewage and drainage upgrades were being conducted by city workers and a private construction crew and the hole they were digging was potentially damaging the tree’s roots.

According to an article in the WinnipegFree Press by Ashley Prest, Kuzak said,

"I said, 'Get the hell out of here. I'm phoning the press, I'm calling the city, I'm getting an arborist out here.' And they did," said Kuzak.

Afterwards, Kuzak put signs on the boulevard, alerting workers to the perennials planted under the snowdrifts. She and her husband plan to monitor the tree closely for any signs of damage.

"I told Bob, if that tree is down, I'm down," Kuzak said. "The tree is more important than the house. You can build a house. You can't build a tree."

So it should be clear that I come from a place that is incredibly proud—and destructive of—urban nature.

People shake their fists at crows, cankerworms, squirrels, merlins (Oh the poor poor songbirds!), and deer in their yard eating their perennials down the ground. Men in the city’s employ wield chainsaws exuberantly and back their machines into boulevard trees.

But they also fall in love with the peregrines who rear young on the very tops of our downtown hotels—it mimics the cliff habitats they prefer—watching them via webcam. They feed the winter-thin deer, despite pleas from city naturalists to ‘let nature take it’s course.’ They tell those men in machines to get the fuck away from their trees, and, when the trees finally succumb to disease or old age, come out of their houses to watch the chippers work. (The children echoing: Vroom!)

After a childhood vacationing in a shack on an island in Minaki, after an adolescence rowing on the Red River, with its obnoxious waterskiers and naked men on the riverbanks, I’ve realized that I’m most comfortable in spaces that neither completely urban nor completely natural.

Where I work is who I am. As such, I specialize in urban/nature poetry.That is, I work at the following questions: What’s the difference between wild and tame, natural and unnatural?

Also, my urban/nature poems all have people in them. Because they’re a part of the narrative too. And not just ambivalently mourning the birds that smashed against our windows or the neighbourhood cat mowed down by a car. But living in that space with the urban adaptors, the commensal, the exotics, the drought-resistant natives. That nature isn’t something you visit or adjacent to a rented cabin-in-the-woods.

So you might say that I have both impulses: tree-hugger and arsonist. Mycologist and stomper-of-boulevard-mushrooms: They might be poisonous! The children!

My poetry doesn’t have an overtly ecological bent. But I think of my poems as a refocusing of a particularly grimy lens, as a gesture towards the complexity at work on a patch of land, whether it be urban/rural or urban/suburban.

* * *

And then I read my poem "Bicker" from Stowaways, which is infested with merlins and housecats and neighbours.

* * *

These is an ever-so-slightly cleaned-up version of my notes for my first Under Western Skies panel. Note that I did not directly answer the panel's implicit question. But other poets did. And, together, we provoked a wide-ranging conversation about art-making and the self and nature that was, well... completely invigorating.

No comments: