Don Dialogue Transcript
On May 25, 2016, I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in Evergreen's Don Dialogue "Balancing Use and Ecological Health in the Lower Don." As a few people have asked if I could make my remarks from that evening available, you'll find the transcript below:
I think tonight is important.
Over the last two years we have seen a growing momentum in the discourse, dialogue and dreaming about our city's natural areas: Toronto's Tree Planting Strategy, Parks Facility Plan, and Ravine Strategy; Evergreen's Don River Valley Park; Toronto Botanical Garden's plan for Edwards Gardens & Wilket Creek; new and re-invigorated "Friends of" groups like the Friends of Glen Stewart Ravine and the Friends of Taylor Creek Park; The Crombie Report; Environmental Defense's attempt to stitch our ravines in to the Greenbelt. It seems like everyone's talking about our ravines and urban forests - but what is it we are all saying?
As some of you may know, I recently wrote a book on our ravines. In doing so I had to take a deep and critical look at our use of these places, their relationship with our population, and their ecological health both past and present. But I also had to take a deep and critical look at language, and how we use it to convey both intellectual ideas and emotional context. Words - not just their definition, meaning, and implications, but the very impact of their frequency and of their omission.
At meetings like the Chief Planners Round Table on Ravines, previous Don Dialogues, and various other events across the city, I've heard important and inspired talk of how our ravines can connect communities, how they express the identity of the city, how they could intersect with art and culture, their recreational opportunities, their role in an overall transit plan for this city, and their role as "green infrastructure."
At these meetings, when they opened the floor to the audience for questions, the first was always about the preservation, protection, and enhancement of nature in the city. People want to know what will be done, and why so little time was spent talking about it that evening. The answer was always the same - nature is the "first principle" for everything we are doing in the ravines.
Do our words betray our allegiances?
By treating conservation and preservation as merely a given, the core, the foundation, the first principle, are we undermining their importance and devaluing nature itself? By allowing words like "access" and "recreation" to be repeated more often than words like "ecology," "biodiversity," and "native species" are we accidentally cultivating an impression of lesser merit? When we call places like the Don Valley an "asset," or when we invoke phrasing like "ecological goods and services" and "natural capital" are we speaking to citizens about something they love, or to taxpayers about something they finance?
So tonight is important.
In our city-wide conversation about our natural spaces we cannot afford to take for granted words like "trees," "birds," "butterflies," "biodiversity," or "old growth." They are the words that best invoke our sympathies, ignite our passions, and forge emotional connections with these places. They are also the words that best express their true benefits and beauty.
The Don Valley, despite the turmoil and tragedies that have befallen it over the centuries, still provides us with some of the largest tracts of continuous habitat in the city.
It is home and hunting grounds to many of Ontario's endangered and threatened species: butternuts and monarchs; chimney swifts and barn swallows; The rusty-patched bumble bee; there are even rumours of Blanding’s turtles.
It is also home to regionally rare species and species of regional concern: greater straw sedge, thin-leaved sunflower, black-fruited mountain-rice, leatherwood, poke milkweed, slippery elm, and Hitchcock’s sedge.
It shelters and sustains a wealth of more commonplace flora and fauna as well. Tiger swallowtails flit amongst the birch trees as eastern commas hunt for nettles along the river banks. Red-tailed hawks snatch up unsuspecting green frogs and American toads. Coyote pad through the mud next to eastern skunk cabbage. Great blue herons daintily pick their way through the shallows, watched from afar by curious red fox. Northern Flickers hunt for ants amongst the spring ephemerals.
The Valley sustains a chain of life that spreads to every corner of our city and beyond, populated by species both very common and exceedingly rare. In visiting these places, we get to share in nature's great blessings: cool breezes on a stifling summer's day; an undulating artistry of colour and texture; our thumping heartbeat as the trail crests a hill; a wealth of silence and sometimes even solitude, two of the rarest treasures in a city like ours.
So how do we balance use and ecological health in places like the Lower Don?
First, we must recognize that balance here is not an act of equalizing weight and distribution. It is an act of prioritization, of determining appropriateness, and of learned consideration. Achieving balance means ensuring that our use does not come at the expense of those plants and animals that depend on these wilds for their very existence. It behooves us to brings out the best of what's here rather than trying to merely substitute one value for another.
So, when considering bringing art into our natural spaces we should remember that the life and landscape of Toronto's wilds have inspired the imaginations of such renowned artists as Doris McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Atom Egoyan, Larry Richards, and Ernest Hemingway. The balance here is between the celebration of art and encouraging its very creation.
When envisioning recreational opportunities we should be reminded that recreation comes in many forms: bird watching; wildlife viewing; hiking; quiet contemplation; or even just the simple joy of listening to a chipmunk trill, or water babble over the rocks. Recreation is not just exercise and engagement, but also leisure, relaxation, and passivity. The balance here is in strengthening the opportunities that this environment already provides rather than trying to innovate new and novel approaches.
When looking to improve our ability to connect with our local communities we should also aim to improve our ability to connect with our natural world, to offer people the ability to connect over fundamentally different things than they would in a playground, museum, or community centre.
When laying new trails we should consider not just where we wish to go, but where nature needs us not to: where creatures might den and nest; where native species might thrive; where food for the denizens of the valley might soon establish a foothold; where erosive forces may threaten the land; where endangered or threatened species might, one day, call home.
In calculating the economics of our actions we should not only think of the costs and benefits of future initiatives, but honor the time, money, and energy spent in the past by groups like the Task Force to Bring Back the Don and countless citizen volunteers; in places like Chester Springs Marsh and the Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve; in trailside plantings, and invasive weed pulls. We must acknowledge the generosity not only of new volunteers and sponsors, but of the volunteers and sponsors who have helped make what we hold so dear today a reality.
In enhancing the identity and reputation of this city we must look not just to the criteria forged in days gone by, where vibrant nightlife, a stock exchange, and a major league sports franchise were enough to earn you the moniker of World Class City. In an era of green bins & green roofs, in the face of Climate Change, we will be judged as World Class not merely by the quality of life and opportunity enjoyed by our citizens, but by all life in this city; not only by the height of our skyscrapers but the height of our trees; not just by the diversity of our festivals, but the diversity of our species; not just by our built environment, but by our natural environment; not just by the way we work together, but by the way we work with all of nature.
The unique benefits and beauty of places like the Don Valley depend exclusively on the preservation and enhancement of our existing urban wilds. They require the continuity of habitat that only places like the Don Valley can ever hope to provide. They require the protection, caution, and care of our better selves.
So tonight is important.
As we celebrate our good fortune at having place like the Don Valley here in the city, as we encourage others to enjoy these remarkable places, we must be sobered by the thought that close to half a million more people may call the city home in the next decade alone. A river of flesh and bone, every bit as transformative as the glacial waters that carved out our valleys and ravines in the first place, may soon descend upon the Lower Don. To face the challenges that this alone will bring it will not be enough to craft good policies, appropriate use strategies, and resilient ecologies. Unless we, as citizens, take direct responsibility for our own actions, no amount of regulation, planning, bylaw, checks, or balances will prove sufficient to protect them.
We cannot armourstone against ignorance and negligence. There are no gabbion baskets that prevent belligerence.
As visitors to these places, as members of communities that connect to them, we must now take personal responsibility for our interactions with these natural spaces. We must practice responsible use, and exercise restraint and self-regulation, or we risk loving these places to death.
We could spend an entire evening taking only about responsible use, but as that kind of time is unavailable, I'll just point to five simple things each of us can do to directly help the health and vitality of our city's natural spaces.
1. Stay on official trails.
When we strike out into the unknown the slight evidence of our passage is an invitation to others, igniting their curiosity and soliciting them to follow. As each does, a few bent leaves become hardened soil in which nothing will grow. An impromptu foot trail soon widens to be indistinguishable from an official one. Without proper erosion control measures along the trail the banks soon crumble under the weight of each passing foot. Without proper water control measures a tangle of bypasses soon appear as people seek to avoid wet shoes. Each footfall becomes a hammer blow to nearby nesting and breeding populations. Our unforeseen presence threaten ESAs thought adequately protected when the nearby paved path was set to curve away from them.
2. Keep dogs on a leash.
When our dogs wander off trail their joyful romps can: compact the soil; increase erosion; damage native plant and animal populations; damage rare or endangered plant species; disturb wildlife nesting sites; and spread the seeds of invasive species. Off-leash dogs terrify some people and ruin the peacefulness they have come to these places to enjoy. No one likes to think that their furry best friend could be harming the very place they have come to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life, but I've yet to meet a conservationist in this city that didn't list off-leash dogs as one of their top concerns.
3. Leave what we find where we find it.
Those raspberries may be delicious, but life in our ravines knows no farmer's market, no grocery stores, no supermarkets. The food that is there is all that sustains them and we take it at their expense. Similarly, the roots and leaves of plants like blue cohosh and bloodroot may have centuries of use in native Canadian medical tradition, but in our ravines they are far more sacred left right where they grow.
4. Follow the signs.
So simple and so effective. When the sign says "stay out of the wetland," stay out of the wetland. When the sign says "Cyclists dismount," cyclists, dismount. These signs were not erected by some grand cabal of tented-finger bureaucrats plotting to ruin everyone's fun. They were put up in recognition of ongoing problems, as reminders of responsible use at times when it matters most, and in recognition of the concerns of your friends, family, neighbours, and local community.
5. Give more than we take.
There are countless ways to give back to these places we hold so dear. Scores and scores of stewardship opportunities are organized each year by the City, the TRCA, and many local charities. Through them you can plant native trees; pull invasive species; clean up garbage; help to maintain trails; and help to close down desire paths, bike jumps, and other inappropriate use in our City's wild spaces. Perhaps more than any other action, it is stewardship that has the potential to create those vital connections between communities, people, and our natural world that we are all searching for.
So tonight is important.
For us to balance use and ecological health in any of our city's natural areas we must give ecology the time and attention it deserves in our discourse, dialogue, and dreaming; we must choose the right words; we must treat nature with respect; we must tread carefully and choose wisely; we must move past policies of "no net loss," to a future of net gain; but, above all else, we must all be stewards, shepherds, advocates, and allies. For here in the Don Valley, as is the case with all of our natural spaces, the greatest threat is our own irresponsibility, and the greatest mercy, our care.