All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Nostalgia on East Hastings

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Yesterday Dinah and I went out for a quick dinner.  A quintessential North American thing to do – except that in Vancouver, it’s most common to do it in little independent eateries than in chain restaurants.

We stopped at Sweet Tooth, on East Hastings and Nanaimo.  It’s still a café and bakery – but the owners are Thai, and now between brownies and muffins are a few home-cooked Thai offerings on the menu.  Great food, but this isn’t what this post is about.

I’m writing because the café, a bit ramshackle, full of community posters on its billboard, transported me back to the Vancouver of 20, 30 years ago.  The food was good, but simple, like it was before the foody trends.  East Hastings, between Victoria and Renfrew, reminds me of the older Commercial Drive: little Italian or Polish delis, independent stores, simple cafés.

Sweet Tooth was also selling work by a local poet, John Donlan.  His latest is called Green Man – how could I resist!

The title poem is about the archetype of the European mythical character, an invincible forest dweller with foliage sprouting from his mouth, seen in stone relief in ancient cathedrals.  The ancient myth is an embodiment of our physical nature, our being an integral part of nature.

Rock-solid in earth, we spread our arms

in love’s dumb function; high up from harm,

in punky-soft dark cavities cauterized

around old damage, warm creatures can shelter.

(Green Man, 1992)

Donlan’s musical lines are rooted in their surroundings – something any environmentalist would love.

On the mainland, clearcuts metastasize

Into neighbourhoods.

We see the way we cultivate

our heart of wildness in how they thrive,

our lots, our parcels of still-breathing earth.

(Island, 1993)

The poems, written in the 90s, are evocative of an older Vancouver, of back alleys with overgrown yards and decaying wood fences.  The shoreline is never far from the old wooden houses, redolent of seaweed and rainy smells.  It reminds me of the old Vancouver I first moved to, the Vancouver of Margaret Laurence’s The Fire-Dwellers.  But as I search for descriptions of the old lanes, the ivy-covered trees, I realize I can’t find them, even if it seems I can smell them throughout the book.  Donlan conjures up something truly magical, an evanescent vision, completely palpable but never quite graspable.

There was never enough light to hold a day

all the way through; we would grasp a moment, it slipped

away, leaving a sticky residue

of just a leaf, or grass, or ground we knew.

(At the barricades, 1998)

Yesterday’s coffee grounds go into the compost

you mull over the scraps of last night’s dream

(Mug, 1994)

Environmentalism is often woven with nostalgia – we fight rear-guard battles, we try to save this bit, preserve that place, remembering so many environmental Alamos.  Nostalgia is a universal trait: we all long for a long-gone golden age.  And it’s often misguided; it’s as if we’re hardwired to regret an idealized past, even if there was never any such thing.  And too much nostalgia just brings paralysis.  The world is marching on, environmentalism or not.

But it is worth remembering what was really there, because it is the essence of what we are striving for.  We know that a better world is possible.  It may not be the woodlot with the brook that we loved as a kid, now long gone and replaced by a mall – but it is this nostalgic vision that informs what we seek to preserve, and what we seek to create.

But it’s one thing to remember – it’s another to re-experience, and that’s something only a talented poet can generate.  The most grounded, realistic environmentalist is also a dreamer – and we all need poetry.  

(I got these pictures from my friend Mark Hamilton, a photo-journalism instructor at Kwantlen.  His Once a Day project has some wonderful gems.)

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Written by enviropaul

December 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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