All things environmental

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

Riding my bike down history lane…

with one comment

IMG_3796I have developed a strange habit when I go on a bike ride around the city: I look at street addresses, and try to match them with some historical event or period.

Let me explain: I love cycling, I’m slow, I look at the scenery, the fresh air makes my brain work better; that’s when I get creative or nerdy ideas. I live near Commercial Drive in Vancouver, and the street addresses have four numbers, just like dates. This gives me a handy measuring stick for history: past civilizations, climate events, pollution episodes, what have you. History buffs, join me for the ride.

I start biking west, and just before getting to Semlin I run into the present year, a little house numbered 2015. Across Semlin, before Victoria, half-way down the block is house number 1956 – the year of my birth.

Wow – the dates that span my life cover less than a block. But what a period for the Earth: plastics, electronics, and pesticides became ubiquitous. The Anthropocene coincides with my own life span, so to speak, over a single half block.

The next houses down witness the worst episodes of air pollution in the western world, the Donora and London killer smogs, 1948 and 1952. And just past that is the beginning of motorized transport: Ford’s Model T, at 1908, and the Wright brother’s first flight, across the street at 1903. Toss in a couple of world wars in between.

Barely across Victoria, I notice a house with twin addresses: 1812, the year of the pointless war, and 1816, the “year without a summer”: global cooling caused by the Tambora volcano adds famine to the misery of war. This is also the block that sees the birth of steam engines, coal power, anddickensian tenements. Glad to see them come and go over a short block.

Across the street, 1799: Napoleon is fighting in Egypt, encourages his troops with the speech “soldiers, from these pyramids forty centuries looking IMG_3800down on you”. Hmm, I wonder how far down the street that is – Kitsilano, maybe?

Two blocks down, a 1618 address: the start of the thirty years war, where a third of the population of what is now Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, and the Netherlands perish. And it’s cold; we’re in the middle of the Little Ice Age, and witches are blamed for crop failures.

At the corner of Woodland: 1492, Columbus sails the ocean blue. The Columbian exchange brought Old World diseases to the Americas, wiping out most of the population. Nature takes over former villages and farms; some people speculate that all this carbon sequestration contributed to making the Little Ice Age colder.

I see a house at 1066 before crossing Windsor: the Normans conquer England, defeat the Saxons at Hastings. Two blocks down, Charlemagne is crowned emperor as I cross Prince Albert (at 800). This area corresponds to the medieval dark ages; it’s cold again, agriculture gets more difficult as I ride up the block; ice forms on the Nile at 829, the Rhine is frozen solid a few blocks up, at 451, allowing Attila to invade and destroy what’s left of the Roman Empire. Maybe it’s because there was a large eruption down the block at 535, but regardless it’s really cold again throughout the whole area. (As I cross St-George, it seems fitting to think this is where the legendary saint slayed his dragon, around 500.)

Baby Jesus is born across Quebec street. As I leave the common era, numbers increase again. Caesar breathes his last at 44. I’m now 22 blocks from where I started.

Around Cambie the great oak forests of Europe are pretty much gone, felled by slash-and-burn agriculture; the Celts are spreading from Germany in all directions. Rome is a little village, but there’s a bunch of smart Greeks debating: Plato and Aristotle, Euclid and the vegetarian Pythagoras. Across the street – I don’t have the exact address – Buddha is preaching in Northern India, Confucius in China.

Near VGH, around 850, there is yet another major cooling in Europe. The whole area (the four blocks from 800 to 1200) are the other, older Greek Dark Ages; the Bronze Age comes to an end, because of climate change and drought. I cross Oak as King David captures Jerusalem and creates the Kingdom of Israel, at 1010. A block down, the Greeks lay siege to Troy, at 1184 just before Alder street.

Remember Napoleon’s speech at the pyramids? Before crossing Granville, Pharaoh Thutmosis IV sleeps in the sands near the pyramids. In a dream, he hears the sphinx ask: “remove the sand that covers me, restore my former glory, and I’ll make you a great Pharaoh”. Thutmosis obliges, goes on to win a major battle (against who? I forget). But for Thutmosis, the sphinx is already an ancient artefact.

In fact, I’ll have to ride up another eleven blocks, past Larch in Kits, in the 2500 block, to see the sphinx as it is being carved out, still the largest monolithic sculpture in the world; and the Great Pyramid of Kheops is built on the same block, number 2560. Before getting there, though, I ride through the blocks 1900 to 2200, around Arbutus; these witness a terrible dry period, when the Nile won’t flood, and famine destroys the Old Kingdom of Egypt. And yes, it’s been about forty blocks since Napoleon’s pyramid speech.

Past Balaclava (the 3100 block), Ötzi the iceman dies in the Alps from an arrow wound; he’ll be found only in 1991 by a couple of hikers, climate change having freed him from the ice where he’d been laying that entire time.

Crossing Alma at the 3700 gets me into Point Grey. Quite a different landscape: we’re leaving history. From that point onwards, there is no longer any writing to guide us; the first civilization, Sumeria, invents cuneiform writing somewhere near Dunbar. But the climate is much more amiable; the Sahara is just beginning to dry up. The hippos and giraffes won’t survive the change, but people are leaving the area for the reliable waters of the Nile, creating the future Egypt.

Another ten blocks up the hill I cross Blanca; what happened in the millennium between 4700 and 3700 BC? People came and went, leaving few traces. But by 5500 (at about the University Club), the seas have risen enough for the Mediterranean to connect with the Euxine Lake. This floods a huge expanse of land and creates the Black Sea. Scholars speculate that the memory of the flood is preserved in Noah’s Ark’s story. These flood refugees speak an early form of Indo-European, and as they disperse they become the ancestors of the future speakers of Iranian, Russian, English and other related languages.

By 6200 I’m at UBC, and I’ve run out of road. People have started farming in Europe, in the Balkans. We don’t really know who they are, but they are not ice age folks; these folks wouldn’t be seen for another 50 blocks, if there were such a thing – it’s as far again as my ride so far.

I imagine continuing on a course due west; at that scale, by the time I get to Port Alberni, we’re in 60,725 BCE, in the thick of the ice age. Modern humans (Homo Sapiens) have just moved out of Africa, spreading to the Middle East; the more robust Neanderthals live in Europe, or in that part of Europe that’s free of ice, with woolly mammoths. To get to the next interglacial, I’d have to get past Tofino.

By the time I’m somewhere north of Beijing, we are four and a half million years into the past; proto-humans are emerging. Lucy, our common ancestor, is only 3.2 million years old, and her birth corresponds roughly to the beginning of the Ice Ages (the quaternary epoch), somewhere mid-Pacific.

But even if I could continue on that course, I’d still be along way from seeing dinosaurs; it would be like ten times the distance between Vancouver and Beijing. Or consider the distance that separates the Earth from the Moon (384,400 km): that would put me in the Triassic era, the dawn of the Mesozoic, the age of the dinosaurs. And yet I would need to cover that distance twelve times over to witness the birth of the Earth.

And to think I already felt insignificant by the time I got to Point Grey…

On the way back I ride past the 2015 house again. How much further can I expect to go? Another house, maybe two or three with luck; but certainly not another block. That’s how short human life is. I look at a brand new house just finished, at 2086. I won’t make it there. Little Lukas, born in 2012, likely will walk through that door, but even he will be old by then.

IMG_3802On the 1600 block, people blame witches for crop losses and foul climate. Up the 2100 block, I hope we’ll be

smarter, and that for the sake of all the Lukas’s of the world, I hope that we can minimize how we’re changing the climate. A bit of a bumpy ride ahead, kid, but I know you’re tough.

Things can change quickly, though. In her wonderful book This Crazy Time, Tzeporah Berman quotes her grandma as saying, when Berman was a bit despondent: “you need to hold on to fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.” A lifetime? That’s one city block, and a lot can happen even over a short block. There’ll be surprises.



All right, enough day-dreaming. I live at east 2528, end of the ride. Hey, isn’t that when Star Trek’s Enterprise was launched?



(Note: the information on how past climate changes affected history is out of Brian Fagan’s 2004 The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, already a bit dated but eminently readable.)


Written by enviropaul

February 7, 2015 at 5:43 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Brilliant, Paul!


    February 8, 2015 at 9:09 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: