“If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.”
- Wendell Berry, A Vision
A fifty-year old snake guards the place where the beach meets the water.
Its skin, made from lake-worn bricks, is carefully draped over a spine of rusted rebar. Seven feet long from head to tail, it stares you in the face as you climb out of the lake, asking what are you doing here?
It’s early January, and you’re not alone with the snake. A chickadee flies by and lands on the snake’s head, sounding an alarm call. You guess there must be a hawk nearby, but can’t seem to find it. Looking at the chickadee, your eyes float downwards. From this vantage point, you can clearly see the strata that form the land the snake is guarding. At the lowest level, concrete. Brick, scrap metal, and rebar shape the next layer. Finally, a foot or two of topsoil. Rich enough for goldenrod, dogwood, sumac, and willow to grow. All this is fifty years old, like the snake. The chickadee flies away.
Sixty years earlier, and the place you’re standing on would’ve been under several feet of water. Today it forms a 5-kilometre spit of land jutting out from the Toronto harbor. This is new land, built from the rubble of old buildings. A graveyard for Toronto architecture, but without tombstones to mark what’s buried here.
You know some of the buildings that have given themselves to form this place. A few, of course, you wish were still standing. The remains of the Temple building, Toronto’s first skyscraper, lie within the Leslie Street Spit. Twelve stories tall and designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, it was built in 1896 as the Headquarters of Foresters Financial. Oronhyatekha, the President of Foresters at the time the Temple Building was constructed, was Mohawk. Surviving residential school and the extreme racism of Victorian Toronto, Oronhyatekha became a highly successful physician, scholar, statesman, and CEO. The Temple building was demolished in 1970, but Oronhyatekha’s house still stands at 209 Carleton street in Cabbagetown.
Other buildings that were used to form the Leslie Street Spit will not be missed. The Provincial Lunatic Asylum, for example, was destroyed and deposited here. Violence, abuse, and forced labor were commonplace. Previously located at Queen and Shaw, the current CAMH building stands in its place.
You think of what else might have been buried here if things had gone differently. The destructive “urban renewal” projects of the 1960’s and 70’s saw much of Old Toronto demolished to make way for high-modernist, dehumanizing places. These projects were usually built more to serve the ego of the architect and city planners than its residents who didn’t even know what was in their best interest anyways, sad lot of them. Much of the Annex was almost destroyed along these lines in the 1970’s, to build a highway. This was the cause that the urbanist Jane Jacobs famously rallied against, protecting the walkable version of the Annex that exists today. The Leslie Street Spit was built on the bones of the old city.
A fifty year-old snake guards the place where the lake meets the inner harbor.
Its skin is also made of water-worn brick, concrete, and rebar. On its skin grow 400 different plant species; goldenrod, dogwood, sumac, willow, and cottonwood, among others. There are some 500 species of bird that call Ontario home; of this total, 300 can be found living on the snake’s skin.
Today, this snake is a life-giver. It’s become one of the largest bird sanctuaries in North America, only a 15 minute drive from Toronto’s city center. The largest cormorant colony in North America lives here, some 10,000 nesting pairs. Even visiting in early January, it’s alive. You see the several species of bird and rodent that make this place their winter home. Cardinals flash past you, bright red feathers standing out against the snow. You watch a mink hunting a family of muskrats, surprised that this small creature can take on prey multiples of its size. While you’re watching the drama unfold between the mink and muskrats, chickadees avoid and evade hawks, and the sound of geese fills one of the wetlands. You are concerned about the geese, though; they shouldn’t be here this late in the year.
The Leslie Street Spit is a good place to think about climate justice and what we’re leaving behind us. Few creatures leave the earth without a trace. The limestone that covers the bedrock of much of Southern Ontario was formed by the transfigured calcium carbonate of marine animals that swam in its shallow tropical seas 350 million years ago. The Burgess shale of British Columbia was deposited 500 million years ago as mud, trapping the fossils of Cambrian sea creatures in its wake. More sinisterly, the coal and oil that we’re using to power our current technological society is a one-time gift from 300-million year old plant deposits. A one time gift. You pick up a brick from the shoreline and wonder how future geologists will mark our time, millions of years into the future. Plastic will probably have something to do with it.
Humans are a geological force, but geological forces can be creative as well as destructive. What will our strata look like? What will be our future fossils? The Leslie Street Spit offers a hopeful reminder of one option, if we choose carefully. From the debris of lake-dredge, subway dirt, and demolished buildings, a biodiversity hotspot opened up in the heart of one of North America’s largest cities. This is a quiet reminder that nature and wilderness is not something necessarily “out there”, an immaculate place to be sheltered and kept from humankind. These preserves are important too, but it is hard to learn to love something you see only a few times a year. The Leslie Street Spit offers another model, life forming from the debris of urban reconstruction; wilderness you can come to know every day. The birds, at least, seem to like it here.
It’s late evening in midsummer, and a small garter snake slithers across the footpath.
You’ve seen the “please break for snakes” signs before, but this is the first time one is moving before your feet. Walking past the lighthouse, you breathe in the warm, heady smell of the grasses and flowers that call this place home. As you approach the water, the chatter of park-goers begins to die down beneath the conversations of crickets and cicadas.
You dip a hand in. The water is clear and warm after a day in the sun. Hiding behind a willow tree, you change into your swimsuit. Slowly, you step into the lake.
At your feet, you feel the familiar sensation of walking over brick and stone. They’re more eroded here in the water, rounder and softer than on land. Algae has grown over many of them and they’re smooth to the touch. Soon, the lake is deep enough that you can no longer stand and you begin to tread water. You look back and see several campfires lining the shoreline.
Half an hour has passed, and sunset has come and gone. The sky is black now. You climb out of the water. Behind you, city lights; in front of you, campfires and fireflies. Above you, only stars.