The Once and Future of Paradise.
Story by Stephen Near.
Chilly morning right now. There is a mist coming off the water that makes the whole place look like the water is turning to steam. But the surface is completely still. Like glass, maybe? It occurs to me that this place seems to resist any effort to impose anything of ourselves. It exists and persists as its own pocket of nature. Just saw what looks to be a black-crowned night heron resting on a fallen tree poking out of the water. Noticing the dark red eyes and the hunched over posture. And the single white strand of a feather like a pony tail out the back of the head. The eyes are spectacular. Reminded of Dark Red Ochre pigment and the feeling you get when mixing several colours together to make something new. Acrylics aren’t as messy as oil. And they don’t smell. Which really is the most practical of reason to make the switch, I think.
On the Ravine Road Trail
A solitary chipmunk has dashed across the trail. High pitched chip chip chip call before and afterwards. Like it’s giving me a warning. Small but mighty. Brown and black with a dash of white. Always had a fondness for chipmunks. He’s perched upon a fallen tree just off the path. Skittishly staring at me. A wonder how long he’d sit there if I were to move just little? Reached into my pocket. Pulled out a box of matches, a paper clip, and a piece of chalk. How did that get in there? Put the matches away but decided to leave a marker of sorts on a nearby rock. The chipmunk is still talking to me. Don’t worry big fella. I’m just putting up a sign not to trespass in your woods here. Just writing a little thing here. Raise awareness with chalk right on this rock by the trail. And I’ll leave the paperclip. Just in case the chipmunk needs it to make some art of his own.
Waves are lapping on the shore. The sun is glinting off of each wave as it crests. There’s so many it’s like a shimmering blanket of diamonds. Stocks of cattail seem to tower over the pondweed. Like they’re the caretakers of something old and sacred. Far cry from the 50s which saw so many of these plants die off in Paradise. Growing up not far from here, I’m reminded that Dundas didn’t start out as Dundas. It was first called Cootes Paradise. Simcoe, the Governor of Upper Canada, changed the name in honour of his friend Henry Dundas. It’s unfortunate and odd. Dundas never visited North America and seems to have had some sort of sordid history attached to his name. Is that how it goes? Pave Paradise to name it after your friends? As if it means anything. Just because it sounds official and full of authority doesn’t make it so. I suppose the land can be used or abused in any number of ways but the truth of what’s in front of you can never be wiped away. This place is still a Paradise. You stand on this shore and you remain open and you can see clearly what before you. You do that and you awaken to the mystery of Being Here. And the waves keep coming in.
On the Spencer Creek Trail
How do you begin? In being or in doing? It’s a strange question and one I’m certain the muskrat swimming along the shoreline never has to ask herself. She moves through the water with a zig-zag motion. Her long, thick tail wagging behind her. She carefully keeps her nose and whiskers above the waterline. I’m reminded of a child first learning how to swim. Keep your nose up. Remember to breath. This journal is turning into a bit of ramble. Like the informality of my walk and primal roots of where I’m walking are pressing and weaving in-between the facts and memories. Not to mention the speculations and my own daydreams. Here I am is perhaps the most natural observation I can make at this time. We all have this gift of life and it’s a pretty rare thing. I can put one foot in front of the other. Feeling the breeze through my hair. Hearing the check check marble of a nearby lone red-wing blackbird. Resting on a swaying branch while scratching the back of his neck at regular intervals. It’s a common site but still feels precious and rare.
On Marsh Walk looking towards Rat Island
Leaving a mark. Anchoring my being in some way. I’ve decided to leave a sign that I was here by the shoreline. At the very edge where the water meets the land. But what to use? So much material here that all seems to be calling out to be part of some construct. Not enough stones to make a proper inukshuk. Not sure I want to. Feels too much like a style which really isn’t my style. Found a large sedimentary stone holding captive some sort of fossil. Spiral pattern of a shell fish long since dead yet still haunting our world. Jurassic Echos. I’ll place this as the foundation. On top of that I put two sticks fished out of the water. Still damp with clumps of sand clinging to their underside. Next comes a small piling of twigs and branches. Finally, there’s a feather. Fine plumage anchored in place by a hardened stock. Feather looks to be from a Canada goose or perhaps a swan? One could probably take something like this to the AGH and open an exhibition as “new” advanced, environmental art. Taming a fundamentally wild activity and letting the masses nod their heads in a agreement. Yes, yes. Very quaint. But the truth is this kind of art, if you call it art at all, must remain here. The place of creation is as important as the finished creation, itself. To be true, to be spontaneous, this kind of trail sign must stay wild and free not caged in some sort of gallery.
Imagine if there were sightings of UFOs over Spencer Creek? Or a water serpent in Cootes Paradise? Would anyone take seriously reports of a Sasquatch walking Bulls Point Trail or ghosts at Burlington Heights? Well, at least some of these things have been seen by the people living on this land. I feel bad for those who dismiss such reports as nonsense. The world is animated. It always has been. It is always unexpected and should never to be taken for granted. And now I’m seeing Great Blue Heron. Standing on the northern tip of Hickory Island. Dark grey body with white underside running from the beneath the tail all the way up to the beak which is a bright yellowish orange to match the eyes. It walks with such dainty precision. Stepping with purpose one foot in front of the other. Much like I have been doing. Now unfurling her feathers she seems a much bulkier creature. Like a being from a fairy tail. On a previous walkabout here I once heard a woman say to her companion at the site of one of these birds: “I’m having a spiritual moment”. This always bothered me. Like the experience of the spiritual was something disassociated and distinct. An isolated thing. But this place should prove her wrong. It occurred to me, like a voice or an urge from within, that materialism is a love of what is. The tangible and touchable and tasteable and edible and audible and visible and breatheable and smellable materialism that fills our sense in a place like Cootes is one and the same as spirituality. To think otherwise is to further the divide—that doesn’t exist in the first place.
One of the great fallacies of our time is the notion that humans and what they do are outside of and different from nature. This observation has everything to do with the present and future condition of this Paradise and the Bay just beyond my sight. We have to see things for what they are. We must notice what deprives our world of meaning. We must be aware of those things we think and do that threaten the planet and anything on it. Toxins pollute our earth, air and water, but also our opinions and desires and beliefs. Right now, I caught myself with the feeling of searching. Wanting to discover a totem in all of this. Some sort of symbol. But the whole of this Paradise is a touchstone. To be in this is to be the meaning. And, just like that, I encountered something I would not have seen before. At my feet, a trail marker but not my own. Several stones laid on top of one another with a collection of sticks and dried up flowers and what looks to be old fishing line wrapped around the base. I marvelled at the ‘foundness’ of this marker and had the inkling to look up. And there she was: a bald eagle. Perched proud at the top of a pine tree. Black feathers in stark contrast to the brilliant white of her head feathers. Yellow eyes that don’t even register me. She just looking for a fish to eat. That’s all that’s on her mind. This marker wasn’t made by my hands but it has touched me all the same.
I’ve ended up at Burlington Heights. The expected din of the traffic from the 403 seems to be a distant memory. York Boulevard looks to completely empty. John Turpstra wrote a beautiful book called Falling Into Place about this singular piece of land. I think of the journey that John and other artists like him have made countless times to this place. Looking East towards what the Indigenous people of this land called Macassa. Now these tranquil waters belong to what city planners call Hamilton Harbour or Burlington Bay. The names of place and the place of names. The War of 1812 didn’t start and finish in the space of 365 days. But it carries that name forever. There’s a plaque here. A marker much like the ones I made and the ones I found below in the Paradise. In 1815, a wampum was given to the people of the Six Nations. Passed to them from the British in a ritual of condolence. A marker to the end of the war and grieving over all those that were lost.
About the author: Stephen is a writer and educator originally from Ottawa. His plays have been performed across Canada at a variety of theatres and festivals. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada, the Theatre Aquarius Playwrights Unit and is an alumnus of the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen is the recipient of the 2019 City of Hamilton Arts Award for Established Artist in Arts Management and now lives in Hamilton with his wife and two children.
The following oral history video was filmed in September 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
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