Streamkeeping

is an editor living in Vancouver, Canada; she also works at habitatprotectionproject.org. Margaret enjoys cycling around the city, looking at things. Sometimes she writes about what she sees.  

Living here in Vancouver, where we are looking to a future of intensifying forest fires and a sea without orcas, I don’t think I am unique in looking to the past for illumination and inspiration. Probably my best source of Vancouver settler history is my aunt, who moved to the city in 1920 when she was seven years old. When I ask her for stories from those days one of the things she tells me is that the tiny rivulets that now flow down our streets during heavy rains are traces of the many substantial streams she remembers as a child freely flowing throughout the city. She says that what remains of many of these streams still flows beneath the pavement we walk on every day.

Before Vancouver was paved over – when it was home to multitudes of wild creatures, was rich in trees and plants, and had fresh, clean air – it had myriad streams. They started in one of the region’s many swamps or marshes and emptied into the sea or the Fraser River through about 50 mouths. They were home to salmon and trout in abundance: coho salmon, chum salmon, pink salmon, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and steelhead all swam there. People who lived in Vancouver during these times tell stories about what it was like:

‘About the trout, you could get all you wanted. It cannot be explained to anyone now what it was like; they would not believe you. I do not think there was any place in B.C. where there so many… Every one of the little creeks along the shore here was just full of trout.’ (J.Z. Hall)

‘No-one would ever dream that during the salmon run, English Bay would be so full of fish that one could figuratively almost cross to the south shore by stepping from fish to fish…’ (Thomas A. Dutton)1

My aunt remembers that at certain times of the year these streams were so full of fish she could take her pail down to the bank and just scoop them up.

One of the largest of Vancouver’s streams was Brewery Creek, which was rich in trout. As industry developed in the city the creek came to turn the water wheel for Vancouver Brewery, producer of ‘Cascade Beer, Without a Peer’, and fish numbers declined. Another, China Creek, had over sixteen km of tributaries that came together and formed a fast-moving stream that was the home to huge quantities of trout and salmon. But by mid-century China Creek was being described in local papers as an ‘open sewer’,  ‘filthy’, and a ‘germ menace’. One creek that entered English Bay in Kitsilano was filled with city garbage by the 1920s; another in the same area became a ditch where the salmon continued to congregate under the electric street lamps. With urban development most of the city’s streams met similar fates to these, becoming putrid dump sites, unable to sustain fish. They were eventually covered up and the swamps and marshes which were their sources were turned into parks, golf courses, cemeteries and schools.

Some of the creeks received loving care from streamkeeping groups and survived, but by the time stream protection regulations were finally established in 2001 urban development had taken a tremendous toll. Less than nine percent of the streams that used to be present in the city were still flowing, with only five – Musqueam Creek, Vivian Creek, Still Creek, Spanish Banks Creek, and Beaver Creek – supporting a few salmon and trout.

Things began to look up for the streams in 2016 when the city established a biodiversity strategy, which aimed to increase the size and quality of Vancouver’s natural areas, including streams. In addition to ongoing restoration of still-flowing streams the city proposed projects to ‘daylight’ three others – that is, to redirect streams that are running below the ground into above-ground channels.

But I’m a glass-half-empty kind of gal, so when I learned about the city’s biodiversity strategy I thought, ‘Admirable, but what’s the point? A lovely idea, but really, why bother? We are careening towards ecological doomsday and nothing – certainly not a few kilometres of stream recovered by a few well-meaning citizens – is going to stop us from crashing. Look around at what’s happening: salmon runs in the Fraser and Skeena Rivers have been reduced to trickles, diseased farmed Atlantic salmon continue to escape their pens and infect the local salmon. Disaster is around the corner.’

Only now, as that impact has reached global proportions, is it possible to see that the apocalypse isn’t somewhere out there on the horizon. As far as the greater community of life is concerned, the term accurately describes an event that has been under way for 10,000 years.


Then I came across an essay by Tim Fox in Dark Mountain: Issue 11 called ‘Welcome to the Aftermath’, which gave me another way of looking at our local streams, our earth, and our possible future.2

In his essay Fox begins by laying out how, as a volcanic eruption begins humbly and expands to a cataclysmic explosion, the environmental crisis also began at a small scale 10,000 years ago when agriculture took hold. First agriculture, then urban civilisation and finally globalisation have now created ‘a world of amplifying climatic upheaval, mass extinction and the industrial toxification of every habitat on Earth.’ But the cataclysmic nature of what is taking place has been obscured by the stories we in the west have been telling ourselves – and especially the core assumptions of these stories.

That assumption is that ‘the end of the world – the apocalypse – is an event forthcoming, and that the civilised order is the only thing standing in its way.’ The evidence we give in support of this view is our expansion – in number, territory, and technology – over the last few millennia. But Fox thinks this expansion suggests something else entirely: a tunnel vision focused so narrowly on ourselves that the apocalyptic impact of civilisation on everything else on earth is invisible.

Only now, as that impact has reached global proportions, is it possible to see that the apocalypse isn’t somewhere out there on the horizon. As far as the greater community of life is concerned, the term accurately describes an event that has been under way for 10,000 years.

In other words, in relation to the countless lives degraded, displaced or extinguished by every forest razed, every grassland ploughed and every indigenous culture extirpated to make way for a field, pasture or city, the apocalypse is not some future potentiality that can, in theory, still be avoided. It is, at this very moment, in progress, like a slow motion asteroid collision or volcanic eruption.

Unexpectedly, the idea that the apocalypse is in progress is, in Fox’s view, heartening, as the post-apocalyptic world which will follow is ‘not something to prevent at all costs, but rather a very appealing goal towards which to strive. We have but to realise that the common vision of a post-apocalyptic world as a charred wasteland popularised most starkly in the Mad Max films, is exactly backwards.’ Compared to what it was before, the land that has been destroyed by industrial civilisation is a wasteland. In a post-apocalyptic world, wastelands reverse, ‘allowing the recovery of wild verdancy to commence, with humans as active, contributing participants.’ Much as there was an incredibly rapid return of nature in the Mount St. Helen’s blast zone, after the final, inevitable, explosion of industrial civilisation there could very well be an explosion of life around the world, a mass diversification.

But in order to arrive at a positive outcome we need to begin now to ‘seek ways for the unavoidable cultural transformation out of the apocalypse to unfold slowly, cooperatively and attentively rather than rapidly, violently and catastrophically.’

And that, Fox says, ‘begins with the stories we tell ourselves. So long as the prevailing stories continue to paint the apocalypse as a nightmarish tomorrow rather than as a current event, we’ll continue to prolong and worsen the very thing we are trying, with increasing desperation, to avoid. We will also continue to miss the opportunity before us: a better world.’

Putting down Fox’s essay, I find his idea that we are already well into the apocalypse and that the post-apocalyptic era is right around the corner, well, gives me a lift – while not exactly optimistic about the future, I find myself looking at it quite differently. Reading his essay may have made me into more of a glass-half-full sort of gal. And it has given me a new way of looking at our city’s little streams.

Spanish Banks Creek

Restoring streams does not mean we will escape from our current explosive situation – habitat destruction and extinctions will continue. But neither is restoration a futile enterprise, as I have tended to opine in my gloomy moments. Rather, a community’s loving action of caring for a little stream and its inhabitants is exactly the kind of thing that we can, as Fox suggests, carry with us into a positive post-apocalyptic era. So I am heartened that the restorative work already being done around the city continues, and that new projects are underway. Sources of inspiration are projects like the one recently started by community members and the city to reconnect the stream that runs through Volunteer and Tatlow Parks in Kitsilano to English Bay; amongst other things, this project will restore and enhance riparian and shoreline habitat for birds and other wildlife. I also find inspiration in the St George Rainway Project in Mount Pleasant. A community-driven collaboration involving local residents, educators, students, designers, artists, urban agriculturalists, business people, and storytellers, this project envisions using rainway runoff from adjacent properties, the street, and laneways to ‘recall’ a lost stream, named te Statlew in the Musqueam language.

We are living in times of a hot and smoky new normal. (As I finish writing this Vancouver and British Columbia are under a state of emergency, with almost 600 wildfires burning around the province. Toxic smoke from these fires blankets a region that stretches as far east as the Ontario border and well down into the US. We are told that the combination of extreme summer heat and tinder dry conditions in the forests means we should from now on expect fires of this magnitude – increasingly being described as ‘apocalyptic’ – to be typical in August). But if we can continue to tell stories about streams that died, were buried, then returned to life and flowed again, it could help us reshape our communities and our future world. In the future the work of streamkeepers may be seen as the kind of action that tipped the balance in favour of exuberant, abundant life.

 

1. Gerry Harris, Vancouver’s Old Streams, 1880-1920, Sharon J. Proctor, ed., Vancouver Public Aquarium Association, 1978.
2. Tim Fox, ‘Welcome to the Aftermath’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 11, Spring 2017, pp. 141-143. You can also read his essay on his website.

Map from Vancouver’s Old Streams, courtesy of UBC Library and the City of Vancouver. You can download a PDF of the full map here.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 (PDF)

The Spring 2017 issue is a classic Dark Mountain collection that begins with the notion of 'endings'.

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