Private and Public Realms. And then there’s Wilderness.

The way I live now — it seems to me — is almost entirely within public and private realms. I spend most of my time in the city where everything is carved out as private or public. Inside my house is private. Sidewalks and pathways are public. Cafes and grocery stores are private but open to everyone. Public libraries have rooms where I am prohibited from entering. And so on.

We’ve been partitioning lands for centuries, for millennia, though not always successfully. So what about wilderness? Where does that bugbear fit in?

To respond to last month’s comment — thanks by the way! — I agree. Wilderness as a concept is confusing. And the concept of urban wilderness just compounds the issue. There isn’t just one wilderness is the problem. And here’s the crux of it. A lot of people consider wilderness as something separate from us humans.

Here are some examples.

In The Hunger Games, the annual Panem tournament is held in a carefully controlled environment where teenagers go to kill one another. That’s one type of wilderness. In the city, maybe wilderness is wherever nature has taken over for a while, or where it’s been so long since anybody interfered, it feels wild. The tumble of growth inside a ravine. Undefined spaces along the river.

New Urbanist theory considers urban wilderness to be human-made. Constructed places we create to look messy and layered, surreptitiously seeded and supposedly left untended as though the place was untampered with. Similar to those jeans that already look faded and roughed and well-worn when you buy them — this type of wilderness is somewhat of an illusion.

In my mind, urban wilderness is both a people place and not.

Finally, there’s the classic concept of wilderness. The realm of non-humans. In other words, anything outside metropolises and towns and cultivated lands.

Living in the city, I’ve no doubt developed a city dweller view of wilderness. For me wilderness is the fringes. Unprogrammed. Overgrown edges of industrial yards. Waterways left to their own devices. Neglected underpasses. And here’s the thing. Fringes invite fringe elements.

Here’s a story.

I met Carl a few years back. There’s a sidewalk bench on the commercial strip nearby, in front of a hip women’s boutique, a Pilates studio and a bar with a patio. Carl sits on the bench a lot, I see him almost every time I pass. Every once in a while when I pass, he’s curled up with his bum out, apparently sleeping. Every once in a while I pass and Carl isn’t there, but his name is, carved into the wood.

When Carl is there, he pretty much smiles at everyone. I always smile back when Carl smiles at me with his toothless grin. How can I resist? Occasionally I stop and ask how he is doing. One day, I will stop and ask Carl about himself, about where he has been before this bench. Where he goes when he’s not on the bench. Or simply, what he thinks of when he sits there.

Sometimes Carl is less lucid, his smile unfocussed. When he’s like this people tend to ignore him. Maybe at this point it starts to feel uncomfortable that he’s always here, sitting on this public bench, claiming it this way. Despite that grin of his, the mischievous grin of a child. Maybe Carl is a citizen of the urban wilderness. Maybe they’d rather see him disappear.

One day, I do stop and ask Carl about himself. Here is Carl’s story.

The city is a burning desert, he says. He grew up north of here, not far from the tundra. When he was five they sent him to school. He was alone in a room full of children. And then the schoolhouse turned ugly and septic. He’s fifty years old now or thereabouts, he says. No child despite the mischievous smile. I ask him if he misses the tundra. But he looks away. Where do you live now? The river, he says. And then he grins.

A few more things about wilderness. It’s free. It isn’t owned. It doesn’t stoke economic fires. It isn’t accounted for in the wealth of any nation.

Happy Earth Day.


Belonging and Not Belonging

Confined to my house. So this is the life of the self-employed home worker. The flat screen, the walls around me, the keyboard with its anxious delete key. Whispers that say you’re no darn good. You don’t even know what business you’re in.

No wonder I’m restless, driven outside. Snow and wind are better.

Fresh out of grad school, I propose hanging up my shingle. I stall. I procrastinate. What services will I offer? I have a lot of green building expertise. My sister keeps calling with questions. What about this roofing, she says, what about that forced-air heating system? My brother asks about basement floors. Friends call and I have answers, plenty of them. Still, I have to ask myself. What is this business I’m in?

Now, eight years later, I’m still procrastinating. Still playing the game of what I want to be when I grow up. The writing got overly compelling, so I stuck with that. I got into editing, got into teaching creative writing, got into assembling words, whittling lines. What sort of business is that, people say.

This series of narratives about cities, about urban dilemmas, originates from that time. The narratives are still relevant. Maybe more relevant than ever.

So, back to back then. There I was, squeezed into the nook above my closet where the roof peaks, knees holding my keyboard, and the city beckoning, saying hey, come and play. But wait, I built this room. This office nook. Why would I want to be someplace else?


Excuses. Drum up a few errands. Endeavour to move things from points A to B, which is productive right? Go outside, and feel the snow and wind against my skin, and yes, shirk my fledgling business duties. Duties that lack definite endpoints. What product is my business peddling? Still stalling.

I plan a website for my business, and these narratives will somehow be part of that. My partner, whom I love to pieces by the way, believes putting anything online for free is uneconomic. So is breathing, I suppose. So is waxing poetic about derelict spaces. Some of my writer friends take a word count at the end of the day, and throw it on a spreadsheet. Day by day, month by month, they accrete this impressive word inventory.

Back to those errands. I leave the house and ride to the hardware store to buy a drill bit. On my way back, maybe I hit the grocery store and pick up a few apples, some carrots, bread, dried beans. Packaged bison from a ranch around here, tastes good at any rate. Carry everything on my back because I’m bicycling, my trajectory loops the river, the pathways are paved and snow-cleared. This city works for us cyclists — as long as we’re heading from the right A to B points.

The mountains are another distraction, more urgent sometimes, if not less convenient. From certain neighbourhoods, the mountains seem so close you could reach out and flick the snow off their summits. If this were a Swiss town, there’d be a train leaving for the mountains every couple of hours.

Confession. I’m an addict. I need regular injections of alpine wilderness. I’ve needed them my whole life. But I’m not a gas guzzling, vehicle driving, sport crazed, trail tromping, weekend mountain warrior.

No, no, no.

Except yes, it might be true. That could be me. So I struggle with that. With being green in the city, touting my politics, all the while putting on highway mileage and living the lie. In one breath I’m this highly moral person, and in the next I’m sucking up the planet’s resources, screwing the wildness I worship.

Modern guilt.

Is saying this dismissive?

For years I’ve been striving to belong in this city. I’ve tried to build a good life. Sometimes the air stinks and good old buildings get torn down. Too often the wild places call. A couple of years ago, I left our old house and moved to a new one with a bigger workspace. Occasionally I still miss the nook above my old closet.

Urban Wilderness

Riding along the canal pathway, I turn a bend and cross a little used train track.  There in the curve of the track that crosses the canal, not ten metres away, is a coyote.  We stop and hover and eye one another.  The hairs on my arms go up, but it’s not fear. Curiosity maybe? Relief?

After a long while, an eternity perhaps, the coyote moves on.  I’ve encountered wild animals here before, in the middle of this city inhabited by more than a million people.  Yet I still wonder how this coyote can thrive here. This low scrubby canal overshot by freeways invites birds I suppose. Later on I’ll pass too many ducks and geese and plovers and gulls to count.

I pass a jumble of scrap metal, an enormous parking lot with row on row of new Volkswagen Beetles, and a gypsum plant bordered by grey mountains. My throat chalks up now and I crank on my pedals, holding my breath. All along this stretch of canal, weeds seize opportunities wherever they can, bust up the pavement in the next yard, stacks of assorted steel pipe, rust tinged from rain and oxygen. A forklift skitters around the yard and amid the stacks, searching. Finally the forklift hits its target, shoves its prongs beneath a half dozen pipes and snatches them up.

In the suburb where I grew up, my ideas about wildness in the city took shape. Our neighbourhood was bordered by a steep ravine on two aspects, and on the other sides, an experimental farm. A busier road shot between us and the pig and sheep barns, carrying you north to the university or south, if you went far enough, to the further suburbs and on to the city limit. On hot summer days, the barn stink would waft through the neighbourhood. This was science.

The wild part was the ravine. We would thrash through bushes down to the creek, and pass beneath the creek’s steep embankment with its layers of white and orange earth, its scraggly trees clinging to near vertical walls. Returning home, we’d pass bright lawns and bird baths, and incongruous rows of pansies and marigolds.

We all thrive better knowing there’s some wilderness nearby. Wastelands included.