As an urban anthropologist researching change in Vancouver, I was inspired by a community event, the Soil and Water Walk, created and facilitated by Naomi Steinberg, with the financial support of the city of Vancouver. Organized as a city walk from older houses to newly built apartment buildings and ending at Queen Elizabeth Park, the walk highlighted the role of the senses and of imagination in starting conversations on land use, community building, and resilience.
September 10, 2019. We stand in a circle in the old carport of Naomi’s grandparents’ house. It is a beautiful fall evening, and the sun casts its golden light on the trees and the gardens looking upon the lane. It is a peaceful celebration; home-made apple juice from Naomi’s grandparents’ garden is poured in old, beautiful tea cups and passed around in the circle. The participants sip the juice and wait for the walk to begin. Some of the delicate cups are resting on the floor – patches of grass, soil, and cement – some await on the plastic step stool that serves as a table in the middle of the gathering. Meeting on un-ceded Coast Salish territories, Naomi reflects on land occupancy and settlement, and directs us to notice the places we inhabit. I am here, an anthropologist interested in public space and sensory ethnography, to learn more about Naomi’s Dragon Walk events, part of her public art and engagement project aimed at creating connections between inhabitants, and between people and places.
Several guides, as well as different invitations, stories, and trajectories intersect during the evening – stories about dragons, invitations to sense the water, soil, and textures of the city, reflections on the geological eras shaping this time and place, and an appreciation of mosses and trees breathing and growing alongside us. These suggestions and interventions offer not just different perspectives, but a walk and a commentary which is always already layered, a path that is also a dance and a chamber of echoes.
From the start, this is a walk shaped by collective practices of sensing and imagining. One of our walking guides invites us to imagine that we are water flowing on different surfaces – moving, sensing, walking, swirling water. Suddenly it matters where we are standing, and the textures underneath our feet. We cannot see the recently built condominiums a block away, but we can hear the traffic flowing in front of them. As water we extend our reaches: the growing city, and the sidewalks, small plaza and new apartment buildings rising to the South and the East offer impermeable surfaces, effecting where we can flow and circulate after the rains. Every tree around us – the ashes growing through the sidewalk in front of the block, the cedars anchoring the park a couple of blocks away – becomes a vertical path to the sky through its roots and living capillaries channels.
Two of the guides point to the cracks in the cement pavements. These lines and gaps become our ally as they render the floor permeable and offer us paths, imaginatively becoming part of our sensing journey.
The cracks are also fissures in time, and the beginning of storytelling. One of our guides remind us Queen Elizabeth Park used to be a volcano, deeply connected to the mountains inhabiting the current cityscape. The thought of hot, bubbling lava in the neighbourhood was what prompted Naomi to evoke the symbol and idea of a dragon, and to take it as the center-point of her community art project. She has been building a dragon, scale by scale, out of triangles of cloth painted or silk-screened by passerby and workshop participants.
A dragon is a dangerous creature, a guardian of secrets and treasures, a great character in many stories, and potentially a fiery ally. The next invitation then is to imagine this dragon flowing and roaring with us in counterpoint to the journey of the water. The power of stories and of street performance accompanies us as we follow an imaginary dragon out of the carport and through the lanes beside newly constructed apartment buildings.
As we flow into the alley and circle the block – a stream on a journey and a dragon in flight – Naomi remind us of why we are here. Naomi pays rent to the development corporation that bought her grandparents’ house, the ancient moss in the yard, the very old trees. Now they are all waiting for change – demolition perhaps, and a new condominium like the ones that have recently replaced single family houses all along Cambie Street. The corporation is run out of a house in a corner of the lot. It has a yard, the remnant of a play structure, and old ash trees towering over it. The market is down, explains Naomi, so the whole block and its entangled lives of people, trees, dragons, and mosses are suspended in time – trapped in a gap created by different processes of anticipation.
As Naomi explains this predicament, we walk in the alley by her grandparents’ house. A blue fence circles the North end of the block, barely containing the trees, vines, and shrubs growing over, through, and under it.
Circling to the front, we encounter an incredible tree. It is a tall cedar, but its trunk is composed of many sections, all rising together and creating almost a nest, and a multitude of chambers where people can stand. It is not clear to me whether it is one or many trees. It resembles the many disciplines and perspectives that are part of this walk tonight, and the way their connections make it hard to tell whether they are one or many. Naomi invites us to step into the tree, and when we do – in small groups of three or four – it is to an unexpected and breathtaking view. Cradled by the tall, narrow, live walls of the tree, I look up to see its branches alight in gold, as they catch the last reflections of the day. Naomi points to the pink head of a pin coming out of the ground, and she tells us that this is the property marker. She recalls that her grandmother really liked that it was there. How can anyone divide the land if the pin is literally inside a tree? And I wonder: is here the cedar like a dragon guarding its treasure?
It is now the moss growing a few steps from the tree that garners our attention, imagination, and sensory awareness. Naomi invites us to touch the springy, thick mat of green covering a large part of the front yard. She recounts how her childhood memories and her connection to her grandparents’ place are enshrined in the softness of this moss, in the way it felt to her skin as a baby, in its apparent perpetuity.
Anya, our third walking guide, talks about the moss, and reads passages from Robin Kimmerer’s book “Gathering Moss” (Oregon State University Press, 2003) as some of the participants take Naomi’s invitation to lie down to feel all its bouncy softness. Mosses, Anya recounts, hold water by being communal. They are tiny creatures, existing in myriad different kinds, and living in a vast array of earth’s environments. Moss grows in the “boundary layer” (Kimmerer, 2003: 16), the space between the ground and the flow of air, and through its presence it can disrupt and influence, ever so slightly, the currents above it. Can moss be a fertile image to think with, holding and connecting some of the insights offered by water? We all sit on the moss, stroking it with our fingers, listening to Naomi and Anya.
We leave the moss, journey across the street, and stop along the new apartment buildings. We walk around and in between the recently built walls, steps, and sidewalks. Naomi has been contacting the people who live in these new spaces to invite them to participate in community events. She waves to passersby and to the inhabitants in their homes to renew this invitation.
Like water we flow in the darkening sky towards the vast park to the East and South. We assemble under old cedars, facing a pond and with our backs to the upwards rising slope. Following the invitation of the walking guides, I can imagine the water flowing down the hill, imagine sensing its movement onto the ground and then beneath my feet.
The soil, the rocks, the water, the cedar all come together as we stand. Our guides talk about salmon, about the trees, waterways, roads, and quarries, but obliquely they are also reflecting on the sprawling city that can be guessed through the dark outlines of the branches in front of us. They acknowledge that this land has been inhabited, un-ceded, from time immemorial by Indigenous people. Most importantly, from this place the city becomes a footnote within larger histories and with many diverse possibilities of thinking and being. If we look at urban changes now, from this particular standing point, what would we see and say? What would it look like and feel like? What questions would we ask? Which gestures, performances, and voices have we made space for and foreclosed? Here sensing is made possible by imagination and imagining is made possible by sensuous experience.