Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Bad Day in the Park

The park was oddly quiet. Deserted in fact, which was strange given how nice a day it was. Normally there would be people.

We had been there for hours, but we were now on our way out. My wife and I were just getting to the top of the valley. Our dog, as usual, was a few feet ahead scouting out the path. It was a beautiful day -- quiet and relaxing -- but that was all about to change.

As we came around some bushes, to our left there was a group of eight or ten people looking somewhat out of place. We continued along the trail as a young girl broke off from the group and approached us.

“Do you know where you are?” she said in an authoritative, but slightly condescending voice.

I started to answer, but then I noticed that she was wearing a rather elaborate outfit. Although it was warm, she had on a vest over a number of different layers. She had a backpack, and I think water bottles strapped to her side. With her hat, she looked like a cross between a guide in the outback and one from the Rockies; like someone ready to lead a month long trek through the barren wilderness. It was a little out of place for this park. Pinned to her vest was an overly large badge with some official looking writing on it.

We’ve been hiking in the park for years. It’s a serenely peaceful place and like many of the nicer parks and valleys in Toronto it’s not packed with people. You do find hikers and dog-walkers there, but not a lot of them. Most come because they appreciate nature and want to get out of the city to enjoy it. They’re generally happy, friendly and very relaxed.

Ignoring my silence she continued. “You not allowed to have your dog off leash, it’s a Toronto by-law”, she scolded.

The “dog issue” has been going on for some time now. There is a small, yet vocal segment of Toronto that hates dogs. Sure, there have been incidents with a few careless owners, but most people in Toronto love their dogs and are over-protective of them.

Life in the city for an animal is not always the best, so those of us that treasure the health of our pets want them to do what they were born to do. Run, explore, sniff and generally enjoy themselves. Leashing them is a cruel compromise sometimes necessary on city streets or when there are lots of people about, but not in a wide open (and oddly empty) park.

The guide however, clearly didn’t see that perspective. Even through she was dressed as an outdoorsman, she was uncomfortable around our dog. I found that very unusual since the old girl is usually a magnet for animal lovers. She is a strong, happy animal that is very affectionate and most content when getting pet by strangers.

Still it was a beautiful day and I wasn’t in the mood to argue. I called our dog. She returned to us and sat patiently as we leashed her. We had already been out for several hours, so her city angst had melted away into a peaceful calm with nature. She was tired, and it was time to go home.

The guide continued “You’re not allowed to walk there”. She pointed back to the trail we had been following. “You have to stay on the trail!” She pointed to the old service road that her group had been walking along.

I’d always considered that service road to be a blight on the landscape. It was built when the area was still a strip-mined quarry and those industrial scars have yet to heal over. It gently wraps around the old toxic mining pits, which someone flooded and are now homes for the occasional bird family. I had to bite my lip as this guide somehow insinuated that any such remnant of a violent industrial past was somehow a trail. It was wide enough to allow two ATVs side-by-side and covered in old wood-chips. It was the least desirable part of the park, but it is convenient for getting from one side to the other.

A trial is a line of dirt or compressed leafs that is followed by people and/or animals. From the width of the trail, you can see its popularity. Over time, old trails fade and new ones emerge. The best trails are the faintly marked animals trails because they lead to the most interesting places. Well-trod areas are paths and something covered with wood-chips is a road. Neither of these are trails, and I doubt the sincerity of anyone dressed as a guide if they can’t distinguish that not too subtle difference. We had been following a trail.

She continued on with a rather condescending speech about how tromping around in nature will somehow break it. Apparently her organization has figured out nature and in order to allow it to be ‘natural’ people shouldn’t interact with it in anyway. We should stay on the road and only take pictures from a distance. In this rather narrow philosophy, people and dogs are no longer natural.

She had concerns that our dog might eat the animals, break sticks or otherwise interfere with her organization’s attempts to control the landscape. I came to realize that her backers might have been the people responsible for the recent alterations we had seen. Someone put up signs, poster boards and an oddly misplaced emergency life buoy far from water. Some of the trees had been prematurely cut-down. They apparently have a vision for the landscape, although the landscape has its own vision, which they don’t seem to like.

Then she gave me a pamphlet that had a map on one side and a set of rules on the other. The map showed that a group called the “Rouge Park Alliance” has laid claim to the half of the park that overlaps Toronto’s borders. Dogs have to be leashed, and people are no longer allowed to go beyond the “marked trails”. The pamphlet also points to a website on it with more information:

At this point we parted ways. My wife, dog and I headed back to the car, while the guide rejoined what I now understand to be a tour that she was leading. I controlled myself in her presence, but an examination of the group’s website revealed that other similarly accosted people -- the ones who are generally relaxed and friendly -- erupted in anger and frustration. That’s not surprising.

I supposed I could have tried to argue, but her arrogant tone quickly convinced me that any rational argument would fall on deaf ears. Critical thinking is never behind a choice to drive out the people using a park so that they can be replaced by tours. Logic isn’t used in a decision to wall off a common area. An understanding of nature isn’t driving the desire to turn a wild landscape into a manicured garden. This authoritarian agenda may be cloaked behind the cover of the green movement, but it has little to do with improving our world.

I suppose I could try to bring this to someone’s attention. I did try the Toronto Star, but with the major media under assault, they’ve drifted away from investigating the truth and over to more sensationalist coverage. It would be unwise for them to run articles that questioned any green endeavor, no matter how poorly it was conceived. It might not help to sell papers.

The city itself is unlikely to listen or care. Bureaucrats here play a vicious tug of war with each other for control of the wealth. It’s abstracted from whether or not things need to be done, or whether they are right. It’s just a game they play without regard to the consequences. Some days money flows in one senseless direction, only to be abruptly switched the next day. They play, while our city falls apart at the seams.

In the end, I doubt there is anything to do that could change this trajectory. They’ve taken over.  We’ll have to find somewhere else, farther from Toronto’s borders. Our park is becoming a walled garden available only for superficial bus tours. However in its isolation there can only be trouble. Abandon spaces tend to get filled in big cities. But the type of foresight to understand that is not something you find commonly in Toronto these days. Although I think Joni Mitchell would understand when she sang in “They Paved Paradise” the lyrics:

“They took all the trees, and put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”