Practicing hope and buying time

By Gene Miller, March 1, 2016

A meditation while picking up litter in the perfected landscape of Beacon Hill Park.

Beacon Hill ParkIRISH SONGWRITER Jimmy Kennedy, inspired by a moody wooded area beside the local church, wrote the lyrics to “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” in 1932. His lyrics include this dark stanza elided in popular versions by songbirds Rosemary Clooney and Anne Murray:

If you go down to the woods today,

You’d better not go alone!

It’s lovely down in the woods today,

But safer to stay at home!

Safer to stay at home....

Nowhere, after extensive online research, could I find information about the number of murders, rapes, robberies or other aggressions committed in the over 170 parks designed by 18th century English landscape architect Capability Brown. Brown’s parks, given English cultural sensibilities of the day, were Arcadian design masterpieces, idealizations, landscape paintings without frames, so to speak. I was driven by an interest in whether violence could even take place in such a perfected landscape. 

The topic may seem esoteric, but I clean Beacon Hill Park. I live nearby and walk the 150-year-old park daily, noting how heedlessly tossed trash compromises the beloved park’s looks and purposes, which are to convey edenic harmony and beauty, reveal nature’s raw energies, communicate the lessons of decay and renewal, offer recreation and a restorative parenthesis in our citified lives, and be our front yard and our statement of welcome to the world. I decided about a year ago to combine aesthetic recreation, exercise and social utility in an act of service. Also, privately, I believe that we’re manufacturing an epochal civilizational collapse right now, and that dark energies are strongly on the rise. Tidying, re-sanctifying, the park—any small act of consecration, I figure—might buy us a day.

I wear latex gloves when I’m trash collecting and fill two large garbage can-size plastic bags each daily tour. I wear the gloves because visitors don’t simply leave behind poorly re-folded copies of the Times Literary Supplement on park benches. A lot of folks treat the park as a garbage can: empty snack bags, take-out beverage cups and pop containers, napkins and tissues, fast-food wrappers, plastic bags, empty cigarette packs, soiled diapers and doggy-bags, anywhere and everywhere. There is a surprising amount of discarded clothing and park sleeping and camping paraphernalia, including flattened box cardboard used as a thin mattress between the sleeper and the ground.

Also to be found throughout the park is endless “worry” trash: needles and syringes, other drug paraphernalia, human shit, used condoms, tampons, empty beer cans, liquor bottles whole or smashed, and discarded salvage, found or stolen.

The Greek poet Hesiod established in his Theogony: “and in their Underworld abode dwell Sleep and Death, awful gods, the children of dark Night. The glowing Sun never looks upon them.” The park is the scene of a lot of murky behaviour. For some park users, our own “children of a dark Night” busy with other needs, “park thinking”—a consciousness, awareness, respect and love for the place—is a last, not first, impulse.

Scientists, elaborating Sigmund Freud’s theory that humans have a life instinct (Eros) and a death drive (Thanatos), contend that the prospect of immediate pleasure or the narcotic promise of relief from the deep pain of a wounded life is more systemically, neurologically, compelling than consideration of any harm and consequences. To generalize, when people are focused on their own appetites or troubles, the concerns, norms and expectations of society-at-large seem just like background noise—faint, parental, annoying. People are unmindful that it starts with a carelessly tossed drink cup or discarded hypodermic and ends with the collapse of civilization. 

Death drive—a remarkable phrase, and a real challenge to unpack. Do we have an appetite, a lust, for oblivion? Regrettably, I lack the scholarship or the intellectual wattage to adequately respond to this provocative subject. I’m a collector of park rubbish, not a towering intellect or a polymath.

However uncredentialled, though, I have a fascination with this area of thought, and I want in passing to note a troubling and elusive human quality: a deep impulse, a destructive, primal, sub-social wanting to invoke or bring about great damage to other people, to a place, or an institution; to damage or obliterate structure, order and meaning, and to summon chaos. I remember, long years ago, witnessing a summer camp counsellor shaking two truant kids by their t-shirts, yelling at them: “Why were you doing that? Why were you doing that?” They had no answers and remained mute. They had been clubbing a caged brown rabbit to death with a hammer.

David Storey writes [and I interpolate]: 

“At root, nihilism [literally, ‘nothingism’] is a problem about humanity’s relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom after the collapse of an ordered nature [a religious cosmology and hierarchy] in which humans have a proper place.” 

So, is a park—a constructed idea of nature—a temptation, a taunt, a landscape begging to be ruined? All of these, apparently, but a park’s also a human project intended to arouse a sense of harmony and connection between nature and our selves. Exactly how the magic and the emotional triggers work, I’m not sure. Harvard’s E. O. Wilson notes in The Diversity of Life that the “favored living place of most peoples is a prominence near water from which parkland can be viewed.” Hmm. Sounds a lot like Victoria.

It has been a gloomy winter with long stretches of our patented suicide weather, during which the very colour of the air in the park has seemed grey, producing a dusk-at-noon effect some days. Rain and cold have reduced to a large handful the number of homeless park campers who shelter under trees or park structure overhangs, or worm their way into patches of undergrowth. 

Some park-using folks with whom I talk, particularly but not exclusively women, describe a slight constraint on their freedom of movement in the park; not outright wariness, but an un-relaxed watchfulness, a sense of caution, eyes conning for risk. When I use reason and suggest that the scattering of park denizens is harmless, these people look at me like I’m not listening, missing their point that they feel a diminished safety. Their senses tell them that civic or social management has weakened, that “license” has expanded. People also struggle to approximately convey one further feeling: that the presence of tents here and there—a private “claim” on the park’s real estate—alters the social equation, the “valence” of the place as a public asset. 

Just in this instant, I have a fresh thought about why every downtown area in North America, including Victoria, has a homeless problem. It has little to do with the actual availability of human, financial or property resources adequate to make a response, and everything to do with a city’s difficulty acting in the name of collective social will, to invoke the “us” of the full urban community.

Modernity has atomized and left us us-less. Well, that isn’t true. “Us” is currently less about an urban totality and much more about identity politics, piece-of-the-pie politics: gay, ethnic, wealthy, at-risk, educated, marginal, neighbourhood, Christian, homeowner, whatever. World bounty is tightening, globalism has everyone skittering on ball bearings, and people are hunkering down and holding on harder now. Boundaries have become more important. 

It’s the “us” that’s at risk in these times. Democratic practice is facing enormous stress, and it’s harder and more challenging these days to know how to be a city, or a citizen. Under such circumstances, it’s telling and very promising that Victoria voters chose a mayor whose psyche appears to be entirely directed toward this challenge. 

Funny, it hits me now, after 45 years in this town: Victoria isn’t dotty, or trivial, or marginal, or Lilliputian. It’s no deserving target for derision. Whatever its real or imagined flaws, Victoria compared to synthetic, unimportant and replicable cities like Vancouver (Denver with waterfront) is a potent place whose urban community is trying to sustain and improve that civic “us.” And in a side-note, I will never again fault or sneer at our daily newspaper for its lovely attention to the trivial (“Pedestrian trips on own shadow, twists ankle”); that is, for lending gravitas to the microscopic and neighbourly significance to the mundane.

New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas wrote recently, “If anything unites America in this fractious moment it is a widespread sentiment that power is somewhere other than where you are.” His assertion is correct and it doesn’t quit at national borders. It’s nearly impossible to sustain a successful city and civic community when people perceive that authorship is fruitless. I sense that such matters constitute a priority for our own Mayor Lisa who is always restlessly searching for ways to thwart disengagement and to champion citizen agency.

We’re lost deep in the woods for the present, and it’s clear those are not teddy-bear teeth gleaming in the moonlight. What to do? Practice hope, pick up the litter, and buy some time.

Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept, has just begun a news aggregation and blog site “Shit Sandwich—Best of the Bad News,” and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.