Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Stream of Consciousness

My old friend Andrew Teasdale sent me this beautiful story about his ecological restoration work and ensuing struggle with the city of Surrey's bureaucratic red tape.

What was that quote by Mead again? Oh yeah.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Keep it up, Andrew.

Pandora's Box and the Stream of Consciousness

By Andrew Teasdale

A chance meeting in a Vancouver cafe where I had heard about a house facing a forest found me the very next day wandering down a wooded trail in a faraway nook of Surrey but not in my wildest dreams had I expected to find this.

Suddenly the air was cool and fragrant. The succulent sound of running water could be heard nearby. Looking down a steep slope I stood transfixed: a shimmering little waterfall, the most peculiar one I have ever seen. It came out of a long rectangular concrete box two meters above the ground, the water hitting the mossy rocks below before disappearing into a valley in the distance. Shrouded in green and mist this little sanctuary was of such beauty to me I could have been staring at the goddess of the woods herself.

But there was a grotequeness to this vision. Mangled and rusted iron bars stuck out from the ancient looking moss covered box which had been hastily constructed when a road was built over the ravine in a bygone era. Beside the waterfall was an old fridge half buried in the ground. Rotten mattresses and pieces of foam lay amongst other discarded appliances. Garbage bags overflowed with plastic bottles and tin cans in various stages of decomposition. Old car tires and broken bicycle rims lay still. A burgundy 'GM' foot mat was curled up in the soil. Everywhere was innumerable bits of broken glass, cords, wires and metal shards.

As an avid hiker I knew that I could follow a stream up a hill face and find a waterfall somewhere near the top but never had I seen this. Suspended two meters above the ground this concrete box had created a waterfall not at the top of a mountain but near the bottom.

In some strange trance I stood looking down at the water and somewhere deep inside the deal was sealed: I had to get down to this stream. But of the steep and slippery slope and the sheer volume of trash made this impossible.

And so it was that a few weeks later in the hard rain of Vancouver's winter I found myself scurrying about in what was effectively a big dump with my little shovel making the first few uncertain steps of a earthen staircase down to the stream.

My new neighbor came out and asked, 'What are you doing down there?',

'I am a volunteer for Greenspace Vancouver', I replied somewhat dubiously.

Indeed, there was something almost obscene about digging about in this garbage pit. After all, I was doing this for free and with no permission from the city on whose land I was working.

Not to be deterred by the suspicious looks of passerbys and from my new landlord I plodded along carrying out the biggest pieces of garbage first before setting my sights on whatever else lay half exposed beneath the earth.

Months passed with no discernible progress. Regardless of how much garbage I hauled out from this little valley, there was more underneath. Wire, pieces of clothing, rusted pieces of machinery and sometimes the odd antique bottle or ancient farm tool in the form of a pitch fork or a horse shoe. Further down the stream I found the remains of a party from long ago including an old bottle of Chivas and a magnum of wine lying in the grass with an entire set of the type of kitchenware you'd expect to find in an affluent middle class household. But mostly it was just nasty garbage. The worst offenders were the pieces of broken glass and bits of sharp metal just waiting to make mincemeat of someone's unsuspecting digits.

But I plodded on. Eventually I made it down to mostly sticks and stones and earth.

On one of the few clear nights we'd had I looked out my window and for the first time realized that I could see the Fraser River. The Fraser comes all the way from the Rocky Mountains and is home to five kinds of salmon and the Sturgeon, or 'dinosaur fish', some of which can exceed five metres in length. This mighty river captivated my imagination and I hatched a plan to follow the little stream on my street down to the Fraser's banks and beyond.

First I had to finish my staircase down to the stream. But every time I would cut a stair into the earth the rain would wash away another. It was no easy task. In the woods were logs from trees that had been felled in years past and I used these wedging them into place with rocks hidden in the soil. At the most slippery part of the slope directly beside the stream I spent two months making an entire section of the staircase from rock alone. I somehow managed to lug these rocks, some more than one hundred pounds, by myself and fit them in place. Like icebergs once these behemoths were submerged into the bank it was impossible to judge their true size.

One day when the steps were nearing completion I finally decided to follow this stream down to the Fraser. After walking for a few minutes along the stream I came to a clearing and looked up to see a massive old craggy tree. On its highest branch were two eagles sitting in the sunlight.

Continuing on I came to another clearing with several beautiful pine trees. In the ground beside a different stream was the brick foundation of an old house. I followed the home's original path through this natural wonderland when suddenly I saw something hideous and totally out of place. A giant mound of sand fifty meters across and hundreds of meters in length brought this wondrous sanctuary to an abrupt end just beyond the eagles' tree. The Fraser River Perimeter Road!

Several years earlier I had heard of a plan to put a highway on either side of the Fraser and immediately grasped its implications. Why would anyone build a highway beside the home of the salmon? But to see it here made it all the more diabolical.

Passing over this sand trap I continued over a road where the stream passed through a pipe under the asphalt and out through the other side. It then flowed into a long canal which headed toward the Fraser. I followed it along the canal with my clothes getting caught on the blackberry bushes but it soon went under the fence and onto the property of CN land. From the 'no entry' sign I could see the Fraser not more than fifty meters in the distance! So close yet so far. My route was blocked.

I decided to follow the river along the closest road hoping that further along I could find a way to its banks. For several kilometers I walked in a spooky old area full of junkyards and barking dogs. Eventually I came to an old steel company that had been shut down. Massive coils of wire and other industrial equipment stood silent and rusting in the yard. A row of ancient turbine engines with 'Detroit Steel' on their sides had long ago ceased to run. I kept walking trying to find an entry to the Fraser but had no luck. I came to a pleasant forest but this soon gave way to the Perimeter road and another fence beside the railroad. Amazingly, despite being able to see the Fraser from my window I was unable to get to its banks even with a walk of several kilometers.

My plan to follow our little stream into the wilds of British Columbia had been crushed. Dejected, I turned around and made my way back through the forested area beside the steel plant. In the distance I saw some pink flowers and then a tiny hummingbird. This sighting lifted my spirits. I would content myself with the little stream on our street I told myself.

The highway might be approaching from all sides but I tried not to think about it. Instead I devoted my efforts to making this little waterfall an oasis. The fictional planet of Pandora in Avatar is really here on Earth I realized. Standing among the tall trees and large ferns all around me was a kind of blue green light created by the water and the forest. With my hands in the earth and falling sound of the water I was part of a fantastic world.

Several seasons passed since I first spotted this little treasure beneath the garbage. With my staircase looking more professional my neighbors started to be impressed with the beauty of this little spot. More than a few times I would walk past to see somebody staring down at the water. One night we saw a giant owl spread its wings and fly away from under the waterfall. Lovers started to make their way down the steps to be together in the forest. Another evening a shiny car drove past. It stopped and backed up as I poked around in one the little gardens I had made at the entrance of this green space. Was this another skeptic? coming to taunt me I mused when a lovely woman rolled down her window.

'I just wanted to tell you what beautiful work you do', she said before driving off.

But it wasn't long before I was paid a visit by another woman, this time from the city. After exchanging pleasantries, she came to her point. Looking at the fence which had bent just above where I had cut my trail, she said 'I like your work but it has caused some damage to this fence and we wouldn't want anyone to get hurt. Just so you know, your garden might be affected. It's a shame after all the work you've done', she added somewhat unconvincingly.

I too noticed the bent fence one day and big piece of the slope which had crumbled beneath it and realized it would mean trouble.

Then a couple of months ago, it came to a head when I was visited by a couple of different city workers as I was moving a big log.

'I like what you have done, but we are going to have to destroy it' said the older of the two workers who was wearing thick glasses which hid his eyes.

There was a younger guy with him wearing a glum expression ostensibly in disapproval at what they were being made to do.

Shocked I blurted out 'This was a dump when I moved here with garbage up to here', pointing to my knees.

'Well I am just warning you that we will be pouring 24” rocks in here tomorrow morning At 8 AM'

he told me.

'How far do you plan to go with them?', I asked in a panic.

'As far as they will roll', he answered looking at the beautiful pool of water beneath the waterfall.

The next day the trucks came with the rocks as promised while I was at work. I told my wife to go down to the green space we had built to make the city workers feel as badly as possible. Later my neighbour, a solid looking workingman told me he had also gone down to see what was going on and had told the workers that I had spent almost two years working on the staircase. 'Sometimes it's better to look the other way', he told them.

For whatever reason the green space and the little stream were saved that day. Nobody cared a whit about this little stream when it was a dump, least of all the city on whose land it runs. But since I started my project there has been enormous interest and dozens of workers surveying the area.

One reason for this is undoubtedly a result of the most vile thing I uncovered in this little valley when I was doing my work. Every time there is a heavy rain the whole stream turns into a toxic sludge of foam. It is clear from its volume that some type industry is dumping waste into this little stream which empties into the Fraser. But this terrifying fact had escaped detection until I had built my little path down to the stream.

I took a water sample of the sludge as well as some video and reported the violations to the provincial government. After weeks of calls to hapless officials I finally received a call from the provincial Ministry of the Environment informing me that this was a Department of Fisheries issue. The Department of Fisheries called me and said that it was the Ministry of the Environment's responsibility.

When I asked the person on the line to put that in writing, the line went dead.

Yesterday, two months after I filed my report we had our first big rain in recent memory. Returning home from the city I took a glance down at the little stream only to see it engulfed in foam two feet high.

The previous day I received an e-mail from a city worker in charge of the Surrey Beautification Program. Seeing the poster at our local library offering grants for those who have beautified Surrey's public spaces I made an application thinking our community green space would be the ideal candidate.

Instead the e-mail said that there were erosion issues with my project and so please cease any further work. When the city had threatened to destroy the greenspace because of erosion issues, I worked in the middle of the night to shore up the bank with logs and rocks. There were at present no erosion issues I assured the official and added that I learned from my neighbor that someone up the street who had damaged the fence and caused the erosion issue when he had lost control of his trailer which smashed into the fence bending it and knocking out the earth.

So I am not holding my breath for any awards from the city for my trail down to the stream.

But where there was once ugliness there is now beauty. At least for today.



  1. Andrew, how incredible! You make me want to cry. Thank you, Ivan, for sending this.

  2. Hi Andrew, Thank you for this amazing, inspiring and so beautifully written story, it powerfully shows how working on the tiniest stream leads to fight the biggest problems of environmental degradation caused by corporate/bureaucratic nonsense. Thanks Ivan for sending.

  3. Thanks for your story. Amazing how we must fight our own "environmental departments" to care for the earth.

  4. ivan,
    truly inspired selection of the gleaming surrey city headquarters!
    (if only all 'its' lands were so sparkly)
    ps thanks betty, isabelle and monika for your kind comments!