Unknitting Despair in a Tangled Landscape
by Catherine Bush
Illustration by Lucille Clerc
IN THE FOUR-HUNDRED-ACRE park a few blocks from my home, I uproot plants: small rosettes of serrated, palm-shaped leaves; slim stalks of jagged-edged green topped with florets of tiny white flowers. It’s mid-morning. I’ve brought garbage bags. I make no attempt to be clandestine. I’m not foraging, like the Polish-Canadian women who come to pluck fresh nettle leaves in the spring, or the man whom I spot cutting orange chicken-of-the-woods mushroom from a decomposing log. Of course you’re not supposed to harvest here. I abandon my stuffed bag by the garbage bins. In clearing the ground around a couple of aged black oak trees in Toronto’s High Park, I’ve stopped perhaps a few hundred thousand seeds of garlic mustard from forming, an infinitesimal drop in the bucket of the invasive plant growth that is spreading through the ravine understory. Futile, likely, but I’m searching to kick-start a response beyond the complicated grief I feel at the sight.
Everywhere humans have traveled, we’ve brought alien species, intentionally and unintentionally. Arriving in a new place, the populations of some such species explode, cause land trauma, displace and eliminate native species, chemically altering the soil to make it inhospitable to other plants.
My parents arrived in Toronto at the end of the 1950s amid the vast, postwar boom of immigration. Both had histories tying them to the city. In the mid-1930s, my paternal grandparents gave up their brief immigrant life in Toronto running a fish-and-chip shop and sailed back to the UK with their Toronto-born, two-year-old son, only to meet the onslaughts of war a few years later. Fearing a Nazi invasion, my maternal grandparents sent my six-year-old mother from their English home to Canada; after five years in Toronto with a foster family, she returned to Norwich an eleven-year-old stranger. History nevertheless entangles us in the waves of Anglo-European invasion that have swept across the continents, including the six centuries of genocidal colonialism in North America.
How can I, child of immigrants, with a long cultural history of colonial extirpation behind me, object to the presence of other invasives, I wonder, as I walk the park’s wooded landscape. Aren’t humans apex invasives, triumphant at eliminating other species and creating monocultures? What I’m trying to figure out is how, in these days of mounting ecological loss, I can love and care for land that isn’t mine, land that I’ve inhabited for years yet where I have no personal ancestry, land historically stolen from its Indigenous inhabitants, which has nevertheless become my microclimate.