Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Walk in the Farm - 60 Acres at Arpents 2014

This post is a modified version of my prepared talk at Arpents 2014. In my actual talk, I wandered widely from the prepared text so this account doesn't accurately represent that version. Such is a Pete Anderson presentation.

Looking north-east towards downtown from near the intersection Baseline and Merivale.

A couple of things happened since I agreed to give this presentation that changed the contours of what I originally planned to speak about. First in preparing for my qualifying exams, my research focus narrowed on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries limiting the methodological thrust of this presentation which was originally to be focused on the use of walking oral history interviews. Second, John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the minister responsible for the National Capital Commission, recently made a direct attack on the geographic integrity of my research site, Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm.

Rather than looking at walking methodologies in historical geography research, then, I first outline the recent announcement by Baird and reactions to them--if you follow me on twitter this will be familiar to you. In the second section I argue that the pace of observation is an important factor in the ways different gazes are directed at the Farm.

On November 3rd, John Baird, Mark Kristmanson (CEO of the National Capital Commission) and Jack Kitts (president of the Ottawa Hospital) announced the transfer of 60 acres (approximately 24 hectares) of the Central Experimental Farm from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to the National Capital Commission who would then lease the land to the Ottawa Hospital to build a new civic campus. The Ottawa Hospital then dropped its zoning application to build a parking garage on its own land north of Carling Avenue to explore using this parcel for a horizontal parking solution.

Left to right: Kristmanson, Baird, and Kitts at the announcement.
There were a few notable absences in this announcement. First, nowhere was it mentioned that the Farm (established in 1886) is a National Historic Site of Canada. It received its designation in the late 1990s after a campaign by local activists and Farm scientists concerned about the fate of the Farm after the western-most parcel was sold off for development. The Civic Hospital's history (built in the 1920s) was featured in early coverage.

Red: Boundaries of the Farm; Green: The current Civic Campus; Yellow: A best guess of the 60 acres in question
The historic designation of the Farm lists three main components for its recognition: first, the Farm's cultural landscape reflects nineteenth century scientific ideals both in its layout and in its built character. Second, the scientific research at the Farm played a key role in the colonization of Canada, especially on the Prairies, through the development of hardy wheat strains. Third, and finally, the Farm is a rare example of a farm within a city, which, the board says, is representative of the central role of agriculture in Canadian history. Beyond its heritage value, the Farm remains a working scientific station and is used as a large public park by the people of Ottawa.

It's worrisome, then, that Baird, Kristmanson and Kitts would announce the alienation of 60 acres of a national historic site for development as an uncontroversial good news story--the first of a series of such announcements of Baird and Kristmanson. Curiously, there were no representatives from AAFC (which owns and operates the Farm) or from Parks Canada (which oversees the National Historic Sites program) at the announcement.

The announcement took many in the community by surprise and in the days that followed it became clear that no one was consulted, not even the Central Experimental Farm Advisory Committee, founded in 1999 to oversee the long term management and planning of the Farm both as a heritage site and a working scientific station. Similarly the City of Ottawa (responsible for urban planning and zoning), the Province of Ontario (who would fund and build a hospital), the Friends of the Farm (whose volunteers maintain significant portions of the Ornamental Gardens and recently planted a shelter belt along Merivale Road) and the various neighbouring community associations confirmed that they also had not been consulted.

The reactions to the announcement generally fall into two camps, with a problematic third sprouting between them. The first camp, which includes most of the initial commentary as well as most of that published by columnists in the Ottawa Citizen, saw this as a smart move for two reasons: first, who can say no to a new hospital? And second, many commentators argued that if you wanted to see a corn field you should simply drive out of town (ignoring that trespassing is usually discouraged by private farmers). As it stands, they argued, the Farm is a waste of prime real estate that, some of the more extreme proponents argued, should be thrown open for development. Besides, they say, it smells bad and lowers neighbouring property values (ignoring that the Farm pre-exists the urban form that surrounds it).
A screen capture of the Friends of the Farm's now. defunct "60 Acres" page.
I've created my own version here.
The second camp, into which I've injected myself, argues that far from being empty land the Farm is a working experimental station whose soil, weather, and other conditions have been subject to over a century of dedicated scientific study. The land is a physical archive of agricultural and climatological sciences. Further, it is an important green space for nearby residents, local wildlife, and Carleton University students. Finally, national historic site designations should mean something and decisions like this should come only if absolutely necessary and after exhaustive consultation.

The third in-between camp says that while it's distressing that Baird, Kristmanson and Kitts decided the future of the Farm without consultation and recognizing that science is important, it's for a hospital so stop complaining. Besides, as Citizen journalist David Reevely put it, what Baird wants Ottawa gets. This third camp is problemative because it closes off avenue for action. While the first camp actively supports the move and the second camp actively opposes it, those in the third camp passively accept decisions made by the powers-that-be.

Representatives of the first and third groups, ranging from the moderate position of David Reevely who presents the development as a fait accompli to the gleeful desire to develop most of the Farm represented by Randal Denly and Kelly Egan's NIMBY position on parking at the current hospital, ignore the past and present importance of the Farm as a key federal research institution. The history of the Farm is discursively erased in a rush to impose a developer's gaze on the experimental fields.

As I put it in my Active History article, history is forgotten and science is vacated from the landscape in these accounts. The imaginative control, to use a term fruitfully employed by Jennifer Bonnell in her history of Toronto's Don River Valley, represented by the long term management plan for the Farm--which explicitly rejects further division of the Farm in order to support its on-going research programs and respect its heritage character--is set aside and ignored in order to impose a new program of imaginative control typified by the developer's gaze that empties the landscape of past, present and future scientific and recreational activities and projects condos, hospitals and parking lots as the only worthwhile future for the Farm.

At this point it is easy to begin ranting about the various and sundry ways John Baird and the NCC treat the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau as their fiefdoms and the civic dysfunction their attitude and action breeds or to go on a diatribe about the current government's wide ranging attacks on all forms of knowledge production, collection and dissemination but the former risks getting parochial fast and the latter is likely familiar to everyone here. Besides both ignore that I'm supposed to be talking about walking. My feet have yet to touch the ground, so let's stay positive and let's go for a walk.
An early 20th century view of the Arboretum.
The Farm's mandate has always been the advancement of dominion agricultural science, but the scientists and administrators at the Farm have always made a point of welcoming the public to the experimental fields and, particularly, the Dominion Arboretum and ornamental gardens. While the landscape of the Arboretum has necessarily changed since its first planting in 1889, many features are common including meandering pathways and periodically placed shaded benches.
Today, as in the late 19th century, exploring the Farm means exploring it on foot. While Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Parks Canada, and the National Capital Commission all maintain roadways for their own purposes (i.e. farm equipment accessing the fields, Parks staff accessing Hartwell Locks on the Rideau Canal, and the NCC facilitating communter car traffic on its parkways) most areas require you to get out of your car--or better yet arrive on foot or two wheel!--and walk around. For the most part the entire Farm, including most of the experimental fields, is open to the general public.
An early 21st century view of the Arboretum.
 The ongoing public presence alongside working scientists and the museum herd demonstrates the multifaceted nature of the Farm that first drew me to it in the summer of 2008 while commuting by bike to work at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency: it operates as scientific, recreational, monumental, and vernacular landscapes concurrently in richly complicated and contradictory ways.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the late American landscape geographer, wrote about what he termed the 'vernacular' or 'work-a-day' landscapes with a passionate clarity. Although it can easily slip into the background of our daily lives, the vernacular landscape bears the record of a multitude of small and large decisions made over the course of various periods of time by human and more-than-human agents. Desire lines--paths made by the repeated movement of individuals--are one example of vernacular features, in this case created by the activity of walking over time. By adding time to landscape, Scottish anthropologist Tim Ingold asks us to see the world in terms of what he calls 'taskscapes.' In this lens, the landscape isn't simply created when I clumsily frame a shot with my camera, nor is it called into being through the gaze of Farm scientists or NCC planners. Rather it embodies traces of past activities, the reality of present action and the promise of future movements.

Desire lines at the Farm.
What I'm calling the developer's gaze, on the other hand, seeks to re-order the present landscape of the Farm by ignoring the value of its past and present uses to create new imagined futures. This gaze relies on the discursive erasures of other ways of being at the Farm. The challenge for defenders of the Farm, myself included, is to help others see--or hear or smell or taste or feel, as Joy Parr so vividly points out in her Sensing Changes--these traces, realities and promises of scientific and recreational lives at the Farm.

Reading the landscape of the Farm, then, requires an appreciation of its history and the various ways humans and non-humans exist in this place. It's a diverse and active place and one has to move through it at different times of the year to get a feel for its rhythms. While I also run, bike, ski, and snowshoe in the Farm, I want to focus on how walking through it can help reinforce its historic and ongoing scientific qualities that are lost when it's subjected to an emptying developer's gaze, often employed primarily from out the window of a car.

That is, slower movements through a place give rise to a different sublime than speeding past it. Different paces have accompanying different senses of time and senses of place.

This past summer I lead a couple informal tours of the Farm. In each case we started in the Arboretum, worked our way through the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, across Prince of Wales to the experimental fields before ending in the built up area near the museum.

Tree climbing at the Farm.

Walking gives us time to reoccupy the space of the Farm and on both tours we stopped at various places that typified or gave thought to the development of the Farm's history, its current use, and the relationship between federal and local geographical imaginations. The decrepit Parks Canada heritage plaques in the Arboretum, for example, seemed to represent the lack of care given to the history of the Farm. The giant split willow, on the other hand, provided the opportunity for tree climbing, a different way of interacting with the more-than-human world at the Farm.

While it's easy to historicize the Farm, in particular, and agriculture, in general, as existing in the past, as representative of another era (as the historic designation does!) the landscape is constantly changing as planting and scientific patterns shift. Although they didn't publicly display their crop plan this year, in the past it has been posted at the various entrances to the fields to show what is being grown where. It's easy to forget that the Farm used to be the site of the whole gamut of agricultural sciences from botany to animal husbandry, not just of oilseeds and cereals. But most of the experimental herd was moved to the Animal Disease Research Institute, just north of Barrhaven on Fallowfield Road, in the 1970s while the remaining animals formed the basis of the Canada Museum of Agriculture and Food's demonstration herd.

A view of traffic on Baseline Road from the fields.
In other cases, the changes are less planned. The Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive insect, has made itself known killing plantings of ash trees throughout the city and surrounding regions. Its attacks are especially noticeable at the Farm where the eponymous trees of Ash Lane stood dead all summer and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden had to clear cut its Ash Grove. At the same time, an enterprising human artist stripped the bark from a dead tree to show the traces of the deadly insect as part of the 'Art in the Farm' installation--an effort to employ the more-than-human lifeworlds of the Farm to tell subtle stories of place.

As Joanna Dean has shown in her history of Ottawa's urban forest, the ash are not the first species to be threatened and almost extirpated locally--previous examples include the loss of elm trees to Dutch Elm Disease in the twentieth century. Encounters with dead ash trees, something easy to miss while driving past the Farm but unmistakable at a walking pace, provides an opportunity to discuss the politics of invasion biology, of biological pest control (which the entomologists in the Farm's Neatby building practice), and of the risks of monocultures in urban tree (and other places) planting. These stories, embodied in the physical spaces of the Farm are linked to both local and national histories that are well-rooted in this place and best accessed on foot.
More-than-human "Art" at the Farm.
As my fellow panelists went into in more detail, walking through the Farm provides opportunities to access vernacular and monumental stories while at the same time creating new tacit connections to place. Not all stories are visible--the Farm as with other human developments relies on a plethora of underground infrastructure and the traces of past activities can be hidden or obscured by subsequent movements.

Nonetheless, moving through the Farm on foot provides an opportunity to re-enchant the Farm with its stories that are lost when a developer's gaze is applied out the window of a passing car. Walking gives us an opportunity to see, to ask questions about, and to discuss this important and threatened federal and local institution.