Attack of the Freakish Foliage

As of next week or so, we’ll be celebrating the seventeenth anniversary of moving into our house, our neighbourhood, and this place we call home. Seventeen years is all at once a short blip and a really long time. It sometimes seems like we’ve both lived here forever and also just moved in.

In reality though, a lot has changed. Where I look out my back window and see houses, trees, grass, gardens, birds, and blue sky, on the day we moved in was a construction zone with heaps of clay clumped into piles amongst weeds, lonely streets paved through a blank field, and utility stakes poking from the ground.

We “built” our house, in that we went to a local building company, and from them bought a piece of land, a house plan and contracting services to turn lot and plans and heaps of supplies into a finished home. It took the better part of a year and was simultaneously exciting and frustrating.

Development companies exist largely to do exactly this type of work: turn a chunk of suburban landscape that used to be farms and fields into rows of neat little houses at the edge of the city, and they both do it very well and simultaneously take shortcuts that have long term impacts.

Last year I noticed one of those shortcuts while out on my walk with the dog: a tree planted by the developer had done something that no one had ever intended. It had started turning from a lovely ornamental cherry tree into a scraggly crab apple tree.

Pictured above is actually a single tree.

On the top is green foliage that is starting to spring blossom for a crop of fall apples.

On the bottom (or should I say middle?) is red-hued cherry, an ornamental tree with gorgeous colours year round, and a favourite of developers trying to add colour and splendour to a new neighbourhood.

On the very bottom is the culprit and cause of the mix-up: the fake cherry was actually a graft of cherry branches onto a much hardier crab apple trunk. This was all well and good and no one would ever have known any different. But then droughts and stress and age and seventeen (likely more) years have passed and the cherry bits have been overtaken by new growth from the trunk and now a freakish hybrid of a tree sits at the edge of a small park making passers-by wonder at what the heck is going on.

Iโ€™m in no way against tree grafting. I used to have a tree just like this on my front lawn, a cherry trunk grafted with a mismatched collection of less hardy cherry branches. It died after about four years because here on the Canadian prairies life is tough, especially for a mutant tree.

My point, if I actually have one, is that of the downside of taking shortcuts if youโ€™re not going to be around for the long haul.

Shortcuts in life, gardening and most anything else can be time savers and budget buffers. Getting something the quick and easy way can be a nice perk of knowing what matters and what doesnโ€™t.

When building a community, my developer took a shortcut and saved some time, money, and planted a tree that looked great … for a few years. Then they left, went off to build other, newer neighbourhoods, and the community was left with a plant that needed more care and attention than anyone could be bothered to give it. Left to its own, the faux cherry tree has done what nature let it do, in a long, methodical, slow process… revert back to the plant it was always intended to be: a crab apple tree.

Shortcut: zero. Nature for the win.

Had the developer spent a little more care and attention to put in plants that were local (and we have many beautiful trees that grow natively not a few hundred meters away in the river valley) right now there would be a park with something less frankenstein growing at the gate and more fitting for a pretty suburban neighbourhood. But the cherry looked great at the time, sold the idea of suburban paradise to people looking to build lots of new homes, and years and decades later has outlived its purpose.

It was a shortcut, and years later for the long haulers like me, a shortcut to the simple but important reminder that the people who built our community then are not the ones who live in it now and continue to build it today.

The Mystery of Big Island (Part Three)

It’s been nearly a year and a whole long winter of impassable trails through the river valley since I posted an update about the work being done to turn a small bit of land with a big local history into a small provincial park.

The last time we thought about that effort on this site, a small group of us had gone off on a short adventure run to test our prospects of finding a runnable trail between my house and the bit of natural space clinging to the edge of the river.

What we found instead was a dead end. And a furthering of the mystery behind this bit of future park where it seemed our odds of future adventure were good, if not simple to find.

You can read about the first two parts of that adventure here on this blog in The Mystery of Big Island Part One and Part Two.

The mystery seemed as if it would continue to allude us with no more media coverage and limited ability to drop into a snow-filled river valley for our own fact-finding-fun prior to May. My aim was to start up my investigations once again this summer with some alternative entry options and perhaps drag along a friend or five to continue our search for elusive access to Big Island.

And then I was meandering through Twitter this morning only to discover this (politically charged) tweet of how one of our local, bumbling politicians had accidently (really?) posted a confidential planning map with some clear intentions for the ongoing work around Big Island.

(Screenshot of the tweet archived here.)

The little grey blot in the middle of the sea of appropriately-coloured blue land marks the Big Island proper with some surrounding farmlands clearly marked for possible buyout or annexation or something relating to creating a protected public zone around this little natural treasure.

I’ve been studying maps of this exact area, trying to understand if there is a good place to park and find access into the valley .

Clearly if I have a government sticker on my truck (which I do not) parking near to and descending upon this bit of land wouldn’t be a problem. Looking at the tweeted photos it’s clear that if a politician can clamber down into the area in his work clothes, a handful of runners with trail gear must be able to find a way too.

Of course, this accidental leak implies that multiple people are thinking much bigger than I am about this little future park. I’m working on a video about a different river valley park and some time I spent there recently, but seeing this information has made me even more determined to bring some friends and a camera back on another summer adventure, an adventure to uncover the mystery of Big Island… preferably before they plow a road there and everyone figures it out.

Stay tuned for Part Four…

One Million

Call it civic pride or call it mathematical curiosity, either way the latest census data for Canada was released this week and my city officially recorded one million residents for the first time in history.

One million.

That’s a lot of neighbours, most of whom I’ll probably never ever meet. A great big crowd, busy streets and an ever-more bustling mini metropolis with which to contend.

We sometimes talk about the switch from being a big little city to becoming a little big city, and what that means for everything from being a resident here, to welcoming visitors, to building and growing and changing now and into the future.

Admittedly, it’s been a tough couple of weeks to think about the future of our city and my country. The crowds are pressing against each other and it’s getting uncomfortable in here.

If you watch the news these days, Canada is abuzz for mostly the wrong kinds of reasons, including blockades of borders and an occupation our cities by protests that have been spiraling into more complex political movements. Even last week, as I drove south of town for a family event, we passed on the highway a parade of (literally and at least) a thousand flag-waving semi-trucks, tractors, SUVs, and other supporting vehicles en route to my city to protest vaccine and masking rules. And whether you’re on one side, the other, or stuck in the fuzzy middle it’s hard to sit back and watch with anything resembling hope when such protests are driven mostly by heated emotion, divergent ideologies, and ever deeper pits of self-affirming misinformation.

Alas, my golden rule, and one that has served me well living in a big little city — and now living in a little big city too, perhaps — is whenever possible to lift those around you instead of pushing them further down.

You can interpret that how you will, but in this great big city, and this great big world, one million of us or seven billion folks spread across the globe, I recommend to try it for a few days.

Stop honking. Stop blocking. Stop insulting. Stop trying to crush others to climb for yourself a little bit higher onto the pile.

Instead, elevate someone else’s opinion, even for just a moment. Clear a path so someone else can climb a step up. Complement a friend and give a stranger a boost. Think what would happen if we all did that.

One million people might feel less like a crowd and more like a community.

The Mystery of Big Island (Part Two)

Almost three months ago to this day, readers, I introduced you to a local puzzle that I was hoping to solve. Big Island, to catch you up, is a modest chunk of river valley wilderness with a backstory that both intrigued the explorer in me and piqued the curious pathfinder that lives in the uncaged corners of my soul.

I live a short(ish) walk from the winding North Saskatchewan River, a silty mountain-fed prairie waterway that snakes its way across the province and bisects the city in which I live.

If you recall, the city leaders have built policy around the idea of preserving what they term a “ribbon of green” that is our river valley. They do this as a system of trails and public parks rivaling the accessible and recreational natural areas of most cities around the world. In fact, many locals often use the comparison to NYC’s Central Park of which Edmonton’s river valley is approximately twenty-two times the size, but spread across nearly fifty kilometers of riverbanks. Of course, preserving a public green space in the middle of Manhattan is a whole different scale of forethought compared to us just avoiding putting some suburban houses on the unpredictable steep cliffs and sandy soil sides of a prairie river, but don’t say that too loudly if you come to visit our river trails.

I’ve had it in my head to explore south of this preserved system and beyond the city borders, particularly so when I learned that a few kilometers past the so-called “end of the trail” is an oxbow formation in the land, a place where the river once sharply bent and carved off a little bubble of land but has long since shortcut and left a quasi-island nestled into the edge of the same river valley.

I’ve got maps and diagrams to explain all this in part one, and it is where I also explain that this little oxbow island, named Big Island, has a long secret local history and is now slated to become officially protected with a provincial park designation.

All this, and yet no one really knows how to get there.

Of Adventure Runs

Having discovered that such a mystery exists, I got it into my head to find a way to visit.

This past Wednesday evening I proposed an adventure to my running crew. Each Wednesday over the summer, after all, we meet to do an exploration run of some bit of local trail that few of us have previously visited. I asked, with couched expectations, if anyone was interested in trying to find a trail to Big Island.

There were five of us who broke from the even, clear asphalt shortly after seven that evening, and climbed into a narrow stretch of single-track trail leading into the river valley woods along a route I’d often seen but never travelled.

The heat was still lingering with a sweltering, humid hot that made the rolling trails even more of a challenge than they should have been. Yet, the rough trail, unchecked by anyone but the more hardcore of local adventurers, was mere scrambles of dirt and roots and bits of low vegetation swatting our ankles as we ran by trying not to trip or stumble down a steep bit of path and often grabbing onto trees or branches to keep from a fall.

This path towards Big Island was not well-worn.

And in fact, this turned out to not be a path to Big Island at all.

With our phones in hand we plotted our location in the GPS map comparing our real time adventure to a satellite map of our intended destination. We estimated that at our nearest we were merely five hundred meters away from the shores of Big Island. But the path degraded into near non-existence, become a dense shrub-lined fox run at best, and at worst an anthill-infested maze not intended for a bunch of ill prepared runners in running shorts on a weekday evening schedule.

We turned back, unable to reach our destination on the first attempt, everyone a bit disappointed but beyond fine with the adventure and attempt. Meanwhile I secretly plotted how part three of this mystery might unfold. Someday.