Celia Brauer: Earthwalks Vancouver enlightens public about the natural history of the city

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      Last year Earthwalks Vancouver made their debut. They were modelled after the popular Jane’s Walks, created by Jane Jacobs—an author and activist who was well known for her influence on urban studies. She encouraged citizens to take a walk with a knowledgeable leader through their own neighbourhood, and this has become a tradition in many cities on the second weekend in May.

      Earthwalks Vancouver also followed on the heels of the very successful Lost Streams Walks, which were offered between 2008 and 2010 by the False Creek Watershed Society. Back then, people were guided through the city streets by historians to explain where original salmon creeks ran.

      Earthwalks Vancouver are a partnership between False Creek Watershed and Village Vancouver, and they have returned by popular demand after a very successful run last year. There are a great number of very well-informed people in Vancouver—historians, biologists, geologists, economists, naturalists and artists—who have made it their business to find out about more about the heartbeat of natural history that lies beneath the pavement and within buildings, parks, and waterways of our city.

      Earthwalks are a simple idea with a great impact. There are beautiful vistas all around the city of mountains, rivers, and ocean. But how often do we really connect with the natural reality in our own back yard? These walks seek to teach people in this young city of more than 600,000 residents about their natural and historic roots, and open up new channels of understanding.

      Actually, the city cannot really be considered young as First Nations have lived in Vancouver for thousands of years. But for them the natural world was ever present and it provided a direct source of sustenance and shelter. Today it’s more challenging to understand the roots and connections of our lives as so much of the natural world has been altered and removed and our daily food and other consumer goods are brought from far away. Earthwalks seeks to open up and bridge those local connections once again.

      I'm guiding the first walk on Sunday (June 30) around Queen Elizabeth Park. This green gem in the middle of the city has been a source of beauty and recreational pleasure since its inception as a Vancouver park in the 1930s. It holds a water reservoir, was once a basalt quarry for road-bed material, and boasts a world-class arboretum. Considering that new housing proposals at Oakridge and on either side of the park that are slated to bring thousands of new residents, it is all that much more important to consider the value of this oasis and talk about the importance of its ecosystems.

      On July 6, Greta Borick Cunningham, who trained as a naturalist, will take people on a walk down St. George’s Street. That's where a local group of people are working with the city and local community to “daylight” part of the street. They intend to bring the water that once flowed down to the False Creek Flats back to life as the St. George Rainway. She will talk about the beautiful mural painted on the street that remembers the original creek and its aquatic flora and fauna.

      On July 21, Dave Cook, a trained biologist and geologist, will take people on a tour of some downtown buildings and monuments. The natural building stones of the interior and exteriors will be examined, and the provenance, geology and suitability of these materials will be explained. This will also be an opportunity to learn about the history of these buildings, their architecture, rock-quarrying methods, and architectural and masonry terminology. This is a unique walk offered by a well-trained leader.

      On July 28, Michael Barkusky, an economist and an expert in ecological economics, will take a walk along the False Creek seawall and talk about the transformation from the “natural capital” of old-growth forest and waters filled with salmon to the modern day global village full of “human capital”. What is the economic meaning of this transformation and how is the present landscape a measure of wealth compared to the old one?

      On August 7, local biologist and naturalist Pamela Zevit will walk her group from the Roundhouse Community Centre to the revitalized seawall and Habitat Island at Southeast False Creek. She will "deconstruct False Creek through nature's touch"—discussing the efforts to bring this area “back to nature” and the changes happening in False Creek today as a reflection of their present value to society.

      On August 10 and 11, prominent local historian Bruce Macdonald will take participants on two walks along Still Creek. One will be in the present day ravine that exists in the middle of the urban centre, with all its richness where salmon have recently returned, thanks to many years of effort. The other will be along the paved roads of the neighbourhoods, remembering the large lakes and waterways that once covered the land.

      On August 17, we are very lucky to have Terry Point of the Musqueam First Nation lead us on a walk through the land surrounding Vancouver’s last original salmon stream. The creek goes through a woody area and has been mostly successful at staying healthy and alive for decades, despite numerous challenges the human population all around have created in this precious natural area.

      On August 25, community artist and gardener Mary Bennett will lead participants around Kitsilano, showing off the wealth of “roundabouts” and boulevards that feature community art, beehives, and creative gardens. These green-streets gardens are tended by volunteers who are encouraging bee and butterfly habitat and building community connections.

      On September 8, community activist and naturalist Dan Fass will give a tour of a creek that once was. He has been stewarding a group that brings attention to the original Gibson Creek with the included green space of Gibby’s Field. He will walk participants along the original bed of this major creek of the China Creek system and the surrounding fields that once fed the neighbourhood.

      On September 21, retired fisherman and local historian Terry Slack will take participants on a walk by the north arm of the Fraser River. He will talk about the fertile river flats that were once Vancouver’s food basket and today are just parking lots and cement plants. Terry is challenging residents to bring back some opportunities to rediscover our hidden farmland from the past 130 years from under the industrial rubble of the present.

      Please join us for these fascinating walks through history and nature. Come to listen to these knowledgeable leaders, connect with the land, and ask lots of questions.

      All walks are by donations, which will be offered to the leaders and for publicity. Registration is available through the False Creek Watershed Society.

      Celia Brauer is cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and an occasional contributor to Straight.com.

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