Possible

Cynthia Hammond
With contributions by: Camille Bédard, Eunice Bélidor, Megan Cohoe-Kenney/Le lion et la souris, Lindsay Ann Cory, Sarah Nesbitt, Laura O’Brien, Itai Peleg, Ian Rogers.

“We too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”
– William Cronon[1]
“Art and nature, art in nature, share a common structure … production for its own sake, production for the sake of profusion and differentiation.”
– Elizabeth Grosz[2]

In October 2014, to public outcry, the Canadian-Pacific Railway company bulldozed a section of a protected urban landscape in Montreal, called Le Champ des Possibles, or the field of possibilities. In 2006, the City of Montreal had purchased this oddly-shaped parcel of space, a terrain formed initially through the construction of the trans-continental railway and the St-Louis Rail Yard, active here for seventy-five years. After the trains stopped running in the 1980s, this site was abandoned and neglected for almost two generations. Over time, the rank, oil-saturated earth slowly turned green and fragrant as flora from across the country – and even across the world – took root here, and proliferated.

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fig 1. Freedom and ambivalence: Le Champ des Possibles. Image by Itai Peleg, 2014, based on a photograph by the author, 2011.

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fig 2. Le Champ des Possibles. Photograph by the author, 2011.

Le Champ des Possibles is an irregularly-shaped plot of land made up of three lots in the city register.[3] Overall, the terrain is approximately 2.2 acres (or 9,000m square), and lies immediately south-west of Canadian Pacific Railway tracks on the eastern half of the island of Montreal. These tracks divide the neighbourhood of Mile End from the neighbourhood of Rosemont. The railway creates a curving, active border between the Champ and the residential neighbourhood to the north-west; trains still run regularly, several times an hour. To the north-east is Avenue Henri-Julien and a walled Carmelite convent, still in use. The southern edges of the Champ des Possibles are less regular, created by enormous modern buildings built between 1960-1975 – former textile factories and workshops, now often artist studios. Rue Bernard forms the western edge, and the landscape terminates where the overpass, the train tracks, and the ruderal landscape all meet.

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fig 3. Location of Le Champ des Possibles, looking south-west. Bing maps, image in the public domain.

Many have described and participated in the ecology, beauty, and social engagement that have flourished in this space, particularly during the past 10 years.[4] The indeterminate and un-programmed character of this site and its rich biodiversity have captured the imagination and hearts of nearby residents, as well as artists, urban naturalists, activists, planners, and others. This friche urbaine has become home to itinerant human populations, numerous art installations and events, and many seasonal species of plant, bird, animal, and insect – over 300 have been identified to date.[5] After six years of energetic lobbying and public outreach, a citizen-led group called Les Amis du Champ des Possibles[6] succeeded in having the majority of the land parcel designated as a public park in 2013, and in having themselves named as the co-managers of the space. Compared to most of Montreal’s municipally-managed, monocultural green spaces, the Champ is a very unusual “park”.

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fig 4. The destroyed western field. Photograph by the author, 2014.

CP’s move to demolish part of the Champ was an error; the corporation claims that it thought the land still belonged to CP. They bulldozed the field in order to flatten it. They were building a line of track there to facilitate repairs to the main line, on the other side of the fence. Mistake or not, as of this writing a substantial tract of the north-western terrain now lies barren, “where 25 species of butterflies and 40 varieties of bees once sheltered.”[7] Toxic soil that had been buried deep under the roots of trees, flowers, grasses, and shrubs has been dragged up to contact level. And with that contaminated earth, other, less tangible issues surface: fears about unregulated landscapes; debates about the right to the city; the conflicted place of “nature” in the urban setting, and the question, to whom does this nature belong? But the common thread that emerged in the weeks following CP’s destruction of the western field was the desire to do something. Lovers of the Champ self-organized; public events were staged; news reports multiplied via social media, and Les Amis du Champ des Possibles made every possible use of the brief but unprecedented wave of national interest in this oddly-shaped plot of land.

This essay is one outcome of my own desire to do something. I have known about and spent time in Le Champ des Possibles since 2009. At that time, a former student and now a well-known artist, Emily Rose Michaud, began her Roerich Garden project, a major earthwork in the Champ in the shape of the Roerich symbol, used during WWII to designate works of great cultural importance, a plea to bombers to drop their destruction elsewhere.[8] The Roerich Garden‘s monumental scale, expert collaborators, and many participants encouraged public dialogue and new reflections on the value of urban biodiversity, and launched Les Amis du Champ des Possibles. Two years later, I began to teach a graduate seminar on public urban landscapes, and was inspired by Michaud’s work to include the Champ as one of our field trips across the island of Montreal. My students in turn created some of the art projects that have contributed to this space’s rich life. Through two of these students, Jessie Hart and Louis-Alexandre Malo-Douesnard, I met Roger Latour. Latour is a biodiversity expert, author, artist, and collaborator, with Michaud, on the Roerich Garden project. Latour came and spoke to my classes, and in time became a collaborator with me.[9] The “field of possibilities” has thus exerted a considerable, if always gentle, force on my thinking and teaching about the urbanism of Montreal, and increased my network of actor-collaborators. And for this, I have been grateful to this shaggy and surprising space, this much-needed “poumon vert” in a formerly industrial, and still very dense part of the city. But I had never really collaborated with Le Champ des Possibles, as a landscape, until now.

Shortly after I heard the news, curators Mark Clintberg and Erandy Vergara-Vargas invited me to take part in their exhibition, CONTINGENT: ONLY IF PARTICIPATION OCCURS on view in December 2014 at gallery Studio XX in Montreal. This invitation galvanized my desire to take action in response to the CP devastation. My project, Le Possible, has four collaborators and three parts: this text; an installation at Studio XX, and a public event in spring 2015. This text includes reflections on Le Champ des Possibles from different voices. Respondents were invited to write about the recent loss, and the meaning of this unique green space for them. Eight such reflections follow this essay, which provides context for both the landscape in question, the art project shown at Studio XX, and the texts to come.

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fig 5. Cynthia Hammond, design for Le Possible, pencil on paper, 2014.

The installation is designed so that at the exhibition, visitors will encounter two custom-built plinths, created with the help of Shauna Janssen. These are located off-centre in the space, under a row of very strong lights. Through the content on the plinths, visitors have the opportunity to learn about the history and location of Le Champ des Possibles via a scaled site rendering that shows the footprint and morphology of this landscape, created in collaboration with architect Itai Peleg. I am working with artist Camille Bédard to make it possible for those visitors who know or have used the site to leave a trace, much like a snail might, on the surface of this rendering, so that the image will be marked with the paths and points of mattering for the Champ’s human users.

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fig 6. Cuttings and seedlings from Le Champ des Possibles. Photograph by the author, 2014.

In addition, forty seedlings and cuttings, taken from the Champ in October 2014, will be on view. Visitors may, if they can commit to the care required, take one of these plants home with them, to cultivate over the winter. Each seedling and cutting was chosen in consultation with our biodiversity expert, Roger Latour for its importance within the overall ecology of the Champ. Red clover, tufted vetch, bird’s foot trefoil, goldenrod, and plantain have much to offer the birds, bees, and butterflies that have populated this space. We took not the well-established plants of the Champ, but rather the new growth that sometimes happens after a long, warm autumn, just before the cold. This choice helps to ensure that the plants will not mind a winter in the sun.

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fig 7. Le Champ des Possibles, November. Photograph by Shauna Janssen, 2014.

The final phase of the project will take place in spring 2015, when those who have fostered a seedling or cutting will be invited to the Champ for a group planting event. The intention is to make this moment a very public undertaking, to remind both the citizens of Montreal and our political representatives of the destruction that took place the previous fall. Promises made in the autumn can be forgotten after a season of snow. Flipping the plinths that we constructed for the gallery, we will create raised beds for the seedlings, to ensure that they have clean earth in which to grow. The plinths/planters will be placed in the part of the Champ that was destroyed. And if CP makes good on its promise to fix the damage they caused, and proceed with the decontamination of the soil, we will simply move the planters to a safer spot, until such time that they can populate the field that waits for them.

Another form of occupation: les friches urbaines

Il existe aussi une autre forme d’occupation de la végétation urbaine, tout aussi importante, mais souvent oubliée, car moins apparente, qui colonise très souvent des lieux plus insolites et incultes, comme les friches industrielles, les emprises ferroviaires, les terrains désaffectés et autres petits espaces libres.
– Diane Saint-Laurent[10]

The special biological characteristics of self-seeded or ruderal landscapes have been gaining attention in recent decades. Different terms speak to their various facets. Herbert Sukopp and others have described spaces like the Champ as “biotic communities,” seeded with hemerochores, or biological agents that are able to take root in a new location as a direct or indirect result of human action, such as aerial bombing or the failure of industry.[11] Diane Saint-Laurent describes what happens in fallow city lots as the establishment of “biogeographical islands,” which have the potential to spawn other such islands, even in tiny spaces, which collectively form green archipelagos across cities, “une sorte de cortège floristique reproductible d’un espace à l’autre.”[12] Saint-Laurent explains that what is key to such landscapes is the type of plant that can thrive there. Usually these plants have tiny seeds, capable of being airborne over great distances, such as the poplar tree or wheat, both of which can be found in the Champ. Likewise, these species are capable of flourishing in very poor soil, like wild carrot and milkweed (one of the few plants that attract Monarch butterflies).

Biogeographical islands are thus often a rich register of human implication in much vaster environments than the one at hand, such as industrial farming several provinces away, or the long history of imperialism and human colonization, which have brought many non-indigenous plants to Canada, Quebec, and thus the Champ. Invasive tree species are in their own way a leafy index of such broad historic phenomena, such as those brought from Europe in the late-nineteenth century, which if left to their own normal processes could in time completely destroy the biodiversity that is at present such an important aspect of the Champ.

Les Amis du Champ des Possibles do intervene in the ecology of the Champ for precisely this reason, which leads some observers to regret that the “wildness” of this space is being lost, at the same time that it is being protected.[13] This view presumes that “true” nature is nature that has not been touched in any way by human intervention. However, it is important to remember that the Champ would not be what it is if not for the railway tracks and oil-stained soil that were the unlikely basis for its current profusion, likewise if not for the looming megastructures that rim half the terrain, which determine how much sun reaches the various species below, and equally if not for the many human activities, near and far, which have reached or shaped the Champ. The grain choices of farmers in Manitoba have had as big an impact on the field as the local activists who stopped the City from mowing the wheat and grasses several years ago. In other words, whether it be a concrete building, a diminishing enterprise such as the local railway, or the desire to eat an apple, whose core was tossed into the field about fifteen years ago (and is now a full tree), human action is inseparable from the ecology, the life, the culture of the Champ.

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fig 8. Photomontage of Le Champ des Possibles, November. Photographs by the author, 2014.

Faith in the nature-culture divide is, while historically and culturally diverse, tenacious. Yet the late twentieth-century has manifested several powerful examples of urban ecosystems, and observer-participant discourses that have begun to collapse the binary between what is perceived to be of the human, and what is perceived to be outside the human. Jens Lachmund has studied the scientific response to self-seeded landscapes adjacent to the Berlin wall in pre-unification Germany, such as the Gleisdreieck and Südgelände. He observes that for a brief moment, biologists were able to conceive of something that most gardeners already know: how urban ecosystems could be “natural and cultural at the same time,”[14] an insight that ultimately could not overcome the fact that many Berliners associated these spaces “more with death and war than with the experience of nature.”[15]

Perhaps the unwillingness to release nature from the grip of the nature-culture binary is an index of how a more holistic view of les friches urbaines inevitably points to human frailty, and our failure to look after one another in a neoliberal society Jouni Häkli notes how “the contrast between spontaneous vegetation and abandoned anthropogenic structures is fascinating, and haunting, because it highlights the finiteness of industrial culture.”[16] Perhaps the desire for the Champ to be – to look? – “wild” helps to mitigate postindustrial realities in Montreal, as in other formerly industrial urban areas. Perhaps the desire for the Champ to provide a “pure” and untrammeled form of nature is a powerful antidote, a beautiful defence against the evidence that the Champ otherwise does provide of the failure of industrial capitalism, and all the economic and social inequalities that have followed. Perhaps too the myth of untrammeled, resilient, defiant nature, like some ghost of social Darwinism, helps ease the discomfort of the more privileged users of this landscape, who may well hope that the strongest will, indeed, should survive. Because it must be uncomfortable for them to see how some visitors to the Champ come here to pick dandelion leaves, because they can’t afford green leafy vegetables in this rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhood’s increasingly expensive grocery shops. Just a few steps away, other visitors and new residents have parked their BMW’s and Hummers along Avenue de Gaspé. À qui ce parc?

The important thing for me about Le Champ des Possibles is not that nature has filled in what humans hollowed out. It’s that hemerochores, biogeographical islands, and biotic communities are wholly integrated into this urban environment, could only have come about in such an urban environment. It’s important to not be sidetracked by the nature-culture binary, as this binary does not help in understanding how this and other ruderal landscapes’ capacity to be natural and cultural at the same time is what inspires the humans who love these places, to action. And just what do humans do in the field between the tracks, the convent, and the megastructures?

They imagine what is possible. And then they participate in those possibilities, and in so doing, collaborate with Le Champ des Possibles in its ever-evolving nature-culture. Not to make one thing of it, but to become many, to proliferate, together.

 


Août 2011: un groupe de 14 canoteuses téméraires sillonne les lacs et rivières de la Haute-Mauricie lors d’une expédition de canot-camping de 21 jours. Les jambes égratignées par les branches, la sueur sublimée par l’effort, le dos plié sous le poids des bagages, nous apercevons, au détour d’un sentier de portage, une minuscule gare au plus profond de la forêt : Duplessis. Le mot « gare » n’est qu’un superlatif, car le bâtiment relève davantage du cabanon de jardin que de la gare Centrale à l’heure de pointe du lundi matin.

La présence de ce bâtiment, aussi incongrue soit-elle, réveille notre urbanité endormie, celle que nous avons consciemment laissée derrière pour mieux nous immerger dans la nature. Cette gare, une parcelle de civilisation perdue au cœur de la forêt, c’est l’opposée du Champ des Possibles, une parcelle de nature blottie au sein de la ville. Le Champ des Possibles, c’est un ailleurs ici même à Montréal, et un ici qui mène ailleurs aussi. Une série de gares reliées entre elles par un fil d’Ariane ferroviaire : du centre-ville de Montréal à Duplessis, et plus loin encore à travers l’immensité du Canada.

Octobre 2014 : une simple manœuvre d’un bulldozer et toute la flore qui s’épanouissait pacifiquement depuis des années disparaît. Un malentendu peut-être, une erreur certes. L’absurdité de cet anéantissement aura pourtant révélé la profondeur des racines liées au Champ des Possibles ; racines qui s’ancrent non seulement dans le sol du Mile End depuis des décennies, mais aussi dans le cœur des citoyens qui croient fermement à la nécessité de ce territoire naturel, rassembleur et salutaire. Ce champ de vie, un tant soit peu anarchique, permet l’évasion physique et imaginaire vers d’autres contrées sauvages, fragiles et éphémères lorsque l’oppression du béton, du smog et de la grisaille devient insupportable et que l’appel de la forêt retentit.

Camille Bédard


La meilleure façon de contribuer à la discussion sur le Champ des Possibles, cette ancienne voie ferrée laissée à elle-même pour devenir un remarquable exemple de biodiversité, est de parler d’un succès similaire : le Complexe Environnemental de Saint- Michel.

L’ancienne carrière Miron, une carrière de calcaire montréalaise, a été convertie en un immense site d’enfouissement en 1968. Ce site qui unit et constitue le cœur des quartiers Saint-Michel, Ahuntsic et Villeray est devenu depuis l’un des plus grands espaces verts de la ville. En le laissant vivre, on a permis la prolifération de nouvelles espèces végétales et la diminution des effets de l’îlot de chaleur qu’est l’autoroute 40 située non loin. Aujourd’hui, de nombreux coureurs, dont moi, profitent du sentier pédestre d’un peu plus de 5 kilomètres pour découvrir la ville : l’architecture des maisons d’un développement résidentiel des années 60 construit pour les travailleurs de la carrière, ou le TAZ, ce sanctuaire des amateurs de planches installé en 2001. On peut aussi y observer des gratte-ciel contemporains, la TOHU, la croix du Mont Royal… et certains soirs d’été les feux d’artifice.

Un espace vert, même oublié, peut donner vie à une multitude de choses. Le Complexe environnemental Saint-Michel est devenu un lieu de rencontre, de détente et d’entraînement pour tous les résidents de ces quartiers. Le Champ des Possibles est le moyen choisi par des citoyens pour cogérer un lieu qui leur appartient, et pour rendre à la nature la liberté et l’indépendance dont elle a besoin pour grandir et se développer. En laissant la nature sauvage se réinstaller, elle a su engendrer et accueillir diverses d’espèces végétales et animales. Un espace vacant n’est pas toujours abandonné et n’a pas non plus toujours besoin d’autorité. Il faut lui laisser le temps de montrer sa beauté, sa force et sa résilience.

Eunice Bélidor


The Lion and the Mouse in the Champ des Possibles

The Lion and the Mouse, a community organization working with kids and families in the Mile End, has had a very special relationship with the Champ des Possibles since our inception in September 2013. We, the employees and co-founders of Lion and the Mouse, had fallen in love with this space and saw how much it could offer local kids. The Champ is such an important part of our work with the children that proximity to its rich environment was a major factor in choosing which corner of the neighborhood was right for our organization. We use this wonderful wild space every weekday morning (weather permitting) with the children in our playschool program, allowing us to incorporate elements of forest school curriculum in our activities and giving children growing up in an urban environment the opportunity to explore and appreciate the wealth of biodiversity found there.

Some of our favourite moments in the Champ have been: searching for snails of all different shapes and sizes; splashing in the puddles in the rain (and testing what kinds of objects make the biggest splash); studying earthworms; learning about the bees living in the beehives (but of course, remembering to give the bees “lots of space” to do their work in peace!); seeing the plants and trees change with every season, and especially singing to the butterflies and ladybugs (and snails, and spiders, and earthworms, and birds…) that we find throughout the Champ. In the summer, we enjoyed regular nature walks and studies of wildflowers with our friends at the Residence en harmonie, a local retirement home. Almost daily, our playschool kids ask us if we can go visit “Diego”, our beloved tree, which is perfect for climbing for even the smallest children. We’ve seen our kids go far above their own imaginations in terms of how high they can climb in “Diego,” as they learn the strength and agility of their own body, as well as their problem solving skills in maneuvering around the tree. We’ve also participated in theatrical performances, dance parties, puppet shows, and more around the yellow structure in the Champ, all led by our kids. These are just a few examples of the joy – and learning opportunities – that come out of our regular use of the space.

When we found our regular access to the Champ blocked one morning, we never could have imagined what a devastating effect CP’s recent grave error would have. While every part of the Champ des Possibles is rich in biodiversity and is a treasure for our neighborhood, the little sliver of green, fenced in on three sides, was perfect for free, supervised exploration. In this space the children of our playschool could explore the Champ at their own pace and in their own way. There was a sand pit that had become a favorite place to dig and play with the natural objects we found there. There was even a child-sized bench built with les Amis du Champ des Possibles especially for our playschool.

The Champ des Possibles is an extremely vital part of our work, and as educators, we feel very fortunate to see the learning and exploration that takes place there almost daily, and the kind of empathetic and caring relationships kids develop with the natural environment when given the chance to see the wonders of nature in even some unlikely places. We will continue to use the Champ over the coming years, and have great hopes for how this wonderful and wild space can continue to be a treasure for the local community.

Megan Cohoe-Kenney, Coordinator & Educator, Le lion et la souris,
www.lelionetlasouris.com


 There was glitter in the dirt

I spent only a few afternoons at le Champ des Possibles before my exodus from Montreal. Each time was marked by a new, strangely familiar, yet completely startling discovery that would cause me to pause for just a few minutes longer and contemplate this space in very a different way.

This is the story of one such time.

In 2012 I was enrolled in Dr. Cynthia Hammond’s Urban Landscapes Masters Seminar (Concordia University) where we visited a different urban landscape each week and were asked to reflect upon those experiences through field reports and to complete an intervention in the site of our choosing. I explored the Champ des Possibles with botanical guidance offered by Roger Latour and the goal to participate in an intervention organized by one of my classmates, Louis-Alexandre Douesnard-Malo, who asked us to sketch our experience there.

Fearing being “outed” as just another art school student, I escaped to the foot of a tree, hoping to find some point of departure that would offer a meaningful, yet artistically simple, way of experiencing the site. Perched upon my stoop I heard the sound of buzzing bumble bees busily completing their work behind me, while the scent of wildflowers wafted past, mingling with the smell of nearby factories in the Mile-End. Pencil to page I attempted to replicate the graffiti I saw on the walls of a re-purposed warehouse, across the meadow. Frustrated by my lack of skill I cast my eyes downwards, to my feet. To my utter surprise I saw something sparkle there – it was glitter, in the dirt. Not just a handful (not that that would make its presence any more comprehensible here) but rather handfuls of glitter, sprinkled all around the tree I had chosen, and beyond. Suddenly attuned to the surprises that this field can yield I began to see other gestures, such as the ashes of a small bonfire. Piece by sparkling piece, I could begin to reconstruct the kinds of happenings that make this site what it is.

The glitter in the dirt at my feet drew me into the community of possible users of this space. It offered a moment of personal reflection where I was able to contemplate the need for interstitial, liminal places like these. This glitter – perhaps for some it would have just been litter – could never have blown here from a nearby garbage can, or dropped here by accident; it was here for a reason. It was used by someone, at this site, for a purpose. I felt the wonder that often comes with the unexpected discovery of shiny things, but more than that, I still appreciate the way these tiny speckles of colourful intrigue could transform this site for me.

I did not finish my drawing of the graffiti. I spent the rest of my time there imagining the secret impromptu party that had taken place at this location. I saw the guests coming together via the various desire lines across the park, coming from their regular lives to this place, prepared with handfuls of glitter in their pockets and anticipation in their hearts for the night to come. I heard the group singing, with guitars in hand, around the bonfire. I felt the sudden burst of confetti thrown into the air to celebrate something… or nothing. I imagined the fire burning its slow deep orange burn at the end of the night with dawn coming to extinguish its flames and the friends or strangers slowly dissipating to make their way home to their regular lives leaving traces of their merriment behind.

For me, from then on, this place remained charged with this sense of occasion and, of course, possibility.

Lindsay Ann Cory


My relationship with the Maguire Meadow, or the Champ des Possibles, began somewhat by chance about seven years ago. I was just beginning my BFA at Concordia, and heard about a project that needed participants and documentation. The Mile End seemed so very far away, spatially, and I was not highly motivated to go. Then I had a dream about the project (being pre-facebook, I had no real way of knowing much about it). I don’t remember the dream now, but it struck me then as significant. I booked a camera and went to the meadow, where I met Emily Rose Michaud. She told me about her vision for the “Roerich project” and the work she and others were doing to keep the space available for the communities it connected. I was fascinated by the intense energy of the people organizing there, the space itself and the work of Emily, but it still felt like a distant place. Eventually, around 2009, the Mile End neighbourhood stopped feeling so far away when I moved there, fifteen minutes from the meadow. The space became much more prominent in my life. I began walking my dog there, and using it as an escape from the immenseness of the city. One particularly difficult summer, I would often go there with my dog and just lay on my back, looking at the sky, pretending the city wasn’t there. I attended a workshop there during the student movement, tried bee keeping, and one summer went on an herbal walk, when I learned the immense energetic power of plants, how just sitting with one can produce magic. Now, I live four blocks from the meadow, and am there daily with my dog. It is definitely our favourite place to be together, as long as there are no cops!

Sarah Nesbitt


At dusk in early November, I visited the Champ des Possibles for the first time since it had been flattened by Canadian Pacific. Following the destruction, my social media feeds were flooded with posts of outrage, incredulity, and deep sadness. “Have you heard what has happened to the Champ des Possibles?” was a stock conversation topic for the weeks that followed. I began to think of what the Champ meant to me: moments of relief and decompression while walking through the site to the metro after my toxic retail job, and summer nights curled up in the grass with wine, close friends and music. We were all heartbroken, and I was afraid to return to the Champ and witness what had been done: I would rather remember it as it was.

When I returned to the Champ des Possibles I found signs of creative agency and resurgence. I found sculptures of stacked rubble, scattered throughout the landscape. Young, narrow paths intersected wider, well-trodden ones. People were carrying on, walking their bikes and their dogs through the site. In the distance, I saw the silhouette of an older man waiting on the stacked wooden structure that has been claimed by street artists. And, at the edge closest to the tracks, the sombre, muddy flatness of the razed terrain that Canadian Pacific had thought it could get away with bulldozing.

Outrage and sadness are natural sentiments when a place that you love is devastated by careless, thoughtless acts. Visiting the Champ after being afraid to for so long made me realize that it is important not to become vulnerable to these emotions, and to instead focus our energy on production and renewal. We must never lose sight of future possibilities in the wake of destruction, and remember the past possibilities that the Champ so gracefully hosted.

Laura O’Brien


“We need wilderness because we are wild animals. Every man needs a place where he can go, to go crazy in peace. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in … for the terror, freedom, and delirium.”
— Edward Abbey, The Journey Home

For decades, guides in the Israeli Society for the Preservation of Nature (SPNI), one of the country’s main non-governmental organizations, were raised on Edward Abbey’s words as a foundation for a new discourse on wilderness preservation. A polemical figure, Abbey famously challenged the balance between development and preservation. While standing on a ridge with a rough desert to one side and a dense human settlement on the other, one can understand how a landscape offers the opportunity of peace, even for a short time. But what kinds of freedom might be possible inside the built environment? It would seem, from CP’s actions, that in the developed and controlled environment of a city, the place of a landscape like Le Champ des Possibles is as yet undecided, though it would also seem that the need for such spaces is already here.

“I am free but restless.”
— Shalom Hanoh, Yeladim Shel Hahayim (Children of Life)

How could CP dare to invade the Champ des Possibles? Probably they viewed this area as uncultivated and therefore abandoned. But is it abandoned? Can we define how an open space becomes a special place, one that is worth preserving? Often this distinction is made through the level of cultivation, the degree to which one can see a human’s touch. Nobody would dare disturb Park Lafontaine’s carefully managed landscape. What would happen if in the Champ were found a protected species of wild animal (a coincidence that happened a few years ago in west Jerusalem that led to the preservation of this open area in an otherwise dense urban zone). The Champ then would remain the Champ, but the context and perception of its value would profoundly change.

Freedom has its downside, and undeveloped areas evoke strong and ambivalent associations. For some these might be liberation, à la Abbey, but for others a space like this is neglected, unregulated, and frightening. Are the hooded youth in the Champ skaters selling drugs and painting graffiti, or just teens having a party over a campfire? I think the Champ des Possibles gives us the opportunity to mature our ideas beyond such oppositions, and likewise give us a locus for a discussion – and action – about the need and capacity for freedom in the city.
Itai Peleg


 When I was a young boy, I lived on a farm. I would often take long walks to the woods. Where the soil was sandy, there were quiet, sunny meadows. My favourite meadow was a low hill ringed by dense forest, with a single wild apple tree at the top. Early in the morning, I would sometimes see deer eating the fallen apples. The meadow was carpeted with waist-high wild grasses & wildflowers. Wild blackberries grew at the foot of the hill, with a rabbit warren deep in the thicket. Sitting under the apple tree, I would watch the wind play through the grass, and would pretend I was watching waves on the open sea.

When I moved to the city, I kept up with the long walks. Eventually I started exploring abandoned industrial sites. In the centre of a city, these quiet spaces exist that you can enjoy as a “place,” but also reflect upon. Generations of people used and worked in the space you are visiting, but now that they are abandoned, these spaces are no longer “for” anything, they simply “are.”  When we preserve these spaces, we are not creating a mirror to see ourselves reflected in, or a window to look out onto a view. We are creating a context for nature to create its own possibilities.

An abandoned space is perpetually creating itself. Moss grows on rooftops, creating a subsurface that grass and eventually bushes can root in. Trees take seed in the spaces between bricks, breaking down the wall they are rooted in as they grow. Flowers burst through cracked pavement.  Rabbits build warrens in what was once a parking lot, falcons nest in chimney stacks. A disused space by a railyard slowly becomes a meadow, where you can imagine you are looking out on the open sea.

Ian Rogers


 

Endnotes

[1] William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996): 69-71.
[2] Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008): 9.
[3] From west to east, lot 2806718, lot 2806719, and lot 2334609. As of this writing the City of Montreal owns all three lots, but has only designated the latter, which is also the largest, as a green space. The other two have been used by Les Amis du Champ des Possibles for programming and biodiversity projects, and they have been used for many other informal and undocumented purposes since well before the sale of land in 2006.
[4] See, for example, the work of Emily Rose Michaud, http://roerichproject.artefati.ca/author/emilyrosemichaud/ (ongoing) and Roger Latour, Flora Urbana, http://floraurbana.blogspot.com (ongoing); Biodiversité: Catalogue des espèces au Champ des possibles, with Caroline Magar (forthcoming 2014), and Guide de la flore urbaine (2009). Various media have commented on the citizen action in the Champ, such as Cindy Huang, “Keys to the City: Montreal’s Street Pianos,” spacing/montreal, 2 September, 2012, http://spacing.ca/montreal/2012/09/02/keys-to-the-city-montreals-street-pianos/.
[5] Urban ecology expert, Roger Latour was quoted in a local newspaper to the effect that the Champ has “the highest rate of biodiversity within a two-kilometre radius. Only Mount Royal can rival it.” René Bruemmer, “CP razes Mile End protected green zone by accident,” Montreal Gazette 16 October 2014 (web) http://www.montrealgazette.com/technology/razes+Mile+protected+green+zone+accident/10301886/story.html.
[6] Please see http://amisduchamp.com and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Les-Amis-du-Champ-des-Possibles/151040175073801.
[7] Bruemmer, “CP razes Mile End protected green zone.”
[8] For more information about Michaud’s practice, please visit http://www.emilyrosemichaud.com.
[9]In 2014 I was the executive director of the project, Points de vue, a series of public urban laboratories and workshops about the future of a postindustrial site in the Griffintown district of Montreal. Co-curators Noémie Despland-Lichtert, along with Shauna Janssen and Thomas Strickland, sought out Latour’s expertise on my suggestion; he and artist Jessie Hart led a biodiversity workshop as part of our September 2014 event. See http://fonderiedarling.org/en/Points-de-vue-exposition.html for more information.
[10] “There exists also an other form of occupation of urban vegetation, equally important, but often forgotten because it is less apparent, which colonizes very often those spaces that are unusual and uncultivated, like industrial brownfields, railway yards, abandoned terrains, and other small, open spaces.” (My translation.) Diane Saint-Laurent, “Approches biogéographiques de la nature en ville : parcs, espaces verts et friches,” Cahiers de géographie du Québec 44, no. 122 (2000): 150.
[11] H. Sukopp, H.P. Blume, and W. Kunick, “The Soil, Flora, and Vegetation of Berlin’s Wastelands,” in Nature in Cities, edited by Ian C. Laurie (Chichester, New York City, Brisbane, Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 1979): 118–219.
[12] “A sort of floral procession, reproducible from one place to another.” (My translation.) Saint-Laurent, 149.
[13] This perspective frequently comes up in the courses I teach on urban landscapes, but its corollary has also emerged since I began the current project, with observers expressing anxiety over my and others’ ability to adequately care for the cuttings and seedlings, which appears related to the view that they are inherently part of the Champ and should have no other purpose than their essential place in an essentially wild landscape.
[14] Jens Lachmund, “The Making of an Urban Ecology,” in Greening the City: Urban Landscapes in the Twentieth Century, ed. D. Brantz and S. Dümpelmann (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011) 214.
[15] Lachmund, 220.
[16] Jouni Häkli, “Culture and Politics of Nature in the City: The Case of Berlin’s ‘Green Wedge’,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 7, no. 2 (1996): 129.

 

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