Is Edmonton a prairie city?

One of my favourite parts of making Let’s Find Out is taking on questions that have never even occurred to me. The latest episode is a great example of that.

Dustin Bajer (a friend of mine from back in the Shareable Neighbourhood days who I love chatting with about nature) was the curious Edmontonian for this episode. He asked how Edmonton came to be known as a prairie city.

Dustin holds up a leaf, with many trees behind him
Dustin at the Coates Conservation Area, not far outside Edmonton city limits. We headed there to get a picture of what an undisturbed or old growth area here might look like.
A guide entitled "Western Canada" produced by Canadian Pacific Railways
We went to the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the University of Alberta to examine old pamphlets and magazines produced by railways and the Canadian government, enticing settlers out West.

When I first read his question, it made my brain spin. In school we were taught that this region is part of the Aspen parkland biome – a mix of grasslands and deciduous forests. But you do see Edmonton businesses and artists taking on the “prairie” label all the time. So how far back does that reputation go?

Figuring out the answer was incredibly complicated. We found seemingly contradictory answers from old newspaper editorials, advertising materials aimed at prospective settlers, a local land conservation organization, and traditional Indigenous knowledge keepers. To parse it all, we ended up paying close attention to how far out we were zooming with our historical lens. What matters most? The last 50 years? 200? 10 000?

I’m proud of the nuance and struggle in this episode. It feels authentic to the process of answering any good historical question. There tend to be a lot of caveats and assumptions we need to examine.

Also any episode where I get to go hiking and learn some new words is a treat.

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Celebrate eccentricity and other lessons from Björk

A circle of screens showing constellations hang above the instruments on stage at the Craneway Pavillion
Seeing Björk perform live in San Francisco with this swirl of screens and instruments around her was a treat for the ears and the soul.

Last week, I got to see one of my idols in action in San Francisco, and every splash of electricity, every heart-thumping wail, helped affirm the creative and spiritual path I’ve been drawing up for myself. Many people have asked what it was like seeing Icelandic singer Björk perform live for the first time, so I’ve tried to distill some of the lessons I learned here. First, let me set the scene for you.

Björk has always had murmurs of volcanoes and snow-goddesses in her music, but her latest project, Biophilia, explicitly invites you to think about our place in nature as sort of a midway point between the cosmic and the microscopic. I’ve written before about the iPad/iPhone apps she created for Biophilia. It was something different entirely to see her perform the songs beside a harbour, with the almost-full moon rising behind her.

Man in swan dress stands outside with friends smoking
The obligatory fan wearing a swan dress outside.

It seemed right for my boyfriend and I to dress up a bit whimsically, considering she’s performed in a swan dress and an outfit made of tinkly red fingers of glass. We didn’t realize we’d be so out of place in the city where she was performing, though. Across the Bay from San Francisco itself, she’d set up camp in an old wartime assembly plant in Richmond, refurbished into a glassed-in pavillion overlooking the harbour. I’m glad we wandered around, because it helped us put the evening in context. Richmond is palpably poorer, more latino, and more black, than San Francisco. And while the pavillion was breath-taking to be inside, wandering drew my attention to the more sinister side-effects of the refineries and factories in today’s Richmond.

Meanwhile, we stood in line with digital artists, punk kids from Sacramento, and yuppie parents from Oakland. Once inside, we found a spot standing ten metres away from a small stage surrounded on all sides by fellow eccentrics, creators, and dreamers. The lights dimmed, a ring of screens lit up with videos introduced by nature documentarian David Attenborough, and a cage of tesla coils descended from the ceiling to join the enormous pendulum harps, drums, and pipe organ on stage. That’s when Björk herself came out with ruby platform shoes, a frizzed-out blue and orange wig, and a choir in tow to teach us this:

  • Celebrate eccentricity
    Songs about lunar cycles, and videos of starfish embracing each other, are not for everyone. Björk’s work kind of embraces her fearless, outlandish tendencies, though. As a consequence, she accomplishes things that a less daring artist would never get close to. What could I accomplish if I was less afraid of what people would say, or how they’d react?
  • Don’t give up on the impossible
    Like a giant child’s legs dangling under a desk, the pendulum harp she played was an invention from her own mind. It is literally four enormous wooden pendulums, and when before each one falls she can rotate a circular harp wrapped around its base to pluck a different note. It perfectly suits a song about gravity and Earth’s place in the solar system. She dreamed it up this incredibly complex thing,approached robotics experts and programmers, and gave the world something that never existed before. What else could we make if we looked at our audacious dreams and said, “Yes please, let’s create that”?
  • Comfort is an illusion
    Björk is almost 50* now, but she’s still creatively peaking. Sometimes her experiments don’t work, but she’s not afraid to skip most of the hits and habits that made her famous, to make space to try something new. I think a lot of artists get into a rut of continually reproducing their old stuff to make their fans happy. All the songs about viruses, DNA, and cosmic origins on Biophilia showed me that it’s often safer to let go of what feels comfortable though, because the meaningful and relevant ideas change a lot throughout our lives.
  • Go beyond aesthetics
    Frizzy wigs and tesla coils playing bass synths with lightning are cool, of course, but they’re only worth seeing if they add up to a message. Throughout Björk’s music, there are messages about the need to forgive yourself, to stand up and fight against injustice, to embrace where you fit into a landscape. M.I.A. and K’naan are two other incredible musicians who get that it’s fine to lure people in with sick beats and catchy melodies, but what keeps people coming back are layers of real meaning behind them.
  • Giving matters more than getting
    Generosity comes up a lot in songs like Undo and Generous Palmstroke. This was a theme we felt many times in San Francisco: the only way to create lasting, fruitful bonds in this world, between people, with the rest of our environment, everywhere, is to offer more than you expect to get back.

On top of all of these experiences, it was such a joy to be in that tightly knit little crowd. We serendipitously stood beside a thoughtful quantum physicist from New Mexico and his hilarious wife, an optical engineer who works with lasers, photographs reflections, and sings Björk’s Cosmogony with her daughter as a lullaby.

What was seeing Björk like? It was like being raised up by a sea of people not afraid of their passion.

*Oops! I accidentally aged her and said she was over 50 originally. My apologies for awarding un-earned years.

Follow your nose

A waterfall marks the beginning of Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul
Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon stream is a symbol of rising economic tides as much as urban renewal.

When you’re interviewing someone for a story, preparation can be a double-edged sword. Last month, I travelled to South Korea to visit a bevy of friends and taste as much kimchi and spicy pork wraps as I could. I brought my audio recorder just in case I found time to work on a story for Terra Informa, and in my last few days I found a place that seemed to ripe for narrative.

North of the Han River, I read, downtown Seoul was thinly sliced in two by an ancient stream: Cheonggyecheon. There’s a pretty well-established history that’s told of Cheonggyecheon’s life over the past hundred years: slums grew up around its banks, it became increasingly polluted as a home for laundry and sewage, and eventually the municipal government decided it was easier to cover the whole area over with a freeway than to clean it up. Then around 2000, Seoul’s mayor decided to lead the charge on rehabilitating the stream, and the city transformed it at great expense into a fashionable, healthier tourist attraction. The project bolstered mayor Lee Myung-Bak’s reputation, and helped catapult him into the presidency.

Like any good reporter, I wanted to be more than just a stenographer for this official narrative. I landed on two approaches for getting a fresh angle. First, I’d interview a local historian and ask some hard questions about what happened to the people who lived in those slums. It seemed like an obvious injustice that while they were told to move, billions of dollars were later poured into cleaning up the stream for tourists and nearby financial analysts on their lunch break. Second, I’d ask a scientist who studied water quality in Korea to give me context on how polluted other bodies of water are around Seoul.

I was able to arrange for Seoul’s city government to assign a storyteller/tour guide named Ho Park to walk me down the stream and answer some questions about its history over the past 600 years. I had my questions ready, and as we strolled past symbolic pieces of stone and renovated ancient bridges, I tried to press him on why the poorer residents were moved, rather than being able to benefit from a cleaner waterway themselves. While he gamely told me the name of a neighbourhood they’d been relocated to and tried to answer my questions, I could tell he was getting tired of them.

Finally Park said, “Have you ever been hungry?” I admitted that I hadn’t.

Then he told me a different story about Cheonggyecheon. Look at it from the perspective of the country after the Korean War, he said. Millions of casualties, both countries in ruins, and many of those left were desperately poor. South Korea didn’t have the kind of money to think about environmental health, he said. The whole country, and certainly its iron-fisted dictatorship, were focused on economic growth.

Models show off high-tech camping and climbing gear.
Models show off high-tech camping and climbing gear.

Today, Seoul is a mostly-affluent, sometimes futuristic city. You can swipe your RFID-enabled transit card to get on about a dozen subway lines that snake through the city, have your butt heated the whole way, and be right at home watching soap operas on your smartphone along with all the other passengers enjoying seamless 4G connections through the tunnels. When I first visited Cheonggyecheon, I wandered past a crowd of photographers gathered around a fake backdrop for a North Face photo shoot.

Now, said Park, was the time to think seriously about cleaning up air quality downtown and get carp and marsh snails back in the streams. Ecological health is a luxury for the rich, essentially.

It wasn’t the story I came for, and it wasn’t one I was comfortable with. But it was the honest perspective I found from both Park and the scientist, so it’s going to be the thread of my story. Sometimes, you have to be willing to toss out your well-prepared notes and follow your nose.