The One-Way Door

A man crouches to squeeze through a doorway out of a dark room and into the light.
The Room of No Return, Elmina Castle, Ghana

In the Elmina slave castle in Ghana, where men and women were held in hellish prison cells waiting to be shipped to the New World, there is a room my friends and I were taught to call the Room of No Return. There is a door out of this room where people were herded out to the boats, a one-way door. I have been thinking a lot about death lately, and I have been thinking about the one-way door.

Isaak Kornelsen’s death, and the cycling town hall it inspired, got me thinking about how a death resonates with the people left behind. Does it change the way they see themselves, the world around them, I wondered? Or does it just make them pay attention for a moment?

And after that, I kept coming back. I interviewed a forensic entomologist in Vancouver who explained how insects can tell stories for the dead: the age of flies in a body can date the time of death, the species mix can tell you the location a body was moved from, and the blood in an insect’s crop can tell you who… well, who they were eating. After that, my friend Alison and I organized a Shareable Neighbourhood walk to explore nature’s cycles of life and death (it hasn’t happened yet — that’s this Saturday). How do the trees and animals around us cope with the long, cold, winter in this climate? Which ones die, and which ones hang on, and how?

I’ve been trying to piece together why I’ve been drawn to these ideas lately, and the best I can come back to is the door. As JK Rowling showed so painfully in Harry Potter, death is at least a one-way passage for knowledge. We can never know what lies on the other side: a long drop and a short stop, or an ocean of possibility.

What does it mean to pass through a door with no hope of return? With no knowledge of what comes next? We know, of course, the grim life that lay on the other side of that particular door in the slave castle. But what if we were presented with such a door today, with no knowledge of what lay on the other side, and had the choice to take a one-way journey through it? Would we take it?

I watched the movie Solaris tonight, and it certainly asks this question. I think many great science fiction movies do, actually. Characters are presented with the choice to step onto an unknown, possibly transcendent, and possibly fatal path. There is no turning back.

I always get a tingle when they do.

Many of us live our lives with some certainty about the one-way door. It brings many people comfort to think that heaven lies on the other side, that all of our pain and wrongs will be erased and we can join the people we love again there. Others are just as certain that all that’s ahead of us is a future as a meal for insects. I don’t think it’s possible for us to know, no matter how many ghost stories I hear. But I think the answer we hold in our hearts matters.

If you were certain there a chance of eternal happiness on the other side, what matters more than getting there? Live your life without sin, do some good deeds where you can, and make right with your Creator, and everything will turn out alright. But what if all that’s on the other side is darkness? For some, that might mean there’s no point to living well. For me, I think it realigns life’s purpose.

If this is the only life we have, personal salvation doesn’t matter, but making this world better might. We may not have immortal life after this body expires, but we can certainly have an immortal impact on our community. If we are brave, we might embolden a whole generation after us. If we pay attention to our actions, we might make the water cleaner for our grandchildren. If we make space, new life might flourish in our footsteps.

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Our Shareable Neighbourhood

We were looking for a horseshoe.
Some of the folks out at last weekend’s Backyard Gardens walk.

I’ve had some time on my hands this summer to brew a couple new projects, and I think one of them is ready to open up a bit to the world. It’s called Shareable Neighbourhood.

Well, it wasn’t always called Shareable Neighbourhood. Technically this is the first time that’s ever happened. Initially I just called it Neighbourhood Walk, and between the two names you kind of get the idea: monthly tours of our neighbourhood in Old Strathcona/Mill Creek, to let people share what they know about local history and nature.

It was an idea born out of Next Up, the leadership program I finished this year. I’d been trying to dream up ways to get people jazzed about the nitty-gritty of where we live. Partly because I’m intensely curious about how and why things got to be the way they are, and partly because I think when you know more about what’s in your soil and who’s lived on it, you’re more likely to stand up for it. And partly I hoped that if we were all learning and sharing this stuff together more often, we’d feel like we had a more natural community of people to turn to when we need help getting a group solar panel discount, or bringing people out to a city council meeting — you get the idea.

The twist is that while we’ve had three so far and it’s ready to be murmured about online, it’s also young and needs fresh minds. I’m really trying to encourage folks in the neighbourhood to feel confident leading their own walks, even if they don’t have a degree or letters behind their name to qualify them in the idea. That’s why last weekend’s theme was Backyard Gardens: six of us who aren’t professional horticulturalists got to show off what we know about making tomatoes and delphiniums look good. So I want to decentralize the planning behind this as soon as possible, and we also need theme ideas.

So if you’re reading this, and you live in and/or know a lot about Edmonton’s Old Strathcona and Mill Creekish areas, drop me a line. If you have a tour you’d like to lead, great! We’ve done Plants of the River Valley and History of Immigration to Edmonton so far, and I think this month we’re going to investigate the local railways. And if you’d like to get involved in organizing, I’d love to hear from you too. Shareable Neighbourhood also has a Facebook group if you want to join. It might need to become a likeable page at some point.

By the way, this project owes a lot to the Jane’s Walks. They’re these annual walks all around the world that work exactly this way. Locals lead walks around topics like how an industrial heart became an urban park. I didn’t even realize how inspired I was by Tim McCaskell’s tour of Toronto’s gay village until someone pointed it out to me.

Also the name change was inspired by the great podcast 99% Invisible, which has much the same mission to explore the unseen story behind everyday parts of our lives. They tell beauteous stories about everything from how a picture gets on a stamp, to why US currency is so ugly, to how a Walt Whitman poem became wrought in an iron fence in Brooklyn. Just listening to the host, Roman Mars, this week made me more pumped about getting people to show off these unseen stories right beneath the surface of where we live. I highly recommend you check it out.

The Beavers That Lived in the Sky

This weekend I went to a farm in central Alberta for a gathering of Next Uppers from all over the province. I learned that the cattle farm was a bit of an Albertan punk rock institution not too many years ago, but more of the conversations drifted towards humans and our place in nature. Whether we have any place in it at all, in fact.

It inspired a little story I’d like to share with you, called The Beavers That Lived in the Sky.

A tower made out of sticks stands out in front of a bright blue sky
Photo credit: arvster

Once upon a time, deep in the forest there lived a colony of beavers. They loved to chomp down on trembling aspen trees, and build dams with them of course. Their dams created swampy reservoirs that lots of fish loved to swim in. The herons loved the dams too, because of all the delicious fish.

Gradually they spread into many colonies all throughout the forest, each with their own specialization: some built wider dams, some added tiny towers, some liked to decorate them with leaf sculptures, and some liked to carve famous beaver faces into them, like little Mt. Beavermores.

Then one day a beaver in one of these colonies said, Why should we stay in these little dams when we could build grand towers all the way up to the sky, high enough to see over the treetops? The other beavers in her colonies discussed this, and said it sounded like a very promising idea. So the chopped down some trees to build a magnificent tower, and lo and behold she was right, they had amazing views of the forest that no beaver had before.

The colony decided to become tower-makers and map-makers, creating exquisite maps of the forest from their new vantage point. And their maps were so splendid and renowned throughout the forest that they knew they’d struck upon the true destiny that all beavers were meant to fulfill.

With all these new trees they were chopping down, they could feed more beavers, and soon their first tower filled up and they had to build more to house everybody. The other colonies thought they were a bit strange with all their talk about the sky, but they said, “That’s all well and good for them, let them enjoy their big towers and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

And they would have.

But the tower-makers started running out of trees. They pondered what to do. Then they looked at all the other places in the forest and said, “Look at those silly beavers mucking about on the ground. They’re letting all of their trees go to waste, and not using them to build towers at all.”

So they tried to convince the other colonies of the error of their ways. The other beavers said no thanks, but the tower-makers were adamant they knew best. So they started moving into the other beavers’ areas to launch mandatory tower-building masterclasses, workshops and conferences.

Where they found the others difficult to re-educate, the tower-makers were regrettably compelled to use force. With their huge numbers, the battles were short, and before long most of the other colonies had become tower-makers too. After a few generations, most forgot they’d ever made dams.

Unfortunately, within a few generations the forest also started to look a little bare. Actually it looked like a disaster zone. With so many mouths to feed, they were forced to build more and more towers, and chop down  more and more trees. Eventually most of the forest became barren clearcuts dotted with towers.

Some beavers started getting very concerned about the disappearance of the forest, and tried to tell others they were headed down a self-destructive path. They warned that unless things changed, there’d be no forest left at all.

The rest of the tower-makers looked around, and agreed they needed to harvest trees more sustainably. Some even agreed that a disaster was going on.

“But what can we do?” they said. “Would you rather live without maps and towers?”

“There’s not much we can do, to be honest,” they sighed. “This is just how beavers are.”