The Mountains of Canada

“The power of imagination makes us infinite”

-John Muir

 

As we barrelled down the Columbia Icefields Parkway we leaned, contorted and squinting to glean bigger views of the immense landscape through the bug-splattered windshield.  It struck me how urban this place was, despite also being pervasively natural.  The city and its architecture have a strange relationship to nature.  They are in a manner antinomical, yet inarguably bound up together.  To speak of nature is to start a big conversation, and anecdotally I’ve begun with the 19th century european Romantic/Transcendentalist version, of sublime wilderness compensating for theological disenchantment hastened by the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of urbanization.

Between 1871 and 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railway Company established nearly 2,000 miles of steel track across a vast North American wilderness, securing the territory of British Columbia as a province of the congealing Canadian nation.  The construction was driven by a political imperative–it consolidated Canadian territory in the face of an expanding United States–but also supported the entrepreneurial ambitions of the CPR to capitalize on this powerful transportation infrastructure. Using land grants from the Canadian government it packaged and sold transport on its vessels by sea and rail, along with cheap plots of land, to lure immigrants to the unpopulated expanse between the cities of eastern Canada and the Pacific.  It also profited by catering to the wealthy tourists from the east with first-class travel that included luxury dining cars and a string of hotels.  Where the railway encountered the challenging topography of the Canadian Rockies, the CPR established a set of mountain resorts around which the Canadian government accommodatingly set aside large preserves of land to underwrite the scenic grandeur.  Over the next half-century these accommodations grew and multiplied into a constellation of national parks, resort cities like Banff and Jasper, and the road network fed by the Trans-Canadian highway.

We decided to undergo an exploration, which meant surrendering the accoutrements of urban life–endless potable running water (hot and cold) and electricity, the blanket of digital communications, the network of services and commodity outlets we typically frequent to address our material needs, and so on.  We would dwell in a recreational form of Existenzminimum in which we sleep in a tensile structure of nylon over narrow aluminum rods, isolating us from ground and sky by at most a couple of millimeters.  Nearly every morning we would disassemble our portable domestic settlement and pack it neatly into the car to seek out a new territory further down the road.  We stayed primarily in provincial and national parks, meaning that we would repeatedly stake our place in a small community of people with something of a similar agenda to our own.  After establishing camp we were free to swim in the cold clear lakes, amble through the varying terrains, explore the local towns, or put our feet up and read while swatting mosquitoes.

The escape from the city into rural outdoor terrains is a popular model for recreation whose origin corresponds to the rise of the modern city itself.  The insalubrious conditions of cities was a fundamental issue in the utopian schemes of the 19th century, which often imagined architecturally reformed communities as ex-urban colonies.  Access to clean air and water, natural light, and personal space were considered hygienic necessities within the designs.  This remained true into the 20th century in proposals for urban clearance in which the congested medieval city could be reformed as towering metropolis in the park.  Was the city, by its nature, inherently unhealthy due to a lack of nature, requiring a flight to the natural for health’s sake?  Or could a healthy city be conceived by a reinstatement of nature within the city fabric?

Beyond good health, the outdoors were an existential point of reference for the Romantic/Aaesthetic nature as an embodiment of primordial creative force. This outlook echoed the Greek conception of physis, the principle of genesis that brings the sensible world into being.  In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates turns away from the blinding opacity of physis in order to to pursue knowledge of the causes of things through logos, “his second sailing,” and thus begins western philosophy’s conceptual architecture of knowledge.  These outlooks indicate nature as a region of compelling mystery, overpoweringly present yet inarticulable in its own domain.  When one steps into nature’s wilderness there is an immediate recognition of an unspeakable presence that exceeds the intellect and imagination.

Is this presence suppressed in city life, such that we must enact our flights of recreation? The term recreation dates from the 14th century and implies “to refresh, restore, make anew, revive, invigorate.”  The structure of this term implies a return, or repetition, indicating a cycle in which people must periodically address a deficiency of routine life through a willful and productive act.  Architecture’s presence discloses human realities, but like philosophy or art it takes artifice and ingenuity as its creative principle rather than dwelling on what is physically given in the natural.  It is within the artificial world of architecture that the need for recreation arises, the world from which we must “resort” (to leave again).  Is the wildness of physis what we seek in the outdoors?

The irony of nature in the park is that there is something distinctly un-wild about spaces circumscribed by administrative limits.  And infrastructures providing access to these compelling natural sites, by opening them up to human traffic inevitably sponsor the typical forms of settlement antithetical to the autonomy of the natural world, that with which we seek to make contact.  This is the odd human relationship to nature: in some way it is the human presence itself that domesticates and de-wilds nature, like the particle that disappears once observed.  The appearance of nature may take a purer form in the utter solitude of the backcountry, but an element of imagination is still necessary to think nature.  Can urbanized environments sustain an imagining of nature as we seek in the wild outdoors, or must they always fall short?

 

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