Not quite Walden Pond

For much of my adult life, I have been living in apartments in what is sometimes referred to as the most densely populated square mile in North America, Vancouver’s West End. I’m somewhat sceptical of this claim, as it sounds a bit like chamber of commerce spin, not to mention that we northern North Americans tend to overlook Mexico as a part of our continent too, surely an area of population concentration of note. Nonetheless, the West End is an area of significant population density.

Density of this sort is an easy thing not to notice when you live in an economically privileged and relatively homogeneous form of it, however. Inside our boxes in the sky it is possible to feel a greater sense of privacy than in a house on a 33 foot lot in the suburbs. Despite having several hundred people within rock-throwing distance, you may never see or hear most of them. Even the other windows of other apartments, and the people behind them, are often distant enough to offer a sense of anonymity.

In my case, I also had the benefit of living right next door to one of Canada’s largest, and possibly wildest, urban parks, Stanley Park. It was like having a 1,000 acre backyard. Yes, I had to share it with others, but some sections, at some times of the day or week, you can have almost to yourself, especially when it’s not summer and the average Vancouverite won’t drag his ass away from the television or out of her car in case it rains. Have they never heard of raincoats?

Beaver Lake

Beaver Lake, in Stanley Park

I love the park, especially when it’s raining. When I lived beside it, I used to put on a raincoat, hiking boots and a Tilley hat, load my backpack with snacks, a thermos of tea, and head out at 7:00am with a pair of binoculars. The trails are beautifully peaceful during a misty rain, the park is loaded with life, and if you sit still for a bit, it will often reveal itself. I once saw a family of river otters cross the trail from the forest into Beaver Lake while I was sitting on my favourite bench.

Another favourite local escape is Wreck Beach, another park on the periphery of the city. Wreck is not the place to go for solitude if it’s sunny and warm, but it is still a great respite, nonetheless. Wreck has different sections, featuring slightly different demographics, though there is a certain amount of blending of and acceptance of “cultures” in all areas. Often on hot summer days I head for the main beach, the only place really suitable for swimming and, conveniently, where there exists an open market for every beach necessity imaginable, including empanadas and magic mushrooms, both of which I highly recommend.

Later in the day, however, I often head to the southern end of the beach, predominantly populated by queer men, where I can enjoy the sunset in relative peace. Sometimes it has the ambiance of an outdoor bathhouse, without the disco, but most of the crowd starts to disperse shortly after 4pm, which means it is pretty calm and quiet until the sun sets, which at this time of year isn’t until after 9pm.

Wreck Beach at dusk

Wreck Beach at dusk

Unfortunately, the presence of an offshore breakwater, behind which sit large booms of logs headed for the mills of the lower Fraser, means that there are only scattered small patches of sand, and swimming is neither practical nor recommended. However, it’s still pretty scenic (in its own, industrially polluted way) and any tugboats working – when the tide is high – are usually distant enough that their engines don’t drown out the buzz, chirp and rustle (and sometimes, moaning) of the plentiful wildlife.

Ever since I was quite young, I have both enjoyed and suffered the incongruity of wanting to be out of the city while wanting to be in it. When I was younger, I was generally satisfied with opportunities to escape the city for a weekend or a longer journey, despite the inconvenience of arranging transport and dealing with the traffic. And then there is always the trauma of having to come back again. This is a trauma I always experience while leaving the park or the beach. As I leave the density and dissolve into the forest, I feel my stress and urban agitation lift from me. The sensation of relaxing is physically tangible in a way that I get from no other experience. All too often, however, as soon as I begin to leave the park to return to “real life”, I start to feel some of that agitation settle once again upon my shoulders, and as I re-immerse myself back into the concrete, car alarms, yapping shih-tzus and gas-powered landscaping tools, I long once again to make a more permanent escape. If it weren’t for Stanley Park and Wreck Beach, I would surely have either fled this city, or fled my (albeit unique variety of) sanity, long ago. They provide me with the easily-accessible respite from urban hubbub that I require.

Lost Lagoon

Lost Lagoon

I’ve had it in my mind for many years that it would make far more sense to spend most of my time living out of the city, visiting it when I am in the mood for a dose, than to be trapped in it most of the time, constantly craving an opportunity to escape. I’ve had many visions of a semi-rural home over the years, and have been scouting out real estate for years. In the late 90s, I contemplated the purchase of a property in the Horsefly area of the Cariboo region in central British Columbia. It was 80 acres, with a small A-frame house, well forested with some cleared areas for growing, and with a large pond in which beavers and muskrats were known to reside. At only $100,000, it was hardly unaffordable.

So why didn’t I buy it? I can list off any number of rationalisations. How will I make money? What will I do for sex? Will I feel socially isolated? Will my nearest neighbours be gun-totin’ Reform Party loonies? Will I miss the city after all?

All valid concerns. Of course, most of those are concerns living in the city too, but there are likely more opportunities to generate cash in the city (regardless of the quality of those opportunities). It all came down to fear of the untested, really. In hindsight, I regret not having acted while I had the chance, and the resources. There would have been challenges, yes. But, older now, and having faced a few self-initiated challenges, I suspect that I would have found a way, and discovered that the differences between “here”and “there” are not as wholly distinct as might be imagined. After all, as I discovered not too long ago, my own big-city Jewish (now former) physician turned out to be a gun-totin’ Reform Party loony.

While I would be inclined now to act, I don’t currently have the resources to follow that path, though it’s not entirely out of the question that it could happen. In order to do it, I’d either have to win a lottery, or re-join the rat race from which I ran screaming several years ago. I don’t buy lottery tickets, and I seem not to have the fortitude (or the masochism) necessary to make the rat race tolerable. So here I am, a city boy still.


Wreck Beach at sunset

In the meantime, I am trying to make things as earthy as possible under the circumstances. I have always had a very polarised view of city living. If I’m going to live in a city, I want to live in the middle of it. If I’m not going to live in a city, I want to be in the woods. I have no time for suburbs, where people seem to resent foliage and physical exertion. Virginia Woolf (apparently) once said “If the choices are Richmond or death, I choose death”. She did, of course, in the end choose death, and I don’t blame her.

I have no plans to solve my residential plight by loading my pockets with stones and taking a nice long swim (though I reserve the right to change my mind if I ever find myself forced through circumstance, or really bad luck, to take up residence on the noxious Mary Hill), but I have taken steps to make city living a little more tolerable and, occasionally, even sorta pleasant.

For the past seven months or so, I have been living in a rented house on the east side of the city. I had always been curious about living on “The Drive” as this neighbourhood is known, but giving up instant access to the park always stopped me from trying it out. As it turns out, I quite like it. It has more real cultural diversity than any other Vancouver neighbourhood, and that’s integrated diversity. Really, the area is probably on the decline, as character goes, since real estate is getting more and more expensive and the people with lots of money and no sense of community buy up land and gentrify things, but for now, I like it.

The food is great around here too. Though many of the historically-present Italians have dispersed to other parts of the city, there are still a number of merchants around that supply their tastes, which conveniently are also my tastes. Old style deli counters at Santa Barbara and Bosa markets are fattening me up on parmesan-crusted salami, prosciutto, fennel sausage, and a variety of cheeses, and the choices of vegetables, with both the Italian and Asian influences, is much more satisfying than those found in the big chain stores.

Another way that I am making the best of things is by having a garden as well, which is kind of like farming on a very small scale. In fact, I have two gardens, having also taken over the unused one at the house next door. The quantity of food that comes out of them is not astounding, particularly since the weather was so unusually hot and dry in the late spring and early summer that many of the more water-demanding greens shot stalks straight up and bolted before they could even produce many leaves. However, I am eating out of the garden daily, mainly lettuce, mustard greens, chard, and snow peas. The pole beans should be ready to eat in another week or two, I have a bit of rhubarb, and I have just done a second planting of a few quicker growing things, as well as some fall crops. If the winter isn’t too cold, I should be able to get a good supply of kale through the end of the year, too. My yard also has apple, pear, plum and fig trees, all of which seem to be producing a good supply of fruit.

The Main Garden

The Main Garden

Of course, getting food out of the garden is nice, but I suspect a big part of the satisfaction comes from the opportunity to play in the dirt. I can sit out there for hours, digging, pruning, thinning, and weeding. Usually when I am finished, I have half of the garden on me, which I shower off before I return to the yard to sit in the shade and read, or watch the chickadees and bushtits.

As an added bonus to my need to satisfy my farming urges, city council recently passed a motion permitting citizens to keep chickens in backyards, something I have been demanding for years, since it seems absurd that you can have cats, dogs, birds, reptiles, rodents, and even children, but not a couple of hens. The city managers are taking their time actually writing the new law, so I don’t yet know what limit will be in place for the quantity of fowl, but I am making the plans for my new coop in the meantime. Now I just have to start warming my neighbours up to the idea of chicken-sitting for me when I need to escape to the woods for a weekend.

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hedley bontano


  1. Cory Tennant on July 23, 2009 at 00:05

    Nice article. You may also be interested in a poem my friend Chris Bitten wrote about the redoubtable Virginia. Here it is:

    “I Begin to Hear Voices….”

    Virginia Woolf at fifty-nine
    Worn thin by an infinite
    Drizzle of syllables,
    A pluvial onslaught of words.

    The last walls are breached;
    Inside, a well of circular echoes,
    Disembodied voices, fleshless phrases —
    Insistent, suffocating.

    Virginia Woolf at fifty-nine
    Crossed the river meadows
    In green spring sun,
    Pausing once to choose a river stone
    Of heft enough, round, water smooth,
    And pushed it in the pocket of her coat.

    Virginia Woolf at fifty-eight:
    “I shall swim into quiet water.”

  2. Doug Dosdall on August 4, 2009 at 10:42

    A lovely meditation on the city. Your attitude to the city/country is shared by many i think. Too bad the suburbs land in the middle making the trip from one to the other so onerous. I’m growing my first real garden this year too – but on a rooftop right in the midst of the West End. The tomatoes have loved this hot weather as have most of the herbs. But everything else is struggling. Shall i trade you some tomatoes for some pole beans?