by Jessica Jurgutis
While my Mom was dying she told me a story about trauma and loss that gave me insight into the struggles I was having writing my dissertation. I was reminded of this months after her death when I couldn’t write—I was struggling to disentangle myself from family dynamics that were deeply harmful to me. Her story taught me about my emotional connection to my writing and foreshadowed that the depths and undercurrents of the confusion, disorientation and loss that I felt couldn’t be ignored. She was guiding me to what I didn’t want to look at or feel, even at a point when I had been actively working with my therapist for a number of years.
As soon as she was gone the only thing that felt good was being outside: feeling the embrace of wind, the support of earth and soil underneath my feet, beginning to build relationships with the plants and flowers, and all the life that I could feel with me. I had been trying to find my way back here for years but I felt so restrained and there were so many barriers and anxieties for what the forest would show me about myself. I knew I had to return. I believe this was one of my Mom’s gifts to me in her passing.
When I returned to Medway Creek (now called Medway Valley Heritage Forest), where I spent so much time as a child, I hoped it would feel familiar and comforting, but it was more like I was re-entering a memory from another life. Things seemed so different and were not quite in place, and yet I could roughly orient myself, though that certainly didn’t prevent my partner and I from eventually getting lost. I knew one of the rough routes I used to travel, but there were large gaps that made it difficult to navigate. There were places on the trail where this felt like a different place entirely and then out of nowhere I would see the tree whose branches braided and tunneled. Some of my earliest, happiest and most formative memories were being in Medway Creek because Mrs. Norman, my grade one and two teacher, always used to take us here. Being here I noticed the stunning beauty, strength and warmth of embrace that even barren trees offer us simply because you can see the intricacies of how each branch winds and curls, cradles and bridges alongside the others. I remembered how this was a tree that everyone was always drawn to; the one that everyone always wanted to stand with and under. I wondered about my classmates and why they loved this tree. I wondered how many of them have spaces in their lives when they can feel in ways that this tree offered them.
Medway Creek runs off the northern fork of the Askunessippi. In Anishnaabe, ‘Eshkani-ziibi’ means antlered river. London and most of Southwestern Ontario is the traditional territory Ojibwa, Odawa and the Neutrals, and the Chippewa of the Thames, Munsee Delaware, and Oneida Nation of the Thames are each located approximately 30 kilometers south(west) of the city on the shores of the river. According to the Upper Thames Conservation Authority, the land surrounding the river had once been severely depleted by settlers through aggressive farming and logging practices, and by 1900 public swimming pools were being constructed because the water was so polluted. What is now commonly known as Medway Valley Heritage Forest was permitted to re-naturalize after 1945 and has since been deemed a protected and environmentally significant area since the 1980s when residents protested the construction of a sewer line through the forest.
As I got older I asked for nature books of bird and plant species and I began to bring them to the forest on our class walks. I began trying to locate parts of the landscape (specific leaves, mosses, etc.) in my books, and was sometimes successful, but more often than not I couldn’t match the plants and animals with the categories and images provided. I became frustrated and remember thinking I didn’t know how to find the ‘right’ characteristics in order to locate and match the parts of the landscape with the species in my book. Where I once felt passion for all the different kinds of life in the forest, I soon felt overwhelmed and that my work wasn’t helping build a relationship with this place. As years passed, and as detachment and numbness set in, my desire to be with the forest faded. The less alive I felt, the more distant the forest became. Over time I suppose I continue to circle back to similar questions, and to a place not far from where I started.
The river was re-named the Thames at roughly the same time that the fork was proclaimed as the desired future capital of Upper Canada in 1792, before Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe ever arrived in the area. In her book, ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ Rebecca Solnit suggests that more often than not settlers never did understand where it is that they were and instead tried to reconstruct their surroundings in the image of what was left behind, often with a great deal of disregard for those whose land they were on, and the reciprocal relations to be upheld through the treaties and agreements that were established between indigenous and European nations. Housing development began in 1960 in Sherwood Forest neighbourhood.
Sto:Loh Nation poet and author Lee Maracle cautions settlers that their first obligation is to get to know the land they’re standing on, what was here before, and how people took care of the land. When we attach ourselves to land, as she reminds us, we are also making a commitment to it. But for settlers, our attachment to land often means erasing the agency and life force of the land, water and other living beings that make our lives possible. Relating to land as wild and therefore, in need of taming and control, is connected to relating to the land and as property and commodity to use for our benefit and profit. In these ways of relating to land it becomes an object that is always acted upon (politically or otherwise). It also becomes a source of danger that needs to be subdued and corrected. In her piece, ‘Nogojiwanong: The Place at the Foot of the Rapids’ Leanne Simpson talks about how damming projects shackle and constrain the water as a life force, and therefore the life force of the land and Nishnaabeg grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters. Maracle and Simpson’s words remind me of how central healing relationships to land is to healing relationships with ourselves and each other. As a white settler, who is also a queer femme with working class roots in steel worker and immigrant families, this work may look differently, but it is still my responsibility to actively work to undo the systems I benefit from, since they are also the systems that are to blame for the ways I have experienced violence and loss.
In re-tracing my steps back to Medway Creek I think I hoped to find something and someone I recognized, but it was when I found myself pulled in and a part of the forest that I realized what I was most looking for was a state of being from a time when I felt alive, unafraid, curious, uninhibited, safe and loved. Like most moments of deep learning this caught me by surprise and challenged how I was trying to relate to the world around me. How did I learn to desire certain ways of knowing and relating to land? How did I learn to distrust relationships at the expense of categories and labels and what parts of me were lost to these colonial knowledges of exclusion, control, authority and harm? How was the harm I experienced and that I learned to perpetuate enabled through these ways of coming to know the land and myself?
It remains impossible for me to conceive of my childhood neighbourhood and earliest sense of self, passion and purpose without Medway Creek, though those memories were lost for a very long while—not lost as in gone, just forgotten. I could talk about the education system and how we seldom create spaces to learn alternative pedagogies and generate our own sustained connections to the natural environment, our communities and to ourselves, or recognize it enough as a space of deep teaching and learning through diverse ways of knowing. Or about how my class would not have had access to a natural space within walking distance if Medway Creek had not been “permitted” to re-naturalize as part of a larger urban development strategy. But the forest and river were only ever deemed deserving of protection long after the land had been settled and so much violence perpetrated, and even in spite of this the land and river are still being actively harmed.
London’s history has been marked by repeated floods and serious threats to its ecological diversity as a result of increasing numbers of chemicals, pollutants and other waste being dumped into the river. And though it remains resilient and significant conservation efforts have been underway for decades, the river and ecologies it sustains within and beyond the forest remain under considerable threat. Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, in 1947 the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority was established with the directive to protect people and property from flooding with a proposed solution of eight damming projects, only three of which were ever completed. Currently the struggle to protect the water continues through the fight against Line 9 as a danger to the water supply and life it sustains, as well as a violation of treaty rights. The Chippewa of the Thames and other indigenous nations have been on the front lines of the struggle to protect the land and water, of which we are all beneficiaries.
In the summer of 2014, Gale Cyr, an Anishinaabe Elder who generously shared her teachings as part of the Walls to Bridges facilitator training at the Grand Valley Institution for Women (wallstobridges.ca), affirmed that we can always re-live our memories and the deepest parts of ourselves in our stories, and that through this we can access something of ourselves that we hold most dear. We can come back to these stories differently, and can tell them differently each time as a way to return to and reimagine ourselves and our relationships. Gale’s teachings and the experiences and insights that were shared in our circle helped me to return as a way forward. As I listened and realized the possibility in Gale’s story—the way she re-enacted and embodied the story as she told it and brought us with her; the way she transformed the space of the prison itself—I noticed that I could not remember a moment in my life where I’ve felt so hopeful.
Gale’s teachings and our circle taught me that it is in the re-living that affirms what is past is not gone and that we can always carry what we most cherish forward on our journeys. For the pain, I like to think that every so often a big breath, soothing breeze, quiet moon, invigorating wave, or loving friend helps me to remember it, or hold it, and maybe every so often to release it. Anishinaabe Metis poet and writer, Gwen Benaway has said that we can’t always heal, but perhaps we can at least gain a sense of comfort out of coming to know ourselves. Noticing the transitions and transformations of the life around me helps me to notice and trust these very same cycles in myself.
Medway Creek and the Walls to Bridges classroom share one thing in common: they are the only places in my educational experience where I have ever truly felt valued as a whole person. They have been the spaces I have experienced the kind of aliveness that I can feel growing inside me, through the walls and cement, and seeping down deep. It’s possible that in re-living and re-telling the stories we hold most dear that something can be restored, or found, just not in the ways I thought. Not in the sense that it can be fully recovered as though the damage can be undone, or that if you dig deep enough you will find yourself unscathed. In some sense then they no longer remain only memories, or even stories in the conventional sense in that they always offer us deep insights and a choice in the present. What path will we walk and who and what will we bring with us on our journeys?
These many teachers have helped me trust that there may be something about getting lost, or relating to loss that offers us abundance and a window into the ways life itself and all we have always hinges on what can be no longer. It is these teachings that have made it possible for me to orient myself in this body and on this land and which continue to allow me to ground myself in the past and present as a way forward. If we are always in relation to place and all the life that surrounds and teaches us, then lost and loss both take on new meaning. Sharing our stories offers the chance to create new paths that may not be familiar, but will take us to that which we need most. Sometimes creating new paths requires retracing our steps. After all, and in the case that it’s comforting to consider, a path seen or felt is just the impression of something or someone that used to be there. I feel that being in those places connect us to collective work and legacies much bigger than ourselves. When all else fails, I imagine us together again, walking in the forest
Jessica Jurgutis is an educator, writer, and gardener based out of the traditional ter- ritories of the Haudenosaunee and Anish- naabeg (Hamilton, Ontario).