Next Stop YZF: Introduction and Gardens

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Editor’s note: This is the first post in a five-part series about the environmental histories Jess Dunkin encountered while travelling from Ottawa to Yellowknife this past spring. Read the full #NextStopYZF here.

I am a traveller. With the exception of Newfoundland, I have visited every province and territory in Canada. My experiences of the US are a little patchier. I’ve seen most of the states along the Eastern seaboard, a few in the Midwest, and Oregon on the Pacific coast. Since first going overseas in 2002, I have also had the good fortune to visit countries in Central America and the Caribbean, Europe, and South Asia. However, aside from brief stints in Honduras and Costa Rica in 2003 and 2004, I have always called Ontario home. That changed in April.

Yellowknife
Yellowknife, NWT.

This past winter, I accepted a job in Yellowknife with the Northwest Territories Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA). This move was about more than relocating to another province or territory. It also represented a significant career change for me. Since starting my Master’s degree in 2007, I had been dedicated to a career as an academic historian. After completing my doctorate in 2012, I spent a year teaching in Ottawa before starting a postdoc at Queen’s University. Like so many scholars of my generation, yearly hiring cycles came and went without the offer of a tenure-track position. So, when the opportunity came to work alongside NWT communities developing on-the-land programming, I decided it was time to make my departure from academia.

Given the levity of the move, I did not think the journey would feel complete if I boarded a plane in Ottawa and disembarked in Yellowknife four hours later. I wanted more time to contemplate the many kinds of changes this move represented for me. I also liked the idea that overland travel would serve to physically connect the place I had left and the place I was going, a tangible reminder that Yellowknife and Ottawa are not isolated islands in the continent of North America. So, I decided to drive.

There are three main options for the journey, all of them ranging between 4900 and 5400 kilometres. There is the all-Canadian north-of-Superior route, the Sault Ste. Marie crossing to Minnesota that tracks south of Superior before returning to Canada in eastern Saskatchewan, and, finally, the most southerly route that rounds the bottom of Lake Michigan before heading northwest across the plains. I chose the latter because I had done the first drive three times, I’d heard horror stories about the road heading west from the Sault, and I’d never been to Detroit and Chicago.

Map of Journey
My Journey

According to a map of North American eco-regions, the drive would take me along the southern reaches of the Canadian Shield to the Mixed Wood Plains (encountering in this order, Lake Erie Lowlands, Southern Michigan Drift Plains, Central Corn Belt Plains, Driftless Area, and North Central Hardwood Forests). In western Minnesota, I would enter the Great Plains; after crossing the Red River, the Lake Manitoba and Lake Agassiz Plains would give way to the Aspen Parkland (or Northern Glaciated Plains as this area is also called). Between Regina and Saskatoon, I would travel across the Northwestern Glaciated Plains before returning to the Northern Glaciated Plains. The last leg of the journey would pass through Northern Forests (Mid-Boreal Uplands and Peace-Wabaska Lowlands) with a short stint in the Clear Hills and Western Alberta Upland before hitting the Taiga Plain (Hay and Slave River Lowlands) and the Taiga Shield (Coppermine River and Tazin Lake Uplands).

As even this brief preview of the ecological landscape makes clear, there would be much to see. Consider also the many layers of human and industrial activity that would be visible on this cross-continental trek.

Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that I chronicled the journey from Ontario to the NWT through photos and 140-character vignettes with the hashtag #nextstopyzf. A Storify version of the trip is available here. A handful of times, I was asked by people following my travels to provide more information about a place or something I had seen. There were also a number of memorable points I thought worthy of further reflection. This series is an opportunity to do both.

I have chosen one thing from each day of the trip that piqued my interest, nine things in all. Day 1 follows this introduction. After that, each post will cover two days of the trip. The information shared in each of the posts is merely the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to be said about each of these places and topics. I hope that these pint-sized dispatches from the road inspire your curiosity.

Day 1 – The Re-Greening of Detroit

My journey to Yellowknife began in Ottawa on a cold day in late March before the sun had peeked over the horizon. Much of the day’s driving was through familiar landscapes: Highway 7, Peterborough, the 115, the 401, Toronto, more 401, London. The last stretch, though, between London and Windsor was new to me. It was flatter than I expected. I was also struck by the ubiquity of wind turbines (most of which were located on the south side of the highway). It was that first night’s destination, though, that captured my imagination and stood out as the most remarkable part of the first leg of the journey.

Detroit, as many of you will already know, is a city fallen on the hardest of times. Since 1950, its population has declined by almost half. The 700,000 residents that remain live in an urban area with more than 40,000 abandoned or empty buildings. The unemployment rate in February of this year was 12.5% (the national average in the US is closer to 6%). More telling statistics include the fact that 38% of the city’s inhabitants live in poverty and more than two-thirds of Detroit residents are unable to satisfy basic needs. Most recently, Detroit has been in the news because 20,000 residents were threatened with water shut-offs for not being able to pay their bills.

Detroit 2
Detroit, MI.

While the situation in Detroit seems dire, all is not lost. Visions for a new Detroit are abundant. Environmental historians may be interested in one of the more grassroots solutions, the re-greening of Detroit, of which urban gardening is one component.

At present, Detroit has one of the largest urban agriculture movements in the country. According to a group of University of Michigan students who have created a website devoted to the city’s environmental history, “the recent excitement about urban gardening…is symbolic of Detroit’s rich agricultural past.” The students point to the ribbon farms, long thin plots of land with water frontage, that characterized early French settlement, as well as the farmers markets and household gardens that fed the city in the nineteenth century. (The group’s otherwise well-documented account of Detroit’s environmental past is silent on the agricultural practices of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants then or now.)

During the economic depression of 1893, vacant city lots were converted into potato patches. Although only a temporary measure, the success of the patches led to their adoption by other American cities. The use of vacant lots for gardens would re-appear throughout the twentieth century: Thrift Gardens during the Great Depression, Victory Gardens during World War II, and the Farm-A-Lot program in the 1970s. The latter was more than a program to feed the city, it was also an attempt to beautify the urban landscape and, in turn, to raise property values and make owning a home in Detroit, a city already suffering the consequences of deindustrialization, desirable.

Detroit Gardens
“P1060141” by Jessica “The Hun” Reeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Today, there are urban gardens large and small across the city. Changes to a city ordinance in 2013 made urban agriculture a legitimate land use, which in turn allowed residents to grow and sell produce directly from their yards. The seven-acre D-Town Farm in River Rouge Park is one of the largest urban agriculture projects in the city. An initiative of the Black Food Security Network, the farm is at once a practical response to issues of poverty and food insecurity, and an opportunity for the city’s African American population to take the lead on community food justice issues. National Public Radio’s (NPR) The Picture Show did a feature on the farm in 2013.

Even the briefest of visits to Detroit (like mine) reveal a city in dire straits. It’s easy to dwell on the vacant lots, the abandoned buildings, the myriad potholes (and many visitors do). To do so ignores the lots that have been transformed into gardens, the houses with laundry on the line and children’s toys scattered about the yard. Most importantly, it ignores the people, the activists, the artists, the doers, who are living in Detroit and working to create a city that feeds its hungry, houses its poor, and is beautiful.

In the next post, we will continue our westward journey to Lake Michigan. We’ll make two stops on the lake: the first on the Indiana Lakeshore and the second in Chicago.

Read Part 2 of #NextStopYZF, “Shorelines and Woodblocks”

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Jess Dunkin

Director, On the Land Programs at NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin is the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. She lives in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8), home of the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene. In her free time, Jess loves to paddle, cross-country ski, and tweet about life in the #SpectacularNWT from @jessddunkin.

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