Many Spacing readers are probably aware that the Mile End Meadow was decimated one week ago, when two mowing machines from the Arrondissement Mile End – Plateau Mont-Royal chopped down all the flowering plants. To see the field the next day was like looking at the person about to be incarcerated, her lustrous hair shaved, her perfumed robes replaced by drab pyjamas. Just as we dehumanize in order to control people; so we denature in order to control nature.
It was hot the Saturday I passed and for a moment I thought I was in the country, the haying having just been done. But there were no bales to show for it, no animals nearby to benefit from the feed, aside from the masses of wasps flitting over the sweetness of the cut flowers and hundreds of giddy starlings, flying back and forth between Nicolas, the great cottonwood in the centre of the meadow, and a grove of chokecherry trees, growing against one of the lines of Frosst fence. Gone were the gold finches, the monarch butterflies, the bees, the dragonflies.
The only reason the trees have escaped the insistent mowing of the owners of the field – Canadian Pacific Railways, until recently, and now la Ville de Montréal – is because they grow too close to a fence, some stone or metal barricade, or the old raised platform left over from 20 years ago when the train cars would pick up their loads of coal or potash, before heading out west or up north. In other words, the mowers can’t get to them.
Ironically, the areas of meadow flowers now safe from the blade are those that are privately owned, down the strip between one of the enormous textile buildings and the meat distribution place, and the area opening onto rue de Gaspé, between that curved building and that same megastructure.
Why was this done? Why all this beauty gone, this habitat bulldozed, this spot of summer silenced, these colours muted?
What about all those nods to biodiversity, trees, greenspace, public consultation, etc. that you find on the pretty web pages of la Ville? Some of us believed that our city, our elected representatives would be less mindlessly routine than the CPR.
Two weeks ago, I watched as young children ran along the many paths, crisscrossing the field, their heads only occasionally visible behind the towers of tansy, chicory, thistle, vetch, valerian, clover, Queen Anne’s lace. The children stopped, looked, followed the bees from one vessel of nectar to the next. Tried to catch a grasshopper.
This is happiness incarnate. This is a smile. This is life humming, chirping, buzzing all around.
This is free.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps, that’s the menace, what undermines the tenet of our times: For 60 years, we’ve been taught: You get what you pay for. The corollary to that is: If you pay nothing, it’s worth nothing. So the free – or worthless – things in life must be transformed into something sellable in order to have value.
But a meadow like this is truth to the lie. A meadow like this sings with the generosity of the wind and, water, soil and squirrels, birds and bipeds, all unpaid agents for the dispersal, planting and germination of seeds.
A meadow like this is wisdom. Anything growing here is in the right place, otherwise it doesn’t last. Just read Roger Latour’s recent Guide de la flore urbaine to know the extent of the rightness.
Even black walnut trees. Gardening books will tell you that these valuable trees need rich soil. How then are they growing in a polluted old railway yard?
First, however, how did walnut trees end up this field? In any abandoned bit of land, you expect to find the so-called pioneer species : elm, poplar, Manitoba, silver and Norway maples, tough trees that produce lots of seed that is dispersed hither and yon by the wind.
Black walnut is not in that category. Someone has to plant the green-husked nut in the ground in order that it germinates. Someone – perhaps a Carmelite nun – did plant a black walnut more than a century ago in the walled monastery garden across the street from the meadow. Or, the tree might have been a gift from Henri-Gustav Joly de Lotbinière, a prominent Quebec politician and planter of 10,000 black walnuts on his land near Quebec City, 100 of which thrive today at the Domaine Joly-de-Lotbinière.
In either case, the Carmelite walnut is an enormous nut-heavy specimen that you can easily see peering over the garden wall, near the north end. (Walnut trees are easily distinguished by their many lance-shaped leaflets and the black branches that spread as wide as high on the mature tree.)
Since the planting of the ancestral tree, hundreds of walnuts have been, no doubt planted by the squirrels that scramble over the seven-metre wall. In the Mile End Meadow, there are at least 30 walnut trees who have evaded the mower’s blade, several of which are producing their own nuts. This makes the meadow one of the largest collections of « wild » walnut trees in Quebec. For one, the tree, not being native to the province – preferring the warmer temperatures of southwestern Ontario – is relatively rare in Quebec. For another, it’s unusual to have the combined circumstances of a mature walnut tree and a free bit of land. The situation in the Mile End Meadow is truly unusual. How often is the monastery of a contemplative religious order (circa 1896) built next to a railway yard (1876)?
We have to be grateful for this peculiar juxtaposition of these two landscapes. Imagine, for instance, what the meadow will look like in 10 years if we decide now to celebrate this gift of historical circumstance and to revere the walnuts and other meadow flora. Dispersed around the edges of the field, the trees will be as iconic as the baobab trees of southern Africa. Tall, massive, spreading, they will dominate the meadow. Underneath them will be a concentration of plants in the pea family : clovers, vetches, wild peas, Siberian pea tree, (though not alfalfa which doesn’t tolerate juglone, the walnut’s chemical arm against too much competition).
Bees, therefore, will be plentiful and by that time the city will have changed its bylaw regarding beehives and there will be hives on top of the megastructures, the 1960s textile buildings. The air will be sweet with nectar and people will come often to sit in the shade of the great trees.
Given the walnut’s capacity to reduce competing species, and given that the squirrels will plant more and more walnuts, there will likely be fewer Manitoba maples and sumacs close by. Other trees, such as the already sizable cottonwood and balsam poplars, the white elms, silver maples, choke cherries, lindens, Siberian elms and apple trees (another gift from the monastery) will continue to grow, reproduce and attract birds, squirrels and insects.
People will continue to cross the field on the footpaths they have worn, leading from the corner closest to the Rosemont metro to the gap between the two megastructures, closest to de Gaspé, on their way to work, to market, while walking their dog, pulling out the ragweed and other allergenic plants, or simply to spend time, watching the unfolding of numerous life forms. Children from local schools, will come to the field to learn to identify the flora and fauna, gather samples for their classroom herbaria and to measure the growth of the walnut trees and the others.
Interpreters from the Biodome will incorporate the Mile End Meadow as another ecosystem for their nature museum, and will be on hand, seasonally at least, to help Montrealers learn about the ecology of a meadow.
Researchers from the Institut de recherche en biologie végétale (at the Botanical Gardens) will also be on-site, monitoring the metals and other contaminants in the soil to see how they change from year to year and to understand the role played by different plants in removing the toxins. The pea family, for instance, is well-known, for instance for its capacity to fix nitrogen through nodes on its roots thereby enriching poor soil. But what of the walnuts themselves? The ellagic acid found in their leaves is believed by some scientists to inhibit the carcinogenic elements in fossil fuels. There will be plenty of interest on the part of soil scientists and others interested in phytoremediation.
Other species of plants may also be planted experimentally either for the fruit they bear, such as serviceberries, elders, cherries, pears, etc., or for their capacity to detoxify the soil.
By this time, the meat distributing company, south of the meadow, will have been expropriated and in its place is the Musée du pré Mile-End, the first museum ever dedicated to the history of a piece of land. The many thematic areas of the low-lying building include the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the role it played in the history of Montreal; the history of Quebec’s textile industry; the history of the village of Mile End; the flora and fauna of the meadow and the question of urban biodiversity; the history of the Carmelite order; a classroom for learning the arts and science of observation and documentation; and, finally, a restaurant that serves food made from ingredients in the field : chokecherry jelly, apple pie, maple walnut ice cream, honey wine, elderberry cordial, and so on.
Finally, there will be a community kitchen where citizens may learn how to grow and use locally cultivated foods as well as « wild » foods.
Le musée du pré Mile-End will be the centrepiece of a large, on-going experiment in urban biological diversity, linking the community gardens to the south of Maguire Street, to the evolving meadow in the north, to the greening of the megastructures and surrounding streets, to the housing for elderly people. The walnut tree will be its symbol. Perhaps the squirrel as well since the tree owes its existence to the hard-working quadrupeds.
Those deciding the governance of the land and museum will consist of an elected council drawn from local schools, businesses, health practitioners, artists, woodworkers, gardeners, scientists, nature interpreters, daycare centres, the Carmelite monastery, the local historical society, buffs of railroad history and of textile history, people representing the homeless, and no doubt others that share an affinity with the meadow.
Is it audacious to think this way? Is it any more audacious than spending a million (in 1872 dollars) to create Mount Royal park; more audacious than Joly de Lotbinière dreaming of a walnut forest when others of his time and status saw lumber but not trees, or than Frère Marie-Victorin’s dream of creating a botanical garden while the province was in its worst economic crisis; more audacious than making a nature museum out of a velodrome, or a municipal beach and lake, kept clean by plants; or a bicycle that you can pick up and leave anywhere throughout Montreal?
I don’t think so. I think only that whoever ordered the recent mowing of the Mile End Meadow has to get into the meadow and meet the inhabitants.