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2007 03 13
Millrace: A Suburban Lament
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[Although I write mainly about Toronto and Toronto literature, one thing Reading Toronto readers may not know is that for nine years during my late childhood and teens my family lived at the edge of a growing suburb just east of the city in Ajax. My parents owned a long strip of land between a conservation area and several encroaching subdivisions. After corrupt planners allowed a major sewer to be built right through Duffin's Creek and across the environmentally sensitive conservation lands that bordered our property, my parents, who owned strategically valuable road frontage, negotiated with a developer who was willing to protect what remained of the conservation area and sold. Because the real estate market crashed almost immediately afterward, an irony was that for many years my parents ended up being the only ones who profited from the destruction of the lands they loved. The story is much longer, of course. My father and I have traveled back, occasionally, to keep an eye on things, and most of the images you see here are from one of our recent visits.

This term at York I discovered that one of my students lives in a subdivision built over these very lands; after some discussion we determined that her house is probably built above a half-acre garden my parents had once maintained. Since our conversation I have been reminded again of these lost lands and of a poem I wrote about our experiences there, fragments of which are reproduced here. This is not necessarily a good poem, but it is a true poem, in the sense that a memory or sound may ring true to its hearer. I was its hearer, once, and now invite you to listen.]

A dead ash marked the back of our property
In the summer it was barely visible from the house, but
this was where the raccoons lay, where the raspberries ended.
This was where a burrow path stretched between the dust and distance
like a secretive cornfield on a dry afternoon. Only the wind
presiding nearby, uttered vague pronouncement and fled.

We walked almost daily between the woods and the lands
of a disused farm, between fallen foundations sequestered
amid swells of sumachs, and fields fast growing into thickets.
And above these fields a hawk, rising on elliptical currents
veiled breathing shadows with its own and closed
over all these windswept moments like a swift fog.

In summer before rain the trees gathered and spoke
as the wind ran and I ran through goldenrod and grass
unleashed by longing into the night. We called to the storm
from the edge of a field, from the seething darkness of a cedar thicket.
On these nights the wind pulled at things buried deep below skin,
instants shouting to be felt, and freed by longing
to relive the moment, to fix its meaning
and tunnel to the core of myself.

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Down behind the cedar thicket, and
beneath the hollow drumming of grouse
is a sound like soil falling from an unseen hand
Or an undercut bank slipping into the stream below.
There is no path there anymore. And those nights
and those days are long gone, and everything with them.
And nobody knows, when the snow falls
and the day dies its silent death
what it was like in those absent woods.

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[The plaque in the photo reads: "Pickering's largest and most successful grist mill (flour mill) was opened in 1875 by John L. Spink, at the site of the present Moodie's Motel on Kingston Road. In order to provide the necessary water pressure to operate the five water wheels at the mill, a one-mile long mill race or canal was built. The canal began at Duffin's Creek east of Riverside Drive and continued to its junction with Elizabeth Street, where the water went through a culvert under the road, continued across the creek in a 1200 ft. long sluice, and flowed into the mill. The bench near this plaque, donated by John Boddy Homes, represents one of the only remnants of the mill race that has survived to this day. It was moved from its original location on Elizabeth Street in 2003." This plaque describes the contours of my parents' property at 1 Riverside Drive exactly. The millrace gates were at the corner of our house.]

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[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and urban culture.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/13 at 10:54 AM

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