Taking it to the Streets

By Narda Nelson – January 29, 2019

Three centres were scheduled for ‘atrium time’ this morning.  Children, educators, and pedagogists meet regularly here to review documentation, experiment, draw, and speculate together.  Closet doors become de facto display space for posting pedagogical narrations. Sticking pieces of paper to closet doors is part of an ongoing intention to make inquiry work visible to families, educators, students and children passing through: “Something is happening here!”

This is a public space. Iris Berger (2010) tells us about the emphasis feminist philosopher, Hannah Arendt, places on public spaces wherein “[s]he described the public realm as a ‘place of appearances’; a place for ‘being seen and heard’…and, most importantly, a place where stories are told and relations between narratives occur” (p. 59):

Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position.  This is the meaning of public life…Each time we talk about things that can be experienced only in privacy or intimacy, we bring them out into a sphere where they will assume a kind of reality…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.

Arendt (1998) in Berger (2010, p. 60)

Low-flow toilets are also part of the new reality in this public space.  They matter here in more ways than most people care to know.  Sewage pipes clog regularly since their installation, backing up onto floors as rubber-gloved educators deal with young bodies and bathroom mess, part of the unintended consequence of trying to do ‘what’s best’ in uncertain times. I had planned to project video clips and photos from the previous week’s forest inquiry time onto atrium walls this morning to hear what the children thought about the footage… 

What was happening in this video? What story were we trying to tell?  Did our experiment ‘work’?  Do these images tell us anything different about trees?

But the grind of metal against porcelain and a plumbing snake sticking out from the bathroom greet me as I walk in the atrium.  Childhood centre doors are closed to the room.  Two toddlers watch with fascination through an atrium-classroom window as the plumber starts the now weekly ritual of feeding the snake down into the pipes to clear whatever is clogging them.  

New toilets.  Less water. Old pipes.

Low-flow toilets satisfy new building codes aimed at bringing more sustainable structures into existence. Except.  We cannot seem to flush our excess away.  Excrement and wads of toilet paper, clay, dirt, and bits of food haunt the centres’ pipes, in the same way increased street run-off haunts tree roots in Haro Woods, and hormones and chemical toxins haunt clam beds, fish, and orca bodies in the Salish Sea.  These haunting inheritances contribute to an increasing sense of urgency around local sewage politics.  Climate change lives here.

It also lives on the street where six Garry oak trees are slated to be cut down to make room for more bike lanes, buses, and sidewalks.  Some of us noticed yellow tree removal notifications tacked to trees along the road leading into the centre this morning.  “I saw the yellow sign with my Dad when we got here!”  Rather than waiting around for the plumber to finish, the decision is made to walk outside and see what the signs on the trees say.   

Discussion ripples throughout the hallway and centres as children and educators react to the news and prepare to walk across the street to take a closer look:

  • Oh!!  This is aterrible thing!  It makes me so mad. Why??! Honestly. 
  • They build roundabouts to slow everyone down.  Why can’t they leave the trees to slow everyone down too?  Do we need perfectly straight lines on the street?
  • If there are signs I think they’ll cut them down.
  • It’s completely unnecessary!! 
  • Why don’t they just make a tunnel underneath for the sewer?  Like cut ½ the roots.” (one child holds her nose at her friend’s mention of sewage)
  • I heard it might be for bikes.  They’re going to plant more trees.

Our conversation continues out into the street. One of the educators reading the sign to children:

“This tree will be removed to accommodate the construction of the Finnerty Rd. upgrades. At least 22 replacement trees to be planted in the nearby community.”  Huh. What do you think about it?  You know, we also read about it that they’re going to build bike paths here, that’s why they’ll cut the trees down.  How do you feel about it?

Tree Removal Notice
  • Child: I feel like the bark is sad that they’re gonna get trimmed.
  • Child: Yeah.  You think they’re gonna get trimmed.  I think they’ll do more than trimming.
  • Child: I thinking that this one is gonna get trimmed!
  • Child: The replacement trees will be in the forest.  Or maybe they’ll put them in the community garden.
  • Educator: I heard about children in Vancouver tying their stuffies to trees to save them and you know what?  They did not cut the trees down.  But I don’t know, I associate that more with someone dying in an accident.  But really, I mean I guess the same thing is basically going to happen to these trees. 
  • Narda: I heard about people who were upset that trees were being cut down in Mumbai, India so they held a funeral march for a tree.  They put the tree trunk in a coffin and marched it through the streets.  How old do you think these trees are?  
  • Child: I know!  It’s 100years old.

One of the educators on her break happens by and stops to talk to us about her thoughts, does as a regular bike commuter on this road: “I don’t know why they are cutting them down.  It’s wide enough. I have never felt unsafe biking along here.  It’s a fairly quiet street and it connects to a bike lane right there and then the round-about and more bike lanes.”  Educator in response: “This particular spot is not a problem. You know we always tell children growing up to ‘respect their elders’, is this how we respect our elders?” (referring to the trees)

Passengers in passing cars seem curious about what we are doing and a few people walking by engage us in conversation.  A woman in a stroller with two children says,“Oh yeah! Yes, but they’re going to plant a bunch more.  And we get to tell them where we want the new trees.”

This sounds positive. But, as one of the educators says, “Do they think that planting new trees replaces those big old ones?  Like they are just inter-changeable ‘things’?” Someone brings up German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees, and how he referred to trees in concrete as ‘street children’, ‘orphans’ who are raised without parents or a community to help them grow.

Noticing trees

One child says “they can do whatever they want with the trees.” “Hmmm” replies one of the educators: “Interesting.  Yes, this may very well be true.  Do you think it is okay to do whatever they want?”  I am reminded of Peter Moss’ discussion of the “dictatorship of no alternatives” in market-driven societies. The question of whether it is ‘necessary’ to remove these trees dominates our conversations between ourselves and with strangers.  

We look closely at the trees on the streets and see worms in the leaves at the base of the Garry Oaks, a spider in the crack of the bark, and neighbouring trees who undoubtedly communicate via subterranean networks (‘wood-wide-web’) with the help of fungi. Children notice that one of Garry Oaks is “hugging the telephone pole!” and our discussion turns to the way these trees have been able to exist by yielding to our needs.

“Hugging the telephone pole”

We talk about what, if anything, we should do for the trees.  What can we do?  “I want to tell the tree: ‘I will save you’” One child suggests bringing water and a gift of artwork to them “before they are cut down.” Arbutus Place children draw pictures and ask educators to write messages for the tree and Saanich officials.  The next day one of the educators and a group of three- to five-year-olds cross the street again to gift them to one of the trees.

Gifts for the trees
Our notices wrapped to the tree

Notices tacked to trees reflect a growing trend in the Greater Victoria Area to densify, update infrastructure, accommodate bike lanes and new sewage treatment facilities, but public outrage at community trees being cut down is causing political upheaval in local municipalities and delaying projects (Campbell, 2019). One of our substitute educators, and a co-founder of a new advocacy group called Community Trees Matter Network, alerted us to the proposed tree removal plan (in the fine print of a large construction sign at the end of the street) a few weeks ago.  What once sounded like a good idea – increasing bike lanes and sidewalks along the street – is complicated by the Saanich municipal engineering department’s proposal to remove a row of large trees in the process.  We are not alone in voicing serious concerns over what is happening on Finnerty Road.  A petition is circulating and public meetings are being held.  We decide to write a letter to Saanich mayor and council to express our concerns.  Narda calls the Saanich engineering department and the project manager agrees to come on-site to discuss the matter in person with us.