I’d bet a considerable sum that John Terpstra knows more about Hamilton, Ontario, on, under and above the earth than any other person, living or dead. Knowing the most, though, and being able, willing and driven to write about that subject lovingly and unforgettably are two different things.
Yet in this decade, Terpstra has published three fascinating, probing accounts of Hamilton geography, history and ecology in his unique poetic prose. In each he offers his growing niche of readers enduring records of the city with which he fell in love after leaving his Edmonton birthplace as a young boy.
In 2011, Terpstra published a geological and socio-politico history of his adopted city with Falling into Place. He followed with 2014’s place-specific architectural elegy, The House with the Parapet Wall. That example of many Hamilton houses stands two blocks from Terpstra’s own home on the “Iroquois Bar,” the glacial remnants of which are still discernible in Hamilton’s urban industrialized landscape. Thus over years the once smoky, Mordor-like “Steel City,” has seeped into Terpstra’s mind and words in compelling rhythmic evocations of a city that, in his almost eschatological hope, might again become a place of ecological beauty and human health.
A JANE'S WALK PERSPECTIVE OF THE 'STEEL CITY'
That seems a quixotic, wearying vision. But one late-May Saturday Terpstra led 30 plus walkers on a Jane’s [Jacobs] Walk to several north side architectural and natural landmarks. He showcased a Hamilton we’d never imagined, parts of which still exist. Terpstra purposefully guided us from Dundurn Castle, to the York Boulevard bridge, over the Desjardins Canal linking Cootes Paradise to Hamilton Harbour. From that vantage point we took in a 360 degree panorama of the city and outlying areas.
There he sketched that vista’s human and ecological history. For example, Cootes Paradise was a small commercial fishing village until not many years ago. Later overrun with invasive carp, today it’s a recovering urban recreation area, stewarded by the Royal Botanical Gardens. Its ecosystem is still fragile, however, having suffered a severe sewerage spill in July 2018. Restoration and protection continue, giving substance to Terpstra’s hope.
After directing us around to Lake Ontario and Hamilton Harbour, he said, “look at the steel mills. (Who could not?) Most Canadians think of Hamilton only as steel mills. But in the last hour we’ve seen far more than steel mills. The mills pollute far less than earlier and have provided many a living for more than a century. If you think they blight the entire landscape, consider that they occupy only five percent of the horizon.”
Those words spoken by a lover of land and city recall Psalm 24’s opening, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything that dwells therein” – even things now largely invisible. Which brings us to Daylighting Chedoke, Terpstra’s latest encomium to the adopted city he keeps exploring in libraries, neighbourhoods and over-engineered landscapes.
CHALLENGING CHEDOKE CREEK'S NEAR DEATH
Chedoke Creek was once a small, lively stream draining 25 square kilometres of woods and fields in what is now west Hamilton atop the Niagara Escarpment. Today the creek has largely disappeared, diverted into culverts and storm sewers, even “canalized” for a long section as a flood and erosion protection project built 1963. About the only place the creek is visible is at its 16 metre falls spilling out of the Escarpment next to Highway 403 before entering Cootes Paradise.
In this latest book, Terpstra aims to “daylight” the creek. In his unique idiom this becomes a double entendre. First he charts the history of the waterway’s steady disappearance under concrete, mall parking lots, golf courses and through underground canals. All the while he looks for smallish hints of how to “daylight” the hidden flow once more to run above ground. Secondly, Terpstra brings to light the creek’s near fatal interaction with humanity.
He starts with the name. Chedoke is not an indigenous word, though it sounds like one. The name likely derives from the indigenous pronunciation of “Seven Oaks.” With typical loving charm, Terpstra calls this not a corruption of English, rather an indigenous “word-gift.” What if generosity and sharing instead of expropriation and extraction had been a principle of European settlement of Chedoke’s watershed, even all of North America? Generosity was never a colonial aspiration. Broken treaties butchered the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Reserve down to five percent of the original grant. Small wonder many indigenous groups are suing Canada for restoration or restitution.
TERPSTRA'S RESEARCH AS COMMUNITY EFFORT
Throughout Daylighting, Terpstra draws on old city maps and archives, aging Hamiltonians, faculty and student interns from Redeemer University College. One family with past connections to Chedoke took Terpstra on a drive around what was once Spring Farm. Those aging cousins reminisced about homes still standing or buildings and businesses long crushed under suburban concrete. This leads Terpstra to a jarring note: “We are touring an area that has been transformed in two generations from the farmland, orchards and largely abandoned quarry… into a landscape of low-slung homes and buildings, wide pavements and the continuous flow of automobiles.”
Having lived near Chedoke Creek during the years of its gradual destruction, Terpstra relives his personal connection to the area recalling what once was, but is no more. Did those memories drive his mind and emotions to dive literarily and literally into the polluted currents?
Serious researchers and conservationists do strange things to find the heart of their projects. Besides months poring over maps and histories in libraries, Terpstra, his wife Mary and two friends decided to explore the Chedoke Creek Storm Drain, the concrete tunnel into which engineers poured the stream. Of course, though choosing a dry period, they did this at no little risk, legally and physically. Knowing they weren’t authorized in the “Authorized Parking Zone” or beyond, the quartet intrepidly trespassed into the rank dark of the tunnel, until the strong current eventually returned them to the car and their temporarily abandoned senses.
What moves John Terpstra to write so richly about his beloved Hamilton? What drives him to return again and again to Chedoke? He is not alone in the conviction that the creek is still “alive and thinking.” That creek has inspired the Stewards of Cootes Watershed to enlist teams of university students to clean up the waterway, despite continuing human assaults on the environment. Maybe Terpstra inspired them too.
Finally, Terpstra writes this and other love songs to Hamilton partly as lament, partly as a challenging rebuke to himself and our race to clean up our environmental act. While railing against humanity’s “ongoing willingness to alter and destroy a landscape,” he confesses that he and his now deteriorated “innocent red canoe” are part of the problem. Yet instead of despairing, he asserts that the right thing to do now is “bow your head, chant a walking prayer and attend to what’s lying at your feet.” Almost predictably, he nearly chortles near the end, “I just can’t get enough of this place.”
Once you start reading John Terpstra, I’d bet even more than on his knowledge of Hamilton that you just won’t get enough of him either.