One my way home across campus the other day I stumbled across a crew of plant ops folks planting a min-forest of Douglas Fir on the south west edge of the lawn at Thunderbird Crescent, the southern terminus of Main Mall. Rather than bother the crew in their work I thought it might be worth asking the university landscape architect to provide a few details as to the process the led to those trees being planted and the purpose they are supposed to serve.
“The decision to plant 7 Fir trees on the southwest periphery of this well-used open space will accomplish two things without minimizing the current function and utility of the space. The first is that in maturity, it will improve the safety of children using this space by providing a little separation between the area where people play ball games and the adjacent road. The second is that it will ultimately provide a more dignified and fitting backdrop to the Reconciliation Pole. Perhaps it’s only a designer that would notice but white metallic roof of the Barn is a jarring terminus to our most iconic landscape – the Main Mall – and now this is even more evident with the presence of the Reconciliation Pole” (UBC Landscape Architect, June 21, 2017).
The answer was not quite what I had expected. Safety for children? That really seemed weak. Just how would a row of fir trees enhance safety? If anything their placement along the edge of Thunderbird Blvd creates a road hazard by obstructing a driver’s view of children playing on the field. The idea that the dignity of the new reconciliation pole calls for a plantation of a natural shroud of trees raises a serious problem of unconscious colonial thinking. The most reasoned explanation -the one that in my mind is the actual reason- is the designer’s aesthetic sense that the Old Barn Community Centre presents a jarring terminus to “our most iconic landscape.”
I can’t help but wonder why the Old Barn is jarring but the Forest Sciences Building, Thunderbird Housing, or the parking lot adjoining Main Mall apparently aren’t. I’ll say that I can appreciate the designer’s eye. Every day walking home along Main Mall I now can’t help but see the patch of grey metal roofing and find a small sense of sympathy for the more aesthetically inclined eye. He’s right – from certain vantage points along Main Mall the poor Old Barn’s roof does rather stand out.
But what stood out in his answer was the idea that the new Reconciliation Pole needed a natural backdrop rather than a faux western barn.
The notion that a natural forest is a “more dignified and fitting backdrop setting” for an Indigenous monument to reconciliation echoes older cultural ideas of “the Indian” as existing outside of time, naturalized, and part of a world of nature. This is an old trope that has placed Indigenous history into museums of natural history. It’s a vision that denies the contemporary reality of Indigenous peoples and it is one that relegates us to an authentic natural past. Irrespective of a designer’s sense of aesthetics explaining the mini-forest as dignifying the Reconciliation Pole takes us backward in cultural time.
The very idea of reconciliation is to bring together what are jarring and disruptive facts of our contemporary world and our history and then to deal with it. One point of the pole is that there is no dignity in the acts of the settler state in the use of residential schools – that dignity, in fact, comes with reconciling settlers to their own history and by removing the false walls and veils that settler society has erected to protect itself and those they think require protection.
I am left wondering how ‘naturalizing’ a view line, how deploying the trope of ‘pristine’ or ‘untouched’ nature presents a dignified backdrop to a very modernist monumental art work that is EXPLICITLY speaking to the jarring, disruptive, contemporary reality of colonization, it’s effects, and the ways to move forward. From my particular Indigenous and Academic perspective I would argue that the mini fir forest actually diminishes the message and the solemnity of the reconciliation pole: it is yet another accidental example of how the “authentic Indian” is removed from time and stuck into amber of a settler gaze.
Typically this blog decries the removal of trees from UBC’s campus. This time is differnt. The mini fir forest has to go. There is no dignity in backdropping reconciliation with a falsely protective wall of trees. Reconciliation is about facing the jarring realities of settler past and the continued injustice of contemporary colonial attitudes. Bring in the logging crew!