‘Lost Rivers’ – LUSH Charity Pot Outing

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Lush, who I work for, donate a hefty amount of money each year to a variety of small, grassroots organizations working in the areas of environmental conservation, animal welfare and human rights (read a little more about the Lush Charity Pot program here). And 4 times a year Lush employees are offered the opportunity to spend the day with one or more of these organizations to see what they’re doing with the money, and to learn more about the community we live among. Yesterday was one such day in Toronto so here are a few photos I took, and a brief account of what went on.

The working title of the day was ‘Lost Rivers/Rivers Rising’ and the group we visited had taken on themselves what I considered to be a huge remit, part of which was;

  • To bring to light the stories of Toronto’s lost rivers.
  • To bring to light past and present stories of indigenous and newcomer communities to Toronto.
  • To highlight the blue/green city, green communities and social enterprises, and,
  • To connect with nature, the past and each other in order to create a sustainable future.

Now, as somebody who spent a few years recently living and working within the social enterprise world in the UK and who’s tried to operate as an artist with an ethical stance for over 20 years, I think I could see the size of this undertaking. They weren’t just trying to tell a few historical stories about migration and waterways that were once free flowing but were now lost under the concrete of the city, they were taking on the larger questions of life. How we plan our cities, how we grow our food, how we come to the decisions to do both of these things, how we cultivate our belief systems, how we use the past in an intelligent way to inform the present, what a sustainable future even means…

Outside the Lush building in west Toronto about 25 of us got on a school bus – I like travelling on these yellow buses, they’re not part of my past, I only ever saw them in the movies before I came here last year so getting on them now is always like walking onto a film set – and drove for 20 minutes to a community centre where we were introduced to the Rivers Rising group members and shown a film.

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The film told of groups of people in different cities around the world such as London, Toronto, Seoul, Brescia and Yonkers who were working to discover and somehow regenerate their local waterways that had been lost over the past couple of hundred years. It talked of history, of current projects and proposals that had been successful in one city yet rejected in another, and more, yet for me what was most important about the film was that it provided a start point for discussion.

For sure, many thinkers and image makers would look at this film and have some issues with the simplicity of it, with the fact that it seemed made for the mainstream so it often too easily embraced national stereotypes and didn’t go as deeply as it might of into the problems it began to highlight.

For instance, the film followed a multi million development project in Yonkers, New York, that was taking a covered-over river in the centre of the city and turning it into a municipal park space. This was hailed mainly as a success. The film then told of a failed proposal in Toronto that had aimed to develop a flood pool system within the city parks to provide a natural answer to seasonal flooding problems. The film suggested that the fact that this low cost Toronto answer was rejected by local government in favour of a high cost, underground overflow pipeline showed a lack of foresight and understanding of sustainability within the Torontonian government.

Well, that assumption may seem reasonable on the surface but what the film didn’t explore was the concept that local governments almost always, at the moment, favour high cost projects over cheap, effective solutions. The Yonkers government probably approved the beautifying plan not because it was in line with ethical principles but because it created jobs, an illusion of progress and because it allowed them to secure millions of dollars of funds from central government. The Toronto government probably approved the short sighted underground pipeline idea for exactly the same reasons. It’s not a question of understanding sustainability issues, of course they understand them, they’re educated and experienced people, it’s just that, what use is a cheap solution to Toronto that won’t pull in central funds or create a big news piece or jobs for hundreds if not thousands of locals, when it’s felt that the masses want jobs and illusion and have the mainstream media as their main sources of information?

So for me, the first great thing the film did was start the debate among us, it got us thinking about all this, and fired up to go away and talk about it over and over so that hopefully eventually we, the masses, will be well informed as a society and not give the politicians the impression that all that matters to us is an extra TV, vacation or car, a job and the chance to send the kids to college. And when the politicians – who always have one eye on how to appease the voters – understand that, they’ll tailor their future decisions accordingly, and then perhaps those decisions will be fall on the side of intelligence, genuine concern and will be allowed to be aimed at informed sustainability.

The film also pushed forward the importance of history and this gave me the inclination to ask, what is a knowledge of history for? Some in our group spoke of metaphor, that if you can explain a current affliction in an enjoyable way within a historical context the people are more likely to listen to the answers that history might offer up. I thought of another idea; how do you understand what things can be if you have no idea where to start thinking about them? It’s hard, perhaps impossible, but if you can learn more about the past, and perhaps a time when society wasn’t so enamored with a rather childish view of a ‘progress’ that relies on physical rather than emotional and intellectual expansion, we might well see a way forward based on wisdom, experience and thought patterns that are now lost, or as buried as many of our waterways are.

I liked the idea of having flood ponds in Toronto. Of areas flooding according to season. Just re-introducing the concept of seasonality back into people’s lives will surely have a positive effect, helping us to understand more about our food choices, about the effects our way of life has upon our environment, and how we see ourselves in relation to nature – walking hand in hand, a reverential step behind it, rather than standing over it with a whip as many of our leaders see themselves doing now.

A final thought on the film; it ended with the idea that it’s important to introduce young city dwellers to nature because if we don’t then how can be expect them as adults – when they become engineers, politicians, architects, etc – to take the environment into consideration when they make decisions. I agree with this, and add that as well as instilling a love and understanding of nature we also need to teach great strength of character and the notion of self sacrifice.

You can’t always have the goods or the life that you feel is best for you if the wider world is to flourish, we all need to accept that, and when emotionally weaker people tell us that it’s ok to be an individual and to chase our dreams no matter how selfish those dreams might be then we need to have the strength inside us to say no, thanks, I’m going to try to stick to my thoughts and words and to make those words come alive in my actions, so that the world as we know it can remain, and perhaps even get healthier.

Then we had lunch from a foodtruck! So good that the only choices were vegetarian or vegan!!

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Then we went for a guided walked, first to a place where a creek used to run.

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Here’s us standing on what was a sandbank; the road behind us leading away used to be the creek. We stood for a while, listening to one of the walking group volunteers giving us the history of the area.

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Then we set off to see the creek itself. It started off looking rather sorry for itself, encased in concrete flood defence walls, but it did eventually blossom into a wilder, gentler looking stretch of water for a short while. The walk offered us a good chance to discuss thoughts that’d been kicked into life by the film.

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After a short rest at a confluence of 2 lost rivers where the view was quite lovely and relaxing, in it’s own way…

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…we went into a garden nursery where the subject was community gardening.

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There were some beautiful shapes and patterns in there; with it’s Kap Ruka fronds and angular light it sparked off sweet memories for me of Islamic Cairo, Yves St Laurent’s garden in Marrakech and the wild, palm fringed beaches of Sri Lanka that stitch that wonderful island into place within the Indian Ocean.

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One of our guides showed us an artwork he’d created around the concept of opening up lost waterways, it was an excellent, thoughtful piece…

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…and then we were on our way, back to the Lush building, full of new thoughts and connections courtesy of an excellent day out.

To learn more about the Lush Charity Pot product, see Here

And to learn more about groups that Lush has helped through this initiative, please see Here

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