- An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto's Natural Parklands by Robert Burley
Commissioned by the city of Toronto, and published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Confederation, this book is a portrait of Toronto's green spaces, delving into hidden corners of the city's vast network of parks, creeks, and ravines. Robert Burley's expansive landscape photographs are the core of the book, following five thematic strands: shoreline, river, creeks, valley, and forest. Introductions from Mayor John Tory, former Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and General Manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation Janie Romoff highlight both the personal resonance of the city's urban nature and the strategic priority of the city's parklands for municipal government.
The act of commissioning Burley to represent the city's natural parklands demonstrates a part of the city of Toronto's desire to increase access to such spaces. Burley's images follow this by touring an extensive area, dramatising the expansive vistas of Scarborough Bluffs, capturing mesmerising light on Lake Ontario before burrowing away from shore and diverting the viewer's gaze into a maze of variegated greens and browns of sumac shrubs surrounding a black locust tree. The presence of the black locust, captioned as such (p. 29), is a reminder of the complex questions about non-native species and environmental management that are part of the protection plans developed for these spaces. Burley's photographs also attend to the mixture of human and non-human actors, with joggers, dog-walkers, campers, and nude swimmers seen alongside cormorants and gulls, muddied creeks, wildflower patches, and verdant canopies. Images of refuse, graffiti, long-established construction, reclamation, and informal acts of memorialisation show the complex human activities that have taken place in the ravines.
Burley's introductory essay 'Going There to Be There' expresses delight at Toronto's proximity of dense urban buildings and green space, highlighting the potential to locate yourself against glimpses of familiar skyline and to just as easily do the 'most valuable thing any urban dweller can do in the course of his or her distracting life: Get lost' (p. 13). Burley's photographs map this process, providing some orientation before unsettling the visual referents. Burley also invokes a valuable precursor in the work of conservationist Charles Sauriol, whose attentive gaze did much to champion Toronto's urban nature and whose name is now attached to trails and parks in the landscape he once worked in. Additional voices permeate the collection with new short works from Anne Michaels, Michael Mitchell, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Alissa York, and George Elliott Clarke placed between Burley's images. York's recollection of taking school groups into the Don [End Page 238] Valley, guided by literary responses to these green spaces, highlights how access brings with it the challenges of empathy with human and animal histories.
This appealing package of complex, challenging photographs, creative texts, and archival images concludes with an essay from Wayne Reeves on the environmental history of Toronto's natural parklands and appendices filled with excellent guides to Toronto's environmentally sensitive areas (biodiversity hotspots). It should be viewed as a significant moment in the city's recognition of creativity, and the entwined stories of its cultural and environmental history.