The Balancing Act

1 October 2021 – Balance. That’s our daily context, isn’t it? Leonard Cohen pointed this out back in 1966, when (in Beautiful Losers) he praised those who achieve “balance in the chaos of existence.” But never mind grand philosophical abstractions, just consider the balancing act involved in putting one foot in front of the other. Some 6-3 million years ago our ancestors decided to get up off all fours and walk upright. We’ve been dancing with gravity ever since. (And our backs, so beautifully shaped for horizontal life, have been complaining ever since.)

I must add that absolutely none of this is in my mind as we stand at Denman & Davie streets, just off English Bay. We are entirely focused on the building in front of us, with its display of Douglas Coupland’s latest contribution to his home town.

Berkley Tower is being comprehensively renovated, all 16 storeys of it, and author/artist Coupland was commissioned to create the murals now being applied to all four sides. They’re bright & sassy & up-energy and we decide we like them. They hold their own, we agree, in an area already rich with public art — new Mural Festival additions all around, and the A-maze-ing Laughter collection of Vancouver Biennale sculptures right across the street in Morton Park.

The Coupland work gave us a starting point for our walk; now we’ll wing it, as we head east along the False Creek north shore Seawall, from English Bay Beach on past Sunset Beach near the Burrard Bridge, and on down to Granville.

There’s been lots of rain lately; we’re both wearing Seriously Waterproof jackets. With hoods. Without umbrellas. (Vancouverites tend to divide on the subject of umbrellas, pro/con.) No rain at the moment, just mist dancing in the air, creating a depth of mystery and potential beyond anything blatant sunshine can offer.

On we walk, now just east of the giant Inukshuk monument whose setting curves into English Bay right at the end of Bidwell Street. “Here,” says my friend, sweeping an arm to pull my attention forward. “Look.”

I look, I blink. How have I never noticed all this before?

More inukshuks, all of them unofficial, uncommissioned, but look at them. One after another, more sizes & shapes (& quantity) than the eye can register.

Later, hunting around online, trying to find names to credit for all this beauty, I discover they are examples of a global phenomenon known variously as rock balancing or rock stacking. I’m happy to adopt this language: these creations certainly are feats of balance, and they are not truly inukshuks, which tend to have humanoid structure. (I never do find current names of local rock balancers, alas, so cannot give the credit so richly due.)

We keep hanging over the Seawall, admiring one subset of rock stacks after another.

Sometimes imposing towers …

sometimes just a few tiny pieces, in perfect relation to each other.

By the time we reach Sunset Beach, the great sweep of rock stacks has finally ended. But look… there is compensation.

One of my enduring favourites of all the Vancouver Biennale sculptures: 217.5 Arc X 13. Bernar Venet’s work is exactly what its title promises — 13 arcs of steel, each curved to 217.5°. (It’s not a balancing act in the sense of the stone stacks we have just been admiring, but it does still have to contend with the laws of gravity…)

Close to the Burrard St. Bridge, we cock our heads at the astoundingly large, perfectly vertical cones poised like chandeliers on the branches of this enormous evergreen.

And then later, under the Granville St. Bridge, we see an even more improbable chandelier.

“And… why???” you ask. I can tell you it’s 7.7 m X 4.2 m of stainless steel, bedecked with polyurethene “crystals” and weighing more than 3,000 kilos, and you’ll wave away all those factoids, won’t you. You’ll ask again: “Why???”

Here’s why. Vancouver bylaws require that the developers of any building over 100,000 sq. ft. must contribute some piece of public art to the City. The developers of Vancouver House were simply meeting a legal obligation.

But they did it with panache, didn’t they? So I’m willing to be grateful.

… and Macro

13 June 2021 – So there I was, last post, making a big fuss about micro-focus. This time out, my eye snaps right back to macro.

And micro.

Both.

Maybe because I’m on less familiar ground. I’m on the edge of Morton Park — me, plus the 14 bronze gentlemen who make up the collective sculpture A-Maze-ing Laughter. The work of Chinese artist Yue Minjun, it was the hit of the 2009-2011 Vancouver Biennale, and is now a permanent installation owned by the City.

Like his 13 companions, he’s just laughing his ears off. I’m equally happy as we leave micro for macro — past the sculpture, on down to the water just where False Creek swells out into English Bay and the Sea Wall carries on up into Stanley Park.

Micro to macro. Beach plants up close; then down across the sand and rocks of low tide; on out over the water to freighters in the Port Authority “parking lot,” waiting their turn to acquire/deposit cargo; and finally, oh always, mountains and sky.

Mine is not the only eye on the scene.

More micro to macro: first plant life on driftwood stumps, and then beyond & beyond & beyond.

I’m in close for this one: all the colours & textures that dance in a single slab of rock.

Speaking of dance!

Ignore Second Beach Swimming Pool in the background; ignore the snappy bike helmet; narrow your gaze to that crow dancing with the saddlebag behind the seat.

The cyclist must have stashed some pretty delectable gorp back there — and, I guarantee, there’s now a lot less of it than there used to be. The crow has spent the last five minutes methodically dipping his beak. (Oh! Just hit me! Exactly like those dipping-beak bird toys you see advertised.)

On we go, on up to Ferguson Point, just short of Third Beach. More micro-to-macro. A trio of marine biologists, doing something detailed & specific at water’s edge — and out beyond them, a laden freighter.

I’ve been watching it ever since we joined the Sea Wall. It’s the only one out there stacked high with containers and, thanks to the photographic genius of Edward Burtynsky, shipping containers rivet my eye.

We leave the Sea Wall, climb up inland a bit, our target something delicious at the Teahouse.

We arrive. It’s closed. Oops. (I channel Phyllis, my partner in the Tuesday Walking Society back in Toronto: she’d greet a failed-destination moment with the shrugged reminder, “We’re out for a walk.”)

So! Shrug to the Teahouse.

Back down to sea level, back onto the Sea Wall, back toward Morton Park.

A final micro-image reward.

A very small detail, in a very tall tree.

Framed

15 June 2019 – Framed, not as in “…and hanging on the wall,” nor as in “convicted on faked evidence.” Framed, as in: “one bit of the scene inadvertently framed by another.”

I don’t have this theme in mind. I am simply zipping down to the eastern end of False Creek, planning to take a ferry to Granville Island and then walk on west along the seawall — perhaps all the way to Jericho Park. Or thereabouts.

But on East 5th near Main, I am stopped, I am smacked in the eye, by a sight you might well argue does qualify as framed art, hanging on the wall.

Except it isn’t. It is a lineup of windows, reflecting a big street mural opposite.

So I get thinking, Well, this is fun! Images, inadvertently framed! And I decide to look for more, throughout my walk.

It could backfire — I could be so busy trying to fit what I see into a theme that I miss what is really there. Then again, if I don’t get all rigid about it, the game could grant me the “new eyes” that Marcel Proust says offer a voyage of discovery without the bother of seeking new landscapes. (Go look up the quote on my home page…)

Almost immediately, another example: heavy machinery deep in the bowels of a construction site, nicely framed by a square of the safety fence.

Onto my ferry at the Olympic Village dock, and another prime bit of framing as we approach Granville Island — the six industrial silos painted by Brazilian twins Gustavo & Otavio Pandolfo (OSGEMEOS) for the 2014 Vancouver Biennale, a gigantic 360-degree work aptly named Giants.

On foot now, following the Seawall westward along the south shore of False Creek. In Cultural Harmony Grove, a monkey puzzle tree frames one of the tall — and wonderfully flamboyant — galleries of the Burrard Street Bridge.

Not to be outdone, a birch tree farther west in Vanier Park works with what’s available: a crow.

Farther west again though still in Vanier Park, wooden salmon circle the good ship Osiris, up on land in the Burrard Civic Marina.

Ah, but now, no frame at all. I won’t even pretend. This is just … OMG.

I’m in Hadden Park, part of the contiguous flow of public space from Vanier Park through to Kitsilano Beach. I lean on the fence, look east, and there it is: the sea/sand/sun/mountains/sky panorama that tempts Vancouverites to get all smug with the rest of the world.

And yes, it is swell. But no, it’s not as if they built those mountains themselves…

Still, my fence-leaning moment has a payoff. Very Lean Bicycle Guy has also stopped to admire the view, we agree it’s stunning, and he asks, “But did you notice the friendship bracelet on the fence? Just behind you there?” Well, no, I hadn’t. So he shows me.

This, I choose to argue, is framed. Framed orally rather than visually, courtesy of Bicycle Guy. “People weave grasses into bracelets, give them to their friends… Well, somebody made one for the fence. I saw it first the other day. I cleared away some branches, just so you can see it properly.”

And he’s back on his bike and away, riding to East Van and a benefit concert for VAMS (Vancouver Adapted Music Society, for musicians with disabilities). I carry on west, onto Kitsilano Beach.

It is known, among other things, for its courts and courts and courts of beach volleyball. All in full swing. With referees on ladders at the net. And referee legs nicely framed by the ladder.

(Plus a few tankers caught in the net, as t’were.)

From volleyball to art, just like that, right here on Kits Beach.

Which, if I just wanted to show you the installation — Echoes, by Quebec artist Michel Goulet, Vancouver Biennale 2005 — I would photograph very differently. I’d show you the entire run of metal chairs, each with a few lines of poetry (French or English) incised in the seat, casting bright words on the shadowed ground beneath.

The chair-back loops, I discover, frame chair-seat text very nicely indeed.

My frame criterion dictates that I capture it upside-down. This creates a bit of a reading challenge, so, ever helpful, I circle around, and take the shadow-shot right side up.

Oops. Scuffed sand creates the equivalent of visual static.

(“Love / and / other / perils”)

The next beach section is amazing. I had already walked those other bits before. This is new — and it takes me onto Wilderness Beach.

You won’t find that name on a map, it is generic, and on a sign explaining that this stretch of shoreline, between Kits and Jericho, is one of the last natural beaches in Vancouver. The sign urges us to enjoy, but not to interfere or alter anything in any way. It also describes the wealth of vegetation tumbling down the adjacent cliffs to a “country lane” below. Alder, mountain ash, bigleaf maple, salmonberry, thimbleberry, yellow monkey flower …

It is quite, quite magic. I spend my time enjoying, not photographing.

One shot — an artist framed by the staircase railing as I finally climb my way back up to roadside at Volunteer Park.

That’s it, I think. Time to catch a bus home.

But look, right here on very-upmarket Point Grey Road, right at stiff-upper-lip Balaclava Street … another frame. Showcasing the offerings of this take-something / leave-something community free store.

Again I think, That’s it. But no.

I get the camera out again, one very last time, when I’m back in Mount Pleasant, climbing up Scotia Street toward home.

The walk has come full-circle, hasn’t it? This visual game ends as it began: with windows framing a reflection.

 

 

 

 

 

Trees. And Gingersnap.

19 December 2017 – We’re walking along the north shore of False Creek, out around English Bay or so, heading for Stanley Park. Where there will be mega-gazillions of trees. (With 405 Ha of park space, there’s room for quite a few gazillion trees…)

But we are more immediately focused on the trees right here, standing out as they do against the beach and the waters beyond.

Palm trees! My eastern instincts are still totally amazed at the sight of palm trees, outside and unprotected — and perfectly happy, thank you.

That’s the Chusan (“Windmill”) palm, I later learn, one of a group planted around English Bay some 30 years ago.

And … Eucalyptus!

Just another of the (to me) exotic species that the Vancouver Parks people care for. (Along with the Tasmanian fern. And banana plants. And of course those palm trees.)

Finally we see something I can relate to, in a Canadian winter — bare branches.

But no, even here I am awe-struck. So many nests, and so large.

“The Stanley Park Great Blue Heron colony,” say my friends, tugging me to read the signage.

This is one of North America’s largest urban Great Blue Heron colonies, I later learn, and it has a suitably large following. Even its own web cam.

So I am still head-full of birds & trees after we reach Lost Lagoon and join our planned event: a Solstice-themed walk/talk through Stanley Park with a very informed, very cheerful, good-fun botanist.

But, nifty as she is,  we get distracted.

By elves. Hundreds of elves. With names like Gingersnap, and Twinkle-Legs.

While we stand around discussing the Solstice, they are pounding their hearts out in the annual Big Elf Run, to support the Canuck Place children’s hospice. It’s an all-inclusive event — running elves, walking elves, kiddy elves, even doggie-elves.

(Later we cross paths with a volunteer, of course with his elf-cap, picking up race bollards. We ask his race-name. He says he is Slave-Labour Elf. We tell him he is Unsung Hero Elf.)

Next day …

Next day, I meet yet another typical Vancouver tree.  One, I must add, I have met before and will meet again.

The Great Vancouver Rain Tree! Very pretty, with those sparkling, suspended rain drops.

And, over on Main Street, a sign to fit the day.

But the day after that …

Oops.

Snow-slush.

Enough to make those palm trees & eucalyptus start booking trips back to where they came from.

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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