Tag Archives: Tar Sands

Reading Wordsworth in the Tar Sands

We were walkers
In a dangerous time
Of storm and thaw
Took damage in our
Stride—the vacant
Air the wildered mind
Ensnares—beat down
And scraped clean of the
Burden of overwhelming
Being—a voice here
Intervenes as if a
Common property of the
Formality of these lines—
The new garden relieves
The overburden of
Merely growing things
Scrapes the earth clean
Of organism—dirty paint
From used palettes scraped—
The new garden the voice
Proclaims—is a mine
Of ordered destructions
Hard boundless bounds
Of energy slaves—earth
From which bitumen’s ripped
To fuel a mind from which
Finance life has stripped

Wordsworth—I feel you too!
Though there is no mechanism
To nuance this conversation
Across the years—so I brought
Your ruined cottages your
Evening walks and Grasmere
Homing here to the Tar Sands
To stroll across northern desarts
Not knowing how well you fit—
The method of our walking
From seeing to contemplating
To remembering—is yours
Though no solitary haunts
Are here—no birds that scud
The flood—here we tread
Together the shadowy ground
Bright in the sun round
The darkest pits of vacancy
Scooped out sockets of eyes
Where skeletal holes of earth remain
Waterless and drained


The place from which I looked
The plane descending on Fort
McMurray or the road we walked
Around the bounds of one dry lake
And if I thought I thought of dying
Of stone and tombs and pits
No profit but one thought
The lot of others could be mine
And—aerial—we might business
Halt—tempting notions—wind
Over dead water—I thought of
Clouds where lay the land
Grey billows of moneyed dust
Nickel and naught—shadows
Brittle butterflies and the liquid
Depths of dry grass—benzene
And naphthenic acid sands
Without restraints or bounds
Blowing out and over this
Huge concave world the
Chemical truth extracts its
Word—it’s simple really—they
Tore the forest off fast like
A bandage over wounded earth
Walking—we were seeing
Silvered shunts of sand lakes
Like salt flats wondering what
Winkles out in yonder mercury
Sheen? No ponds pretend to
Lighten belief—air canon and
Scarecrow miners surround
These tailings are desolation’s
Dream of crumbling enamels
Whoever it was said boreal
Swept it clean in cold accounts
Before land wastes were
Fenced former forests of sand
Thick dark thoughts leaching
Heavy metal music machines
Or death metal bands screaming
Unfathomable ruination inside
A sealed steel cube in space

Dear imaginations—lighten up!
Your part is human protest
But there are no visionary scenes
Of lofty beauties uplifting to see
Even if Burtynsky might
Shoot them chromatic as
Abstract patterns of chemical dirt
No matter!—When in service
Of monetary gain and increasing
Industries of land liquidation
This world is anvil entertainment
Bashed first peoples flat land home
Still springing thrust midst the
Fossilized dead on whose ancestral
Heat we strange grammar feed
As strange accumulation folk
Pummel pores and veins of
Saturated soils coiled up in the
Barrage we make making roads
And the slow bombardment
Of never ending development

Perhaps I digress—the occasion
Is a public walk—but the aesthetics
Of the place is pure negativity—
Open maw is no landscape
There is no viewpoint despite
The signs and picnic tables of
Doom’s treeless playgrounds
No play of light at sunset on
Tumescent swaths of an earth
Heaving its golden breast towards
A slate sky where gawkers careen
In tin cans winged while in utter
Foundries of digital light
Pounding out templates of data
We break to browse disaster porn
Look death in its vertiginous eye
One house sized truck after another
Blanket ourselves in perspectival
Air of vanished relations—no
This is just the vast insides
Of machine whose impetus
Money tells—no point from which
To see it whole or unveil its grasp
On brow of yonder hill—just a
Moving power that moves itself
And us tempest tossed within it
Sloughing boreal off its bitumen back
The calculus which compels
Its animate limbs for alien power
Is assembled from our loathing
And slouches now towards Fort
McMurray and Fort McKay to
Deliver a world of dead birds
And unquenchable thirsts


Walking—we were old technology
Biotic and slowly evolving
Dropped into circuit
Pilgrims circling on a
Healing walk walking all day
Beating the bounds in
Circumference of a single
Tailings pond between still
Other tailings ponds edge
Of the largest mine in the
World—world-sized mine
Past Syncrude and Suncor
Refineries and the vast desart
Of the Tar Sands stretching
Beyond where the plants
One after another were

This is where we walked
This is where we swam
Some voice again humming
Drum and song to keep us
Moving beneath bullets of
Economic praise spraying
Billboards and the birdless
Lakes on our left not
Lakes but pools of poison
Doing what beneath their beds
We can only guess leaching
Towards the Athabasca
Flowing wide nearby on
To Fort Chip and the toxins
Captured in animal flesh there
The last human tenant imagined
Barren of all future good
Water scarred skin and wooden
Buffalo of Wood Buffalo
Cigar shop life and mines
And ponds where ancestors lie
Don’t let the new houses fool you
She said from the ruined cottage
Life of Fort Chipewyan First Nation
You can’t find the map of us
On their financial statements

It doesn’t smell as bad
As I thought it would
(though it does smell bad
or at least like a gas station world)
It is surrounded by fences
And canons and clearly owns
The police its money is heaped
In deep black banks
It has broken every treaty with life
Its ceremony is poison
It seems to have eaten the ducks
Its clime is coming fast
And is difficult to resist
So we circle in the sun
Round a wound thinking healing
Circling erasure and watching
As trucks erase erasure
Lingering over layers where
Trees are several destructions ago
Lines in flame earth—dust of the
Dead and dying collected and
Levelled by eager land movers
The great trucks of nether worlds
Dropping dead matter on top
Of dead matter where a lake
Once lay where boreal forest
And muskeg once stretched
To the horizon ringing round

This is where we walked
This is where we swam
And I can only poultice
The dry pieces of this
Crack my eyes over
Dry petrol glands of the
Land stretching white
Flat bright glare along
Thrust of bleak road round
Which trucks never cease
To turn in a carbon gyre

We are the species
That walked out of Africa
Walked everywhere
Found our fuel in forests
Then in the ground beneath
Forests—a widening gyre
Wrapped animal bone in
Sweet dry grass offering
And now stand in grass
Beside the road offering
Prayer on this first stop
First of four directions
We could still vindicate
A species of relent
Still unrelenting old sun
We pry up burning ground
Looking for more and movement
Where we should be less and still

Second stop—drumming and
Singing between two tailings
Ponds edged by sand dunes
The desart where the forest grew
Remembrance that came and went
Like a bird to its grave in the water

Third stop—past the refinery
Smoke and Syncrude tanks
The monster with its long metal
Arms pulling all to hell
Just don’t reach—arms—too
Deep into our dreaming
We’re not telling where
We’re going next nor revealing
The fact we have a where
To go next secret futures across
The shores of utopia we are
Walking to and upon nation
Leading drowsy nation

Fourth stop and fourth
Direction—still drumming
And still singing—just this
Just this—the elders praying
Should earth be wrenched
Throughout or fire wither all
Her pleasant habitations and
Dry up ocean left singed
And bare or the waters
Of the deep gather upon us
Fleet waters of the drowning
World—know that kindlings
Like the morning still
Foretell—though slow—
A returning day lodged
In the frail shrine of us aglow
Old technology of people together
Holding the line against changing weather


Wordsworth—if I on this occasion
Affirm anything—it is that I will
Seriously pursue the simple task
Of walking with those others of my time
Who also small and failing are trying
To walk against the traffic spilling
In out and through our cities
Out over and across the land—
The trafficless wastes of which we all
Together variously depend upon
The queer cool and resistant
Fields streams lakes and forests
That linger like old myths we once lived by
But are in fact facts we still test and try

It’s then—tired and hot after the
Long walk through the burnt land
Sitting at last having just jumped
With so many others into the
Murky waters of Willow Lake
That I suddenly recollected
The valet at the hotel
I stayed at this past May
Asking if I had any poems
About mountains—recalling
This here far from hotels
And far from mountains
Flat land of aspen and swamp
I had to admit I didn’t
Though I had a story
Never yet written down
How once young and too
Serious unhappy and searching
For I did not know what
I set out to climb a mountain
I’d passed many times driving
Through a high pass to the
Coast west of Port Alberni
And Sprout Lake—a sharp peak
Jutting through cloud tatter

It was evening already
Or at least late afternoon
I threw gear in my car
And westward took my way
Drove three hours intending
To set off in the dark
Camp and make the peak
In the morning hold communion
With the invisible world

It was stupid and compulsive
I wanted to hurt myself
Or have something outside
Myself hurt me or somehow
Lift myself up out of myself
Impossible weight of late
Capitalist life in velvet chains

Arriving at the mountain and
Parking on the side of the road
Fading light it was raining
And late fall or early spring
I forget but I could see
Through vapours shot tongues
And promontories it was
Snowing up on the peak above

Fuck it I said I took
My gear out got ready
In the rain beside the Volvo
One last check and I
Cannot find my keys

Instantly a light fell like
A flash they are in the
Ignition the car is locked

How many signs does one need
How many times do you
Have to fail at failing?

I knew I was beat knew
I’d return to my shitty
Apartment and shitty job
Maybe escape another day
Maybe never I turned
In the rain my boots
Crunching gravel stooped
And picked up the biggest
Rock nearby put it through
The car’s side window
The shower of small glass
Beads all over the seat
Drove home with the rain
Coming in beside me late
Into the night the car’s
Headlights fracturing the
Vapour not knowing it
Would be twenty years
Before I’d write a poem
About a mountain—sitting
Exhausted in the Tar Sands
And fulfilling at least one thing
That I had neglected doing

It was over reaching
All this desperate over
Reaching made me recall
My own insignificant and
Privileged hubris
Lost amidst the vast over
Reaching of this world
Wide mine tallying
Small drop in the human
Mind that accumulating
Feeds its imagined difference
Feeds though finite upon
Infinity only to hunger
Always for more
The world that beckons
Like an open pantry door


Dear common—lowest
Denominator—highest right
Lift light of future foliage
Here where bright burnt
Sands hinge chemical ponds
Over loosest leaves of boreal—
Burnt brooks and forests for
Fatter fuel in bitumen beds
Beneath everything we see—
Remove everything we see
To reveal it—paucity of
Ideas for making homes
Making lives led as ghosts
Already haunting doomed
Earth we split and devour

It’s elders brings us back
Living idea elders drumming
Singing and walking indigenous
To all the overburden which
Is no burden but carries
Itself echolocaic through
Leaves of this living and
Wakes while walking still
Breathing in dreamt shade

I could almost gather
Intuitive hopes for spring
Heap method of gleaning
Against Google Chrome of
Most expensive trucks
Or cheap flights to Vegas
Or the women who—bare
Commodities—travel here
Or the single yellow bus
Bringing migrants to clean
The factories of empty futures

So stop with me here
Burn out the day
Burn out the night
Then kindle dim mornings
To further this device—
What needs to die is
The refusal to die—it’s
Death that feeds life

If the old garden was
An aristocratic preserve
Of clockwork geometry
And the Romantic garden
A radical turn in open
Nature as pretend pasture
In an enamoured mind
Now we return to
Constructed enclosures
Open pit and tailings pond
A factory earth of engineered
Extractions to lay commodity
Paths in purchase and ensure
New aristocrats their
Helicopter lives—what we
Need now is a wild swerve
Away from arsenic mercury
And polycyclic hydrocarbons
Downstream in ducks and
Muskrats and moose meat
And the people of Fort Chip
Who feed on feeding the land—
A wild swerve out of entropy
To new free energies spooling
In what we can’t predict
And will not yet foretell
But will imagine not as
Trading futures or deposits
Speculated into asset mills

Stopped here near the
Blasted vale or just after
Lift off on gas wing south
Over seeming endless forest
I find I still need a little
Language of the Tar Sands
The knowing by walking
That tells how boreal grew
And gathered animal cohort
And plant polity over bitumen
Deposit and didn’t once think
Noxious profit gas even when
Bubbling surface bogs leached
And aspen trembled—even when
Drinking its life from waters
Just thin surfaces veiling the
Pitch coppered tight beneath

What strange adaptors we are!
That things will grow again
Is no consolation—the difference
Between this situation and
The situation of the old growth
On top of bitumen base is the
Difference between a happen
And the ecological capacity
To bear this happening and
A making and the ecological
Capacity to bear this human
Act and choice—what strange
Adaptors we are—moving
Swifter than old accumulations
To chemical our hues where we
Are still that vitality that springs
A weed beside the poison road
Banks of the poison pond
Beneath arch of poison sky
All remade by our adaptions

Will we—delimit—ourselves
Or—ova storm of digital increase
Uncap our climate and trade
Mere earth to reach residual heights
Of the value form and receive—
A new dispensation of finitude forced
From the very ground we have removed
And the sky we have spilt our angers on?

Let me walk a little longer at
Bodily scale—we have always been here—
Tomorrow—contemplating this
Landscape and letting the flood
Of memories of the future in
Recollecting that time to come
When none of us will be disposable waste
That time somewhere near
Where the road turns at the guarded
Edge of the refinery that this
However sketchy poem did at last
Become a poem I will have written
Circumambulating a common to come
Curling towards stillness at all scales
Having walked one amongst many
Through a dangerous time and place
The withering land turning towards
Each animal’s unrecountable face

—June 27-July 8 2014

Walkers in a Dangerous Time

It doesn’t smell as bad as I thought it would (though it does smell bad). It is surrounded by canons and clearly owns the police. Its money is heaped in deep black banks. It has broken every treaty with life. Its ceremony is a poison of ill-wishes. It seems to have eaten the ducks and buffalo. Its clime is coming and difficult to resist.

The first thing is how much is green. Flying in from the south and west, all I can see from the air is boreal—forest, bogs, large and small chocolate brown rivers winding—no devastation as the plane descends towards Fort Mac. Almost pristine. They dare not fly over the Tar Sands, of course. They don’t want you to think you’ve arrived on the moon.

Once we did make it onto the mining footprint, this is what sunk in: all that boreal beauty they had to scrape away to make this fabricated desert. And it was a desert—bleached white sand dunes stretching into the distance, a lifeless moonscape from which the “overburden” of every organic thing that naturally exists had been removed in its entirety.

The second thing is the water. This is a water world—rivers, lakes, bogs, everywhere you look. “Water is life.” We camped on the shores of Gregoire (or Willow) Lake. We followed the Athabasca River north to the mines. And there—despite the astonishing amount of water used in the extraction process—a desert of dry and drying tailings ponds, become a waterless white chemical sea of sand.

The Athabasca flows on—close by the mines and their poisonous tailings ponds—on into Lake Athabasca and to Fort Chip, where the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) can no longer safely drink the water that surrounds them—where their bodies are being ravaged by disease.

The third thing is the scale. We walked for 14 kilometers around the circumference of one former—now largely dry—tailings pond. This is apparently an older section of the Tar Sands, already part of a “reclamation” project. The furthest we travelled into the mining footprint—where Syncrude’s refinery stands, from a distance across the desert (that once was a boreal forest) looking every bit the Tower of Doom deep in Mordor—even then we could only imagine the scale of the active mining out there beyond Syncrude, where we weren’t allowed to go. Only 5% of the bitumen deposits have been developed to this point. What we saw was just one corner of that 5%. And still it was vast, disorienting. And lifeless.


The fourth thing is that this is the part of the Tar Sands that they want you to see. A show room. To one side of the desert we circled, a “lake” with green replanted banks and small sparse trees and the occasional wildflower. A sign offering a scenic “view point.” But the give-away—dead waters. Air canons regularly sound, and floating orange scarecrows (looking like zombie miners), try to ward birds away from their deaths in the toxic ponds. Because the oil companies care. They actually think this makes them look good.

The fifth thing is the people. The people of this land. The people who came to this land from far away—from Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and many other places. The people who came from Idaho, Oregon, California, New York, Alabama and Texas. The indigenous land defenders from across Turtle Island—come to walk, come to pray, come to resist, come to bear witness, come to heal—and especially those whose territories these have long been. Their resilience. Their resolve. We lived in their words for three days. And when we walked, we walked to their drumming and singing—we kept going, despite the seven hours circling a scorching desert, because their drumming entered our bodies, lifting our feet and our hearts.


The sixth thing is the future. ACFN Chief Allan Adam invoked the future anterior—a verb tense I think our efforts now depend upon—when he offered us the vision of our children and grand children one day asking, “what did you do…when all this was happening?” What will we have done, to stop the destruction, is a question we must imagine ourselves one day having to answer.

Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak invoked the future too: we must think in terms of seven generations, he advised, of which we are the fourth—behind us our parents, grandparents and great grandparents—ahead of us our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. These seven generations we carry with us all our lives—whether they are physically present or not. We walk for those who brought us here, and for “all those who are waiting to come into the world.” They are our abiding responsibility—to tend the world for them, in memory and anticipation.

The seventh thing is that healing is resistance. I say this because I think, for some settlers, “healing” sounds apolitical, the way sometimes we pathologize instead of politicize, or the way psychological analysis can take the place of material/structural analysis of capital and inequality. What I want to suggest is that, for frontline communities that have born the brunt of colonization and genocide, as well as for the lands upon which they have traditionally lived, and which have been expropriated and destroyed in the process of extraction, healing is absolutely the necessary first step in beginning the process of decolonization. Healing is part of the process of ongoing and reinvigorated resistance because, as Howard Caygill has written, resistance “assumes a capacity to resist,” and that capacity is in part dependent upon “the invention of resistant subjectivity.” Amidst renewed colonization driven by resources extraction, we are witnessing a resurgence of the warrior, the elder, and resolute female leadership that indicates the re-emergence of such a “resistant subjectivity.” Healing is crucial in this process—part of the “metamorphosis” of the volatility of trauma into the affirmation of resistance:

“The moment of reactive resistance is volatile and vulnerable and needs in some way to metamorphose into an affirmative, inventive resistance that does not just react to an intolerable predicament but transforms itself and its condition through the work of resistance, the actualizing of its capacity to resist.”

The eighth thing is bearing witness. In many ways a personal question—living and working at the endpoint of a bitumen pipeline, I needed to see its source. The Tar Sands was thumbnail pictures online and a dragon that haunted dreams. It’s good to see the reality—a desert in the north, where boreal forest once spread—the complete removal of everything that we might call “life”—a sore throat, irritated eyes, and a rash on my legs, likely from the chemical filled dust that swirled around our feet on the long, hot walk around the crumbling land.


The ninth thing is the walking. We are the species that walked out of Africa, walked all over the planet. We are natural walkers. Now, some work hard to curtail further walking, to enclose and exclude, to reserve certain spaces for profitable private use—and destruction. You can’t walk off line in the Tar Sands—security and police are quickly on you. It is a highly regimented space—high fences, air canons, and prison block barracks. Huge trucks rumble in every direction. But we managed to beat the bounds of one firey ring of the Tar Sands.

We were walkers in a dangerous time.

Healing Walk (part 1)

I leave shortly for Fort McMurray Alberta, where I will walk, with hundreds of others, led by Athabasca First Nations and the Keepers of the Athabasca, around a massive tailings pond in the Tar Sands. We will pass between several other massive tailings ponds, and along the edge of a landscape scraped clean of its “overburden” (that’s everything that used to exist there—indigenous peoples and their cultural practices, trees and plants of every variety, animals of all kinds, naturally occurring bodies of water, etc.) and dotted with machinery and the silver towers of refineries. What follows are some brief thoughts about the politics of walking—before the walk. To which I will return after the fact as well.


Walking, we move between renunciation and affirmation. In his recent A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros refers to renunciation as one of the “freedoms” of walking—a form of “perfect detachment.” Writing on Gandhi’s symbolic protest marches, Gros suggests that “the slowness of the march constitutes a rejection of speed”—which reminds me of the words of Jesse Cardinal, one of the organizers of the Healing Walk: the point is “to take time, slow down, and pray.”

In the face of the Tar Sands project—which has everything to do with speed, with fuelling the speed of our consumption, with the speed of economic development where the mindset, very clearly, is get as much as fast as possible, before the competition, the climate, or reason shuts the project down—the slowness of walking articulates an alternate world view.

I also think of the words of the Zapatistas—caminamos, no corremos, porque vamos muy legos—“we walk, we do not run, because we are going very far.” For activists, I think this is the difficult part. We feel the urgency of the problem in our very bones, and hear the frantic calls for action, even in our unsettled sleep. But the sort of transformation that must be managed—its scale—is so massive, there is simply no way to run there. We have to renounce the sprint, and affirm the long march. We will walk, because the distance to be travelled is so far. But we need to start walking now.

Walking, writes Gros, is also the “recognition of our finiteness.” Here is another renunciation and affirmation. A project like the Tar Sands is all about hubris—about the scale of human ambitions when it comes to material wealth and “development” (an entirely problematic concept). Against the scale of this project, we place our small and finite human bodies. We reject trucks the size of houses, oil sand reserves the size of England, and affirm the scale of the human body walking, the brevity of our lives against the long term effects of this “development” as it drives climate change into an untenable future we will not even live to see.


Which brings us to walking and time. Gros notes the similarity between the repetitiveness of walking and Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. Walking is performance and ceremony. I take the same walk, along the same route, almost every day. It fashions a sort of timelessness that heals, a sense, as Gros writes, in which “I have always been here, tomorrow, contemplating this landscape.” This is the future anterior—the temporality of what we will have done—a projection from now into tomorrow. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. And we are tomorrow’s ancestors (maybe…if we are lucky). “Walking makes time reversible,” Gros adds.


Walking, we put a foot forward into tomorrow, claiming it as a continuation of today—not in the name of a featureless sameness, but in the name of there being a viable tomorrow in which our feet will fall on forgiving ground. Walking, we hold time in place—we make time, one step at a time, creating the world we are walking into. The politics of this walk are as yet unwritten.


In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes a protest march near a Nevada nuclear test site as bearing “a kind of bodily witness” to “the apocalypse being prepared nearby.” In the Tar Sands we will bear such witness, to another though very comparable “apocalypse.” “Every walker,” Solnit writes, “is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”

That “ineffable” is in part the lived stories that make mere space a place—the culture we practice on the land, when we are able to be of the land, that enables our living there. Describing the wilderness trails of the Dene people, Allice Legat, in Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire, notes that such trails “are accessible only through stories that tell of what has gone before”—stories “that reside in and grow from places.” Legat continues,

“Walking is an action that implies not being cut off…. Instead, walking entails carefully considering one’s surroundings while thinking with the multitude of stories that one has heard.”


What are we claiming, when we are walking? I think—that we will have a story to tell, and that that story will have a “place.”

I’m going to the Healing Walk to bear witness, to walk with others and listen to others—and to listen to the land. I’m going to the Healing Walk to renounce speed and development and affirm the pace at which we can really think and understand—the speed of walking, the speed of community. I’m going to the Healing Walk because massive systemic processes and changes, like capitalism and climate change, are often abstract and I want to see them up close and breathe their sharp petroleum air because we have made this air and should feel its sting in our eyes and lungs. I’m going to the Healing Walk because capitalism, which we’ve long known to be a mechanism for the production, protection, and escalation of inequalities, is now also revealed to be a doomsday device, a mechanism programmed for ecoside, set on self-destruct. And I’m going to the Healing Walk as one whose Marxist analysis doesn’t always leave room for grieving and loss and ceremony and because intellectual hubris is never too far from economic hubris and I want and need to get close to the ground.