I love being outside and often wander around by foot or by bike. As an introvert living in a city, I’m attracted to lesser travelled areas. I find joy in looking for signs of creatures that are more difficult to see in a backyard or city park. About two years ago during one of my walks I emerged from the shrubs while picking some burrs off of my pants and brushing off some leaves on my jacket. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t alone, and looked up and see two men curiously and cautiously staring at me.
“Oh, hi. Ummm, just moving on through,” I said. Moving on through? Nice one, I thought to myself, and continued on my way. I’m not exactly sure why that was so awkward, but it’s not the first time people have raised an eyebrow when I burst out of the forest to return to a path after following a trail of tracks.
I had recently learned that there are an estimated two thousand coyotes living within city limits in large North American metropolises and, in search of some evidence of one, I had been following a twisting trail off the main path. Urban coyotes are highly adaptive and are succeeding in cities because of the availability of food and their ability to stay hidden from the bustle of city life. When I lived in Montreal, the city’s post industrial landscapes of rubble, overgrown lots and alleyways, seemed to create the perfect environments for the large inconspicuous carnivores to thrive. I had already seen one a friend had tipped me off to. It was living in a large area that was once a rail yard for CN, long since demolished and now a huge field where I had also seen foxes, groundhogs, and falcons. All this activity was about a three minute walk from my apartment in Mile End, nestled in between a residential area on one side and industrial area on the other, separated by the remaining train tracks.
Two weeks later, I asked a friend to check out a new place I suspect to be a coyote spot. At first glance on an online satellite map it was just a giant green and brown parcel of land north of the highway. A little research revealed it to be a defunct quarry that is in a state of slow transition to a city park.
When my friend took a look at the map and said, “oooh, looks like a good cruising spot!” I realized what had happened when I came across those men a few weeks earlier, and several times I encountered people previously while traipsing around in vacant lots, brown fields, and the woodlots adjacent to parks–places that one might describe as urban wilderness. I had been fumbling around in a place with enough cover and abandon to be a perfect spot to connect for outdoor sex with privacy and anonymity.
While deciding on a place for our next adventure, I suggested an ungroomed woodlot along the river I had come across on a bike ride. I had seen a muskrat swimming around and I wanted to head back to see if I could spot it again. When my friend and I arrived, he said he recognized the place, he’d been there before, and at the time there was even a rating and several comments about it on an app for public hook ups.
I have come to realize that some of the places where urban coyotes can thrive without detection and queer folks can hook up are the same. We share these spaces because they both need the wild within the city. It’s a wild that exists in the places and spaces that are liminal, nestled in-between the order of the developed urban landscape.
There are two dominant conceptions of wild in the settler defined binary. One is that of an untamed, unknown and frightening space. This conception positions a wild that is not and perhaps cannot be controlled and is deviant. The other is nature as pure, untouched, pristine, and tranquil, where imagined ideas of the natural order are built and produced. In the settler colonial projects of Canada and the United States, the latter vision of wilderness came to prominence in the late 1800s, as a move by national governments to tie the nation building project directly to the land. The tranquility of nature is about the wild spaces that give life, through resources and powerful narratives, to a national myth.
I come to realize that some of the places where urban coyotes can thrive without detection and queer folks can hook up are the same. We share these spaces because they both need the wild within the city.
This myth is also at work in the urban context. In 1954, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau called for the city to proceed with what he termed les coup de moralité: morality cuts. In an effort to make Mount Royal Park a place of tranquility, the forest understory was repeatedly cut back and several trees were felled. The intention was to make it difficult to hide in the bushes, and reports from the time talk of the mountain being cleaned up to make it difficult for “perverts and alcoholics” to use the park to their liking.
At the same time, removing the understory was damaging to the Red Oak Ecosystem of the mountain. The land being cleared made it susceptible to erosion, and to control this several trees were planted. Ash, Red Pine, White Spruce, and Norway Maples trees were brought to the mountain, none of these part of the forest originally, which shifted the ecology. The cuts also made it easy for invasive species to move in, and culprits like buckthorn and wild parsley are still seen all over the mountain.
Today, the only remaining Red Oak forest is high up on the mountain, out of reach from both development and morality cuts. This is also a stroke of luck in some ways, since Frederick Olmstead, the park’s designer, famous for also designing Central Park in New York City, initially wanted the entire top of the mountain to be clear cut. His idea was that if the trees thinned as you went up the mountain it would feel higher than it was, and therefore more majestic, important when sculpting a landscape for settlers and elites.
One writer, George Lipsitz, describes this kind of production of urban space the white spatial imaginary. Less about white people and more about whiteness and the way it operates to produce and control space, Lipsitz talks about the ways that the white spatial imaginary creates spaces of order with predicted use. Through this conception, the woodlots, brownfields, and the public park are an extension of settlement, not the absence of it. They are defined as wild because of the colonial notions about space. Leisure and the way nature is to be interacted with is designed, with particular ideas about what the outcome should be. The public park is also a place of powerful imaginaries about land and nation. Canada as a nation markets parks and the great outdoors as part of its identity. The very establishment of space as a park is a part stripping the wild from it. When the peaks of mountains are a place to ski and enjoy vistas, the wild is tamed into something that is mobilized for a settler imaginary.
I grew up in the Northwest end of Toronto next to chemical factories and two major highways. In the summer, my Dad would drive us down to the High Park pool to escape our non-air conditioned house. I enjoyed being next to large trees and many birds that I didn’t get to see in my family’s backyard.
Once I was a bit older and took to venturing on the TTC to go to the park on my own, I remember being warned about avoiding the park at night. When I pressed friends about what I should be avoiding, the suggestion was queer people having sex. Disrupting folks engaged in public sex seemed less dangerous than simply embarrassing to my teenaged self, but the sentiment remained: the park offered a kind of wild under the cover of darkness.
Years later I worked as a nature interpreter at High Park and learned about the Black Oak Savanah on the park’s eastern edge. In order to have clear views and a groomed park, city staff were instructed to mow the understory, which destroyed native plants and created perfect conditions for invasives to take over. Eventually, ecologists were consulted and determined that a first move to restore the Black Oak Savanah was to stop mowing the meadow, which was immensely helpful. Targeted plantings of native species are also part of the program, to support biodiversity of the Savanah and therefore habitat for varied species.
When it comes to wild spaces, settler notions place one of two uses: site of exploitation for the production of wealth, or site of leisure that is groomed and maintained.
In Victoria, where I now live, a kind of morality cut was put in place in 2002 for the Southeast woods of Beacon Hill Park. Lover’s Lane is a road that people frequented to enjoy the anonymity of the dark. The lane was known as a place for cruising. The neighbourhood surrounding the park is a generally wealthy one, and morally outraged residents pushed the city to install boulders that blocked vehicular traffic and enforce a no parking area at the north end of the lane. A leaked memo from the city Parks Department announced the blocking of the lane as “an attempt to thwart unsavoury activity in that area of our beautiful park.” In addition, trees were felled and bushes thinned out to allow for easy sight lines for park security and police.
Meegan is the Lekwungen name for Beacon Hill Park, and since moving to the city I have spent a good amount of time in this area. The land was once used as a Kwetlal (Camas in English) cultivation site, as the plant was a food staple for Lekwungen speaking people. When settlers arrived they believed the space should be a park because of its beauty, specifically the large fields of purple flowers of the Kwetlal. The space appeared wild, not managed to settler understandings of land and productivity. When it comes to wild spaces, settler notions place one of two uses: site of exploitation for the production of wealth, or site of leisure that is groomed and maintained.
This is the white spatial imaginary that Lipsitz defined at work. There is a reason the memo from Victoria Parks Department uses the language of “our” beautiful park. Saying our is a suggestion of ownership, of people and activities that belong, and those that don’t. This is why a park is groomed and policed: to keep away certain kinds of wild. If a coyote is spotted too often it is removed, often killed; if cruising becomes a problem for politically mobilized moral agents the forest can be cut down to make surveillance easier.
Queering the way we understand the wild is about interrogating colonial shaping of space and place. Undeveloped lots, ungroomed waysides of railways, and areas of public parks are spaces in between and outside of the controlled environments of urban development. In these refuges for the disruptive, wild activities of queer sex, I have also watched falcons teaching their young how to hunt. There’s more than one kind of biodiversity at stake when these wilds are removed. A healthy urban ecosystem needs a variety of spaces, with a transformative understanding of nature and value of the wild. These wilds remind us that there are things beyond our control—that there are other ways of being in the world—despite those who have attempted to make us think otherwise.