In 1955, a practice known as psychogeography was developed: a creative method for exploring psychological experiences in space. In other words, it is an attempt to reflect upon the ways our mind interacts with the physical environment — emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. Throughout this piece, I will draw from the notion of psychogeography and explore my memories of a personally significant place: Cootes Paradise. I will use hand-drawn maps and short stories as a guide to showcase my experiences.
Note: My mental map is not meant to be an accurate depiction of space and topography, but rather, a depiction of my experiences in space and time.
September 1st, 2014
The room is small, dimly lit, and comfortable. Two raised beds are fitted with ugly comforters. Two desks, attached to a closet, are covered by full-body mirrors. Even so, I pay no attention to any of this. I am drawn, instead, to what lies outside my window. A wall of enormous oak trees covers my entire field of vision. In between the trees, I can make out slivers of shimmering water. A lake.
After cramming my belongings into the small drawers below my bed, I race downstairs, skirt around the back of Hedden Hall (my residence building), and find the head of a trail that enters the forest — now illuminated by the sun setting slowly in the evening sky. Someone appears from behind the trees in the distance and walks towards me.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Cootes Paradise,” they say. “It’s a Nature Sanctuary.”
My professor gathers all 55 of us in front of the trailhead. Squishing beside one another, we listen patiently. With animosity, he explains the ecological history of Ontario, and how we are about to enter a prime example of the ‘Carolinian Forest’. After his speech, he leads us down the narrow path and we saunter one by one behind him, snaking through oaks, cedars, hemlocks, and birches.
When we get to the place where the trail bottlenecks onto a wobbly boardwalk, he instructs us to form groups and search for invertebrates swimming in the water. We spend the next three hours chasing tiny creatures over the side of the boardwalk, while the sun casts shadows against the lake’s green hills. Lost in the muddy world of water tigers and diving beetles, I decide what I want to be when I grow up.
I run regularly. Not so much to stay healthy, but because it’s the only solace I’ve found in the chaotic environment of first-year university. My classes are difficult, but I don’t express this to my classmates — who appear to be managing quite well. My social life is frustrating and blends confusingly with my academic life, as the pressure of school seems to loom over every conversation. Even so, I manage to present myself as having an ‘easy-going’ personality.
I run towards the trailhead, because there are less people in the woods at this time of day. The trees are a light show of orange, yellow, and red. The water looks darker now — darker than in September.
As I run, I see places I’ve visited during classes, places I’ve walked to with friends, and places I’ve encountered alone (with only a podcast and my thoughts). I run past these familiar places, pushing into territory beyond my own memory. Then, I ascend up a mountainous path that leads into a shadowy realm of sumac trees. My breath becomes shorter, as I am exhilarated by the novelty of being lost.
The trail opens up into an empty field. I pause for a second, taking in the sunset beyond the canopy. Its light shines through an opening in the woods: the next stage of the trail. As the sun dips below the horizon, I become aware that the trail will soon fall into a blinding darkness. This darkness begins at the roots of trees, crawls up their sides, and then covers the sky in its entirety. I decide I’d better head back.
During a walk, a friend of mine tells me he wants to take the group of us to his favourite place in Hamilton.
“We’re close by now,” he says.
He takes us to a bridge, bordered on all sides by bulrushes. There’s nothing particularly special about it, in my eyes. I’ve ran across it on numerous occasions before. For this reason, I associate it with bits of songs I had been listening to at the time of my crossing, like the opening sequence to ‘My Girls’ by Animal Collective. My friend tells us he’s been here every year, and each time he finds new notes on the bridge structure that were written by anonymous poets; they pour their wisdom, encouragement, and sadness onto the wooden frames.
I can see he’s right. The bridge is covered with them. This is a pleasant change to the usually visceral messages of small-scale graffiti. Some of the notes are directed to the reader, others to the writer themselves. Some are simply left to acknowledge, I was here too.
My friend pulls out a pencil from his bag and hands it to me.
“Write something,” he says.
My father stands on the edge of the lake and points his finger to the other side.
“Ever been over there?” he asks.
I have not. I explain that since there’s no trail connecting the South shore to the North shore, I’ve never made the trek to the other side. He pauses for a moment, and then begins to wonder aloud if I have just not looked hard enough. I assure him, I’ve looked.
Determined, he tells me — along with my mother and two sisters, who were dragged along on this expedition — that we should walk along the highway to get there. We try to convince him otherwise, but it’s too late. He’s already walking towards the stairs leading up to the road.
Up on the side of the highway, we find an exit that will, according to Google Maps, take us in the right direction. Walking single file down the curving road, we are overwhelmed by the sound of cars going 80 mph. Bikers look confusingly at the five of us trudging down what appears to be highway on-ramp. But despite all the chaos and noise, the ramp does lead us to the North shore. My father seems pleased with the result of his navigating.
The North shore is far more spectacular than I had imagined. Seeing it from McMaster University, I had always assumed it was a brief patch of trees the City had decided to maintain as buffer for the lake. But I realize that the trees extend far beyond my assumption, creeping past foothills and up into the escarpment above our heads.
On the trail, the environment shifts from peaceful woodland, to marsh, to dark pine cluster, to waterfowl playground. Several hours later, when we stumble out onto a road somewhere on the other side of Hamilton, my father calls a cab.
It’s freezing and dark, and I’m fairly drunk. Stumbling through the snow with a couple of friends, we are confronted by a pack of deer wandering through the sleepy campus. We do a kind of stand-off. They stare at us and we stare at them, they move and we move. One of the more aggressive bucks makes a grunting sound and we cower a little. I hear my friend make a joke about something, and we start laughing uncontrollably. The deers run off into a grove, leaving our world and entering theirs. We walk home; the lamplights illuminate our steps through arches and along sidewalks.
My interview for a job, entitled “Aquatic Student”, is at the headquarters for the Royal Botanical Gardens. I bike there (I’m car-less), and on my way, I cross the bridge that connects the South shore to the North shore. I enter unknown wetlands colonized by bird watchers, get lost in cemeteries, and (after some time) find the glossy crystal building I recognize from Google Maps street view as the Main Centre. Two thresholds of automatic doors greet me as I waltz into the building. Before going into my interview, I stare at photographs against the wall: Queen Elizabeth II walking through a flowery landscape, pike recently caught from Hamilton Harbour, a group of smiling employees at a BBQ somewhere in the gardens. About five minutes later, a woman calls me into the other room.
On my first day, the other student workers (Terrestrial Students, Garden Students, and the like) and I are introduced to the culture of the Royal Botanical Gardens. A part of this “cultural initiation” is a talk on the history of Cootes Paradise, of which I am completely clueless.
A man, friendly and scholastic in appearance, walks into the oversized board room and gives his USB stick to the facilitator. In a booming voice, he begins to describe a young Army Officer (Thomas Cootes) who stumbles over a hill to take in the view of the marsh. This is at some point in the 1700s. From this man, he explains, a colony is born. A colony supported by hunting, fishing, pleasure crafting, building and trading — at the unfortunate expense of natural resources.
He shows us old photographs and paintings. Although the features are quite grainy, I can still recognize familiar landmarks among peculiarities of new world settlements. These images are embedded in my memory, alongside my experiences, transcending beyond my own time and into a time past. I wonder about the lives of those who lived along the marsh in the 18th and 19th century. I wonder, too, about the lives of the Indigenous Peoples; they knew the land far better than anyone, but fled the coming of the Europeans. I wonder about what these peoples experienced, what they thought, and how they lived. But, of course, all I will ever have of their lives are a few grainy photos and fragments of stories.
I’ve spent the last four months expanding my mental map of Coote’s Paradise in ways I never thought possible. I can now recognize the way storm clouds seem to part in the foothills of Ancaster to the West, the way cormorants take off from their perch on Hickory island, and the way leeches move as they swim along the shores of mudflats. I can foresee the way bird watchers inevitably congregate in search of green herons, snapping a photo with oversized cameras at the mouth of Spencer Creek. I can even predict the kinds of submergent plants you might find near Sassafras Point depending on the month of the summer.
And yet, I acknowledge that my map is nowhere close to completion.
Cootes Paradise is a more than a physical place. It exists in hundreds of thousands of minds, both alive and dead, and its meaning is intertwined with the ever-changing culture and science of the City of Hamilton. My map is just one of many psychogeographical journeys of the region, each with their own emotions, memories, and knowledge captured in space. I hope that this land — the marsh, the forest, and surrounding urban areas — is cherished and cared for by future generations, not only for the sake of its physical health, but for the sake of our collective psyche.