I like to know where I am. I grew up in a valley, on an island off the south coast of British Columbia. I learned to find my way on what were once logging roads, pinched between Satellite Channel and Saanich Inlet to the northeast, and the hills and mountains of the Vancouver Island Ranges on the west, north and south. Wherever you are in the Cowichan Valley you can find your way by looking up at mountains whose names you know: Tzhouhalem or Provost, the Malahat, Mount Baker and the Olympics on the American mainland, Mount Newton on Saltspring Island, across the channel. Vancouver was the same, with “mountains” always meaning “north” in my neighbourhood.
That’s why I was completely disoriented in London, Ontario: the horizon was never more than a few blocks away. The maps I carried in my head didn’t seem tethered to anything distinct about the geography, no heights of land, no large bodies of water, no changing skyline. As a result, I understood the city through its texts, a relationship based on street names and the conceptual spaces of a map rather than the cardinal directions or the landscape’s physical geography. Without a coast or mountains, it felt like there was no there in the sense that I understood there.
I was relieved when I moved to Toronto and found that my particular way of locating myself—by a horizon that tells me the cardinal directions, by landmarks that loom over the skyline, and by the glimpse of water at the end of a street—now functioned again. In my parts of the city, a downward slope means south (and a little east), and climbing means you’re probably going northwestish. You get to know the towers in St James Town, and the financial distract. There’s always the CN Tower, winking away overhead, telling you where the shore is, even if you can’t see it.
But it’s the Prince Edward Viaduct that makes me feel located in the existential sense. I spend a lot of time crossing it, on foot mostly, and sometimes by train. If I’m on foot I stop at the bastions, especially the south-facing one in the middle, with the binocular viewer. In the evening I can see the whole sunset, and the towers lighting up, and all the commuters driving home. At night the Don Valley is remarkable for its darkness, thrown into contrast by the lights on the parkway in a way that reminds you how much artificial light disrupts the night. It’s a sneaky bit of nature, too, despite the parkway and the old brickworks and the canal, and all the garbage people toss into the woods. If you’re lucky, you might see stars, or the moon. From above, you can see the different textures of the undergrowth: the grasses where the land is low and soggy, the goldenrod now blooming along the walking paths, the ducks that swim in the river, the trees green in spring, or that remarkable shade between brown and black when their leaves have fallen in winter.
I feel like I know where there is. It’s kind of a relief.