I’m a creature of habit. For nearly a quarter of a century, when I looked out my window I saw a brick hulk of a building. It was a comforting sight.
It always made me feel grounded in time and space to be standing on my back deck, indulging in the enduring male ritual of scalding red meat, and looking over at LeMarchant-St. Thomas Elementary School, which before that was Ecole Beaufort and before that, back in the days when nuns ran the hallways, simply Saint Thomas Aquinas School.
Now, when I look out I see wreckage, not unlike the aftermath of the great explosion, being picked through by men in hard hats and great yellow excavators.
But I also see something I’ve never seen from this angle before: traffic going by on a slice of Jubilee Road and, at night, the lights from the backyards of neighbours’ homes, which I could only see before if I was cutting through the eastern side of the school field, even though I’ve lived a couple of hundred yards from these people for 25 years.
This sight won’t be here forever. Sometime in the next year or so a brand new school will rise in LeMarchant-St. Thomas Elementary's place, giving me another building to ponder.
But for now when I look above the debris, this expansive new vista draws my eye, in a good way. It could be that my mind has been opened up to this sort of thing by a book I got for Christmas.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is British academic, writer, thinker and walker Robert MacFarlane’s account of following the ancient roads and pathways, of the British Isles, on land and in the water.
He writes beautifully enough to put me in mind of saxophonist Lee Konitz’s line, when asked by interviewer if he would like to be able to play his instrument as lyrically as the immortal Stan Getz, “We would all like to play like Stan Getz — if we could play like Stan Getz.”
Yet it is how MacFarlane looks at the world that sticks with me. He has company wandering the ancient paths, the ghosts of those who walked there before and the stories that just seem to float in the air along the way, connecting us backwards and forwards in time.
In my more mundane way I’ve even felt something similar to that walking around a city like Halifax that has only been part of the European world for a few hundred years, but where the first people have been making their way for a long, long time.
But MacFarlane also reinforces that we all have a personal, even spiritual, relationship to geography and landscape, whether it is some roadway once walked by Roman Centurions or a couple of city blocks that have only been around since the advent of the zipper.
When the landscape changes, it also changes us. I have to admit that my spirits rise when I pass the revitalized site of old St. Pat’s High, which is now as green and open as the Halifax Commons, as they do a little farther down Quinpool Road, where a large community garden now stands on the former home of my alma mater, Queen Elizabeth High School.
The Emera Oval and the downtown library are objects that make a dark Halifax winter night seem warmer and more inviting. Just as the canyons of glass and concrete being erected in other parts of the city — despite the admirable goal of getting more people into the urban core — do not.
Sometimes, on the other hand, there’s no explaining why clearing out some new space or adding or subtracting a pile of bricks or wood improves life, but it does.
Sometimes it’s a complete surprise. I loved having that school with all its memories next door. Now that it’s gone, and I never thought I’d say this, I’m revelling in the space.
I’m looking out there now, in fact, between keystrokes. Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have known that Gerry Beck was putting the coffee on. Now I just think I’ll take a little walk.