John Bentley Mays

Morrison Creek

an Oakville journal, September-October 2003

The first day of this month-long job for Oakville Galleries was a sweaty scramble from start almost to finish.
There was an early-morning call from the architecture school at the University of Toronto, asking why I had skipped my first class. But I'm not teaching until January, I replied, flabbergasted. (The university, it seemed, had moved back the class to September without bothering to tell me. They promised to work things out.)
Now running late, I dashed out to pick up the rental car provided for my stay in Oakville by the gallery and by Ross and Trish McTavish, of McTavish Travel. Marnie Fleming, curator of contemporary art at Oakville Galleries, was waiting for me there. After she swore to the rental people that she wouldn't let me skip the country with their lipstick-red Hyundai, I raced back to my home in west-end Toronto and started throwing clothes, computer parts, books, papers, diskettes and other stuff into the car. (Like other writers, I can't work without a cluttery nest. Whatever the job, I have to haul around my bits of straw.) Other appointments had to be kept before I could quit Toronto and drive to Oakville.
By the time I turned off Lakeshore Drive East down the long green road to the former mansion that now serves as headquarters of Oakville Galleries, got out and walked up to the door, my body seemed to be hurtling forward at 100 kmh.
The first of my meetings with Francine Périnet, director of Oakville Galleries, took place a few minutes later. She didn't offer me a drink to calm me down. Instead, Mme. Périnet told me a story about Oakville, which had the same good effect.
The street-plan of the town tends to run, she told me, along the lines of imaginary grid, like mid-town Manhattan. There's more to be said about the geometry of Oakville. Where one lives on the checkerboard is very important here. But during that first hour Mme. Périnet and I talked, the most important thing to have in mind was simply that there is a grid, peculiarly expressive of the town's dynamic.
Lying parallel to one another along its east-west axis are the transportation corridors that link Toronto and Hamilton, the Niagara Peninsula, and the United States: the shoreline of Lake Ontario, followed by canoes of ancient Canadians before the Europeans arrived; and the railways, and Lakeshore Drive and the Queen Elizabeth Way, the 403 and the 407. Everything that happens on the expressways and railway lines happens very fast. Commuter trains zip into Oakville, pause, then zip out again. Driving between Hamilton and Toronto through the unbroken mumble of glassy office buildings and warehouses and residential subdivisions along the QEW, the motorist bound elsewhere is likely to be unaware he is entering Oakville or leaving it. There is no curve or bump in those ribbons of steel and concrete to indicate that this small, westward district of Toronto's vast metropolitan sprawl might be different from any other.
Now think about the north-south axis of the grid, Mme. Périnet suggested.
At first, I assumed she meant me to consider the important streets and thoroughfares lying at right angles to the QEW and the lakeshore. She wasn't. She had in mind, instead, Oakville's countless streams. Many of these waterways--some sizeable, most not--rise from a long ridge that, thousands of years ago, was the shoreline of glacial Lake Iroquois. Today the waters meander across the dry lakebed in a general southward direction, slowing as they pass though marshes and shadowy ravines. The smaller ones long ago vanished into sewers under streets and house lots. A few still run free into Lake Ontario.
If they are now considered attractive features of Oakville's terrain, the creeks and their little valleys, which swell and languish with the seasons, once delayed travellers in these parts. Ontario's lakeshore merchants, publicans and such tended to set up shop at the intersection of a conspicuous stream and the east-west flow of traffic; which is how Sixteen Mile Creek gave Oakville its start, 150 years ago.
In Mme. Périnet's mythic topography of Ontario, then, east-west--the route I'd taken out to Oakville that afternoon--means speed, hurry, the typical Modern forgetfulness of where we are. North-south things, such as streams and small rivers, are about slowing down and stopping, thinking and remembering.
She glanced out her office window at Gairloch Gardens, as the gallery site is know nowadays.
That's Morrison Creek, she said, gesturing toward the long furze of deep green at the western edge of the property.
Like all Oakville's streams, it marks a place to stop and settle and gather one's thoughts.
It took a few days for the quiet of this place to wash the city noise and bother out of my head. But as I'm writing this, in the old house beside Morrison Creek, I am getting a feel for the project I was invited to do. It is a work of watching and thinking, and learning from Oakville's terrain and people about what it means to be here, which is not exactly like anywhere else on earth.
I invite you to read my jottings about Oakville, as I add them to this journal day by day. I invite you to respond, by clicking on my name and sending me e-mail.
By the way--the architecture course I was scheduled to teach at the University of Toronto has been switched back to January. But from where I sit, that seems like an eternity away.

I am grateful for the generosity of these people, among many others: Francine Périnet, Teresa Casas and the staff of Oakville Galleries; Ross and Trish McTavish, and McTavish Travel; Her Worship Ann Mulvale, Mayor of Oakville; Laurice Albert; Craig MacBride; Kenneth Robertson; Lawrie Lubin and Scott Zavaros; Andrés Duany.

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Oakville, Ontario