Lost Rivers

Lee Valley mill

I started writing this post before I left the UK and then abandoned it because I got busy and a lot of other things seemed more pressing. But the recent rediscovery of the HMS Terror and last year’s discovery of the HMS Erebus reminded me of it.

Shortly before I left the UK I was cycling down a road that I’d been down numerous times. I’m not entirely sure what tipped me off that day but suddenly I recognized that it was a canal. It made sense: the road’s location in a trough, the bridges that crossed it, the occasional bullwark here and there in locations that were nowhere near the river. All of the pieces just clicked together and I understood.

I googled it to find out more about the route and ended up at Paul Talling’s London’s Lost Rivers where I spent a few hours reading. There are many watercourses that feed into London, but they tend to disappear in urban areas, and over time many have been forgotten.

There are clues though. First off there is the shape of the city itself. The weird shapes of city blocks and routes that streets take is a product of people in the past working far more within the constraints of geography than we would do now. A river would have posed more of an obstacle to be built around rather than over. Rivers also form handy boundaries between different boroughs, so you find that some bits of the city are curiously less connected to adjacent bits.

This historic geography is also embedded in place names. The names of streets, ditches, drains, and pubs often give clues as to the former routes of waterways. Long after they’ve disappeared from view and long after the original industries such as mills or ferries are gone their names remain. Though many things have passed out of people’s memories and lived experience, the names of things are clues that can be traced back to help you discover hundreds of years of local history. The names are intimately connected to the places they describe.

In Canada we have a lot of places that are named after so many other places. The names are completely decontextualized and lack the relationships between one another that existed in the places where the names were first used. It’s not something that I really noticed before I travelled a bit around the UK but now those names seem strange. Not only that… but you will see the same set of names in Australia, South Africa and other Commonwealth countries, making just as much sense as they do anywhere else they don’t really belong. Every colony has a Victoria, a London, a Halifax. That’s colonialism for you.

It’s not merely the physical control of territory but also the control of history and narrative. By renaming everything in sight, colonists severed our connection to our land’s pre-colonial past. Naming things after the ‘old country’ says, as we’ve often said in so many narratives, that history starts now. History starts when we got here, when we ‘discovered’ this place, when we colonized it and gave it new names. Whatever happened before this happened is not merely irrelevant, by erasing names we try to make it so that history it never existed in the first place.

Reading through a fascinating account of rediscovering the routes of lost rivers made me sad to have grown up in a place that was colonized. No doubt the societies that were here first have names for everything, and those names hold a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge, and the cultural and language skills to decode it is not something I’ve ever really been exposed to.

Why am I thinking about this now? Because the recent rediscovery of the ships from the Franklin expedition happened thanks to indigenous knowledge. Inuit hunters knew where Terror was years before anyone else did because they spend a lot of time in the area and know it intimately. The Erebus was found in an area that was literally called by the Inuit “the boat sunk here” or “the big boat is here.” And sure, we laugh about it but it’s the sort of thing that should make people hang their heads in shame.

Just think of what else we might discover if we actually took the time to recognize these people as the owners and stewards of this land.

Lost cat


I have a new electric toothbrush and it is considerably less exciting than the last one. When the batteries on the old one ran down, it had a flashing red light and would beep loudly like the kinds of explosives you see in the movies. I always assumed that if I didn’t put it back on the charger right away it would explode.

It’s these sorts of things that make a mundane activity like tooth brushing fun. Sadly, my new one is quiet and has a green flashing light. Somehow the green seems too friendly, safe.

These days my life is lacking in excitement. Yes, I am aware that that statement is born out of a sense of entitlement that comes from being privileged enough to have a life that has is lacking in serious hardships. But I can’t help noticing the contrast between my life today and my life in the recent past.

My job in the UK was hectic and stressful, but there was always something interesting to do or new people to meet. In London there is no shortge of things to do or see. No matter what you’re into, there are usually several great options for you every day, most of which won’t break the bank. Vancouver, by comparison, is sleepy. There are things happening here, but they’re often expensive, poorly advertised, or underground, and there are dark days from time to time where there isn’t really much on.

I don’t want this to be a critique of the organisers and creators of events and productions. I’m sure they work very hard. It’s difficult when space is at a premium, rent is expensive, funding is ephemeral, and your audience has very little disposeable income. That’s Vancouver.

And the further east you go the worse it gets. Out here in the ‘burbs we have some really excellent trails that are less crowded than the North Shore and a few regional theatres, which to their credit, try to present some good quality productions, but there’s not much else.

After I finished my job I spent some time travelling around Europe. I managed to prolong the sense of constant novelty for another few weeks. So the transition has been a bit jarring.

Luckily the cat has been trying to fill the void. Sometime after 9 o’clock the other night she managed to get out on the patio. The latch on the gate had apparently been opened (she’s too fat to fit through the bars) and she was nowhere to be found.

She is for all intents and purposes an indoor cat, and she’s easily spooked. Coyotes often patrol our street. There was reasonable cause for concern when no one could find her that night. I called her before I went to bed but she didn’t come and I was on edge all night. She didn’t show up in the morning either and I had a deadline I had to meet on some freelance work so I wasn’t able to go look for her. But in the afternoon I went for a walk and here’s what I found:

Call off the search. I found Emma and she has a lot to say.

A video posted by Erin Brown-John (@eebeejay) on

What you don’t see is that we spent about five minutes talking back and forth before I started filming. She was being so melodramatic that I finally decided to film her. Picking her up is pretty dangerous so we walked back to the house together. She had to stop every once in a while to talk all about all the indignities she’d suffered being out all night in the rain. I opened the front door to the house but it was the wrong door so she sat in front of the other one and whined at me.

Animals are so stupid sometimes.