By: Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor
This year’s Vines Arts Festival took place from August 5 to 15 in various parks across Vancouver. According to the event’s website the festival’s goal is to feature artists who are “working toward land, water, and relational justice.” While the festival of physically-distanced, free, small events has ended, the organizers have made these performances available as soundscapes on the website. Along with these are an interactive map with the Indigenous names of the various parks, and transcriptions of the soundscapes for increased accessibility.
As Strathcona Park is located close to me and I had enjoyed many walks through the Strathcona Community Gardens and into the park during the height of COVID-19 restrictions, I chose the soundscape (spoken performances) titled Sounds Like Growth that intersected with the park. For a fully immersive experience, I decided to listen at the garden (but not the park itself) as I did not want to disturb the people who are currently sheltering in the tent city there.
I settled myself on a bench where I had previously enjoyed watching northern flickers, robins, and hummingbirds flit around. As I started listening, it became clear that the theme of this soundscape was food sovereignty and I realized I could not have chosen a better location to listen in. The garden was occupied with a couple of people working on their plots, people walking through and admiring the kale, tomatoes, flowers, and other vegetables being grown there.
The soundscape started out with a variety of bird sounds intertwined with the sounds of human voices and sirens. This faded into the background as Senaqwila Wyss, an Indigenous ethnobotanist and SFU student, explained that Strathcona Park is located near a village site that was known in the Squamish language as Skwácháy̓s. Wyss further explained that some of the park sites in the festival were chosen because they were actual village sites while others (like Strathcona Park) because of their close proximity to a village site.
Skwácháy̓s, I learned, was located near the False Creek mudflat (coastal wetlands) area and were important for the abundance of shellfish they provided otters, people, and other animals in the ecosystem they were a part of. Of course, the False Creek mudflats have now been built over and that biodiversity displaced and polluted as a result of colonialism and capitalism.
According to Wyss, part of the goal of the soundscape is to understand that “even though we see a public space as somewhere for humans to enjoy and be outdoors and hang out, it’s also important to think about the wildlife and the different parts of the ecosystem that today still rely on those parts of the ocean and different public areas or forests that are part of their natural ecosystem as well.”
The next speaker, Jaz Whitford, posed a series of questions for listeners to keep in mind throughout the soundscape. Many of the questions urged listeners to consider their own relationship with colonial food systems and what we could do to engage in a more sustainable way with the land. Whitford then encouraged listeners to journal their thoughts, create artwork, have conversations, and organize around the ideas presented in the soundscape.
Listening to these questions, I thought of a few signs on various plots that ask people not to take any of the plants or food. I understand that the people planting this food put a lot of work into it but I couldn’t help but think that this was a colonialist take on the food they were planting. Instead, could they not ask people to take what they need but leave a little?
Cease Wyss, Senaqwila’s mother and an ethnobotanist herself, also spoke about how capitalism has corrupted the food system. “As sovereign Indigenous people and people of colour, we have the ability to get up and walk out into the environment and get what we need immediately, but also take care of everything else, our mind, our body, spirit. But with commercialism, capitalism, we’re forced into being a cog, a wheel that doesn’t get fed until [ . . . ] we’ve done all this work [ . . . ] there’s no freedom there.”
What was once simply accessible to anyone who needed it is what has been commodified in a way that creates food insecurity and barriers. In addition, this erosion of the food system is tied to the erosion of the land.
Eddie Garner spoke about the importance of preserving salmon stocks which have been severely impacted by the mining and fossil fuel industry. Alisha Lettman provided knowledge about the importance of learning about and staying connected to ancestral food systems.
Susan Yáñez’ performance included the powerful lines, “for thousands of years, our way of eating has been organic. And now we are being charged three, four times the effort. Because to eat healthy, you need to be wealthy.” This spoke to how much work needs to be done toward food sovereignty, and who currently benefits from this capitalist system.
Leona Brown spoke about preserving local food systems and starting gardens and supporting community gardens within the city.
Though this soundscape contained many important lessons, my main takeaways were the importance of learning about Indigenous food systems as well as food systems from my own culture, and cultivating a garden on my own in order to connect more to and take care of the land and soil in a small way.
Other soundscapes available as part of this festival cover topics such as Black liberation, Indigenous resistance and history, bodies and the land, and more.
All soundscapes are available on vinesartfestival.com.