Book Review: An Enduring Wilderness—Toronto’s Natural Parklands

Below the nearly endless landscape to the north, the narrow belt of our country’s population makes for a profoundly urban nation, whose wilderness is at once urban and remote, real and imagined, unsentimental, and inspiring. Our natural world is not found in the white settler mythologies of the rural north, but here within the messy beauty of the city.

Squint your eyes, flip through the pages, and Robert Burley’s photographs meld into a collage of southern Ontario idyll where waterlines,  escarpments, rivers, and forests stretch into the horizon. Look closer, and the spell is broken. In Burley’s images of Toronto parklands, the natural and the human-made coexist in the beautiful and matter-of-fact urban landscapes of Canada’s largest city. Here are ravines, forests, beaches, apartment towers, power lines and the odd glimpse of humanity.

Robert Burley, An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto's Natural Landscapes, Stefan Novakovic
Staring down the barrel at E.T. Seaton Park. Photo by Robert Burley.

Published last year, An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands surveys the terrains that imperceptibly define the contours of urbanity. From the Scarborough Bluffs to the Don and Humber rivers and—especially—the ravines that run like veins beneath the grid  of streets, the photographs take in the eclectic and unexpected reality of Toronto’s landscapes.

Eschewing the pastoral fantasies of Canadian wilderness, Burley’s urban lens captures a refreshing jolt of reality. Dotting the quietly majestic compositions are fishers, partiers, cyclists, and kayakers and the occasional bare-assed swimmer. The vistas unfold with uncomplicated grace, acknowledging the moments where daily life meets the sublime. There are untouched landscapes too, of course, but what makes the book so compelling is Burley’s understanding of the city itself as a part of nature. Buildings enter the frame as a beaver damn, solitary caribou or flock of seals might meet the photographer’s eye hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. It’s not pretty in the same way, but it’s often beautiful all the same.

Hints of history also inform the images. In the E.T. Seton Park, the rusted underbelly of the CP railway bridge meets the verdant landscape of the Don Valley, with the camera staring down the barrel of that long span of steel. Above, the rapidly growing Toronto of the future beckons with glass and spandrel and the vague promises of a tech giant’s pending colonization. But take a few steps down, and a different kind of place comes into view. It’s an archeological view of history, where the past is not chronologically behind us but literally below us. 

The notions of time, nature and culture explored in the photographs are complemented by selections of writing from Toronto authors, including such Canadian literary lights as Anne Michaels and George Elliott Clarke, while Robert Burley’s own foreword describes the joy of another Toronto—“down there,” as he dubs it. So much less restrictive and more mysterious than “up here.”