Sensing Changes is a study of five Canadian communities affected by mid-century megaprojects and a sixth community affected by water contamination in the early 2000s. Joy Parr’s more pressing concern, however, is not the communities themselves but the “embodied history” they represent. Therefore, the book does detail the aftermath of human and environmental displacement, but it does so mostly so that its author can advocate a paradigm shift in the way we do history.
Parr proposes embodied history, or a historical approach that seeks to recover historical information from all five senses, because she is frustrated with the linguistic turn in the humanities. Per Parr, a linguistic approach requires her to view her subjects through the lens of culturally-constructed discourse, and it privileges those bodily senses most easily repeatable and describable: sight and hearing. By contrast, Parr thinks knowledge resides in individual experience, not in some amorphous thing called culture, and she thinks that all five senses, not just sight and hearing (the most communicable ones) need to be brought into historical discussions, so that we can truly understand what it was like to live in a certain place at a particular time. She wants to give voice to the oppressed, and she thinks that focusing on individual bodily experience will help her do it.
Parr pursues this logic through all of her case studies, but the one that I found particularly interesting is the case of the village of Iroquois, a small 19th-century mill town that was moved in its entirety in 1958 to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. Although the residents of the town first tried to fight the relocation and then tried to convince the Canadian government to at least let them plan their new town, their pleas fell on deaf ears. “Hydro” was moving small towns all along the new waterway, and they had a cookie-cutter model city already planned out for Iroquois, complete with mid-century suburban bungalows, curved streets and even a strip mall.
Thus, those buildings that could be moved, were; the rest were burned and then scattered so as not to create a threat to navigation, and the residents were moved 1.6km north to their new village. In her narration of this process, Parr focuses not on the logistics of moving the village or on epic battles between residents and Hydro, but on the impact of the move on the bodies of the people who lived there. Using interviews with Iroquois residents, she describes how it felt to replace a thriving, walkable commercial district with empty parking lots and strip malls; how it felt to go from fishing generations-old fishing spots to seeking out new fishing holes in a now artificial body of water; and what it was like to go from a walking community where neighbors saw each other daily to a driving community where they rarely saw them at all.
And then she talks about the trees. In old Iroquois, huge maples, some a meter in diameter, lined most of the streets and provided shade in the summer and wind protection in the winter. Some were thousands of years old. The village also had a large apple orchard along the river, with four different varieties of apples and summer employment for the residents. When the village had to see their old homes and businesses burned and razed, that was traumatic enough; but when they had to see their trees burned and razed – well, the trees were so integral to their sense of place that they cried to see them cut down. And then when new Iroquois was built without trees, they were disoriented: old people couldn’t find their homes, mothers had to make sure their children wore sunblock, and no one wanted to go outside in the winter because they now lived in a barren, windswept plain. One older man predicted that he would never see trees again, and he was right – the saplings the villagers planted in the new town had barely taken root when he died.
A lot of this book feels pretty hippy-dippy to me, and I do think Parr’s analysis would greatly benefit from a more balanced approach to the history of the megaprojects – maybe incorporating top-down history of project development to complement the embodied history, maybe trusting her sources to be something other than traumatized, sensing bodies. But that said, I like that her method gives voice to and validates the villagers’ loss of place. It advocates a more community-based style of placemaking; it also restores some of the power to create history to the people who live it.