Oilands: Process and Imagery [Part 2]

Expressways carve car culture into landscapes, elevating automobiles both in our consciousness and in space, over the pedestrian realm of a city or the pastoral pace of the countryside.  In the same way, oil infrastructure elevates North America's revived culture of oil production throughout the continent's landscapes, changing them from urban, agricultural, and wilderness landscapes, to oil lands.  

Take a look through the pretty 'oil landscape' google images in the last post. As if placed there for me, a lone photograph of a natural gas flare is hidden among the oil-on-canvas images. It even blends in, with its rainbow and pastoral background. Clicking leads to Eugene Richards' "The New Oil Landscape", a National Geographic photo gallery of fracking activity in the Dakotas. 

Eugene Richards, The New Oil Landscape

Eugene Richards, The New Oil Landscape

In this gallery is another striking image, one of South Dakota's Thunder Butte, gently sloping above a borehole waste pit.

  Thunder Butte is sacred to the Lakota people who have resided around it since 1776.

  Thunder Butte is sacred to the Lakota people who have resided around it since 1776.

Such significant interventions in the physical landscape interrupt the stories, rituals, and beliefs that nurture our shared cultures and individual spirits. Fracking, along with oil extraction and transport activities, physically alters existing ways of life and delicate ecosystems. We know this. What might be less apparent is how the visible indicators of these activities  - the flares, waste pits, pipelines, mines and tailings ponds - are also capable of muddling invisible connections, legends and beliefs that connect a people to a place. 

To others, the new oil landscape is one of hope, where you can make more money than could ever be made doing the same thing elsewhere, escape unemployment, plan a future, or enjoy being part of a new culture. Instagram hosts a fine selection of the imagery created by the burgeoning culture of Canadian oil workers, often depicting the general hardcore badass-ery that is life and hard work in the tar sands. Hashtags like #oilpatchlife, #oilfieldmoney, #oilfielddreams, #oilfieldswag, and #intheoilpatch lead to collections of photos angled to capture the enormity of machines and activities, filters carefully chosen to enhance the glow of a flare or the contrast of bright lights against a darkening sky. 

A 2008 Canadian Geographic feature describes the awe-inducing effect of "oil sands central" at Fort McMurray: 

"The beauty of the boreal forest that surrounds Fort McMurray and covers most of northern Alberta lies in its magnitude, but once you arrive at oil-sands central, what you see is a landscape erased, a terrain stretching in a radius of many hundreds of square kilometres that is not so much negatively impacted as forcibly stripped bare and excavated. Dominating this landscape are half a dozen giant extraction and refining plants with their stacks and smoke and fire, disorientingly wide and deep mines, and tailings ponds held in check by some of the world’s largest dams. As a panoramic vision, it’s all rather heartbreaking but, if one is forced to be honest, also awe-inspiring, such is the energy and the damage produced by human ambition." - Curtis Gillespie for Canadian Geographic

In fairness, wind turbines also punctuate landscapes with their sharp and foreign form, often massed in disorientingly vast numbers. The question is, which story of human ambition do we want our culture to tell through its landscape?

Centre News – Winter 2013

Graham Fairclough Graham Fairclough Guest Lecturer In November, the Centre was very pleased to welcome Graham Fairclough to Willowbank. Graham spent the day with our second year students discussing heritage through the lens of a landscape perspective and informing us of recent developments in landscape policies in the UK and Europe. Graham also joined us as our guest later that evening in the Bright Salon as the Willowbank community gathered for the Per Neumeyer Bursary Dinner. Graham is Director of the Landscape Research Group as well as Strategic Research Adviser at Newcastle University, both in the UK. He led the development and implementation of Historic Landscape Characterisation at English Heritage and has worked with the Council of Europe on the European Landscape Convention and the Faro Convention. His activities and research focus mainly on historic landscapes, interdisciplinary landscape studies, as well as heritage and archaeological resource management. Graham is also joint Editor of the British journal 'Landscapes'. Director's Activities November was also the occasion of The Niagara Foundation's annual Living Landmark Dinner where Lisa Prosper was the evening's guest speaker. In December, as part of the Centre's activities under the recently signed MOU with the UNESCO-affiliated Shanghai-based World Heritage Institute for Training and Research in the Asia-Pacific Region (WHITRAP), Lisa and Julian travelled to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to participate in a meeting reflecting on the implementation of the Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) two years after its adoption. The HUL Recommendation is a new framework that aims to integrate conservation of the built environment into the wider goals of sustainable urban development.

Oilands: Process and Imagery [part 1]

The name of this project is not a typo, but an admittedly unimaginative combination of the terms 'oil sands' and 'landscape'. However unimaginative, the process of naming led me down some funky trails.

When procrastinating, I often ease myself into real work by creating some structure (like pick a title) and perusing pictures of whatever it is I am trying to understand. From where I sit at my laptop in St. Catharines, images are an introduction to unfamiliar landscapes that words, and their subjective emotions, cannot always provide.

When I read “adjacent stacks litter the landscape of this territory, spewing smoke over the reserve”, I must see it to truly understand it. Here, Laurence Butet-Roch is describing the landscape of Aamjiwnaang and her thought-process behind photographing the reserve and its people. Specifically, she and Sarah Marie Weibe discuss the deep commitments that some journalists’, researchers’ and photographers’ have to the people, and often the places, they study (see Back in Aamjiwnaang and comments).

This perspective shapes my method of image-finding. I seek "authentic" images to help me understand. A photographer’s commitment to the people and places in an image, or better yet her immersion in the culture of that place, helps me trust her photograph. 

Ms. Weibe comments that pictures “are powerful tools to give presence to absence”, pointing out their ability to reveal hidden societal issues.  In the field of built heritage preservation, we draw or photograph a building before it is changed or destroyed to document and solidify its existence. According to  Graham Fairclough however, a landscape “cannot be destroyed, only changed”. Images are sometimes all we have to document, provide evidence, and understand a changing landscape and the cultures it cultivates. 

So, again I sit trying to name what I do not understand. Googling ‘oil landscape' revealed, as one might guess, a colourful display of oil-on-canvas landscapes. 

'oil landscape' images

'oil landscape' images

I dismissed this as my own foolish use of keywords and moved on.  Searching 'Oil sands landscape' delivered the shudder I was looking for: 

 'oil sands landscape' images

 'oil sands landscape' images

Pouring over images of decimated places, their former state unrecognizable, feels like rubber-necking past a car crash. Simultaneously horrified yet grateful to be out of harm’s way, I lament the lack of regard for delicate systems.  I wonder how it would feel if these loaded changes were happening in places familiar to me, and then remember they are. Fracking and pipeline proposals are threatening each place I've called home, including New England, southern Ontario, and the Maritimes. Typically, when I'm completely tied up in knots, I escape to a video of a pile of kittens or something equally mind-soothing. This, by the way, is a common response to overwhelm - looking away and escaping to something comforting. If you relate, Joanna Macy's 'Work That Reconnects' explores different ways of pushing through this pattern.

I leave you for now with a selection of "oilands" imagery for your perusing pleasure:

#oilsands via Instagram

Edward Burtynsky, Oil 

Patchett and Lozowy, 'Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands'

Laurence Butet-Roch, Our Grandfathers Were Chiefs

Eugene Richards, The Landscape of Oil 

National Geographic, The New Oil Landscape 

National Geographic, 'Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom'

National Geographic, 'Satellite Views of Canada's Oil Sands Over Time' 

National Geographic, 'Canadian Rain Forest Edges Oil Pipeline Path'

Indian Givers documentary

Wired, 'The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta’s Oil Sands'

Globe and Mail, 'A long journey down the controversial Keystone XL pipeline route' 

Huffington Post Oil Spill galleries

Terry Evans & Elizabeth Farnsworth: Dakota Is Everywhere 




2014 Willowbank Lectures

The relationship between nature and culture - between geography and identity - is a perennial theme in the Canadian narrative. Not only has our experience of nature shaped our culture, but our culture has transformed the natural environment into the unavoidably cultural landscapes we inhabit. This fertile exchange has defined Canada.

The 2014 Willowbank Lectures takes an eclectic look at the relationship between nature and culture, both past and contemporary. They gather a diverse group of speakers from inside and outside Canada who explore and interpret the meeting ground between the natural and the cultural.

Speakers to be announced soon. 

Oilands: Prospecting

My motivation for this project comes from a place of personal guilt. As a former student of environmental issues, I felt wrong committing to the study of old buildings (friends, forgive that vast under-statement), while many of my peers were committing to voicing their reactions to the climate crisis and Canada's burgeoning role as a major oil producer. It wasn't enough to take comfort in the innate connections I see between heritage and environmental preservation. An internal struggle began to emerge while I practiced the patience of craftsmanship during a time of such national and international impatience. 

I am learning to saw and measure at an idyllic estate in a sleepy colonial village on the Niagara Peninsula, while fellow Canadians actively oppose the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, and Line 9 pipelines. I can't help feeling that people are finally galvanizing, while I've cloistered myself away to whittle.

Environmental Defence. Enbridge's Line 9 Proposal  

Environmental Defence. Enbridge's Line 9 Proposal  


Fortunately for my conscience, studying at Willowbank goes beyond lessons in patience and craftsmanship. Last September, we were introduced to Cultural Landscape theory when the 'Defend Our Coast' movement against tar sands pipelines and tankers in British Columbia was making waves. Throughout first year, we were exposed to the nuances of First Nations culture and its overdue inclusion in the field of Heritage Preservation. Meanwhile, the 'Idle No More' movement was gaining momentum. The feeling began shifting from guilt to "I am where I'm supposed to be." I even realized I could think about these connections during a long day of dovetail perfecting. 

On October 22nd 2012, in Victoria BC, five thousand people gathered on the BC Legislature lawn for the Defend Our Coast day of action against tar sands pipelines and tankers. This was one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in the country's history.   

On October 22nd 2012, in Victoria BC, five thousand people gathered on the BC Legislature lawn for the Defend Our Coast day of action against tar sands pipelines and tankers. This was one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in the country's history.   

My role as Cultural Landscape Fellow allows me to dig deeper into the connections I began noticing last year, and I'll be discussing those I just mentioned more in later posts. I will not be directly confronting the heavy economic and scientific arguments embroiled within climate change and oil sand debates. There's enough heated discussion in that salon without my voice. This will be focused on the human connection to place. Cultural Landscape. Everyday Life. Ritual. Home. Sacred Space. 


Suncor upgrader complex adjacent to the Athabasca River. Photo by Chris Evans, Pembina Institute

Suncor upgrader complex adjacent to the Athabasca River. Photo by Chris Evans, Pembina Institute

I most want to hear from others and share different perspectives in any way we dream up. I want to learn about any person's sense of place as they wrap that feeling around the presence of oil in any form - production, transport, infrastructure, and accidents. I want to ask the right questions and hear from people who feel good and hopeful in an 'oil landscape' as well as those who feel frightened and hopeless. My hypothesis is that as I look deeply, my biases will crack open. My hope is that yours will too. 

If you or anyone you know would like to contribute more perspective to Oilands, please do get in touch. 

- Angela



Through the lens of Canada's bituminous sands industry, Oilands explores the cultural landscape of oil. Oilands is Angela Garvey's primary work as Willowbank's 2013-2014 Susan Buggey Cultural Landscape Fellow. Oilands posts combine personal reflection and the perspectives of people living in oil-impacted places. Discussion is encouraged, and Angela can be reached directly at agarvey@students.willowbank.ca.

Angela is a second year student in Willowbank's Diploma Program. She is interested in environmental sustainability, the essence of place and, in turn, the parallels and synergies of environmental and cultural advocacy. 


Centre News – Summer 2013

The Historic Urban Landscape Recommendation (HUL), ratified in 2011, was the first such instrument on the historic environment to be issued by UNESCO in 35 years. Its study and promotion as a new tool for urban conservation is being undertaken by Dr. Ron van Oers out of the World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and Pacific Region (WHITRAP). Ron visited Willowbank in July to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Centre for Cultural Landscape for Cooperation in Research on Cultural Landscape Theory and its Application to HUL. The Centre also organized a workshop with Ron for local heritage planners, Toronto city staff and other interested parties. Space was generously provided at 401 Richmond by the Centre for City Ecology. In preparation for a follow up book from his and Francesco Bandarin's first book The Historic Urban Landscape: Managing Heritage in an Urban Century, Ron took the occasion of his visit to Willowbank to interview Lisa on Aboriginal perspectives on landscape.

Centre News – Spring 2013

In May, upon the invitation of UNESCO, the Director of the Centre for Cultural Landscape, Lisa Prosper, presented at The Hangzhou International Congress Culture: Key to Sustainable Development in China. Over 400 experts from around the world gathered to focus on the linkages between culture and sustainable development. Given the absence of culture from the Millennium Development Goals, this occasion provided an historical opportunity to contribute to the post 2015 global sustainable development agenda. The event culminated in the Hangzhou Declaration Placing Culture at the Heart of Sustainable Development Policies. Aside from the privilege of participating in this important event, travelling to China and being part of a UNESCO initiative were both thrilling firsts for Lisa. Postcard The annual Willowbank lecture series, renamed as the Willowbank Lectures, turned its attention to the urban milieu this year. Urban Dwelling: Creative Ways to Engage with our Shared Urban Landscape brought together a diverse and provocative group of speakers to discuss innovative, collaborative and sustainable ways of engaging with our shared urban landscape. We were privileged to have Gustavo Araoz, President of ICOMOS, as one of our speakers as well as Owen Rose and Andrew Emond from Montreal, Amy Lavender Harris from Toronto and John Schofield from the University of York in the U.K. The Willowbank Lectures also experimented with travelling off-site to the Young Centre in the Distillery District in Toronto and The Pearl Company in Hamilton.

Cultural Landscapes and Heritage Policy

As part of the open consultation process undertaken by the city of Toronto on the occasion of the five year review of the Official Plan, the Centre for Cultural Landscape has made a written submission to the Planning and Growth Management Committee regarding the adoption of proposed new amendments to the Heritage and Public Realm Policies. The submission describes a Willowbank understanding of cultural landscapes and how this perspective, if adopted, might help to promote a more holistic regulatory framework.

Centre News – Spring 2012

Spring was a busy time for the new Associate Director, Lisa Prosper, who presented at two international forums. In May, she presented at the 15th US ICOMOS Annual International Scientific Symposium in San Antonio, Texas. The event entitled World Heritage in the Americas: Confluence of Cultures celebrated the 40th anniversary of UNESCOs World Heritage Convention and the nomination bid of the San Antonio Missions to the World Heritage List. Lisa participated in a thematic session on cultural sustainability, where she presented Aboriginal Perspectives on Renewing and Revitalizing Cultural Meaning in Place. In early June, directly on the heels of this stimulating event, Lisa also presented at the inaugural conference of the newly formed Association of Critical Heritage Studies in Gothenburg, Sweden. This was a large gathering of academics from around the world meeting for the first time to share research and take stock of the field of heritage thought and practice through critical analysis. Lisa's presentation was entitled Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes and Designation.