This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto 

Last month, I joined a Lost Rivers walk within the PATH system.

Typically engaged with tracing the routes of buried creeks within Toronto’s topography, the Lost Rivers PATH walk was unique in its investigation of a part of the city so thoroughly urbanized that finding traces of what came before seems absurd.

In its third year of hosting the PATHology and Geology walk, Lost Rivers has once again invited a reconsideration of Toronto’s urbanized core. Our goal was finding proxies for — and true instances of — nature within the world’s largest network of underground pathways.

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Lead by geologist John Wilson, our group learned about the origins of the stone that clads the interior spaces and exterior facades of Toronto’s largest skyscrapers. Stopping to appreciate nature-inspired art along the way, we also found evidence of one of the many streams that used to flow through the centre of the city.

It turns out that most of the stone cladding in Toronto comes from very far away. Despite being just south of the Canadian Shield, Toronto’s skyscrapers are covered in stones from further afield, like red granite from Sweden (Scotiabank Plaza), travertine from Italy (the lobby of the TD Centre) and marble from Kashmir (the tunnel west of Scotiabank).

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Thinking about the sheer volume of stone mined from the earth, shipped across the planet and reconstituted as Torontonian skyscrapers, it’s easy to appreciate that our modern city is a geologic force as strong as those that created the Scarborough Bluffs and carved the ravines.

Sometimes, the geologic forces of urbanization are more subtle. When the initial construction of the Bay-Adelaide centre was delayed indefinitely in the early 1990s, the city was left with a 6-storey stump and an unfulfilled order of 35,000 tons of Norwegian granite. Without the 44-storey tower to be clad, the city was awash in free flowing Scandinavian stone that has since settled into hundreds of tables and floors in downtown Toronto.

Beneath the city covered in layers of stone from elsewhere, there are indeed remnants of historical watercourses. Though most of the waterways in downtown Toronto have been eradicated due to extreme excavation for infrastructure and subterranean parking levels, a proxy for one of the Market Streams that used to flow south east through the city does exist. 

A map of Toronto from 1817 shows many streams running through what is now downtown. From oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca

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In the corridor between the Royal Bank Building and Brookfield Place, the stone below our feet was showing signs of water absorption. This would have been where Newgate Creek emptied into Lake Ontario.

Signs of groundwater in the stone between Union Station and Brookfield Place could be the last signs of Newgate Creek

Though dry to the touch, the off-coloured stone might be a sign of the groundwater that would have replaced the creek. Standing underground, surrounded by concrete, it’s powerful to feel this rare assertion of the landscape beneath Toronto — a sign of the city before the glass, steel and international stone of today’s internationally constituted metropolis.

Check out Lost Rivers‘ website for upcoming walks.
The idea that Toronto is a geologic force was inspired by Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York City by Friends of the Pleistocene and Smudge Studios

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto and accompanied the most recent edition of the Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series in downtown Centreville.
People coming from the city were met at the ferry by Jimmy Jones, a lifelong Islander who grew up scurrying around Centre Island’s main drag. He shared anecdotes and history as we walked across the Island and down Manitou Road. Downtown Centre Island was repopulated for a few hours last Sunday afternoon. Read more about Learnt Wisdom here, and look out for our next event! 

Main Street Centre Island, Manitou Road in the early 1950s, from A Toronto Album 2: More Glimpses of the City That Was

At the peak of it’s population in the 1950s, homes, cottages, and mansions lined the entirety of Toronto Island from Ward’s Island in the east all the way to Hanlan’s Point in the west.

Toronto Island map at the peak of its population, from Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of Toronto

At the time, there were also many Island-side amenities to serve its full time residents, including a movie theatre, a bowling alley, grocery stores, and dance halls. Most of these services were concentrated on Manitou Road, then the main drag of Centre Island.

A 1953 parade on Manitou Road, from A Toronto Album 2: More Glimpses of the City That Was

With its businesses and active street life, Centre Island was a bona fide, full-service small town abutting one of Canada’s largest metropolises.

When Metro Toronto decided to convert the Island to uninhabited parkland in the early 1950s, they began a program of demolishing Island homes starting from Hanlan’s Point and slowly moving east.

Before homes were demolished, Metro Toronto razed Manitou Road, the heart of the Toronto Island community. According to Sally Gibson’s More Than an Islandthe Island’s services were eliminated to make it easier to convince Islanders to give up their homes. How could they live on the Island, especially through the winter, without a grocery store?

With main street extinguished, Metro easily began expropriating houses and demolishing them. As we know, the city only got as far as Algonquin Island before they were halted by protests and a peaceful uprising.  With their main street demolished more than 60 years ago, today’s Island residents continue to rely on city-side grocery stores, movie theatres and dance-halls.

In 1967, Main Street Centre Island was replaced by the Versailles-style gardens of the Avenue of the Islands and by Centreville Amusement Park down the road. Along with its rides and petting zoo,  the amusement park includes a full size replica of Small Town Ontario, complete with a Town Hall, town square and Ontario heritage homes with decorative bargeboards.

To add insult to the displacement of most of Toronto Island’s residents, it seems the city demolished a living, breathing town and replaced it with a bogus version of itself.

Downtown Centreville replaced Manitou Road, from Chuckman's Toronto Nostalgia blog

Keep this in mind next time you find yourself at Centreville. It gives new meaning to the idea of a ghost town. A ghost town is usually a place that has been abandoned, but has been left largely in tact. Centreville is a stranger kind of ghost town, not abandoned, but replaced with a toy copy of itself. Centreville is an echo of history distorted by historic grand plans and visions of the future. It’s a simulacra of the town it replaced, barely able to speak for itself and its history. This feels especially true when it is doubly abandoned in the quiet winter months.

Downtown Centreville is a town doubly abandoned when the amusement park closes for the winter.

To bring attention to the strange history of Manitou Road and Centre Island, the next edition of the Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series is being held in Downtown Centreville this Sunday February 1st at 2pm. Join us for an afternoon of story telling as we consider the theme “Reckless Abandon.” Catch the 1:10 boat to Ward’s Island and take the half- hour walk through the beauty of the winter Island, all the way to Downtown Centreville.

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Exciting news readers – I’ve started to write for Now Magazine, Toronto’s alt-weekly. The publication is the perfect venue to explore some core urban geography concepts and how they apply to Toronto. 

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My first article for Now investigated neighbourhood change in my current Toronto neck-of-the-woods at Dufferin and Davenport. The older Italian generation is aging and new people are moving in. People are quick to call this “gentrification”, but I argue that it’s not. It’s rather a strengthening of the vitality and culture of the neighbourhood that is harmonious with the current residents. The more malicious form of gentrification  – in neighbourhoods like Parkdale where low income residents are forced out – must be avoided. If we use the term to describe too many things that aren’t gentrification, we lose its usefulness.

Read the article here.

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Though I’ve visited Toronto Islands since I was a child, my adult relationship with them began last year, when I began a 3-month work exchange/residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, an artist studio and event space. I now work for AGP, and during the quieter winter months, am subletting a studio for my own work.

It’s been a year since I first lived on the Island, and I’ve experienced a full cycle of the seasons. After the peace and tranquility of last year’s deep winter, the Island launched into its routine Spring and Summer of hot weather, beach parties and crowded beaches and ferry terminals.

Pier at Gibraltar Beach

Pier at Gibraltar Beach

As the leaves changed and began to fall, things certainly slowed down. But now we’re back to winter, and I can confirm that this is indeed my favourite season on Toronto Island. It’s quiet. It feels hundreds of kilometres from downtown Toronto even though it’s just across the bay. And the ice! The landscape changes daily with the freeze-thaw cycles. The beach, the bay and the trees are covered with sculptural icy forms. It makes the artists who spend time at Gibraltar Point think, “why do we even try?”

Icy tree over Gibraltar Beach

Icy tree over Gibraltar Beach

Please enjoy this selection of the best of my photos of Toronto’s winter island. The winter isle is spectacularly beautiful, but I’ll let the photos do the talking. And try and make it here yourself! The ferry runs every hour, the crowds are minimal and the beauty is at its peak.

Where on Earth?

It’s easy to imagine that place is stable. A definite somewhere, that you can point to on a map. A place’s coordinates are easily found with a quick search on Google maps.

Google Maps

But is place really somewhere you can point to on a map?

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Under that big Google A, I think there’s less of an ability to track down where exactly HERE is.

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Consider a dramatic case, Gibraltar Point on Toronto Islands.

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Gibraltar Point is the south-western most part of Toronto Island, and is where I’ve spent a lot of time. The point is formed from the southerly and westerly current of Lake Ontario pushing up sediment from land eroded from the Scarborough Bluffs to the east.

Island Flows

In this most technical of definitions, Gibraltar Point is this south-westerly most point of Toronto Island, where the currents meet each other almost perpendicularly. Taking this definition, we can find Gibraltar Point easily. Go there today and you’ll find a small structure marking the Point – a public bathroom.

Bathroom

If you venture past the bathroom and stand at the Point, you will feel the wind coming at you from your left and right with the waves coming from all directions. This is where the weather blown in from Lake Ontario first makes its landfall on Toronto.

But, looking at historical maps of the Island, you’ll see that it is an ever-changing sand bar, transforming shapes with every passing storm and year.

Island Changing

Understood by the definition above, and taking into consideration the yearly transformation of the Island, Gibraltar Point would appear to be roving, changing places with every year and every storm.

When John Graves Simcoe first saw the harbour protected by a sand bar, he declared it the site of Toronto, and built a lighthouse at what was then, geographically speaking, Gibraltar Point (named to evoke the Mediterranean rock that similarly protected a British Colony in Spain). As a result, despite being inland and covered in forests, the site of the lighthouse is now known as Gibraltar Point. Ask an Islander how to get to Gibraltar Point, and they’ll lead you there (and to the art centre across the road), leading you astray from the actual point (technically speaking) which is several hundred feet south and west of the lighthouse.

Lighthouse

Similarly, a plaque at was is now known as Hanlan’s Point refers to its former life as a Gibraltar Point. This is very far from both the lighthouse and the bathroom that marks the technical point.

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Gibraltar Point is not one, but potentially three different places.

During my time spent there, I have found a candidate for a fourth Gibraltar Point – one that carries the weight of this Place in spirit. It is a magical place – a forest grown right to the water’s edge – trees growing out of a beach – a sandy forest. Here, the waves crash against solid ironwoods that protrude, some horizontally, into the lake. The sands of the beach layer on top of each other, creating impressions of slow waves in the yellow and brown and red sands. Driftwood is lodged into the beach and is sculpted smooth and seamlessly into the sand. The dogwood at the edge leave their roots hanging into the water, dried to be yellow and stringy.

I know this to be Gibraltar Point because of the shared acknowledgment of the specialness of this place. There are always footprints leading to and from this place – signs of temporary dwelling, fires, ash and embers. This sand forest is wedged between two beaches and form a fulcrum for the Island’s southwesterly most point. This, Gibraltar Point in spirit, carries the spiritual weight of splendour that such a grand name and important place merits. It is where the flows of Lake Ontario meet and react and beckon. It is an undeniably sacred space, a temple in the forest, a definite articulation of the Island’s healing energy.

Sandy Forest

Gibraltar Point is many places at the same time. Place is dynamic.

Sandy forest

I wrote this post in April 2014, long before I read the fantastic Unruly Places by Alastair Bonnet. It seems that Gibraltar Point is undoubtedly an Unruly Place – a place that does not fit our neat understandings of space as searchable on Google Maps. 

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I love boardwalks.

The kind of boardwalks I’m talking about are the long wood pathways that wind through forests, over swamps and across marshlands. They twist and turn through otherwise inprentrable landscapes, providing an intimate experience of the world without harming it.

IMG_0888Boardwalk on the way to Risser’s beach, South Shore, Nova Scotia

Humans are curious creatures and boardwalks support that curiosity. They encourage an investigation of ecosystems and animal habitats without trampling them.

If designed well, flora and fauna can pass beneath boardwalks and over them, further decreasing our impact on the landscape.

The pure naturalists out there might protest the limitations of a boardwalk. Putting a barrier between us and the landscape, how are we supposed to connect with it? It’s not easy to feel like you’re in the wild when you’re walking along a predetermined route through the woods.

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In my experience, the boardwalk provides an immensely intimate experience of ecology. My most recent boardwalk sojourn at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary brought me face to face with alligators, snakes, birds and majesty cypress trees.

And yes, the boardwalk’s a circuit, but given the recent history of the exploitation and destruction of most of the world’s habitats caused by human activity, I think it’s fair that most of us should stay back, and resist meddling with and trampling on the habitats of other plants and animals.

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A boardwalks also simplifies the experience of nature to be coherent. Unlike human activity, the rest of nature doesn’t have a centre point. Walking along a boardwalk provides an intelligible experience of nature.

Finally, boardwalks are accessible! They provide an intimate experience of natural landscapes to everyone, particularly wheelchairs users, people with disabilities, and the elderly.

Southwest Florida has an especially high number of boardwalks. The area’s everglades and swampy forests mean that boardwalks are one of the only ways to see the landscape while avoiding getting your feet wet.

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Corkscrew swamp sanctuary near Naples, Florida 

In Sackville, New Brunswick, a boardwalk dreamily winds its way through the Tantramar marsh. Over ponds and through thickets of grass and birch trees, the boardwalk’s 2 kilometres provide a thorough and highly satisfying experience of the elusive marsh lands.

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Tantramar marsh boardwalk in Sackville, New Brunswick

But boardwalks don’t have to be limited to swampy lands – they can be built anywhere to heighten the experience of a place.

In Toronto, there’s a boardwalk through the ravines of Sherwood Forest. There’s also one that, inexplicably, crosses through a park near my house at Davenport and Dufferin. Despite its absurdity, the boardwalk provides a unique perspective to an otherwise ordinary green space.

In Blythewood the Path is an Elevated Wooden Walkway 016Sherwood Forest in Toronto

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Absurd boardwalk through a park near Dufferin and Davenport 

But perhaps the most ultimate urban boardwalk is Manhattan’s High Line. Twisting and turning over the meatpacking district, the High Line travels over New York City without disturbing it. Flanuers can enjoy an intimate and unique experience of the city, getting to places they could otherwise not access. The novelty of floating above and through the city on the world’s largest urban boardwalk has been enough to make the High Line known throughout the world.

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Here

As you may know by now, I’m spending some time in Naples, Florida.

A lot of other Torontonians are here too, escaping the North-East cold for the sunshine and warmth of Florida’s coasts.

I’ve noticed that, when a group of Torontonians gather in Florida & refer to Toronto, they say “here”. But “here” is Naples, Florida. Toronto is, by most measures, “there”.

This geographic conversational blip has further convinced me that “here” is a state of mind. “Here” exists in the psycho-geographic space between us. Perhaps it’s a little geognative dissonance. But it’s enough to prove that “here” may be there. It may be everywhere.

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The Law Library at McGill University in Montreal, commissioned for Mr. Edward Brook by his mother for Christmas. 

I just finished reading Unruly Places and am feeling mighty inspired to explore the world of inscrutable geographies the same. Please enjoy the first in a series. 

Grid

In the 1950s, a plan emerged to build the Everglades Jetport in South West Florida. With 6 runways long enough to handle not-yet-realized thousand passenger jumbo jets, Everglades Jetport was to be the largest airport in the world.

The Jetport was never a reality. Environmental activists predicted the massive degradation to the Everglades the Jetport would cause, outweighing any of the positive benefits of the recently founded Everglades National Park. Environmentalism won, and along with the conservation of Rookery Bay, the Jetport was cancelled.

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The precarious nature of the Jetport proposal wasn’t enough to stop developers from speculating on the land surrounding it. As the Jetport was to support a new city of 1 million inhabitants, adjacent land values rose 4-fold.

One developer actually began to sell plots of land – inviting prospective buyers for free weekends in the area, he would take people on plane rides over the land and drop flour from the cockpit, declaring that wherever it landed could be theirs (Source: anecdote from Rookery Bay Reserve staff).

Beyond purchasing the land, the Deltona Development Corporation began to develop it, draining the Everglades and creating a vast grid just east of Naples. They called it Remuda Ranch.

Remuda Ranch went the way of the cancelled Jetport. It remains largely undeveloped (other than a homestead here and there), but the grid remains and can be seen starkly from Google satellite imagery (leading image). Deltona went on to develop Marco Island which has become 100% urbanized, and, based on the satellite imagery below, is over developed.

Marco

We are also left with a legacy of a vast portion of the Everglades drained, leading to myriad problems including dry soil leading to dust storms, and panthers and other mammals unable to negotiate the fractured landscape. Further, the goldilocks combination of fresh and saltwater that makes the Everglades estuaries so productive became unbalanced. Fresh water, which drains via aquifers through the Everglades to the Gulf of Mexico, began to flow in concentrated streams through human built canals, toppling the fresh/salt water balance with its intensity,

Fortunately, the ecosystems of the Everglades have been able to adapt. The lack of fresh water along the coasts ended being good for the manatees and sharks that use the estuaries as their nurseries. Playing with the system more would spoil the balance that has been meticulously created in a healing process stretching over the last half century.

Moreover, recent efforts to “fill in” the canals have been futile. The canals were simply cut so deep that their porous subterranean structure has been pierced, and water flow has forever been altered.

It’s also notable that as it stands, only 70% of the Naples area can’t be developed. All future growth in Naples will be in 30% of its landmass. As the population of South West Florida swells, might we see truly urban intensification in these swampy parts? Might there be infill projects, transit, mid rise developement and connections made between neighbourhoods?

Looking to Remuda Ranch and Naple’s hidden grid, I accept this orthogonal imposition on the landscape. We are nature, and the grid is something we created; its pattern can be seen manifesting in other corners of existence. As I always like to point out, human activity is not “unnatural”. But this doesn’t mean we can’t help a bit. Accepting the grid, why not build bridges between them, to faciliate the movement of the panthers and other mammals? They’re doing it in Alberta, where wildlife corridors stretch along bridges over highways.

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Though the Jetport is an unrealized potentiality of the past, its reverberations have left a mark on the landscape. I’ve been researching hikes to take around my parents house near in Naples and one goes right to the edge of this largely abandoned grid. I’m told there’s a fence there. But that doesn’t stop my curiosity, my desire to wander through a city that is both there and not there: a city that never was.

Thank you to the knowledgable, helpful and passionate staff of the Rookery Bay Reserve for informing me of the history and geography of South West Florida. 

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Taken off the back of a golf-cart/tram at Clam Shell beach, Naples Florida

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As we approach the end of 2014, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on a very exciting and productive year as your Urban Geographer. I’ve grown a lot since this time last year. I had a short stint living on Toronto Island, and I’ve had the opportunity to create maps, host events, facilitate workshops and write about my love of place, architecture, urban planning and ecology!

Please join me in remembering some of the highlights from 2014.

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  • The year started with a bang, as I moved to Toronto Island with Chris Foster to participate in the pilot Work Exchange program at Artscape Gibraltar Point. The residency went extremely well. On top of getting a job at Artscape (a phenomenal organization in Toronto that is committed to creating good urban space), Chris was hired as Superintendent, and I was able to contribute to the Island community and AGP as an interpreter of its history (as tour guide),  and an ambassador of the building. I was extremely inspired by the Island and its history, and helped come up with a new design for AGP that referenced its history, but remained elegant and contemporary.

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  • My partner Natalie Amber and I began hosting the Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series - a storytelling event taking place in overlooked and unconventional spaces across the city. On the heels of two incredibly successful events, we are excited to get the ball rolling on indoor lectures for the first and coldest months of 2015.

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Mobility Rings

  • After a widely embraced article for Torontoist, I began working as Communications Coordinator for Charlie’s Freewheels, an amazing organization that empowers youth from Regent and Moss Parks by teaching them how to build, maintain and ride their own bikes. The campaign has been a great opportunity to employ my skills as a geographer, planning, graphic designer and writer – and another attempt to master the elusive internet by trying to go viral. The campaign is still going on! Check out our indiegogo! (until January 6 2015)

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  • I spent the last few months of summer visiting and drawing every branch of the Toronto Public Library – a journey to all 6 corners of the city that taught me a lot about the social and architectural realities of my city. Get ready for its release in early January!

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  • I debuted Geomancy, my version of the ancient practice of fortune telling with maps, to receptive audiences at the Algonquin Island Christmas Boutique and Long Winter. People loved it, and I thoroughly enjoyed helping people gain geographic insights into their being. The project has generated a lot of interest, and will be appearing in unexpected places in 2015!

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  • Along with the ASEED map, I expanded my reach as a critical geographer, illustrating map-themed political cartoons to go alongside articles for the Dominion, a grassroots, alternative news outlet with a mission to go beyond mainstream coverage of political and environmental situations.

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Thank you to all my readers for your support over the years. While 2014 is almost behind us, 2015 promises to be incredibly exciting for my professional development, art and writing practices. Get ready for more Geomancy, the release of All the Libraries Toronto, and more editions of Learnt Wisdom Lecture Series. I also may be finally making it to grad school….maybe!

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Photo by Christopher Gielen via Fast Company

I’ve heard a rumour that beyond Toronto’s downtown core there is limitless and soulless sprawl.

I’ve also heard that South West Florida is one big suburb — highways, gated communities, big box stores and all.

Sure, there’s a veil of misguided, anti-social and environmentally detrimental human-built infrastructure that characterizes these places.

But, I urge you, to look beyond the illusion of sameness perpetuated by our circuited experience.

There’s magic there, past the highways and the malls.

Don’t accept the myth of the bland. The apocryphal accounts of suburban monotony.

Resist homogeneity and find the magic that’s everywhere.

DSCF0327The mangrove swamps beyond the highways and strip malls of Naples FloridaDSCF9826

The Don River Dam, just north of Finch and east of Dufferin — embedded within a landscape of sprawl

Currently reading Unruly Places by Alistair Bonnett – highly recommended. 

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