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Whoa, Calgary!

With oil workers laid off and construction halted, Canada’s fastest city has discovered the Slow movement (from the Summer 2009 issue)

“I’M THINKING about cell phones that can talk to the birds,” says Angus Leech. “Like how the lyre-bird imitates other animals as part of its mating call regime, but now is also imitating cell phone rings, chainsaws. It goes rrmm-brmm.” He laughs. “Imagine all the things implied if birds and cell phones could talk to each other.”

We’re sitting in a booth at The Elk & Oarsman Pub & Grill in Banff, Alberta. Tall and hefty, with dark curly hair and sideburns, Leech is the senior producer at the Banff New Media Institute’s Advanced Research Technology Mobile Lab. Squeezed in the seat, stabbing a fork into the bison salad on his plate, he’s talking about Slow Technology, an emerging branch of the international Slow movement. Leech wants to design software that encourages humans to integrate with the rhythms of the natural world.

“Mobile technology is about to infiltrate the entire planet,” he says. “The question is: can you take something like a cell phone, fundamentally a fast technology, and use it to slow people down?”

Leech looks around: the pub is bustling, tables filled, a crowd gathered at the bar to watch a live US Open tennis match on TV. “It feels quixotic to be doing this in Alberta,” he says. This place, he continues, “is such an experiment in fast, cheap and out of control.”

A waitress comes by, pours us more coffee. “We have other, less kooky ideas,” says Leech, adding cream and sugar to his cup. “We have this thing called the Heavy Metal Palm Reader. It’s all about heaven and hell. It dances with the apocalypse.”

“After this”—he points at our plates, his salad and my elk burger —“let’s go up to the lab. I’ll show you.”

AS A PREFIX, “SLOW” has cropped up in book titles, articles and websites for several years now. Slow Food is the most common usage, but there are others: Slow Cities, Slow Travel, and Slow Design. “The Slow movement is on the march,” writes Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, in his international bestseller In Praise of Slow: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging The Cult Of Speed (2005). “Instead of doing everything faster,” argues Honoré, “many people are decelerating, and finding that Slowness helps them to live, work, think and play better.”

In the literature, “Slow” is a philosophy, an attempt to seek “real and meaningful connection” amid the speed and stress of 21st-century life, or what Honoré describes as “this media-drenched, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age.”

These basic ideas spawned a constellation of affinities. Today, from its emergence in Italy in the late eighties, Slow Food has more than eighty-five thousand members in 132 countries, and new Slow-oriented groups are popping up around the globe. In Japan, members of the Sloth Club try to emulate the sloth, a slow-moving vegetarian that uses few resources. The US-based Long Now Foundation, aiming to “promote ‘slower/better’ thinking,” is designing a ten-thousand-year clock that “ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.”

There’s even Slow Music. In Germany, for example, the world’s slowest concert is currently underway, an organ piece entitled As SLow aS Possible, by the avant-garde composer John Cage. It kicked off in September 2001 with seventeen months of silence, and will take 639 years to play.

But that’s in other places, far away from Calgary, Alberta, where I live. Calgary, or most of it, is not slow. In 2008, the American magazine Fast Company named Calgary to its “Fast Cities” list, writing, “Oil and gas, with assists from finance and tech, have made this Canadian city the No. 1 boomtown in North America.” Oil prices were then on the rise, cresting at a record $147.27 a barrel. The city’s population swelled to over a million. Construction cranes loomed above malls and condos. New suburbs sprawled over the plains, giving Calgary a geographical footprint the size of New York City.

Of course, that was then. Pegged to the price of oil, Alberta’s economy rides a boom-and-bust cycle. From the highs of the boom in 2008, oil prices plummeted to a low of $33.87 a barrel in early 2009. Oil workers were laid off, office tower and condo construction halted. “We are not immune from the difficulties that are very profound and very swift on the global market,” says Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier.

Globally, speed has been fingered as one of the culprits in the banking and economic crisis. “Thousands of ideas flowing at light speed around the world … seem to have led people in the financial subculture to [make] the same one-way bets at the same time,” comments a New York Times op-ed. “A premium on fast growth, fast consumption and fast profits has become the defining essence of global capitalism,” adds Carl Honoré. “It has backfired apocalyptically.”

And yet, in Alberta the crash is often seen as a blip, a momentary downswing on the carnival wheel of fossil fuel prices. “Calgarians are pretty resilient and will figure out how to turn things around fairly quickly,” Bronconnier says, optimistic that when oil prices rise again, the boom will return. “This is the bright spot in the Canadian landscape.”

The recession has forced Calgary to slow down, but it is the reluctant lethargy of contraction. “There’s no such thing as touching the brake” on development, Alberta’s premier Ed Stelmach said during the boom. With oil and gas money rolling in—$100 billion in proposed investment for the tar sands up north, more than one-hundred thousand operating gas wells in the rest of the province—Stelmach’s sentiment could be seen hurtling along roads. A motorcyclist was slapped with a $12,000 fine for speeding. Off-road, according to the National Post, a growing number of Albertans were crashing all-terrain vehicles while drunk. “Live fast, party fast and die fast is the rule of thumb in Alberta these days,” a doctor told the Post, talking about the rise in accidents.

Exactly one year later, post-global economic meltdown, Calgary is catching its breath.

“JUST BECAUSE LIFE’S FAST doesn’t mean that’s how everyone wants to live,” says architect and real estate agent John Brown. We’re driving through an upscale inner city Calgary neighbourhood in his black BMW SUV.

A tall man in a dark jacket and slacks, with a receding hairline and droopy eyes that perk open when excited, Brown is the founder and editor of Slow Home, a website that promotes “alternatives to the standardized world of cookie cutter suburban sprawl.” He’s also a partner in housebrand, a residential architecture company that custom designs inner city homes, integrating everything from real estate to furniture choice “into one seamless process.”

“There’s going to be a radical transformation,” Brown says, forecasting a future of declining fossil fuel reserves. “In the future, if your house isn’t close to a transit line, then the price will plummet.” We drive by a housebrand home under construction, a minimalist, modern design with flat grey walls and cedar stripping around the windows. Brown explains that, as opposed to Calgary’s rapidly expanding suburban areas, the Slow Home “agenda” is to create houses that are closer to work, and light on the environment and finances.

We park outside a renovated 1960s bungalow with the same cedar stripping around the door. A young couple, Michael and Caroline, greet us at the entrance. They moved in a few months earlier with a new baby. A junior executive at a downtown oil company, Michael shows us the bright and airy open-concept kitchen, the newly renovated bedrooms. Through a window I see a backyard garden where the couple grows beets, fennel, potatoes and carrots. Lullabies float in the air. “We got to prioritize what we wanted,” says Michael.

In housebrand’s marketing, a customized home is referred to as a Tailored Home. Clients are given help to personalize an affordable house from which, ideally, they’ll be able to drive less and free up more time—in essence, slow down. A Globe and Mail story called the concept “innovative,” but added the homes look remarkably similar. “Calgarians have a strong desire for individual expression,” noted the article, “within strictly predetermined limits, like the range of cuts of a business suit.”

We get back in his SUV and join the rush of traffic heading into the downtown core. Brown has a meeting to attend. “My house is five minutes from the office,” he adds, “but because I have to drive to all our different projects, I don’t walk to work much.” He stops, and lets me out by my truck—an old, gas-guzzling Ford F-250. “It’s possible to live more modestly,” Brown says. “Our message is be smart and get prepared.”

I step in the truck, and think of the couple’s bedside table, where they placed a copy of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; a story that takes place after an apocalypse, when birds are gone, the seas are dead, the earth is covered in ash, and the only food left is in cans.

DRIVING SOUTH OF CALGARY, I pass oil wells churning in cattle fields, crews laying pipeline and rig trucks loaded with drilling fluids. Millions of years ago, much of Alberta was a coastal marshland on the edge of an inland sea. Over time, dead plants and animals were buried in mud and silt. Intense heat and pressure transformed them into coal, oil and natural gas; underground sources of energy so abundant that when Rudyard Kipling visited the province in 1907, he said it had “all Hell for a basement.”

In the 1930s, the Depression-era unemployed found work at Turner Valley, Alberta’s first oil field. To get at the oil, excess gas was flared off. Stories from that time say that in winter, to keep warm, homeless workers would huddle on the banks of Hell’s Half Acre, a wide ravine of searing gas flames. All that’s left today is an abandoned gas plant. I drive by it, and five minutes later stop at Alexandra Luppold’s small white house in Black Diamond.

A tall woman in an orange dress, with long grey-blonde hair, high cheekbones and a German accent, Luppold is a member of the Calgary Convivium, the local chapter of Slow Food. The Convivium fosters connections between local growers, chefs, gourmands and other interested consumers.

“When I pick my salad, I want it full of life,” Luppold tells me as we stand in her backyard garden. She calls this her “Cosmic Garden”, a forty-square-metre plot lined with rows of lettuce and parsley. “I hand-pick it, one leaf at a time, and I only pick in the morning.” She smiles. “The plants really work for me. I treat them right so they treat me right.”

It is late afternoon. A light rain falls, and we go inside her house. Brightly coloured geometric paintings of butterflies and chakras hang on the wall. I’d seen them before on her website, Alexandra’s Butterfly Garden, where she offers gardening seminars and sells replicas of her paintings.

Raised in East Germany, Luppold came to the West three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After a serious car accident—which she labels “a wake-up call”—she went travelling and eventually immigrated to Alberta, where she began an organic garden in the late 1990s. “The land called me,” she says, as she drinks tea and sits on a chair made from a gnarled tree stump. “There’s only a two-month growing season, but the plants grow here. The plants tell me that. The salad likes it cold.”

She gives me some lettuce and sprigs of parsley picked that morning from her garden. “You can’t get the salad any fresher than this,” she says. I chew the lettuce; it’s slightly bitter, full of flavour. The parsley is the best I’ve tasted.    
“That’s Slow,” Luppold says. “Slow has more depth.” She walks me to the door. “If you be still and get your judgments out of the way, things change.”

I nibble another parsley sprig, and drive away with the sharp cleansing taste in my mouth, past Turner Valley’s abandoned gas plant, past oil wells in the fields, pumping relentless and skeletal in the dusk.

“MUCH OF MODERN LIFE is based on the infrastructure of the oil industry,” says Angus Leech. “First you have to shine a light on it, and then you have to think about whether you can change it. For that larger project,” he adds, “Slow is a holistic methodology for design.”

We’re standing in the Mobile Technology Lab at the Banff Centre, which Leech calls “the monastery,” halfway up a mountain overlooking the town. Posters for digital conferences cover the walls, a Chinese dragon hangs from the ceiling, and a shelf is crammed with books: The Discovery of Slowness; The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World; Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age.

“Two elements appear in all the Slow movements,” says Leech. “The first is some critique of time. The other is mindfulness.” He sifts through papers on his desk, speaking quickly, as if sketching a nebula of ideas in his head. “With Slow Technology, another part of the definition would be refocusing attention on the technology itself, on what people tend not to think about.”

He picks up a cell phone from the desk and turns it on. Heavy metal chords thrash from the phone: Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell,” playing over text and images on screen—a skull, a quote from Dante (“Deed done is well begun”), then a Gregory Bateson quote (“There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds”).
Digital flames crackle. The text now reads, “Somewhere on a forgotten shore, Satan’s armies wage an eternal battle against Angels with flaming swords.” I stare blankly at the screen.

“This version of the Heavy Metal Palm Reader is a mock-up,” Leech explains. “We’re still trying to get it right.” He points it at my Samsung cell. A Led Zeppelin riff thunders from his phone. Its onscreen text reads: “This electronics company is a real Heartbreaker on chemicals and e-waste—but when it comes to energy issues, we’re talking Son of Samsung.”

Leech scrolls more text on his screen. “You’ve got one of the better ones,” he tells me. “Nintendo is the worst.”
He puts the Heavy Metal Palm Reader on a desk. “It detects other cell phones and computers,” he says. “We borrowed the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, which rates manufacturers on a scale of one to ten, according to their standards on toxic substances, energy efficiency, and recycling.”

“Not a single one goes above a five. So heavy metal seemed appropriate—death metal for the super bad stuff, hair metal for the good stuff. It’s serious, but also tongue-in-cheek. It lets you laugh at it.”

 “Slow is a kind of social restoration,” he adds. Outside, mountains rise in the air, sedimentary layers of time folded and bent into cliffs jutting through the sky. “In Alberta, it’s about keeping yourself sane while you’re here.”

IN THE AUTUMN, a month prior to the crash, I’m at Slow Food Calgary’s Feast of Fields harvest banquet in the garden of the Rouge Restaurant in Inglewood, one of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods. It’s a hot day. I’m sweating, feeling rushed. I drove through heavy traffic downtown, past glittering energy company skyscrapers and cranes swiveling over new construction sites.

The route was hectic, but here in the garden it’s a different world. Crab apple trees droop thick with fruits. White butterflies flit among orange flowers. For the price of a ticket—$55 for Slow Food members, $70 for non-members—the event pairs local chefs and restaurants with nearby farmers and ranchers. A lounge band, Simply Sinatra, plays “My Way.” As the singer croons, “And now, the end is near,” a crowd mills about, sampling chef-prepared dishes from more than forty food tents set up throughout the garden.

At the Brava Bistro tent, Chef Kevin Turner serves “smoked pork shoulder with some apple butter and slow grown greens from Alexandra’s Cosmic Garden.” The greens, says Turner, “have the flavour of where they were grown.” I tell him it’s delicious, then turn and bump into Alexandra Luppold. I ask what she recommends. “There’s too much,” she says, with a giddy wave at the tents. “Just pick and choose.”

I turn off my cell phone and wander, trying almond and orange braised duck with honey caramel on top; a glass of pinot gris; braised pork with arugula leaves, topped by a dash of kosher salt and a brown-and-white arugula flower; a glass of berry wine; naan with grilled lamb on a bed of chrysanthemum leaves, topped with pansies, mustard flower and spiced goat’s yogurt; another glass of wine; bison sirloin with tequila and lime marinade, followed by green tomato ice cream.

I feel bloated and blissful, and sit in a chair in the shade of an apple tree. Chef Mark Klaudt sits beside me. He runs Route 40, a Slow Food restaurant in Turner Valley, where giant gas flares used to burn. “There’s still a bit of that western cowboy mentality,” he says, when I ask how his restaurant is doing. “I think in the next five to ten years you’re going to see dramatic changes going on. That’s how I feel. Nothing but light at the end of the tunnel for us all.”

I lean back. A magpie is perched in the tree overhead, watching the crowd below for food scraps to scavenge. It sits there a long time, quietly, waiting for the party to end.