Promises of Heaven on Earth


It was still there, I could see it clearly from 2000 feet. I flew down lower to 200 feet, and there was the parking lot right beside the luxury condo up on the hill facing Zurich Sea. A couple of decades have passed since I saw my aunt’s modest penthouse in Switzerland, and it was fun to see it again.

The first time I visited I was with an old girlfriend. We drove across England and took the ferry across to France in my clapped-out little sports car with the leaky roof. The thing broke down halfway across northern France in Reims, where a teenage biker gang took us home for a couple of days and got our car fixed. Back on the road, it took another day or so to get to Zurich, very early in the morning as the sun was coming up. And we were lost. We pulled into a parking lot and started arguing, when a window opened in the building beside us. My then-young aunt leaned out the window and called us inside.

There was an open window again as I flew over the place last night, but that window was an open Google Maps window on my browser. Sharon and I first discovered Google Maps when we were shopping for some real estate a while ago. We discovered that you can actually “drive” by the house you’re interested in buying, and check out the neighbourhood, just as you would looking out your car window.

Now, every so often when I’m bored, I take a trip somewhere. I’ve been to Capetown, South Africa, and the Gold Coast and the beaches near Zihuatanejo, Mexico searching for the ultimate “geographic solution”.

After flying over Zurich I decided to check out my aunt’s current residence. She and my uncle had a custom-built retirement home up on the Great Lakes, miles from anywhere. The thing is vast and very Euro-modern, and was actually designed by an architect friend of mine, who I’d tipped off about their interest in building a unique home. And it is unique, even from the air; it kind of looks like a scorpion.

The funny thing, well perhaps more sad than funny, is that I don’t think my aunt is any happier for all of that. Sure, she’s not unhappy, I guess. But she’s no happier for having spent the last 10 years fine-tuning a personal heaven on Earth than someone who hasn’t.

Her husband, my uncle, flew 747s for years before retiring so he had a pretty good idea of the heavens available. I think he chose northern Ontario because he wanted an unpopulated heaven with a water-view, and there are precious few of those left these days. Of course his financial security seemed to me to come at quite some considerable environmental cost, given the engine exhaust output of 747s and the millions of miles he flew over his career, though that’s not his fault. It’s really nobody’s fault, is it?

Of course, some places make no pretense of being heaven on Earth. The town where we currently live is one of these. It’s not exactly a hell on Earth, either. But one has to turn a blind eye to the winter dirt that’s rarely cleaned off the roads and sidewalks, and learn to memorize the potholes to avoid serious mechanical injury in day-to-day traveling around town. For example, I know the two big ones to veer around on King Street, the giant growing one on Queen Street just past Horton’s, the badly engineered manhole covers on the S-curves on Milltown Boulevard, and so on. In fact a have an entire pothole map in my head. I don’t think that’s something a “heaven-on-Earth” town would require of its citizens.

The neighbouring town wants to be a heaven on Earth, and the lack of potholes over there certainly promotes its case. But it has its problems too. A big rock quarry up the road is causing them grief, and it’s not just due to visual pollution. Minute amounts of arsenic in the mining tailing dust get carried up in the wind, depositing far and wide, and can enter the water table when the tailings are buried. Sometimes Mother Nature does not like to be disturbed. Of course, some of the citizens of “my” town think that a quarry is a-okay. After all, what’s a little dirt?

The odd thing I suppose is how much I don’t seem to care about finding heaven on Earth any more. And when I do, I suspect that the people who have it have made their mess somewhere else, and now want something much better. A good example of this abandoned mess is the Redhead Beach next to Saint John. This environmentally sensitive area, with a fabulous red sand beach and great view, has been strangled by industry for more than half a century, and is now bracketed by a paper mill and an oil refinery-LNG terminal and an industrial park in behind it. Now I don’t see a lot of extravagant homes along that great stretch of beach. Funny thing, that.

Ultimately, heaven—or hell—on Earth is what you do while you’re here. Some of us have great intentions and fall well short. Some of us don’t do anything at all. And some of us try like crazy and make at least some headway. It isn’t easy.

For example, the house we’re now in came with the former owner’s lifetime collection of perennial gardens that got ruined when we had the basement weeping tiles redone. Now our basement is drier, but so is our garden. It’s going to take a lot of work this spring to recreate the bit of heaven we had before the work crews arrived.

So after all this musing, should we bother trying to create heaven on Earth? I guess I’d have to say yes, and that they’re already here—in places cherished and venerated over generations. There are areas of southern England that really stand out for me, and farms along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec that are sublime, especially so in the evening light. And you can find that feeling of harmony in some parts of great cities, too.

But even if heaven building is a multi-generational cooperative process, I wonder why we’re so compelled to “improve” Earth at all. Do we really think we’re improving on the original model?


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