“I’m allergic to nature and it’s allergic to me,” said the Black teenaged girl as we started to hike the trail. I led the group of eight youth, one mother and two youth workers up the hill. We were in Rouge National Urban Park.
“Nature is good for you, if you give a chance,” I said.
“No it’s not. There are too many bugs. It’s stinky out here. It smells like manure.”
“That’s gross. She wants us to walk through cow pooh,” said another girl. “I don’t want to go. Let’s turn back. You said we could.”
“How many birds can you name?” I said.
Eight voices shouted out names. Arms waved in the air to get my attention. Even though I was standing right in front of them. The youth yelled robin, pigeon, blackbird and gull. Then someone piped up with the downy woodpecker and the great blue heron.
I caught my breath. Not from the uphill walk, but from these unexpected answers. Birding is not something that is associated with the Black and brown communities, especially with a group of youth living downtown in apartment towers.
Another girl explained that they had seen the birds on their nature walks in High Park and along the Humber River. She gave me a detailed description of the birds and their habitat.
We reached the wetland. The group forgot about the boggy smell, as I pointed to a yellow warbler and five swallows fliting about in the shrubs. The group was not impressed with the large pond, until I told them to look for the turtles. Quietly.
They found the frogs. About the size of a thumb nail, the mini amphibians fascinated the group, for a full minute. That is a very long time for a group of thirteen year olds.
The gaggle went ahead on the trail, looking for deer in the woods. They spoke in whispers.
As I walked along with the mother, we swapped stories. She had her three children enrolled in outdoor activities most nights after school. She wanted them to be comfortable exploring the city beyond their neighbourhood. What pushed her was her sister’s children. In their early twenties, these children spent most days shut in their rooms. No job. No school. No friends.
The mother and her husband did not want that for their own children. I wondered if her niece and nephew were depressed. The mother’s accent was Somali. A civil war, refugees fleeing guns, bombs and starvation. It was enough to give anyone post-traumatic stress.
The mother always loved walking. It cleared her head when things were upset.
“Are there any snakes here?”
“Yes. Only one that is poisonous and you won’t find it where we are.”
“We have lots in Lebanon. They are this huge and they bite. They can kill you.” He was the only male in the group. Short and dark, he looked more southern Indian than Arab. Three of the younger girls towered over him. The only person shorter was the red-haired, freckled-face white girl. She was doing the splits. On the trail.
“Are your dreadlocks real or braids? How do you know so much about nature? We went in a circle, didn’t we?”
“They are real. You have a good sense of direction. You would make a great hike leader,” I said. The Black girl shrugged her shoulders. At thirteen, she was already taller and stronger than me. She was muscled like a sprinter.
“My legs are tired. I don’t want to walk anymore.”
She sat down at the trailhead, her giraffe-length legs stretched out in front. Waving the rest of the group ahead, I told the straggler to get up and hold my arm. We walked arm in arm for a bit. She dragged her feet. And her mouth.
Ahead of us, the rest of the youth and youth workers decided to have a race down the hill. The straggler flung away my arm and sprinted after the rest of the group. Her mother and I bent over with laughter.
At the end of the hike, I asked the group for feedback.
“It wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be,” said the girl who was allergic to nature.
“When we come back next time will we see the deer?” said the straggler.