John Muir: Trekking in Slavery Lands

I have spent many blissful Sundays hiking the Bruce Trail with my outdoor clubs. The best hikes left Toronto early in the morning and returned to the city at dusk.

John Muir hiked the Bruce Trail too, long before it was known by its more familiar name. Muir is a father of conservation and the co-founder of the Sierra Club. He did the heavy lifting to get Yosemite and other US National Park established. His books are a bible in conservation circles on both sides of the border.

I assumed that Muir had nothing to say about race, and that it had no impact on him or his work. After all he is the colour of snow, much like the conservation and environmental movements. Black and other people of colour are largely invisible in the movements. I decided to check my assumption, prompted by something I learned in my PhD seminars – always trouble sleeping dogs and other accepted wisdoms. You need to know what is hiding behind them and who benefits from it.

Social justice scholars tend to be activists or shit-stirrers, depending on one’s perspective. I seems to be following in the steps of that noble tradition. In the case of Muir, the first step was actually reading, and not just adlibbing about him, as we tend to do around the campfire. I soon found out that like a thorn, race has a habit of pricking sacred icons.

Canada has been a sanctuary for American draft dodgers since its Civil War in 1861. That is how Muir came here. He did not want to fight in President Lincoln’s anti-slavery army. Muir spent two years in Canada, returning to the USA once the war was over.

In 1867 Muir did an epic hike, recorded in his book A Thousand Mile Hike to the Gulf. It was a hardscrabble trek involving much sleeping in caves, fields and cemeteries. He loved every hour of it. Muir cadged food and water where he could. Half the time the providers were either Black or White people.

On the first days of his walk, and on the first pages of the book, Muir is stranded crossing a river. A Black boy and his mother helped him cross, using their horse as a ferry. They sent him off to a large homestead to find fresher water. The homestead had an airy and large home that was rustic but comfortable. It is surrounded by the Negro quarters, which were big enough for a village. Muir describes it as a “genuine old Kentucky home, embosomed in orchards, corn fields and green wooded hills.”

Let’s trouble this description by unpacking its layers of meaning. First, the context. Muir is hiking in the woods in the direct aftermath of slavery. For this Black population, freedom did not yet bring economic gains. No doubt some stayed on the plantation because it was the only home they had ever know. Most remained because they had little choice. It was work the cotton fields or starve.

The situation was different for the White homesteaders. They grew fat from slavery. And continued to do so after its abolition. Their assets, in the form of land, did not diminish. And labour was cheap in a situation where the labour had little choice. All the White families Muir stayed with had substantial homes and farms. Some were damaged in the war, but the families were quickly recovering.

The richest Black family Muir bunked with had their own home, which was little more than a shack. The furniture was so rickety that the chairs had no bottom and the table was propped up with planks.

“Many of the Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed up a subject that interest them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” Muir wrote this after cadging a ride from an old Black man driving an ox team. They talked about the fighting which occurred in the area during the Civil War. The old man is unnamed like most of the people Muir met on his trek. In Muir’s words, the old man is shown as an individual and not as a caricature. This is significant when most writers of his era did the reverse.

Near the end of his trek, Muir took a side trip to Cuba. In Havana, he noted the colourful livery of the Black men driving the carriages, as their owners paraded up and down showing off their wealth. Before Muir’s ship could leave, it was checked ensure that it did not harbour stowaway slaves. Slavery would not be abolished in Cuba for another year, in 1886.

For Muir, nature was a refuge from the mess and stress of urban life. The Sierra Club was formed to ensure that the wilderness would not be devoured by human greed. Many preferred a nature that was chopped, dammed or drowned for profit.

Today the Sierra Club has a membership of about one million. From its website, magazine and social media accounts, it is hard to see how much the membership has changed since Muir’s days. Most are still the same colour as cotton wool.

As the White population ages, membership is declining in outdoors and conservation clubs. It would seem to make sense to get people of colour, soon to be the majority of the population, into the clubs. Muir wrote about the Indigenous, Black and other people of colour that he met on his hikes. Why won’t the outdoors movements continue this tradition? A simple first step would be putting us in the ads. Black people have always been in the woods. Just ask John Muir, a father of conservation.

Sailing on a Half Moon

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Stories Along the Humber River Valley

The sunshine was as warm as our chatter as we meandered along the road. Buds on trees and shrubs peaked out, whispering that spring was here. A party of crocus flaunted their new purple and yellow dresses on the sunny side of the road.

I tried to read the geography of the land on our urban hike along the Humber River valley. Leaving Jane subway station, we strolled along Riverview Gardens. The gentle downhill slope of the street indicated a path towards a ravine.

Drains filled the street. We stopped and listen to the water roaring beneath. The sewer pipes were engorged with spring melt water. Or it could have been a buried stream. As Toronto swelled in the past century, it was common practise to inter streams and brooks that were in the way of humans. The sound was a ghostly reminder that thou unseen the water refused to be forgotten. In a severe spring storm the buried brook could smash its concrete tomb. A resurrection of a sort perhaps.

A nature trail snaked along the bottom of the river valley. The river itself refused to flow in the middle and instead hugged the left bank. The waterway was alive and feasting on the base of the port-side bluffs. In time it would swallow the houses perched on the cliff’s lips. The soil was loose till. The water-drenched land had already slipped in places leaving bald patches of bare earth behind.

Two men fly-fished in the still cool river. How did ‘Daddy’ John Hall catch his salmon in the 1840s? This Black Canadian man was born in Amherstburg in 1783 to a Black mother and an Indigenous father. He fought for Canada in the War of 1812. Wounded, he was captured by the Americans. At the end of the fight Hall expected to be swapped along with the other prisoners of war. He was not. Instead he was sold into slavery and spent a decade picking scars and cotton. Hall escaped back to Canada, moved to Toronto and lived in the Humber valley for a few years. There he farmed, fished and made birch bark canoes.

The vale was long and broad-hipped. After 10,000 years in the deep freeze, this part of the world warmed up some 4,000 years ago. As the glaciers melted, the water tumbled to the sea carving out the Humber River and the Great Lakes. The river that we see today is a mere trickle compared to its ice age self.

On the stretch of the river, from Etienne Brule Park to James Garden, there were five weirs, if my memory is accurate. The weirs help to control potential floods. They are a good indicator of the power of the river when left to its own natural ways.

Mallards drifted in the eddies. Their orange feet paddled this way and then that. My eyes flitted over to a Black man running up the hill on the right. He made it look like a casual stroll. Tall and lean, he had the relaxed gait of a marathon runner. His skin was coloured like a cinnamon bun. Perhaps it tasted just as sweet. We were the only two Black people in the park on that Sunday afternoon.

Two boys played in the branches of a small tree overhanging the swirling river. I remembered to say nothing, their parents were nearby. We stopped further along, near a meander loop. As a hike leader I had to focus on the whole group and not just the people near me. I waited for the stragglers to bunch up with the rest of us.

There were no homes backing onto this stretch of the river. We have Hurricane Hazel to thank, if that is the right word, for that. She put paid to the idea of fishing for your supper from the porch. Some 81 people died and 500 homes were destroyed as the Humber River flexed its raw power in 1954. In the aftermath, the river valley was turned into a park to ensure that the land would act like a natural floodplain, as Mother Nature intended, absorbing and slowing excess water before it could wreak havoc.

Leaving the valley we climbed up Humbercrest Boulevard. We stopped a few times to admire the view, or listen to the ghostly buried streams. All were excuses to catch our breath. Soon the land leveled out at Baby Point. Daddy John Hall probably climbed up the headland many times himself, to chat with the Mississauga First Nations or the soldiers at the French fort in the area. From the top of the hill one has a clear view of the river, and who was coming up or going down it.

Today Baby Point is an exclusive neighbourhood, filled with multi-million dollar homes overlooking the river or backing on to the ravine. Some of these homes sit on the site of the 1600s Seneca village of Teiaiagon. During a home renovation an ivory comb, carved from moose antler, was discovered in the grave of a Seneca woman from 1660s. Teiaiagon was huge with 50 longhouses and about 5,000 people.

The Humber River was a natural transport corridor linking the Great Lakes to the Georgian Bay in the north. For thousands of years Indigenous people farmed, traded and hunted along the river. They also warred. The river was a natural border between the different First Nations. The river remained a key transport route until cars and trains replaced canoes.

Daddy John Hall left Toronto, and spent many decades canoeing and farming in Owen Sound. He was also famous as the town crier. His obituary appeared in the newspaper. He was about 117 years old when he was called home in 1900. In a century of life, Hall experience all the vagaries of slavery. His mother was a runaway slave. He fought to keep out re-enslavement in Canada. Captured in the war he was sold into American slavery. Hall escaped and lived to see the end of slavery in the British Empire and the Civil War that ended the institution in the USA.

The village green was soggy in Baby Point. Today’s sun need more time to dry up yesterday’s rain. Robins chirped and hopped about, feasting on lazy afternoon worms.

The hike was almost over. We ended it at a café filled with cozy chairs, dark wood floors and big windows. The place was suddenly packed with the nine of us. Tea and cake, laughter and chatter. It was a lovely way to end a Sunday afternoon hike.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Spring Hike in Algonquin Park

“Free the nipple. That’s what we should call our movement,” he said, removing his t-shirt. The other men stripped too. The topless trio posed on the bridge as we snapped their photograph. Laughter rumbled in my belly.

The spring sun was so hot that most of us hiked in short-sleeves. Yet snow crunched under our crampons. In the sunlight it was already melting, but in the shade we hiked on thick sheets of white ice. We were on the Track and Tower trail, an easy hike in Algonquin Park. Part of it ran along an abandoned railway bed from the 1950s when passenger trains chugged through the park.

The trail was like a clear tunnel in the forest. On either side a wall of pine trees provided dark and shade. Maple and birch trees intermixed among the evergreens. They were still naked, their leaf buds peeking out, getting ready for their spring show.

Snow and ice covered the lakes and most of the marshes. Vast sheets of whiteness stretched in all directions. It looked as smooth as an enormous ice rink, where giants could skate to the end of the horizon.

Like love, the snow was not always solid. Every few yards one foot plunged calf-deep into the pale treachery. Sometimes it came up wet. Under the white blanket, spring’s melt-water was slowly eating away at winter’s stronghold.

In Toronto, four hours to the south, spring had already flaunted her finest greenery. Some forty members of my outdoors club had left the city on our annual spring hiking trip to Algonquin Park.

Half the group turned back on the trail after lunch. We continued for another hour or so. Our return route went up and down hills and valleys, clad in long patches of ice. Icers and poles were essential for keeping the balance as we scrambled over winter’s fading glory. I had no poles. My muscles grumbled at the extra work.

At last we reached the trail head in the parking lot. A moose drank the salty water from the ditch at the side of the highway. He looked healthy – his coat was smooth and patchless – though a skinny from the long winter.

The antlers, covered in  luxurious velvet-like hairs, were about a foot long, and grew out of the side of his head. In a few months they would be a magnificent multi-branched crown, used to brag to the moose world that this male was ready, healthy and in the mood to mate.

Female moose liked size. Male moose saw the antlers and thought twice about challenging the stud. But they had no choice – if they wanted the girl they had to fight to get her. Winner took all. Losers hoped they would be bigger next year. If they did not die in the battle.

The next day we went up the Beaver Trail, just across the road from the Wolf Den hostel. The dirt road was mostly used by hunters and fishermen who had lodges scattered along its length.

The trail ran uphill. My muscles were swearing so much that I had to take many breaks. We climbed up some 400 feet onto a ridge overlooking Beaver Lake. The trail ran close to the edge of the cliff. I kept away from it as my fear of heights kicked in. The view was fantastic – the ant-sized homes were mere dark spots in the vastness of the wilderness.

The climb down was just as hard due to the ice patches. We went slowly. We were not sure which patch of the snow would give out, plunging a foot down and possible twisting it on who-knows-what obstacles hidden under the layer of white duplicity.

After lunch, bellies full, but soul still hungry for nature, four of us went to Ragged Falls. The cascades were magnificent – the spring runoff had increased the volume of the river by about ten-fold. It crashed over steep, sharp rocks on its way to join another river some fifty feet below.

The roar of the falls was too much for me. I wandered away to a quiet pool above the cataracts. The signs warned it was not a swimming hole – the powerful and hidden currents would drag anyone over the edge.

The head of the waterfall was narrow. In the middle was a rock island. I remembered, in the summer clambering over to it for a better view from the top of the falls.  Today I did not – too much ice and not enough confidence.

The men scrambled over. From the bank I saw a woman in a bikini, on the rocks. The men said she was one of a trio of women, sunning and drinking beer. They were locals and the spot was a favourite for relaxing.

Too soon the weekend trip was over. My soul was refreshed. We would be back in a few months, this time for our annual autumn hike in Algonquin Park.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London