Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon

A Hike in the Forest

Sunlight spilled in the forest, highlighting the trees craning their necks to reach the golden god.

Songs flirted in the air, the melody sung by a rose-breasted grosbec, the rhythm set by a woodpecker. More voices joined the chorus, warbling a lullaby of life.

I stopped, spread my arms wide, raised my head to the sky. I wanted to dance, to celebrate the joy of life.

Common sense won. A Black woman shaking her backside, and dreadlocks, to her own inner music in the woods, could be a runaway. From the asylum. Or a voodoo priestess awakening the ancient spirits. In either case, she was up to no good.

Damn the double–consciousness. This sense of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ Limiting one’s activity to fit convention. Just in case…

A shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. My smile was as wide as the ocean as a deer pranced by. I bowed my head and thanked the ancient ones for this gift of life.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

The flock of birdwatchers meandered along the trail in the meadows. Suddenly they stopped. Binoculars raised, the group scanned the copse of trees on the left. Someone softly called out a yellow warbler. The birders drifted along, stopping and starting when a new bird was seen or heard.

There was a rare bird among the birders. Me. A Black woman participating in an activity that is almost exclusively white. I raised my binoculars too and spotted the great blue heron flitting above the tree line. A turkey vulture did lazy circles high in the blue-less sky.

Outdoor recreation is a racialized hobby. Whites do it. Blacks don’t. Birding fits that general pattern as almost ninety per cent of birders are non-Black. In general, birdwatchers are middle-aged, have high income and education, and appeals to slightly more women than men.

It does not cost much to start off as a birder. It’s enough to borrow a field guide to local birds from the library. And that’s it. If one gets hooked, the next real cost is buying your own book and a pair of binoculars. For about $100 one is now set up as birder. That’s about the same costs of buying a pair of sexy sandals or running shoes. Cost is not a barrier to birdwatching as it is to so many other outdoor recreation activities.

Skill is not a barrier either. I can confidently identify about thirty birds, starting with the common ones that I see daily in the city streets such as gulls, pigeons and starlings. In the large ponds in the parks it’s the swan, Canada geese and the squawking red-wing black birds. The more one stands still, look, and listen, the more birds seems to be flying, perching or hopping about.

Race is a factor in birding. A scan of the ornithological clubs in Toronto has lots of images of birds. And of white people. The human images do not get more colourful in the USA or in Britain. So why don’t Black people get into birding?

For a start we never see ourselves in birding ads, books and magazines. This creates two problems. The first is a negative feedback loop, as if you don’t see or know someone like yourself, doing an activity you are less likely to try it. Second, the birding media – just like the rest of the outdoor recreation folks – has created a visual apartheid implying that Black people are not wanted in that space, as they are always absent from it.

I always feel a little self-conscious when out alone on a birding walk. Really, I do not want to join another nerd club!  Wearing hiking boots, a safari hat, and with binoculars dangling from around my neck, people do wander what I am up to. I am out looking at birds, but sometimes you see strange things in the parks. A birder told me to be careful once. She had seen a flasher in the bushes. And it was not a bird.

In birding groups, my racial radar is always turned on. As the sole Black person in the group, I am half waiting for a question on where am I really from, are my dreadlocks real hair or a negative comment about ‘them.’ It’s not paranoia, it’s simply the reality of my Black experience.

I met another Black woman on a birding hike. Two of us. That is as rare as a phoenix. Dr. Drew Lanham is an African American ornithologist. In his experience, he expects to meet a fellow Black birder once every two decades or so. When I first read his statistics, I thought he was simply wrong. Then I reflected on my experience dabbling in birding. He was right.

Birding organizations can start a revolution. Simply putting Black people their ads will catch everyone’s attention. Birding – cheap, easy and done in the city – could be a gateway to getting people of colour into the conservation and environmental movements. Black birders want to fly too.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

How to Go in the Woods

The run started off well enough. I jogged along the banks of Grenadier Pond as squirrels and chipmunks scampered out of the way. A blue heron stood in the reeds lining the pond. It gazed at the water, looking rather serious, or maybe it was just constipated.

I ran into a gaggle of people around the bend. Even the children were quiet. All were watching a pair of egrets larking about in the water. Cell phones and cameras clicked at these unusual visitors. I tiptoed pass the birds and the crowd.

Next I ran up a century of steps to the top of the hill. This time, I did it without panting like a dog. My lungs were fine. Suddenly my belly was not. I could feel the gas working its way down along the miles of intestines. I belched a few times – the unladylike sound muffled by my hand.

Oh my belly.

I started to run again, this time following a secluded trail. I had done five kilometres and had another five to go. My steps were light and quick; I felt free, floating on nature’s high. No more burping, all was fine.

Until the gas in my stomach sank. The sound was bad enough, but the smell was worst. I had to run away to escape the pollution.

The gas kept blowing with each step. So I stopped. The gas got worst and something else seemed determined to escape as well. I was deep in the park, on a trail seldom used except by adventurous dog lovers. And men who like to play with men in the bushes.

I remembered that yesterday I ate six cobs of corn. Each was boiled and then smothered in butter, pepper and spices. I loved corn. And it had always loved my stomach – until now it seemed.

There was no time to come up with a plan. Nature was determined to take its course. My only option was whether it would be in my pants or could I squat fast enough to let it drop in the earth.

Behind a tree I crouched, praying that no poison ivy would touch my delicate parts. And that no dog would come bounding out to sniff where its nose did not belong.

A stream of yellow escaped, semi-solid, not liquid. Using a rotting log as a shovel, I covered up the fresh and steaming fertilizer with earth and leaves. Then placed the log on top. I sprinted home, straight to the shower. I have not eaten corn since then.

A Black History Travel Guide of London

Leslie Spit: A Paradise for Cormorants

 

Rotting fish. The smell perfumed the air long before we were even close to the cormorant colony. I tried breathing through my mouth, but one can’t do this and talk at the same time. The sharp smell of ammonia stung my nose.

The cormorants cackled, sounding just like the demented people in my neighbourhood, busy screeching at ghostly enemies. Leslie Spit, officially called Tommy Thompson Park, has the largest colony of cormorants in North America. Some 25,000 of these birds have made a home for themselves along the peninsular coast. It’s a remarkable come-back for a bird that was on the edge of extinction in the 1970s due to poisoning from DDT pesticides.

Across the turquoise inlet the city shimmered in the afternoon light. The CN Tower, that white phallic icon of Toronto, poked the cloudless sky. All it took was a ten minute walk from the bus stop to leave the city behind. I was leading a 10 km hike for my outdoor club. It was a short and easy urban walk to while away a Sunday afternoon.

The cormorants were everywhere – on the ground, in the water and in the air. The trees were white nearest their colony. The leafless branches did not quiver in the breeze. Many cormorants were perched on the limbs, their outstretched wings drying in the sun and wind. They looked like vultures on a bare, gothic Christmas tree.

Cormorant poop is white and rich in ammonia. It is lethal to trees, and not a single one was alive near the colony. The quiet bleached tree were in stark contrast to the dark squawky birds perched on it. It looked like a simple pencil and paper sketch of black life and white death. The cormorants idea of paradise is a rocky island or cliff, covered in dead guano-coated trees with plenty of fresh fish in the water. It doesn’t look pretty and is stinky to us. But it works for them.

About the size of a chicken, with a long hooked beak, snake-like neck and too-big wings. Cormorants are definitely not cute and cuddly to the eye. They are clumsy on land. Under the water they are elegant and expert divers. Their webbed feet and those long wings enable them to fly fast through the water, quicker than their prey can swim.

Millions and millions of cormorants once bred in Canada. The birds and their eggs were a staple part of the diet of Indigenous people. The cormorant population shrank as settlers took over the shore for shipping and drained the marshes to create farm land.

Humans and cormorants both love fish and that has led to conflict between the species. Cormorants are smart and adaptable birds. They are just as good at fishing as sports fishermen and fish farm managers. Marinas and fish farms and are the closest man-made structures to the bird’s natural habit. It is far easier to blame the birds for ‘poaching’ fish than to look at how humans have altered the environment. Some people prefer to cull the cormorants through bullets, poison or oiled eggs.

The cormorants are seen as a nuisance, vermin or over-populated only when they compete with humans. There is space for cormorants, fish and humans on the lake. We have to learn that we are part of nature too, and need to share its bounty. As the top predator on the planet, it’s easy for humans to be arrogant and assume that we will always have that role, and can control the environment to our will. The dinosaurs probably thought that too.

Reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the spit, we paused for lunch. Then we turned around and headed back to our lives in the city. Some of us were going home to a dog, a couch or a bottle.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

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