Snowshoeing in Killbear Park

The ice sheet was grey at the edge of the lake. The air bubbles trapped in it created a frosty honeycomb lattice. A hike leader walked a few feet on to the ice, tapped it with his hiking pole, and then jumped up and down a few times. He said it was safe to walk across. He was petite, about my size. And I am as small as a cherry. But just as sweet. Most times. The group hesitated.

It was our annual snowshoe and cross-country ski weekend in Killbear Provincial Park. Some 32 members of my Toronto outdoor club were on the trip. The majority where white, with a minority of four Asian women (two with white partners), and one Black person. Me. About a dozen of us went on the eight kilometre trek to the lighthouse. It was minus twenty. Breathe froze in the air. A necklace of ice crystals dangled on the front of my scarf.

From a conventional standpoint, we were a typical outdoors group enjoying winter in the park. From a critical lens perspective the situation reads differently. Here my focus is not on the obvious race and gender dynamics, but on the land on which we hovered. I want to “move beyond the land as a geographical feature or surface to the land as a “meeting up of history,”” as Mishuana Goeman writes in her book Mark My Words.

Long Ago in Killbear Park

Killbear Park was part of the Ojibway territory, and intersected by complex trade routes between various First Nations. The Ojibways hunted. They traded fish and furs for beans, corn and squash with the Huron-Wendats who farmed the land further to the south. The Ojibways also traded for copper from the west coast, used to make tools, and for shells from the east to make decorative beads on clothes and shoes. Killbear Park had a long history before contact between Indigenous and European people.

snowshoeing in killbear park

Killbear Park was ‘acquired’ by Treaty 13 between the Ojibway nation and the Canadian government. In the 1830s European settlers flocked to the area, enticed by free land given out under the Ontario Government Free Grant and Homestead Act. They had five years to build a house and start a farm; if not the settlers forfeited the land. Dreams and reality soon collided as Killbear was poor for farming. The land is littered with massive rock outcrops. Logging became the main industry from 1860s to the 1920s. It declined once all the valuable mature trees were cut down. Killbear was eventually turned into a park to boost tourism in the area. We were snowshoeing on land with an ancient history.

We had started the trek at the lodge. We turned left, and ducked under the padlocked gates blocking cars from the road to the interior of the park. As we walked along, the snowshoes creaked on the deeply packed snow, sounding like rusty wheels in need of a good oiling. Puffs of kicked up snow covered our boots. On patches of ice the snowshoes squeaked like chalk on a blackboard.

Winter still ruled the surface of the land in early March. The birch trees and shrubs were naked, the leaf buds still cocooned in their warm protective casings. Deer tracks criss-crossed the land, disappearing into the thick strands of pine trees. I find much beauty in the simplicity of winter. In the woods, it is an endless canvas of lights and shadows, voids and shapes, fears and dreams.

We stuck to the marked trail, treading in each other’s path. Veer off and a snowshoe could plunge into a snowbank melting from the underside, twisting an ankle or trapping a foot in an icy bath. In minutes the limb would numb to the coldness, increasing the risk of frostbite. In the quiet snatches between the chatter and the squeaking snowshoes, I heard hidden water gurgling, a signal that spring was awakening under the bed of winter.

We turned right at a fork in the trail, and headed for the lake. The north wind blew off the bay, scouring exposed faces. Water dripped from eyes and noses not hidden behind protective barriers of cloth or glass. The lake looked like an enormous ice rink, with dots of tree-covered islands sprinkled on the smooth surface. The ice shimmered in the noon-time sun, blurring the boundary between land and water. Then as we filed along the shore, the snowshoe tracks became streaked with sand.

A rocky hillock stuck its tongue out into the lake. Snowshoes slid as they scraped away its thin layer of ice and snow. We could not climb over it. The choice was either an hour’s detour inland, or a ten minute walk on the frozen water.

History on the Land

Goeman writes that the “geography and the language we use to order space are formed in a “contact zone” in which various cultures interact.” At Killbear the official brochures and guides categorise the park into areas and routes for activities like camping, swimming, skiing and canoeing. They contain guidelines on how to deal with wildlife, such as grazing deer and angry bears. The brochures point out the remnants of the failed settler farms and the logged old growth forest. Thus, the Killbear land is ordered and sorted into recreational, wildlife and historical areas.

Nothing in the official materials indicate the Indigenous heritage in Killbear or the surrounding areas. It was only from researching for this essay, that I realised that there was an Ojibway reservation on Parry Island, just across the bay from the park. The reservation is visible from the lighthouse. I had seen it many times, but never associated it with an Indigenous community.

The absence of Indigenous references in Killbear Provincial Park is not accidental. It is a continuation of the government’s pattern of attempting to erase Indigenous history and ownership of the land.

snowshoeing in killbear park

The Parry Island reservation is a mere fragment of the former Ojibway territory. According to Goeman reservations are colonial spatial structures that attempt to limit Indigenous movement over the contested land. As a spatial boundary, separating Indigenous from white people, the settler-colonials, the reservation is somewhat ineffective in the case of Killbear. But, it is still a powerful psychological boundary today.

Today, there are more First Nations living in urban areas than on rural reservations. The visible presence of Indigenous people in the cities does two things. First, it refutes the white settler-colonial claim that they had disappeared, or belong only in the past. Second, it makes visible the unresolved issues around the ownership of the land called Canada.

A Lake of Ice

The second hike leader was a stout woman. She too walked on to the ice, tapping ahead with her pole, before taking each step. The echo was hollow, not the dull thud she was expecting. The surface of the ice was smooth, but underneath it hair-wide cracks were spread out like a spider’s web. The cracks can expand in seconds exposing the water below. I know of only one man who could walk on water, or so his followers claim. A decision was made – we would go inland.

We ate lunch on a sheltered rock outcrop, basking in the bright afternoon sun. There, most of the group abandoned the trek to the lighthouse. The temperature had warmed up a bit – it was now minus ten. The snow was patchy on the remainder of the lakeshore trail making it hard to snowshoe. The many detours inland made the route too long. Four of us made it out to the lighthouse. On the pinnacle of rock we gazed across the bay. To the north of the lighthouse the lake was frozen into white stillness. To the south, it was open blue water, gently lapping at the shore below us. To the west the land was filled with houses. I had assumed that they were summer cottages for people from the city.

The brochures at Killbear Provincial Park reflect the geography of hegemonic whiteness. By this I mean the standard world view that the park is a neutral space, open to all who enjoy outdoor recreation. The supposed neutrality of the space hides the dominance of white people as the managers, gatekeepers and users of the park’s land.

Goeman writes of the need to develop alternative spatialities. It is a way of seeing and mapping the Americas from multiple perspectives, at the same time. It brings into focus the histories of different groups, their relationship to each other, and most importantly, to the land on which they stand. The land is a witness that never lies.


The Black Explorer and the North Pole

Black blood flows in the Arctic. When Matthew Henson explored the North Pole in the 1900s, he left behind a keepsake of his visits. His son Anaukaq was born in 1906.

Matthew Henson does not mention the child in his book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which was published in 1912. Robert Perry, the expedition leader, does not mention his own mixed-race son either. Both men followed the established tradition of male explorers – they came, they saw, and off the record, had sex with local women.

Henson and Perry spent over 20 years trying to reach the North Pole. The quest to be the first person on that spot was a holy grail of European explorers for two centuries. No one expected that a Black man would win the prize.

Sex on the Plantation, Sex in the Arctic

Slavery still ruled African American lives when Henson was born in 1866. He was born free, the third such generation in his family. They were free people of colour. Somewhere on a plantation in Maryland, near Washington D.C., a white master sexed and later freed a slave, thus birthing this branch of the Henson family.

Mathew Henson was orphaned as a child. At aged 12 years he was a cabin-boy on ships sailing to China, Japan, North Africa and Russia. Aged 20, Henson met Robert Perry a USA navy captain. For the next two decades the men were like conjoined twins. They first explored Central America, scouting out a possible route for the Panama Canal. Next it was the Arctic, where the men made their fame as explorers.

It was not unusual for white explorers to have Black companions, whether as slaves, servants or concubines. What was unusual was Matthew Henson role as the second in command of the expeditions. All on board the ships took orders from him.

Henson was a technical genius, skilled as a carpenter, blacksmith, dog-handler and hunter. He was the only member of the expeditions whose Arctic skills were respected by the Inuit (then called Eskimos). Henson was fluent in Inuit. He was an expert at building igloos. Henson makes it clear in his book that the expeditions depended on the skills, knowledge and labour of the Inuit from Greenland and Canada. The team were the first to reach so far north in the Arctic, and they did so by adopting the Inuit way.

Some 39 Inuit lived on board the final expedition ship. The women sewed seal-skin boots and bear fur pants and anoraks for the expedition crew. Inuit men guided the dog-drawn sledges over the shifting ice-floes.

Akatingwah, an Inuit woman, was the lover or ‘country wife’ of Henson. She gave birth to his only child in Greenland.

In his book Henson writes about the Inuit as individuals with names, quirks and attitudes. This is significant in an age where people of colour were simply mentioned as part of the exotic background of exploration. Or, if they were described at all, the words were dripping in racial stereotypes.

“I have been to all intents an Eskimo, with Eskimo for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs,” Henson wrote. “I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.” (p.32)

Endless Ice and Endless Nights

North Pole fever gripped Europe and the Americas in the 1800s. It was part of a larger imperial quest to find an Arctic sea passage, as a shortcut, to the riches of Asia. The North Pole is the hat of the world. All steps from it lead to the south. Locating the North Pole was essential for making accurate maps and for knowing where you were.

As no one knew exactly where or what the Pole was, it became the perfect blank canvas for the European imagination. Writers moved Santa Claus, elves and reindeers to a new home in the North Pole. Frankenstein and other monsters lurked there too. The North Pole was also the home of unicorns, Superman and a possible volcanic entrance to the centre of the world.

People live in the Arctic, but no one inhabits the North Pole. That cherished spot is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and about 1,000 kilometres from the nearest village in Nunavut, Canada.

Mathew Henson and Robert Perry made eight attempts to reach the North Pole, between 1891 and 1908. They were convinced they had reached it on the final expedition. The jury is still out on if they hit the exact spot. What is undisputed is that they were the first to reach so far north.

I tried cross-country skiing when it was -42C. Each exhale froze in front of my face. My lungs trembled from taking in frigid air. Lips and eyelashes began to freeze in seconds. I bolted back inside the lodge in less than five minutes.

Matthew Henson spent weeks outside in such temperatures. He sledged over ice-packs in the quest for the North Pole. Sometimes the packs jammed together forming steep ice ridges, which the men climbed using ice picks to claw their way over. Crevices formed between the drifting ice-packs. Falling into one was a trip to the after-life. Other times the explorers glided over thin ice. Henson learned to be nimble and to be quick jumping off sinking sledges.

Then there were the storms. Ice and snow and screamed across the ice-scape. The winds were powerful enough to knock  down a man or blow over an igloo.

The sun also rises in the Arctic – once every six months. Henson writes of praying for daylight to replace the six months of endless darkness.

Success and the Man

Perhaps it was just pure ego on Robert Perry’s part. He was annoyed that Matthew Henson had stepped on the North Pole first. Henson’s sledge was in the lead. When the expedition returned to the USA, Perry was hailed as the hero. He received all the awards, prestige and greetings from presidents. Henson was ignored, his role reduced to that of the faithful servant. It was a play of the all too familiar trope of the great white hero and his loyal, but silent, Black servant.

Matthew Henson eventually got his dues as an old man. Some 30 years after his epic voyage across the ice-lands, he received the same medals and honours as Perry. Henson died in 1955.

In 1988 Matthew Henson and his wife were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, right next to Robert Perry. The two Artic explorers were rejoined in death, as they had been in life. The descendants of their mixed-race Inuit sons were at the ceremony.

I stood in Henson’s shadow once, without knowing it. The three massive meteors caught my attention at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In his book Henson described the effort it took to remove the extra-terrestrial rocks from the Arctic and bring them to the south. The sale of the meteors funded Perry’s North Pole expeditions. Matthew Henson’s hands once touched those rocks.


Evergreen Trees are the Stars of Winter

Winter belongs to the evergreen trees. No longer overshadowed by their broadleaf siblings, the conifers get my full attention. I spent a sunny hour collecting cones and fallen twigs off the trees. I am doing so because it is fun, and as I am trying to improve my knowledge of nature. To name a thing is to know it.

Down the road, near the community centre, I picked up a cone from under a strand of trees at the side of an apartment building. Around the corner I passed a slim woman advertising herself for rent. She wore track pants, a crop top, and a fake fur jacket. Her exposed belly was the colour of raw chicken. Her eyes were as a wild as a storm.

My next collection was from a row of cedar trees screening a Victorian town-house. Delicate filigree twigs littered the ground. An icy breeze ruffled the trees. A dusting of snowflakes swirled about, I held my head back and caught a few on my tongue. As I stooped to pick up a pretty twig, a dog and its walker came by. The mahogany tinted man gave me an odd look, and then crossed the road. A pity. His skin was ripe for polishing.

A small park was opposite the town-houses. I cut across it and picked up more evergreen ephemera. The park was empty of humans. Squirrels scampered away and one screeched at me. I told it I was taking only one pine cone, there was enough there to see it through the winter.

Back at home, I spread my treasures on the dining room table and opened by field guide to trees. I examined them as jazz played on the radio, and I sipped chai tea and nibbled fresh dates, cheese and olives.

The first evergreen twig was from a pine tree. The needles were as long as the palm of my hand. A bunch of them whorled around a central stem. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the needles were in pairs, joined at the tip where they attached to the stem. About fifteen of these pairs were on each stem. Needles in pairs are the trademark of red pine, a native Canadian tree. The needles can be woven to make small and beautiful baskets. The scales on the cone were long, hard and woody.

The cone from the small park came from a spruce tree. It was beige, cylindrical and as long as my ring finger. The scales on the cone were short, flexible and each ended in a rounded triangular tip. The twig had a central stem with small branches on either side. The tip looked like the pattern left by bird tracks in the snow – one big claw with two small claws angled to the side. Short flat needles stuck out from each side of the twig.

There was a bunch of brown nobs on the cedar twig, each about the size of my finger tip. They turned out to be the cones of the tree. I was surprised that I had never noticed them before. The tiny cones mean it was an eastern white cedar, a native Canadian tree.

Snow swirled about outside. Another storm was vomiting whiteness over the city’s street. Warm and safe inside, I turned the cones over in my hand.


Should Dogs Run Free in Parks?

I always find and carry a big stick with me on my hikes. It’s for whacking any dogs that get too close. Yes I know dogs are friendly, but so were the two that bit me.

As I walked through Cedarvale Ravine, a big shaggy dog ran besides its owner. I think it was poodle crossed with a St. Bernard. The dog that is. It weighed as much as I did. They were running up the slope as I was descending it. The owner saw the stick and my eyeing of the dog. He put the pet on his far side and gripped its collar long before we were close. I smiled and said thanks as we passed each other. I watched them disappear at the top of the hill, the dog now free to roam.

My next dog encounter for the month happened on the nature trails in High Park. Something scampered through the undergrowth. It was too big, noisy and fast to be a squirrel. The deep and steep valley was quiet on the Friday afternoon. The morning’s rain had created a lot of mud which seemed to have put off the usual number of dog walkers. I clutched my stick.

The two women behind me were busy talking. A dog shot out of the bush, spun in mid-air and came towards me. I stopped and raised my whacker.

“Charlie! Charlie, come here now,” one of the women shouted.

The terrier looked at the owner, looked at me, and seemed unsure what to do. I banged the stick on the ground. The dog fled through the bushes and back to its owner. I waited.

“He’s just being friendly. He doesn’t bite,” said the woman. She spat the words out. Her eyes were as hard as a rock.

“So was the last dog that bit me,” I said. “It’s not going to happen again.”

She put the dog on a tight leash. I let them walk ahead and then took the next fork in the trail. I hate it when my walks becomes stressful due to two-legged creatures. Especially ones in green coats and matching Wellington boots.

My third dog encounter for the month, and here I am only talking about the most memorable ones, was in the Don Valley Brickworks ravine. It was like watching a scene from a film. A Chinese family were out exploring the trails. At the edge of the frame two large golden labradors were chasing each other. The dogs ran towards the children. One kid jumped back into the stroller. The other ran towards the dad who picked him up, and placed him on his shoulders. The first dog was about four body-lengths away from the stroller and from me.

I grasped my stick and hoisted it. Which one would I whack first?

A white girl and a boy ran up, grabbed the dogs, and hugged them. The girl told the Chinese family that the dog was just being friendly. Their parents approached, their smile and embarrassed apologies met my stick and my cold eyes. They put the dogs on the leash. The Chinese family and I exchanged the rolling of the eyes as we passed each other.

Dogs need to run free, following scents and their instincts. They can run as far and as fast as they like, as long as it is in the dog off-leash area. Outside of that space they will be smacked if they get too close to me.

I actually like dogs and I am planning on getting a mutt at some point. In public my dog will always be leashed. People have the right to walk in the woods without fear of being bitten by a ‘friendly’ dog.

Black History Walks Toronto


This Is My Climate Change

There are still a few people out there who don’t believe that the climate is changing. And it is not because they are stupid. In fact they are among the most rich, powerful and educated of people. They work very hard to disparage scientist working on climate change, and to spread fake news denying that it is happening. More on this later.

This is what climate change looks like in my neighbourhood. Back in the spring the annual Paddle the Don canoe festival was cancelled. The spring floods were at record levels making the river too fast and dangerous.

A few weeks later I led a 15km hike in the Beaches area of the city. The final leg of the hike was along the boardwalk. At least that was the plan. On the day of the hike ten foot waves smashed against the boardwalk. Sections of the beach were closed and sandbagged to stop the land from disappearing. Toronto had not seen such furious storms in almost a century. We watched in awe as Mother Nature unleashed her power, tumbling deck chairs and planks as if they were mere pebbles.

My hiking club cancelled its annual Thursday evening walks over at Toronto Islands in the summer. We could not get there as the ferries were not running. The Island’s docks were flooded. The Islands remained closed until late summer, waiting for the water and the excess mosquitos to retreat.

The rest of the summer was marvelous. Lots of sunshine and blue-sky days. However, the summer was still here in the autumn. In fact September was hotter than August, some days the temperature was double the normal range.

Winter is supposed to be around the corner. The ski industry is praying that it will actually snow this year. In the last few years, the white stuff has been unpredictable. If there are no flakes in the city, people assume that there are none on the ski trails and slopes as well. So they don’t go.

And if they did go, there was a good chance that they would be skiing on man-made snow. Yes, there are machines that make snow. With the weather so unpredictable the snow making machines are doing a great business.

This climate change is caused by us humans.

In Canada our love of the good life – big cars, big houses and enough food to throw away – comes at a huge environmental cost. The more oil we burn and forests we cut down, the warmer the planet gets and the more variable the weather. Things are so unpredictable that a few more Hurricane Hazels might be in the wings.

There are ecological limits to life Earth. We cannot go on pretending that humans are so exceptional that the laws of nature don’t apply to us as well.

We know what the issues are, we know we have to act, but we do nothing. It seems we would rather wait for the apocalypse than take action to avoid it. The dinosaurs had no choice. Their exit from the planet really came from the heavens above. Ours will be from our own hands.

Some pretty powerful interests want to keep it that way. Millionaires want to continue making their millions. When climate change gets really bad they think they can buy their way out of it. They have already bought the politicians who should be taking action. Mother Nature can’t be bought. We can act now or wait for more floods, wildfires and hurricanes to pay us a visit.

Sailing on a Half Moon


Strolling in a Rich Neighbourhood

My mood was as sweet as a lemon. A cold was hovering in the wings, waiting to take centre stage. I was tired from being out every day in the past week. And my weekend was going to be busy too with a Black History Walk and then the hike for my outdoor club. And I still had tons of school work to do.

I had to do the pre-hike as I already had a dozen e-mails confirming attendance. If the weather was fine, more people would show up. As the leader, I had better know where we were going. I had walked a kilometre and had nine more to go.

From Lawrence subway, I meandered south to Duplex Park. As I walked through the green-land, a parliament of pimply schoolboys, in uniforms, lounged and smoked on a bench. We ignored each other. The park was shaped like a bowl with a flat bottom and steep sides. This was a good indicator that it was probably once a brickworks, and if such, a stream was nearby, either still flowing, or channeled underground and landfilled with trash a century or so ago.

Houses backed onto the steep edges on the east side of the park. Their fences were covered with billboard-sized photographs, graffiti art and murals. I loved the picture of a black cap chickadee, painted by a thirteen year old Chinese girl.

Leaving the park I climbed up the wooden steps which were nestled into the ground. The decaying wood was already enriching the earth, as we all will, one hopefully distant day. Crossing the road, I descended into Chatsworth Ravine. The tarmacked path was steep. I mumbled under my breath that I was really turning into an old fart; I was wary of falling even though there was no ice on the ground. What happened to sprinting down such a slope for the sheer joy of it?  My legs refused to take more than mincing baby steps. My shame was as bright as the pink oak leaves.

The gully was secluded. The absence of litter meant that it was regularly cleaned up or it was not frequently used. Little hairs pricked up on the back of my neck. Where was the fearless explorer eager for adventure? Who was this little old Black woman in the woods?

strolling in a rich neighbourhood fence

I soon forgot about the shivers, seduced by the beauty of the autumn leaves and the sleepy brook flowing into an underground channel. The ravine was steep and narrow. About twenty feet from its lips, houses were perched on both sides. Through the autumn leaves I glimpsed patios and large picture windows overlooking the forested crevice. I would love to wake up to that view each morn. Unfortunately the five million dollar price tags were just a tad beyond my means.

I walked through the valley in fifteen minutes. I never saw another soul. Not even a blasted dog walker.

The ravine ended abruptly in a school playing field. Either the brook meandered north, or it was encased in concrete under the field. I crossed the road. The gully continued on the other side, but the access gate was locked, with a sign saying private property. I strolled around, seeing a street of houses backing onto the ravine, but I could find no entrance into it. I will look for it on my next walk in the area.

I strolled south following any street that looked interesting. All the houses were detached or semi-detached, with large windows and lovely front yards. Most were built in the 1930s when Forest Hill was developed as yet another bloody ‘little England in Canada.’

The streets were quiet. Too quiet.

Many times I stopped and checked the map to make sure I was where I thought I should be. My heart raced at these stops. I was in the mid-town area of the city. Yet it was unnerving walking through a neighbourhood where no one was on the streets. The cars in the driveways and the lights in the houses indicated people were at home, yet I saw no one peeking through the windows. It felt like I was walking through a ghost town. Climate change or the apocalypse had killed all the people, leaving me the sole survivor to try and figure out what the fuck had happened.

I walked for an hour before seeing anyone in the rich enclave. Two roads before Eglington Park, Filipino nannies and their white charges were outside. Two decades or so ago the nannies were Black women from the Caribbean. They were replaced by white Eastern European women reeling from the fall of communism. Where will the nannies of tomorrow come from? Under capitalism it is anywhere labour becomes cheap due to war, recession or social conflict. Add the effects of climate change to the list.

I passed a Black woman chatting on her phone in her driveway. The car door was opened. Three white teens walked by, each with a puppy. One puppy ran towards the woman, wagging its tail like its life depended on it. The woman went gaga over the whippersnapper, bending down to hug, and oh my god, kiss it. She then stood up and greeted each dog and its leashed child by name.

The playground in the park was filled with white children, either with their parents or mostly their Filipino nannies. I headed straight for the washroom in the skating arena, as it was a rest stop for the group hike. Classical music drifted from upstairs in the arena. I had to have a look. The rink was filled kids and their coaches figure skating. The learners were mostly white or Chinese girls, practicing their jumps, twirls and flowing arabesques. One was Black. I hoped she knew of Surya Bonaly. I remembered watching her on television, astonished that a Black woman was on ice. The French star won the European Figure Skating Championship five times.

Leaving the arena, a little Black boy, aged about four, darted in front of me. A voice commanded that he stop. I looked up, the dad was the spitting image of the boy, barring his blonde hair and green eyes. We exchanged nods.

strolling in a rich neighbourhood hike

Crossing an avenue I meandered through the side streets and parks until I found the Beltline Trail. The former railway track was converted to a linear tree-lined park. The trail was packed with runners, dog walkers and rude cyclists who refused to slow down. I put away the map. I knew this path well, and it was important that I took my time to simply stroll along it, enjoying the autumn tinted forest that was right in the city.

Soon, too soon, I was back on Yonge Street, walking around checking out the best café. I like to end my hikes with tea and chatter around a table. I treated myself to chai and two ginger cookies. Finally, my mood was as sweet as the honey in the tea.


Squirrel Stew with Nuts

The trees were mostly naked. I crunched through piles of fallen oak and maple leaves in the park on my walk to school. The rich musky, earthy, smell of autumn was delicious in my nose.

Until I got to the ginkgo trees. Their scent advertised their presence long before I spotted the yellowed fan-shaped leaves on the earth. The smell came from the fleshy nuts littering the ground. It reminded me of stinky French cheeses, truffles or fermenting rancid apples. A true connoisseur would salivate over the ginkgo fragrance, mentally planning which wine or beer would complement its rich and complex aroma.  Roasted ginkgo nuts are an Asian delicacy, with a sweet subtle flavour.

Without their leaves the trees were hard to tell apart. The brown textured barks all looked alike to me. Squirrel nests were now visible in the trees, the loose collection of brown leaves perched in the forked branches. The nests looked like soup bowls.

Squirrel soup. Squirrel stew. Not so long ago these were standard dinner items. Squirrel is described as having a rich gamey taste. The critters are too small and bony to make steaks or to barbecue.

A trio of squirrels squabbled as they collected beech nuts. I recognized the tree as it was the only one with a smooth, silvery grey bark. And it was labelled. I bent down and picked up a half-opened beech burr. It was rough and prickly on the outside, with three smooth triangular nuts inside. The nuts are edible when roasted and taste like pine nuts.

I like to try different foods and I have a cast iron stomach. An autumn stew of squirrel, ginkgo and beech nuts. Slow cooked, with carrots, potatoes and corn; seasoned with garlic, spices and Scotch bonnet pepper. It would make a hearty stew on the cold and dark nights. When I try it, I will let you know how it tastes.

Black History Walks Toronto