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.

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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

Biking by the Lake at Night

The road home seemed longer in the dark. Full of shadowed bends and turns it plunged me into puddles of blindness. I was on the Waterfront Trail. Shrubs and trees morphed into shadow beings, eating the light. Rustling leaves sounded like the crunching of small bones.

My back was soaked and still more sweat dripped down my face. There was no time to reach into my pocket, grab the rag and mop my brow. The night was here, like the fear, it was too near. I could not peddle fast enough to outrun the blanket of obsura.

The lake shimmered on my right. I found no comfort there that night. Following that silvery shine seemed to be leading me to the underworld. I should have taken the bus home.

Spending the afternoon with a friend was fun. Caught up in the moment we decided to go out for dinner. The autumn evening was warm and dry. I came out on my bike and planned to return home the same way; but this time cycling on the pavement and only using the bike trail where it ran parallel to the street. I would be home in an hour, about the same time as taking a streetcar and a bus.

The main road was on my left. The cars seemed to go faster in the night. Were they too trying to outrun the dark? Two cars weaved across the lanes, no indicators, too fast they cut back into the right lane. Tires squealed as the cars speed into the lakeshore parking lot. One car overtook the other on the bend, accelerated and raced to the end of the lot. The brakes screeched again.

I pushed harder as my heart hammered in my chest. I had to go pass the parking lot. What if the guys in the cars need more fun? The doors flung the open, rock music blared, and four men emerged from each car. Cigarettes and white skins glowed in the liminal light.

I was almost near them. The men gathered around one car and examined its back under the streetlight. Beer cans were in their hands. Deep voices cursed. Then laughter. Marijuana perfumed the air. As I flew by, I saw that the bumper was hanging off the back of the car. There were four more parking lots to go.

I knew the route. I had cycled up and down that section of the Waterfront Trail hundreds of time. But never near midnight. I could not sprint home. It was too far.

The lights of the Palais Royale twinkled ahead. My legs and heart slowed as the warm bulbs drew near. Two women smoked on the steps of the banquet hall. Three men leaned against the railings, also smoking. They were the first pedestrians I had seen near the bike trail. Inside the hall people chattered in little groups, wine glasses in hand. A portrait of Billie Holiday caught my eye. I knew that one well. Mouth opened in ecstasy she sings in front of a microphone with white gardenias glistening in her hair. I heard her singing Strange Fruit in my head. Then I shuddered as I saw them hanging from the poplar tree.

Half way home I got off the bike trail. I was too jumpy to enjoy the lake breeze and the starlight shimmering through the trees. I reminded myself I had nothing to prove. I cycled home on a main road filled with cars, bicycles and more importantly people out walking in the autumn night.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Black, Male, and in the Woods

It was one of those summer days when the wind refused to move, the clouds were on strike and the sun had the sky to itself.

Sunlight shimmered off the river and the horizon. Sun-heat baked the grass, the cars and our information tent. An endless flow of people came and asked where they were exactly, were the hiking trails marked and where were the picnic areas in the park.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him.

He was as lovely as a moonbeam. And as rare as snow in summer. He hung around waiting for the crowd to ebb so that we could talk. The man was Black, handsome, and as tall and solid as a basketball player.

With a single glance I knew that I was excited by his hiking pole. The one in his hand.

He lived in the area and knew the park like the smile of his mother. Every week he hiked a different trail. Today it was just a simple stroll up the old ski hill to sit in the shade of his favourite tree and play with his new phone.

Alone.

Each of us was surprised to see the other. He mentioned that he liked to be active and outside. He was tired of meeting people who always wanted to go out to dinner or go shopping downtown. He did not canoe or kayak, but he loved skiing.

Over 300 people passed through the information booth that day in Rouge National Urban Park. He was the first Black visitor we had seen. By the end of the day about five more would pass by.

I offered him a map of the park. He refused it. He said a phone number was better.

Another surge of people invaded the booth, impatiently waiting to ask more questions, collect more maps or ask about the fox, mink and beaver furs on the display table. Children wanted more crayons and colouring sheets. My summer job was to serve them. And I did, while watching my perfect research subject disappearing along the river.

I longed to have an in depth interview with him about his experience as a Black man in the woods. Where did he hike, did he belong to any outdoors club, how does race, space and gender affect his perception of the wilderness? He was the informant that got away.

50 Places; A Black History Travel Guide of London

Horse-chestnut Stories

City trees are just trees I used to think. They provide beauty and shade, and freshen the city’s air. Trees calm us down when city life gets too much.

I paused under a horse chestnut tree and sipped from my bottle of coconut water. The tree was magnificent at about 40m of 130ft. I was tempted to hug it to gauge its circumference. Then I thought better of it. A Black woman hugging a tree might belong somewhere else. Like on a psychiatric ward.

The history of Toronto is written in the trees planted by the city. The horse-chestnuts are not native as I had assumed. They were part of the British colonial apparatus in Canada. They were bought over by settlers, in their attempt to recreate manicured little England in the vastness of the Canadian wilderness. In 1860 some 500 horse-chestnut trees were planted in Toronto to honour a visiting royal. The trees did rather well in our climate, most living for a century or so. Their descendants still grace the city streets.

I wandered along the leafy neighbourhood trying to clear my head. Too much time in front of the computer was not good for the body or the soul. I had stepped out my condo, and headed north on a whim. It was the direction I was least like to walk in my daily routines in the city.

The more trees on the streets, the more expensive the area. And if they are horse-chestnuts, it is a good indicator that the area is older too. It is no accident that the five neighbourhoods with the most trees in Toronto are also the five richest. Rosedale and the Bridal Path tops both lists.

The horse-chestnut has large and long leaves grouped in a cluster. The leaves are palmated, arranged like fingers on the outstretched palm of the hand. We don’t plant these in the city anymore, as they are really too big for pocket-sized front yards. The city prefers to plant a variety of native trees as they are easier to grow and to replace when damaged. Most importantly they reflect the local ecology and help to keep it healthy.

It was a hard lesson learned from the Dutch elm disease epidemic. It killed about 80 per cent of the elm trees in Toronto in the 1970s, leaving bare patches of hot concrete where the graceful trees used to be.

There are just over 10 million trees in Toronto’s urban forest. That includes 116 different species. City trees have to be tough to fight the concrete, the pollution and small spaces for their roots. And then there is the salt from clearing the roads of snow in the winter, and dehydration if they are not watered in the summer. The city plants about 100,000 trees a year to keep the urban forest healthy.

I remembered collecting horse-chestnut seeds in the autumn. They were round and brown like a fat marble. We used to play conkers with them in England. My neighbour reminded me that the seeds are poisonous even though they look like sweet chestnuts. I collected them for decoration. Placed in a glass jar the horse-chestnuts joined my ephemera display of natural objects including feathers, seashells and twigs.

A belt of trees poked up their heads from behind some Victorian-era mansions. It was probably a small extension of a ravine. I was not in the mood to explore. Instead I walked up this street, across that one, and down another. Slowly I meandered home. It would take an hour and I had the time. And I needed my head cleared.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Black Youth and Nature

“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.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

She Called Me Sister

“Let’s walk together, we are sisters.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” I said. The words came out before my manners did. It was a good thing that my skin was too dark for the blushing to be visible.

I had scanned the puddle of hikers at the subway station who were waiting for the hike to start. As usual there was one Black person present. Me. The woman was perched on a ledge, her face hidden by over-sized sunglasses. A baseball cap covered her brown hair which was streaked with blonde highlights. Streaks of white sunscreen ran down her tanned neck and hands. I assumed she was Greek or Italian. She took off the sunglasses and stared at me.

“I am from Curacao. You have heard about the Dutch Caribbean I presume?”

“Of course. So your first language is Dutch or Papiamento? I could not place your accent.”

“You probably heard the German. Most people do. My husband is German. I lived there for 30 years you know. I had to learn the language as none of his family spoke Dutch. I learned English in Germany. I am Angelina.”

We shook hands. She wore a white cotton glove on her left hand and its partner dangled in her palm.

“Do you hike with this group often?”

“Yes I do. It’s free. You must give me your number. It’s nice to hike with a sister.”

“What got you into hiking?”

“I was always athletic because my father was too. He ran marathons all his life until he died. He did it in style you know, he went to bed one night and never woke up. I did triathlons when I was younger. These days I just like the hiking. I used to sail you know. My husband and I spent hours sailing the boat in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean.”

“What kind of boat was it? I used to sail too.”

“It was a yacht. I had to give it up because of the divorce. I didn’t used to be like this you know. I can’t tell you how much money I lost because of bad financial decisions. It was over a million. I don’t want to talk about it, it’s still too painful even though it was years ago. If only I hadn’t been so…”

“We all make mistakes. It’s part of life…”

“Really? Have you ever had a million dollars your bank account? Do you know what it’s like to work hard all your life and then lose everything? Everything. My son helps me out. I don’t know how I could manage without him.”

“Does he hike too?”

“One loves it. The other one has no time for it. I miss my boys.”

“Do you see them often?”

“Of course not. They live in Germany. I am going to get it all back you know. I am working on plans to live the life I used to have. It will take a while but I am going to get it back.”

We hiked deep in the ravine. The hot air swaddled us like a blanket. Rivulets of sweat dripped down my head, my back and my legs.  That was the first hour of the hike. We had three more to go.

The leader stopped us for a water break. I took a different type of break and then made sure I kept a good distance from Angelina. I could not tell if her story was fantasy or reality.

Black History Walks Toronto