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

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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

Camping in the City

Camping in Toronto seems a bit of an oxymoron. After all the whole point of sleeping in a tent is to get away from city life. Yet, camping at Rouge Park seems to combine the best of both worlds.

It’s far away enough for a nature break, but close enough to get that latte. And maybe even have pizza delivered to your tent door.

I strolled along the stream at the north edge of the camp-ground. Water gurgled over the cataracts neutralizing the buzz from the nearby highway. It felt like I was deep in the woods. No deer greeted me that day, though many live in Rouge National Urban Park, the vast wilderness sanctuary in the city.

camping in the city

Turning away from the peaceful stream I headed towards the main gate of the camp-ground. Trees lined the route. And tents and camper-vans too. Then I spotted it. Not a rare bird. Nor a coyote.

It was a satellite dish.

It was planted right in front of a camper-van, up turned to the sky, picking up films, crime shows and the shopping channel.

I smothered my inner Grinch. A camper-van is not my idea of camping in the woods. Still, a flush toilet is better than digging your own shit hole in the ground. A soft bed with fitted sheets is better than a sleeping bag on the ground. Even one with an air mattress. Yet…

It reminded me of the debate about technology access at campsites. Some purists fumed at electrical outlets at the sites. Internet access is surely an abomination to them. On this one, I think they are right.

The whole idea of camping is to disconnect from city life, and reconnect to nature. Sitting on a warm rock, surrounded by fresh air, trees and a river, is bliss for me. For others it is heaven only if the comforts of home are there, including a satellite dish. On which to watch nature shows…

I suppose camper-vans get people into the woods. The Pokémon Go craze got people outside, walking and exploring around, capturing imaginary monsters living in the area. It’s not my idea of things to do on a walk, but it got them off the couch.

The more facilities there are for camper-vans, the more infrastructure is needed to support them. The very woods people came to enjoy, is manicured and paved, to fit human needs. It counters the idea that humans are part of nature and not masters of it.

camping in the city, river

Back at the parking lot, two guys unloaded a canoe. I followed them to the river. As they paddled down towards the lake, my thoughts drifted to my own canoe trips and the long summer days of doing nothing but splashing along a bay or across a lake.

My cell phone pinged. It was an e-mail telling me that five strangers wanted to be by friends on the Internet.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Adventure Stories and Race

I was that kid curled up in a corner with my head buried in a book. Adventure stories were my favourite. By the time elementary school was done, I had read through the classics of British children’s literature. The books were birthday and Christmas presents from friends and family. The best came in in gift pack of three or more books.

I devoured Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson. And anything by Jules Vernes. I loved the stories, except the bits where they talked about the natives.

It was uneasy believing in the heroes of the story when they encountered the natives. Even as a skinny sapling I knew that the natives were connected to me. It was unfortunate. I wanted to be like the heroes of the stories.

Adventure stories were popular from roughly the 1700s to the 1900s. Those two centuries were the height of colonialism. In his book Imperialism and Culture, Edward Said argues that artists not only followed the flag, they also created a culture that celebrated the planting of the flag on foreign lands. Through this lens, adventure stories were a cultural and geographical guide to foreign places. And the right and might of the British Empire to conquer and rule.

The books promised the gift of foreignness, adventure and travel without the bother of leaving the armchair. Adventure stories created landscapes of distant, tropical islands. The heroes journeyed to the islands by sea. Battling storms and shipwrecks they learned to be brave and survival skills. Crossing the oceans signified crossing into a new world, leaving the rules and rituals of home behind. In the new found land, the heroes were free to create their own version of paradise.

We crossed the ocean too.

Chained up as cargo in the belly of a square rigger. The adventure ship and the slave ship passed each other in the night and in the daylight. They were the two sides of the same colonial project.

Shipwrecked on an island, the heroes had to create new rules. The first rule was conquest. In adventure stories, it was never possible for the heroes to share the island with the inhabitants already living there. Conquest was the right of the whites. It could be peaceful as in seducing, naming and subjugating Friday in Treasure Island. Usually it was more violent.

Guns. Bullets. Blood. Dead natives to the left. Dead natives to the right. White heroes in the centre, hugging victory.

Once conquests was completed, the next step was creating white civilization on the island. That civilization was a rough version of Little England. The resources of the island, whether crops, minerals or people, were harnessed to enrich the empire. The natives were taught to be good Christians, happy to find a new savior in exchange for their land, rights and culture. Smiling natives were the best advertising for the beneficence of colonial rule.

Adventure stories are complete only when the heroes find their way back home. Their mission accomplished the travellers return to a more comfortable life funded by the treasures acquired from the foreign islands.

The British Empire is long dead, but adventure stories live on. Travel literature is the latest reincarnation of the form. More on this later.

It was adventure stories that inspired my love of travel and outdoor recreation. This time, I, the Black native, is the hero of the story.

And I win.

Sailing on a Half Moon

Putting Race in the Picture at Casa Loma

“Can my mom take a picture with your group?” said the woman as she smiled at me.

“No. We are not props,” I said.

I turned my back to her. Irritation rumbled in my belly. I took yet another photograph of our group posing in front of the Casa Loma museum. The place was filled with people visiting Toronto’s historic castle on a summer afternoon. They posed beside the fountain, the lush gardens and the tower of the castle.

Our group stood out from the crowds for one reason – we were Black.

Multiple languages and accents drifted in the air as people modelled for photographs. A young Chinese couple snapped selfies with their arms wrapped around each other. A Spanish-speaking dad hoisted his son on his shoulders as the rest of the family gathered around to pose in front of the roses. A French-speaking man asked me to take a photo of him and his family. I took three with his iPad, he was pleased with them.

Casa Loma was the terminus of our two-hour urban walk, along the parks and leafy neighbourhoods of mid-town Toronto. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the castle has 98 rooms and was once the largest private house in Canada and the USA. It was built by one of the richest men in Canada in 1911. The castle was a list of firsts – it had home electricity, telephones and central vacuum. Today the castle is a museum, wedding venue and is used as a back-drop in many films and television shows.

Our walking group meets a once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, to talk, walk and explore the Black history of the city.  On this stroll we had meandered along on St. Clair Avenue, a street named after the hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We did not know the white woman who wanted to pose with us. Her request made no sense – not in Toronto, not in 2017. We live in a city where people of colour are half of the population.

Her request got me thinking about race, art and the politics of images. There is a long tradition in American and European visual art of showing Black people as the ‘other.’ Curiosities. Exotics. Nameless. The white people are the focus of the picture, while the Black people are the small figures, in the margins. They are used to highlight the difference between the races and the implied superiority of one over the other.

The white woman’s request was a continuation of the tradition of portraying Blacks as curiosities.

Black History Walks Toronto