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

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Moss Park: Walking the Other Neighbourhood

As I walked across the park, I tried to look, not stare, at the domino players. They were relaxed, sitting on plastic chairs around a kitchen table. It was not the usual furniture found in a large urban park. They must have brought it there themselves. Reggae drifted from the 1980s stereo on the ground; it was Marcia Griffiths.

The three Black men and the one white woman nodded along to the music as they played the tiles. The dreadlocks caught my eye and flashed me a smile. The wind rustled in the trees shading the players from the downpour of sunshine.

Moss Park is at the southern end of my neighbourhood. I rarely walk through it as it is not part of my habitual routes through the city. Urban parks, like Moss Park, is where most people now connect to nature. Especially Black and other people of colour who tend to shun wilderness and outdoor recreation in national parks. For me, Moss Park is a tough place to relax. The hard, harsh edges of city life scrape in and around the park.

The trees singing with the breeze could not hide the sound of the two white drunks shouting at each other. The humped-back, white-haired woman dragging a shopping cart, screeched at invisible foes.

A make-shift market was spread out on the sidewalk in front of the park. Two large women on scooters invited me to take a look. One dangled a cigarette in her hand. The other had a beer can. I glanced at the pickings: ten pairs of running shoes, an enormous teddy bear, three table lamps, and a set of five tumbler glasses etched with flowers. All had seen better days quite some time ago.

The concentration of hostels on the eastern edge of the park is inhabited by hard to reach and to serve men. This is, poor men with mental health issues who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. They hang around on the steps of the community centre or sit on the low wall sunning themselves.

The shrubs in the park were a good cover for street transactions such as beatings, and the buying and selling of drugs and bodies.

I cut diagonally across the park. The path ahead was clear. I ignored it, seduced by a footpath heading towards a low hedge of shrubs on my left. The community garden was a diamond in the muck. A Black woman squatted down tenderly weeding her vegetable patch already fat with kale, lettuce and sunflowers. A white woman sprinkled mulch over her vegetable bed. Next to her a Chinese woman fussed over the bok choy and snow peas.

The land sloped away from the allotment. The dip is all that remains of Taddle Creek. The spring once meandered its way through Moss Park on its journey down to the lake. As the city expanded the creek became an open sewer for horse and human shit.

Victorian factories added to the effluent, dumping their waste directly into the stream. Diseases followed the shit and the chemicals. To deal with the mess, the city buried the stream. The dip is always the last place to dry out after the snow and the rains. The damp patch is a ghostly echo of the buried creek.

By the 1960s the factories were derelict. They were demolished and replaced by social housing apartment blocks. Then more social housing. And then the hostels. Just a fifteen minute walk, east of the Eaton Centre, was the largest concentration of public housing in Toronto. Within a decade Moss Park was a byword for poverty, drugs and prostitution.

Cars cruised the street picking up rent boys in their high heels and fake fur coats.

Moss Park is in a transitional phase in its history. Gentrification is already fingering the fabric of the park. The new community centre, geared towards the gay and lesbian community, and a stack of condos will speed up the process. I think it is a good thing.

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

Cherry Blossoms in High Park

The cherry blossoms danced in High Park. The clusters of small flowers, white on the outside and pink at the core, did the samba in the spring sunshine. A swathe of cherry trees lined the bank of the stream. I have ran, cycled and skied near them for more than two decades. Most of those times a minority of Black and other people of colour were in the park.

It is different at cherry blossom time. High Park bloomed with East Asians. It was a warm spring day and so families picnicked under the trees. Other people snapped thousands of photographs against the backdrop of the blooming trees. Young couples celebrated their love, or at least the daydream of perfect love, under the lucky buds. Happiness is fleeting like the flowers. One must cherish it, before it too fades.

The Sakura cherry trees were a gift from the people of Tokyo. It was a thank you note to Toronto, for accepting the Japanese-Canadian who were relocated to the city during and after World War II. Relocation. Such a nice, neutral word to cover up surviving the internment camps.

Japanese-Canadians were not Canadian enough during the war. Declared enemies of the state, they were stripped of their assets – homes, shops, fishing boats – and banished to the interior of the country. Far away from their lives on the west coast.

They were branded as the ‘yellow peril.’ It was an old label hurled at Japanese-Canadians since they first arrived in the country as miners in the 1870s, chasing the dream of digging up a fortune in the Gold Rush. On the west coast anti-Japanese protests and sentiments were as common as the maple leaf. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, merely ignited a long smouldering fire.

We climbed up the hillock and looked down into the valley. The crowd was the indifferent to our group of six Black people savouring the delight of the cherry trees. The sun reflected off the forest of apartments in the distance. My eyes drifted to the pond, to the budding maple and oak trees. They once again settled on the cherry trees.

During the war Japanese-Canadian families were split up and sent to different camps. Ghost towns in the interior were resurrected: they had no schools, electricity or running water. Isolated in these towns, Japanese-Canadians grew thin on a diet of racism, dislocation and dispossession.

The men were forced to work as lumberjacks, road crews or on sugar-beet farms. They did hard labour for a dreg of wages. The internment camps were designed to be self-sufficient. Meaning that the government forced the Japanese-Canadians to pay for their own imprisonment.

German and Italian Canadians were not locked up in internment or prisoner-of-war camps. Their white skins was sufficient proof of their loyalty. After the war, thousands of Japanese-Canadians were stripped of their birthright as citizens. They were forcibly deported to a country they never knew. No Germans nor Italians were deported. Their white skins was sufficient proof of citizenship.

The redress came 50 years later. In 1988 the Canadian government apologised for its harsh treatment of its own citizens. It said that racial profiling was a mistake of the past. The Black community does not agree with that statement.

We strolled down the hillock and arrived at Grenadier Pond. Children scampered near the bank feeding the mallards, geese and swans. The grove of cherry blossoms made me smile. Spring is here they jived in the breeze. Some people go to a temple, church or synagogue to celebrate the rebirth of life. My sacred place is outdoors. Among the lilies of the field and the cherry trees, I find my joy.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

John Muir: Trekking in Slavery Lands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sailing on a Half Moon

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