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

A Hike in the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Spring Hike in Algonquin Park

“Free the nipple. That’s what we should call our movement,” he said, removing his t-shirt. The other men stripped too. The topless trio posed on the bridge as we snapped their photograph. Laughter rumbled in my belly.

The spring sun was so hot that most of us hiked in short-sleeves. Yet snow crunched under our crampons. In the sunlight it was already melting, but in the shade we hiked on thick sheets of white ice. We were on the Track and Tower trail, an easy hike in Algonquin Park. Part of it ran along an abandoned railway bed from the 1950s when passenger trains chugged through the park.

The trail was like a clear tunnel in the forest. On either side a wall of pine trees provided dark and shade. Maple and birch trees intermixed among the evergreens. They were still naked, their leaf buds peeking out, getting ready for their spring show.

Snow and ice covered the lakes and most of the marshes. Vast sheets of whiteness stretched in all directions. It looked as smooth as an enormous ice rink, where giants could skate to the end of the horizon.

Like love, the snow was not always solid. Every few yards one foot plunged calf-deep into the pale treachery. Sometimes it came up wet. Under the white blanket, spring’s melt-water was slowly eating away at winter’s stronghold.

In Toronto, four hours to the south, spring had already flaunted her finest greenery. Some forty members of my outdoors club had left the city on our annual spring hiking trip to Algonquin Park.

Half the group turned back on the trail after lunch. We continued for another hour or so. Our return route went up and down hills and valleys, clad in long patches of ice. Icers and poles were essential for keeping the balance as we scrambled over winter’s fading glory. I had no poles. My muscles grumbled at the extra work.

At last we reached the trail head in the parking lot. A moose drank the salty water from the ditch at the side of the highway. He looked healthy – his coat was smooth and patchless – though a skinny from the long winter.

The antlers, covered in  luxurious velvet-like hairs, were about a foot long, and grew out of the side of his head. In a few months they would be a magnificent multi-branched crown, used to brag to the moose world that this male was ready, healthy and in the mood to mate.

Female moose liked size. Male moose saw the antlers and thought twice about challenging the stud. But they had no choice – if they wanted the girl they had to fight to get her. Winner took all. Losers hoped they would be bigger next year. If they did not die in the battle.

The next day we went up the Beaver Trail, just across the road from the Wolf Den hostel. The dirt road was mostly used by hunters and fishermen who had lodges scattered along its length.

The trail ran uphill. My muscles were swearing so much that I had to take many breaks. We climbed up some 400 feet onto a ridge overlooking Beaver Lake. The trail ran close to the edge of the cliff. I kept away from it as my fear of heights kicked in. The view was fantastic – the ant-sized homes were mere dark spots in the vastness of the wilderness.

The climb down was just as hard due to the ice patches. We went slowly. We were not sure which patch of the snow would give out, plunging a foot down and possible twisting it on who-knows-what obstacles hidden under the layer of white duplicity.

After lunch, bellies full, but soul still hungry for nature, four of us went to Ragged Falls. The cascades were magnificent – the spring runoff had increased the volume of the river by about ten-fold. It crashed over steep, sharp rocks on its way to join another river some fifty feet below.

The roar of the falls was too much for me. I wandered away to a quiet pool above the cataracts. The signs warned it was not a swimming hole – the powerful and hidden currents would drag anyone over the edge.

The head of the waterfall was narrow. In the middle was a rock island. I remembered, in the summer clambering over to it for a better view from the top of the falls.  Today I did not – too much ice and not enough confidence.

The men scrambled over. From the bank I saw a woman in a bikini, on the rocks. The men said she was one of a trio of women, sunning and drinking beer. They were locals and the spot was a favourite for relaxing.

Too soon the weekend trip was over. My soul was refreshed. We would be back in a few months, this time for our annual autumn hike in Algonquin Park.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Hiking in the Hills of Jamaica

“I want to go hiking up in the hills,” I said.

“Oh my. What do you want to do that for?” said my cousin.

“Because it’s there. Because I like hills. Because the Maroons used the trails to escape slavery.”

“That’s work my girl. You’re on vacation. Why not just relax yourself by the beach? Watch the waves. Swim a little. Relax.”

“I am relax, but the hills are calling me.”

“So you want to walk in the hot, hot sun, just to get to the top of the hill? And then you walk back down again? My girl I won’t be doing that with you. No mam, I walk enough already. I’m not going to hot up myself and sweat up myself. That’s not fun.”

“It is for me. Who can come with me?”

“You best book a tourist trip. I’ll ask Mr. Thomas to check out the details.”

“I don’t want to do it that way. When I go hiking in Canada I am the only Black person in the group. I’m in Jamaica, I want to hike with a Jamaican group.”

“The only one I can think of is those English people them. After forty years in England they come back to Jamaica a bit different. Some say mad. They are the ones you see walking up and down in the hot sun for exercise. You know what they say about mad dogs and English men. Add the women too in Jamaica.”

“Come with me just for a bit. We won’t go far.”

“I’ll come only if we take a taxi drive. You can feast your eyes and your clothes won’t get sweaty. Better yet, let’s just go to the beach. That’s how we Jamaicans relax.”

Sailing on a Half Moon