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

Where You Sit and What it Says About You

Where do you sit in the classroom? In school I always sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher. The first time I entered a PhD classroom I chose my seat well – the one in the side row at the back, where I was least likely to catch the professor’s eyes.

I preferred it when someone was on either side of me. It was a chance to get to know new faces, and more importantly, they were a good buffer between me and the professor. If I sank low enough in the chair my sidekicks hid me from her view.

I tried to get the same seat each week. It was a familiar and safe spot.

In another class I switched seats each week, partly to see if it made a difference and partly just to meet new people. Well, some students were rather annoyed by this. It seemed as if particular chairs were reserved in their name, in ink that only they could see, and that I had pinched it. It got me thinking why they were so upset and why I was more comfortable sitting in the same spot in class each week.

The answer lies in status quo bias. According to psychologists it is the human tendency to prefer things, ideas, people or positions that are familiar versus trying something new. Change carries risks and takes mental energy. Adhering to the status quo is so much easier. In my grandmother’s words it is better to stick to the devil you know than the one you don’t know.

The status quo bias seems to be our default position in a whole range of situations. It certainly is so when it comes to choosing an Internet provider. The current one is expensive. A month ago the condo sent out a flyer encouraging all to sign up with a cheaper company. The front desk staff said half of the residents had done so, and were pleased with the result. I had thrown away the flyer. With so many things on my plate and the stress of the PhD, I did not have the energy to make the switch even though it was considerably cheaper. This morning I promised the front desk guy I will switch before the month is out. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Black people don’t do outdoors. This seems to be another status quo bias. For a whole ton of reasons we see the outdoors as a white space where we are out of place. I canvassed my Black meet up group to see who would like to try camping for next year. Most of them giggled, shook their head and said why on earth would they want to do that? A few were interested. It is camping for one night only. On a site with flush toilets and showers. It is moot how many will actually come.

Status quo bias is inherently conservative, but it can be challenged, and hence changed. If there was more advertising showing Black people in the outdoors it would change the perception that we don’t belong.

The keeners in my PhD class were spread all around the room. I expected them to bunch up at the front. Where one sits does not does not seems to stereotype the chatterers, at least for graduate students. Back in high school the front rows were reserved for the nerds, keeners and talkers. The middle rows were for the masses. The slackers, the clowns and the daydreamers preferred the back rows.

Sitting up front has no effects on grades according to research. It is just as well. I like my seat on the far side in the back of the classroom. And yes I do get annoyed if someone snags it before I get to class.

A Black View on Climate Change

An opera about Black people, climate change and dub poetry. Lukumi is a fascinating show on so many levels. In the first place it puts Black people at the centre of the environmental debate.

Look at the conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental movements, and all one sees is a river of white faces. It is easy to assume from the images that there are no Black people in Canada. Lukumi puts the colour back into the environmental debates.

Starring D’bi Young as Lukumi, the opera is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have destroyed nearly everything. Lukumi, a reluctant warrior-goddess, must journey to the depths of the Earth to find the roots of the tree of life. It might be too late, but a seed from this tree could heal the planet.

Lukumi must conquer her own doubts, travel through a nucleared landscape and convince other animals to help her. And she must battle the black skins in the white masks. These are the soldiers hunting for bleeders, the few women who are still fertile, to restock the nuclear-ruined population.

The opera is also a journey through Black music. The live band shifts from African drumming, to gospel and to jazz. The melody and reggae beats of dub poetry weaves the whole thing together. The large cast are excellent singers. The music is co-composed by Waleed Abdulhamid and D’bi Young.

The opera is not all bleak. Humour comes from Daniel Ellis, as Anancy, a versifier, shape-shifter and unreliable giver of wisdom. The trickster admits that his words have to rhyme, even if it means that half the time the sense is left out. The sound-bite is what matters.

Lukumi is produced by Watah Theatre. The professional company ‘specialises in producing political theatre from a radical queer Black feminist lens.’ The founder is D’Bi Young.

Lukumi mixes African, Caribbean and Indigenous myths to create something uniquely Canadian. It is not the official myth of Canada as a happy land of multicultural people. Rather, the opera exposes how pollution, mining and fracking disproportionally affects Indigenous people in Canada. The opera is a call for environmental and social justice. It we don’t clean up the mess, in the end humans won’t matter. We will be no more.

The opera is at the Tarragon Theatre September 22-October 14, 2017.

Black History Walks Toronto

Hiking in Jamaica

The other side of Jamaica includes forests, mountains and limestone valleys. There is more to Jamaica than just miles of white sandy beaches. On this adventure tour we will hike the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island – the Blue and John Crow Mountains. We will watch the sunrise from the peak (2,300 m or 7,500 ft.).

This adventure tour is part of my Daydream Black History Tours around the around the world. They combine the best of adventure, travel and history – all from our unique Black perspective. The trips are a daydream right now. Let’s see if we can turn them into reality.

On the Jamaica tour we will also hike in the footsteps of the Maroons. The escaped slaves hid in their stronghold in the Cockpit Country. We will follow them into the challenging karst limestone hills and valleys.

In between hikes, there will time to relax on the beach, go on a river safari in the mangrove swamps, and to explore the museums and art galleries in Kingston, the island’s capital.

Tour Highlights

  • Hiking the forests of the Blue Mountains.
  • Hiking the limestone hills and valley of the Cockpit Country.
  • Boat safari on the Black River to see the crocodiles in the mangrove swamps. Beach.
  • Explore the culture and history of Kingston.

Daily Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrive in Montego Bay

Day 2 – Troy Trail hike

Day 3 – Quick Step Trail hike

Day 4 – Quick Step Trail hike

Day 5 – Black River safari and beach

Day 6 – Kingston culture tour (museum, plantation Great House, art gallery, Emancipation Park)

Day 7 – Blue Mountains hike

Day 8 – Blue Mountains Peak sun rise hike

Day 9 – Kingston culture tour and return to Montego Bay

Day 10 – Depart from Montego Bay

Facts File

  • 10 day land tour.
  • Minimum 4 and maximum 16 participants.
  • All meals and accommodation included.
  • All hikes lead by experienced and certified local guides.
  • Start and end in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
  • Comfort level – must be able to hike for about six hours each day.
  • Accommodation – comfortable hotels, guest house and lodge.
  • Departure – August 2018.

Who wants to come with me on this daydream trip? Let’s see if we can make it real.

Black History Walks Toronto

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