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

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

Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon

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