Evergreen Trees are the Stars of Winter

Winter belongs to the evergreen trees. No longer overshadowed by their broadleaf siblings, the conifers get my full attention. I spent a sunny hour collecting cones and fallen twigs off the trees. I am doing so because it is fun, and as I am trying to improve my knowledge of nature. To name a thing is to know it.

Down the road, near the community centre, I picked up a cone from under a strand of trees at the side of an apartment building. Around the corner I passed a slim woman advertising herself for rent. She wore track pants, a crop top, and a fake fur jacket. Her exposed belly was the colour of raw chicken. Her eyes were as a wild as a storm.

My next collection was from a row of cedar trees screening a Victorian town-house. Delicate filigree twigs littered the ground. An icy breeze ruffled the trees. A dusting of snowflakes swirled about, I held my head back and caught a few on my tongue. As I stooped to pick up a pretty twig, a dog and its walker came by. The mahogany tinted man gave me an odd look, and then crossed the road. A pity. His skin was ripe for polishing.

A small park was opposite the town-houses. I cut across it and picked up more evergreen ephemera. The park was empty of humans. Squirrels scampered away and one screeched at me. I told it I was taking only one pine cone, there was enough there to see it through the winter.

Back at home, I spread my treasures on the dining room table and opened by field guide to trees. I examined them as jazz played on the radio, and I sipped chai tea and nibbled fresh dates, cheese and olives.

The first evergreen twig was from a pine tree. The needles were as long as the palm of my hand. A bunch of them whorled around a central stem. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the needles were in pairs, joined at the tip where they attached to the stem. About fifteen of these pairs were on each stem. Needles in pairs are the trademark of red pine, a native Canadian tree. The needles can be woven to make small and beautiful baskets. The scales on the cone were long, hard and woody.

The cone from the small park came from a spruce tree. It was beige, cylindrical and as long as my ring finger. The scales on the cone were short, flexible and each ended in a rounded triangular tip. The twig had a central stem with small branches on either side. The tip looked like the pattern left by bird tracks in the snow – one big claw with two small claws angled to the side. Short flat needles stuck out from each side of the twig.

There was a bunch of brown nobs on the cedar twig, each about the size of my finger tip. They turned out to be the cones of the tree. I was surprised that I had never noticed them before. The tiny cones mean it was an eastern white cedar, a native Canadian tree.

Snow swirled about outside. Another storm was vomiting whiteness over the city’s street. Warm and safe inside, I turned the cones over in my hand.


Should Dogs Run Free in Parks?

I always find and carry a big stick with me on my hikes. It’s for whacking any dogs that get too close. Yes I know dogs are friendly, but so were the two that bit me.

As I walked through Cedarvale Ravine, a big shaggy dog ran besides its owner. I think it was poodle crossed with a St. Bernard. The dog that is. It weighed as much as I did. They were running up the slope as I was descending it. The owner saw the stick and my eyeing of the dog. He put the pet on his far side and gripped its collar long before we were close. I smiled and said thanks as we passed each other. I watched them disappear at the top of the hill, the dog now free to roam.

My next dog encounter for the month happened on the nature trails in High Park. Something scampered through the undergrowth. It was too big, noisy and fast to be a squirrel. The deep and steep valley was quiet on the Friday afternoon. The morning’s rain had created a lot of mud which seemed to have put off the usual number of dog walkers. I clutched my stick.

The two women behind me were busy talking. A dog shot out of the bush, spun in mid-air and came towards me. I stopped and raised my whacker.

“Charlie! Charlie, come here now,” one of the women shouted.

The terrier looked at the owner, looked at me, and seemed unsure what to do. I banged the stick on the ground. The dog fled through the bushes and back to its owner. I waited.

“He’s just being friendly. He doesn’t bite,” said the woman. She spat the words out. Her eyes were as hard as a rock.

“So was the last dog that bit me,” I said. “It’s not going to happen again.”

She put the dog on a tight leash. I let them walk ahead and then took the next fork in the trail. I hate it when my walks becomes stressful due to two-legged creatures. Especially ones in green coats and matching Wellington boots.

My third dog encounter for the month, and here I am only talking about the most memorable ones, was in the Don Valley Brickworks ravine. It was like watching a scene from a film. A Chinese family were out exploring the trails. At the edge of the frame two large golden labradors were chasing each other. The dogs ran towards the children. One kid jumped back into the stroller. The other ran towards the dad who picked him up, and placed him on his shoulders. The first dog was about four body-lengths away from the stroller and from me.

I grasped my stick and hoisted it. Which one would I whack first?

A white girl and a boy ran up, grabbed the dogs, and hugged them. The girl told the Chinese family that the dog was just being friendly. Their parents approached, their smile and embarrassed apologies met my stick and my cold eyes. They put the dogs on the leash. The Chinese family and I exchanged the rolling of the eyes as we passed each other.

Dogs need to run free, following scents and their instincts. They can run as far and as fast as they like, as long as it is in the dog off-leash area. Outside of that space they will be smacked if they get too close to me.

I actually like dogs and I am planning on getting a mutt at some point. In public my dog will always be leashed. People have the right to walk in the woods without fear of being bitten by a ‘friendly’ dog.

Black History Walks Toronto

This Is My Climate Change

There are still a few people out there who don’t believe that the climate is changing. And it is not because they are stupid. In fact they are among the most rich, powerful and educated of people. They work very hard to disparage scientist working on climate change, and to spread fake news denying that it is happening. More on this later.

This is what climate change looks like in my neighbourhood. Back in the spring the annual Paddle the Don canoe festival was cancelled. The spring floods were at record levels making the river too fast and dangerous.

A few weeks later I led a 15km hike in the Beaches area of the city. The final leg of the hike was along the boardwalk. At least that was the plan. On the day of the hike ten foot waves smashed against the boardwalk. Sections of the beach were closed and sandbagged to stop the land from disappearing. Toronto had not seen such furious storms in almost a century. We watched in awe as Mother Nature unleashed her power, tumbling deck chairs and planks as if they were mere pebbles.

My hiking club cancelled its annual Thursday evening walks over at Toronto Islands in the summer. We could not get there as the ferries were not running. The Island’s docks were flooded. The Islands remained closed until late summer, waiting for the water and the excess mosquitos to retreat.

The rest of the summer was marvelous. Lots of sunshine and blue-sky days. However, the summer was still here in the autumn. In fact September was hotter than August, some days the temperature was double the normal range.

Winter is supposed to be around the corner. The ski industry is praying that it will actually snow this year. In the last few years, the white stuff has been unpredictable. If there are no flakes in the city, people assume that there are none on the ski trails and slopes as well. So they don’t go.

And if they did go, there was a good chance that they would be skiing on man-made snow. Yes, there are machines that make snow. With the weather so unpredictable the snow making machines are doing a great business.

This climate change is caused by us humans.

In Canada our love of the good life – big cars, big houses and enough food to throw away – comes at a huge environmental cost. The more oil we burn and forests we cut down, the warmer the planet gets and the more variable the weather. Things are so unpredictable that a few more Hurricane Hazels might be in the wings.

There are ecological limits to life Earth. We cannot go on pretending that humans are so exceptional that the laws of nature don’t apply to us as well.

We know what the issues are, we know we have to act, but we do nothing. It seems we would rather wait for the apocalypse than take action to avoid it. The dinosaurs had no choice. Their exit from the planet really came from the heavens above. Ours will be from our own hands.

Some pretty powerful interests want to keep it that way. Millionaires want to continue making their millions. When climate change gets really bad they think they can buy their way out of it. They have already bought the politicians who should be taking action. Mother Nature can’t be bought. We can act now or wait for more floods, wildfires and hurricanes to pay us a visit.

Sailing on a Half Moon


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.


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