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


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


Fried Plantain and the African Diaspora

It started off with the fried plantain. Seven of us – all Black – sat around a table in a Jamaican café discussing the joy, and for some the horror, of eating the delicacy.

The café is the end spot of my Black History Walks in Toronto. Two women from the southern USA, Mississippi and Alabama, I think, were mystified about the deliciousness of eating ripe fried plantain. It was not part of their southern cuisine.

Plantain is one of those foods that shows the history of the African Diaspora. Its story is less well known compared to that of say sugar, cotton and tobacco. For starters, there is often confusion about what exactly a plantain is and its relation to bananas. In grocery stores I have seen plantains labeled as cooking bananas or plantain bananas. The two belong to the same Musa species. Scientifically there is little difference between them. Both are old crops in the human ladder that were domesticated eons ago.

The Musa species is native to Papua New Guinea and has spread throughout the tropics. The plant reached West Africa about 4,000 years ago and from there to the rest of the continent. How it reached West Africa hints at forgotten pre-historic trade routes between Africa and Asia.

Culturally there is a huge difference between how plantain and bananas are consumed. Plantains are generally bigger, starchier and less sweet than bananas. Whether ripe or green, plantains are cooked before they are eaten.

To me, fried plantain is sweet and soft with a delicate flavour. To one of the Americans it was simply mushy, sticky and bland. She had tried eating several times. This time, she pursed her lips, and declined.

Of the seven Black people around the table, by nationality, there were three Canadians and four Americans. If arranged in a Venn diagram, the biggest overlap was the four people with Caribbean heritage, two each from the Canadian and American circles.

Fried plantain was comfort food to the Caribbean sub-group, who all knew it as a delicious snack or as a side dish to lunch or dinner.

And there was another subdivision in the group. This time within the Caribbean sub-group, as it contained people from Guyana, Jamaica and Costa Rica. Three spoke English as their mother tongue, while the Costa Rican spoke Spanish. As a member of the Afro-Latino community in the USA, he was a minority several times over. He was tired of explaining that he was Black and Latino. The twin pillars of his heritage were as indivisible as the heart.

Fried plantain was not part of the African Canadian woman’s cooking culture. She got to know it when she moved to Toronto and started hanging out with new Caribbean friends. Her family came to Canada over two centuries ago. They were part of the flood of refugees who fled the USA due to the American Revolution. These Loyalist scorned independence and wanted to continue living in a colony that was loyal to the British royals.

She did not know if her ancestors came as slaves – part of the property or the white Loyalists. Or if they came freed – the prize for serving on the British side during the revolutionary war.

The Black Loyalists stronghold was Africville, Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. The community thrived in the town until the 1960s. Then it was bulldozed. Slum clearance according to the official rationale. The attempt to make the Black community disappear is part of the long tradition of anti-Black racism in Canada.

Like all the people around our table, plantain is not indigenous to the Americas or the Caribbean. The African staple sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the same slave ships. The crop was easy to grow, high in starch and provided energy to those worked by the whip.

Bananas are eaten all over the world. Plantain has a more limited culinary appeal. The largest plantain eaters are still in Africa, in Nigeria, Rwanda and the Congo.

I take green or semi-ripe plantains with me on camping trips. The vegetable is easy to carry, does not bruise easily and won’t spoil. As it ripens the plantain becomes sweeter. On camping trips I serve it sliced and fried as a starter for dinner. With lots of explanations on what it is and how to eat it. Plantain is also delicious when roasted, boiled or mashed and served with a rich, thick and spicy stew.

Fried plantain. A gorgeous snack that encapsulates the history and cooking cultures of the African Diaspora. Around the café table, with reggae playing in the background, it sparked many discussions on what it means to be Black in America and in Canada.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Photo credit: Homemade Zagat


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


10 Things Tourists Notice About Toronto

When I started the Black History Walks in Toronto, I assumed that my clients would be older, come dressed in linen and sun hats, and of course, wear sensible walking shoes. And most would be white.

My theory was based on the people that I see on heritage walks in the city. I stand out in these crowds of history buffs as I am younger and Black.

Well, my assumptions were plain wrong. I have had every ethnic group on the Black History Walks. There were Black people and white people. And Latinos, Arabs and Asians. To my surprise about a third of the people on the walks are Canadians, some coming from the suburbs of Toronto.

The one thing my clients have in common is a curiosity about Black history in Toronto. Most thought there was little. In the walk, we talk about an African Canadian history that goes back to 1600s, and specifically in Toronto, to 1796 when the modern city was founded on Indigenous land.

As part of the walk, I ask people what are the things that they notice about Toronto. Some of their answers were unexpected. Here are ten of the memorable ones.

1. Few Police Cars. An African American student was surprised that there were so few police cars on Toronto’s streets. In his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, police cars are on every intersection. But only in the Black areas of the city. He feels like he lives in a garrison. He was amazed that stores in Toronto accepted his credit card, without asking for other identification like his driver’s license and phone number.

2. Colonial Legacy. A woman from South Korea found it easy to move around city. The pattern of street names – King, Queen, Adelaide and so on – were the same in her travels in Australia and New Zealand. The British colonial legacy was alive in the former colonies.

3. Green City. A white woman from suburban Oakville was astonished that the city centre was so green. She had never noticed the trees in all her years of driving through Toronto. The walk goes by a ravine and several large parks.

4. Diverse City Centre. A French woman was astonished that the city centre was so multicultural. In Paris, Black people and immigrants live in the suburbs, cut off from the opportunities and vibrancy of city life. The woman now lived in a small city in Ireland. She had left France as was tired of being passed over for promotion. Her education was fine. Her performance was fine. Her skin was not.

5. Pawn Shops. The Latino couple from New York noticed the lack of pawn shop, beer stores and cheque cashing shops as we passed a sketchy area of the walk. These businesses line the streets in poor areas of their city.

6. Fearless after the Terror. A Black French woman jaywalked across the streets. She ignored my caution to wait with the rest of the group for the cross walk signal. She was dining with friends when the terrorist attacked the restaurant in Paris. She spent six hours locked inside and hiding under the tables, unsure if she would live or die. Nothing scared her after that night.

7. Blacks in the City. A student from Vancouver was astonished that so many Black people live in Toronto. Her home city is racially segregated into Chinese, South Asian and White areas. And the groups rarely mix. She felt invisible as a South Asian walking around Toronto. She liked that feeling.

8. Grave Matters. The African American friends were amazed that the graves were in the ground. In New Orleans tombs are above ground, so that they don’t float to the surface in the frequent rains and floods. Or wash up on the streets, half-rotting, like they did in Hurricane Katrina.

9. Rude Canadians. A British woman had just finished her master’s degree in Toronto. She was fed up with people asking her where she was really from. Canadians could not seem to get their heads around that Black people lived in England too.

10. Less is Better. “I feel less Black in Toronto. Nobody is looking at me and expecting trouble.” This was from an African American man, on a long weekend break from Los Angeles.

The Black History Walks are more popular than I expected. They won’t make me rich, but they supplement my tiny PhD scholarship. The walks are a good indicator of the thirst for a more inclusive history of Toronto. Black people have lived in the city from its very birth.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London