The pencil sharpener at the edge of the universe

July 14, 2019


Screen shot 2019-07-14 at 9.46.11 PMThe Madoc Thrift Store is a place I like. It’s a vast emporium: two stories high, it sits proudly on Durham Street, the main drag in Madoc. Push open the heavy wood-framed, glass front door and you enter a railroad-car shaped shop, that runs way down from the glassware and china at the front, through to the clothing at the back. Upstairs is more stuff. I always check out the cassette section, next to the board games/puzzles section and hard by the book/CD shelves. I’ve found Elton John and Wham! and the soundtrack of Pretty in Pink. Cassettes cost 50¢. I also equipped myself for cross-country skiing, with skis, bindings, poles and boots, for $10. One time a woman named Shirley, who sits sometimes at a desk upstairs, scrawled down my name and phone number on a rumpled piece of paper and promised to call me when a teapot came in. And she did. Continue reading


June 13, 2019

Screen shot 2019-06-13 at 10.48.32 PMI didn’t attend my graduation from McGill, 35 years ago. I had a kind of a bad attitude towards higher education at the time.

This time, as I graduated in June with a Master of Forest Conservation from the University of Toronto, I decided to show up.

Morning broke dark and rainy. I had to get to campus early to pick up my gown and hood. My wife and daughter had tickets to Convocation Hall and would meet me after the ceremony.

I set out with two transit tokens in my pocket, intending, I thought, to ride the streetcar. But then as I walked along College Street, heading east, I just started to enjoy the rain. Fitting, I thought, that I sheltered myself with a National Post umbrella; the National Post buyout helped pay for my graduate degree. Continue reading


June 10, 2019

Screen shot 2019-06-10 at 8.03.56 PMThe other day I had to rent a car. I work a bit these days with Forests Ontario. We organized a series of tree planting events. I volunteered to go help people plant trees in Waterloo on Saturday, June 8, in partnership with the Grand River Conservation Authority.

I asked for the smallest possible car, and so they rented me a bright-red Chevrolet Spark with, randomly, Quebec plates. Friday evening I had to pick up the car in the P3 basement of Simcoe Place, an office tower near Union Station. Everything went fine until I got behind the wheel, turned on the ignition and attempted to depart the parking garage.

I wound my way up to p1, and then I stopped. Several times I just shut of the ignition, because the line of cars stood parked.

I only figured out the cause of the holdup when I finally inched onto Front Street. Fans streamed eastward toward the hockey/basketball arena. They planned to gather in a makeshift paved holding pen known as “Jurassic Park,” to cheer on the Raptors. The Raptors were not even in town. The game would start several hours later, in Oakland, Calif. Continue reading


May 12, 2019

Screen shot 2019-05-12 at 2.02.12 PMIn season, during the morning rush hour, a clump of bicycles tends to form on the west side of Bathurst St., in front of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in what’s known as Portugal Square. The cyclists wait for the light to change on Bathurst so they can jump onto the west end of the separated bike path, heading east into downtown.

That’s where I bumped into Gus. Gus and I coached our sons in soccer with the Toronto Soccer Club a few years ago. After an undefeated season we lost a heartbreaker 1-0 in the final.

Gus is a tough, compact guy who grew up in Little Portugal, a place where the kids often graduate from a low-slung Honda Civic with tinted windows to a Ford F150 pickup truck. I never expected to see Gus on a bicycle.

The bike path isn’t a great place for conversation. It’s actually incredibly competitive; it feels a bit like the 401 for cyclists. We chatted as best we could. The World According to Gus ended up helping me to look at my cycling self in the mirror, and admit to myself that I am not always the most thoughtful cyclist. Gus, you see, is a bit of self-loathing cycist. Continue reading

Save the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto

May 5, 2019


IMG_0429-1024x768The University of Toronto is in the final stages of a plan to get rid of its Faculty of Forestry and move forestry staff, faculty, students and programs into the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design as of July this year. A news release from the university says that, “The proposal would go through the governance process beginning on May 9.”

The abolition of the Faculty of Forestry as a standalone faculty is one of the worst ideas in the long history of the University of Toronto. In an era of climate change, forests are the key to sustaining life on earth. Forests sequester carbon, emit oxygen, filter precipitation, absorb rain and protect ecosystems from erosion. We need forests. The U of T should show pride in its Faculty of Forestry, and invest in it.

The Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto has a proud history. The faculty opened its doors in 1907, making it the oldest forestry faculty in Canada. Plaques displayed in the Earth Sciences Centre attest to the men of the faculty who gave their lives in World War I and World War II. Continue reading

Sayonara, ES4001

April 5, 2019

Screen shot 2019-04-05 at 8.13.11 AMIt’s 4:25 p.m. on a sunny Thursday and I am listening to Julien talk about altitudinal tree line shifts. I can see the sun on the university rooftops, out the big circular windows  that look south. I see the top of the Earth Sciences library and beyond it, the CN Tower.

I am in the last half-hour of my 20 month stint as a candidate for a Master of Forest Conservation. Will I miss this? Young women in front of me discussed, at the break, the relative merits of Uggs and Blundstones ( in Forestry, all the women, and most of the men, wear Blundstones). I have spent a lot of time on the hard blue plastic chairs with stainless steel tube frames in Earth Sciences room 4001. I have wondered over time why we can’t have wooden chairs and wooden tables in the frickin’ Faculty of Forestry. Is that too much to ask? Continue reading

Ode to spring in Canada (Vive le printemps)

March 25, 2019

Screen shot 2019-03-25 at 8.31.17 AMWill spring ever come?

I am not sure that spring is late this year, actually. It’s probably right on time. Perhaps with global warming we’ve become conditioned to the arrival of spring earlier than it should. Anyway, we’ve had a crisp month of March.

Probably I am just impatient because I am slightly obsessed with my primitive yet enthusiastic effort to boil some maple syrup at our little sugar bush near Madoc, Ont., about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa.

Is it too much to ask to just have a week or so of cold nights and warm days, so that, when I arrive at my sugar bush the buckets are brimming with sap? Apparently, yes.

Continue reading

Snow job

January 29, 2019

Screen shot 2019-01-29 at 9.00.00 PMToronto is a nice place in the snow.

The storm that hit Toronto Monday was epic by Toronto standards, and by morning about 30 centimetres had fallen. Torontonians are an entitled lot, zipping around as they do in their Lexus and BMW and Mercedes cars and SUVs, but a big old wallop of snow renders a lot of these people pretty helpless. It slows them down, and evens things out a bit.

We live on a corner lot; municipal bylaws require homeowners to shovel their sidewalk, and so we end up with about 40 metres of sidewalk to clear off. My son and I started shoveling in the evening, and shoveled about every two hours, but the snow quickly erased our work. By morning I had to shovel it all over again.

But before I started I noticed a young man who parks his white delivery van by the neighbour’s house across the street. He backed up, trying to leave for the day, and lodged his truck in deep snow. His wheels spun helplessly. He got out a long pole with a squeegee blade and started trying to dig himself out, and I just felt bad so I went over, and then Frits came out as well, and we lent the truck driver a third shovel, and we dug him out. Continue reading

The Treasure Chest

January 7, 2019

Screen shot 2019-01-07 at 5.55.00 PMA few years ago the National Post published my five-part series about my childhood and my father’s stint in state prison in California. I could not have written the stories without a remarkable trove of correspondence that my father let me read, not just letter to him but also letters from him in prison and out; letters that somehow ended up back in his hands. I started imagining what else might lie in his “archives;” specifically, I wondered what records he kept of the early 1970s, when he acted as a minor svengali/messiah, or perhaps the metaphor I seek is pied piper, enticing droves of young people to join him on first one farm and then another in the Ottawa valley for two summer craft faire hippie communes that he called “the Renaissance Faire.” I spent the summer of 1972 and the summer of 1973 at these farms. Continue reading

Finders keepers

December 4, 2018

Screen shot 2018-12-04 at 8.32.14 AMHe knelt in the muddy grass, digging intently. My mind being on forestry these days, at first I thought maybe he was gathering soil samples. But that seemed a random thing to be doing on a cold Saturday morning in Dufferin Grove Park.
Then I noticed a black metal detector lying next to him.
I threw the frisbee for Coco and then the gentleman stood up. He’d heard a ping from his metal detector and was digging for coins. But he gave up on that hole.
“Water pipe,” he said.
He was wiry, with a lined, strong face, lots of teeth, and wore construction knee pads over his dirty jeans. Along with the 2-metre metal detector he wore a small orange portable detector, the length of a serving spoon, in a sheath on his belt, and dug with a thin sharp garden trowel. Alex, his name was, and he said he’d made a hobby of metal detection for many years. He spoke with a thick accent which at first I guessed was Russian. Continue reading