May 3, 2022

On the weekend I dismantled a low wall I’d built of pressure-treated planks to retain our vegetable garden in our back yard, in Toronto. The wall had bowed out badly and looked ready to collapse. I thought about a trip to the lumberyard to buy new planks, but then I decided I’d rebuild with the material at hand. I pulled out the nails with a hammer and pounded them straight again. I backed out the screws with my Robertson screwdriver, my power drill being at the cottage.

All this effort with a manual screwdriver made me recall a strange period of my life when I became obsessed with building my own bed(s!) This pathology lasted a decade, off and on. Why, during university and long afterwards, every time I moved to a new apartment, did I go to the lumber yard to buy two-by-fours and plywood, and wood screws, and construct my own bed?

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Ukranians at the train station

March 8, 2022

My sister Marie-Josée Sheeks, a mother of four, lives in Budapest. Hungary shares a border with Ukraine; since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, Hungary has taken in close to 200,000 refugees from Ukraine. The other night my sister went to help out and sent this note to her siblings in Canada.

By Marie Josée Sheeks

I wanted to tell you about my evening. There are refugees coming in to the city via one of the train stations (it’s the one that was designed by Eiffel, the guy behind the Eiffel Tower). I’ve been meaning to go over and see if I can help.

So this afternoon/evening, I made a quick visit, because the big kids were out, and my younger sons were alone together, so I didn’t want to leave for too long.

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The suitcase

March 5, 2022

When Gunter Vierich escaped East Germany in 1949 or 1950 – he can’t quite remember which – he carried a small sack with very few possessions. He left his village near Leipzig and met a smuggler at the edge of a forest. In the night he and a few other East Germans threaded their way through the woods to the West. Gunter tells me this story while seated on his tractor seat, outside his home in Madoc Township, Ont., having paused in the job of cleaning snow around his house.

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Nice Ice

February 3, 2022

This thumb-sucker originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, Jan. 22, 2022

Canadians have a love-hate relationship with cold. The media bombard us with warnings about global warming and the cataclysm that will befall Earth unless we do something to stop warming the planet. Then, all winter weather reporters on the same TV and radio stations bemoan low temperatures and cheer warmer days.

I have the opposite outlook. Starting in December I study the thermometer outside the kitchen window every morning, praying to the gods for cold, so that the pond will freeze. “The pond” refers to Grenadier Pond, in fact a small lake. It’s a rare oasis of natural beauty in the heart of Toronto, stretching more than a kilometre through one of Toronto’s biggest parks, High Park, much of which was transferredinto city hands in 1873 by architect John Howard.

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December 20, 2021

There comes a time in the life of every sock when it’s time to say goodbye.

I have thrown away a lot of socks. Still, it feels odd when you put them in the trash. You’re like, “Can’t this be recycled or reused, somehow?”

During the pandemic I began to darn my socks. I am not sure exactly why. Part of it was that you just couldn’t walk into The Bay and buy a pair of socks. Everything was locked down. Where was I supposed to get socks?

Also there was that lingering sense of impending doom. “Maybe none of us will ever find work again. Thus we can’t afford socks. Thus I should darn my socks.”

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Puppy Love

November 5, 2021

My father could be relied on for the occasional bon mot. In 1994 National Public Radio sent me to cover the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, with Salt ‘n’ Peppa, Melissa Etheridge and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I ended up crowded on a farm with hundreds of thousands of young people. They slept in tents, lined up for bottled water and Pepsi (a sponsor) and wallowed unabashedly, or slid naked, through prodigious, glorious mud. My Doc Martens ended up so caked in clay that when I got home to Brooklyn I put them out to the curb. I told my father about all this.

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Woodland Walk ‘n’ Talk

September 10, 2021

My adventures in the forest continue. Over the summer our son shot a video in which I tell a bit about our place in Madoc, Ontario. Erica Dixon of the Ontario Woodlot Association edited the footage. The video should appear at the bottom of this post.

We shot most of this on a very hot day in August, which explains why Coco pants so much. Also, we filmed just as we were about to leave, and we completely forgot to use some bug spray. In the muggy woods the mosquitos devoured us. The camera shakes as Frits tries to keep them off him. It all adds to the drama.

Later in September the Ontario Woodlot Association will host a Woodland Walk ‘n’ Talk. Copy this link:

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Guest Post: Beautiful British Columbia?

September 7, 2021

My sister Noelle MacFarlane sent this note from her home in Clinton, B.C., by Canada Post. I asked for an electronic version to offer to you, dear reader. Please send any thoughts to peter.

The happy shouts of little boys jumping on their trampoline reached me as I sat in our living room one evening this July. They were joyously reunited with their favourite toy after a few days away. Only thing was, the air stung my eyes, invaded my nostrils, burned my throat; it must be the same for them. I was glad they could play, but couldn’t help thinking: If given the choice, this smoky place wasn’t where anyone should be living, not babies or kids, adults or seniors, breathing this bad air.

That wasn’t the BC dream. The dream was, and is, to live in a startlingly beautiful part of the world, a place of freedom and peace, of opportunity and prosperity, of limitless ways to enjoy life.

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Aux Cantons

July 29, 2021

I pulled over next to the Ultramar fuel pumps in Ayer’s Cliff, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the other day, to top up the oil in our car. Just then a big truck pulled up and the driver made hand gestures from his cab to say, ‘Hey, can you move, because I need to pull in here.” I hadn’t noticed the trucks-only diesel pumps behind the kiosk.

I moved. He pulled in. It was a milk truck: a gleaming stainless steel tank the length of several boxcars. I went over and chatted with the guy. He hauls milk from the farms in the Townships to the dairies in Montreal. His truck holds 37,000 litres of milk.

Let me say this: they have big milk trucks in Quebec.

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June 7, 2021

I’ve been studying forestry for awhile now. I even write managed forest plans and I am a registered professional forester in training.

I graduated from the University of Toronto with a Master of Forest Conservation, with straight As. But I learned the other day that I have little ability in one basic detail of forestry: how to cut down a tree.

In our silviculture class with Dr. Sean Thomas, we visited a red pine plantation in Durham region, east of Toronto. For over a century foresters have prescribed red pine as a tree that will jump-start conversion of marginal farmland back into woodland. So there are a heck of a lot of these red pine plantations around, and the province has lots of material online about how to thin the plantations. I measured the trees and wrote a paper with a simple prescription: thin the forest.

A forest resembles a carrot patch. You plant a whole bunch of seeds. After awhile you have to thin some out so the rest will grow big.

Red pine needs thinning after about 25 years. The Ontario Extension Note, Managing Red Pine Plantations, reads, “Young trees with adequate spacing develop more foliage and thicker branches than crowded trees….Depending on the original spacing, approximately 30 per cent of the stems should be removed in the first thinning.”

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