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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The joys of snow and syrup

March 31, 2021

Sugaring off, for me, heralds spring: Winter comes to an end. The days lengthen. Sap rises in the maples to reach the branches, to help the buds burst into leaf. As the sap heads up the trunks of the sugar maple trees, we sneak some sap to boil for syrup.

I welcome spring as much as anyone. Still, when it comes to collecting sap, snow can be your best friend, at least when you use technology as primitive as mine.

During my childhood in western Quebec, we gathered sap in buckets and poured the sap into a big plastic tub lashed to the drawbar on our old Massey-Ferguson tractor. The chains on the tractor’s rear tires jangled merrily, to keep it moving in the deep snow. My stepfather drove the tractor; we scampered from tree to tree. Nobody could call this system high-tech; still, it outclassed my operation.

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More positives from the pandemic

February 22, 2021

We can sit around and wring our hands, that everybody but Canadians is getting the vaccine. Or, if we want to socialize, we can get outside and join friends for a physically distant walk. 

On a recent Sunday, with a blanket of fresh snow coating the city, my wife and I, and our dog, joined friends at a park in Rosedale to walk down to the Brickworks and stroll the Beltline Trail. Le Tout Toronto had shown up; one impossibly lithe woman had staked out a wooden platform, in full sun. With the temperature steady at a balmy -2C, she had stripped to yoga gear and sat twisting herself into glorious shapes, bathed in the noonday sun. Families sauntered past, a parade of skiwear competing with wool coats and fantastic fur hats.  

These walks are a function of the pandemic; in normal times we would have gathered for brunch, or more likely a boozy meal. This year I have explored my city on foot, and shared walks with friends, more than at any other time. This is a positive side of Covid-19.  

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Nice ice

February 7, 2021

A chance encounter on Grenadier Pond this morning renewed my faith in the City of Toronto bureaucracy.

I had laced up and skated onto the ice at about 11 a.m. A thin coat of overnight snow covered the smooth surface.

Then I saw a man coming towards me, sensibly dressed in a Canada Goose parka. The man led a procession consisting of  two impossibly tiny tikes in matching new green jackets and flourescent orange toques.

The man knelt on the ice. With a long ¾” bit attached to a cordless drill, he punched a hole in the ice. Then he dipped a metal rod into the hole, pulled it out and lined the rod up with a metal ruler. He typed into his smartphone.

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Moby Dick

January 27, 2021

I finished Moby Dick. Not that many people have.

That’s hardly surprising: you need stamina to read the book; it’s the K2 of novels. Sample sentence: “But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly snuffed the sugary musk from the Bashee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new found sea; that sea in which the hated White Whale must even then be swimming.”

This goes on, in my edition, for 536 pages.

I bought the book innocently at the Madoc Book Worm, a used book store, for $1, which was more than the cover price, 75¢, of my Signet Classics edition, printed in January, 1962, about six months before I was born.

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January 6, 2021

It’s nice to meet your neighbours.

Carlos has a long history in my neighbourhood. He began work as a teen at the Neilson chocolate factory nearly 40 years ago. The factory is now called Cadbury.

Cadbury is our neighbour, kitty-corner to our front door. St. Anne’s Road, on which we live, once led to St. Anne’s Church. At some point Cadbury bought the right-of-way and put a gate across the road, painted purple. Purple is a Cadbury colour.

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Happy New Year

December 31, 2020

So a lot of people are kvetching about the year that is ending. Good Riddance 2020, reads the headline on the National Post this morning. Below is Gary Clement’s cartoon, entirely devoted to the travails of the pandemic: toilet paper hoarding, Zoom calls, endless working from home. How depressing.

I just can’t feel bitter about the year that is ending, though. I feel the urge to celebrate all that Covid brought to us that we did not have: the good, unexpected sides of 2020.

I have just come from the home of a friend. Toronto is in full lockdown, so there is no question of me going into his house. I brought our dog, and we stood, in full winter gear, on his front porch.

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Death on Dufferin

December 9, 2020

The pineapple was buried in the snow. I didn’t see it at first.

What I noticed, on my morning walk with the dog, was a stop sign converted into a memorial. The sign sits at a lovely corner of Dufferin Grove Park, where the land dips down from Dufferin Street and a wooden staircase leads up into the park. On the sign post, mourners have tied dozens of bouquets of flowers.

A fresh coat of overnight snow transformed the spot, adding beauty and mystery to the colourful tribute.

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Alien landscape

December 8, 2020

A friend and I went for a walk the other night after dinner. He doesn’t have a dog; we took ours.

It was dark. It gets dark so early in December. Some houses in our neighbourhood, in Toronto’s Little Portugal, have Christmas lights, which twinkle and cheer up the urban gloom.

We walked south and crossed King Street into another part of town. When I moved to Toronto in the 1990s, this was a nameless redoubt of old factories. For one of my first stories at the Financial Post I wrote about the succession at Irwin Toy, a toy factory that had, for most of a century, filled a lumbering red-brick industrial building here. On that day in the late 1990s, I saw the machine that transformed coils of wire into Slinkies. (Irwin Toy also built table-hockey games in the building).

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