Forest math

March 18, 2018

Screen shot 2018-03-18 at 6.43.12 PMIt is Monday morning on the fourth floor of the Earth Sciences Centre, and we are generating random numbers.

“If we go up here and this is the normal distribution, this is f of x and this is large F of x,” says Professor Dave Martell. “The area of the curve increases and asymptotically approaches one.”

On Monday mornings, such forestry masters students as can make it out of bed (usually about two thirds of the cohort) file into a class called Forest Management Decision Support Systems. On the first day Martell, a professor emeritus trained as an engineer, promised us, “This is not a math course.”

After the third class a fellow student whose undergrad is in computer science, turned to me and said, “Who’s he kidding? This is a math course.” Continue reading

Sugaring off

March 11, 2018

Screen shot 2018-03-11 at 6.05.10 PMWhen the snow starts to melt in the deep woods and the days get longer, and one hears the occasional goose overhead, and the runoff swells the streams that trickle through the culvert down to the river, then is the time to tap the maple trees for maple syrup.

The other day I went to the Madoc Farm Supply, a drafty old barn of a place, to ogle the maple syrup supplies. I almost bought some green plastic tubing, which is the modern way to get the sap from the trees to the sugar shack, but I really still don’t know how that works, so instead I bought five spiles, five buckets and five lids, lifting my total count to a princely 33 taps.

I tapped the trees, with the help of the dog, and then went back to Toronto. Continue reading


February 28, 2018

Screen shot 2018-02-28 at 9.37.49 PMIt was not much of a hill: maybe, at best, a 10% grade. But that was too steep for us.
The 34 Masters of Forest Conservation candidates of the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, departed from Toronto early on the morning of February 23, 2018, for the long drive north to Matawa, Ontario. One of my profs had put the touch on me to drive a van. So I found myself behind the wheel of a white Ford van, a kind of ungainly white vehicle with a ceiling high enough to stand up in, hurtling north up Highway 11 in the freezing rain. Continue reading

A word on the caribou of Michipicoten Island

February 1, 2018

Screen shot 2018-02-01 at 7.42.52 AMLeo Lepiano, who earned a masters in forest conservation from University in Toronto, in 2015, came in by video link the other evening from his home at the Michipicoten First Nation, near Wawa in northern Ontario. He told Society and Forest Conservation students a pretty wild story about the end of the caribou on the shores of Lake Superior.

According to Leo, back in 1981 scientists from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry moved a few female caribou onto Michipicoten Island, a provincial park in Lake Superior, to join a buck they’d seen on the island. The herd grew to up to 700 caribou, even as logging and other human activities drove caribou away from the north shore of Lake Superior. Continue reading

First day of school — I’m a contender in a wet t-shirt contest

January 5, 2018

IMG_0429-1024x768My return to academe began in September, and proved so intense that I did not have time to transfer some of my notes into blog posts. So over the next few days I will catch up my readers with my adventures in forestry.

Thursday, 8:20 a.m., Sept. 7, 2017. I am in a rented white van with ten young women and a dog named Penny. Here’s the first surprise of the Masters of Forest Conservation program at the University of Toronto: more than two thirds of the students are women.
The woman seated ahead of me, whose hair is braided, said, “When I went to my prom we rented transportation from a vehicle rental agency. They tell you how many people it seats but they don’t tell you what it looks like. So we pulled up to the prom in this big industrial van. It was cool inside, though. It had a disco ball.”
We are en route to the Haliburton Forest, a huge, privately-owned forest that has a long-standing tight-knit relationship with the U of T Faculty of Forestry. We will spend a week in cabins in the forest, where we will get to know one another and take measurements, and learn about forest management. Continue reading

Merry Christmas, Coco

December 24, 2017

Screen shot 2017-12-24 at 7.30.49 PMCoco and I went to the pond.

Coco is our dog. She is a chocolate lab. She is usually up for a trip to Grenadier Pond in High Park.

I had spent most of the afternoon wrapping Christmas presents on the dining room table. I came up with this idea that I would use poster paint to decorate newsprint as Christmas wrapping. You could call this cheap, or ghetto, and, yes, it is both, but I bet, too that I could have a big hit at the One of a Kind Show if I sold Christmas wrapping paper with motifs of snowmen, Christmas trees and snowflakes and red stars painted with poster paint on newsprint. Newsprint is so rare these days that I bet it has a cachet of cool.

Anyway, we went to the pond. I gambled that the pond would be frozen thick enough to skate on it.

In 23 years of living in Toronto I have never missed a season of skating on Grenadier Pond. Continue reading

A watched pot never boils

November 30, 2017

Screen shot 2017-11-08 at 8.40.44 AMWe knew from the start that the timber sports team from the University of Toronto was the underdog. As dawn broke grey and bitter cold over the frosty fields of Fleming College’s Lindsay Campus, our team, trudging to the competition grounds, saw competing teams jogging past — in matching plaid jackets emblazoned “UNB Woodsmen” and “McGill Woodsmen.” They ran in formation.
As its first job, each team had to collect the wood we would saw and chop that day, from a stack of lumber large enough to build a house. We gathered pieces of trembling aspen, fresh-milled, squared, 8″X8″ for the men and 6″X6″ for the women, the butt of each log labeled with our team’s assigned number, 9.
The white beams weighed as much as the equivalent volume of cement. The teams of women and men (yes, the “Woodsmen” teams included women) would compete, throughout the day, in events such as the Standing Chop and the Swede. The goal: to split, saw, chop and generally hack up all this wood more quickly than the competition. Continue reading

Living the dream

October 13, 2017

IMG_0506On Oct. 12 I found myself aboard a yellow school bus with about 30 graduate students of the Faculty of Forestry. We left the downtown campus of the University of Toronto at about 9:30 a.m. We headed east, on our way to the Rouge Park. The day broke cold and rainy, so most students wore windbreakers and hiking boots.

Continue reading

Back to school

August 2, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 4.53.36 PMIn one of the more bizarre and possibly insane moves of my life, I have decided, at the tender age of 55, to go back to school. And not just any school, but as a candidate for a Masters in Forest Conservation at the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto (part-time).

Permit me to explain myself, if I can. The newspaper business is shrinking rapidly, so I need to retrain. I have begun to teach journalism, first at Centennial College and then, this year, at Ryerson University. In order to get a full-time job as a journalism teacher at Ryerson, I need at least a Master’s degree; I only have my dusty old B.A. from McGill, from back in 1984.

Okay, so a master’s degree — fine. But … in forestry? As my cousin and dear friend Marc put it not too long ago, “What?”

Continue reading

Time to sing the national anthem

June 5, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 6.18.03 PMWhen I arrived, about 8:20 a.m., I found students in the school gym at Joseph Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, wrestling with a gargantuan piece of paper, as long as the front of the stage. Painted on the paper were the words, “O CANADA,” in red and white, with each letter as tall as a first-grader.

Other students, tall blond eighth-graders named Martin, Max, Alex and Matthew, stood arranging the audio-visual equipment: a screen, tucked behind the basketball net on the stage, and a projector.

Then the band started arriving — and kept arriving. First came the upright bases, and then the violins. By the end 15 fresh-faced young musicians, most of them girls, in matching navy-blue uniforms, stood at attention, with sheet music on their music stands, ready to play O Canada. Continue reading