Toronto International Festival of Authors

September 22, 2023

Harbourfront was buzzing on the night of the fall solstice, Sept. 21. Harbourfront, a cultural non-profit, occupies a campus on the shore of Lake Ontario, in the heart of Toronto. I rode down on my bike for the Toronto International Festival of Authors. Runners, skaters, cyclists and scooter enthusiasts thronged the Martin Goodman Trail, the bike path along the shore of Lake Ontario; one has to stay alert to avoid getting mowed down by some athlete on a souped up road bike.

I am at work on a book about the history of maple syrup in Canada, and I felt like I needed to get into the author zone.

But there was so much else going on. In one tent gathered music industry types for an event called Global Toronto, dining on Japanese inari pockets stuffed with wakame, shitake and wasabi peas, along with pakoras and lamb kafta. At another watering hole by the skating rink (currently under reconstruction) people from across North America who run bike rental, or bike share operations gathered for canapes and beverages.

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Sap diary

April 4, 2023

Written March 10, 2023, 6 p.m.

At the end of February I caught Covid. I came out to Madoc to recuperate with the dogs. I started to feel a bit better, in the cold air, snow and sunshine. So I charged up my cordless drill, put it in a backpack, put on my cross-country skis, and took the dogs with me to the sugar shack. Over a few days I hung forty buckets on maple trees. Some of this work took place in a blizzard.

After ten days of night sweats, soup, Kleenex and paperback books, I finally tested negative. So I went back to Toronto. Back in town I watched the weather report for Madoc. The temperature went above freezing for a few days, but it was not weather for much sap to run. So when Mimi and I drove out to Madoc today, my expectations were low.

But the situation I found here was not what I expected.

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The plague

February 27, 2023

I had planned a week-long road trip to the heart of the hardwood forests near Quebec City to gather material for my upcoming book on the history of maple syrup. But a few days before my departure I went to a conference that featured a banquet supper in a windowless basement room. I cannot prove that this is the source of my predicament. I returned home on Friday night. Started to feel poorly on Sunday. Woke up with a gravelly voice. On Sunday I went to bed in the spare room and sweat through three shirts in the night. On Monday I woke up and tested myself. I have Covid.

My wife Mimi and I talked about how to deal with this. We agreed that I would eat my meals by myself and stay in my office on the second floor. “I will still cook but I will not eat with you,” she said. This made sense; she did not want Covid and I certainly did not want to give it to her. Yet it sounded a bit like jail so I decided instead to head out to our place in Madoc with the dogs to ride out the illness.

And so we piled in the car and arrived after lunch, whereupon I read this text from a friend:

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January 20, 2023

Yesterday marked my first day of class at the school formerly known as Ryerson, now named — in the inimitable wisdom of its board — Toronto Metropolitan University (a fellow instructor remarked, “It took them a year to come up with that?”)

Whatever the name, duty called, and so I gamely packed my battered copy of The Elements of Style (a book I am pretty sure I have never convinced a single student to consult, let alone purchase) in my satchel, and set off on the 506 Dundas Streetcar. The Dundas car trundled east through grey Toronto (it’s the greyest and mildest winter I can remember). We crossed Chinatown, and then downtown, and then I alighted at Church Street. Every time I visit this part of town it feels more crowded; cranes clogged the skyline around me as I walked up the street. The roar of construction, ever-present in Toronto, feels a bit more deafening here. I stopped at Metro to buy some clementines and apples for the students; a guy ahead of me stooped just in front of the supermarket door, picked up a tiny cigarette butt from the pavement, lit it, and sucked mightily; a reminder that there are lots of marginal people in this part of Toronto.

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The cinema

December 5, 2022

The cinema

So, for the first time in years – since the pandemic began – we went to the movies on Saturday night.

Getting out felt nice.

We had tickets for the 3D show of Black Panther – Wakanda Forever, at the Varsity Cinema in the Manulife Centre in Toronto. The show started, our tickets said, at 6:45. Having finished a supper at Eataly, also in the Manulife, we settled into our seats at about 6:30 p.m. For such a big film, it was odd that so few people joined us.

We sat there alone, and then the deluge began at 6:30 p.m. Advertising! First about 20 minutes of ads, and then they dimmed the lights, and then another half hour of solid advertising. We saw the same ads twice, for Coca-Cola, for cars and trucks, for Sunwing, for God knows what.

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In the bush

October 26, 2022

Five years ago this fall I took a buyout from the newspaper where I had worked for a long time. I took the plunge and enrolled full-time in the Master of Forest Conservation at the University of Toronto. The move resembled to some extent a leap off a cliff. Through massive support from my partner and our children, and from my classmates, I pulled it off.

This path I now walk has been full of potholes, twists, turns, and bad weather. I succeed. I fail. I struggle. Ironically, the toughest thing about forestry for me is information technology. I have struggled with Geographic Information Systems, learning management software, Contentful, Mailchimp, Excel… you name it. It’s a challenge.

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Cows in Holland

September 1, 2022

When I was 16 I visited Europe for the first time. I stayed with my sister and her boyfriend in Soest. Then I rode a train to visit Paris. My memory of that train trip was staring out the windows at the Dutch cattle. The cattle stood, heads bowed, grazing on the grass in the fields. At the time I lived on a farm in Quebec and I saw cows all the time. But something about these cows caught my eye. The pasture seemed unnaturally green and the cows, remarkably well-fed. The scene, for me, screamed prosperity.

This summer I spent ten days in the Dutch countryside. My son and I took a trip, by train and bicycle. We saw a lot of the Netherlands, from Groningen in the north to Tilburg in the south. But what was weird for me, was, we didn’t see a lot of cows.

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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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