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.

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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?”

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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

A tree grows in Ontario

May 17, 2017

IMG_0183I taught a course in journalism at Ryerson this spring. The last day of class, on April 11, proved unseasonably warm, so the five instructors retired to the roof of the Queen and Beaver to celebrate. As the sun went down two instructors departed. The three remaining retreated inside, to the warmth, and huddled around a candle, where we drank rye and ginger ale.

I mentioned in passing that I was to get 500 trees to plant in a couple of weeks. Perhaps the liquids inspired my fellow instructors to feel magnanimous. Both of them announced that they wanted to come out to our farm, near Madoc, Ontario, to lend a hand. Continue reading

Maple syrup season, part 1

March 31, 2017

IMG_0103A lane leads east from the fields on our farm into the forest. A culvert runs under the lane.

The other day I woke up to snow on the ground. I walked through the snow and ice and mud down the lane towards the woods. When I crossed the culvert I could hear water trickling through the pipe. The water flows from the creek on the north side of the lane, through the pipe, into the big swamp — a collection of trees and bullrushes and grasses — to the south. The trinkle of water is encouraging — a sign of spring.

Many, many years ago, a former owner of the farm abandoned a sugar shack in our woods. All that remains is a horseshoe-shaped ruin of a firebox that must, at one time, have held an evaporator, to boil sap into maple syrup. Rusted out sap buckets and pots lie scattered around among the young maple trees. Continue reading

Maple syrup season, part 2

IMG_0104 Luckily I own better boots now. In early March, we tapped a grand total of 25 maple trees, three of which bear two buckets each. So 28 syrup pails hang from the spiles.

The other day, my son and his friend gathered most of the sap. Spring is late this year, so most of the sap was frozen in the sap buckets. They poured it in a big old plastic barrel, which I had placed on a platform I built in the woods next to the ruin of the sugar shack. The big chunks of frozen sap fell with a thud into the barrel.

I had spoken to my neighbour Gunter on the phone the day before we drove up to try to boil some sap into syrup.

“It is raining here,” he said. “Your wood will be wet.” Continue reading

Juicy Mexico

March 6, 2017

IMG_3172He sat in the shade on a plastic stool in the morning on Calle 2, which is where the white vans called colectivos gather passengers heading to Akumal or Tulum or Cancun or other destinations up and down the Caribbean cost of Mexico.

He had a small wooden table beside him on the sidewalk. ON the table he’d arranged half-litre clear plastic bottles containing colourful liquid: naranja (orange), zanohoria (carrot); a green one which was chia, nopal (cactus), pineapple and orange; beet and grapefruit, which cost 15 pesos each. He also had aguas (waters): jamaica and oat water, for 10 pesos.

I bought a green juice and sat down on one of the two big blue coolers with plastic lids, which contained the juice on ice, and watched the morning in Mexico stream past — the glorious mixture of diesel fumes and smoke from tacos al pastor.

The gentleman’s name was Wilbert Guemes Saenz. He is 74 years old, with turquoise-green eyes and a red and craggy face crowned by a bulbous nose.

His first language is Maya. Continue reading

Snow hobo

December 19, 2016

img_3644There are some who say that my snowman looks sad.
My son says he looks homeless. My wife says that, given his slump, he needs Eldoa, which is a stretching regimen born from Pilates, designed to strengthen the back.
Indeed, since I built him last week on our front lawn, my snowman has changed. He has slouched forward in the midday sun. Snow has fallen and given him a a new hairdo, and covered his now hunched shoulders with a fresh white shawl.
I guess I feel a bit protective about him, as his creator. Not that I spent much time on him, poor guy. Continue reading

Yuletide cheer

December 16, 2016

img_3639Our dog, Coco, hurt her paw the other day. It seems salt got in her left front paw and she sucked one of the pads raw, so we took her to the vet, and now she has to wear a cone and take antibiotics until her paw heals.
God knows why people dump such vast quantities of salt on the sidewalks of Toronto, but it’s catastrophic for dogs.
On weekday mornings the dog, our son and I leave the house and Coco and I walk him to College street, where we part company. Then he either walks to school or, if a streetcar is coming, hops on, and gets a ride to his high school, while Coco and I go for a run or a walk in the park up the street. Continue reading


November 17, 2016

img_3525The trouble with going out to get lunch in this town is that like as not, even if you can brave the cement trucks and construction hoardings and flagmen, you will find that your favourite restaurant has been knocked down.

This happened to me the other day when a friend, Jose, met me at the newspaper, which is at Bloor and Sherbourne streets. We walked west along Bloor, only to find that, at the corner of Jarvis, to make room for road crews, police had blocked the intersection and forced people to cross to the north side of the street in order to proceed west. After some time we found a piece of intact sidewalk and continued our journey. Then we walked south on Charles Street, towards Yonge Street. Continue reading