The clock is ticking

November 9, 2023

The other day in Trois Rivières I met a guy who gave me an gift.

I had travelled to Trois Rivières to meet a retired police detective. The cop, who spent his career at the Sûreté du Québec, led the investigation of the biggest theft in the history of Canada: working at night for most of a year, a gang of thieves stole thousands of barrels of maple syrup, worth a total of $18 million, from a warehouse in St. Louis de Blandford, across the St. Lawrence River from Trois Rivières. The Trois Rivières detachment caught the crooks.

I had a bit of time to kill before my meeting with the police officer. I walked through Old Trois Rivières and came to the port. A cruise ship stood moored in the harbour, the Seabourn Quest – a substantial vessel to my eyes, with 11 decks. The ship’s presence figures into this story in some way.

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Postcard from the Beauce

October 31, 2023

Happy Halloween! Here is a photograph of me with Angèle Grenier, my favourite maple syrup rebel grandmother, on Oct. 25, in front of her home, about 300 kilometres east of Montréal in St. Clotilde de Beauce, Québec.

I got to know Grenier back in 2015 when a National Post photographer and I traveled deep into the heart of the Beauce to write about a loosely grouped gang of rebels who fought to throw off the shackles of what was then called the Fédération de Producteurs Acéricoles du Québec. Quebec by that point was already about 15 years into a strict supply management régime where, if a producer made syrup in large quantities, i.e. 200 litre steel barrels (same size as a barrel of crude oil) they must sell it through the single buying agent of the federation, and get paid the federation`s agreed rate for the syrup, on a payment schedule agreed by the federation.

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September 26, 2023

A tornado ripped through our farm last year and smashed a lot of trees. The force toppled a proud ash tree that grew on our treeline. The tree fell into the neighbour’s hay field.

The neighbour used a tractor and pushed the ash into the shared fence line, shoving it up among the old split-rail cedar fences. Since then I’ve made trips when I have a moment, to buck the ash tree up with the chainsaw. Then I load the rounds of ash in our little red wagon, attached to my rider mower (that no longer mows) and haul them back to the cottage for firewood.

The emerald ash borer, or EAB, a beetle from Asia, is on a rampage to kill all the ash in North America. This beetle has no predators in Canada. A few years ago when my Master of Forest Conservation class visited Montreal, we learned about trials by the City of Montreal to release wasps to control the beetle. The wasps work a bit like the creature in Alien; they lay their eggs in the larvae of host insects, and then thrive at the expense of the EAB.

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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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