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Tuesday, August 2, 2017 — Two Journeys, with Momos

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Not much has been pub­lished on this site in the last year. Shortly after my return from a trip to France, a series of events started to mod­ify my per­sonal cir­cum­stances, begin­ning with my mother’s death. New per­sonal respon­si­bil­i­ties appeared, and changes of plan. For quite awhile, I remained in no mood for per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions. But while I have not had much time to write casu­ally for the site, I have been in fact research­ing and writ­ing a great deal. Now I’m begin­ning a new phase, since I have stopped out­side work and expect to sur­vive entirely by writ­ing. This will mean some sac­ri­fices — liv­ing fru­gally being one of them. But there are ben­e­fits. For years, now, I could rarely indulge in one of my great­est plea­sures — walk­ing the ravines and dis­tant cor­ners of my city. I sim­ply did not have the spare time, and out­side work that kept me on my feet ten hours every day left me too tired to do it. But now I will be sit­ting at a com­puter for most of every day, and some walk­ing will be nec­es­sary to stave off a clas­sic writer’s peril: over­weight. So, no longer walk­ing to make a liv­ing, I am free to walk for plea­sure again.

I had a monthly sub­way pass in con­nec­tion with that work, and it still remained valid until yes­ter­day. Real­iz­ing that I was let­ting it go to waste, I used it on Sun­day and Mon­day, to go to two remote parts of the city for some walk­ing. On Sun­day I went to Old Mill Sta­tion on the sub­way, so that I could walk along the Hum­ber River. Bloor Street and the Sub­way trains cross the river that sep­a­rates the old City of Toronto from the Bur­rough of Eto­bi­coke [1] at this sta­tion. But a short walk from it there is a much older and quite hand­some lit­tle bridge that was built in 1916. This was the point of cross­ing for the river for many cen­turies. Here was the17th Cen­tury Seneca town, Teia­iagon, at its peak hav­ing about 5,000 inhab­i­tants in long houses. It was a major cen­ter of trade along the Toronto Carrying-Place trail that joined Lake Ontario with the fer­tile Huron lands to the north, and upper Great Lakes. But the Seneca town was the cul­mi­na­tion of a very long his­tory, as there were peo­ple liv­ing along the Hum­ber as early as 12,000 years ago. The local his­to­ri­ans have been busy, and now there are sev­eral plaques in Eng­lish, French, and Seneca indi­cat­ing this and that. The hand­somest one com­mem­o­rates Éti­enne Brûlé, whose name has been given to the park­lands along the river north of Bloor. This gave me great plea­sure, because he is one of my favourite char­ac­ters in Cana­dian his­tory, and one of my cats (now adopted by friends) was named after him. Arriv­ing in Canada from France at the age of 16, Brûlé chose to live among the local peo­ple and, after learn­ing the Algo­nquin and Wen­dat lan­guages, began a series of extra­or­di­nary trav­els that ranged over four of the five Great Lakes, most of present-day South­ern Ontario, Michi­gan, Ohio, and Penn­syl­va­nia. It was in 1615 that Brûlé arrived at this spot. The next recorded vis­i­tors were in 1678 —- René-Robert Cave­lier, Sieur de La Salle, the Sieur de La Motte, and the Récol­let Louis Hen­nepin. Their ship was grounded and frozen at the mouth of the river, and they walked upstream to barter for pro­vi­sions with the Seneca. In the next cen­tury the Anishinaabe-speaking Mis­sis­sauga peo­ple had largely sup­planted the Seneca, build­ing a sep­a­rate vil­lage on the oppo­site bank, closer to the present sub­way sta­tion. Trade in the region flour­ished under the Great Peace of Mon­treal, and by 1730 there was a French mag­a­sin royale and gar­ri­son, sta­tioned fur­ther down­stream and to the east of the river mouth at Fort Rouillé. A hand­ful of French came to live along the river. But all of these things van­ished dur­ing the vio­lence of the Seven Years War, and this por­tion of the river, for which the Seneca name was Niwa’ah Onega’gaih’ih and the Anishi­naabe name was Gabekanaang-ziibi, was deserted until set­tlers from York­shire arrived and renamed it Hum­ber, after the largest river in that part of north­ern Eng­land. A series of mills were built at the river cross­ing, the last of which, a grist mill, burned down in 1881 and remained a pic­turesque stone ruin until its walls were incor­po­rated into a new hotel in 2001. 17-08-01 BLOG old bridge

With all this his­tory in mind, I walked south towards the wet­lands of the river mouth, and within min­utes I was out of sight of any build­ing. Occa­sion­ally, a canoe would drift by. The for­est here is rich, an unspoiled rem­nant of the Car­olin­ian for­est that cov­ered what is now Toronto before it became farms, then city. There are many tall and ancient oaks here. And these, link to more his­tory. The largest clus­ter of them, about 150 trees, is known as the Tuh­be­nah­nee­quay Ancient Grove, named after the daugh­ter of the Mis­sis­sauga chief Wah­banosay, who was the main nego­tia­tor and sig­na­tory of the 1805 pur­chase of the lands that were to become most of Toronto. Tub­nah­nee­quay mar­ried Augus­tus Jones, the prin­ci­pal sur­veyor of Upper Canada. Jones was a long­time com­pan­ion of Thayen­da­negea (Joseph Brant), and was with him when he led the Loy­al­ist migra­tion of Six Nations from New York State to Canada. Tub­nah­nee­quay was one of his two co-wives, for Jones fol­lowed native cus­tom. Tub­nah­nee­quay mar­ried him in a Wiidi­gendi­win [2] cer­e­mony, for she was a strict tra­di­tion­al­ist, but Jones’ other wife, Sarah Tek­ere­hogen was a Mohawk and a Methodist. One of Tubnahneeqay’s sons, though raised by her in the Mis­sis­sisauga midewi­win tra­di­tion, in later life became a famous Methodist preacher, tour­ing the world. The grove is named after her because at this spot, Mis­sis­sauga war­riors, led by her and her father, took a stand, claim­ing that Eto­bi­coke town­ship, on the west side of the river, was not part of the pur­chase. The legal wran­gling sur­round­ing the Toronto pur­chase went on until finally resolved in 2010!17-08-01 BLOG Humber River
Not only the oaks, but all the trees are espe­cially splen­did. The land becomes wet­ter as you walk south, until it becomes broad marshes. Here there’s a wealth of bird life, and in a very short time I saw count­less monarch but­ter­flies and drag­on­flies, numer­ous ducks and cor­morants, a tern, a red squir­rel, a muskrat, and a mag­nif­i­cent white egret, perched on a limb with lordly dig­nity. I had not been in this place for years, and for­got­ten its wealth of wildlife. There are beaver here as well, and fox, and even deer, but I saw none. A bit closer to the lake, the west shore of the Hum­ber is blocked by a steep bluff, and one must make a detour away from the river to get past it. This detour took me into a quiet res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood, known as Stonegate. It is partly low-rise apart­ment build­ings built in the 1950’s, all very well-kept up, and partly hand­some houses in tree-filled streets. Stonegate Road has some of the finest houses I’ve seen in the city, in the sense of good taste rather than wealth. Reach­ing the end of that street, dense woods began again, and I fol­lowed a wind­ing foot­path down into the rather iso­lated South Hum­ber Park. Here I saw a for­got­ten item of 1950’s Mod­ernism, the “Sun­catcher”, a strange pavil­lion inspired by sci­ence fic­tion art of the era, serv­ing no iden­ti­fi­able pur­pose, except per­haps to be the best local place to smoke a dube. After that, the tree-cover thinned, a huge water treat­ment plant appeared on the right, and the the path­way ran beneath the Queensway Avenue bridge, then under the CNR rail­way, then under the Gar­diner Express­way, and finally ended where the Hum­ber River emp­ties into the inland sea we call Lake Ontario. There, a mod­ern foot­bridge allows one to cross the river out of Eto­bi­coke back into the City of Toronto.17-08-01 BLOG Suncatcher
At this point, I was very hun­gry. No prob­lem. A short street­car ride brought me into the neigh­bour­hood that is com­ing to be known as Lit­tle Tibet, and I love Tibetan cook­ing. Here, within a few blocks, are most of the best Tibetan restau­rants in Toronto — The Lhasa, Nor­ling, Shangrila, Tibet Kitchen, Tsampa Café, Tashi Delek, Himalayan Kitchen, Le Tibet, Om, Kasthaman­dap. I set­tle on Loga’s Cor­ner, because there I could order take-out momos, those deli­cious Tibetan dumplings, with the owner’s fab­u­lous home-made hot sauce, and bring them home with me to eat at leisure. Soon I was back home, feet propped up, dip­ping momos into sauce, with no wor­ries other than keep­ing the cats from grab­bing them.

On Mon­day, the last day I could use the pass, I chose to go east­wards, into the part of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Toronto called Scar­bor­ough by its inhab­i­tants, but “Scar­be­ria” by peo­ple down­town. It is largely the prod­uct of post-WWII sub­ur­ban expan­sion, and is mostly on flat land, but at it’s east end there is a major, heav­ily wooded river, the Rouge, and along the lake it is a long series of sandy cliffs, known to the explor­ers as Les grands Ecores, and today as the Scar­bor­ough Bluffs. These are as high as 90 metres [300 feet], grad­u­ally dimin­ish­ing in height as one goes east. They are always erod­ing, and houses and streets are now kept away from their edge — after a few ended up tum­bling into the lake. There has been con­sid­er­able new ero­sion this year, since the lake is at it’s high­est level on record, and there have been a num­ber of storms. I took the sub­way out to it’s eastern-most sta­tion, Kennedy, then took a bus that wound slowly east­wards, through var­i­ous neigh­bour­hoods, lit­tle “strip malls” of Tamil, Afghan, and Caribbean shops, and finally left me off on a quiet street. A short walk led me to the entrance of a park. It had few park­ish ambi­tions, for it was noth­ing more than the space between the back sides of the sub­ur­ban houses and the edge of the cliff, ran­dom patches of mowed lawn and woods, mostly just a place where the locals could walk their dogs. The only peo­ple I met were a cou­ple doing exactly that. Their retriever frol­icked about hap­pily and came over to me to make friends. There were numer­ous signs warn­ing peo­ple not to stand on the edge of the cliffs. They are only about 30 metres high in this part, but the soil is very loose, water­logged, and slip­pery, and some of the warn­ing signs no longer exist because they were once located in what is now air full of swoop­ing seag­ulls. As I walked east­wards, the patches of grass dis­ap­peared, and I fol­lowed a nar­row path through the woods. This turned abruptly, because I had reached a point where a creek had eroded through the cliff face.23839904 I fol­lowed this inland to a point where I could scram­ble down, to the creek that would take me down to the shore. But there was no trail going down, only a dense tan­gle of trees, brush, and mud. One has to be care­ful, since sting­ing net­tle abounds in such places. Sting­ing Net­tle has a rec­og­niz­able flower in the spring, but at this time of year it looks like any other ran­dom weed. When its leaves brush against your skin, thou­sands of micro­scopic hairs stick to you and release his­t­a­mine and acetyl­choline, caus­ing burn­ing and itch­ing for hours after. There’s also plenty of bur­dock, this­tle, poi­son ivy and poi­son oak. But I avoided these per­ils and found myself down below, on the shore of the lake. It was grow­ing late, and for the last hour I had been hear­ing dis­tant thun­der. East­wards, out above the lake, dark clouds were pil­ing and roil­ing. Noth­ing of the city was vis­i­ble from this part of the shore, only the bluffs trail­ing west­ward and east­ward and the vast extent of the lake. Lake Ontario is the small­est of the five Great Lakes, but it is still about the size of the whole coun­try of Slove­nia. Though at mid­day its waters shone their famous bright blue, cel­e­brated by Walt Whit­man in his poem By Blue Ontario’s Shore, but now they were a cold gray. In fact, Whit­man sailed by this very spot on the lake steamship Alger­ian, on July 27, 1880. He specif­i­cally men­tioned, in a diary [3], that the ship kept close to the shore, and the bril­liant blue­ness of the lake. He was a keen observer, always quick to notice and iden­tify a par­tic­u­lar flower or tree, keen to eval­u­ate the farms, notic­ing house-styles and how well or poorly made a street, a build­ing, a train or a boat might be. Here are sam­ple entries:

I am in the midst of hay­mak­ing, and, though but a looker-on, I enjoy it greatly, untir­ingly, day after day. Any hour I hear the sound of scythes sharp­en­ing, or the dis­tant rat­tle of horse-mowers, or see loaded wag­ons, high-piled, slowly wend­ing toward the barns; or, toward sun­down, groups of tan-faced men going from work.

To-day we are indeed at the height of it here in Ontario. A muf­fled and musi­cal clang of cow-bells from the grassy wood-edge not far distant.

In blos­som now: del­phinium, blue, four feet high, great pro­fu­sion of yellow-red lilies; a yel­low coreopsis-like flower, same as I saw Sept. ’79; wild tansy, weed from 10 to 15 inches high, white blos­som, out in July in Canada, straw-colored hol­ly­hocks, many like roses, oth­ers pure white — beau­ti­ful clus­ters every­where in the thick dense hedge-lines; aro­matic white cedars at evening; the fences, veran­dahs, gables, cov­ered with grapevines, ivies, honeysuckles…

… I spent a long time to-day watch­ing the swal­lows — an hour this forenoon and another hour after­noon. There is a pleas­ant, secluded, close-cropt grassy lawn of a cou­ple of acres or over, flat as a floor and sur­rounded by a flow­ery and bushy hedge, just off the road adjoin­ing the house, — a favorite spot of mine. Over this open grassy area immense num­bers of swal­lows have been sail­ing, dart­ing, cir­cling, and cut­ting large or small 8’s and s’s, close to the ground, for hours to-day. It is evi­dently for fun alto­gether. I never saw any­thing pret­tier — this free swal­low dance.

I rose this morn­ing at four and look’ed out on the more pure and reful­gent starry show. Right over my head, like a Tree-Universe spread­ing with its orb-apples, — Alde­beran lead­ing the Hyades; Jupiter of amaz­ing lus­tre, soft­ness and vol­ume; and, not far behind, heavy Sat­urn, — both past the merid­ian; the seven sparkling gems of the Pleiades; the full moon, volup­tuous and yel­low, and full of radi­ance, an hour to set­ting in the west. Every­thing so fresh, so still; the deli­cious some­thing there is in early youth, in early dawn —- the spirit, the spring, the feel; the air and light, pre­cur­sors of the untried sun; love, action, forenoon, noon, life — full-fibred, latent with them all.

By Blue Ontario’s Shore was the poem in which Whit­man most deeply explored the tri­umphs and tragedies of his own coun­try, the United States, which is almost vis­i­ble from this spot on the shore as a thin line on the hori­zon to the south. What one is see­ing is not in fact, the actual shore of New York State, but the white­ness of haze float­ing above the land. As one’s eyes turn toward the east, length­wise along the lake, the hori­zon shows only the sharp line of sky meet­ing water.17-08-01 BLOG Lake 1

By blue Ontario’s shore,
As I mused of these war­like days and of peace return’d, and
the dead that return no more

The poem is prac­ti­cally schiz­o­phrenic in it’s unre­solved dual­i­ties. He seeks to under­stand, embrace, and take respon­si­bil­ity for all the wild lib­erty and youth­ful­ness of his coun­try, and its tragic failings.

O I see flash­ing that this Amer­ica is only you and me,
Its power, weapons, tes­ti­mony, are you and me,
Its crimes, lies, thefts, defec­tions are you and me,

most of all, the still bleed­ing wound from its great­est, most shame­ful evil:

Slav­ery — the mur­der­ous, treach­er­ous con­spir­acy to raise it
upon the ruins of all the rest

When Whit­man vis­ited Ontario, he was com­ing to a place where slav­ery had been abol­ished in 1793, and inter­nal polit­i­cal and social con­flicts were so tame that they would barely be on the level of bar-room scuf­fles in Whitman’s home, Brook­lyn. But the coun­try that he came from was not in good shape. After the slaugh­ter of the Civil War, the Repub­li­can Party quickly sold out the inter­ests of the African-Americans it had fought to free, and the elite of the South was allowed to use sys­tem­atic ter­ror­ism to drive them back into the semi-slavery of share-cropping, with the poor rural whites kept only slightly above them, while every com­po­nent of democ­racy was dis­man­tled. On the Fed­eral level, a few large cor­po­ra­tions, known as “trusts” had come to con­trol almost all of eco­nomic life, while a con­clave of wealthy financiers and indus­tri­al­ists had sim­ply laid out cash to pur­chase the gov­ern­ment. Polit­i­cal and finan­cial cor­rup­tion were omnipresent, uncon­cealed, and all-pervading. Stock mar­ket and rail­way swin­dles, and “pay for play” pol­i­tics were the norm. The rich boasted that they were super­men, and a small class of pros­per­ous pro­fes­sion­als acted as a cho­rus to them. The wealth­i­est 1% owned 51% of the prop­erty, while the bot­tom 44% claimed only 1.1%. Most Amer­i­cans had just strug­gled through a severe depres­sion that lasted seven years, and had just reached recov­ery the year Whit­man was here. The rich hired pri­vate armies to vio­lently crush strikes and the cities had erupted in repeated riots, all of which were fol­lowed by ruth­less police repres­sion. The rich could always rely on their bought politi­cians to deliver the booty, and on ingrained racism, reli­gious fer­vor, and hatred of immi­grants (at that time mostly Irish and Ger­man) to keep the “peas­ants” in line. Farms around the coun­try were falling under cor­po­rate and elite con­trol, land, credit and agri­cul­tural reforms des­per­ately needed, but these reforms required poor white farm­ers and black share­crop­pers to rec­og­nize their com­mon inter­ests and work together… some­thing the rich could eas­ily pre­vent by press­ing the racial, reli­gious, regional, and xeno­pho­bic but­tons on their con­trol con­sole. How­ever, the Amer­i­can peo­ple did, even­tu­ally, pull them­selves out of that hole. The next gen­er­a­tion curbed the power of the trusts. This was known as the Reform Era. It would take sev­eral cycles of such “reform eras” to build a mod­ern coun­try… work that is still unfin­ished.

If all this sounds famil­iar, it’s because the United States is going through much the same thing today, and we in Canada, as then, are stand­ing in rel­a­tive safety observ­ing it with the same mix­ture of hor­ror, sym­pa­thy, revul­sion and pity as we did then. We have our own prob­lems, but they pale com­pared to night­mare that our Amer­i­can broth­ers are march­ing into with a trai­tor, work­ing for their ene­mies, con­trol­ling the White House, mil­lions of their num­ber insanely embrac­ing a total­i­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy no dif­fer­ent from Com­mu­nism or Fas­cism, and a pop­u­la­tion so eas­ily manip­u­lated by exactly the same sort of con­trol con­sole as pre­vailed when Whit­man was sit­ting on the deck of the Alge­ria, prob­a­bly look­ing intently at the swal­lows fly­ing about the very place I was stand­ing 137 years later.

For the swal­lows are still here. They nest in great num­bers in the cliff face, and behave exactly as Whit­man described them.

17-08-01 BLOG Lake 2The sky was, by this time, per­form­ing the func­tion of the pathetic fal­lacy, by which nature mir­rors the polit­i­cal con­di­tion of soci­ety. Very dark clouds were rolling in from the Amer­i­can side, and flashes of light­ning. I did not want to be stuck on an unin­hab­ited beach below a con­tin­u­ous line of cliffs, 15 kilo­me­tres long, fac­ing a lake whose storms can be extremely vio­lent, and waves extremely high. The path I had taken down was dif­fi­cult, and retrac­ing it upward would have been more dif­fi­cult. So I walked east­wards along the beach, look­ing for a bet­ter egress. I even­tu­ally found a spot which was suf­fi­ciently clear of veg­e­ta­tion, and had secure enough foot­ing to let me climb, and I emerged on the man­i­cured prop­erty of a large, futuristic-looking water treat­ment plant that I didn’t know existed. [4] This was com­pletely deserted, though the city had duti­fully filled a large expanse with park benches and pic­nic tables, and kept the grounds as neat as a hos­pi­tal scrub room. It was being enjoyed, how­ever, by two very large brown cotton-tail rab­bits. One of them quickly hopped away as I approached, but the other strangely stood his ground, and stared me down with that pecu­liar aris­to­cratic con­tempt that I have seen in wild Kan­ga­roos in the Aus­tralian bush. Per­haps he had read Water­ship Down in his spare time, if rab­bits can be said to have spare time.

I was now in the first stages of twi­light, and I had no idea how far I would have to go to get to the near­est bus. Out­side of the fil­tra­tion plant there was noth­ing but an empty ser­vice road run­ning east-and west, par­al­lel to the CNR rail­way tracks, and behind the tracks there was noth­ing vis­i­ble but trees. The part of Scar­bor­ough with human beings in it was some­where beyond that, but how was I to get to it? I walked west along the road, and even­tu­ally found an inter­sect­ing road that crossed the track and went north. This was a level rail­way cross­ing, with noth­ing but a saltire, lights and a prim­i­tive boom bar. It must be the only one left in Met­ro­pol­i­tan Toronto on an active rail line, and this is the most heav­ily trav­eled line in the coun­try, link­ing Toronto and Mon­treal! Noth­ing could have more effec­tively under­scored my down­town prej­u­dice that Scar­bor­ough was a remote and prim­i­tive wilderness.

Nev­er­the­less, it was not long before this road brought me to houses, and some teenagers play­ing pickup bas­ket­ball in the street with a Spald­ing portable hoop set up on the curb. They directed me a few blocks north where I could get the 86D bus to the sub­way. I could, in fact, just see it turn­ing the cor­ner. But it waited at this par­tic­u­lar stop to mark time on its sched­ule, and I was able to run for it suc­cess­fully. Along its route, it passed a large Tamil gro­cery shop, so I hopped off the bus to pick up some naan bread, some Chennai-style snack mix [5], and a cold gin­ger beer. I got home, and, as the night before, hap­pily feasted. There were still some left­over momos.

Amount of writ­ing done those two days: zero. But I would count them as productive.


[1] Eto­bi­coke is pro­nounced “Ee-toe-bi-coe”. The “k” is silent. Nobody seems to know why.

[2] Wiidi­gendi­win — a wed­ding cer­e­mony in accor­dance with the Midewi­win, tra­di­tional reli­gious teach­ings of the Ojib­way and Cree peo­ple. These tra­di­tions are still active, some­times sup­ple­men­tary, and some­times in com­pe­ti­tion with other faiths.

[3] Walt Whitman’s Diary in Canada, with Extracts from Other of His Diaries and Lit­er­ary Note-books — edited by William Sloane Kennedy. 1904 Boston. Small, May­nard & Co. I read one of the 500 orig­i­nal copies, but it has since been reprinted. Whit­man trav­eled as far as the Sague­nay in Que­bec, but most of his visit to Canada was spent with his friend William Bucke, a pio­neer psy­chol­o­gist and coiner of the term “cos­mic con­scious­ness.” Their friend­ship was the sub­ject of an odd lit­tle film, Beau­ti­ful Dream­ers (1992) directed by John Kent Har­ri­son and star­ring Colme Feore and Rip Torn.

[4] I looked it up when I got home. The F.J. Hor­gan Fil­tra­tion Plant was com­pleted in 2011. Since it’s in Scar­bor­ough, down­town Toron­to­ni­ans like myself would no more hear about it than we would hear about one in Nepal or Ecuador.

[5] Ground­nuts, thenkuzhal, kara boondhi, roasted chana, kara­sev, murukku, pakoda and oma podi — a much tastier com­bi­na­tion than the Bom­bay and Pun­jabi mixes you get in my local supermarket.

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