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I’m a walker, happiest when I’m moving, preferably somewhere with a view. I like the big vistas best, the feeling of awe when you reach the top of a mountain and look out over the world. I like being filled with that sense that I am small and the world is big. There is so much to love, to do, to be.
But like many of us, I’ve been cooped up through the pandemic, confined to city limits. The world has felt particularly small for a long time now.
Still, like many others, I’ve put in a lot of steps over the last year. I’ve walked city streets and in parks. I’ve traversed alleys and many, many roads, both less and more travelled by. I’ve walked and talked, I’ve walked and listened to podcasts, I’ve walked and thought about nothing but the endless, never-changing pavement in front of me.
But the best walking and greatest pandemic discovery (apologies to my sourdough starter) has been the pleasure of finding the wild in the city.
When I first moved to Toronto more than 20 years ago, I remember people telling me it was a city of ravines. I would nod knowingly as I did about many things about which I had no opinion or experience. I probably even repeated this fact to other people over the years, though my sense of the geography of these ravines was vague at best. It took a global pandemic for me to actually dive in and explore.
And so, along with my trusty companions (two humans and a dog), I’ve walked all three of the major rivers that track a path through this sprawling urban landscape. Some of the routes are obvious, marked with official signage, asphalt or fresh cedar mulch, wooden railings, stairs. But that’s usually been only a jumping off point for our urban explorations. We’ve also slipped down the side of steep embankments, threaded our way over boulders, passed ancient washed-out bridges, dodged storm water outtake pipes, graffitied underpasses and fjorded frozen streams.
In his beautiful book about walking called The Old Ways, the British naturalist Robert Macfarlane calls unofficial urban paths, the ones trodden but not formally marked “desire lines.” We’ve followed these lines and like those others before us been surprised and delighted by the city’s wild and often tattered edges.
Walking up unassuming hills we emerged to views of the homely Don River looking majestic as it carved its way southward, the water rushing past a yield sign lying on its side in the river. We’ve run into people living in a nearby apartment tower who set up their camping chairs and were cooking weenies over a small, tidy firepit on a sandy ridge not far from the roar of the expressway. We found lots of impromptu wooden lean-tos and other motley structures, traipsed by sewage treatment plants and washed-out roads, spotted deer and red-winged blackbirds, a pair of cardinals darting through the trees. Just beneath a busy bridge, not far from a highway, we discovered tiny perfect “chillin’” zones (so-called by the very stoned twentysomethings who kindly directed us there). These cozy enclosures had meticulously well-tended seating areas made from tree stumps and scrap wood, a single plastic bag hanging on a nail for tossing garbage, metal buckets to put out butts, dollar store plastic blooms stuck in the hard-packed soil, and HGTV-worthy privacy screens woven from fallen sticks and branches, all with a view of the whirling (and, yes, polluted) Don River.
Before the pandemic I might have found these places too urban and touched by human hands to be beautiful. I might have thought instead about how they compared to pristine glacial lakes and snow-capped mountains or alpine meadows filled with wildflowers. I might have thought of them as a poor substitute for the wild lands I crave.
And yet, I’m starting to realize that, like so many of us, I’ve changed. Deep in the ravines, beside storm sewers and up hardscrabble dirt tracks, in the shadow of towers and bridges and over rotten logs, I’ve seen the intimate architecture of the city. It’s like one of those cadavers with the skin peeled back that went on exhibition all over the world some years ago. Possibly gruesome but also fascinating and weirdly beautiful.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t still like to walk on mountain tops, to breathe in the sharp cold breeze off an alpine lake, but these grittier, more ambivalent wild lands seem exactly right for me, for this moment. The city’s edges reflect back our new normal – where grit and beauty are deeply intertwined. The pandemic has exposed the tender, precarious underbelly of our lives in so many ways – from hosting work meetings in our bedrooms to discovering the fragility of our collective mental health, from the relationships that haven’t made it to the other side to the deep societal inequities laid bare. Like so many others, it’s left me bruised and grieving, raw and exposed, but also tentatively hopeful, filled with longing, trying my best to cobble things back together, trying hard to see the beauty in unexpected places.
Andrea Curtis lives in Toronto.
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