Monday, June 18, 2018

My Writing Retreat in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery
When I’m not teaching writing at UofT in Toronto, I’m often writing at home. And if I’m not writing at home, I’m often traveling to where I will write. You get the picture: I’m a writer. My website mantra reads: “I live to write; I write to live.”

I’m always looking for great places to write, to synthesize observations and experiences for an article or to plot my next novel. As writers, we are constantly studying the nature of our surroundings, how people interact, what they do, how events affect us and more. Writing is as much about experiencing life as writing about it. But we need both to flourish: something to write about and a place to write about it.

Noble Restaurant, Prince of Wales Hotel
Recently a good friend of mine lured me out of town on a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake. She didn’t blink an eye when I grabbed my computer and happily accompanied her on our wonderful adventure. We started at the Prince of Wales Hotel, named in honour of the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, who were later crowned King George V and Queen Mary.

We got there just in time for supper in the elegant and panoramic Noble restaurant. Of course, we had to order the divine “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu”, a four-course meal, paired with several fine wines. 

Fred Gamula, Sommelier
Sommelier Fred Gamula guided us through the “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu” of crisp romaine hearts, grilled chili marinated quail, pan seared trout and Grand Hotel Opera cake. Each course was paired with a wine that brought out the best in each; from an Inniskillin Chardonnay Reserve to a Flat Rock Twisted, to a Cave Spring Gamay and finally a Taylor Fladgate port. 

Gamula and I got into a diverting conversation about looking after the environment and water (I later gave him a copy of my book “Water Is…”). Gamula grew up on a small fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake and has seen some changes in the area due to development. Some not so good. We agreed that the trick is to embrace influx while preserving the very reason for that influx—to enjoy and preserve the wonderful country, vineyards and wineries in the area.

Patio, Prince of Wales Hotel
I found a wonderful place to write on the Churchill Room patio facing King Street, where the horses and carriages waited for customers. As the sun set, I drank my Campari and orange juice and wrote my novel to the cheerful sounds of birds, rustling trees and exploring people.

The next morning we wandered Queen Street before heading out to explore wine country. Curious about Reiner’s window display, I wandered into what I thought was a leather shop—expecting the usual fare such as purses, satchels, belts and the like; but it turned out to be a speciality leather ottoman store. 

These weren’t ordinary ottomans—they were all animals! Hippos, bears, moose, elephants and pigs stood on stout legs, begging for a nice home to live in.

Looking comfy on my favourite hippo
The store is named after leather crafter Reiner Henneveld who came to Canada in 1950 from Germany and created his first animal-shaped ottoman in the shape of a pig—after his pet pig, Wilbur. Reiner’s two sons have taken up the craft with a commitment to individual design and workmanship that includes hand sewing, cutting and stuffing and using the finest upholstery leather. I found them comfortable and very attractive.
After lunch we visited old favourites and explored new vineyards and wineries.

Wayne Gretzky Estates recently opened its winery and distillery on Old Stone Road. The estate is getting known for its No. 99 Red Cask Canadian Whisky; “the same soils that produce great grapes also grow grains that are used to produce whisky,” they write. The whisky is made in small batches from rye, malted rye and corn that has been individually mashed, fermented and distilled. After aging, the whisky is finished with red wine casks from the Wayne Gretzky winery.

Pork and Sangria at Ravine
The Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery is an old haunt for its charming and diversely stocked general store and its rustic-style restaurant with imaginative and surprising menus. Both inside and outside seating offer vistas of undulating countryside and the sounds of a working vineyard. Another great place to write!

General store at Ravine Vineyard Estate
I’m half-inclined to shift over to writing a murder-mystery series about a young recent George Brown graduate who comes to Niagara-on-the-Lake to work as a Sommelier in one of the hotels—only to find intrigue and—of course—a murder to solve. What do you think?...

Bird houses attached to vineyard posts at Ravine

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Spring on the Little Rouge River

Old maple secures the bank with its roots
I step out of the car in the Rouge River Park parking lot and walk to where the river passes beneath a bridge on Steeles Avenue. At this point it’s still a country road, though likely not for long. The Behemoth of encroaching development calls loudly with resounding notes of suburban sprawl. We need more space, they call with the cacophony of back hoes, moving cranes and pounding pneumatic hammers. To get to this park, I had to pass through a miasma of giant homes arranged in tight rows along sterile roadways devoid of any green except the kind we roll out from trucks. 

But here, on the Little Rouge, Nature sighs with a wild wind—for now.

Even river parks are not sacred when “progress” flexes its imperative muscles. One need only look to the Don River and the travesty enacted there by ordinary people doing what they normally do in a place they do not respect or think they have no use for, or need to answer to: litter the ground with cigarette butts and Tim Hortons disposable cups; tear down and pave over forest; fill in wetlands to put in neat lawns and straight avenues.

Canada was once known for its preservation of parks and waterways. But just recently Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told the Vancouver Sun that she wishes “to hit ‘reset button’ on Parks Canada and shift focus to conservation.” My question is, “From what?”

Nina Munteanu on the Little Rouge River
Conservation and preservation are often used interchangeably by politicians and the public in general; however, while they overlap greatly in terms of acknowledging a need to protect the environment, they differ significantly in perspective. Quite simply, conservation comes from a human-centred utilitarian perspective; preservation, on the other hand, is an eco-centred approach to preserve in-tact an ecosystem in its natural state. While conservation involves managing for humanity’s immediate needs; preservation involves a hands-off approach to help maintain the planet’s integrity (and ours by association). Preservation is what Canada was and should be doing with its National Parks. But this is not so. And apparently hasn’t been for some time. Else, why would the environment minister be calling for conservation in a national park? Else, why would she be including development in the same breath as mentioning a national park?

“Maintaining and restoring ecological integrity requires limits on development in national parks, particularly those where development can impact ecosystem health,” McKenna said with an independent working group to be struck to examine Parks Canada’s practices and approval policies for development (my italics). This is a far cry from preservation of Canada’s wilderness. A wilderness that is critical in promoting climate stability and maintaining planetary integrity (and our own lives in the process).

Little Rouge River
I peer over the high bank of the river and spot dozens—perhaps fifty or more—small fish. Probably trout. I’m told that Rainbow trout, brown trout, coho and chinook salmon, as well as suckers, bullhead and carp, flourish in the river. They find deep hollows cut by the river’s thalweg, undercuts that serve as cool refuge for these foragers.

When I enter the cool forest of cedar, pine, maple and beech, chipmunks scatter and scold me for interrupting their calm. I chuckle and think that I’ve seen more within the space of one minute here than I have in a year in the suburb I currently live in.

The Rouge River central woodland I’m walking through lies in the Carolinian forest. The Carolinian forest is a diverse mix of willow-Manitoba maple- cedar bottomland, with red oak-hemlock-white cedar slopes and hemlock-white pine-sugar maple-beech-black cherry-red oak tableland. The path leads me through snaking roots beneath the pungent smell of pine and cedar. I make my way toward the banks where beech and maple bow over the water. I spot the occasional ironwood, balsam poplar, oak, white ash and basswood, contributing their voices to the forest community.

Trout Lily
The complex smell of the forest and the sight of its floor awakening with spring flowers tugs me back to childhood. Every summer, I used to follow my older brother and sister to our nearby forest and local stream in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. We stirred soil, flower petals, moss and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions.” I spent a lot of my childhood days in the forest, close to the ground. Observing, poking, catching, prodding, destroying and creating.

Beneath the cool overstory of beech-maple-oak and hemlock a colourful understory is thrusting up through the litter and loam. Trillium. Blood root. Solomon’s seal. Trout Lily and Ostrich fern. All friends from childhood. Within weeks they will form a thick living carpet of mottled green, brown, yellow and white. 

As I peer at the living mosaic, I spot a familiar friend I’ve not seen in a while: Jack-in-the-Pulpit. They are all over the forest floor, pushing up in profusion, their large hooded and striped flowers appearing in shades of green, greenish-white and purple. The flower features a pouch-shaped spathe ("pulpit") and fingerlike central spadix ("jack"), which give the plant its common name. This rather bizarre looking plant is even more bizarre in behaviour.

I meet a nature photographer on the path and we get to talking about the spring flowers. He tells me a wonderful story about this strange plant: the young Jack-in-the-Pulpit plant first emerges as a male plant from a vegetative cormlet, putting out male flowers, which produce pollen. As it grows, the plant switches sex and the larger spadix puts out female flowers, which can then produce seeds and a cluster of berries. A more nutrient rich soil or brighter area accelerates the growth and shortens the transition from male to female. But, if conditions grow difficult from lack of nutrients or stress from drought, the female plant reverts back to being a male plant. This cycle—called sequential hermaphroditism—ensures that the plant is strong enough to reproduce and produce healthy seeds. Jack is patient and wise. And a shapeshifter.
Beeches overhang the Little Rouge

The Little Rouge River calls me to sit and listen to its flowing song—a joyful playful symphony of breaths, chortles, cackles and open-throated froth. I scramble down the overhang to the cobbles and rocks. I sit. And still my breath. I find my whole body relax from the tension of the suburban drive. I am home, sighing with the rhythm I’d forgotten. Realigning. Chick. Chick. Chick. Bones with rock. Rock with twig. Twig with root.
Tangle of roots in Cedar-Pine grove
The animals no longer scold me. They have resumed their natural rhythm, as I merge into scenery. I notice the huge maple tree above me on the bank overhang. The bank is a tangle of roots; I’d used some of them as steps to get down. They wind a braided network, thick snakes that hold the bank in place. A mysterious never-ending Ouroborous. 
Blood Root

Science tells me that all the trees of a forest are really one organism, connected by roots and the microorganisms inhabiting them, communicating through the micorrhyzae in the ground and the hundreds of aerosols the trees exhale every second of every day.

If you sit long enough in the forest you will start to feel this too. You will breathe it in. And in doing so, you will realize that we are all connected and we are all one.

I meet another local on my way back. He tells me about the history of the Rouge. Rouge River Park is one of a few wilderness areas left in South-Central Ontario.

Marsh Marigold
A site on the Internet claims that the park has been untouched by development since the arrival of Europeans; however, I have seen evidence of logging and development throughout and the local I meet in the park confirms this. Along with the housing development encroaching its southeast boundaries, the park is currently surrounded by agricultural land—some of it continuing inside the park. Little Rouge Park remains a gem of ecosystem health despite the history of human interference. I learn that, unlike other rivers in the Toronto area, the Rouge is allowed to fill its entire flood plain on a regular basis rather than being forced through an artificial channel. The result is, of course, an ecosystem that can behave like it is meant to behave, providing a home to a diversity of life.

The Rouge River watershed is home to 1,700 species of animals and plants; more than 20 are classified as species at risk.

TRCA. 2016. “Rouge River State of the Watershed Report.”
TRCA. 2013. “Rouge River Watershed Report Card.” TRCA.
Simard, Suzanne. 2016. “How trees talk to each other.”
TED Talk, June, 2016.
Kennel, Joanne. 2016. “Discovery that trees release aerosols alters climate change predictions.”
The Science Explorer, May 31, 2016.