Article 12: The Ravines

There is a secret country in Toronto—the ravines. From the street they are seen only as quiet, unassuming gates of green; but through them unfolds a wide polyrhythmic pulse, a descent into a quilt of gorges.

The extent of Toronto's ravine network is unusual and defines the city. In fact, it is the largest network of ravines of any city in the world. So, while Montreal has a hill that everyone can see, and NYC has a park in the centre, Toronto’s greatest green-space, the ravine network, lies out of view. And yet it is larger by a significant degree — 10 500 hectares of wild (the city’s parks are separate green space) — and not centralized in expensive neighborhoods but equitably distributed amongst all corners. No matter where you are in Toronto, a foray into wilderness is only a short walk away.

The ravines are prehistoric scars on the chest of the city. If you had the geological time-lapse footage for Toronto and fast-forwarded to the end of the last ice age, 12 000 years ago, you’d see a three- kilometre-thick continent¬sized glacier above you right now. You’d be beneath an ice sheet taller than five CN Towers stacked on top of each other. And that enormous ice sheet is moving, headed north, and as it moves it’s immense weight is carving out millions of long, deep gashes in the bedrock which meltwater flows through and further expands. Eventually the ice sheet retreated far to the north, but it left behind a changed landscape, a Toronto scratched and stretched apart by deep ravines that bisect the city like the lines on your hand.

Today these ancient ravine are like passageways “great sunken gardens”, “rooms of green sunlight”, to Toronto poet Anne Michaels - that reach through the city like fingers, weaving through virtually every neighbourhood. You can enter a ravine at Steeles and Leslie and emerge, hours later, in Cabbagetown. Toronto’s ravines are so distinct, their verdant tendrils forming the city’s unique green handprint from above, that it has been suggested that if the CN Tower is Toronto’s unavoidable phallic symbol, then the ravines are the feminine corollary.

Suddenly, far from being a flat place, inclusion of the ravines reveals Toronto to be a landscape of inverted hills and unpredictable drops. Some of the ravines are 300- 400 feet below the surrounding land, many with a steepness only 20° away from vertical. Toronto is, in the phrase of architect Larry Richards, a “San Francisco in reverse.” Though to miss this alter-ego of our city is unsurprising, almost the work of a deliberate conspiracy: much of the city was purposely built around the ravines, the road network bypassing or crossing bridges above them, making it easy to travel through the city totally unaware of the sharp variations in topography. But Toronto is not as flat and straight as its planners have made it seem. We all drive through, past, or over the ravines.

And then there are those who choose to go into them. Novelist Hugh Hood describes Toronto as “a city where sooner or later you find yourself going down into a dark place in the ground.” The majority of the ravines have city-built and often wheelchair accessible paved paths. Other paths are desire lines and are quite rough, more like a dare: Is this a path in the woods or am I just hoping it is? Regardless, just a few feet into any path, the city drops away, its buildings disappeared behind, the city’s noise and traffic gone. Trees, nature, peace and solitude. You can walk paths without even knowing where you are going. It truly feels like the wild countryside. It's no surprise that the ravines were a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway when he lived in Toronto.

Despite the huge number of people who live around them, you can sometimes walk a ravine path and pass nobody for an hour or two. When you do pass a person going for a walk with the dog, or squeezing a 15-minute hike into a busy day, there is the usual awkward glance-and-nod system of uncertain human contact. The loneliness here can be a joyous intoxication. On weekends, though, the paths are usually well used and are a good time to go if you don’t want to feel as alone. Many people walk, run, or bike. Some families picnic off the path; the city has even installed metal barbeque-stands in a few locations. There are many people who fish in the ravines. I once met a woman who was collecting wild mushrooms, and I’ve seen people forage for wild (and valuable: $500 to $600 per pound) American Ginseng, neither of which the Toronto Conservation Agency wants you to do. They call this activity poaching.

You don’t need to drive three hours to Algonquin Park to see wildlife. The ravines are like a national park that has been tucked into a city. Our ravines are connected to the the wilderness north of the city, forming a nature corridor that animals and plants migrate and drift up and down through, like a feral highway. The ravines are home to more than 762 plant species (89 are wild edibles), hundreds of mushroom subspecies, over a hundred species of birds, and 19 species of amphibians and reptiles.

In the ravines you may come upon clouds of Red Admiral butterflies, beavers, pheasants, deer, coyote, salmon, dog-strangling vine, wild grape, eastern cottonwood, black cherry, red fox, red-tailed hawk, whitewater and white pine. But here these creatures are anything but a list. Life surrounds you and when you look at a plant or an animal there is no David Attenborough voice to tell you what they are.

The ravines are a being in whose flesh you are entangled. The smell of the woods is aromatherapy; you are breathing in wood oils and the perfume of microorganisms feasting (there’s a Japanese term for this: ‘'forest bathing"). Around you are trillions of spores, seeds, viruses and bacteria, many that have never been classified and never will.

Ravine life sees us and interacts with us. In the summer I saw a crayfish, a small freshwater lobster, sitting in a few inches of water in a stream. Trying to get it, it pinched me with its claws. The other night just after sunset, a saw-whet owl alighted on a branch above me and watched me as I wearied up a hill, almost as if it wanted to make sure I left.

In a city of 2.7 million, the ravines are the Wild and Uncolonized.

Margaret Atwood wrote that "to go down into them is to go down into sleep, away from the conscious electrified life of the houses. The ravines are darker, even in the day.” Rich people have their houses built right up against the ravines — but not in them. The city spends millions encasing ravines’ edges in metal cages trying to contain their movement and stop erosion or mudslides. The urban areas of the city depend on the ravines’ wild-nature to improve air quality and control flood waters. It was the destruction wrought by Hurricane Hazel on the suburbs that led to the ravines being protected against more suburban development. The ravines are used as a floodplain bulwark to protect Toronto during extreme weather events. Whenever it rains too much for the sewers, the ravines channel the excess into the lake, saving us at their expense. When the city was first built, residents just used the ravines as sewers themselves.

The ravines have long been the home for what society didn’t want, a shelter for the suppressed and the repressed. Some estimates say there’s about 100 people living in the Don Valley ravine. The ravines are a popular destination for recreational drug users looking for a safe and sedate place away from people and laws. If you spend enough time there a wiff of weed, or seeing a person hugging a tree while probably on acid, is bound to happen. During WWII, a prisoner of war camp was located in the ravines, the prisoners confined in tents and huts while mining clay at the Don Valley brick works and the Greenwood clay pits. The ravines have been a popular spot for gay cruising throughout Toronto’s history, especially when it was outlawed and stigmatized. During one attempted night time police crackdown in the ravine, a plain-clothes cop made contact with a guy who offered sex. When he identified himself to make an arrest, he got shoved and fell a considerable distance. The police backed off the entrapment tactics after that; the landscape was simply not conducive to easily enforcing hierarchy or law. There in the bush, "Orgies easily start and continue with changing personnel," one man recalled, "It is really quite civilized."

Though it was repression that led men into the ravines, once there it provided a pastoral setting for amour. Here is city librarian Rick Bebout, a gay liberationism AIDS activist, and with the ravines as backdrop, erotic photographer: “There was the sweet boy leaning on a tree just off the trail from the upper park, clearly very young and very nervous. ... There was the dark haired boy in black dress pants (a waiter, he said, here from Belgium) that he got muddy as we slid together down a hill. ... The funny little man who wanted us to take off all our clothes and have sex on a rock in the stream. We did, then sat naked on a log -- and got our bottoms bit by ants. And there was Ken Hutchinson. He was there to wander and sun, I to take pictures: of the stream, the viaduct, the piers, all wonderful. And of course I took pictures of him. Ken leaning back naked on a fallen limb. And with that — I ran out of film. We didn't have sex. But I did keep those pictures."

Perhaps the most under appreciated aspect of the ravines is their great gift to the city’s sensuality. There is an intense and lurid plant life: spikes intermingle with delicate flowers, shuddering beauty heighten by thorns. The ravine shape itself, V, pushes matter on top of each other, sliding life onto life. Walking down into the ravines brings blood to the cheeks. An Atwood protagonist reflects: “It seemed wrong to have this cavity in the city.” The ravines fill the city with poetry and stories, an awareness often beginning in childhood with the nourishment of contact and interchange it provides with other shapes of life, antlered and loop¬tailed and amber-eyed beings whose resplendent weirdness loosens our imaginations. I grew up thinking that in every city children descended into ravines; I knew them as the only place away from parents, society. Toronto poet Elana Wolff alludes to the ravine’s proto- sexual significance in the lives of young girls:

And in the soft mythology of memory, gully triumphant.

Intractably tied to the tail end of girlhood.

Damp gash where trilliums peeked like summer poutice fairies and were snatched.

Toronto resident Murray Seymour, author of a guidebook to the ravines, describes what he felt when discovering the ravines: “One day in desperation, tired beyond measure of walking the endless paved roads of suburbia, I cut across an overgrown field and almost fell into a green, riverine land. I remember even now how I felt I felt my chest expand, breathing in the oxygen from the trees. There was water down below, rushing over stones and darting through rapids. It sounded like water, looked like water, smelled like water. And though there was not a cloud in the sky, my cheek was wet." Jason Ramsay-Brown, author of the blog Walking with Abbey, travels the ravines with his 6 year old daughter. On Flickr there are thousands of photographers for whom the ravines have been their muse. And besides artistic potential there is literal buried treasure in the ravines: there’s a story that as the Americans looted our city in April 1813, British soldiers buried their money in Gates Gully.

Many new immigrants, coming from climates where danger lurks proudly in the forest, are wary of the ravines. ‘There’s no poisonous snakes here, no poisonous spiders?’ While there are none of those here, it does require a certain unearned confidence to wander the ravines. There is danger in them — rare flash floods, unleashed dogs, strangers. Anyone who extolls the virtues of the ravines must stress the importance of being careful; tell a friend, take a phone, bring a friend. You could sprain an ankle or slip on winter ice. Waterways are often deceptively fast moving and very cold, even in the height of summer, and can be deadly if you fall in. Even light rains can transform trickling streams into raging rivers, death traps that sound and move like fast-moving freight trains and overflow their banks. As one poet says, "The floor of the ravine where light lies broken.”

The most unfortunate ravine community are the people whose bodies are found there. Less unfortunate but still shaken are the people who find them. Bricklayer Charles Edwards was working near Bathurst and Lawrence and decided to take a few minutes' break to walk down into a wooded ravine at the bottom of the street. He hadn’t gone very far when he almost stumbled over what he first thought was a sleeping man. He said, "Pardon me." Then he saw the blood. The man had been shot three times, somewhere else, and dragged there. "I can still see his wide, glassy eyes staring at me.” And the ravines each year give up their share of suicides and unexplained deaths. A woman walking her dog on a Sunday morning stumbled upon skeletal remains in the area just east of Royal York Rd. The remains were wearing only one running shoe and a pill bottle was found on the ground nearby. Nature is beautiful but it is also ceaseless fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.

The ravines remind you that you’re an animal, a fellow creature of earth; here we tune our animal senses to the sensible terrain, blend our skin with the rain-rippled surface of a creek, mingle our ears with the thunder, our eyes with the molten sky through gold and red in the fall, lush and cool green in spring and summer, solemn cold in the winter. This beauty has an effect: many studies have found increased brain activity in people after a walk in the woods, reduced stress, better memory. The ravines change how you relate to your body. Sliding down a gully, hopping over fallen trees, stepping over a creek and slipping but catching yourself at the last moment - the ground is a dance partner. It is never flat. But an immense puzzle: shoes always avoiding puddles. Matter is soft here, such a contrast to the clean edges of the city and its canyons of straight lines and non-living non-porous matter. Some metal stakes abandoned here feel horribly cold, colder than anything in the whole woods. Even the rock here is soft. I’m elated to discover an exposed creckbed with layers of clay that peel off and mould in my hand. This stuff supports all our houses.

The ravines have never been more important to a good life. Dutch media scholar Christoph Lindner argued recently that in an age of population density and near constant technological distraction where we’re becoming irradiated and sedentary beings, smart cities ought to create "slow-spots" -- pockets of silence and attention that could house ' creative sites of decelerated practice and experience." Well, Toronto already has these places. How lucky Toronto is. Here’s Toronto green entrepreneur Geoff Cape: Every smart city in the world is trying to figure out how to develop a green strategy and a sustainability strategy. Ours is embedded in our landscape. It's here. We just need to pay attention to it.’

Once there paying attention is easy. This is a landscape of continual interruptions of forms endless layered and shadowed against one another, terrifyingly rich, full of noticings and adventures, of the healthy kind. A painted place, fractal, as intense in each spot as all others, encourages a constant and promiscuous concentration. In the span of a few minutes: Two squirrels make impromptu shadow puppets. A swarm of dragon flies. A tiny blue butterfly. A tree that drops a fragrant fruit. A chipmunk that sounds like a snake rattling. A strange strange orange fruit with a barb. A graffiti tagged ‘fuck’ on the opening tunnel of a buried creek. The tunnel is big enough to enter and traverse underground in near total darkness for 50 meters, chanting to stave off fear. I follow the creek for the next 20 minutes until it entered a tunnel running beneath someones backyard. I find vines you can literally swing on, and I do. A natural ampitheatre and two chairs and someones script notes. A plum left in the middle of a stump like an offering to the woods. A fire pit with an abandoned paperback. I spend a few minutes staring into a clear pool watching the drops fractal. I feel high. I bend down and touch the closest piece of bark. Inside is a spider menacingly guarding her egg sac. I mouth an 'I’m sorry' and return the bark.

A study finds that looking at nature photos or taking a walk in the woods "makes people care more for the future" and "entices people to prefer greater, delayed rewards over smaller, immediate rewards". The more we know about the ravines the better we can protect and respect them and use them, even if their main use is to put aside all cares. For to forest bathe is actually to get dirty, you are truly being bathed, touched, immersed, nature gives the body a sort of reverse scrubbing, actually made dirtier but by things that are wild, and, hence, “cleansed” of civilization, perhaps dirtied but healed. The woods help keep the city sane. As one newspaper columnist put it, “After a long trip home on a crowded subway — where two jerks clogged the door, tripping everyone who came on and off — well, a trip to the woods is just the antidote to manslaughter.”

I come to a small clearing nestled near the riverbank. This used to be the home of Toronto’s Peace Lady, who appeared throughout the city in flowing white and waving peace signs on bridges. She lived in this spot for 25 years, her tarplin encampment covered with religious messages. No idea where she is now; it is strange to finally stand here. The ravines are full of other departed spirits. One time, bending a crooked trail just off this path, I stood less than 10 feet from a fully horned deer buck. 100 years ago, right here was a farming hamlet called Clark’s Settlement or Clarksville, one of the first communities in the area. The village had a smith, school and church. I can’t find any sign of its foundations here. Nothing will bring back the thousands of huge pines that grew here and were felled to make masts for the British navy. The original name for the Don River was Nechengquakekonk. I let that name possess my English tongue. In 2000, digging for a housing development beside an east-end ravine unearthed ceramic sherds. Eight months of archaeological excavation revealed a 600-year-old Huron village that supported a population of 800 to 1,000, with 16 or 17 longhouses plus sweat lodges and hearths. Over 19,000 artifacts, including stone tools and weapons, copper beads and pipes were found. That’s the most extensive proof of human life in the ravines, but it’s not the oldest, not by a long shot. Relics unearthed in Gates Gully ravine have been dated from the early archaic period (circa 8000 BC). That’s ten thousand years ago. At that time, the ravines were young. We are only just discovering the ravines. A partner to us for our lives while in this city. All its stories and beings. In the evening as transpiration exits the leaves, the mist rises like a crowd of ghosts.

--David Stokes