July 27, 2011
Today was supposed to be a day in which we played simple tourists, tooling around the city on a double-decker bus and taking photographs of Toronto landmarks and attractions with our purple and orange kid-safe cameras. But, this just didn’t seem right. We’re not tourists. We’re Toronto residents. And, our city is in crisis. The hefty new mayor from the city’s extremities and his look-alike brother councillor, who was quoted, by the way, as being admittedly unfamiliar with our city icon, the activist, novelist, and poet Margaret Atwood (perhaps because he doesn’t ever ride the subway, or walk down Bloor street, or read…) are planning massive cuts to essential programs and services. The short-list includes: shutting down several of our public libraries, eradicating expensive bike lanes at even more expense to the public, and closing or privatizing the city’s fabulous urban farms and zoos.
Now, the Toronto Zoo, the High Park Zoo, and the Riverdale Farm are three of our favourite places in the city. Over the past two weeks alone, we have had day-long trips to all three. The Riverdale Farm is a particular favourite with us. When I first moved to Toronto with my husband, we lived on Winchester Street, in Cabbagetown. The Farm was my respite during graduate school, when I could stroll beneath a canopy of Catalpas and over to the Francey Barn for a quick view of the baby goats or one of Bella’s new calves. Moments there provided a fabulous respite from writing papers or marking student essays on “Caliban upon Setebos.” (Got that, Ford brothers? Or were you absent the day they taught Browning, too?) On weekends, before we had the kids, my husband and I used to mosey down the hill to count the turtles and to spot the Black-Crowned Night Herons there. We loved it so much that when we were starting out as writers, we published a series of literary chapbooks under the imprint of “Urban Farm.” And, even though we live in the East End now, we’re still going back. My husband’s parents still live in Cabbagetown, and the farm remains a favourite place for all of us to visit when we meet up there. The kids look upon it as an extension of their grandparents’ backyard!
So, instead of going “strictly tourist” for the day, I decided that it was time to have a little talk with the kids about exactly what our city “leaders” were planning on doing to the places we loved and if there was anything we could actually do about it. When I told the kids about our zoos and farms, the first thing they wanted to do was to bring their sketchbooks over to the Riverdale Farm to “make a memory” of the place “in case it wasn’t there when they went back.” I wasn’t sure how I should have reacted to such an anxious response to my news about the potential changes to our city. Personally, I don’t think that the people of our city will let things get so out of hand as to lose our beloved farm altogether. So, I had a talk with the kids about just how dramatic our own responses to threats or threatened change should be. Still, there remained, with them, a deep desire to record things as they are now, in these actual moments of flux, while things are still up in the air, and before any critical decisions are made. So, we packed up our sketchbooks one final time (as it turns out, our Wednesdays in July were ALL going to be sketch days!), and we took the 506 streetcar over to the old neighbourhood.
The signs posted on the gates to the farm set the tone for our trip! If we wanted to “Save Riverdale Farm,” there were plenty of ways we might go about doing it…by joining the Friends of the Riverdale Farm, by speaking out to our city councilors, and letting our voices be heard. The kids thought that they’d try to use their sketches to help them memorize what the animals looked like, in case they needed to talk about them with any of their local representatives, like our own councillor, Mary Margaret McMahon . I agreed that this would be a good idea.
So we got to work. The first animals the kids wanted to sketch were the piglets outside of the Pig and Poultry Barn, because piglets are only piglets for so long, they thought. And how would anyone know that there were piglets there to enjoy if the piglets were all grown up before it came time for them to make their decisions?
Then, we moved on to the Francey Barn, where we attempted to sketch a baby goat – the same, after all, could be said about the baby goats as the piglets…The barn was fairly busy that day. Several day-camps had bussed over. In fact, my kids met several of their school friends in the barns that day, because at least two of the groups of campers were from Centre 55 and Le Roux, right in our own ward. So it was a bit difficult, at times, to stand still in front of an animal without being greeted by a friend or having an unfamiliar elbow tickle your side. The bleating sheep were calling out for attention, too. Still, this didn’t stop Bea and Tobes from doing what they had set out to do. In fact, the crowds inspired them to stand their ground and to get their drawings “to save the farm” done.
We visited the horses, next. Remarking on the donor-plaque affixed to the bench she was sitting on, my daughter asked me if they were going to “take away the benches, too, if they closed the farm?” I’m not sure I had a proper answer for that…I don’t really want my daughter thinking of her mayor as the oversized Grinch who stole our city services. (Though, this does help to explain why the cost of our rec. centre swim lessons went up by 80% between the publication of the city brochure, the mayor’s election, and registration day!) Nor do I want her to have a particularly apocalyptic imagination. Still, she raised a spine-tingling question!
Then, the kids got on their tippy toes, to sketch, or “memorize,” the newest cow. I had already memorized a few cows of my own! So, while they sketched, I told the kids about the calves, bulls, and cows I had come to know in the nineties and one’s, the Belted Galloways with the white stripes that bisected their deep black frames, Wooly, the shaggy, red Scottish Highland who had been transferred, or so we thought, to the High Park Zoo, and my favourite, ever-bearing Bella, the Guernsey — or was she a Jersey?
As we moved over to trace our friend the donkey, I told them, too, about the baby emu I had witnessed transforming, over the course of a few months, from a checker-headed chic into a knife-toed oracle. As a subject of investigation, the Donkey himself (was that Dusty? was Dusty still there? or was this the near-relation, Moon Dust?) was rather uncooperative. He was hiding out in the new hutch that had been built in the last year or so. No matter…the kids were going to memorize his shape whether he invited observation or no.
Then, we took a long stroll down the hill to the turtle ponds and the famous old “gorilla house” which dates back to the farm’s early days as a zoo. Here’s where the kids forgot themselves for a while, or, at least, they forget their troubles over what things might be lost or privatized, made unavailable to anyone who couldn’t afford to pay…Though, I’m not sure that I forgot.
The turtles, the turtles. Unless they paved the place, I thought, those turtles weren’t going anywhere.
When we climbed the hill again, most of the campers and large groups were gone. So, we returned to the Francey barn to take one long, lingering look at that baby goat before we took a final farewell for the day. Lucky for us the kid had transformed from a shy, arrested, and cowering little thing to an investigative jumper in search of a good pat.
Though I couldn’t capture it on film, there was a moment, sure, when they looked back as we left. Who wouldn’t? And yes, I held fast to their sketchbooks as they did so.
Now on to sending sketches to the people in the know….and, next week, the public library!