40 Days Done

by Jason Ramsay-Brown

TFN hit a major milestone today: all of our newsletter back issues are finally available online! Frequent visitors to our site will have watched this unfold in real time over the last few weeks with our 40 Years in 40 Days initiative. For those who missed it, from July 2 to August 10 we released a full year of back issues each day.

Our September 2021 issue will provide insight in to how digitization was accomplished and the future efforts TFN will apply to unlocking the immense value contained in the 660 newsletters published to date. However, our enthusiasm to start sharing retrospectives simply couldn’t be contained! It will take the TFN Archives team many months to adequately tease out interesting threads and storylines, some the length of decades, but in honour of this milestone I thought a romp through some of our milestone newsletters might be a fun place to start.

Issue 100 (April 1951)

Much of the issue is spent reminiscing about the early history of “the club,” but in this we find all kinds of insights about Toronto’s relationship with our natural areas at the time. Most notable is a commemoration of TFN’s creation of a nature trail in Sunnybrook Park, opened on June 7, 1930, and “believed to be the first city nature trail opened in Canada.” (pg. 8). Also of interest is mention of placards that TFN had been attaching “to trees in sundry parts of the Toronto region” which read:

“SPARE THE FLOWERS. Don’t pull them up by the roots. Don’t pick many of them. Don’t take the rare kinds at all. YOU CAN DO YOUR PART. Save our native wild flowers from destruction. Help to preserve them for future years. Help to keep Canada beautiful.” (pg. 4)

We didn’t publish photographs in the newsletter back then so what such a sign looked like is left up to the reader’s imagination.

Issue 200 (December 1963)

Between the Internet, on-demand streaming services, and 24/7 news stations, contemporary naturalists can feed their interests on a whim, to the point of gluttony. Back in ’63, however, newsletters like ours were one of the few reliable sources for spontaneous and inspired learning about nature.

The December 1963 issue opens with an exhaustive summary of a member’s birdwatching trip to Trinidad & Tobago earlier that year, including a three page “List of Birds Observed in Tobago and Trinidad” (pg. 5). The author’s comments regarding the quality of the few ornithological field guides available at the time, and noting that “For the flowers it was more difficult as there was no suitable book to be had …” speaks volumes as to why observations from so far a field were of interest to TFN readers.

On the local front, the highlights of recent hikes paint some pretty interesting pictures of nature in the city at the time. Notes from a botany trip in Wilket Creek Park were of particular interest, with its off-hand remark about black swallowwort, the less-populous type of dog-strangling vine that is now virtually everywhere in Toronto’s natural areas.

Issue 282: TFN’s Golden Jubilee (March 1974)

This double-size issue of the newsletter, celebrating TFN’s 50th Anniversary, is rife with historic content and observations. Many full-page black & white photographs provide a fascinating glimpse in to the naturalists of decades past, out wandering Toronto’s wilds in three-piece suits, ties and so-called “Sunday dresses,” sharp haircuts slicked-down with pomade or tucked beneath dapper hats & caps. I can only imagine the looks of horror I’d receive from participants showing up to one of those rambles as I did my last TFN walk, decked out in cargo shorts and a Descendants t-shirt almost as old as I am.

More contemporary content in the issue describes a recent meeting of TFN “Raviners,” members volunteering “to locate ravines and to make an inventory of all life in them, using the Chatsworth Ravine Study as a guide.” (pg. 38) A series of Ravine Studies would be published by TFN over the next five years and empower our efforts to successfully advocate for City Council to “… enact bylaws designating and protecting ravine lands.” (also pg. 38)

Issue 300 (May 1976)

I took a break from writing this post to attend a TFN stewardship event in Cottonwood Flats, during which my friend, Lynn Miller, set me straight about the transmissibility of rabies from raccoon scratches. Perhaps this was why some news & observations shared by a TFN member from Loretto, Ontario, found on page 5 of our May 1976 issue, may as well have been surrounded by neon lights. If nothing else, the photo of her family’s habituated racoon friends, Dennis and Clara, all snuggled up to their dog, Pupdog, is a must-see.

Dennis, Clara & Pupdog

On page 8 begins “The Island Airport … Son of Pickering,” a two-and-a-half page missive on the Island airport, an issue every bit as contentious today as it apparently was back in 1976. Almost prophetically, the contributor writes, “Round and round the airport goes: where it stops, nobody knows.”

Oh, I would have thought that Diana Banville’s description of her fifteen foot tall solidago canadensis a misprint were it not for her accompanying description of it “towering over the garage in great splendour.” (see “Weeds, beautiful weeds!” on pg. 11)

Issue 400 (December 1988)

Scattered here and there in our natural areas, one occasionally encounters a well-weathered green sign with the phrase “Natural Regeneration Area” printed on it. While it’s not difficult to imagine what these signs indicate, more than a few of us have wondered aloud about them. A letter from Herb Pirk, Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, “… regarding Natural Regeneration areas that have recently been established by the City of Toronto Department of Parks and Recreation.” (pg. 10) may be the first tangible lead I’ve personally encountered as to the origins of these enigmatic signs. For sure a thread worth teasing out in the near future, if only for my own personal satisfaction.

For fans of High Park, details on the then-upcoming Master Planning Study, provided by Jerry Belau of the City’s Parks Planning and Policy Group, may prove an interesting read. With little more than my own personal observations and biases to blame, I had always thought of High Park as the very model of curated experiences and conscious planning, so discovering that until the late ’80s “the 400-acre High Park [had] evolved without the benefit of an overall guiding strategy and vision.” was, to me, a bit shocking.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to page 29 and Jim Garratt’s discovery of fragile prickly pear cactus (O. fragilis) in the Scarborough Bluffs!

Issue 500 (May 2001)

Local airports in the newsletter again, this time by way of an article by Wallace Immen quoted from the Globe & Mail (Mar. 24, 2001). While mentioning that two-thirds of the land expropriated for the Pickering airport back in 1972 was still being reserved for such a purpose, the real point of the article was to announce that the remaining acreage, and a “50-hectare federal property known as the Gap, at Little Rouge and Reesor Road” would be set aside as green space and might “make it possible to create a continuous Rouge Park that extends from the moraine all the way south to Lake Ontario.” (pg. 23)

Through an an equally interesting piece by Ian Wheal we learn that, apparently, the very first Community Allotment Garden in Toronto was founded in Parkdale!

“On Saturday, May 15, 1915 an inaugural ceremony was held at King Street West and Dunn Avenue. Two lots had been set up at the intersection, an 80′ x 80′ lot on the northeast corner, and a 40′ x 100′ one on the northwest corner.” (pg. 25)

Issue 600 (December 2013)

From John Bacher’s, “Toronto’s lame response to 2013 floods,” to Vivienne Denton’s, “A white-footed mouse tale,” there’s no shortage of interesting reading in this issue, but nothing hit me quite as hard as a couple of sentences tucked away in a “Keeping in Touch” feature:

“Jack and Mary Gingrich have a memory of going on a TFN outing Bob [Taylor] led to Centre Island in October 1963. They saw 39 saw-whet owls and a short-eared, but the highlight was a boreal owl.” (pg. 13)

Granted, my fellow TFNers experiences may well differ from my own, but I still recall my utter delight in spotting a mere 3 saw-whets on the same day during a TFN walk along the Humber in 2018. To spot nearly 40 in a day is something I simply can’t imagine.

Wrap Up

Popping in and out of our run in such an arbitrary fashion was really just an indulgence. After all, these issues weren’t published in relation to anything objectively important like some major world event or stunning piece of nature news. Yet, even such a small and random sampling reveals so many “threads and storylines” worth pursuing. What might we learn about the spread of DSV in the city? Has our population of saw-whet owls really declined that dramatically? How have naturalists’ sensibilities changed over the decades? Are there still fragile prickly pears on the Bluffs? Just how often do we talk about airports in the GTA? When I wrote that the TFN Archives team has many months of work ahead of them, that might have been a severe understatement.

The Toronto Field Naturalists wish to acknowledge this land through which we walk. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississauga of the Credit River. Today it is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to be on this land.