When I came home today, I decided I'd go out again. The mail included a package from my mom; ever since I left, she has sent me Canadian maple leaves that have changed colour. Every Fall, she collects them from the grid of streets around her house. The leaves, she files between pages of the densest books on the shelf, and when they are flat enough to send and still pertly vibrant, she wraps them in plastic envelopes and labels the manila package "PLEASE DO NOT BEND OR FOLD." I unwrapped a similar package when I was living in Finland; "What a waste of money!" my Austrian friend had declared. The leaves I pinned to the wall or spread out on display. They would collect dust until closer to Christmas; I'd discard them then, after a final admiration of their brittle colours.
There was a small lake near our flat in Kaukajärvi, about a five minute walk down a relatively tame pine trail. Once, early on, we tried walking to school. At that time, I couldn't understand why the bus routes were so convoluted: in Toronto, you have buses that go from East to West, and North to South because everything is at right angles. We walked along pine-heavy streets that turned seamlessly into a modest highway. After forty-five minutes of walking with only a coniferous horizon and the blur of cars in sight, we decided to throw in the towel and take the bus, whichever would show up at the miraculously out-of-place busstop by the ditch. We didn't even care if the driver could give us directions in English, we just had to get back to the city in time.
Going home again, I rode back westward through the Zuiderpark. The sun was striking the low-rise apartments brassy orange. As I rode on, the park was turning a dusty purple, with only slight golden inflections of rustling leaves; the rest was the colour of something I half-remembered. Riding back the way I came, I realized that the colour was of my impression of Canadian autumn, one and the same as my idea of Canada and of nature. It struck me that my recognition of this colour links directly to grade five or six, when kids at school were turning up with environmentally friendly teal and fuschia coolers for their lunches, parents conscientiously eschewing the disposable flexibility of plastic sacks. The same kids had t-shirts that read "Don't Say Goodbye" printed with a drawing of a seal, or dolphin, or something - the sale proceeds of which went to some wildlife preservation campaign. They also had tin pencil cases from the Body Shop with friendly magenta elephants and orange hippos smiling for their proceeds. We built compost bins, bird feeders, and terrariums from 2 liter soda bottles. That was when I gained an idea of the colour-of-nature. Not so much Nature nature, as the Environment nature. The colour of greenhouse gas concerns, reduce-reuse-recycle mantras, David Suzuki, and wind-chimes. Nature nature was different; it smelled like tangerine glycerin soap and had something of tropical lagoons and coral reefs. The Environment was the colour of "Northern Reflections" and "Eddie Bauer"; purple dusk, heather, taupe, dark berry velour, musky forest green - forest green! - and the brown of fake suede belts with burnished buckles. The Environment was Canadian, not lush Amazon canopies, but the murky colour that spans umber and moss, cool to the touch, trailing off in a cedar-scented plume of smoke as it slow-burns through 'til morning.
Riding home through the Zuiderpark, past pewtery swathes of pond, and lawns angled into trimmed planes around skateboard, barbeque, or fitness zones, I remembered something about the Environment that, all of a sudden, I missed very much. Taking a turn off the manicured bike path, I ventured onto a trail that, with unexpected haste, cleared the park and paralleled four lanes of suburban traffic. The Saturn media superstore was visible beyond the tree-line. Perturbed, I had to stop. Wresting my bike over the curb on a sharp 180, I turned back to the park, unready to face this encroachment of street lamps and crosswalks. At the very least, I wanted the polite taupes and heathers of reeds and brush. I wanted to pretend that this was Environment nature, that I could still have the autumn of my childhood. Growing up in Toronto, I had very little idea of what nature looked like, other than weekend trips to Taylor Creek Park, when we would shove our bikes into the family van and drive out to the trail in order to ride them. I used to love tearing around on the grass which was usually indistinguishable from the dirt path, a practice which was halted when my dad saw that half the spokes on my front wheel were broken. We bought two new bikes; "TREK" with quick release and light aluminum frames. I was embarrassed by their sporty colours and missed the battered green of the old bike. There was also the rare school excursion to McMichael Art Gallery that was an interminable distance from the downtown, where, as inner city kids, we'd observe Group of Seven paintings in half-boredom, and stare dumbly out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of the gallery-lodge at a dense array of Ontario foliage.
At the last crossing before the park ends, I paused in the median between the double car lanes going in either direction, heavy with dinner-time commuting. I had stopped to wait for a break in the traffic, but then found myself enjoying watching the strange flow of cars and the faint, wafting scent of a wood-burning stove, incongruous with diesel. The median was smartly trimmed; a large R presided over the bulge of the landscaping where the road bends. The R is sans-serif, and as deep as it is thick; the same size as standard civic monuments. I recognized the R from a similar crossing on the east side of Rotterdam, at the foot of the other park which borders the university campus and corporate sub-division. Both R's are painted dark green, semi-gloss exterior, not as muddy as "forest green", and contain a grid for impatiens planters to be slotted in neatly with renewed growth every season. In the summer, the R's brim with impatiens, and their dark green frames are overshadowed by coral pink and vermillion.
Rotterdam, October 26, 2011