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posted March 29, 2004

March 2004: As spring comes nearer

As spring comes nearer, the park is undergoing its yearly transformation. Suddenly the people are back! In the playground, on the soccer field, on the basketball court, at the oven, sitting on benches, everywhere. Five days in the park, to show what I mean:

On the last Thursday in March it was 17 degrees, and the farmers' market --still inside the rink house -- was swamped. The farmers say they're used to that --as soon as it gets warm, people feel like coming to a market and getting some greens. Colette Murphy, who sells organic and heirloom seeds at the market, was surrounded by gardeners. (And our young park garden volunteers have trays and trays of yoghurt containers filled with dirt, set out on the rink house windowsills, carefully marked for their seed type.)

The next day, Friday, City Councillor Adam Giambrone brought three members of a delegation from the municipal region of Southeastern Botswana, in Africa -- the mayor, the CEO, and the head of their HIV/Aids Homecare program -- to Friday night supper at the rink house. We don't normally have Friday night supper between seasons, and originally, none was scheduled. But Councillor Giambrone urged us to put on a special supper, in the spirit of hospitality -- the Botswanians had asked to meet some ordinary Torontonians. So we put the word out through e-mail and a few posters, and very soon the dinner was all booked up. Jesse Archibald, the new baker and cook in the park, made up a menu, and he and the park crew cooked a very fine meal. The delegation from Botswana were welcomed by over seventy neighbourhood people (kids, parents, grandparents, friends).These Botswanians were so inspired that they stood up in the middle of dinner and each of the three gave a short speech. We found out that over 30 per cent of the younger people in Botswana have HIV/Aids, and that our visitors feel deeply grateful to Stephen Lewis for bringing the African catastrophe to public attention. But we also found out that Botswana, a democratic country, has enormous waterfalls and other beauties that tourists would enjoy: they are eager to see us over there!

And when Councillor Giambrone took the visitors out to the ovens and pointed out various parts of the parks where people play sports, where they have campfires, where the Clay and Paper puppets perform, the Botswanians said: it sounds like you have many different villages here, rather like in our country.

The following day, Saturday: there were tables set up outside the zamboni garage for a rather different event, a pre-demonstration lunch for protesters bound for an immigrant detention centre in Rexdale, called the "Heritage Inn." The lunch was put on by the Ontario Coalition against Poverty, and the volunteer cooks had prepared it in our new kitchen (squash soup, salad, park oven bread, juice or coffee). Your editor walked around picking the winter's litter out of the native species gardens, and listening to the speeches. Some of what she heard made her wonder if the young speakers had skipped out of history class most days when they were in school. But the speakers' reminders about our government's recent treatment of Muslim immigrants made your editor ashamed. One speaker described the high fence around the detention centre: chain link on three sides, but wood on the side facing Rexdale Boulevard -- wood to hide the sight of detainees standing at the fence, looking out. Presumably there are too many long-established immigrants in this city who can remember being locked inside a displaced-persons camp after various European wars, looking out through a high wire fence. They might not take kindly to this flashback to their own captivity. So our government will hide the detainees -- children included, of course -- with a high fence you can't see through if you're driving by.

When the speeches, ranging from foolish to gripping, were done, four Laidlaw buses pulled up and the demonstrators filed onto them and left the park. Evidently you can rent Laidlaw buses to take you anywhere, whether to a school game or a revolution -- it's all fine as long as you pay your rental.

The next day, Sunday: the day of the seventh annual pre-Passover matzo baking. The community oven had to be lit early, so it would be burning at over 500 degrees before the matzo-making began. Annie Hurwitz and Ron Paley arrived with their kids and with all the supplies -- new tablecloths and rolling pins and little dough-marking tools, all kosher -- around 11, and they set everything up. Then from noon until 4, families came across the park from all directions, to go off again a little while later with brown paper bags holding the bread they made. That was some hubbub! -- of talking and rolling dough and giving advice and snippets of history and waiting for a turn with the peel. Jessica Moore, the oven staff person, was continuously at the oven until 4 p.m., and then she had a very stiff back from bending over for so long, pushing the matzo bread in and out. But she said it was beautiful, to see that mindful gathering, preparing for their festival.

Gene Threndyle, the gardener who made the park's marsh fountain and many of the other native species areas, came with a few people from Wychwood Barns park (the former TTC streetcar yard), who intend to build a bake oven on their site, very soon. These visitors looked at plans and they measured our oven and then most of them went off with our step-by-step picture album, which we made when master oven-builder Alan Scott was here in 2000 helping us build out second oven. Gene stayed behind and sprayed the park's three cherry trees with dormant oil (it stinks like rotten eggs). Then he worked for some hours cleaning up the marsh fountain and the other Garrison-Creek-bed gardens. He broke up the dead stalks left over from last fall and spread them on the beds so they would be prickly and uncomfortable, preventing any homeless person from moving their bedding into the gardens.

A group of actors based in Halifax arrived too -- a troupe called "Zuppa Circus" -- to settle on a location for their June performance as part of the "Festival of outdoor theatre." They walked all around the park trying to imagine it as it looks when the trees are in leaf, and the gardens are so tall you can't even see through to the other side. They settled on a spot near the playground rain shelter. The giant Uzbhekistan yurt belonging to Michele Oser and Ian Small will be the backdrop to their play.

After their decision had been made, about where to perform in June, the actors all went to the bathroom in the rink house before getting into their car. They had been at a conference on Maritime Theatre (in Toronto!) and were leaving the city right then, to drive all night, so that they'd get back to Halifax in time for the Nova Scotia theatre awards the next evening. We gave them a bag of park bread and some park cookies for the road. They headed out the door of the rink house just as a group of <b>marimba players</b> were carrying their big wooden marimbas inside for a rehearsal. And after the marimbas were done, it would be the turn of the Darbazi Georgian choir practice.

Then Monday: the day turned out so sunny and warm that -- despite it being a workday -- the park was lively with people again by late afternoon. This time the action was focused on the basketball court. The park has so many schools nearby. All the benches near the court were filled with giggly after-school girls, watching and commenting on the players. Beside the bake oven a young man waving a bottle of beer was rapping to another group of (unimpressed) girls. The song had obscene references holding it together in a tight weave. (Ugh.) Even more a sign of spring, though, was the presence of two -- then three more, then another two -- pit bulls straining at their leashes. Their young owners, like the robins, return to the park at the first whiff of spring, and for a while late Monday afternoon the park rang with the dogs' high-pitched barks. Your editor zigzagged from group to group on her bicycle, berating them about the bad image they were getting by having so many pit bulls in the park at once. These groups are accustomed to the park's editor/nag, arguing with them about their dogs and their language and the music they try to plug into the park electrical outlets. There is fondness as well as suspicion on both sides of this cultural divide -- the editor and the youth are at the same time glad and exasperated to see each other, taking up the same old arguments they left off when last winter came.

Our visitors from Botswana were right, though. This is a park with many villages in it, and now that spring is almost here, they're all coming out, right along with the tulips.

Jutta Mason

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