Being a Shark

Reflections on Blackness in Canadian wilderness.

Text — Phillip Dwight Morgan
Illustrations — Florence Rivest

This is part of the Dossier Black Lives, Green Spaces.

wilderness | ’wild nis |

noun [usu. in sing]

an uncultivated, uninhabited, or inhospitable region

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Little Black boys don’t make compelling sharks, or at least that’s what I thought growing up in Scarborough. We don’t have gill slits or multiple rows of replacement teeth, and the proportions from our heads to our trunks to our tails are all wrong. I suspect that’s why I failed “Shark Level” in swimming lessons. It simply wasn’t in the cards. Prior to that moment, I’d successfully convinced people that I was a pollywog, tadpole, sunfish, and even dolphin. Becoming a shark, however, was far more difficult.

I recall standing on the white-tiled deck of the pool at L’Amoreaux Collegiate, shivering, as my wet blue-and-orange bathing trunks clung to my adolescent thighs like saran wrap and my matching blue goggles sat perched atop my head. Water dripped, then pooled, around my feet as I nervously awaited my report card from the swim instructor. As she handed it to me, my eyes zeroed in on two red Xs set apart from a column of green check marks. Apparently my whip kick was lopsided and I was 18 seconds short of the two-minute treading requirement. Dejected, I slowly walked back to the changing room. If I wanted to continue swimming, I would have to repeat Shark Level.

Three months later, when I failed to become a shark for a second time, I decided once and for all to retire from swimming at the age of 11 and avoid pools whenever possible. Despite my best efforts, no amount of practice could secure my predatory acumen.

I hid from the pool at L’Amoreaux, located a mere two-minute walk from my house, and with each passing year its presence felt increasingly strange, even otherworldly; its acrid chlorine fumes serving as a constant reminder of the peculiarity of these places.

I desperately wanted to be a good swimmer but struggled with the coordination. I didn’t see many other Black children at the pool and I recall feeling embarrassed when some of my classmates commented on my round tummy. In short, the pool was a space of alienation for me. In hindsight, I’m fairly confident that my fraught relationship with wilderness began here, in the pool, as an insecure Black boy.

As I grew older and saw other children exploring the outdoors with their families or attending overnight camps, I felt the all-too-familiar feelings of apprehension, fear, and alienation. I saw the uncertainty of the deep end of the pool mirrored in Canada’s vast lakes and forests. The dense brush and thickets, much like the bodies of water they contained, could swallow children whole and steal them from their families, forever. The easiest and safest way to avoid this fate, I concluded, was to simply avoid such places.

 

It’s not hard to see why I came to this conclusion. In addition to my own discomfort with water, there were larger societal forces at work—in film, television, literature, and visual art. Black people have been—and remain—curiously absent from the amalgam of snow-capped mountains, rivers, forests, and animals often labelled “nature” here in Canada.

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Similarly, Black people are rarely depicted in film, television, or books as adventurers, explorers, park rangers, or zoologists—people with a deep knowledge of their surrounding environment. Instead, we are passers-by, transients, vagrants—people who may be present in this vision of nature but clearly do not belong there. More often than not, we are depicted as gangsters and slaves, never managing to exist either comfortably or competently in nature.

Our knowledge, much like the clothing we are shown wearing, is unapologetically urban and, therefore, alien to this particular vision of nature. There’s a subtle but clear message here, the messaging of absence, working in tandem with these stereotypes to tell us that we are not only gangsters but gangsters unwelcome in Canadian wilderness.

Many Black folks have internalized this messaging. There are countless Black comedians who tell jokes about why Black people don’t camp, swim, rock climb, or participate in outdoor activities. The punchlines oscillate between telling audiences that these activities are “white people things” or, less often but equally problematic, how evolutionary biology has taught Black people to fear these activities. In one joke about rock climbing, for example, a Black comedian riffs, “But why would Black people willingly participate in a sport where they have to put a rope around themselves?” The mostly Black audience quickly bursts into laughter.

There’s a certain insidiousness to these narratives, a flexibility and dynamism to the process of othering that aches deep within my belly. On one hand, history shows us that Black folks have been labelled “savages” and “primitive” by colonizers to justify enslaving us and separating our bodies from the land. Our intense connection to the land formed the basis of a rationale justifying our oppression; it was a signpost of our “otherness.”

Now, in more recent years, Black folks have once again been severed from the land, but, this time, it is because we supposedly do not possess the requisite knowledge for living on this particularly hostile and frigid land. According to this messaging, Black people simply do not belong in the so-called Great White North. This narrative has been reinforced time and time again in my life when, upon meeting someone for the first time, I am asked, “Where are you from?” followed by, “But where are you really from?” whenever the response “Scarborough” does not fit with their assumptions.

It was only when I left Scarborough at the age of 17 that I began to examine my relationship with nature. At Trent University, I encountered a largely white and rural student population that, shockingly, laid claim to nature in ways that I’d never considered possible. Spouting stories of backcountry camping and the joys of the great outdoors, these students mobilized an entire wilderness vernacular that revolved around Thoreau, the Group of Seven, campfires, and portaging. As you can imagine, they were genuinely shocked to hear that I’d only been in a canoe once before during a grade six trip and that I had no knowledge of the Canadian landscape painter Lawren Harris.

In the shadow of their disbelief, I became intensely aware of the tremendous privilege and cultural capital often associated with accessing “nature.” Despite all of the romantic musings about becoming one with nature, there is a material reality—the requisite equipment such as tents and sleeping bags—that is often prohibitive. It not only limits access to nature but, also, the much-revered rest and relaxation that accompany outdoor recreation. How did you get to Rice Lake? How did you learn to paddle? Where did you get your skis or your winter ski pass? These conversations rarely occurred. Similarly, conversations about how camping and canoeing are often embedded within cultures that can be unwelcoming, if not openly hostile, toward people of colour did not occur.

As a young Black man from Scarborough studying history, the issue was not only that my family did not have a canoe or tent or ski poles or a cottage but, also, that we didn’t feel like we had any basis for laying claim to those spaces.

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Perhaps on some level we, too, believed that our biology had estranged us from the land, carefully steering us from canoes to cul-de-sacs.

For these reasons and many others, I decided to make cycling across Canada a personal goal. At the time, I viewed a cross-Canada journey as a bold act of defiance, a way of legitimizing my relationship to a particular vision of nature, one with little room for the hydro fields, basketball courts, and shopping malls of my youth. Cycling across Canada epitomized ruggedness, adventure, and direct engagement with the elements. Secretly I hoped that perhaps, like Thoreau, I would experience great personal revelation during such a trip.

Although I had the audacity to imagine the trip, I was not so naive to think that I could do it alone. Cycling across Canada would require levels of confidence and skill so far outside of my knowledge and experience that to embark on such a trip alone would be reckless. The trip would also require a lot of equipment well beyond the means of a cash-strapped humanities student.

For years, whenever I met someone “outdoorsy,” I dropped hints about my dream, secretly hoping that it would spark a curiosity in them as it had done for me. For nearly five years, everyone deemed the trip too expensive, too dangerous, or too difficult. With each passing year, the dream seemed increasingly unlikely. That was until Alex.

I still remember the day: Alex and I were running through Bayfront Park in Hamilton, training for a half-marathon. As part of our usual small talk, I mentioned that I’d had a dream of biking across Canada but that I’d been unable to find someone to do it with me. Without hesitation, Alex said, “I’ll do it with you.” I stopped running, looked at him, and asked, “Are you serious?” He replied as earnestly this time as he had before, “Yeah, when do you want to do it? April? May?” It was mid-February.

That weekend, Alex came to my apartment and began planning for a trip in May. Alex had done a few week-long trips. I, on the other hand, had never done any cycle touring. We generated an arm’s-length list of gear to be purchased and tasks to complete. Among my top priorities was to secure a touring bike for the trip and to do at least a couple 100-kilometre [62-mile] practice rides before we left for our trip.

As the trip approached, I began having intense visions of my own death, regularly tossing and turning in my sleep, routinely waking up in a sweat-soaked panic. After bumping into a friend who told me that he’d dreamt that I’d died on the trip, I became convinced that my nightmares were in fact premonitions.

Perhaps I was embarrassed by the number of people I’d told about the trip, too proud to cancel plans several years in the making, but, despite my fears of death, I still committed to going. As family members and friends questioned my decision, repeatedly asking whether I’d lost my mind, I quietly wrote notes to loved ones and stowed them in my desk in case I died.

After receiving a less-than-subtle nudge from Alex reminding me that I should do at least one practice ride before we departed in a week’s time, I biked 40 kilometres outside of the city, stopped at a café for a croissant and espresso, then turned around and biked back home. I arrived back at the entrance to my apartment and I thought, “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” before starting on more important tasks on my list.

The first day of the trip, Vancouver to Whistler, consisted of nearly 120 kilometres of riding, most of it uphill, with a 700-metre [2,297-foot] elevation gain. I thought I was comfortable riding hills; I wasn’t. I thought I knew how to shift gears; I didn’t. I felt like a fool as my chain clickity-clacked its way up the incline, occasionally dismounting the chain-ring to avoid further torture. On several occasions, I stalled out on hills, losing all forward momentum before slowly rolling backward and then falling off my bike. On those first days, I seriously questioned my decision to go on this trip. In addition to being a weak rider, I carried with me a profound fear of all the unknown insects and animals lurking in the woods and mountains around me.

Several times per day I thought, “What on earth am I doing here?” As time progressed, I became increasingly comfortable in the remote parts of this country. One hundred and thirty-five kilometres of cycling per day, six days per week, often in the absence of human contact, has that kind of effect on a person.

Three weeks into the trip, I knew that something had seriously changed in me when I continued on my way, seemingly unfazed, after nearly stepping on a large snake as I walked through a wooded area.

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Alex and I arrived in St. John’s on 5 July 2012, 65 days and 7,706 kilometres after we began our journey. We spent the day receiving free drinks from locals who were eager to hear stories of our cross-country travel. After spending a few days in St. John’s relaxing, we flew back to Ontario. A week after my return, my family threw a party where I told a captive audience of friends and family a well­rehearsed anecdote about my run-in with a bull moose while cycling in New Brunswick. Mesmerized and amazed by my tales, the guests spent the evening filling themselves with burgers and corn on the cob and congratulating me on my accomplishment. There was a kindness and generosity of spirit present in all of the guests that evening that I will never forget. For several months, maybe even years after I returned, my mother’s neighbour would greet me with, “Man! I still can’t believe you cycled across the entire country,” whenever I returned home for a visit.

I am, truth be told, uninterested in recounting at length specifics of the trip. I’ve shared these stories dozens of times, each time making mental notes about where more flourish or a subtle pause will help pique interest. These well-rehearsed stories often rushed out of my mouth at parties and other gatherings, vaulting over tongue and teeth at the mention of the words “Canada,” “bicycle,” or “adventure.”

In one sense, the trip couldn’t have been more successful. Alex and I had achieved our lofty goal of cycling across the second-largest country in the world, and we each returned from the trip with a bursting catalogue of tales. I saw many landscapes and all number of flora and fauna; my connection with nature now went unchallenged by everyone around me.

In another sense, however, the constant retelling of these stories reveals a deep insecurity around my relationship to nature that has followed me from the pool to the mountains and back to Scarborough again. Every year, the fabled bull moose from New Brunswick has gotten closer and closer; the distance from here to “that lamp” shifting from 20 feet to 10 and then 5. For five years, I’ve remained stuck: stuck telling stories about bears, and snakes, and moose; stuck describing desert roads that lead to snow-capped mountains; stuck trying to fit those 65 days of cycling into a grand narrative about exploration and adventure where the chubby Scarborough boy in the bathing suit and goggles becomes a shark and finally belongs somewhere.

Perhaps this is simply the internal struggle for many Black children born in diaspora. Here, in this place we call home, the ways that our families engage with nature are rarely cherished or understood. My grandmother owns a farm and a popular restaurant in Jamaica. I’ve seen her slaughter a goat. Once, when I was about eight or nine years old visiting family in Jamaica, my grandfather trapped fireflies in a jar so that I could navigate a late-night walk. I was mesmerized by this tall silhouette of a man holding a jar of luminescence as we traversed the moonlight.

My mother, who immigrated to Canada almost 50 years ago, can tell within a second whether a yellow yam is worth buying. There’s a certain hue that my eyes have not yet learned to discern. For years, their experiences and knowledge were outside of my appreciation and understanding. Their ways of being did not fit my ideas of what it meant to engage nature.

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It is only now, with the benefit of time and nearly 8,000 kilometres’ worth of attempts to belong, that I am beginning to see the problems behind Canada’s nature myth and the depth of humanity, experience, and richness it excludes. As time passes, the trip evolves and changes in my mind, and the images of mountain passes, lakes, and fields are becoming increasingly hazy. Meanwhile, new insights are becoming ever clearer.

My trip across the country was, at its core, a search for home, an ongoing quest for belonging in a country that is as hostile and dangerous as it is rewarding. It was the sad effort of a chubby Black boy from Scarborough to become a mountain, a forest, an adventurer, and a grand narrative after failing to become a shark. It did not answer my deepest existential dilemmas but instead created endless questions. What is nature and what is wilderness? Why is our relationship with these concepts so fraught? How do we reconcile narratives of Black alienation from nature with the long history of Black settlement on this land dating back to the Black Loyalists? Why is nature so often depicted as either masculine or feminine, pristine or spoiled, white or Black?

Increasingly, I also wrestle with what it means to use storytelling as a way of laying claim to land that was stolen from the First Peoples. I see the futility of trying to assert belonging in a place so deeply invested in othering, a place where many thirst for ownership of land that never has been—and will never be—theirs to own.

With each passing year, I wonder how many more times I will tell friends and colleagues stories from my trip across Canada. How many more times will I feel these stories fighting to escape my mouth? Perhaps as many times as I continue to be asked, “But where are you really  from?” whenever I say that I was born in Scarborough. Perhaps until the day when I learn to swim or finally recognize that unique yellow hue. Better yet, maybe this will be the last time.

From the book Black Writers Matter edited by Whitney French, copyright © 2019. Reprinted by permission of University of Regina Press.

Phillip Dwight Morgan is a first-generation Canadian writer of Jamaican heritage. His essays, op-eds, and poetry explore the intersections of race, representation, politics, and state violence in Canada.

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