Scenes from Toronto’s Leslie Spit

The garbage dump turned accidental paradise remains a messy contradiction

I saw another mink on the beach. It popped out from beneath a slab of cement as thick as a mattress. It looked at me with surprise, then shot back into its makeshift cave before re-emerging to pluck an errant bird’s wing floating to the ground.

Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit, the garbage dump turned accidental paradise, remains a messy contradiction: the concrete blocks left to rot the rebar bent, thrusting and rusted the shoreline full of sharp dangerous objects treacherous to the feet a destination for construction waste and herons a meeting place for garbage trucks and animals.

The Spit is a negotiation between human and nature in which the latter wins concessions. It preserves and celebrates the ad hoc. 

There are no set paths on the Spit’s beach. You fan out as you wish over the boulders and rounded rocks. There’s no sanctioned route. You look down and place your boot on the stones of your choice, pick your own way through the rubble. 

The Spit, also known as Tommy Thompson Park, could be turned into an attraction. But for the most part it hasn’t been. There’s no cost to get in, no ticket booth. You just walk in. At the entrance to the road there’s only a rough parking lot.

The Spit’s crooked spine eschews the grid of the city. It asks us to let the non-linear into our lives, the chance event, the unplanned. It asks us to embrace things discovered: the feel of Carolinian forest, a distant woodpecker banging its beak into a tree, a white egret standing in the nearby pond. 

The Spit is downtown, occupying its southern extremity. I haven’t been to its endpoint, haven’t read its last chapter – the lighthouse. I mostly walk chapters one and two, the first couple of kilometres. I don’t want to finish the book of the Spit. I want it to remain beyond my reach.

The Spit is a hiding place, something we’ve given the animals to protect them from us. Within this meadow a milk snake strangles a mouse, but you can’t see it. The Spit holds back, provides cover. As in a good book, much is left unsaid.

Hiding places and access to the hinterland are what make life possible for urban animals. The Don Valley links the Spit to nature beyond the city. 

The distinction between city and countryside no longer applies. They run together on the Spit. Walking beside the Spit’s cottonwood forest, I see the CN Tower. A deer raises its rack in the distance.

Gideon Forman is a long-time environmental activist. | @nowtoronto

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