“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
~ John Muir
I passed through a narrow opening in a thick hedge and descended a set of stone steps placed into the earth. I entered onto a small lawn surrounded by dense bushes and mature trees. The rich smell of earth and trees filled my nose. Inspects buzzed. The thick foliage hushed the drone of cars and shriek of sirens above me.
I’m just a few steps away from Yonge Street and Lawrence Avenue. Although I live in downtown Toronto, I’ve taken the subway to midtown in search of the tranquility that I could never get at the more popular, crowded parks, such as High Park. Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens is named after the composer of “Maple Leaf Forever,” Canada’s second, unofficial anthem. Fitting, as I was visiting on Canada Day.
The Garden is nestled into a ravine and narrow paths wind around evergreen, maple, oak and willow trees. The main lawn is dominated by a large stone arch erected in Muir’s memory. Neat flower beds invite you to linger.
Beyond the park, a tennis club and a lawn bowling club are tucked beside the steep wall of the ravine. Trees tower over the courts where players in their tennis whites swatted at yellow balls. Beyond, the grey-haired set played lawn bowls, the black balls clacking together on an impossibly smooth and vividly green lawn.
I kept walking and took a gravel path that meandered between the trees, following an equally meandering brook. The water tinkled over the smooth rocks. Trees towered over my head and were it not for the occasional sound of cars above, I wouldn’t know I was in the centre of the city. Crossing a quiet street, I entered Sherwood Park. The sides of the ravine rose high on either side the path and trees hid the houses beyond. Children splashed around in a wading pool, their bright swimsuits glowing agains the green trees and grass.
I climbed a set of wooden stairs into a wooded area. I walked slowly along dirt paths through the trees. A fence had been erected to keep people on the paths in order to protect the native trees and plants. Other than a runner and a few people walking their dogs, I was mostly alone. I followed the path and crossed bridges placed over deep gullies.
Pausing on a bridge, I looked through the forest and I felt my shoulders dropping and my breathing getting easier, deeper. After growing up in rural Nova Scotia, I couldn’t wait to escape to the big city. Yet, I find myself drawn to the quietude of the city’s lesser known parks, needing to reconnect with the earth and trees instead of concrete. The Japanese call the experience of taking in the forest atmosphere shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy. They believe that a gentle walk through a forest is not only calming and reduces stress, it can also boots your immune system, reduce blood pressure, improve your mood and increase your energy.
I followed the path down into a gully and walked along the brook, now a fast-flowing stream with water gushing and frothing around the rocks. I sat down on a large rock to watch the water flow past. A little while later, a woman appeared on the trail, followed by a chubby bulldog. The dog run this way and that, chasing a small white butterfly that flitted out over the stream, out of reach of the dog. It barked a few times and then trundled off after its human.
I rose from my seat and followed the path out to the street, restored and ready to return to my normal life, at least until my next session of forest therapy.