Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world


I started going to the Leslie Street Spit because I was afraid of the coronavirus. Everywhere around me was fear. In my house I was afraid, as I cleaned and re-cleaned surfaces. I feared for my husband when he went to the store, I feared for my children when they walked down Yonge Street, in their masks. I was afraid my masks weren’t good enough. I bought other masks. I ordered face shields from Amazon—overkill, surely? I was afraid when I coughed; I was afraid when my husband coughed. I spent every day worrying about my elderly parents, who surely would catch the virus this day, I thought, as I imagined my father walking down his street, into a supermarket in a city, in a country across the ocean. The virus was there, too.

Just before Christmas, when I became even more filled with fear, because a long winter was coming and everything felt terrible, I went to the Leslie Street Spit for the first time, with a friend. We went walking, keeping six feet between us, as best we could. It was bitterly cold and I was dressed in multiple layers of woollen and specialty clothing. We had a long walk, and we talked. Just general talk, the talk of friends. 

And we had exercise, a lot of it. 

A couple of days later I got up at six (my getting-up time, in this time of fear), put on all the layers of warm clothes, got into my car, and drove twenty minutes to the Spit. 

I thought this was a good idea, this was somewhere I could go: a conservation area, close to the city, where I wouldn’t have to worry about catching the coronavirus. I wouldn’t have to avoid people and breathing their air, as I had to on the narrow, busy streets near my house. I would have a walk.

*****

It was a weekday and sunrise, and just two other cars were in the parking lot. 

I got out of the car. I felt uneasy. Perhaps I shouldn’t be here? I was a woman alone. The cold was severe.

But I started walking, a long bleak path, wind-swept. I felt nervous because I thought: No one else is here, and what other people are here? I shouldn’t be walking alone.

Every woman knows this fear, this kind of alertness in the world. Perhaps I can’t do these solitary walks in a conservation area, I thought. 

I looked behind me and didn’t know whether to be reassured when I saw no one. I kept walking.

When I did see a person far behind me along the path, I thought, is it a man? If it’s a man I must speed up and walk faster, to be far away from him. When I saw a person far ahead of me, I thought, is it a man? If it is, should I slow down to keep away from him, or turn around and go home? 

It was genuine fear. Fear of human beings—men—that I might bump into in this conservation area. This is how women get attacked, I thought. Momentarily I forgot the coronavirus. (My mask and hand sanitizer securely in my pocket to be whipped out at once, if needed.)

*****

When I was able to not worry, for a moment, about a stray human (man) I might see, I enjoyed the beauty. The beauty was unassuming. A flat place, in the middle of Lake Ontario, the lights of Toronto—my city—in the distance. 

*****

I started going to the Spit every morning. I am a writer and I was editing my forthcoming novel, so my time is my own. My husband, confined during the pandemic to do his job from his office at the top of our house, became concerned. Should you be going every day to the Spit, he said. Isn’t it too cold? (It was.) Why must you go every day?

I didn’t mention to him my fear of men when walking alone. He likely wouldn’t understand it—men usually don’t, and how could they? I told my husband the walking was my exercise (it was), and I enjoyed it, and that was that. 

I thought I wouldn’t mention these solitary walks on the Spit to my aunt when I spoke to her because I knew she would say, is it safe to be there alone? I thought I wouldn’t mention to my parents, when I spoke to them, that it’s very, very quiet when I go, because my mother would say, is it safe to be there alone? 

*****

When I got home each day, I was afraid of the coronavirus again. Cleaning my house, re-cleaning. Telling my (adult) children about masks and handwashing. Telling my husband to be careful when he went to the store to buy bagels. Did you sanitize your hands afterwards? Did you wear your mask properly?

*****

It became January, and minus ten degrees Celsius.  

I donned all the layers of clothing, and drove to the Spit. My heart lifted as I got there, and parked my car. 

My fear of people on the path hadn’t diminished. I kept up my alertness. Don’t go too near a man, keep an eye out. Being vigilant sapped my energy, and it reminded me that I am a woman and how difficult that is, and it spoilt the beauty. But I like to think I am strong. This is important to me. I don’t know why.

It was a bright blue sky, an icy day, clear as crystal. The air cut blade-sharp across my cheeks. The ground was covered in snow, so white it glared on my eyes. The ponds were iced over. The logs were brown and the grass and sticks and branches of trees were brown. 

I walked in the dead silence, just the crunch of my boots on the snow. 

And then. Twelve feet in front of me a small brown animal lifted its head above a fallen log. I saw its bright eyes, its small narrow head, its long neck, and its wet, glossy fur, deep chestnut brown. I had never seen an animal like this before. Not in a zoo, or even in a book. And then the animal darted over the log, and ran away in front of me, its long, thin, lithe body, I saw the whole of it. 

I carried on walking that day, on the crunching snow, snapping the dry, fallen twigs and reeds under my boots, keeping my eye out for this animal, or another like it. 

I felt immense, unaccountable happiness, to think this creature was nearby.

I didn’t see the creature again that day, but I did try very hard. My walk was longer because of it. 

*****

When I got home I went straight to my computer and Google to find out what animal I had seen. It didn’t take me long, because people who love the Leslie Street Spit have documented and photographed its wildlife. I had seen an American mink. 

*****

I had a new focus now, on my walks. I had to see the minks. 

The next day I saw one, a baby, its long, low form running across the frozen path in front of me. On my left the dry reeds rustled, for a moment. Then they were still. 

The animal was gone. 

A few days later I saw another, a large one, at a distance, running across the frozen pond. I got a photo of it with my iPhone. It is distant, and shadowy, but it is unmistakable. It is a mink. 

*****

I have that photo on my computer. The colours are mute and dun, bleak and bitter, such a winter light. 

The mink is sinuous and long, and dark, against the ice. 

*****

Someone I told about the minks said that minks are ‘vicious,’ she’d heard one attacked a dog at a waterside area west of Toronto. Another said, did you read that minks were found carrying the coronavirus in Sweden? 

I continued looking for the minks. 

Except that now, I was afraid of the minks. My husband was too. I was ‘going to see the minks,’ but the minks are carnivores, they eat small animals. They have sharp teeth. They are vicious, of course they are vicious, they are wild animals. 

My dreams at night became filled with images of minks, their bared teeth, and their lustrous coats. Such beauty, but so vicious. What if I stepped on one by mistake? It would bite me. Perhaps it would kill me. It could. I discussed this with my husband in my house, and my children, who thought this was all very funny and eccentric.

*****

The minks inhabited my dreams, lustrous and lithe. I was very afraid of them. 

*****

I saw the minks seldom, almost never. This is because they are nocturnal, and also, they are afraid of people, and they avoid them. 

I feel so lucky when I see one, but it is seldom, indeed. 

Instead, I now see and follow muskrats, which don’t make me afraid, and which are not alarming to see. They are just interesting. 

*****

One day in deepest, coldest February I saw a coyote through the trees. He was large and healthy and brown, like the bare trees. He looked at me and I was terrified. 

I continued walking—crunching—along the snowy path, away from him, and he kept walking, slowly, in the opposite direction. 

I feel he was observing me sharply, interloper in his home, that I was. That I am. 

I decided I wouldn’t walk on that particular path again. 

Except that I did, a few days later. I no longer felt afraid of the coyote, I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I consulted some wildlife people I had met online who said the coyote is more afraid of people than we are of him, and that I should clap my hands and walk purposefully away, and the coyote will keep his distance. In any case, I haven’t seen that coyote again, but I walk on that path often.

I think now that I am an interloper, but a kind one. I feel we can share this space, the coyote and I. The animals and I. 

*****

One of the things I like to do on the Spit is look across the water, to the city in the distance. The city of Toronto. It looks very beautiful from afar, all skyscrapers, so tall and so many, so clear against the winter sky. A man-made place; a place created entirely by human beings. My home. 

I am reminded that human beings have made remarkable things, and they continue to make remarkable things, but they have also done great damage, they do great damage. How to reconcile these two? 

My walks on the Spit coincided with the dying days of the last administration in the United States, and on January 6th, a bitterly cold day in Toronto, I was walking, and thinking about all that, filled with despair. 

And fear; fear too. 

That fear will not go away. It’s the fear that was there for four years, 2016 to 2020, the span of a presidency, across the border. 

I kept walking; I keep walking.

*****

The other day I realized I am no longer afraid of the men who might be walking on the Spit. The men I see there are walkers, like me. They are interested in seeing the trees, the lake, and the animals, and photographing them, and perhaps writing about them. Or perhaps they are simply taking a walk away from the human world and all its troubles. 

I also realized I am no longer afraid of the minks. I’m just not. They no longer inhabit my dreams in a frightening way, and my family no longer makes jokes with me about them. Now they joke about the muskrats I see, which everyone knows are harmless animals, and odd ones. 

I’m also not afraid of the weather. I forgot to say: I was genuinely afraid of the weather when I started these walks. One day I was there just before a snowstorm. The wind was up, the path was bleak, and I pushed on, leaning, leaning against the wind. Lake Ontario had waves rolling in like the sea, green and wild. 

****

Today on the Spit was a still day, and spring. The lake is no longer frozen, the ponds are water, not ice any more, and the birds are singing.

I’m still walking.

****

Perhaps the reason I wrote this essay now, is that the vaccines are finally coming to Toronto. I will have the vaccine. 

And so I feel that the time now is an interregnum. A suspension. A suspension between the beginning of the end of the coronavirus, and the end of it. 

Or perhaps the entire coronavirus time has been an interregnum: a strange and still pause in our lives, in our collective life. 

The Spit is also an interregnum: a place between the man-made world, and the natural world. A suspension where, momentarily, there is balance. 

*****

What will come after the end of the coronavirus? Perhaps I’m not ready for what will come after it. I like my walks on the Leslie Street Spit: the solitude, the fear, the surprise. The beauty. 

So I have written about it. 

But I know—you know—that writing something is not the same as living it. I would rather live it. 

*****

And as case counts surge, perhaps the coronavirus will not end, at all. Today this feels like a real possibility.

*****

So this is not a happy-ending story. I don’t believe in those, not really. I am a novelist after all and I know how complex stories are, even though we wish and hope for happy endings. 

I will have the vaccine, but many other people, in many other countries, will not have it. This inequity galls me deeply.

At the time of this writing, three million people have died of the coronavirus, and hundreds of thousands more have been severely affected.

Are we the survivors then, those of us who haven’t contracted the virus? 

Is this how I must understand it? 

Being a survivor is something new. I don’t know how I feel, to be a survivor. 

*****

Perhaps, in the silence of being a survivor, we can learn something. Between the past, and the future that comes after an interregnum, things must change. Mustn’t they? 

And what rough beast, its hour come around at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats’s words come to me frequently, unbidden.

*****

In the stillness of this morning at the Leslie Street Spit, I saw a bird. He was sitting on a bare branch, his form silhouetted against the sky.

I raised my binoculars. 

He was a red-winged blackbird. Perhaps you know the kind? 

His black was so glossy, his red so bright. 

He was singing his heart out.

Dawn Promislow

One thought on “Interregnum

  1. An interregnum – and an introspection. I personally feel like you have been through a rite of passage and have come out of it with wisdom. Good for you!

    Keep it up.

    Warm regards,
    Sharon Kates

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