Behind the Book with Jennifer Bonnell

Originally posted by Elizabeth Glenn on the UT Press Publishing Blog, December 11, 2014

Reclaiming the Don

Jennifer L. Bonnell is the author of Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley. With Reclaiming the Don, Jennifer L. Bonnell unearths the missing story of the relationship between the river, the valley, and the city, from the establishment of the town of York in the 1790s to the construction of the Don Valley Parkway in the 1960s.

How did you become interested in the subject?
When I first moved to Toronto from the BC coast in 2001, I spent a lot of time exploring the city by bicycle. I was especially captivated by the experience of cycling through the ravines and river valleys and popping up in neighbourhoods so different in appearance and composition than the ones I’d left behind. I still find the valley bottoms and ravines to be a great way to move through and explore the city.

One of the things that struck me in cycling the Don was the number of people who were drawn to the space, even to the heavily urbanized and neglected reaches of the lower river. As I came to know more about the river, and the work of citizen activists to restore wetlands and reforest slopes in the watershed, I became fascinated by the level of dedication and interest in what, to me, was a pretty sorry excuse for a river. What is it about this place that draws people here, I wondered. How have people’s relationships with the river changed over time? How did the river valley come to be the way it is today?

When I first set out to investigate these questions as part of my doctoral studies in 2006, I imagined an oral history project documenting Torontonians’ memories of the river and its changing place in their lives over time. I had conducted a number of large oral history projects for Toronto-area museums and historical societies, and this seemed like a different kind of project, focusing not on an individual community but rather on a waterway that connected communities.

My first visit to the City of Toronto Archives in the fall of that year, however, convinced me to take a different approach. There was such a wealth of material on the history of the Don Valley—on the straightening of the Lower River in the 1880s, the decades of disputes between the City and the Harbour Commissioners over the problem of debris and silt gathering near the river mouth, the construction of the Don Valley Parkway, the history of conservation activities in the valley. Documents, photographs, engineering reports, City Council minutes: files and files of material that few people had investigated, or at least, that few people had investigated in a way that put the valley itself at the center of the story. I can truthfully say I was never bored in the seven years, on and off, I spent researching and writing the history of the valley. There were so many stories to tell, I could have (theoretically!) written five books about the valley. The book I did write is a reflection of those stories that resurfaced again and again, and that interested me the most.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

The most surprising thing I found was the depth of the history of homelessness in the valley. I found references to homelessness dating back the early 1800s, among the oldest records on the valley’s (and the city’s) history. In the early 1800s, squatters set up temporary shelters along the Lower Don and the waterfront; others, like Joseph Tyler, tended a garden and harvested forest products for market from his home in a cave above the river bank near Queen Street. So the phenomenon of homelessness that we’re familiar with today in the Don Valley has a long history. It extended into the twentieth century, with Roma families setting up camp along the east and west branches of the Don in the 1910s and 20s, and the large hobo jungle that formed around the Don Valley Brick Works (today’s Evergreen Brick Works) in the Depression years of 1930 and ’31.

And then to find these cottagers—people like Charles Sauriol, who in the 1940s and 50s had summer cottages in the valley not far from their principle homes in the city—people who willingly chose the valley as a bucolic escape from the city above. Some, like Sauriol, created a little piece of heaven at the edge to the city, with orchards, a vegetable garden, and the sound of the river as a constant backdrop to their activities. So the river valley provided different kinds of places, and these places were experienced by people in different ways, as picturesque countryside, polluted periphery, restorative retreat, vital refuge, or dangerous underworld.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Two things stand out: the isolation inherent to working on a project of this length, and the physical task of sitting still for long enough periods of time to let the writing happen. I’m a social being and I enjoy working with others, so I found a lot of pleasure in consulting with, and in some cases, collaborating with others over the course of the project. Archivists at the City of Toronto, Ontario, and Toronto Port Authority archives were a great resource in the early phases of my research. Don Valley advocates like John Wilson (former chair of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don) and Helen Mills (Toronto Green Community and founder, Lost River Walks) taught me a lot about the history of community involvement around the river.

My efforts to comprehend the complicated spatial history of the river valley eventually led me to the University of Toronto Map and Data Library, and a collaboration with Map and GIS Librarian Marcel Fortin on the Don Valley Historical Mapping Project. This digital mapping initiative helped me to understand changes in valley landscapes over time, especially the heavily industrialized area around the river mouth. Collaborations like this didn’t make the challenges of writing go away, but they made the process a lot more pleasurable, and they made, I think, for a more well-rounded book.

What are your current/future projects?
I am currently working on a project about honeybees. A honeybee history, if you will. The project actually emerged from my work on the Don. One of the things I found in exploring different uses of the valley over time was the number of beekeepers who lived near the valley, or who stationed their bees there in over the summer months to take advantage of valley green spaces as “bee pasture”—foraging sites for their bees. One beekeeper purportedly sowed the valley with clover in the late nineteenth century in order to produce a better-tasting honey crop. So beekeepers and their bees played an active role in shaping valley landscapes. This sparked my interest in the changing significance of urban green spaces, and the different groups—and organisms—that have depended upon them over time.

The project has since grown into something larger, a history of beekeepers in Ontario and New York state and their responses to agricultural modernization through the twentieth century. I’ve found that beekeepers, and their bees, have acted as “canaries in the coal mine” historically. Just as they are today protesting the use of neonicitinoid (systemic) insecticides on crops, they raised concerns as early as the 1880s about the use of deadly lead arsenate on fruit crops, and the resulting devastation of their bees. We typically think of chemical insecticides as a post-war phenomenon, but they were in use much earlier, and often in extremely lethal formulations. Changes in planting and harvesting techniques—particularly the growing dominance of monoculture cropping through the mid-twentieth century—have also affected beekeepers. Necessarily attentive to changes in seasonal temperatures, wildflower blooms, and land uses, these marginal producers have a lot to tell us, I’ve found, about land use change in rural and urban areas through the twentieth century.

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
I love historical and literary fiction. I’m a big fan of the English author, David Mitchell. His books feel like deep sea dives into distant times and places. One of my favorites of his was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, about an eighteenth-century Japanese midwife and her relationship with a Dutch East India Company trader. I’m currently reading Donna Tartt’s latest book, The Goldfinch, about a thirteen-year-old boy who loses his mother in a terrorist attack on an art gallery in New York City, and gains a lifelong relationship with a seventeenth-century Dutch painting.

If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
I was doing public history work before I began my doctoral studies, and I remain interested and involved in the work of museums and historical societies. I take a lot of pleasure in doing this kind of “active history” work, history produced through collaborations between museums or cultural centres and their communities. I really enjoy working with university students, but I can imagine an alternate path working in public history. But I really love the combination of research, teaching, and writing that academic work allows; it’s a great luxury.