Jefferson Fenwick, Assistant Professor of Environment Studies, grew up in a home overlooking the Don River Valley along the eastern side of the city of Toronto. As a teenager, when he wasn’t in school or doing his homework or chores, he was in the Valley, even when the Valley was black, lit only by the areas near the paths and the six-lane highway that ran through it. In fact, Jefferson preferred the night. In the day, the Valley could be busy with cyclists and walkers; or worse, the never-ending sounds of the congested traffic would cover the tender music of wind rushing through trees and animals moving on the forest floor and mask the sweet scent of the forest and flowers with car exhaust.
His parents were tolerant of his hobby. They would sit on the top of the hill in two chairs looking down into the bleak blackness of the Valley and wait for him to come for supper. They respected his secret adventures and were happy each time his form would appear out of the dark cloud below and walk up the hill, usually a big smile on his face. Nothing seemed to please him more than his Valley trips.
His fascination with the Valley was instigated by a book his parents had bought for him. Filled with maps and photos of how Toronto once looked, including the Valley, that book seemed to cause some seed within Jefferson’s mind to grow. Not only did it inspire him to study Geography and Environmental Studies, but it turned him into an advocate of and walking encyclopedia about the River and the Valley.
He would remind his students:
“People at that time lived next to the River. Small houses, farms and villages spotted the Valley. The residents fished, hunted game, and grew crops, the wildlife and the flora were diverse, and the river had a variety of fish. Where today are those residents? What do you see today? A bicycle and walking path, some manicured parks, a six lane highway through the middle of it, and the barely throbbing carcass left by a century of mills, industries, and tons of sewage and garbage dumped on the Valley’s beautiful face. Yet despite over a century of abuse, the Valley has not lost its inner glory; its quiet beauty will touch your heart and its fall colours alone will lift your spirits and give you hope.”
The more he knew from his studies of the Valley’s history, the more his affection for the Valley became mixed with resentment and anger, almost grief. He feared he would scream out randomly if he did not control himself when he saw how decades of misuse had harmed the Valley.
Best not to talk about the Valley, he told himself continuously since he was a youth, stay calm, have a plan, execute the plan, and keep in control.
For years Jefferson kept busy with the “plan” through his activity in the Valley. The Associations set up to protect the River were too passive for him, too patient with politicians and businesses. Only his students gave him hope. He would take many of them on overnight camping trips into the darkness of the Valley, influencing many of them to become Valley enthusiasts too, and some as obsessed as he. The Valley, he repeated often, was “the most important and beautiful work of nature in Toronto.”
When his parents passed away and he inherited their home, his wife Brenda Sung also sat waiting for his lanky frame to emerge from the dark cloud, the smell of the woods and wildflowers filling the house as Brenda and he would eat and talk about everything but his activities in the Valley. Now both at the age of fifty-five, she had spent years watching him climb up the hill and he had spent the same time seeing her at the top of the incline in the chair waiting.
Like Jefferson’s parents, Brenda realized that what he was doing in the Valley was his own secret hobby, not to be discussed out loud. Before she married him, she had tried to encourage him to talk about his adventures there, but he was not forthcoming. Once she asked, knowing how much he respected the Valley, to hike with him along the walking paths. She naturally thought he would enjoy showing her around, but she also hoped the tour might be a catalyst that would allow him to confide in her the secret.
He looked at her with a shocked face:
“Hike? Walking paths? There are no ‘walking paths’ in the Valley. The Valley doesn’t create walking paths; intruders and politicians do. The River doesn’t mind visitors, but not when they create permanent scars.”
Beyond his activities in the Valley, their life was quite open and pleasant. Every day they had breakfast together before they went to work—she a Financial Analyst, he a university professor—and a supper before or sometimes after Jefferson made his foray into the Valley. They often went on weekend trips, had dinner with friends, and once a year enjoyed a three-week holiday.
Brenda naturally continued to wonder about his purpose in the Valley. She would watch him carry down the hill large backpacks, come home with clothes dirty and backpacks empty, and think: Where’s he taking all this stuff? What could he be doing? Oh well, it’s a harmless pastime. When he’s not in the Valley, I’m the center of his attention and we’re always together. At least he doesn’t sit obsessed with the TV or sports. But what is he planning down there? But increasingly, especially when he became older, the trips worried her.
She was, of course, anxious about him entering the dark Valley alone, wondering if he would return, but a more ominous prospect never left her mind. Jefferson had told her before he married her that one day he would leave her to live in the Valley for a time. He would not leave without her knowing, but he did not want her to marry him without her being aware that that day would come and for a short period she would be alone. Brenda tried to suppress that thought, but on a few though rare occasions, Jefferson had reminded her.
Beyond his students, one outsider, Steven Marks, the accountant who did their taxes, did know of his obsession because he also knew of another secret of Jefferson that he had kept from Brenda. Steven had reached a point where he could no longer keep the information from Brenda. The three of them sat at the kitchen table.
“You don’t know?” Steven said to Brenda.
“What is it?”
Steven looked over at Jefferson and Jefferson shrugged.
“He hasn’t paid his taxes for a long time,” Steven said.
“What!” Brenda said. “How is that possible?”
“Because he wouldn’t let me,” Steven said.
“But why?” Brenda asked.
“Because of the Valley,” Steven said with a tone of dismissal. “I’ve tried to stop him, but he won’t budge. That Valley consumes him and…”
“You know nothing about it,” Jefferson said to Steven.
Brenda looked at Jefferson, as if to say, ‘Is this true?’
“He’s got some big plan involving the Valley,” Steven said. “Jefferson, you may be the expert on the Valley, but…”
“I know very little really,” Jefferson replied. “To know what I want to know, I would have had to live in the valley in the eighteenth century and sit on the Metro Council of the nineteen fifties and sixties.”
“Nevertheless,” Steven said, “that Don…”
“Don’t use that name,” Jefferson interrupted, bristling at the sound of it. “That name comes from some river in Yorkshire?”
Steven threw up his hands, as if to say, ‘here he goes again.’
“John Simcoe, Lord Simcoe,” Jefferson explained, saying the word ‘Lord’ in a derogatory tone, “liked that river in Yorkshire and he thought they were quite similar, but the Valley was here thousands of years before Simcoe or Toronto.”
“You’re right, sweetie,” Brenda said, knowing where this discussion could go and wanting to get back to the taxes, “but you know how these things work.”
“I certainly do,” Jefferson said with a scornful tone. “The River is unique. I certainly don’t think of that puny Don River in Yorkshire when I hear the word ‘Don.’ I think of the mighty two thousand kilometers River Don in Russia.”
“Me too,” Brenda said, “and I can say that because I saw the Don in Rostov.”
“Canadian Revenue is after him,” Steven blurted out.
“But how, why, did you let him do this?” Brenda said to Steven, clearly upset.
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” Steven said. “Why do you think I’m here?”
“I didn’t want you to worry,” Jefferson said to Brenda, “because I knew you would. And I didn’t want to argue. It’s quite simple. I won’t give them a cent, not until they clean up the Valley and the River.”
“Wouldn’t I have seen something about it in the mail?” Brenda said, baffled he could keep this from her.
“It’s online. Or they email or call me or Steven calls me. They did send a warning by mail, but I caught it first.”
“You’ve purposefully not paid?” she asked.
“Not for quite a while,” Jefferson replied nonchalantly. Jefferson laughed. “Honestly, I thought they’d be after me sooner.”
“It happens, people slip through the system,” Steven said, “but not for long. He’s been lucky, but his luck has run out.”
“But CRA doesn’t care about the Valley,” Brenda pleaded. “You’re only one person. It won’t help.”
“No matter. I’m tired of seeing the brutal lack of concern. The whole damn world is like this. I must take a stand.”
“But several associations are trying to improve…” Brenda continued.
“They’re not the government, and I appreciate what they’re doing. I do. I belong to those associations. But it’s nowhere near enough or soon enough. Without the government, nothing will work.”
Steven was shaking his head.
“I can’t believe you’re taking such a risk,” Steven said. “Your career, your home, Brenda, everything for that Valley and that River. Honestly, think about this. What good would you do in prison?”
Jefferson had reached his boiling point and abruptly stood up and pointed a finger at Steven.
“What do you know about this? Who’s the Taylor family?” Jefferson with a fiery tone questioned Steven.
“I don’t know, Jefferson,” Steven said calmly. “You mean, E. P. Taylor, the horse racer?”
“I’m talking about the family that contributed to the destruction of the Valley.”
Steven shook his head.
“How would I know?” Steven replied. “I’m not up on my history.”
“And what happened to Tumper’s Hill and Sugar Loaf Hill?” Jefferson asked.
“I don’t know,” Steven said. “Who cares, Jefferson? The issue here is the taxes. What are you going to do?”
“Exactly,” Jefferson pushed. “You don’t know. No one knows. No one cares. What destroyed the village of Milneford Mills? Again no one cares. And do you know who said, ‘I’ll tell you what the Don Valley was. It was a place to murder little boys, that’s what it was.’”
“I’m not sure I want to know who said that,” Brenda replied. “That’s sick.”
“The answer to all these questions is first, the Parkway, one of the nemeses of the Valley and the River. And the bully Freddy Gardiner is the one who said it was a place to murder little boys. Freddy the bully was a big advocate for the Parkway and the Expressway. Freddy the bully loved all expansion, as well as whiskey and gambling, but he mostly excelled at bullying the people on the Council. Another nemesis was that group of rabid business people who set up their industries near the River. The Taylors were one of them, a wealthy family that built a lot of industrial polluting businesses in the Valley north of Bloor Street starting with paper mills and the Don Valley Brick Works. They weren’t alone but they must be held responsible.”
“Jefferson’s a big protector of the Valley,” Brenda said with some pride, but also with some concern. “He becomes quite agitated if he talks about it.”
“And why not?” Jefferson said. “Too few have cared about it since they built Todmorden Mills in 1795. And look at the problems we have with the Expressway and the Parkway. No one on the Council with Gardiner back then would disagree with my description. Gardiner bullied them and they let him.”
“Which reminds me, I must check on something,” Jefferson said, extending his hand to shake the hand of Steven. “Enjoyed our talk. Brenda, I’ll be back in an hour.”
She followed him to the glass doors that overlooked the path down into the Valley. Steven and she watched Jefferson walk down the hill.
“What’s he doing down there?” Steven asked. “It’s pitch black.”
Brenda shrugged as Jefferson disappeared into the darkness.
“I don’t know,” Brenda said quietly. “I just know nothing you or I do will stop him.”
The next morning Brenda raised again the CRA issue
“But you could go to jail,” she reminded him.
“No, I won’t.”
Brenda paused in frustration and shook her head.
“And why not?” she asked.
“I’m going to run, I’m going to hide in the Valley, and, trust me, I know how. I have it all planned. I’ve been preparing for years. The time has come. Time for the Valley to fight back.”
Another long pause brought what Jefferson knew would be her response.
“Can I come with you?” Brenda said, suddenly realizing the endpoint of this conversation and nearing tears.
“I want you too, sweetie, I do. I told you a long time ago that I would one day leave and go into the Valley. I have had this plan from the beginning and you need to help me by staying here. I want you to tell everyone, every newspaper and magazine, every radio station, tell the media online, put it on Facebook, Twitter, whatever.”
He handed her a piece of paper.
“Give them this list of what needs to be done about the Valley. Tell everyone that I’m running from the CRA because of the neglect of the Valley and the River and that I won’t pay taxes to a government that can lose millions from poor contracts, corruption, and development and yet has refused to help that poor creature.”
“Creature?” Brenda said. “What creature?”
“The Valley and the River are a creature, a very battered but still very wonderful and ancient being who lived here long before anyone else and brought harmony with all of the flora and fauna.”
“It won’t work, Jefferson. It won’t. No one will care. If they haven’t tried up till now, they’re not going to change.”
“It doesn’t matter. I will not do nothing! I must try. The travesties done to the Valley are inexcusable. I can’t stand it anymore. You don’t know the half of it! Do you know that they actually shifted the course of the river, mowed down hills, dumped tons and tons of industrial waste and sewage, and…I could go on and on. It’s left a scar on that beautiful Valley and the River! I can’t help it. People once lived there. It’s immoral what the politicians and businesses
did. And then, if that wasn’t enough, they built Pollution Parkway up through the middle of it! It’s criminal. Oh, but they can waste millions because of poor decisions.”
Brenda began to cry.
“But I won’t see you for a long time,” she said. “What am I going to do, Jefferson? I don’t think I can live without you. How long will you hide? Please don’t. Please.”
He embraced her tightly and whispered.
“Don’t give up on me. I love you. You know I do. I’m not going away forever. I’d never desert you. But I must do this. Please understand.”
As expected, after many warnings, the CRA came for him, but he was not there. As he had asked, Brenda told every media source the story of her husband. It made the front page of many newspapers, not only in Toronto, but in many other newspapers. The Internet was full of it. For weeks, the police searched everywhere for him, including the Valley. The more he remained missing, the more people—especially the environmentalists and those sympathetic with his pleas—became enraged by the situation and demanded some kind of response. The media exposure for a time increased, but in the end nothing was done. There was a debate in city hall and the provincial government about the validity of his actions, but not about pouring money into the Valley. One Member of Parliament said that Jefferson’s action reminded him of Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay the poll tax that supported an institution that supported slavery. Is despoiling the environment any different from slavery? Unfortunately, in this case, the politician said, “at least they could jail Thoreau. We don’t even get the satisfaction of jailing the bastard.” A large roar of laughter ensued among the members.
The talk shows found disappearance in the woods entertaining, the way they found Rob Ford and Donald Trump entertaining. Saturday Night Live also had a skit about it and made Jefferson look like a prankster. After two months, an unknown benefactor—it was in fact Brenda’s parents—paid Jefferson’s taxes and the government relented. The media went on to other news. There was no reason for Jefferson to remain hidden, but Jefferson still did not appear. Why not, people asked? Was his corpse rotting somewhere in the Valley? Or had he never hid in the Valley? Was it all a hoax? How could anyone last that long in the Valley without food and water?
The police continued to scour the Valley and kept the file open. But no investigator remained on the case. No one, they assumed, could hide without leaving some trace. Either he was dead or he had never entered the Valley. Brenda did not lose faith that Jefferson would return, but she was tired of sitting in her home frustrated by her own inaction. Tormented by not knowing what had happened to him, she decided not to wait any longer. She had this belief, based on what had happened previously, that if she walked down the hill into the Valley that somehow Jefferson would see her. She said to herself:
I’m going to find my husband. I’m going to walk into that darkness. I know Jefferson will rescue me because I believe in him. I will convince him to return.
After less than a kilometer of walking around Brenda sat and curled up next to a tree near the River, shaking and apologetic, then returned home. Jefferson had not found her.
He’s gone, she thought. I’ll never see him again.
Soon after Brenda’s attempt, each week, for ten weeks in a row, one university student of Jefferson went missing. All left notes telling their friends and families that they were going into the Valley. They left behind the same list of actions that Jefferson wanted done for the Valley. The missing students radically changed the situation. When young people with proud parents and energetic friends one by one disappear, the police, the media and the university view the matter in a different way. The newspapers now gave it the headlines that a serial killer would receive. Week after week the citizens heard of the travails and the history of the River and the Valley. The police increased the number of personnel involved. The university applied pressure.
After three months, no one who read the newspaper or Internet, or listened to television news, was uninformed about the tragic history of the Valley and the River since the eighteenth century. The Valley was the star. The Valley was on everyone’s mind. The Valley and the River had suddenly become much more significant than anything else.
Shortly after this explosion of interest in the Valley, the ten students and Jefferson left their hiding place and climbed up the hill to Jefferson’s home in the middle of the night. They congratulated their professor and went home. Jefferson crawled into bed beside Brenda and gently kissed her on the cheek. His plan, he hoped, might succeed. After the media exposure about the Valley, after decades of pleas from him and others to rehabilitate the Valley, there was a chance some changes may occur.
In the morning, Brenda, so happy he had returned, looked down upon him in the bed and knew by the sound of his breathing that he was in a long deep sleep. Finally, after decades of dedication and commitment to the Valley, she thought, he could rest. Finally, that great creature he so much loved might receive the attention it deserves.
* * *
A starting point for information about the history of the Don Valley is Jennifer Bonnell’s book,
Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley (University of
Toronto Press, 2014).