The Maestro of Nature: an Essay about TDSB Nature Walks: Helen Kennedy

In the woods, along natural footpaths at the eastern edge of Grenadier Pond, he stops and waves his long arms upward in graceful arching motions as if he were holding a baton in one hand. He points to the tree tops to the east.

“Too wheet? too too wheet!” chirps the red-eyed vireo he had heard minutes before. With the other, he points with slender fingers to the west. “Too wheet? Too too wheet!” replies another red-eyed vireo. I am in the midst of one of my favourite bird walks in High Park with the maestro of the natural world – Miles Hearn.

Miles played the French horn professionally with the Toronto Symphony and various other theatre orchestras. He has since retired, but still sings with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. In the YouTube videos of the choir, you sense a touch of awkwardness as Miles stands head and shoulders above the rest of the choir, perched at centre stage in the next to last back-row.

Every June, Miles conducts breeding bird surveys for the Canadian Wildlife Research Centre in northern Ontario to document trends in migration and population. Miles loves these two-week adventures because he is immersed in birdsong. He documents the type and number of birds he hears in daily posts, along with various encounters with bears, moose and other northern animals.

In the Canadian birding off-season, Miles works as the naturalist aboard Antarctica-bound cruise ships. He guides nature walks and Zodiac cruises for passengers; while aboard ship he gives lectures on penguins, seals, whales and albatross. His very first cruise was almost his last! In the middle of the night before what would have been a stimulating lecture on penguins, Miles, along with all the passengers and staff were forced to abandon ship when a fire broke out. In a lifeboat with 120 other passengers, Miles survived a five-hour journey to sheltered water with everyone attached to their sea-sickness bag. His biggest regret wasn’t leaving his boots and wallet behind but that the rest of the cruise was cancelled.

In the fall and spring, Miles employs his artistic talents to inspire and engage average bird-watchers in an understanding of the many layers of beauty in Toronto’s most diverse parks and ravines. As the walk-leader for various birding outings with the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Field Naturalist, Miles attracts a loyal following among his participants.

Miles’s grandfather nourished his love of nature when he was a just a boy. Dr. J. Murray Speirs gave his grandson a recording of Common Birds made at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It had recordings of 25 birds – 5 birds from 5 different habitats. Before he was a teenager, Miles was able to identify the birds he heard in his walks in the forests around his home.

On one of my first walks, Miles heard a rose-breasted grosbeak, which we then found sitting on a branch of a nearby tree. It was my first ever sighting and it ignited my enthusiasm to find other such beautiful creatures. At the end of a mini-lecture on the difference between rattlesnake root and rattlesnake weed, Miles told us that he had just heard an indigo bunting. “Fire! Fire! Where? Where? Here! Here!”  We all lifted our binoculars to hunt for the shock of blue amidst the variegated greens and browns of the forest.

One of my favourite sightings was a pair of great blue herons in Rouge Hills National Park. They were standing on the edge of the river and just as we spotted them they took off. Their extended wings in flight gave them a profile of pterodactyl; their low guttural mutterings transporting me to another era.

In the many years since he began these six-days-a-week walks, he has yet to miss one, even after being seriously rear-ended on his way home by a Ford Blazer whose driver was fleeing police.

Miles proudly boasts that all walks will proceed no matter the weather! This spring, Toronto was in the midst of a very unusual deep freeze. Miles posted a disclaimer on his daily report from Humber Bay Park: . . . photography was challenging. Starting conditions, he noted, were “a temperature of three degrees Celsius, heavy rain and strong winds!” Miles did his preliminary walk-through an hour before the walkers were to arrive. He took some amazing pictures, including one of an immature herring gull with a rainbow trout half way down its gullet. And then, for the very first time ever, no one showed up for his walk. He reported twenty-one species, posted his pictures and ended with a selfie. Slightly out of focus, the picture shows Miles with a defiant grin!  (April 16, 2018 Nature Walk Report)

A soft-spoken man, tall and slender, Miles leads us down winding paths into the much-less travelled areas in each park. He greets us all at ten o’clock and begins exactly on time. I like to stay at the front of the walkers to hear Miles’s musings on the plants, trees, birds, and bugs. Once, he boyishly grabbed a handful of sedge and stuffed it in his backpack to identify it at home. Another time he knelt precariously on the banks of Wilket Creek to get a close up of a flower that looked like the spring beauty he had photographed earlier. But as he got closer, he realized it had four not five petals and it didn’t have the deeper pink stripes of spring beauties. He identified it as the cuckoo flower when he posted the picture later that day.

Miles often quizzes us on common plants he has previously pointed out. I’m getting better at the common test items: poison ivy, garlic mustard, avens, etc. I also remember what we may see in some parks, depending on the season. There is, or at least there was last year – a dainty baby blue flax on a hill overlooking Lake Ontario at the top of the Scarborough Bluffs. In the spring in High Park there are hundreds of wild lupins – light and dark purple petals on long green stalks surrounded by eight slim green oval leaves shaped like asterisks. And in the Beechwood/Don Valley Park in late summer and early fall, you can see hundreds of pale yellow toadflax, commonly called Butter and Eggs.

I have a favourite tree in High Park, which Miles points out as we arrive at the south end of Grenadier Pond.  “Here,” he waves his arm toward a ten-foot tall tree with mitten and baseball glove leaves. “This is the sassafras. See how it grows in one direction.” He raises his other arm, “and then it decides to gracefully turn in another direction.” Then, with both arms waving as if conducting the sassafras orchestra, he says, “its branches do the same. This” and he pauses ever so slightly, “is a very lyrical tree.”

I tell him how much I like his description of the sassafras and how I felt he interprets the natural world with an artistic mind.  “I’m not an artist,” he said. “The composers who write the music are the real artists. I just play what they have written.”

Miles gives us imaginative descriptions that make it very easy to remember birds, trees and plants. “Hear that,” he stops us. “Doesn’t it sound like fairies up in the branches on their sewing machines? Those are chipping sparrows.” Everyone on these nature walks can identify black cherry trees. Miles tells us that when he was a child, he was shown the bark of this tree and told that it looked like burnt cornflakes. It’s one of the easiest markers to distinguish among the hundreds of tree species we see on each walk.

Whether he admits it or not, Miles Hearn is an artist of the natural world, a maestro, who makes every walk, in every park, an imaginative journey into nature. Each bird, each plant, tree, bug and animal are the notes which he brings into the day’s musical score.  During our late summer and early fall walks, he often pulls up the invasive Japanese knotweed by the root and tells us about the problems it creates in almost every park in Toronto. Today, while showing us the earliest foliage of the plant, I ask him if he has finally found something in nature that is ugly.

“Oh no,” he replies defiantly, “It never should have been planted here but it is still beautiful.”

Helen Kennedy

7 thoughts on “The Maestro of Nature: an Essay about TDSB Nature Walks: Helen Kennedy

  1. Marilyn Bunker

    This is such a good description of Miles and his passion for the natural beauty that surrounds us. I feel fortunate to have had the experience of participating in his walks and learning so much.

  2. Eugene Knapik

    This is such a lovely tribute. I can attest that Miles’ nature walks are wonderful in so many ways. They inspire me to want to learn more and more about the natural world around us.

  3. Nada

    Miles is a walking encyclopaedia! His passion and love for nature are infectious. I had the pleasure and honor of participating in one of his walks last summer and that opened my eyes to a whole different world out there, a world that is around us but we choose to forget about… I hope I will go again on these walks.

    1. Bill Rosenfeld

      The essay is a brilliant description. Miles has added so much. I am now on a quest, inspired by Miles, to identify that which has been before me but I have not seen for all these many years

  4. Lisa Volkov

    This is an excellent portrait of Miles and what the experience of participating in the walks he leads is like. Have you published it somewhere, or thought of doing so? Great work, and a fitting tribute. Thanks, Helen!


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