A new project: 52 weeks on the Bruce Trail

I have always be an avid hiker, a habit that I gained from my father, who would take me on long hikes after church on Sunday afternoon in the Hockley Valley north of Toronto. We would go to Mass, have lunch and then drive the 80 or so minutes from our home in King City to hills and vales of Mono Township where the Hockley Valley lies in all its splendour.

The Hockley Valley, photo credit: Toronto Life.

I always looked forward to it, because the drive itself yields many dramatic views as the terrain was quite hilly. In the fall, there were two or three crossroads which, after a long drive up the hill, yielded a spectacular tapestry of warm autumn reds, ochres, yellows and brown beneath us. After the drive came my favourite part, the hike. We would walk, fairly quickly usually, and with long woodsman’s strides, landing on the balls of our feet to minimize the noise we were making. Sometimes we walked for hours in silence, other times we had conversations about philosophy, religion, mathematics and language. My father would also share his extensive, almost encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna with me. He would point out plants as they sprouted, leaves of unusual or invasive species, and spots where the deer had rested, leaving an indentation in leaves or ferns. He taught me to identify animal tracks, which led me to imagine a world of animal societies interacting and conducting their business along these forest highways. Sometimes he would pause and we would listen to the music of the wind rustling through a stand of trees. He loves that sound, and always remarks that it is the most beautiful melody he has ever heard. I grew to love it too, in fact, I remember it as the song of my childhood.

About a year ago, one of my friends suggested that I read an article about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese. In a nutshell, the idea is that we gain great health benefits from spending time wandering in the forest, breathing in the air tinged with the scent of trees and ferns and the other wonderful things that grow in the forest. Indeed, I was skeptical at first, but there has been some fairly extensive scientific research into the matter, sponsored by the Japanese government, which suggests that forest bathing is an effective way of calming one’s mind and improving one’s well-being.

A snowy spring in April, 2018.

At the time, I was in a particularly stressful moment, with much to do professionally and a lot of travel, which I find exhausting. I started to notice that my walks along the forest trail behind my house did seem to be a salve for my anxious and sometimes racing mind. I looked forward to my walks and even started to schedule meeting with my graduate students or social occasions with friends as walking rendezvous on the trail. I find this a congenial and engaging way of interacting, better than awkwardly sitting in front of one another across a desk or table in an office, café or the campus pub. These walks made me feel better, helping me focus my mind and loosen my body.

When I bought a fitness watch, a Garmin Fenix 5 model, I was astonished to see empirical evidence that these walks were having a remarkable effect on my well-being. Each hike improved my anaerobic and aerobic fitness, burned about 600 calories and dropped my stress level for the rest of the day. As an aside, I have grown to love my Garmin watch and wear it constantly, displacing the other watches in my collection, but that will be the subject of another post.

Indeed, the ability to walk five minutes to the Bruce Trail that was one of the greatest selling points of the new house I bought three years ago. Since moving in, I have walked or run the trail hundreds of times through all four seasons, watching nature change around me, the seasons start and finish, animals emerge and then recede to hibernate. It has been beautiful.

I have shared pictures and snippets of video from my walks on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. My friends have reacted very positively to these posts, encouraging me to continue sharing them, telling me that such and such an image calmed them or that the sounds of the babbling brook brought them joy as they navigated the crowded platform at Bloor and Yonge. As well, I have noticed that pictures I take document serve as a sort of documentary of the cycle of life on along the forest trail.

This year, I have decided to document my trail hikes and runs through a weekly blog post. I will try to share some of the thoughts and feelings that I have had as I amble, trudge, slip, slide and sprint my way around the loops of the Bruce Trail behind my house in Ancaster, Ontario.

I hope you enjoy them and they bring you a little peace, as they do for me. I also hope that they encourage you to get out on a trail near your home and start to experience the joys of forest and field, as well as the benefits they provide to your mind and body.



On a chill night (and a warm heart)

Sometimes, in the dead of summer, we forget that in a few short months, the heat will be replaced by icy winter paths – shivers, tingling faces and a chill wind blowing around the ears.

What does this changeable environment mean?

Being cold reminds me that I am alive.

Today I was in Ottawa, walking along the Mooney’s Bay, late in the evening, feeling the wind penetrate first my coat, then my sweater and finally my shirt, before enveloping my skin, lowering my body temperature.

I looked across the bay and saw sparkling lights strewn across the inky black water, large stars against a black night. The lights danced and bobbed with the wavelets and in the cadence of the cars that passed, obscuring them for a fleeting second, and then letting them wink back into electric flame.

Every day, we see things. Scenes that seem so mundane and boring — the landscapes of the everyday, framed against the sounds and fury of the roads, people’s cries and the general hubbub of the city. We know it so well that it becomes the beat of our lives and eventually goes silent.

What do we replace the noise and sights of the fascinating world around us with, once we no longer notice them?

I think that the answer is that we can never stop noticing them – for it is in this quiet awareness of the world that we draw our own identity. Not only in the rough-hewn categories of sociological or cultural identity, but in the identity that comes of how we appreciate the symphony and counterpoint of the world’s music, urban and rural; in the identity that comes of seeing the forest and its flowers and the light penetrating in beams of light through the branches. In the crackle of snow and ice under our boots as we walk. In the peels of laughter of others reacting to a good joke or a funny situation.

That is the music of life and its visual arts, its tapestries. Our ability to notice and translate what we see and hear is our identity. Our ability to draw inspiration from it is the source of our creativity and, really, our humanity.


On illness, loss and identity

We begin life fresh and surprised at the sensory assault of even the limited confines of the birthing room.

After that initiation into chaos, followed by the first reassuring embrace from our mother, we linger through the slow days of childhood, looking forward with anticipation to our adult years, which we think may signal freedom and independence.

The slow pace of childhood accelerates in our twenties, when we spend much of our time in the world of things thought but unsaid, feelings felt but not exclaimed – often for fear of the shame of rebuke and rejection.

How wrong we were to be so hesitant, we think, as time torques and we are slingshot through our thirties and into our forties, and we réalise that indeed, there was nothing to be afraid of. That others would have welcomed the expression of our candid thoughts, rather than be confined to the lonely towers of our mutual fear of the world.

Alas, this period is often triggered by illness and loss. First the loss of beloved family members, then of mentors and then, perhaps most unnerving, of peers and friends and colleagues.

Sometimes the loss is one of disappearance, sometimes it is of mental ability, other times it is simply debilitating illness that takes away the rhythms and cadence of the life we knew with that person. In any of these, the loss is sad and sometimes shocking, for it makes us  meditate on our mortality and life’s fragility.

When we watch a friend endure a physical trial, struggling to keep strong mind dominant over a weakened body, we are reminded that our strength shouldn’t be reserved for those epic struggles against the force which pulls us toward the night, but rather that strength should be expressed in the moment in every day. Strength should not be epic, rather it should be a force that, deployed in noble and honourable causes makes for a better, more predictable and secure world for us and those around us.

You see, I have had an epiphany amidst the confusion of the losses I have experienced in the last ttwo years.

And it is simple.

Strength comes not of struggling against others or an idea. Indeed, that is weakness and, in fact, a waste of precious time. Rather, strength comes of working for an ideal. It comes of cherishing the lives of those around us, even those with whom we disagree, and working toward making the case for a better world.

I think that when we adopt the idea of recognizing the vulnerability and fragility of those people who disagree with us, then fear and resentment fade. We can love earnestly and with care. We can put thoughts of control and power behind us.. those thoughts which form  an iron cage for our minds and hearts.

The beauty of this is that we are aware of the glorious light of discovery and surprised at the comfort of the caring love of another when we first come into the world. This is indeed a gentle irony to contemplate as we rediscover ease in the midsummer of our lives.

So younger readers, I entreat you to relax your fear of reprisal and express your care for those around you in earnest trust. Youth is a fleeting treasure, like a sun beam across the snow on a grey day in February … a thing to be enjoyed and acted upon.

For those of you closer to my age, may I suggest that you reject fear and insecurity as well as the structures we have put into place in our lives that seems powerful, but now only serve as iron cages of anxiety, stress and fear.

Open this golden door before you are jolted into this realisation by illness and loss.

My faith in humanity is renewed

Last Friday I did an intensely stupid thing and left my wallet on he GO bus from Pearson Airport in Toronto to Hamilton. Wow I felt so dumb and hapless.

I spent the weekend worrying about all the applications I would have to fill out to replace all the cards in the wallet. Plus, it was one of those expensive securid wallets which was a gift and which I really liked.

Well, i got a call from GO Lost and Found today that someone had turned in my wallet… completely intact with everything in it… cards, cash money, Starbucks gold car and presto cards (both of which are basically like cash).

I was so relieved!

Thank God for the person who found my card and turned it in without taking anything.

People like that Good Samaritan make me have faith in the future!

Digital and physical life?!

So I was thinking about social media and social networking and how difficult it is to get a handle on the different ways people understand them. It’s a big mashup of old school and personality and metrics that don’t mean anything and bots and fake news and broadcasters and networkers.

What’s a social media strategist to do?

First, it’s important to stop thinking media necessarily ne start thinking network. Think neuron. Don’t think laser. If you want to get electrical about it.

Next think aloneness and blinking screens that make you feel anxious but sort of reassured when they’re on because they give the illusion of voice when actually your sitting silently tapping on glass.

Then think consumerism because sitting quietly is boring and disconcerting and when you shop at least it feels like you’ve taken an action and moved in the misty digital ether.

But then you feel poorer and stupid for spending money and you know that you’ll just add that news pair of sneakers or useless kitchen implement to the pile of stuff you never use but feel guilty for owning when you hear about refugees or the working poor.

At the base of this dilemma for the social marketer is the difference between representation and reality and where the two mix and don’t.

So… digitally everything is representation but in the physical world everything is action. A digital action is just a representation of an action so it feels hollow and unsatisfactory and lifeless and fake. I feel that’s what make us do outrageous things online that we wouldn’t in the real physical world. The digital is the expression of our mind actions whereas the the physical is about how it feels intense when you stub your toe.

Social media communications and marketing success comes when you can somehow make the representation taitkmal digital world and the physica action world cohere together.

Good luck!

Alternative facts, social media bubbles, assortative mating/friendships and diversity

We all like to think we have a handle on what’s real — it’s natural.

However, with the pervasive nature of opinion media broadcasting 24/7 on television and now on the internet, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the situation. This is compounded by the echo chambers of our social media bubbles and our assortative friendships as well as assortative mating.

What this all means is that we are getting a lot of positive reinforcement from people who agree with us. So it all feels right — our opinions, our choices, our behaviours are all reinforced by friends and family and followers who tell us, very earnestly that you should “be yourself” because “you can’t be anyone else”.

It’s too bad that what this really means is: “Be like us, conform to our little bubble’s social, moral and ethical norms. We’re with you, let those who challenge you — the unenlightened or the profane — be silent.”

After all, you can unfriend those nagging voices who question your beliefs, challenge your morality and your ethics or criticize your choices. You can cut them out because they make you feel something psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the fact that we can’t hold two opposing propositions in our minds at once. It’s actually painful — if you believe someone is a good person and then you get evidence that they are a liar or a cheater, it is easier to dismiss the new facts because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Before social media, assortative mating and friendships, safe spaces in universities, etc. we were often confronted with opposing views and had to argue them out before arriving at a decision.

Now, the process has changed… when we feel an impulse to do something: take a political position, make a life choice, buy something, etc. we tend to go our affirming group to have our decision positively reinforced. If people disagree, then our affirming group labels them as outsiders and often as questionable morally or ethically. So we dismiss them.

Our new internet bubble and assortative mating/friendship trend have meant that many of us live in a state that used to be reserved for people who join cults or espouse strongly ideological politics. It isn’t good because there are few dissenting voices and more social pressure to conform.

All of this while we all sing the praises of diversity and difference. Too bad we rarely experience it.

Diversity and difference means actually countenancing an opposing view and then using reason to debate, discuss and then either dismiss it or change your own views.

But this implies that there is a discussion happening. I fear that our social media bubbles and assortative mating/friendships have made having that discussion inconvenient or even uncomfortable.

Time to open the debate and burst the bubbles.

Otherwise, alternative facts (from every perspective) will be a fixture in our lives, society and politics going forward.

Thank you snowy morning

I woke up today to fluffy snowflakes floating down, softly and silently, on a slant because of the wind. I had woken up with a beating heart and some fear because I guess I had gone to bed worried about things.

I felt a little out of sort, nervy and out of sync. I almost knocked over my coffee cup when I reached out to grab the jar in which I keep my coffee beans. I didn’t feel good about that, it made me feel like I wasn’t up to the day.

And then the snow.

Large flakes, floating sideways in the grey morning light, a screen that brought mystery to my backyard, making the trees seem faraway as if in a dream. As I looked at the trees though the snowy mist I felt my heart rate slow, warmth come back to my limbs. Slowly I felt control return.

Slowly I felt control return. I noticed my breath again and felt the warmth of the coffee cup in my hand. Breath after breath, my muscles unclenched and I regained the smoothness of my movements.

I don’t know how long I gazed out the window, watching the snow slant silently – couldn’t have been longer than a minute or two – but it felt like time stopped. My day’s course was reset. It went from being a troubled day to smooth, calm one.

That snow helped me find my flow. I am grateful.

It has been a good day.

Lemon tree

Yesterday I picked a lemon from my lemon tree. It’s a Meyer lemon tree, and it stands quietly in the corner of my study by the window and the heating vent, looking outside and thinking of how much it misses summertime when it was on the porch bathing everyday in warm summerlight and the sounds of birds and chipmunks and squirrels and their friends.

I had spent time pollinating the tree, using a q-tip, stealing some particles of pollen from one flower and sprinkling them onto another. The effort yielded three four little lemonlings, which have since grown into lemons waiting to be plucked.


Lemon tree yielded her first fruit!

A photo posted by Alex Sévigny (@alexsevignyphd) on

So there it was, my first lemon like a little sun at the end of a green stem. I plucked it from the tree and grated its rind making for a wonderful, lemon-tangerine smelling zest characteristic of Meyer lemons. Scraped and cut and squeezed, my little lemon contributed to a lovely lemon pasta, the recipe for which you can find here.


Lemon pasta. With freshly picked lemon from lemon tree. Delish!

A photo posted by Alex Sévigny (@alexsevignyphd) on

The last half of the lemon’s juice gave up a beautful red kale caesar salad with vegenaise. Bitter and juicy and creamy and sweet, the salad was a wonderful end to a lovely meal. I was glad to have turned my first harvested lemon into a scrumptious, simple meal. I was thankful.

Relevance is the new reputation

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2017 MCM Reunion and Professional Development Day in Manhattan. It was held at Lubin House, which is the New York City Campus of Syracuse University.

What a wonderful few days it was. Thoughtful, interactive lectures and the chance to connect and reconnect with great colleagues and friends. All of this in the heart of NYC, one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting cities.

I heard many great lectures that I will comment on over the next few blog posts, but was most struck by a sentence uttered by Gary Grates, an MCM alum from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

He said, “Relevance is the new reputation.”

It’s a profound insight. We live in a world of instant access, dialogical relationships and media that has infiltrated every single corner of our lives. We exist, as Marshall McLuhan predicted, in the flow of information and pattern matching is our greatest asset and skill.

In a literate print-driven world, reputation is based on what has been written about you, what exists about you. Reputation is an inventory of assets and action catalogued as assets.

In a dialogue, media and information-driven world, reputation is the result of fit, of insertion, of a feeling of relevance.

Sweet moment on the train

I took the early morning train from Ottawa to Toronto today. It was dark when I started and I watched the quiet misty winterlight rise up as though from the forest floor. It was magical and made me feel like meditating but instead I read some of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums which I have been working through in stolen moments of free time.

I was struck that during breakfast in the train, one of the attendants picked up a baby girl of one of the passenger and walked her around the train whilst the young mom had her breakfast. It was natural and friendly and cheerful. No guile or pretence.

Life should be more like that, shouldn’t it? Trusting and helping each other in a brotherly or sisterly way should be a commonplace.

That would make for a better world, in my mind anyhow.