Contending with Global Ecological Disasters from Home

‘Flashy-bad’ news hit my inbox the other day. Our world is such that most things are either flashy-bad or trying to be in order to vie for our attention. The type of flashy-bad to which I’m referring is the type that reverberates for tens of thousands or years, or more. The most recent ‘hit’ to my psyche was last night, on the ‘World at Six’ on CBC Radio News, when I learned that the Amazon Rainforest destruction is at its highest in 12 years.

An Anteater burned to death in Brazil. The world’s largest tropical wetland is an inferno, and national leadership is complacent in its destruction.

The second source and inspiration (a hard word to use for this) for these musings I write today is the New York Times article I read about a month ago. The article ( is on the burning of the Pantanal Wetland. The Times isn’t the first to cover this story, but since this incident isn’t in the U.S., Australia, or Europe, it doesn’t carry as much weight. The Pantanal is one of the most biologically rich areas on the planet, with tens of thousands of species. These catastrophic fires, now having burned greater than 20% of the huge wetland, mostly impact indigenous populations of humans and so the story goes largely unnoticed.

Ahead of, and beside the shocking occurrences of the U.S. election, I started feeling ill while reading this story. The ensuing strong pangs of ‘off-ness’ clouded my mind and even worse, my ‘resiliency spirit,’ without which I would spiral.

I go through what many of you have told me you do as well – temporary paralysis. You know, that which can subtly join the wave of feelings of sheer futility, which then morph into thick sadness, and hard-to-source depression.

Some have called it depression from loss, or even E.I.D. – ‘extinction induced depression.’ For me it’s not just the forever loss (which is damn scary). It’s also the loss of the viability of the indigenous communities and the like ecological systems, the ensuing impacts on the remaining species, and the deep sadness that as sentient beings, with so much capacity to love and understand, we seemingly can’t help but be destructive to our own demise.

The particulars of today – the world’s largest tropical wetland is an inferno – the Pantanal – are ‘hit’ tracks on an all too familiar broken record:

– Habitat loss, conversion to agriculture leading to a drier climate
– Climate change world wide contributing to a drier climate
– National politics supporting the above

The Pantanal is mainly in Brazil, just south of the Amazon Rainforest proper, boarding Bolivia and Paraguay. It’s far away. It is disappearing quickly, forever burning away millions of hectares of irreplaceable life, destroying one of the key systems that permits us all to live.

We have many problems in our own countries. And yet these major disasters that we now witness are impactful to our minds, bodies and spirits and of course, ALL life on Earth. There surely must be something we can do?

Of course, there is much we can do.

Holding What’s Permissible and What Isn’t. We have to create a new norm from the inside out. I will not destroy myself. I will not destroy my home. If we all hold this in every interaction, it starts to impact what is acceptable and what MUST be changed.

Your Purse, Your Wallet. It’s been said effectively that the power is in the purse. Research what you’re buying – where it’s coming from, what it’s impacts are. This is a fast way to support those companies and people that are still creating and ‘progressing’ who have found ways to lessen the impact in a world that needs stuff. Needing stuff is ok. Hurting life to get stuff has to be shifted. Follow leaders that have unlocked these methods.

News and Cell Phone Fasts. Stop reading a couple of days a week. Your systems will revitalize and maybe avoid burn out. A lot of the same news will be there when you resume. Maybe consider helping create a good news story, or circulating one. There are many out there and albeit, hard to find. Also, checking out of the cumulative exasperation for bits, enables us to ground and come back with more of ‘Holding What’s Permissible, and What Isn’t.’

Write It. Write your own play about the environment and perform it in a fringe festival, on broadway, or turn it into a movie script, or just do it for you and no one else. Have you seen Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway? It happened. Someone wrote about it. Someone saw the importance of the story. Someone made a great movie because of all that.

Therapy, Counselling. Talk it out in psychotherapy. Get a drama therapist. Look up a forest therapy guide in your community and join one of their walks, or see if they offer one on one. This ‘loss stuff’ is heavy and you need an outlet.

Immersion. Get into nature and pass it on. Show someone you know an amazing spot in a natural area in your neck of the woods and turn them into a nature-connected lawyer, electrician, teacher, or homemaker.

Do What You Can Do, Be What You Can Be. We might not be able to go to Brazil and fight these fires on the front lines. But, we can do things, half a world away to show we care, and we’re taking care of our own backyards and beyond, the best way we can.

Protect, Restore Local. Final a local non profit or community group that is working to protect and recover nature locally. Get your hands dirty by digging into ecological restoration. Give them money. Maybe join their boards if that is your expertise instead of tree planting. One group I consult for, Carolinian Canada Coalition ( is an incredibly efficient group that conserves rare species and habitats, while making room for volunteers to contribute on the ground.

Work on Your Relationships. We’re in this mess because the fundamental unit supporting life, the relationship, has been ignored, distorted, and seen poorly. A real relationship is one that cares supports and brings up each side. Our one-sided relationships sour, spiral, and lead to breakdown. That’s where we are in so many of our relationships. The more we repair these between people, cultures, societies, and with the environment, the sooner we will return to give, take, love, sadness, recovery, beauty, solutions, and joy.

Leading by having fun, getting reconnected, and truly valuing nature.

Perspective. We live in dramatic times. It’s not just the Pantanal, the Amazon, Australia, California, and Oregon are all burning or recently have been scorched, of course. The last time the world experienced loss close to this was 65 million years ago. It’s no doubt that many dinosaurs, amphibians, mammals, fish and millions of other species shed tears from their disaster and loss. Mass extinction on this planet appears inevitable. While this may be true, it doesn’t have to be at this time right now. This self-created narrative can turn on a dime. With the above, and more of your own brilliance that I and others don’t know about, are you ready to change the perspective and conquer with clarity and love?

Our world is burning – not just the important bits that science tells us are critical for life. Our unique essences are on fire. It’s time to channel this heat to where it’s needed, to fan the flames of stance, radiating the desires for life-givingness, including one another, all beings and the preciousness of this very opportunity to spark our powers, this moment forward.

Ben Porchuk is a family guy. He’s a recovering scientist and ecologist (working with Carolinian Canada), a forest therapy guide and trainer, a non-profit leader, and an author-in-training. He lives in the Forest City (London, Ontario), Canada.

Green Is the New Black

For the benefit of those who don’t have regular conversations with plants, I came up with a new way of speaking for the trees.


I’m a conservation biologist. It’s a part of my job to be concerned and serious about the declining natural world to get some action to protect and enhance nature. What if the alarm call wasn’t the usual deep concern and doomsday scenario, but a fun call to action? Here, I turn a new leaf…to see if we can shift just a fraction of the funds that we might be spending on Black Friday and Christmas, into allowing more native trees to flourish.

Why native? When we plant native trees, we are acting directly to dramatically help declining wildlife. We improve soil, which then holds more water, prevents flooding and erosion, and recovers the close to 90% of the landscape that has been destroyed. When we plant native trees, we bring back resilient habitat that nourishes food crops, wildlife, and air quality and we reclaim our natural heritage, bringing back a landscape teeming with beauty and wonder, as nature returns.

I know I’ll say it again, but, if you are able, it would tickle my suit pink if you could make any size of donation to help this amazing charity spread the love of trees, deeper into southern Ontario ( – it never hurts to ask.

The Idea Behind the Suit

Not long ago this fall, like many, I got inspired by the colours spawned by the momentous of beauty of fall. From green, photosynthesizing ‘solar panels’ in spring and summer to the eclectic eye-candy, the brilliant leaf-spread, turned my grey matter into a multicoloured array of inspiration. That’s when I got it:

’Make a suit from leaves of rare trees in need of a voice.’

So I did. Working with some of the rarest trees in Canada, including the Cucumber Magnolia, the Pawpaw and many others, the ensuing suit is a celebration of the few trees that remain and a call to help us repopulate these species in the most ‘suitable’ areas.

Since my yard is populated with hundreds of species of native plants, including 25 species of native trees, I was in good position to pick the perfect timing, selecting many rare species, including a full range of colours.

I organized the leaves based on size, colour, and species, spreading them out inside only when I was able to work with them right away. If they’re inside for too long, they dry up, curl, crack, lose their colour, and are tough to work with.

For $12.99 and $3.99 respectively I purchased a suit jacket and a tie from Value Village. One by one, I started gluing the fabric and applying the leaves in a manner that one would see feathers growing on a bird. Intuitively, the leaves really showed where they wanted to go on the fabric (like speaking to the tree!).

Jacket and Tie Leaf Stats

  • Summary: 20 species of leaves comprising the suit jacket and tie
  • Sleeves: Tulip Tree (yellow, orange) with green leaflets of Blue Ash
  • Main Jacket: Pawpaw leaves (90%) with some White Birch, Blue Beech, Kentucky Coffee Tree (green) with highlights of Tulip Tree (yellow orange), Red Oak (red), Silver Maple (green, red and orange on same leaf), Eastern Wahoo (red-pocket lining)
  • Jacket Lapel: Cucumber Magnolia, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Pignut Hickory, Shagbark Hickory, Bitternut Hickory, Ginko* Leaves (all yellow) with highlights of Black Cherry (green) and small White Oak (red)
  • Tie: Base of American Beech, Cherry Birch (green), Black Walnut (yellowish), Eastern Wahoo (red)

I then hired a friend, Tammy (1 Breath Photography), who charged very little to follow me through the streets of my village, in front of shops, on park benches, and under trees in the occasional picturesque courtyard. It was a blast. The outrageously colourful and loud suit opened some great conversations. After a few hundred shots were taken, we whittled down the options to 4 or 5 ‘good’ shots.

Then I got silent and silly under a tree and came up with a few of the sayings to go with the photos and here are a few:

“If Trees Give Us Life, How About Giving Life Back to Trees?”

“Make Like a Tree and Leave the World a Better Place”

“Green is the New Black”
(actually suggested by colleague Kathryn McLeod)

Remembering the Suit Is About the Trees
Many books are written on the fabulous lives and benefits of many of the trees that I used to create this cover the suit. In the context of southern Ontario, Cucumber Magnolia is a species of high priority for Canada; only 200 or so wild trees remain. We are in the middle of a project to help recover this species, and we need funds, properties, and much love to help made this tree common again.

Hugely important for First Nations, and a big part of this suit, is the Pawpaw Tree. It provides the largest fruit of any native tree in North America. The fruit is nothing short of dreamy. It is creamy, smooth, tasty, and ultra-healthy. At the moment, this Pawpaw is experiencing a renaissance, with many people helping in its recovery to a greater part of its former landscape (see this as an example – Planting this tree will also possibly attract the rare butterfly, the gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail.

Most of the trees featured on this jacket are only found in the extreme southern part of Canada known as the Carolinian Zone. Coincidentally, the Tulip Tree, prominently featured on this jacket, is the largest native hardwood tree in North America and it is a part of the logo of the Carolinian Canada Coalition. This tree is also a key food source for the young of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly.

Extremely rare in Canada and appearing in their first fashion show via this suit are the Blue Ash (a blue dye can be extracted from this tree), the Cherry Birch, and the Pignut Hickory. Like the other native trees, the boost resilience of the forest – its ability to last and self-perpetuate for thousands of years, while providing so many side benefits to wildlife, humans and a regulated climate.

Call to Action:
Donate to Help Us Spread These Trees: Here again is the link to contribute (if you are able):

* Ginko biloba is the only non-native tree used on this jacket

WANTED (Desperately) In Our Cities: Under-Represented Trees

It’s time to invite some long time residents back home. The trees. The native species. The ones that are effectively absent from the most cities. Bringing them back isn’t just for the trees’ sake.

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I planted this Red Oak tree 25 years ago (1994). I actually planted a thousand of them and more than a thousand are happily growing at this site.

Some of these trees will de-stress you, halting your cortisol production, helping you get back to true self – White Pine, E. Hemlock, Black Spruce – whatever is native in your neighbourhood. These trees, along with other conifers like cedars and spruce, produce essential wood oils called phytoncides. These oils emit the beautiful smell of pine, stop our cortisol production, thereby halting stress hormones that often flood our systems, causing us to worry and often get sick.

Other trees we need back here will quickly re-build our plummeting wildlife diversity, pulling us out of the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, and here they are: the oaks – Chinquapin, Dwarf Chinquapin, and Swamp White, Black, Shumard, and Pin Oak. Surprisingly absent in the neighbourhood are also Black Cherry, Shagbark, Shellbark and Bitternut Hickories, as well as the stately American Beech. Yes, these hardwoods need your help and in return, they are the magnets for bringing back biodiversity – the wide variety of animals, such as butterflies, gorgeous moths, birds and beyond. Non-native trees don’t do this.

I’ve written this post because of my observations in many towns and cities. Often you see trees from Norway (maples, spruce), parts of the US to the south (Black Locust), cultivar varieties of native trees (Honey Locust, Callery Pear), or trees from Asia (Ginko, Lilac, etc.)  Yes, we do have native maples often in cities like Sugar and Silver. Whoop, whoop. But seldom do we get in our parks and along our streets the trees that you can find in a one of the few remaining diverse woodlots out in the country.

White Oak Acorns and Tree Form in Background - B Porchuk

White Oak Tree (background) & Acorns

In my neighbourhood, Wortley Village, in London, Ontario, Canada, measuring at least 2 x 2 km or about 250 acres, I have paid attention as I drive, walk, jog, or roller blade. There are two American Beech trees, maybe 10 Red Oaks, and 3 hickories of any species in this area. While I could have missed a couple, there should be hundreds of each.

Cucumber Magnolia-2 B Porchuk

Cucumber Magnolia. 

These native species, the oaks, beech, hickories and lone cherry are greatly under-represented to say the least. While most of cities and towns buy trees from nurseries that don’t stock these trees, it isn’t too hard to go out of our way a bit to find, buy and plant them. Time is up. We need to act in the absence of convenience.

The top reasons I hear not to plant these (native) trees: 1. I don’t have any room and it’s too shady (in older neighbourhoods). 2. These trees are too messy. 3. They cost too much. 4. I don’t know where to find these native trees? 5. They’ll attract squirrels. 6. I’m on my cell phone.

Here are some responses: 1. You can plant trees really close together. They’ll grow tall, like they do in a dense forest, and find the light they need. If you still feel in the dark, contact a local ecology group for a list of native trees that love shade. 2. Most things in life are messy. Some of us/things are more so than others. When you weigh the benefits, a little extra effort and energy spent cleaning up acorns or leaves isn’t so bad – being outside, getting free exercise, maybe becoming a little more social with your neighbours. 3. These trees don’t cost more than non-native trees. Groups like conservation authorities have cheap native tree sales.…you can find great deals. 4. Native trees are becoming more and more available. They are sold at more and more nurseries every year…seek and you shall find. 5. With more diverse native trees and acceptance of predators like Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Coyotes in the city, we gradually will have fewer squirrels. But no promises on this one, at least in the short term…let’s admire the squirrels are boast in the fact that at least we aren’t driving this species to extinction! 6. Get off your cell phone. Unplug and recharge your mind, body and spirit by planting a tree!

Am Beech-1 B Porchuk

American Beech Trees

Community building, healthy air, more resilient human health and climate systems, boosted urban ecology, and recovery of endangered species…all by planting these under-represented trees. It’s not hard to give a little more space for nature in the city. Recovering nature helps us to get a hand out of the big hole we have been digging in the ‘more the human world’ for decades.

Some great resources: Douglas Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home;” …native plant nurseries in S. Ontario, great for finding many of the trees mentioned above, St. Williams Nursery and Ecology Centre near Long Point and Native Trees and Plants Nursery, near Amhurstburg, ON ( Just do an online search in your area to find out a good source for native trees.

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American Sycamore Tree Leaves and Bark. 

Aging With Awareness

By the books, I’ve passed ‘middle-age.’ Feeling confident, strong and in charge of my moments, I’d love to talk with you a bit about perceptions of aging.

Many like to think they fear not of getting old(er). Many like to think they embrace aging. Many of us do, however, perhaps too often, raise our eyebrows when we hear the number assigned to our time on Earth. Sometimes, we even do a double take seeing our face in a mirror. Getting older and aging can be two different things.

Ben Old Car BW.jpg

It really wasn’t that long ago that I looked, felt and stood like this.  Our perception of the moments, our feelings of how we perceive ourselves bode strongly in the process of feeling old vs. feeling alive at any age.

Talking mainly about adults approaching middle age or more, to many of us getting old(er) often implies, becoming ‘less of.’ Aging can also be attached to negativity, but when paired with presence and not fear, is a term that feels better to me – implying improvement (like an aged wine).

I consider this much lately watching my parents age with many issues. Also, a few days back, my great Aunt died at age 100.

Many would insert here, her secrets of making it to 100. “Have many good relationships.” “Play challenging games for your mind.” “Cardio of course, is key.” Those aren’t mine, and of course they don’t work for everyone. I don’t have any of those insightful, and all the rage, ‘Top 5 Things for Getting Older’ to offer. I seldom see discernible patterns in the long-lived in my life. However, I recently saw some results from a research study made sense to me; have long-time friends with whom you are regularly social, live in a walk-able community, and fill your days with many home-based physical tasks [chopping veggies, use hand cranking tools, walk stairs, etc.] that get your body parts moving and your circulation systems stimulated. Again, like my one of my favourite bumper stickers made by a popular local burger joint; “Fast Eddies: Not for Everyone.”


“Dear tree; please hold me strongly as I hold you, as we ‘mature’ together.”

My great Aunt was herself more than not. She was mentally and mostly physically strong until the final month. She was able to take aside those close to her a week ago and say, “This is the last time I’ll be seeing you. I know you know how much I love you and how much you mean to me. Enjoy fully the rest of your life,” she said. Isn’t that great, for her? I think so.

“If we could only all do it that way,” is a tempting thought to think. But no, of course, we’re all different. For most of us, the fear of dying thickens as the pages in the calendars pass, stack up, crinkle, and brown on the edges like old wanted posters. And for some – it won’t matter that they live in fear of death all the time, as for some unknown reasons, they’ll live a long time anyway!

Many would prefer not to die young, and yet it’s not completely about lasting to a ripe age either. Consensus these days is about quality and presence – the act of actually living your life moment to moment. And I won’t say “No regrets,” because even though we are filled with ‘learnings,’ there certainly are regrets (at least for me) for which we do not have to dwell upon.

More often than not lately, I’ve had great feelings and thoughts about tipping the scale past so called, ‘middle age.’

What I’ve noticed is that ‘getting old’ is more about the cumulative loss of awarenesses and noticings of our bodies when they are literally speaking to us, telling us what adjustments they need.


“You can’t go up there at your age?” she said concerned. “And, you have no shoes on!” At least at this age I can. I don’t even know if I could have done this at 25 because I wasn’t practiced and aware enough like I happen to be in this moment…

More of the following thoughts and actions have kept my body limber, my brain clear-minded and my being spiritually energized: “Oh, I see I have to do this differently.” Or, “Yah, this food isn’t for me anymore.” Or, “I feel I have to start being like this now.” OR, “I think I’ll just stay quiet and observe this and see how this interaction unfolds.” When I ignore these subtle insights and awarenesses, inevitably something from this ‘chosen ignorance’ is manifested, such as an injury, an error, or a gross miscalculation, which many attribute to ‘getting old.’

I effort to refrain from phrases like, “I’m starting to wear down,” “I’m not what I used to be,” and upon seeing undergraduate university students each fall, “Wow. I must be getting old.” While some of these are of course jokes and realizations of new stages in our lives, the subconscious brain hears “…wearing down,….not what I used to be… ….getting feeling old.” What happens? Yes, subconsciously you are directed to things to help you manifest ‘getting old.’

Fortunately, a lot of us get a shot at aging.

It is a choice to do it gracefully, with joy, without fear and importantly, with presence. A hard thing to remember is that we are aging every moment, creating a tidal wave of momentum with our approach. We are feeding our subconscious with every thought and every action, no matter how many times we go to the gym, how many Omega3s we consume, or how much financial wealth we accumulate before death.

So what about quality of life and longevity? You really can only shape quality of life by choice of mindset and finding ways to override negative patterns. That’s one of the many things I teach in workshops and coach as a part of Real Man Power. Longevity is the crap shoot, but certainly some habits more than others, give us better odds at living longer (and living more in joy than fear).

One of the best starting points I advise my clients is to pick one point – say, ‘be kind to all regardless’ or ‘be grateful for everything that shows up in my life.’ Stick with this for a number of days, repeating your goal over an over. ‘Be kind’ or ‘Be Grateful.’ It’s wonderful to see this change your life from the tiny, to the large.

Lastly, and of course the key of this entire post is to shift to aging with more complete awareness. Listen to your body ‘speak’ and observe the signs. The messages you will get inform of you the tweaks and needs to modify approaches to life in a body and mind with changing requirements, and yet steeped with more experiences and greater presence.

Every so often I come across a person considered by society as really old in age but clearly to me they’ve managed to accomplish staying ‘not old’ – not necessarily in their bodies, but in their personalities, their energy levels and effectively in the aura of joy about them. I smile. I certainly don’t consider these people old at all. They have mastered the art of aging.

Notes* A variation of this was first publishing in my LinkedIn account, a couple of years ago. Since this article has aged with awareness, I decided to publish it in my blog knowing that a few of you aren’t on LinkedIn. 

Horse History; Horse Return to Relevance

Grace, beauty, strength, and perceptive abilities are just a few of the admirable qualities that have tied us to horses for thousands of years. Even today, without horses playing much a role in our work lives (unless used for hobbies, sport, and therapy), horses still hold the key to the hearts of millions of hominids the world over.
Ben Horse Shot.jpg
It’s hard to imagine how long horses have been here in North America, evolving over 40 to 50 million years ago.  Surviving well with huge predators such as Sabre-toothed Tigers, horses are fast, have a great sense of balance, and have highly perceptive fight or flight responses. Horses then became a casualty in the Pleistocene extinctions about 11,000 years ago. They disappeared with many large herbivores and predators likely because of a combination of climate change and the introduction of humans to the continent. Before their demise, many left the continent through the Bering Strait, a narrow land bridge, which is now ocean, between what is modern day Alaska and Siberia.


‘Horse Power’ helped clear away the trees from the majority of NA in the 1800s. 

In Asia and Europe horses then prospered and proliferated. People gained much from capturing and using horses to their advantage. First domesticated about 4,000 years ago, our ancestors kept horses to drink their milk and feed their families, similar to how we use cattle today. From the wild species, people artificially selected horses through captive breeding to create what we now know is about 300 different breeds of horse. Only one horse species is left in the wild – the Przewalski Horse. It walks the tight rope of extinction, with small numbers only remaining in Mongolia, all coming from 15 descendants caught from the wild in the year 1900.

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Horses in Wortley Village (London), Ontario, Canada. East Coves Pond featured. Circa 1885 by Judy Porchuk. 

It wasn’t until the early 1500s that horses would return to North America when the Spaniard conquistadors, in particular, Hernan Cortes, brought 15 horses to Mexico in New Mexico. From there, some horses escaped, others were taken by settlers and indigenous peoples. It wasn’t before long that horses became the major driving force for clearing the landscape of trees, wetlands and grasslands. The terms ‘work horse’, ‘horse power’ and others attest to the strength and the seeming willingness of the horse to submit to help humans carve out a more comfortable existence in what was a wildly natural landscape.
In small towns and developing cities horses were indeed used to clear thousands of acres of giant trees. In addition, horses assisted these settlers in other means like transportation, hunting, and land surveying. Once this initial colonization was complete, horses became the main means of transportation, both within and between towns and cities. Horse racing also became popular in the 17th century. Horse breeding became a big industry, with many supporting economies created. Blacksmiths for horse shoes, bits, and bridles. Tanners made saddles, reins, chaps and more. Carpenters built barns, wagon houses, and more…almost as much as we have in industry supporting cars currently, dozens of jobs were all based around the horse.

three wild horses

Horses doing what horses do well; flee!

It wasn’t until about 1910 that cars become more numerous than horses in some major cities like New York. Horses then took a back seat in the carriage of industrialization. Never fading too far, horses have remained a mainstay on our rural landscape and continue to be raced, shown, written about, filmed and more recently, are used in therapeutic settings for those recovering from many conditions, including stress and other traumas.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up on a quarter horse farm in Virginia (ON). My Dad built all of our barns, arenas and outbuildings by his own hands. My Mother broke horses, taught riding lessons, ran a tack shop, flew around the continent buying horses for people who had the money and trusted her passionate and informed opinions (she also painted the cover of this issue). My sisters thrived riding and competing in horse shows.

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A young human (me) testing his luck out on a horse…circa 1974 in Virginia. 

And, well, me… I certainly wasn’t the ‘horseman’ possibly expected by my family. I guess I was destined to get close to other animals and nature in general as an ecologist. Now, much later in life, I’ve really started to connect with horses. I watch my daughters reel in excitement and enthusiasm as they learn to ride and deeply connect with horses. More recently, I’ve been contracted to work with quite a few farms that feature ‘healing’ horses. Blending forest bathing, traditional therapy, and the raw power of openhearted horses, these beautiful animals are becoming more relevant in the lives of more and more people once again.

A Pittance of Pigeons

Originally, a pittance was a gift or bequest to a religious community, or a small charitable gift. The word has transformed into meaning a very poor wage or allowance.

Pigeons, if completely white and released at an event, are often considered a gift of heavenly persuasions. If bland-grey and commonly encountered in our cities, however, the Pigeon usually is viewed by people with cheap annoyance.

Are they skyward-flying heavenly Rock Doves, or evil rats with wings? It depends on your experience with these ‘Old World Birds.’ If you’re leaning towards the ‘rats with wings’ side of things, here are a few facts and stories about Columba livia, the Pigeon, that may sway you even to the point of pure love for the common Rock Dove.

Bens Pigeon Shot from Italy

Contemplating her species long co-existence and love with humans, a Pigeon reflects on a marble carving in Florence, Italy.

Pigeons, like most of  N.A.’s human population, are non-indigenous ‘settlers’ first introduced to the continent in Nova Scotia in 1606. Originally found in the wild on the cliffs near oceans in Asia, Europe and North Africa, they now populate cities the world over, by the millions.

Human’s Best Friend?

Pigeon from the Vatican

An statue of a Pigeon in the Vatican, Vatican City, Italy.

Move over Rover? Not quite; dogs are still king, but Pigeons are close. For more than 5,000, Pigeons have lived hand in hand with people, servicing our many needs, creating many leisure opportunities. These birds have saved lives in war, delivered messages, filled hungry bellies, acted as live targets for shooting practice, provided fodder for falconry, and entertained us with their unusual shape, colour, and size, in addition to wowing us with remarkable aerial acrobatics.

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Homing Pigeon.

Speed. As humans, we are fascinated with speed.  Fastest land mammal? Cheetah – 120 km/h. Fastest bird (and overall animal for that matter)? Peregrine Falcon – 220 km/h in a hunting dive. And…the Pigeon? Guesses? In a straight line flight, it is one of the fastest birds in the world, attaining speeds clocked over 140 km/h, easily out-flying the Peregrine Falcon’s straight line best of 96 km/h.

Inventors of Airmail. Ok, it was slave labour really, as we forced them into the postal service. By capitalizing on their ability to return home, and manipulating where we placed their food, Pigeons carried messages, often traveling several hundred kilometers to do so. This started over 2,000 years ago in Persia, Rome, Greece, and many places in between. Hand written messages of topics ranging from love (letters to far off lovers) to hate (war reconnaissance updates) were attached to the legs of pigeons and, without judgement, dutifully delivered on time and at a low cost. It would be several hundred years before Pigeons organized the first known Airmail Pigeon Workers Union – Local 001. This was a major cooo!

Heroism. Across thousands of years of shared history, countless Pigeons, such as one named ‘Cher Ami’ in WWI, were war heroes, responsible for saving the lives of thousands of soldiers trapped incommunicado, in dire situations. Cher Ami was one in a series of several pigeons released from a desperate battalion caught in a depression, completely surrounded by opposing forces. Equipped with a message written on an onion skin, Cher Ami rose through the bushes only to get shot down instantly. Mustering enough energy and determination, she took off again, in spite of having been hit in her breast, having lost sight in one eye, as well as having a leg dangling from a narrow tendon. In 25 minutes, traveling in this injured state at over 80 km/hr, she returned to division headquarters with a key message. All remaining 194 allied soldiers were safely rescued. Medics saved her life, performing surgery and giving her a wooden leg. She died a decorated hero a year later at age nine.

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Cher Ami was a Homing Pigeon in Service in WWI, credited with saving thousands of lives.  This photo is not Cher Ami, but you can Google her to see a photo of her stuffed body in an American Museum.

Squab (what we call pigeon meat). Of course, for all they’ve done for us, we have to eat Pigeons too. Being a Pigeon fancier and vegetarian, I’ve never done this. But I’m not bitter.

Fantail Pigeon

Indian Fantail Pigeon.

Diversity. Similar to the manner we ‘turned’ the wolf into poodles, terriers, Great Danes and oodles of others through captive breeding and artificial selection over thousands of years, hundreds of varying breeds of Pigeon have been created by humans. The photos attest to the incredible array of weird and wonderful.  The Saxon Fairy Swallow Pigeon; the Indian Fantail. Others feature remarkable behaviour such as laser-like guided Homing Pigeons, some breeds that tumble and roll in the air, to others that look like they are going to explode. Professional Pigeon shows are common and taken seriously (by Pigeon People only, of course).

Frillback Pigeon

The Frillback Pigeon.

Milk. Aside from mammals, Pigeons are the only other animals to feed their young milk from specialized cells that line their crop (food storage area).

Monogamy.  For the most part, Pigeons mate for life. In cases where partners have died, or birds are forced away from their mates, they will re-couple.

Pigeons and Me. Growing up on a horse farm, I developed the uncanny ability of being thrown off just about every horse I climbed on. Dragged to horse shows by my parents and sisters, one year when I was 9 years old, I stumbled into the small animal section. There, I came across a Pigeon show. I was dazzling. I was captivated. It featured dozens of birds of various breeds. Several ‘Pigeon Fanciers’, usually older men with accents from one European country or another, noticed my curiosity. Within no time, a few of these men had convinced my parents; a few pairs came home with me, effectively drawing me into the passion of the Pigeon. Within a couple of years, I had close to a hundred Pigeons of several breeds. This included Homers, Rollers, Modenas, Pouters, African Owls, Fantails, and many others. Pigeons became my functional ‘video games.’  Almost akin to the modern day kid’s smart phone, I spent hours and hours in the coop and outside in sheer wonder, watching the them fly by and strut their stuff. I paired birds. I helped raise their young. I raced Homers. I lay in the long summer barnyard grass with my friends, watching the Rollers climb high in the sky before going into aerial stalls and the ensuing somersaults, spins and tight rolls. One year, I lost dozens of Pigeons to a hungry, stealthy Mink. I cried and cried some more.

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Feeding a young Pigeon out of hand. 

Most kids these days are adept in the urban jungle. We now know this can be stale for some aspects of their development, providing not nearly enough stimulation, holding back creativity and confidence. Animal husbandry, similar to getting outside in nature, fills some of these gaps. While we can’t keep chickens in London, ON, a home owner is permitted to have a coop of Pigeons. Hmmm…given my experience raising and learning about Pigeons, I can assure you this would be a gift to many kids; an experience of wonder, responsibility and pure joy.



Notes from Camping with 13 Year Old Girls

Age 13 is often a challenging time for a kid. It’s the transition time. Biologically, humans turn adult during this year, give or take a couple. While cell differentiation in certain body system’s are blasting away a million times a second, differentiation from one’s care givers, like a rocket separating from the mother ship in orbit, also approaches the sound barrier.

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“Wow, this field is like the Sound of Music.”

A 13 year old can also be tough on guardians involved.  In other words, it’s an age when kids sometimes drift away into scary teenage-hood, and some grownups (parents – possibly not fully adults themselves?) can make it worse. Sound mildly familiar? It wasn’t the full intention, but bringing my daughter and her two 13 year old friends almost felt like a lunar landing of sorts, bridging a bit of the disconnect that can crack its way into adolescent-adult relationships. What a treat. Me and three wonderful adolescent girls on the brink of leaving childhood.

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“Ok, we really need to get some pictures here. Like – a lot of pictures.”

Let’s get right to it; by the numbers, here are some of the awarenesses:

  1. They still care a lot about sounding older. Busted. Two of the three are actually still 12, but all three unanimously voted to have 13 represented as the number in the title.

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    “So can we actually walk the entire 900 km trail, from Niagara Falls to Tobermory?” Yes, but not today.

    2. Man, 3 is a tough number. It is a triad of possible breakdowns, and ephemeral imbalanced alliance formations. It’s actually a great opportunity to sit back and watch the dynamics, and insert oneself in service to what the Universe may be asking of any given kid in any given situation. This is where adulthood and a shake of wisdom can shine in on conflicts. It’s also good practice for not favouring one’s own kid, while also not consistently giving them the short end of the stick.

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    “Can I walk over there in that golden pool?” Sure. Take it one step at a time.

3. They like having their pictures taken. Dah!!! You’re thinking, they are 13. Sarcasm: that’s really insightful, isn’t it. Not exactly? It actually is. You know where we had to go to get some great shots for Instagram or SnapChat? Forests, meadows, rock piles, hill peaks, waterfalls, rapids, streams, etc…. once there, the allure of nature’s charm takes over. In theory, that is. Sans insects, that is. Or at least, a manageable number of insects.

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It’s not very often you get goats coming by looking for love and any handouts. They actually wagged their tails when you pet them. It turns out, many 13 year old girls like goats.

4. They love sports when introduced and facilitated the right way. This can be said of all kids, but I think it might be fair to say girls still feel isolated, uncoordinated and less likely to engage. I thought this would change a lot since I was a kid, but I’ve recently watched many schoolyard interactions and it hasn’t. To get girls or any non-athletically bent kid to engage in sports for fun activity and community building: 1. Make it easy. e.g. Move closer to the basket and/or lower it; 2. Counter any peer shaming taunts with really positive infused alternative comments invoking different points of view and teamwork vs. individual achievements. 3. Change up the teams frequently to avoid us vs. them mentality. In no time, these kids were dying to play the three semi-competitive games that I built into a scavenger hunt.

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Wow. Eating food cooked by burning logs. “How do you turn it down or up according to the cooking instructions?” Goooooood question.

5. Camping affords the development of refined rabbit ears. Being paper thin, one can hear anything between tents. I found the superpower developed here is the fairness, and safety ears. Privacy is still fully afforded. Mostly. These ears filter out the private, regular and fun drama that’s shared between friends. But when the imbalance, teasing, or even worse bullying erupts, this superpower triggers the alarms and the dudes in tights inside slide down the grey matter poles, perking up for interception.

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With the vast majority of us now living in cities, slowing up to watch the sun go down on the cows isn’t an every day occurrence. “Are these, like, the kind that we eat?” Gooood question.

6. Showers are not necessary every day. These girls just proved it. Feel free to use this for any such young teens you may have. At home, the contrary is true. Showers are lived in. Sometimes needed twice a day. Camping, well, it doesn’t matter so much.


“Oh my god, you forgot the ketchup? Like, what will we do?” Goooood question. I don’t eat them without ketchup either…the Unitarian Camp up the lane way pulled through and squirted us ample ‘loaner’ ketchup.

7. We all tell lies on occasion. Some of us more than others. Watching directly 13 year olds around food, chores, and friendships is fertile grounds to call subtle ‘inaccuracies’ with humour and without shaming. I found these past few days really questioning how I tell certain truths and avoid others.

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Running water, dappled sunlight, Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies gracing our spirits. “You know, this place is so calm and peaceful.” Yah. It really is.

8. A scavenger hunt can really blur lines. For one, the cell phone or ipod is a great tool. They had 35 things to ‘find.’ A few items on the list included, photos of a horse (or 3), a bird’s nest, twelve different flowers, a baby bird, a selfie of the three of them on the highest nearby peak….

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A horse farm was on the edge of the forest of our camp site. They slept near the fence, snoring at night, keeping me awake at my computer, helping me consider 13 year old logic and wisdom.

How did they do? What was great is that they set up to explore a largely unknown landscape on their own. This built up their confidence. I think it also developed some leadership skills. They got most things on the list.  A few I assisted, others were helped by neighbouring campers. I did include a big incentive; a little gift back of age appropriate goodies for young people/girls (my wife did this). Included within was a journal.

Planned the day after the scavenger hunt was some reflective time after hiking 1.5 hours on the Bruce Trail towards Collingwood. Not knowing this section of this wonderful 885 km trail, it was a mystery to me what it might look like and where we might stop. Luckily, we stumbled on God’s country. After an hour’s hike climbing up rocks, descending down across meadows, and traversing a few short edges of fields of cattle and horses, we settled creek side in awe. Rapids split around rocks the shallow and narrow stream. With great care taken, we waded in, finding our ‘summer feet’ and easily withstanding the cool summer stream for the golden experience. To boot, the banks of the glistening stream were covered with trees pumping out pure magic into the air; Phytoncides – essential wood oils, that were thick in the air, thanks to the Hemlocks, Eastern Cedars, and Red Oak trees.

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They walk in the present, staring down a how to be for many moments in the future.

After a solid 15 minutes of photography, they sat for a while just with their feet in the rushing water. This activity is known to provide a plethora of health benefits from removing positive ions, to eliciting sensations and stimulation in all parts of the body thanks to the feet being in touch with most major systems found within us. Feet also work hard and repeatedly. Taking the load off and with a water massage is a another sign, ‘it’s time to just ‘be’, relax, and soak in the moment.’

One by one, each of them in their own way came to me with glowing eyes and said something to the effect of, “It’s just so peaceful and relaxing here.”

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Thinking we might stay in the stream for a few minutes, the journals came out. I thought maybe another 15 minutes. About an hour and a half later, the first child started to stir.

I didn’t plan it perfectly. The experience didn’t go just as planned….but in the end I feel as though I was the lucky one getting to spend time with three amazing young women. I also feel that it’s so important to be generous with time with kids and the rewards are profound.

It’s not hard to enjoy being outside. For me, a trip with these kids was a bonus, a balance and a lesson in life; plan and be spontaneous, expect much fun, many challenges and and just roll and role with it!



Embracing the Urban Coyote

A few years ago, while traveling back to London, Ontario, I stopped in Cambridge to give my Red and White Husky a little exercise reprieve. In an isolated part of a heavily vegetated park, I briefly let her off leash. I paused a moment, then gave a peering, baffled look; we were seemingly staring into a mirror. A wild dog-like being of the near exact colour markings of my dog stared back at us from a really close distance just ahead on the pathway. Some might say, “Was it rabid? Did you report it? How did you save your dog and self from the terror before you?” In fact, I reveled in the experience and wished it would have lasted longer. I felt no fear. Was I just lucky?


Not long after this chance encounter, some people started really talking up fear about these animals moving into urban areas. “They’ll attack you and your pets. They’ll pass along disease. They’re so destructive.” No, I’m not talking about humans. I’m talking about Canis latrans; the relatively ‘new species on the block’, the Eastern Coyote.

Known in some indigenous cultures as the trickster or joker, the coyote also symbolizes the deep magic of life. They are also known to be the revealers of truth behind illusion. I feel in this day and age we could use all the magic and truth we can get.


My late dog Faith – a Siberian Husky and E. Coyote look-a-like, perched up on a log, off leash in a dog park.

Coyotes are a heck of a lot like humans. Intelligent, they are opportunists. They learn quickly and adapt. They love their families (even more so than many human families!). Also remarkably similar, E. Coyotes, like European settlers and recent immigrants, aren’t technically native to S. Ontario. Paradoxically, the inception of these animals was borne out of the early and short-term successful efforts to blast away all predators from the province. Our misguided settler-ancestors killed off the Eastern Wolf – nearly – except for a small population in the Algonquin Park area. A common saying in ecology is ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’ With the near destruction of the wolf population, few medium sized predators remained and there was a huge void. The much smaller Western Coyote moved into Eastern North America’s newly destroyed landscape. In an extremely rare case, a speciation event occurred before our very eyes. Western Coyote hybridized with the few remaining Eastern Wolves. The hybrid created was a slightly larger animal, the Eastern Coyote. Western Coyotes were pushed back to the south, and west. This all occurred between the late 1800s until the 1930s or so. Since then, E. Coyotes have spread across Eastern North America, not just in rural landscapes, but taking up residence in cities, now fully a part the urban ecosystem.

For the record, E. Coyotes have, on rare occasions in the past, interbred with dogs gone feral. This virtually never happens today. The terms ‘Brush Wolf’, ‘Coywolf’ and ‘Coydog’ and general descriptive terms that refer to E. Coyote and not some other hybrid animal that’s ‘out there.’ And what is out there? You can be sure that E. Coyotes are. Like magic, they are often present but almost never seen. If they do appear, it’s in a flash and are gone just as fast.

Ecologically, Coyotes might just be a key savior in the recovery of our loss of biodiversity (the number of species of plants, animals, and other life forms in a given area). It’s like the story on how the return of the wolves completely transformed Yellowstone. Our natural areas are besieged with plants from other parts of the world (non-native species). You would think adding plants from other parts of the world increases diversity. The opposite is true. We lose species, primarily because non-native plants displace our native plants. Rich diverse soils are best created by a wide range of native plants that in turn provide food for insects. Insects convert plants to protein, providing the building blocks  (food) for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibian diversity.

One non-native grass you might be familiar with is Poa pratensis – Kentucky Bluegrass or the common lawn grass. It’s not from Kentucky…it’s form Europe and Asia. Forming thick mats of dried dead grass, this species proves a tough place through which recently germinated oak acorns try to emerge. If the oaks can survive the allelopathic effects of the grass (another story completely), they have another major barrier; voles, mice, shrews and other rodents. This non-native grass has allowed for the proliferation of explosive numbers of rodents. Young oak seedlings are delicious to rodents and so, the smorgasbord of Quercus is chewed up liberally and biodiversity gets socked solidly in the mid-section. Oaks have been steadily disappearing from our landscape.

Quercus, the genus of oaks comprised of dozens of species in N.A., is the top supporter and producer of many insects (see Douglas Tallamy’s tally of this ‘Best Bets: What to Plant‘ to Bringing Nature Home)

Here’s where Coyotes in healthy numbers in our urban and rural landscape can build biodiversity back; a major food source is rodents. Ever see your dog do this jump up and pounce thing (see photo of Coyote below)? My young Siberian Husky is currently the average weight and size of an Coyote (40 lbs). She sniffs out and pounces on Short-tailed Shrews in our backyard. She can catch at least 3 or 4 a day, in a tiny area in an urban setting. While more research needs to be done, Coyotes must be having an impact in the similar manners as the wolves in Yellowstone.

coyote-dancing on prey

E. Coyote feeding on top prey item – small rodents. If you’re a dog owner, you’ll be familiar with this ‘pouncing posture.’ Rodent numbers are up and in some cases, are impacting ecosystem recovery.

But everyone (ok, many people) wants to talk about the (perceived) negative impacts of Coyotes.

What is the ‘risk of Coyote’ in perspective with other wildlife? Let’s take the White-tailed Deer. An average of 200 people each year die from collisions with deer on highways in North America. Thousands more contract Lyme’s disease from rising population of deer and thus deer ticks.

And family dogs? About 40 people each year in N.A. are killed from the results of domesticated dog attacks. How about dogs killing other dogs or killing cats? The numbers are through the roof. How about Coyotes? The average human deaths per year caused by Coyotes – zero.

Yes, E. Coyotes can attack, injure, and, in extremely rare cases, even kill your dog or cat. If you’re really concerned, keep an eye on your pets and keep them on leash, avoid dusk and dawn walks if that will make you feel safer. Don’t leave garbage accessible; this only draws in urban wildlife. As for deer on the highway, similar precautionary approaches apply; wear your seat belt, don’t speed (especially at night), and be vigilant about scanning the road as your drive.

Again, the important point is perspective; the stereotype of Coyote as ‘big bad wolf’ just does not hold water. Remember, without even knowing it, every day, millions of people and or their pets are within a few feet of where a Coyote had been a few seconds earlier.

A few days ago I saw a Coyote down in a 175-acre urban natural area (The Coves) a stone’s throw from my house. It was just a glimpse, as I had really startled this animal and she ran away quickly. It got me thinking about this recent spate of fear-based rhetoric about these animals and this is why I have written this article. The facts speak for themselves; the risks are small, and the incidents are isolated. Coyotes are scapegoats in a world in which we continually overplay risks using fear-based statements that morph into ‘facts’, while ignoring larger and real looming issues, easily traced to truths. Fittingly, this is what the indigenous traditional knowledge tells us about what Coyotes represent; revealers of truth behind illusion.

It’s clear that Coyotes have great voices of their own, revealing truth and the magic of life in many ways. Most of us refuse to listen; about 400,000 Coyotes are deliberately killed each year in North America. Changing their pack structure and breeding strategies when targeted, Coyotes rebound to recover their population losses by the very next year.

We can’t out-smart the Coyote. We don’t even need to. As a part of planet in dire need of ecological recovery, our efforts can shift to gratitude and appreciation of Coyotes – they are so much like us – while focusing on the science-based solutions to issues that we know truly matter.



Fall in Love for Nature this Autumn

Here are some tips to grow a great relationship with your yard and local ecosystem, now that summer has finally flipped off the calendar. While you and I are just proverbial drops, our landscape actions accumulate, and then fill the bucket (our local ecology) with a certain flavour – pollution or purity, resilience or climate change fragility, sharing with other species or taking away from them. Let’s be clear; this is a choice.

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Walking into the sunset in one of the final days of summer.

Leaves. Leave them. Ok, not all of them, because you probably want some lawn and thick leaves on grass will kill it or set it back some in spring. You can shred the leaves. Then add them back to your lawn. It’s free fertilizer and more. Leaves represent many nutrients and minerals that trees have ‘mined’ from the Earth. When trees release leaves back to the Earth’s surface, they are like gold to the topsoil layer. Imagine spending all that energy to rake up, bag, and then ship away the free ‘gold’ that rains down on your yard (then we go and buy fertilizer to replace this loss)?!

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Let it go. Enjoy the leaves. You don’t have to go to all the effort to get rid of them!

Ok, I recognize that while a few like to go lawn-less, most want some green grass. However, without a few yards with leaves on the ground over winter, we would not have many species we enjoy and even revere, like Fire Flies (which are actually beetles) and many others.  Indeed, many others. The Red-backed Salamander is a lung-less amphibian that lives in a few ‘more natural’ yards in Wortley Village. Like the Firefly, it needs this golden, life-giving leaf cover. Another species, which used to live here when we had more floor leaf cover and natural forests, is the Wood Frog. It actually hibernates in the leaf litter. Over 50% of its body mass freezes solid like an ice-cube. Come the warm rains of early spring, this small brown frog with a black mask then thaws and hops into active life again. And leaves, twigs, old seed heads and other organic offerings from the active season are the chief ingredients to grow healthy diverse soils. Soils are the foundation for healthy trees, shrubs, next year’s garden, and more.  A healthy teaspoon of forest soil alone contains millions of important life forms.

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Yes, leaves can be a (golden) mess, but then again, how clean is the rest of life? Messes sometimes are for good reasons!

Another loving thing to do is leave another type of mess – or at least, a perceived mess to some. Dead and dried flowers and seed heads are highly valuable to local wildlife. Yes, sometimes this doesn’t jive with the nice English Garden or Wortley Village Victorian motif some of us have going on. But again, you don’t have to leave all, but leave some. In winter, many birds, like the American Goldfinch, feed on plant seeds from Woodland Sunflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and others. I recently learned that the juicy, dark purple berries from Pokeweed, or Purple Dangleberry are favoured by Mourning Doves and others. (Homing Pigeons, temporarily blown off course , have been known to show up at yards to feast on Pokeweed berries for hours at a time!). One of the main reasons we spend millions of dollars in the bird seed industry is because we’ve removed natural seed sources from native plants and cut away the few that remain at the end of summer to ‘clean up’ our yards!

If you live in Southern Ontario, you are blessed to live in the region in Canada that has the most number of species of plants, animals, and fungi; this is to say that Carolinian Canada has the highest species diversity. In some of my previous blogs, you may have noticed that I’m really pulling for people to join our program. This isn’t a frivolous new trend or the latest gig of some out of touch non-profit.  Returning to our roots with native plant gardening is a whole movement. It’s based on solid science. With due respect, the ‘ground zero,’ the common troubled ground we share, is one that has been assaulted by climate change, heavily impacted by introduced species, and has experienced the complete disregard for the protection of our ancient natural areas that used to ‘have our backs.’ While these big issues need care, attention, and local heroes, the choice before us to make change on our private landscapes is always our own.

Growing Some Weed(s) in My Village

It’s not officially illegal, but some question whether it should be. It can grow in between you and your partner, splitting you into camps, for it or against it. It can ruin a life or more; it can nearly take down an entire ecosystem.

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Strangely, after cutting a ‘Mother Tree’ of European Buckthorn, a Great Blue Heron appeared in the forest to inspect our work. Near Wortley Village, Old South, London, Canada.

I’m talking about weed(s). The weed in question is European Buckthorn. A beautiful shrub in its own right and in its homeland in England, this plant that grows to the size of a small tree. It becomes loaded with dark blue berries that are favoured by many of our birds. E. Buckthorn has wreaked havoc on our natural areas and has quietly infiltrated Wortley Village (London, ON) via bird droppings. It often goes unnoticed and unidentified by homeowners. Before you know it, you’ve received a complimentary bird-planted Buckthorn for ‘free.’ The cost, however, of keeping this plant around in this neck of the woods or neighbourhood, is exorbitant. The City of London (Canada) alone has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to remove it from our sensitive natural areas. From one little 2.5 acre plot at the corner of Rachel and Phyllis Streets, just south of Emery, the city and the Friends of the Coves Subwatershed removed several dozen tons (see pile in photo below) of this plant from the forest understory.

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E. Buckthorn seedling I found in my garden this morning (5:30am) when I thought about this article. I pull them often and can almost always find one ‘one demand.’

By definition, E. Buckthorn is an invasive, non-native species It outs competes our native plants for space. So you might be wondering, are our native plants just wimpy and unable to hold their ground? No, this isn’t the case. What happened in this case is that E. Buckthorn was commonly planted in fencerows when it was first introduced in our area in the late 1800s to keep cattle in specified fields. While some large native trees were left, there were next to no natural areas kept fully intact. When grazing pastures and orchards were abandoned, E. Buckthorn were among the most common plants remaining, enabling birds to seed them across our landscape. As such, this plant has taken our over natural areas.

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Note the large pile of cut European Buckthorn and the dark understory in the background – that’s all E. Buckthorn as well! The white ground herb in the foreground is Goutweed, resulting from an adjacent landowner dumping garden clippings on the edge of this natural area.

Other detrimental non native species that we have commonly growing in Wortley Village and S. Ontario that majorly impact our natural areas include Japanese Honeysuckle, Burning Bush, Goutweed (white plant in above photo), and Periwinkle. I jog a 5km route around Wortley Village with my wife. Today I paid attention, noticing from the sidewalk, about fifty E. Buckthorns either growing ‘rogue’ along the edges of various houses, or stealthily in peoples hedges, or overtly as manicured lawn trees. See this great guide ( put out by the Ontario Invasive Species Council called, “Grow Me Instead” to give you ideas for replacement native species. For starters, I’ve highlighted a native shrub that will nicely replace your E. Buckthorn, should you chose to move towards native plants; Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia. Its form is a beautiful multi-tiered stacked ‘pagoda’, while the flowers are whitish-green in spring and the berries are blue.

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Alternative-leaved or Pagoda Dogwood. Wortley Village, Canada. Plant it instead of E. Buckthorn.

Glenn, a friend and neighbour on my street inspired this article. He reminded me that a weed is really an unwanted plant, or one for which we haven’t yet found or identified a use. I find this wholeheartedly true. While I have reverence for E. Buckthorn, there is a proper place for it. It turns out it is sorely needed in England, where a species of butterfly (Brimestone Butterfly – below) is in decline, astonishingly and ironically because E. Buckthorn is vanishing from their countryside! Yes human induced landscape changes everywhere are having large ripple effects causing extinctions and inducing climate change. One sure fire way to mitigate these trends are to get ‘In the Zone’ ( and plant one or more native plants on your private landscape.

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The Brimestone Butterfly; it’s desperately in need of Buckthorn (in England). Photo Copyright Matt Berry.

A slightly modified version of this appears in the Wortley Villager Magazine, September Issue.