This article was recently published in Wortley Villager and also on my LinkedIn (apologies if this is a triple repeat):
Surprisingly, in 1867 in the area now called Wortley Village (London, Ontario, Canada), we didn’t have the virgin old-growth forests transected by pristine freshwater streams and rich pockets of tallgrass prairie that we might imagine. In fact, 150 years ago was about a decade after the vast majority of the systematic removal of the deciduous forests of eastern North America, including most of the natural cover found in Wortley Village. At this monumental time in our history, many farms were well established. London was a barren place. The remaining woodlands and other natural wonders were few and far between.
Between the 1820 and the late 1860s, many settlers suffered through the removal of our forests, felling trees many of which were over 35m (120 feet) tall and over a thousand years old. While some of this wood was sent to a few sawmills to build the early houses of our region, the vast majority of these ancient, giant trees were stacked and burned, since the necessary infrastructure wasn’t in place to saw, transport, store and sell the wood. Hundreds of piles of trees were stacked and burnt in what today is Wortley Village. Species in the pile would have included American Chestnut and several species of oak, cherry, maple, beech, and elm to name a few. Burning, going up in smoke, each pile would have been worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s market.
Forest clearing was a tough and dangerous endeavour. Many early settlers were maimed or killed in the 30 to 40 years of the process of removing nature for farmland and industry. New town and city streets and the edges of farms were void of ground cover, shrubs and trees. The thinking was, “Why plant a tree after the decades-long misery and struggle in the bush with the saw, horses and overworked men?” Also at this time, many streams and wetlands in the village were sent underground by infilling by these early settlers.
How about a glimpse of what Wortley Village looked like 300 years ago? The Iroquois lived in the area in Long Houses and certainly had some influence on the appearance of what is now called Wortley Village. The Village Green may have been one of a few small fields cleared for cultivating corn. Vast tracks of old growth forest (see photo above; courtesy Appalachian Forest Museum) would have grown across most of the current neighbourhood, providing this culture a huge array of wild plant edibles and medicines, like Paw Paw (Fruit) Trees, Wild Ginseng, Mayapples and literally hundreds of others. These woodlands were also natural depots for home construction materials. Streams leading to Antler River (now called Thames by many) would have been crystal clear, healthy enough from which to drink and rich enough to catch fish literally by wading into the water. Black Bears, Eastern Wolves, Eastern Cougars, Timber Rattlesnakes, Wood Bison, and Woodland Elk, kept the Iroquois on their toes; both for safety and for hunting opportunities. Transportation happened either by water (canoe) or by foot on trails that, in some cases, were hundreds of years old and stretched hundreds of kilometres, with a number of trees tethered and pruned when young, to point in certain directions and called, ‘marker trees.’
Nature was indeed a respected repository for sustenance and quality of life; the more intimate one was with nature, the smoother and more enjoyable life was. Considering climate change, erosion, issues with invasive species and other environmental challenges and crises, our community and greater society are well served to look to cultures that exhibit strong stewardship values and practice conservation. This way of life is a daily commitment to a solid legacy for seven generations of people to follow.