Making Southern Ontario Wild Again?

It was a journey a long time ago for me. Wilderness completely surrounded me for hundreds of miles. Sitting on a lichen-covered rock outcrop overlooking the flowing water of a creek, I was in heaven watching a pair of Otters play in the rapids. Ok, in actual fact, I was really enjoying watching these animals, while simultaneously trying to kill several Deer Flies that wouldn’t stop trying to suck my blood!

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Moose sleuthed all around me in the rugged landscape of Georgian Bay in the early 1990s. Not long ago, they used to freely strut their stuff in what is now Toronto. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

All of a sudden, nearby screaming in the opposite direction sent chills down the back of my neck. The Otters scattered. Snapshots of Ravens through the canopy of oaks and maples dappled the sunlight even further, a the shiny black birds scattered the scene.

The screeching stopped as the animal raced through over-sized ferns towards me. I could just see a tall, brown tail shredding the plants as it neared. At the last second before impact, the animal skidded abruptly to a stop. We were face to face for a seemingly long time. It was a Fisher. I was a Human (and still am). In that moment, the small but feisty carnivorous mammal and me stared wide-eyed into each other’s core as one being. It left me with a deep picture of all things. It felt like a miracle view into the connectedness of the rocks, the river, the trees, and animals sharing it all. It was a miracle that likely exists in every moment if only viewed with the proper lens. It was also the kind of experience that deep, widespread nature affords.

It was only a few days earlier that I sat quietly picking Wild Blueberries on the edge of a patch of Sphagnum moss when an Eastern Wolf trotted by with a bear’s paw clutched gently in her mouth.

Forest Creek after Rain

On the road to Georgian Bay, there are many stops in central Ontario that will take your breath away.  Southern Ontario still has a few gems in Carolinian Canada, but we’ve lost thousands of wild treasures that we don’t even know about.

This happened about 25 years ago, in central Ontario’s much celebrated eastern Georgian Bay region, a place that has always had a wild side to it, thanks to the rugged rocky and twisting wetland terrain. While there certainly are development pressures on this landscape, I’m so grateful that in my absence all these years, I know Georgian Bay and all its wildness is still there and likely will be for a long time. It is truly a landscape populated with signature animals that both keep you on your toes, and inspire you deeply at the same time.

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Face to face (face to zoom lense?) with a Black Bear. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

While Georgian Bay is a biologically diverse, vast, and blanketed by a high percentage of land with habitat (over 75%), it doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the diversity found in Southern Ontario’s Ecoregion 7E. This is the region defined by a trapezoid shaped area covering the landscape from Windsor to Sarnia to London to Toronto and over to Niagara Falls; it is dubbed Carolinian Canada. It’s just about the size of Switzerland. Most of the Carolinian Life Zone’s natural cover has been removed – only 18% of habitat remains in comparison. Even with most of its habitat denuded, it is the richest place in the country for plant and animal diversity, and the dubious winner of the longest list of Species at Risk.

Fishers are few and far between in Carolinian Canada, as are many other larger species that need big tracks of habitat – like Moose, Bears, and Wolves (these three are all fully absent). Maybe 50,000 people live in eastern Georgian Bay, from Midland to Parry Sound. In staggering contrast, about a quarter of the country’s population, or 7 million people, live in Carolinian Life Zone. Similarly, roads are densely webbed in the south, vs. the north that affords much bigger tracts, largely without asphalt and automobiles.

While a few parks are found in The Carolinian Zone, 95% of the lands are privately owned. Georgian Bay and other more northerly areas have is large tracts of publicly owned lands either in Parks or government owned Crown lands.

All of this begs a few key questions; how can we recover nature so that Ontario’s diverse south can provide these types of ‘deep nature’ experiences that inspire, rejuvenate and offer a health-inducing natural landscape? How can we recover rare habitats and missing species in this critical zone when it is largely owned by urban residents in cities and towns, and large farm operations in the countryside? Further, with nature literacy at an all time low, how do we get people familiar with the language and raw experiences of nature? And so, in consideration of all of this, can we ever get back to a largely wild landscape in southern Ontario?

The road to get there won’t be simple, but my five second rule answer (from the guy, not the head) tells me ‘yes’ – we can – get a lot of it back. But as a society, do we really want bears, moose, and wolves in a mix of what may be 10 or 12 million people in the next few decades?

It’s possible, but likely not, at least in the next few decades. This may be sad to some, but a major shift of perception in land sharing mentality would have to have been established. Moose aren’t teddy bears. Bears aren’t always as friendly as Elliott Moose. Cougars don’t always respond without retaliation to intense human encroachment. Cities likely won’t get smaller. Very few roads will be closed, or diverted.

But – there is room for renewed hope. While ecological literacy is low, education on climate change is really increasing. Many people now about the benefits of conservation. And after being an advocate for native plants for some time, it’s plain to see how people are resonating with the message of rebuilding nature, one native plant at a time. Thus, it is more than possible to foresee a future in which the cover in Carolinian Canada moves form 18 to 25% in the next few decades.

Whether this means we get our large predators and keystone species like bears and moose or not, it does mean at least our grandchildren will relish in the return of many smaller species. In the context of Carolinian Canada, this is really encouraging and dramatically exciting. There are many small species that dazzle and inspire.

How will we get there? It actually feels like we are moving into a new renaissance of ecological recovery. In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of Badgers in and around Long Point and in Brant County. We all watched Southern Flying Squirrels repopulate a tiny national park just outside of Windsor. A pond I observed being hand-dug in the middle of a barren farm field by high school students in the year 2000 quickly turned into one of the top breeding sites for Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) in all of Canada. The salamanders were not introduced; they found the site on their own.

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The Smallmouth Salamander; Endangered. They recently moved into a pond constructed by high school students in 2000.

And if you try out creating habitat in an urban centre, be prepared for the onslaught; not before long, you may have Screech Owls nesting in your backyard. Not before long, you may see a fox sipping from the water’s edge of your urban pond. Not before long, you will have dozens of warblers stopping in spring to bath and drink from the water trickle of your urban wetland system.

It might not be a bear or a cougar, but it certainly could soon be a Fisher spotted moving along the edge of a creek in a city’s Environmentally Significant Area. The experience of nature back in our midst is real and happening today, piece by piece in Southern Ontario. Yes, it won’t be as rugged and wild as Georgian Bay for quite some time if ever. But if you’re here, certainly feel free to join the tide, and watch the swell grow as we bring back more and more animals, one experience at a time. And for your own good, and that of the people around you, find a relatively quiet spot nearby and sit there regularly. You’ll be amazed at what you experience in solitude in nature and how you will start to wear this calmness and groundedness with you throughout each day.

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After adding about 200 species of native plants to our urban, land-locked yard, Screech Owls nested in an old tree. Returning most years, the diversity of wildlife attracted by native plants has meant a large increase in local wildlife.

*** Two key programs for gearing you up to contribute are In the Zone Gardens (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and the Landowner Leaders Program (see www.caroliniancanada.ca).

 

 

Deep Connection with Wild Animals: Avenues for Right Relationship with Earth

Being one of millions and millions of ‘living*’ planets now discovered, the Earth, in essence, is a wild animal within a greater population. We’re in sad and yet exciting times. We know a lot. We are aware. We are very skilled, loving and crafty beings. All of this and since I was born (1970) we have killed off over 50% of the wild animals living on the planet.

We’ve caused many substantial problems because we’ve ignored our intimate relationship with Earth. We’ve taken much more than we’ve given. We’ve decided not to notice that she is in sickness, versus health. While we perceive we continue to get richer, Earth definitely becomes poorer. At almost every step, we’ve cheated on Earth, taken advantage of her kindness, taken for granted her forgiveness, and balked at her willingness to start over again in right relationship. If ever there was a relationship that needed therapy, this is it.

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A Yellow-billed Cuckoo hit a window and fortunately I was there to pick her up. I held her in a towel against my heart for an hour. She then hopped on my hand, paused for a few minutes and flew away. Oh what a feeling it was to have assisted and shared those moments with a bird of which I usually only ever got brief glimpses.

I see wild animals as great ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. They sense fear and danger from us. They can also sense indifference and love.

More and more, many humans recognize the real possibilities of tweaking our consciousness and energy fields to resonate with those of wild animals. How can we use deep connections with wild animals to foster better relationships between people and nature and thus people and the planet? I begin by looking at deepening connection.

There are many who have retold their seemingly unbelievable intimate encounters with wild animals. There was the Humpback Whale rescued from netting and sure death. In gratitude, it repeatedly breached the water’s surface in joy. A dolphin who sought the help of a few divers to untangled its fin. There was a Baltimore Oriole bird who let my Dad collect nesting material for her, retrieving the substrate one piece at a time, right from his hands. The list goes on and on. Wild animals accept relationship with us and act in ways that often bewilder.

I’m fortunate to have had dozens of authentic, personal encounters, a few of which I share below.  This isn’t to say I can freely go and cuddle a Grizzly or play-wrestle with a Siberian Tiger. I don’t recommend trying such with either of those species. But is it possible? That’s up to a situation that might happen one day and circumstances that could prove to be in alignment to do so. What exists in each case are barriers and opportunities to connection. How each instance unfolds is determined by a thousand or so unwritten rules that become apparent and acted upon in a moment’s notice.

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Crow in full ‘Caw’ mode. Photograph by an old friend, Ethan Meleg.

I’ve experienced two general scenarios that precipitate deeply connected, wild animal encounters. The first is when sick or injured animals come to a human for assistance. The other cases occur when one resonates with nature enough to be ‘accepted’ as another benign part of the ecosystem (or natural, spirit world).

For a while, everywhere I went, sick or injured wild animals were presenting themselves before me. While it wasn’t always easy to corral them, I carefully brought them home, did my best to heal them, and returned them to the wild.

Crow: I was on a conference call in my backyard with my portable phone. I paced around expressing myself and in a moment of great discovery in the meeting, a Crow fell out of the sky, landing at my feet. I paused the phone call, picked up the bird and kept it for a few weeks inside until its wing had healed. Crows have remarkable intellect and great personality. This bird chose to malign me, often taunting me, refusing to take food from me. It was hard not to take it personally, but easier because **she did bond with other members of my family. When she had healed, she begrudgingly let me pick her up and heave her skyward to the heavens. What a moment that was.

Great Horned Owl: I was on my way to the beach when I noticed an owl sitting under a wild grape vine in broad daylight. Using my towel, I wrapped him up and carried him back home. He lived in my two room cabin with me for a month, eating dozens of mice I provided. Oh the funny stories I could tell…Eventually he was released after he gained the strength to fly again.

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This Great Horned Owl moved in with me when he lost his energy from West Nile Virus. Thankfully I stayed healthy while providing him mice (trapped in my little cabin) that rebuilt his strength again.

Bald Eagle: A few mornings later, after a severe thunderstorm, at the base of a large tree at the end of my laneway was  a Bald Eagle. Given his Endangered Status back then, I eased him into a large cooler and delivered him to the authorities. His bruised wing was rehabilitated and I swear months later I saw him fly low over my cabin, as if to send me gratitude for taking notice and assisting.

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A Bald Eagle with a severely bruised wing. Can you see him poking his head out from my comforter? After a few weeks of recovery and release, I think it was he who flew over my cabin and tipped his wings at me!

Other Birds: Dozens of birds in shock, after various traumas, came to my attention and willingly let me assist. This included a Prothonotary Warbler, a Pied-billed Grebe, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, a Nighthawk and Cardinal and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (see above photo). Often found in shock distress, these birds seemed to give over any sense of fear for what may heal them.

Resonating at nature’s frequency for me has resulted in a slightly different level of connection. In the moments of obtaining deep connection with wild animals in this manner, it has felt less miraculous and more expected.

Manatee: I was swimming once in the open ocean near Belize. Open ocean is the one place on the planet that has always been a serious edge for me. But I had been cooped up in a cordoned off location to snorkel on a coral reef with dozens of tourists and it felt really inauthentic. I like authentic. Slipping under the floating foam-rope boundary, away from the watchful eyes of the lifeguards, I sleuthed silently just at the water’s surface. I felt so much gratitude for my freedom and the life of the reef that I decided I had to give back. Outstretching my hands as though they were mini radars, I gave Reiki to the open ocean. It was peace at its purest.

After a few minutes of gently self-propelling aimlessly, I nervously realized I wasn’t alone; the energy beside me was palpable, to say the least. A large grey animal, at least a few times my size was keeping pace with me on my port (left) side. This information came to me from my peripheral vision. I didn’t have the courage to turn my head and see what it was. Manatee.jpg
Finally, after keeping pace with each other for a good few minutes, **she cut right in front of me, and then headed to the depths (20 feet down) towards the sea grass. I sighed in relief. She wasn’t a shark. She was a southern Manatee. The species was quite rarely encountered in the southern Caribbean; they are Endangered. Realizing I hadn’t kept pace with her, she turned at the bottom of the ocean to see where I’d gone. Her look was as if to say, “Come on, it’s time to feed on this yummy sea grass!” Noticing I wasn’t coming, she then ‘said,’ “Ok, if you’re not hungry, I’ll come back to you.” She swam slowly toward me, until we were just a couple of feet away from each other, gazing into each other’s souls through our eyes.

A Method? I imagine many people would describe technique many ways with a number of common threads. The only way I know how is to first immerse oneself in nature. Deepen breathing. Vacate the driver’s seat of the brain. Find alignment; the place where one knows that place and time are sealed in ‘is-ness’ experience. This is where we often feel multiple sensations at once and watch osmosis take over the body and surroundings. Any connections with wild animals then become both circumstance and the manifestation of one’s commitment to be with what is in the moment. “Being with” means one’s energy field blends, or comes into resonance with the surroundings.

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Forest Therapy a.k.a. Forest Bathing or Shinrin-Yoku is a wonderful way to drop into alignment and find resonance with plants and animals in nature. Forest Therapy has been a gateway for me to connect with wild animals. Most recently a Short-tailed Shrew permitted me to stroke the fur on his back for a few minutes in my wild, yet urban garden.

Forest Therapy is an avenue to deep connection in nature. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that I’ve had a slew of recent animal connection experiences since becoming a Forest Therapy Guide. If led by an experienced and ‘dropped in’ (walk the talk) guide, Forest Therapy substantially heightens our nature connection, dispels the many myths of time, and allows us to seamlessly become a part of the encompassing naturescape.  Forest Therapy walks are usually at least 2 1/2 hours long and often over 3. This duration seems to be helpful in ensuring we are disengaged from our brains.

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The oak tree near the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, California. Over a three-hour period, this tree allowed my deepened relationship to the surrounding natural world, facilitating my intimate interaction with Lizard.

Lizard: I was on Sugarloaf Mountain in California. The lizards had caught my attention for a week, never letting me approach them closer than about ten feet. I climbed up the tallest peak of the mountain for a medicine walk as the final part of the forest therapy training week. I sat in an oak for almost three hours. I walked down the mountain side like I was walking on helium; I felt the strongest sense of the phrase, nature connected. At the bottom, I spooked an Alligator Lizard. **She fled in a fashion I had grown accustomed to expect. I momentarily accepted it again and then realized, “No, I am in connection with you!” I found her, moved closely and told her I wanted some full facial photographs, I desired to touch her scales, and that I had some mosquitoes to feed her. She accepted all these offers. Our relationship lasted about ten minutes before I moved on.

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The Alligator Lizard who accepted all of my offers to connect into a deep relationship, feeding out of my hands, allowing my touch and permitting these full frame shots. Sonoma County, California.

I moved on, as did the lizard. What did I carry from that interaction with the lizard and did this make any difference to forging a better Earth? For one, this experience echoed within my psyche now for a year and a half. I’ve often thought of the mountain, the oak, and the reptile with reverence and wonder. I’ve retold the story over and over. Had I come down the mountain without finding intimacy with the lizard, the story likely wouldn’t have been told.  I’ve been so inspired by this and other experiences that I became a certified Forest Therapy Guide, as well as a trainer. I’ve felt and observed the nature-connection influence I’ve imparted on others, who in turn, are blazing the Forest Therapy trails in their circles of influence.

It doesn’t matter how we reconnect with nature, or wild animals. It just matters that we position ourselves to have the opportunity to do so. Finding ways to get people on a walk, to sit by a stream, to listen to bird songs, or to huddle by a camp fire are all means of and steps toward ‘making up’ with the planet. Nature’s half of the relationship is always steady; forgiving, longing, and waiting for us to come back. The bird, the Manatee, the lizard are all willing volunteers rising up to be ambassadors or activists for right relationship. For humans, I think it’s easy too. We have to step into again the other half of right relationship. At these early stages of relationship repair, however, stepping into right relationship effectively means we’re  activists. For some reason activism is really difficult for most of us. Therein lies one of the key challenges of our times.

* Recent discoveries suggest potentially millions of planets situated similarly to ours most likely are ‘alive,’ like Earth (teaming with living plants, animals, etc.).

** Notes on pronouns: in most cases, I knew if an animal was a male or a female (my biological experience and information from the wild animal clinics with which I consulted). In the cases that I didn’t know for certain (like the Crow, Manatee and Lizard above), I have chosen to write the stories using the pronoun that I sensed was appropriate for my feeling of the animal.