Winter Wonderings – Feb 2010

The idea behind the Knowing the Land is Resistance Collective took shape after a Hamilton Freeskool class called Winter Wondering. A group of about 30 local folks gathered for a walk through Cootes Paradise forest. During the walk, many interesting questions were brought up about the land, its history and what threatens it. We decided it would be worthwhile to write up an aricle describing the class and some of the discussions that came out of it. It was through the process of writing this initial article that the project of Knowing the Land is Resistance was born.

On January 17th a group of about thirty gathered to go explore the forest in Cootes Paradise, for the Winter Wanderings freeskool class. The forest is full of mysteries. But most of us were not brought up to appreciate or even notice these mysteries, and so going for a walk in the woods is like trying to read a book without knowing the language. We can look and appreciate the beauty of the shapes, but we can’t really understand what we’re seeing.

The goal of the freeskool class was to find ‘wonders’, as in ‘I wonder what tree this is?”, “I wonder what that fungus is doing on that tree trunk?” and “I wonder who left these tracks?” It can be fun to try and answer those questions, but the questions are more important than the answers when you’re trying to learn to understand the forest. It’s about what you can notice – your powers of observation.

For most of us, it won’t be easy to begin to observe the forest. For one, as city dwellers, we can go for days without seeing something that wasn’t made by a human, so we aren’t in the habit of understanding non-humans. For another, our senses are deadened by the urban environment, and for many of us, the urban environment is so horrible and abrasive that we withdraw ourselves from what we see and hear. A third reason is that we have been taught to seek answers to questions that are posed to us by some authority, not to seek out questions ourselves.

And so, to begin the class, we did some simple exercices to open up our senses – to appreciate all we can hear, all we can feel, all we can smell, all we can taste – then opening our eyes, trying to soften our vision, appreciate how much we can see. And of course, taking a minute to cultivate some mental stillness.

In the winter, the cold strips away a lot of the most visible life in the forest, and in doing so, it makes other aspects of the forest more prominent. For instance, the bark of trees and animal tracks! Some trees are easy to identify, even without their leaves. For instance, the smooth grey beauty of a Beech tree, or the patchwork bark of a Hickory. But can we find the diamond pattern in the bark of the Ash that distinguishes it from the Sugar Maple? Or can we see that the twigs of the Maples are always paired?

Winter is a great time to appreciate bark. Every tree species has a different strategy for how to lay and shed bark, creating unique patterns. Here are a few of the distinct bark-types we wondered about on our wander through Cootes Paradise:

Some trees, like the hemlocks, keep their green through the winter, and so the ground is free of snow beneath them. Here, we can dig into the leaf litter and soil to feel how deeply the cold penetrates into the earth. Or we can peel back the bark of fallen trees to see the dead fungus that helped the tree access nutrients while it was alive, and the living fungus that will digest the tree now that it’s dead.

Many people who went down in the forest with us knew some things about the plants, animals, and natural communities we were encountering, and between us, we could piece together some pretty interesting stories about what we were encountering. By asking questions, we could put our heads together and come up with answers, which lead to more questions. But even with thirty of us, our knowledge felt small compared to the beautiful, subtle, complexity of the Cootes Paradise area. How is it that we can live on this land and yet know so little about it?

It is not by chance that we are so alienated from nature. Colonization is a process of taking people who are independant and part of strong communities and making them totally dependant on the colonizer for all their physical and emotional needs. We are colonized people, and we are also colonizers in turn. The destruction of the wild has long been a deliberate tactic used to subjugate people who would otherwise be free. It is a tactic that  continues to this day. The profession of the powerful is maintaining power, and keeping us alienated from natural communities is one way they do that.

Knowing the land is resistance. Taking the time to connect with the wild is an important step in decolonizing our minds and healing from the wounds of colonization that cause us to do the same to others. To that end, let’s try and learn about the land in the place where we live – to be firmly rooted in this place, so that when we take a stand, we’ll know what we’re standing for.

Directions: Take King st W into Westdale. Look for Marion dr, the first street east of the westdale theatre. Take Marion North to where it ends at Dromore cresc, and just off the road there will be a wide trail descending into the woods. From there, explore!

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