Of Owls and Resistance — March 2010

“If you do down in the woods today…” – We found these words spraypainted inside a culvert at the bottom of a marsh, where the Coldwater Creek is collected underground to cross main street west towards Cootes Paradise. We were out in the evening to explore the marsh and the hills around it, to see what we could learn. And of course, the next line of that childhood rhyme is “…you’re in for a big surprise.”

Heading west from Westdale along the rail trail, just before you get to university plaza, a long wooden bridge crosses a beautiful marsh, part of the Dundas Valley. Straight downhill from the bridge is the culvert, and from there we followed the creek upstream, keeping to trails made by the many deer who live in the meadows.

The creek lead us through the low marshy lands where the skunk cabbage grows in spring and the cattails stand dead and collect frost on cold mornings. We followed it to slightly higher ground where we could forage horseradish from under the snow. And beyond that was a meadow of tall, dry grasses, where the deer trotted away from us to hide among the ancient, crumbling willows. It lead us to a beaver’s lodge and through the first of the hemlock groves we would explore that day.

Winter is the best time for exploring such areas – all off-trail adventures should be left for days where the frost and snow protect the soil from being compressed underfoot. The topsoil in these areas is very delicate and erosion is a problem, especially on the slopes around the marsh where, tiny hemlocks can rest dormant for 200 years in the delicate, spongey soil of the hemlock groves, patiently awaiting their chance in the sun.

Soon, the creek lead us to a special place where three creeks joined to form the one we’d been following. We sat on a fallen willow over the water and considered what we could see. Creeks carry all sorts of things down into marshes – they bring down nutrients and minerals that nourish the rich ecosystems there, and the marsh also filters out much of the toxins and sediment, reducing the amount of those things in Cootes and in Lake Ontario. Each of the three streams was a different colour, and each contained the story of the land it crossed to get there. Two of the streams came to the meeting point through the Dundas Valley and agricultural land. But one, to follow it upstream, came through a suburb, crossed under hwy 403, and spilled down from the endless developments of the escarpment. Its water was a murky yellowish brown, which means it was much more charged with sediment than were the other two. But we’ll think more about that later, because, as we sat there, we heard an owl’s voice drifting over the marsh.

Moving as quickly and as quietly as we could we followed the owls’ call. They led us through the marsh to a small creek, and we followed it uphill along the valley it had created. And there, calling to eachother from opposite hilltops over the creek, were two great horned owls. They flew higher as we neared, and we moved quietly behind

The owls led us up above the marsh to a very wonderful place. As we described last month, this area is mostly covered by mixed deciduous, which is largely beech and maple trees. And on the secluded plateau to which the owls lead us, there were the largest beech trees we had ever seen. Beech trees can get to be 400 years old, meaning the old ones today survived the massive deforestation of the 1800s, when the british stripped this area to build ships, routinely shipping out ancient trees weighing 60 tons or more. We also found oak trees there that were larger than two people could put their arms around.

What can we learn from this? What is it the owls showed us, by guiding us from the place where the three waters meet (where we could see the silt build up and see apartment buildings looming over the treeline) into the old thick forest?

Knowing the land doesn’t just mean knowing the land in the present moment – change is constant. We must undestand the past and the future of this land. We must remember the time when we could drink the water in the streams, when the forests covered this area, and when ten-foot-wide trees were common, holding the soil steady with their vast root systems. To the trees and the forest, this is not so long ago – 200 years is half the lifetime of an old gnarled beech, and forests change slowly, over many generations of trees. And we must look to the future – In october 2007, the Spectator reported on a study by the Royal Botanical Gardens that found that Cootes Paradise would be entirely filled with sediment within 90 years. There are fourteen creeks that run into Cootes, and each year they bring 14 000 tons of sediment downstream from the rapidly urbanizing areas of Dundas, West Mountain, Ancaster, and Waterdown. The creek we followed is one of those fourteen.

Change is constant, but when the changes are more rapid and violent than the plants and animals in those areas can adapt to, it can be catastrophic and damaging. Even this beautiful marsh is suffering. The willow trees that filter toxins are dying with no young ones replacing them. Housing is encroaching from all sides, polluting the runoff that makes up the marsh water. And the frequent damning and culverting of the creek upstream kills fish and stifles biodiversity. Its ability to respond to change has been damaged. And with almost all the wetlands and forests gone in this area, it would be impossible for this vulnerable land to recover from a sudden catastrophe.

The death of Cootes Paradise is not natural or inevitable. Even though Cootes itself is protected, even though the Dundas Valley is protected, they are still threatened because the lines we draw around them are illusions. We live in watersheds and bioregions, not properties. When land is developed, it is not simply killing that piece of land, it is damaging the entire watershed – toxic runoff doesn’t respect property lines.

Conservation means asking the powerful to protect certain pieces of land while allowing the rest to be devastated. This strategy would make tragic museums of what’s left of the wild and is doomed to leave us with nothing. If we want to live in a healthy, thriving watershed, we must transition from simple conservation to defending all land as we would our own bodies. This means understanding that it’s not just a question of the airport sprawl being unsustainable, or the redhill expressway being irresponsible – it means realizing that ALL development in this area benefits a tiny class of land owners and politicians at the expense of every other living thing.

If we want to ally with the owls and with the streams, we need to resist the power of the political and developer class, and reject their perceived right to decide how land is used — if it is to be ‘used’ at all.

***

Great-Horned Owl Facts

Pairs mate during late January to early February within stands of old trees offering cozy hollows… Listen for the ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo of the Great Horned Owls. The call is a distinct 4-5 syllables. The female call is higher pitched and rises at the end. Pairing of mates begins in December, so listen for the song between owl lovers on your winter walks.

The large yellow eyes of a Great Horned Owl are fixed and cannot move; they move their necks instead. This helps to explain some of those quirky looks an owl has given you. Another reason is that the owls right ear is set higher and at a different angle than the left, enabling them to find the direction of sound through further dramatic head tilts.

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