***The proposed forum on March 12 is cancelled. Our apologies– but if your vist here today is inspired by your love and passion for the Hamilton area Escarpment, we would still love to connect with you. If you want to host a workshop in your community, or a forest walk along the Escarpment, or share any other adventures, write to us at email@example.com ***
There was once a time when the nuts of the American Chestnut tree fed the eastern half of this continent. Each winter, millions of humans and other animals relied on them for survival. As time went on and settlers arrived here, even as they destroyed the forests, they planted the Chestnut in their fields. One such place was the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital, now known as St. Joesph’s Centre for Mountain Health Services (CMHS). The gardens, food trees, and forested patches on the hospital grounds provided patients there with activity and refuge and, for a time, almost all of their food.
Starting in the 1900’s, an imported fungus, often called the Chestnut blight, began destroying American Chestnuts, devastating the Eastern forest. The fungus crossed the Great Lakes in the 1940’s, and the American Chestnut vanished almost completely from Ontario within thirty years, becoming an endangered species. However, on the CMHS lands, some Chestnut trees remained.
That is, they did remain, until today. It is Saturday, January 15th. We are on the South side of the CMHS lands at the corner of Fennel and West Fifth. The snow is thick on the ground, and the huge machines have just stopped their work for the day. Much of the large field here that was once full of big trees of all kinds is now packed earth, and the trees that once stood there are now stacked in piles as large as houses. Among them are what may have been some of the last American Chestnut trees in the Hamilton area.
We meet a man who is a patient at the hospital. He is quite sad to see the trees go, but he’s excited about the new hospital, because they say that everyone will have a private room, so his stuff won’t keep getting stolen.
Many other local residents are shocked and saddened by the loss of an area where families have gathered for generations. This is similar to the outrage in the neighbourhoods around Gage Park this summer, where 34 massive Beech trees were removed in the name of public safety. One of us tells a story about collecting and roasting chestnuts from these trees, which were the same trees that her mother had visited when she was young.
Although the fungus has nearly caused the American Chestnut to dissapear, we remember that disease can be a natural part of a tree species’ history. It is said that the greatest remaining abundance of mature, healthy American Chestnuts is here in Southern Ontario. Some chestnut activists (like the Canadian Chestnut Council) have noticed old stumps sprouting from their underground root systems that are unaffected by the fungus. The Chestnut simply needs time to adapt before it can once again thrive and nourish the creatures here. And so, in spite of the sadness we feel, we strengthen our resolve to resist further mindless killing and support these trees during their recovery.
Trees are health. Spending time with trees is important to the well-being of all people who live in cities, and especially those who spend much of their time in an institution like CMHS. And yet the number of places where we can go to be with trees is shrinking. These Chestnuts are among the last-of-the-last of their kind – what other rare tree communities might we be on the verge of losing?
One threatened ecosystem close at hand is the Niagara Escarpment. We remember that several swaths of forest have been cleared from this section of the Escarpment in the past year [see Story of a Scar]. The Chestnuts and the other trees cut today were just a few hundred metres from the Escarpment forest and played various roles within that community. The owls who nested in them would hunt in the forest at night, and squirrels would move seed back and forth between them.
We leave the CHMS property through its North fence that borders the Escarpment, and we descend the short icy stairs to catch the Bruce Trail heading West. Just after we cross Queen St, we come to where a large section of forest has been cut. A little further along, the forest around the trail has been reduced to just a few metres thick. The trees lining the trail are enclosed in a wooden cell marked “Tree Protection Area” while construction goes on just above. As we walk through this, we recall writing about a similar story last April, as the forest at the top of Ferguson St was cleared to make way for a new pump station.
How many more summers of cuts and new developments does our thin band of Escarpment forest have left? And what can we do about this ongoing destruction, as the threat of a new highway looms?
We invite everyone interested in these issues to come out on Saturday March 12th to join us in talking about the current state of the Escarpment forests in Hamilton, and to begin creating a strategy for better defending them. We will be posting details of this meeting as we arrange them on the main page of our website.
Chestnut Varieties of Southern Ontario
The American Chestnut
– Each lead stands along on its own leaf stem (not compound, like Horse Chestnut)
-Broad, toothed leaves
-Nuts have a thick, prickly, green coat
-American Chestnut trees are protected by law. However, this protection only covers trees that are genetically pure, not hybrids. This distinction is problematic, because hybridizing with the closely related Asiatic species might be a way to encourage blight resistance within the plagued genes of the American species.
The Asiatic Chestnut
-Very much like American chestnut, but with tinier leaves and nuts, and a smaller overall size
The Horse Chestnut
-Not related to the American Chestnut, but produces similar looking nuts. These nuts are quite poor tasting and not a common food
-Commonly planted as front-lawn trees
-Nuts have a leathery, green skin with sparse spikes
-Compound leaves, meaning a single leaf-stem branches off to form a fan of leaves