Last of the Last: Windsor’s Savannah and Tall Grass Prairie

This article is part of the series Downstream Stories: towards a watershed-scale resistance

Arriving in Windsor from Hamilton feels very familiar. The first thing we notice entering town are the many abandoned buildings with trees sprouting from their foundations and their walls covered in vines. In Hamilton, this decay makes space for more life and seeing it here makes us feel at home. Also like Hamilton, Windsor is one of the most toxic and polluted places in Southern Ontario, and it’s inspiring to see how the wounds of industry can be so joyfully bandaged by the delicate, climbing fingers of vines.

Both Hamilton and Windsor were once largely covered by Oak Savannah, an ecosystem characterized by frequent fires that keep the ground clear and by oak trees towering above. In Hamilton, we see only small remainders of this forest type in Cootes Paradise, but today, we’ll be visiting the largest and healthiest Oak Savannah and Tall Grass Prairie ecosystem remaining anywhere.

On the outskirts of Windsor, along Matchette Rd, there’s a large series of parks called Ojibway Prairie. Stepping into the cathedral of Oaks, our eyes follow from a low understory made up of prickly brambles and Poison Ivy, straight up massive trunks to a tightly packed canopy of Oaks. In between, a thin understory of Witch Hazel, Sassafras, and Hawthorns reside.

The health and integrity of this forest is directly related to the strength of the community’s love for it. Lots of different folks have joined us today to explore the amazing Oak Savannah here, including the Windsor Guerrilla Gardening Collective, University of Windsor students, conservationists, local working people, and families involved in a homeschooling group. They tell us about the long history of protecting this land, especially an ongoing campaign called Save Ojibway.

For many years now, a company called Coco Paving has been trying to build a big box development on an adjacent rewilding site, a plan that would certainly affect the health of the Ojibway Prairie lands. However, in 2009, the company requested a long adjournment from the Ontario Municipal Board hearings. Some people consider this to mean that the struggle is won, but those in the forest with us are more cautious. They consider this to be a tactic by the developers to wait for the strong resistance to fizzle out.

There are six kids under twelve with us today, and they have grown up in this forest. One of the four year olds pauses while running towards the creek and gestures to a plant just off the trail, squealing gleefully, “Sassafras!” which is not only a fun word to say, but also a rare friend to meet in the forest. These kids showed us how toads like to hide in the muddy creek banks, and explained some tricks caterpillars use to avoid being eaten by birds.

Aerial view of the Ojibway Prairie Complex in Windsor. Photo from ojibway.ca

What these children have come to know here is a rich and diverse world. This to be not just some of the only remaining wild space in the Windsor area, but also one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. These parks in Windsor hold more biodiversity and more rare species than any other park system in Ontario. Over ninety endangered/threatened and legally protected species are found in the Ojibway park system.

Written on this land are the stories of a time, just a few hundred years ago, when biodiversity like this was not extraordinary. Ojibway seems exceptional now, but we remember that that Elk, Bear, Wild Turkey, Trumpeter Swans, Greater Prairie Chicken, and Passenger Pigeons existed here in great numbers two hundred years ago.

We stop to consider the scorched bark of an ancient Black Oak that has survived many of the fires on which this ecosystem depends. Ojibway Prairie is a result of good forest restoration practices combined with a dedicated defense of wild spaces. With regular plantings of prairie species and prescribed burns, the community that has formed around Ojibway helps to provide habitat for rare species. People gather weekly to collect, process, and plant meadow seeds, and the new, free nature centre offers educational programming for kids.

This continued and stable commitment to both protecting and nurturing Ojibway is a model of land defense that has been difficult for developers to crack.

It’s amazing to think that this large area of intact prairie and woodland was once slated to become a giant steel plant. It initially survived by chance, when the enthusiasm for the project withered away during the depression of the 30’s. People worked to see the site formally protected, and then pushed to expand that protection to the surrounding area. This is how a single site became a large network of five vibrant wild spaces. While acquiring and restoring these new lands, the community also had to be vigilant in heading off many short-sighted development projects, like the four-lane road that very nearly came through the forest we walk in today.

We grew up learning about the horrors of extirpation and extinction, but without an understanding of the historical and ongoing colonial forces that drive them. Even the name of this site, Ojibway, likely referring to Odawa or Mississauga Peoples who once lived around this area, is a reminder of this history. (Most accounts speak of Huron/Wyandot people living in this area, though.)

Fruiting Pawpaw tree at Ojibway Prairie

Watching the kids play under a huge fruiting Pawpaw tree, we recall that this is literally the last of the last of this forest type. The same forces that destroyed the Savannahs also attempted to exterminate the First Nations Peoples who respected and nurtured them for countless generations.

These prairies have expanded and now thrive within a major urban area – this is a powerful inspiration for the future. The vines and crumbling buildings we first saw on the way into town excited our imagination, but after a day in this rich forest, those cracks expand into vast, rich possibility.

Our hosts here, the Windsor Guerrilla Gardening Collective, believe that disused urban space can become healthy community space if we work together to reclaim it. Increasing the health of the land – whether that’s conservationists restoring a prairie or a Manitoba Maple crumbling an old foundation – is a process that takes time. And, like a tree setting its roots, protecting that healing must be a longterm commitment as well.

more info about Ojibway: http://www.ojibway.ca/index.htm

Windsor Guerrilla Gardening Collective: http://wggc.resist.ca/

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6 responses to “Last of the Last: Windsor’s Savannah and Tall Grass Prairie

  1. Great article ! As a kid I always thought of the Tall Grass Prairie as just a field of weeds, Its is nice to hear that young children are learning of its significance. Last year I was drawn to this place after hearing about the burn, returning to where I grew up as a child I photographed the Prairie’s return from ashes for an entire year. With over 4,000 images and over 75 walks through these places I learn to appreciate its amazing ecosystem. It would be great to see the whole area returned to its roots. 🙂

    Thanks for the great read.

    ~Don

    • Hey Don! We just checked out your website and your stuff is beautiful. Are the pictures you took at Ojibway on there? Isn’t it amazing how your perspective on a place can change as you spend more time with it? It’s inspiring to hear of you being drawn there by a fire then going on to build a longterm relationship getting to know the site. What else did you learn from that process?

      thanks for commenting!

      • It is amazing how your perspective can change spending some time with it .. What I have learned .. hmm .. many things besides the names of the plants etc. It was amazing how this place came back from the ashes and new plants thrived on the burn. Old oaks that were once standing fall. There are a few images under “current images” which are really the last year or so .. But I am working on a book right now on the whole thing! 🙂

        I am teaching a photography workshop up in the Bruce Peninsula this week. But I will put together a selection of images for you to have a peak at sometime this week. It surely is a spectacular place

        Cheers!
        ~Don

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