Hickory Highlands: Vanished forests and climate change in the suburbs

A relic Ironwood in Gilkson park

It’s mid-July 2012, and each month of the year so far has broken the record for heat and dryness. In Southern Ontario, climate change is increasingly a present reality. It is the context in which we act, and its effects will only get more pronounced as time passes. As we explored the relic forests of Hamilton’s West Mountain, we’ve been talking about what kinds of possibilities for freedom and wildness we can find within a changing climate. What can we learn in the forested corners of this suburban neighbourhood about community resiliency and supporting the health of the wild?

We’re walking South on Upper Paradise from the Scenic Drive escarpment stairs beside the neatly trimmed and weeded lawns, scorched crispy and brown by the current drought. Many trees have been dropping leaves in the dry heat. We pause in front of one lawn scattered with leaves of a familiar but surprising five-leaflet shape. We look up at the tree, and are excited to see the long strips of flaky bark confirming it’s a Shagbark Hickory.

It’s a rare treat to see a Shagbark growing in the open like this, yet its shape doesn’t look like what we’d expect an open grown, front-yard tree to be. It’s tall, with more than twenty feet to the first branch, and has a narrow canopy. A huge Red Oak, only two feet away from the Hickory, has its first branch at level with the roof of the house, with no sign of cutting or pruning. “They look like forest trees,” we realize. Looking around us, we see many more trees like this lining the big front-lawns of these suburban homes: relics from an ancient forest still quietly remembered in the forms of these survivors.

Forest-grown trees along Upper Paradise

As we appreciate the sad beauty of these trees, we wonder about the Hickory-Oak association that they suggest. Was this the forest type that used to grow on the West Mountain? We’ve read about the greedy slaughter of the ancient Hickory forests – one billion board feet of Bitternut shipped to England, three-hundred million board feet of Shagbark cut annually. This destruction is still relatively recent history, and the construction of these suburbs far more recent still. And yet it can be hard to see through to what was once here, to imagine this land a different way. We decide to search for other traces of the lost Hickory forest in South-West Hamilton’s suburban sprawl.

Turning off of Upper Paradise before Stone Church Road, we spot a little scrap of forest beside Gordon Price elementary school. It’s an island of green shade rising from a huge expanse of dry, brown grass. Along the edges of this forest fragment, the exotic compound leaves of Black Walnut shade the kind of open savannah familiar from nearby Iroquoia Heights Conservation Area.

But after a few more steps, we find a very different forest. It’s the Hickory stand we were hoping to see, an abundance of both Shagbark and Bitternut. The ground around them is littered with nutshells, signs of some happy squirrels. This year’s nut crop is looking promising, and we know that Hickories often produce their biggest crops in long, hot summers.

The nuts and leaves of a Shagbark Hickory at the Gordon Price forest

As we pause to munch a handful of Service Berries from a young understory tree, we reflect on how rich in food this tiny forest is. In addition to the Hickories, Walnuts, and Hawthorn, there are several large old Black Cherries (as well as a few of their cultivated Cherry cousins), Red and White Oak, and many low growing berry bushes. We notice that apart from the occasional older Hawthorn or young nut tree, the ground is mostly covered in long grass, a sign that it was mowed until recently. But the forest floor has been left to rewild for several years now, and among the grass a young understory rich with food and habitat is establishing.

A forest that offers so much food is a forest that is ready to spread – the presence of these healthy trees welcomes squirrels and birds who happily work as forest gardeners, spreading seed and advancing the forest’s edge. There’s not much more that would be needed to expand this wonderful forest fragment than to relinquish some of the space still stubbornly dedicated to producing dead grass.

In the dark, cool centre of this forest, we find a low, muddy clearing. The land rises on both sides, and following it’s curve, we realize we’re walking along an old stream bed. Growing along these banks, we find a Red Oak that’s likely

more than 150 years old, an ancient gnarled Ironwood, and a Shagbark Hickory twice the size of any other we’ve seen today. But there is no stream in sight now – where did it go? Following the bed, we find a sewer and get a hint of an answer: beneath this meta

l grate, lost in darkness, we hear running water. Judging by the glint of sunlight we can see, it’s flowing east…

Following the direction of the buried stream, we recross Upper Paradise along Gemini Dr, listening at sewer grates and looking for other clues in the story of these Hickory highlands. Before long, we come to Gilkson park and RA Riddell Public School.

What catches out attention is that there are more than fifty forest grown trees beside a water park. Most of them are Ironwood and Basswood, but many Shagbark Hickories and Red Oaks are also growing from heavily mowed ground – a bit of grass and dried Basswood flowers their only understory. Nearby there is a steep hill leading up towards a baseball diamond, and along its brow we spot a sewer. Pressing our ear to the small hole, we can hear the water running far below.

Click for larger view

What kind of story can we tell about this buried creek and these stands of forest-grown trees? Sitting in this empty parched field, it’s easy to want to imagine this creek flowing on the surface, following the curve the land, its shady banks rich with shrubs, herbs, and young trees. Perhaps the presence of the creek is what spared these fragments from the saw when the forests here were leveled for farming. Then, when the farms were replaced by suburbs, the creeks were buried, leaving only a few trees and the shape of the land behind.

As it is though, the little Gilkson forest is doomed to fade, just a relic of the ancient Hickory habitat. No new trees are allowed to grow, and the old ones are torn out as soon as they weaken. The decision to mow the forests near RA Riddell and Gordon Price schools was made in the name of protecting children, because of fears that undesirable people or dangerous animals might hide in the vegetation.

This reminds us of the ju

stification used in cutting down the oldest Beech trees in Gage Park a couple of years ago – they were large enough that criminals could hide behind them. We also recall that one of the foundational stories of settling Hamilton’s mountain involved the extermination of wolves and rattlesnakes. From farm to suburb, fear continues to drive a way of life that situates itself explicitly in opposition to wildness and growth. But on such a hot day, in such a hot year, this twisted logic melts away.

The destruction of the Hickory forests here contributed to the climate change we are now experiencing. Among all the trees of this region, Hickories are known for taking enormous amounts of carbon out of the air as they grow their dense wood. Hickories are also great supporters of living soil, providing fuel to the massive underground cities of fungi that run on carbon. This little fragment of forest wants to expand and thrive – it seems insane not to cherish and support this as climate change intensifies.

As we continue East on Garrow Dr, we see dozens of people mowing their huge front lawns. These are the land of SUVs and sprinkler systems, a lifestyle that continues to escalate climate change. The effects of climate change will not be felt equally – the people in this suburb will have more options and be safer than those displaced by rising water or expanding deserts. But the West Mountain will not be immune from it, and resource scarcity may leave these neighbourhoods regretting the lost of the food forests before too long. The suburban lifestyle is undercutting the longterm viability of their communities.

As we continue walking these scorched sidewalks, searching for traces of the Hickory highlands, can we also imagine a transformation to the suburbs that will make space for freedom and wildness as the world gets warmer?

Relic forest trees at Gilkson park

Hickory Highlands: Vanished forests and climate change in the suburbs is the first in a three-part series. The next installments will appear soon – to find out when they do, click the subscribe button on the right of the page, find us on facebook as knowingtheland.isresistance, or write to us at knowingtheland(at)gmail(dot)com

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