Wild spaces, like Ontario Nature’s reserves, are rich in plants, animals and history.

By Peter Middleton

Last June at Ontario Nature’s annual general meeting, I joined a field trip on which our guides led us through a rare remnant of prairie and black-oak savannah habitat on a lovely stretch of the Oak Ridges Moraine. We walked through an area belonging to Alderville First Nation, where 50 hectares of rolling prairie grassland and oak savannah, once threatened by housing development and aggregate extraction, are now protected. Today, the landscape blooms with prairie buttercup, wild lupine and butterflyweed. In the distance, we could see the silhouette of the fire-resistant black oaks. In the past, this land supported herds of deer and elk, and the First Nations peoples who hunted them.

Our guides brought us to the tall-grass prairie reserve of Red Cloud Cemetery. This site, designated as a cemetery in 1850, has never been ploughed. In 1992, Dr. Paul Catling, a plant taxonomist, declared the cemetery to be a remnant prairie because of the presence of a number of prairie grasses and forbs within its boundaries.

At the cemetery, Elwood, a 92-year-old member of the Red Cloud Cemetery board of directors, welcomed our group. This plot of virgin prairie is truly a stunning place to walk through, especially when one is aware that its soils and plants have survived, relatively unchanged, since the glaciers withdrew some 10,000 years ago.

As I looked around in wonder, Elwood drew me aside. He told me of his family and his poor but happy childhood, and of his love for the tiny patch of land we stood on and the profound meaning its preservation had for him. With reverence he talked about the link between humanity and landscapes, and about the people who had occupied this land over time and how the land had nurtured them. He pointed out the importance of conservation, not only as it applies to plants and ecosystems, but also as a way of recognizing that such remnants are links with a planet that has supported countless generations of humanity. He did not refer to land as property, but rather as a source of support. “The land fed me, nourished me and will reclaim me. I ask no more than that. It has done that for people from the beginning. It is where I belong.”

Reflecting on his words, I thought about Ontario Nature’s nature reserves system and its importance both for Ontario as a whole and for me personally. The reserves contain the timeless threads of creation in their fabric. Their preservation represents a priceless heritage set aside for the province by Ontario Nature.

Ontario Nature (formerly the Federation of Ontario Naturalists) acquired its first reserve, Dorcas Bay (also called Singing Sands) in 1961. Located on the Bruce Peninsula, this place has special significance for me, and I visit often. The coastal alvars and forests of the region, although greatly reduced by recreation-related development, contain jewels of global importance found in few other places on the planet: bird’s-eye primrose, ram’s-head lady’s slipper and massasauga rattlesnake. Every time I visit, I am reminded of the beauty, tenacity and continuity of life.

The shorelines of the Bruce Peninsula support unique ecosystems. The steep cliffs on the eastern shore of the escarpment and on the sloping limestone plates on the west supported an amazing array of plants. Until late in the 20th century, our presence was evident mostly in the occasional fishing or hunting camp. This changed, however, as southern Ontario’s population grew and more cars filled more roads, and people’s leisure time and recreational interests increased. Dorcas Bay is a reminder of what this area used to be. Having visited the reserve so frequently, I know it intimately – it has shaped my philosophy as a naturalist and outdoor educator.

Each Ontario Nature reserve is a “Rosetta stone” that will allow future generations to connect with a distant past and to witness the tapestry of evolution. The conservation of such places is of the utmost importance, for the heritage, both natural and human, that they hold. These are both islands of refuge and, in a way, islands in time.

Peter Middleton is a lifelong member of Ontario Nature and president of the Owen Sound Field Naturalists. He has taught and administered outdoor education programs for the Bruce County Board of Education and the Bluewater District School Board.