Great Egret

Great Egret

Friday, 30 January 2015

Ancient Forests, Grey Owl, John Muir & Anna Jameson

Have you ever heard the concept of forests being so thick and continuous across southern Ontario at the time of settlement that a squirrel climbing a tree in the Windsor area could travel from tree to tree all the way to Ottawa without touching the ground! I is a curious thought, but hardly true. If you read my previous post, you will know that there were extensive areas of tallgrass prairie in southwestern Ontario, especially in the Windsor area and scattered between there and Ottawa. If a squirrel could even have found a tree in the Windsor area 300 years ago, it would have had to make a very circuitous route to get very far at all, let alone to Ottawa.

Having said that, I can only imagine that the forests at the time of settlement were magnificent, based on some of the early quotes:

No one who has a single atom of imagination can travel through these forest roads of Canada without being strongly impressed and excited. The seemingly interminable line of trees before you; the boundless wilderness around; the mysterious depths amidst the multitudinous foliage where the foot of many hath never penetrated—and which partial gleams of the noontide sun now seen, now lost, lit up with a changeless magical beauty……the wondrous splendour and novelty of flowers—the silence, unbroken but for the low cry of a bird or the hum of an insect, or the splash and croak of a huge bullfrog—the solitude in which we proceeded mile after mile, no human being, no human dwelling within sight—are all either exciting to the fancy or oppressive to the spirits according to the mood one may be in.”   ….Anna Jameson, 1838. Winter Studies and Summer Rambles

It probably didn't look too much different than this,and maybe the trails weren't even this good!

“Nor let me forget the splendour of the flowers which carpeted the woods on either side. There those beautiful plants….were flourishing in wild luxuriance….How lavish, how carefully profuse is nature in her handiwork.”   ……Anna Jameson, 1838

Carpet of Dutchman's Breeches
Carpet of White Trillium

How savagely, how solemnly wild it was! So thick was the overhanging foliage that it not only shut out the sunshine, but almost the daylight; and we travelled on through a perpetual gloom of vaulted boughs and intermingled shade. There were no flowers here…..The timber was all hard timber, walnut, beech and basswood, and oak and maple of most luxuriant growth”   …..Anna Jameson, 1838

And a little later in that century:
The grand forests, free of all brushwood, present a more striking appearance than anything else to the eye of one just arrived from the Old World. No one can enter their shadows or tread their long drawn vistas of tall grey stems, spanned by over-arching roof of dark leaves, without the idea of a vast cathedral involuntarily rising in the mind. Like ruined columns, huge prostrate trunks lie strewn around, some but newly fallen, others moss grown and verdant. …..Major W. Ross King, 1866 The Sportsman and Naturalist in Canada

 Such descriptions were eloquent and enticing. But travel in that era was not without its challenges, especially with all of the low lying areas with standing water.

Mosquitoes…suddenly we were again surrounded by our adversaries; they came upon us in swarms, in clouds, in myriads—entering our eyes, our noses, our mouths, stinging until the blood followed.”   …..Anna Jameson, 1838

“He told me that…..where we dined he observed a great quantity of a certain plant which, if only touched, causes a dreadful eruption and ulcer all over the body….Once I unconsciously touched a leaf of it and became one ulcer from head to foot; I could not stir for a fortnight.”  …..Anna Jameson, 1838


I noted a particularly interesting observation, even back in 1838.

A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, annihilated by all and any means.”
    …..Anna Jameson, 1838

 I guess some things haven't changed a lot, as these last two images were taken in 2013 when there was great controversy in Chatham-Kent about the ongoing loss of woodland. I wonder what Anna Jameson would think after travelling through C-K in the last few years!

Well-known conservationists of more recent times have offered the following thoughts:

“Man should enter the woods, not with any conquistador obsession of mighty hunter complex, neither in a spirit of braggadocio, but rather with awe, and not a little of the veneration, of one who steps within the portals of some vast and ancient edifice of wondrous architecture. For a man who considers himself the master of all he surveys would do well, when setting foot in the forest, to take off not only his hat, but his shoes too and, in not a few cases, be glad he is allowed to retain an erect position.”   …..Grey Owl, 1936

And by famed advocate for wilderness, John Muir (who had a southern Ontario connection at one point, which I hope to expand on in another post):

Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the deep green woods.” 

Would that we all took time to have a greater appreciation for what nature took many centuries to build!


  1. Excellent work Allen.Regarding the problems with broadcasting to other feeds, I have found that if you play with time timing options on the side, the other feeds did not recognize posts so well. If you just post your blogs without touching the timing options, all should work well. Try googling the problem and perhaps there us documentation out there with an explanation.

    1. Thanks for the comment and tip, Dwayne. I checked the schedule option on the side and it is set to automatic. Hopefully it was just a short term blip in the uploading process. If not, I'll delve further as you suggest.

  2. Thanks for this Al. Anna Jamesons poignant accounts of the First Peoples encounters with Europeans and alcohol struck me as testament to the way alcohol was used as a tool of boisterous expansion into the new world.
    Her characterizing the dark, closed canopies and forest swamps as "Sloughs of Despond" can offer some idea as to the fearsome character of the Ancient Carolinian forests and their predatory inhabitants to settlers with few cultural practices to adapt. Most, too arrogant to learn from the inhabitants and adapt to the landscapes, the unwittingly sought to recreate the very environmental disasters left behind throughout 17th and 18th century Europe. The roots of dominance are ignorance and fear.