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The Carolinian Forest: Taking Refuge in the Intact Earth

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

📍Southwestern Ontario on the sacred territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee peoples

An old growth Silver Maple stands bathed in sunlight and shadow on the edge of a Vernal Pool in the enchanted swamps of Backus Woods. The Reflections in the still swamp water are as mesmerizing as the full moon or the ocean.

1% of Canada's land mass, 40% of it's threatened and endangered species, and the most biodiversity of any terrestrial ecosystem in the country, the Carolinian Forest of Southwestern Ontario is truly a rare and spectacular ecosystem. Much can be researched and read about the ecology, deforestation and subsequent agroindustrial development of southwestern Ontario and the whole carolinian life zone that has seen this ecosystem become North America's most densely populated and heavily farmed region. The physical effects on the landscape are clear as we drive through Downtown Toronto, or through the endless corn and tobacco fields that cover the landscape. But what about the spiritual effect on the human beings who live here today. How does the lack of intact forests, pristine wetlands and tall grass prairies affect us? And how can we come back home to the forest? The place where inner peace, healing and mindfulness are best nurtured and practiced.

As I practice mindful walking through the heart of the forest in Backus Woods, Niagara Glen, or Cootes Paradise, the forest steadily whispers as I listen. Not answering my thinking minds silly questions, but rather totally dissolving them into the great field of oneness, interbeing, and harmony that the forest exudes. My teacher, Thay, tells us that true love is made of understanding. And it is understanding of life that floats to us gently on the breeze in the ancient forest, and pops up from the fragrant forest floor as mushrooms. Understanding lives in the balance of the intact earth. So come with me and we can explore the wonders of the intact earth together, and feel how this benefits the deepest part of our being as we listen and learn.

A clear cold creek runs through a shady valley of Hemlock, Tulip and Maple in Backus Woods

The 4 billion year old Mosaic of the intact earth is taken apart piece by piece as we convert land into monoculture plantations, housing subdivisions, and cities. We lose more than just pretty places when this happens on such a vast uncontrolled scale. We lose our ability and wisdom to access medicinal plants and fungi, which has forced us to rely on the profiteering, toxic pharmaceutical industry to treat us. Our clean water degrades as we lose forest cover and spew pollutants into our great lakes and mighty rivers, This makes us totally reliant on chemically treated water. Our air quality worsens as all manner of fuel is burned en masse, and their is no longer intact forests to absorb the excessive carbon dioxide we produce. Our soil is blown away in the wind, and our health diminishes as we no longer have intact places to take refuge in. Perhaps most tragic of all, we forget the great language of earth, and become numb to her cries of suffering as she pleads for us to slow down and live simply.

These sad realities hurt us on every level, spiritually, physically and mentally. The spiritual degradation that comes with this is of great interest to me, the physiological effects of destroying the earth are clear. What is harder to depict, because it goes beyond what we can quantify or empirically prove. Is the degradation of our innermost essence, when we grow up and live our lives devoid of a deep relationship with the intact earth.

As I walk through the living temples of Backus Woods or Niagara Glen, I feel enriched and supported by countless dear friends. I'm held in the gentle embrace of all the plants, fungi, animals and other beings that live there. The voice of rivers, the symphony of chirping birds, the slow conversation of creaking tree trunks, I can't imagine life without these wondrous realities. And yet I am also familiar with another world, having grown up in Toronto, I know all too well what it feels like to have dull senses, not attuned to nature's wonders. The journey back to my original home, the forest, has filled my life with meaning. The intersection of the mindfulness practice and the wisdom of the ancient forest is where I wish to reside.

Ganoderma Sesille growing in the ancient carolinian forest, a healing medicinal mushroom used for thousands of years by our ancestors around the world, now known to be a powerful adaptogen with strong cancer preventing and tumour shrinking benefits.

Intact forests are at once calming and exciting, Familiar and comforting, yet full of new discoveries and endless wonder for the person who cherishes them in mindfulness and walks quietly among ancient friends. Trees are not just a living connection to the time of our ancestors, ancient trees ARE our living ancestors. This deeply contrasts the city, where reflections of our own ego and vanity are projected on us daily. Where predictability and standardization create a dull and boring space, and the raw materials of earth are transformed into an increasingly dystopian feeling concrete jungle. Hundreds of shades of green have been replaced by hundreds of shades of grey. The colour of our mind is influenced by the colour of our surroundings, so please come back to the woods to fall back in love with the living rainbow of life.

The world of mushrooms and lichens provides endless joy to those who pay attention to the understory

So few people understand the forest today, too often forests are admired from a distance, or hurriedly passed through to get to scenic viewpoints in the high country. For so long we’ve lived on the edge of the forest, in the clearing, with our wheat and our goats. We have become domesticated, some may say its for the better, but less and less do I see any benefit of the walls we put up between ourselves and nature. I see so many problems arising from the delusion that we are seperate from nature. Indeed human suffering has been said to arise from ignorance, in no small part the ignorant delusion that we are seperate from others. Which has led us into the age of selfishness, consumerism and massive loneliness we see today. We have developed a mistrust towards forests, irrational fear arising from misunderstanding. Assuming forests to be places where bandits hideout and prey upon merchants travelling the road, and where man eating beasts have their lairs, or at the very least, the home of pesky Wolves and Martens who eat our livestock in the night. There's even those who avoid forests for fear of ticks and poison ivey. Yet still the forest calls us all, and the collective void in our hearts from a life without nature grows with every passing day. It is so heartening to see so many people returning to the forest, to listen to the teachings, enjoy the fruits, nuts and berries, and live the way of mindfulness and harmony with others. This is the healing we need as a people, and it is the healing that the forest offers in great abundance and generosity.

Our colonized ancestors had long depleted their own lands, and each new land and indigenous people who they encountered they attempted to "tame" or entirely destroy in the name of "progress and civilization". Of course, there was nothing wrong with the intact earth or her many indigenous peoples. But there was everything wrong with the minds of the imperialist pirates who came to Turtle Island's shores. Those pirates were suffering a lot, so they projected all of their misunderstanding and fear onto that which they no longer understood. Those are many of our ancestors, and we carry the same suffering, ignorance and trauma that they did. In order to heal and make amends for this vicious cycle of harm, it is very important we strive to become a land based person again, who lives in reverence of their environment, lives quietly, walks gently on the earth, taking only what they need, and nurturing the Earth with their way of life. Living like this promotes harmony between living beings, nations, people, animals and so on.

A good way to begin this journey is by going for a walk. But instead of walking with destination or distance in mind, let each step be slow enough that you can notice all the life around you. Stay and observe the wonders of life long enough for you to have a conversation with them. For too long we have lived without knowing the true face, the deepest presence, of other living beings on the earth. Robin Kimmerer puts this beautifully in Braiding Sweetgrass, “species loneliness—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship." (Kimmerer, 2013) As we become friends with the forest and all her children like our distant ancestors were, and our living indigenous brothers and sisters still are. We can restore our health, water seeds of joy, compassion and contentedness in our minds. When the forest and the people are in trouble, like today at precious Fairy Creek, we will arrive to support that forests life. And from the moment we show up, we'll feel at home in the shade of the giants. The sacredness of the forest is not lost on us, the way of living in the forest is not lost either.

In conclusion, I hope you all have the chance to deeply experience the intact earth! May we all awaken to the miracle of being alive on this heavenly planet! and may we all realize the determination to mindfully stand for the life of the forest and all her sister ecosystems!! For it is truly these places that make our life possible, and fill it with meaning.

From the luscious vegetation of the riparian zone beside the creek, to the ancient trunks and crowns of the Walnut, Oak and Tulip trees. The Ancient Carolinian Forest is no less breathtaking than the west coast's temperate rainforests. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy the compassionate embrace of the intact earth soon :)

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