High Park’s Oak Savannahs

IMG_6497 copyWalk with us. We’d like to take you to our favourite spot here in Toronto’s High Park, just north of the shores of Lake Ontario. This 400-acre urban pleasure park is brimming with people running, biking, playing and picnicking. But it is not just a pretty refuge from the bustle of city life. It is a space where you can tune in to hear the plants and trees singing, where you can feel the sheer effort they exert holding the earth down and the sky up. The majestic oaks that thrive in Toronto’s High Park today are remnants of the ancient black oak savannahs that stretched out across these lands for millennia. These remarkable ecologies, with their wide open canopies, tall grasses and wildflowers, took root in the sandy soils left in the wake of retreating glaciers and ancient lakes.

But this landscape is not just sculpted by glaciers, wind, water, animals, and plants. An oak savannah is always in transition, always on its way to becoming forest. It needs fire to thrive. This land was shaped by Indigenous people who used fire to keep the savannah open for hunting, farming and dwelling. The Wendat, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, and most recently the Mississauga’s of the Credit River lived here. For millennia Indigenous peoples lit fires to keep the grasslands open for hunting, farming, and village life. The 250-year-old trees that are thriving and dying here today remember that time. They remember a time before colonization. They remember the fires. They remember their people.

IMG_6184In the wake of the violence of first contact with Europeans, much of this region around the Great Lakes was de-peopled. Many of the wide-open canopies of the oak savannahs and prairies Aboriginal peoples had shaped through fire closed in, and the forests thickened. Within one hundred and fifty years after contact, the forests covering this land looked as if they had never been inhabited. This was the “primeval” forest that so many of our conservation ideals long for, an ideal that renders invisible the deep history of human/plant relations that have shaped so much of the North American landscape.

This remnant of a savannah that we are standing in now was kept open only because it was grazed, first by the sheep that European settlers put out to pasture, and later by the lawn mowers that the park’s keepers deployed to maintain the aesthetics of a pleasure park. In place of fires that regenerated the soil and stimulated the germination of new oaks, the sheep and mowers clipped young oak seedlings and buried generations of wildflower seeds in thick turf grass. Today, conservation ecologists recognize High Park’s oak savannah’s as rare and endangered. They have brought back fire, lighting controlled burns to stimulate the seedbed and help regenerate the oaks. But today the oldest oaks are falling. And the next generation are only fifteen years old. What, then, is the oak savannah becoming?

How can we learn how to pay attention to this remarkable 10,000 year-old happening which is both in-the-making and coming undone? What modes of attention can help us pay attention to the naturalcultural happenings of this remarkable urban landscape? How can we tune in to this ancient ecology situated in the middle of a vibrant city? How can we learn to keep pace with the rhythms and tempos of its compositions and decompositions? With the ephemeral and enduring improvisations taking shape among the plants, trees, insects, birds, animals, and people?