I found a minuscule forest that is 700 years old near the busiest highway in North America.
In March, I will turn 75 years old and as older individuals, we often contemplate the reasons behind events in our lives. While this is a personal matter, I had a slender build during my childhood and was frequently bullied at school. My solace was found in nature, particularly in plants, insects, and animals.
Nature never attempted to harm me, even when faced with predators. They were not pursuing me. I have always felt empathy towards creatures that are being targeted or in a fragile state. My personal disposition influences my studies, leading me to become intrigued by the concept of harsh environments.
In the end, I became a biology professor at the University of Guelph and uncovered the oldest and most untouched forests in eastern North America, possibly even the oldest in all of North America.
I initially focused on lichens, rather than trees, as my first subjects. Lichens are often overlooked and underestimated plants that thrive in harsh environments such as the Arctic tundra. Despite being constantly exposed to harsh elements, they manage to survive and even thrive in their own secluded haven.
After achieving my PhD, I chose to conduct research in an environment that was just as harsh as the Arctic tundra. This is when the concept of studying the Niagara Escarpment came to mind. The organisms living there were stunted and appeared sluggish, and their potential for research had been overlooked by others who referred to them as “rock scum”. However, as someone who empathizes with creatures facing challenges, I found this habitat to be intriguing and worthy of study.
My colleagues and I believed that Europeans had completely deforested southern Ontario, so we were surprised to discover ancient trees in the area. However, upon further investigation, we found that these small, aged trees were able to survive in a small portion of difficult terrain.
Upon discovering a tree that was over 1,000 years old, my initial reaction was disbelief. I was filled with excitement and amazement, as if struck by lightning. This tree elevated the forest to a whole new level.
Numerous individuals had passed by this location and simply assumed there was nothing of interest. This spot is visible from the bustling 401 highway, one of the busiest in North America, and the metropolis of Toronto. It was surprising to come across these objects in the midst of such an industrialized urban area.
Our investigation aimed to determine the maximum age of the trees in this forest. We discovered that one tree had lived for over 1,800 years before eventually perishing.
The following inquiry was: is the existence of this historic woodland on these cliffs exclusive to Ontario? There are numerous stunning limestone formations in southern France, so I reached out to scholars in Montpellier and expressed interest in studying them. However, they informed me that there was “nothing noteworthy” there. Nevertheless, they ultimately stumbled upon a single tree that had begun to grow before the Romans departed from France. This discovery made headlines in Le Figaro. This tree had witnessed the Romans’ departure! It is considered the oldest living plant in all of France.
We discovered that there were prehistoric woodlands on the cliffs of southern France. This led us to make similar findings in the United States, New Zealand, Germany, and England. It appears that these small ancient forests are prevalent worldwide. Cliffs have now been identified as significant areas of biodiversity worldwide.
In 1988, the media began to show interest in the ancient forests, and this interest has continued until the present year, 2023. This topic is closely related to the concept of human existence – when one works on something that has existed for 1,000 years, they may realize their own insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe.
As humans, we highly prioritize productivity. From the wisdom of ancient trees, I have discovered that peace and happiness can also be attained through taking things slow, being cautious, and being diligent, not just through wealth and fame.
The ancient forest has been my most significant mentor. From the trees, I have learned that growth is not always necessary or beneficial. As humans, if we desire to thrive on this planet indefinitely, we must not deplete its resources. This timeless forest is one area we have not exploited – it has outlasted us because we have disregarded it. There is a solution to achieving infinite sustainability for our planet – by simply demanding less from it.
Phoebe Weston was informed by Doug Larson, a retired biology professor from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Larson is highly knowledgeable about deforestation and frequently adds to conversations in the media about old growth forests. His most recent publication, co-authored with his son Nick, is titled “The Dogma Ate My Homework.”