Review of John L. Riley’s “The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, An Ecological History”

Review by Michael White

rileyPublished by the McGill-Queen’s University press, 2013.

In 2014, John Riley brought his new book to the monthly meeting of the Richmond Hill Naturalists, an organization he once was part of and from whose members he learned about much about nature.

At another Richmond Hill Naturalists monthly speakers meeting more than ten years ago, John came and told us of doing botanical searches on the south facing  slopes of hills in the far north Tundra, documenting the northern movement of plants and trees.

His mother, Margaret was a more familiar member of the Naturalists at that time and of the University of Toronto Women’s club. She was also a supporter in the Friends of the Don in York Region. The Friends was my own first venture into environmental activism in the headwaters areas of Vaughan and Richmond Hill after leaving the University of Guelph in 1990 that brought me into the Naturalists..

For the activist naturalists of the Richmond Hill Club, Margaret Cranmer Byng, Mike Turk, Theo Hoffman, Natalie Helferty, and myself, John has become an honorary RH Naturalist. He has moved on to be a more remote but powerful actor with other players, in environmental and development planning and action in York Region, Ontario, Canada and beyond. From his book we get perspectives in our own and our Province’s battles with “paving the moraine”, the rampant suburban greenfields development in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s.

John came back to us this September 2014 with his book “Once and Future Great Lakes Country; An Ecological History”. With this talk and the amazing book, we now learned just how engaged and activist for nature John Riley was and is, and a lot more.

We knew that John was a botanist and ecologist. He was a long time staff member of Ontario Nature and is now senior science advisor to the effective Nature Conservancy of Canada. But in our activities in the ‘90’s, some of us didn’t know of his behind the scenes work to save the unique Baker’s Sugar Maple Bush north of Highway 407 and Bathurst. At that time we were not being very successful in trying to hire an environmental lawyer when the news that the Woods had been saved by the Provincial government hit the papers. John knew more than we did. It’s in his book.

But our challenges in Richmond Hill; the Moraine, the 407 and Bayview highway bridges, Jefferson Salamander preservation, and the Dunlop Observatory Lands still in heavy dispute, these are just our own recent small home town connections in tens of thousands of years of history and ecological history in John’s “Great lakes Country”, He covers these times in an area from the Atlantic in the east, Thunder Bay in the west, the Appalachians south of the Great lakes to the true north above Lakes Superior and Nipigon.

John’s book begins and is grounded in his little farm in Mono Mills south and west of Orangeville, not far south of the Niagara Escarpment,. His experiences on this farm are his navel of the Great lakes Country, in time and events, spacially and ecologically. But his Great Lakes country story soon becomes a huge, bitter and sad ecological saga with a hint of a modern silver lining.

You can dream and imagine but it is hard to understand John’s “earthly paradise” as the way to describe the Mono Mills surroundings, the farmlands south from there to the flood of suburbs north of the 401, Highway 7 in the times before the 1500’s. The inhabitants who created and managed these exemplary precolonial lands were some of the forefathers of our rebuilding first nations.

The many first nations tribes had their verbal story telling, their wampums that wove time and events from century to century as long as they could. But it was the first wave of explorers from Europe, French, English, Dutch and German, Europeans all, whose accounts relate wonderful semi civilized agricultural landscapes without fences, with ancient oaks that survived the agricultural practices of many thousands of years. This is what also had created a way to retain the wealth of forest harvest, of rich, oh so rich wildlife, pure fresh waters teeming with fish, skies and woods filled and seasonally overwhelmed with birds and a careful civilizing village and town agriculture..

Paradise indeed. It was so much so, that the Europeans were almost lost for words in comparing this new world with their own. Unfortunately their inscape of this wonderful rich thriving world was colored by the lustful greedy cupidity of already ecologically abused Europeans who, with a few exceptions, could only see seeking to exploit this gift of ancient north American civilization, and of time. If not for fabled gold, then from gold acquired by exploiting all these other riches of the Americas and the Great Lakes country.

The first peoples of the Great lakes country were the first to suffer. These were stone age hunter gatherers who had arrived with great paleolithic animals during and after the ice ages that filled these long eras that few of us moderns can even imagine. Quebec ecologist Pierre Dansereau in his 1972 CBC Massey Lectures, “Inscape and Landscape”  likened the arrival of these first peoples, the first peoples of America and of the far north, to the possible voyages of man from planet to planet. This was the land described extensively but quite differently by paleontologist and ecologist Tim Flannery in his The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples; this is north America post the asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico and the end of the age of dinosaurs, 60 million years ago. The complete ecological change in the animal populations of north America and Canada by the first waves of human colonization 15 more or less thousand years ago, parallels the evolution of the Australian fauna that Flannery describes in his 1994, book about the arrival of man in Australia, 40,000 years ago, The Future Eaters: an Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.

But John begins by focussing on the age of first nations in the Great lakes Country: Chapter 1, The Land Beyond memory: Before 1500, before the European invasions. In the next three Chapters of Part One, The Land and what Happened to it, he relates how paradise was turned into a new Europe, with the first nations almost extirpated by the Europeans’ guns, smallpox, measles and rivalries for animals, wood and finally the land itself. It is a sad story that ties together the literature of those who write about this age of the end of the first nations in the Great Lakes Country, from our high school history books, to the novels of Joseph Boyden.

In the next 400 years, the Europeans first describe the wonders of North American wildlife, then under the great changes, the wilding of the post aboriginal land ecology. They were almost blindly involved in depleting the abundances of wood, animals and fish, completely or almost completely unaware of what was happening. This story is much the same as the ecological changes, the climate changes that began as man assumed dominance of lands, and is happening worldwide today. But John documents those centuries in this special area with the help of the few articulate observers, some of whom realized what they were witnessing and sometimes tried to do something about it. John’s approach to what is happening is almost encyclopaedic. In the same way that the age of Reason put together the whole list of knowledge of the world, Riley and sometimes the writers he cites, create a catalogue of the physical, political and natural phenomena that make up full ecological history of a world, in this case the Great Lakes world – from the smallest detail of the demise of the once universal eel species (I’ve never seen one in nearly 70 years in the Great Lakes Country) to the ignorant, wasteful ways of using land brought over from Europe that replaced the perhaps equally ignorant but much more ecologically successful use of land, wildlife and plant life by the pre colonial invasion First Nations.

Like so many of us involved in the environment or ecology, in his third Unit, “Nature’s Prospect”, John gets to his assessment of the factors for the future. There are the impacts of the invasives, pathological in his own botanical arena as they arrived in the Great Lakes Country, insects and funguses that so sharply cut into our native trees and continue to do so. They are seen as part of the impacts of globalization, of the rest of the world. This is added to the scale of human proliferation with the industrial revolution, citification of the enlarging population. And as the book ends, John moves back towards the Mono farm, through the realization of projects of land protection, projects and experiments in land management, at times led by the inscape of the ‘earthly paradise” of the precolonial eras. He even hints at “curbing our excesses”to restore the ecological richness of the Great lakes Country, much as Bruce Chatwin and his Russian colleague in the conclusion to the Australian Aboriginal story of “Songlines” saw salvation in the rich simplicity of aboriginal life, philosophy and deep ecological  poetry, the songlines of the 40,000 year old native civilization of Australia.

And in an “afterword” to his ecological history of the Great lakes Country which is the setting of his own life and modest Mono Mills farmstead, John Riley sees or forsees the forces of nature. He does this as an ecologist, botanist and activist like himself. He knows that there are world’s visionaries like James Lovelock who in “Gaia” proposed that the world is alive, managing its climate to maintain life. But we all must live with what nature will do with what man tries. Life for us is a balancing act between reality and man’s ingenuity. The history of life is what has given us the Great lakes Country of this book, and in which we live. We who are mainly unaware in our personal, economic and familial concentrations and preoccupations, or like John himself, apprehensive in what he has seen in his deep investigation that he has researched, written and  published for us.