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Respect for Healing Lands: Frozen islands, forgotten hills

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
A Double Crested Cormorant drying its wings
A Double Crested Cormorant drying its wings

by Knowing the Land is Resistance

Cootes Paradise is often described as the most valuable wild space in the Hamilton area, while nearby disturbed sites are widely dismissed as valueless. But what other forces have acted on Cootes and the surrounding area, and how does the land’s past relate to ideas of value?

Overnight, snow has covered the land. Since there are so many fun things to do in the winter that are harder to do other times, we set off towards the frozen marshes of Cootes Paradise.

From Dundurn Castle, we cross York Blvd and dip down to the traintracks below the Hamilton Cemetary. We pause by the tracks and remember a friend of ours who, standing in this spot, gestured to the shrubby hills below the York St bridge and the other wild spaces along the tracks and said that they had “no value.” Then he turned and pointed out towards Cootes Paradise and said, “Over there, celebrate that.”

He did however give respect to one tiny strip growing along the west side of the tracks. It’s easy to spot the single, tidy row of tall White Oaks shading a healthy understory of Witch Hazel here. This shred is some of the last old growth oak savannah remaining on this side of hwy 403, but not long ago, these savannahs covered most of the sandy soils of West downtown.


Cutting under the highway towards Princess Point, we find it troubling that our friend would dismiss these wildlands that, although mostly non-native species, are doing the work of stabilizing these disturbed, manufactured landscapes. We arrive at the point with with these thoughts in mind, and, stepping down onto the frozen marsh, we resolve to walk due North to Hickory Island across the ice.

We have heard a lot about the damage that has been done to Hickory Island by the large flocks of migratory Double Crested Cormorants that have taken up nesting there. The birds are accused of killing all the vegetation on the island, and today we want to take the opportunity to go check it out for ourselves.

Trudging through snowdrifts, we see many big stumps and dead trees on the island as we approach it. But no such large trees stand here now. Now, the island is mostly covered in an early succession stand of Sumac, while on its Eastern shore, there are some small trees that we don’t recognize. Its buds and twigs remind us of the Elm family. In the remnants of a tent caterpillar nest we find a small leaf with many teeth, pinnate veins, and an asymetrical base. These are all traits of Elms, so we decide that this might be a foreign Elm of some kind.

The snow banks around the island are freshly streaked with soil – the Sumacs are doing their best, but with the trees gone, erosion seems to be happening rapidly. We find Mullein growing from these collapsing banks, and celebrate its presence as a familiar friend of places where soil is scarce, like city cracks and gravel fields.

The impact of nesting Comorants on this island has lead the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) to actively prevent the birds from taking up roost on the other islands in Cootes: Goose and Rat. Typically, Comorants prefer to nest on bare rocky shores, like the artificial islands along the east shores of Hamilton harbour. Recently however, conservation authorities have decided to sink Farr Island, a large island in the middle of the harbour and a favourite nesting spots for the birds. Where will the birds who once nested there go next? Last year, over six thousand Comorants were culled in Lake Erie – could the Hamilton flocks be facing the same fate?


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