The Once and Future Great Lakes Country

History from the Ground Up

November 17, 2014 | | Environment

In The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, scientist John Riley offers a sweeping ecological history of the land we call home – and the human impact on it. In an interview with In The Hills nature writer Don Scallen, the Mono author discusses his award-winning book and his cautious hope for the future.

greatlakes_GreatLakesCountryI have often fantasized about travelling back in time – to explore this land as it was before European settlement. What a grand adventure that would be! To watch vast flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky. To hike oak savannahs among herds of elk and to fish sparkling streams teeming with trout and Atlantic salmon. To discover first-hand how Native people lived. The wonders would be legion.

Mesmerizing, as well, would be a visit to more recent times, to watch settlers wrest a living from this landscape and to witness directly the tremendous changes that occurred in Southern Ontario as farms and communities were established.

In the absence of a time machine, John Riley’s The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013) is the best option. A longtime Mono resident, Riley embeds the local history of Dufferin County in his sweeping ecological and economic history of the entire Great Lakes watershed.

Riley is the senior science advisor for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He served on the Niagara Escarpment Commission for a decade and has worked in various capacities for the Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario Nature and the Ontario Geological Society.

The Once and Future Great Lakes Country has been lavishly praised. This year, for example, it won the Ontario Historical Society’s Fred Landon Award, which honours the best book on the province’s regional or local history. If that doesn’t impress, consider that Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro loves it. In fact, she recommended it to listeners last year during an online chat with fellow literary luminary Margaret Atwood.

Riley’s book is supported by robust research. Forty-seven pages are necessary to document the sources he consulted during its writing. An illustration of his effort? Riley acquired and read the entire 73-volume Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, reports written by Jesuit priests between 1610 and 1791 as they chronicled their attempts to convert the Native people of Canada to the Christian faith.

The Once and Future Great Lakes Country paints vivid pictures of what the ecology of this area was like hundreds and even thousands of years ago. The accounts of the once abundant and diverse plant and animal life are wholly fascinating. Inseparable from this ecology of Great Lakes country were the Native people. Riley examines in depth their intimate relationship with the land, as well as the tragedy of their decline after the arrival of the Europeans.

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  • Riley also describes how the landscape was stunningly transformed during the European colonial period. The contradictory nature of our relationship with the land figures prominently. We prosper from its exploitation, but are left impoverished by habitat loss and diminishing biodiversity. Nevertheless, Riley is cautiously optimistic about the future of nature in Great Lakes country. He identifies a host of government, non-profit and private initiatives that are healing the natural landscape.

    Author Michael Crichton offered this view of history: “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” In The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, Riley describes our historical tree. Firmly rooted in a remarkable past, it has grown strong on nature’s capital. With knowledge of the trajectory that got us to where we are today, perhaps we won’t blunder blindly into the future but will instead be inspired to exercise the careful stewardship necessary for this region to continue to thrive.

    I recently sat down with Riley to discuss his book. What follows are some highlights of that interview.

    ds Why is Great Lakes country so special?

    jr Great Lakes country is the largest temperate freshwater system on Earth, containing almost 20 per cent of the globe’s surface fresh water. Nowhere else on Earth is there so much fresh water in the planet’s livable temperate zone. To the north is the mineral-rich boreal country of the Canadian Shield, and in the south its lower lakes with their warm and fertile plains, moraines and shores. It is an extraordinary endowment of immense geopolitical importance – shared amicably by two countries – and its natural capital will continue to make it a magnet for human endeavour.

    Early explorers heaped praise on Great Lakes country. French explorer Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac’s report home in 1701 was rhapsodic: “This country, so temperate, so fertile, and so beautiful it may justly be called the earthly paradise of North America.” This glowing assessment was echoed by others.

    With European settlement all efforts were soon turned to profiting from that paradise, especially its rich lowlands. This “earthly paradise” now supports a population of 45 million and an annual economy of more than one trillion dollars.

    ds You refer to the Headwaters region as the “Ontario Island.” Why is that?

    jr This is what geologists and archeologists often term the height of land we call Headwaters country, where the glacial ice thinned first and the great forests grew most densely.

    ds Elba Cave in Mono was a truly remarkable find. How did its discovery help us understand the fauna of post-glacial Headwaters?

    jr We discovered the bones of 19 different mammal species in Elba Cave. There were bones from marten and caribou – the caribou long gone from this area, the marten more recently – but among them was another fascinating surprise. Howard “Doc” Savage, who set up the archeology lab – the bone lab – at the University of Toronto, identified two femurs from an extinct species of giant pika, which is a small mammal related to rabbits and hares and extant now as a sibling species of high-elevation Rocky Mountain habitats.

    The really interesting thing was to get accurate dates for these bones, which dated the giant pika to 9,000 years ago. We then pulled a core sample from a nearby lake, one of the few natural water bodies in Mono, and the pollen in the sample painted a picture of open talus slopes like those at the treeline in the Rockies. The pollen told us that the Headwaters region, during the time of the pika, was open spruce-jack pine barren similar to the sub-Arctic today.

    Sketch by J .L. Riley; image courtesy A.D. Wilson. Click to see larger version.

    Sketch by J .L. Riley; image courtesy A.D. Wilson. Click to see larger version.

    ds Can you tell me about the role of the passenger pigeon in pre-colonial Great Lakes country?

    jr Passenger pigeons exercised an ecological influence that can only be compared to the influence of the bison on the western grasslands.

    In the 1860s a single flock of pigeons near Lake Ontario was estimated at 3.7 billion. The water weight of this single flock was equivalent to the water weight of 10 million people. Where they landed, they broke tree limbs and opened up canopies. Their feces killed entire woodland understoreys and reset the species composition of habitats.

    Along with a superabundance of passenger pigeons, Southwestern Ontario had tremendous herds of elk and deer and flocks of turkey. It was an abundant landscape.

    ds Did Native people inhabit the Headwaters region before the arrival of European settlers? What do we know about their settlement patterns in the province?

    jr One of the really interesting things about the Ontario Island seems to be the absence of Native habitation. If you look at maps of all known archeological sites in Ontario, there shines the Ontario Island, unoccupied. This area was dense, heavy, old-growth forest. Native people may have travelled through this region and certainly hunted here, but this wasn’t a place to live. You can’t work stone-laden till soils with a wooden hoe. And you don’t want to cut down maple and beech with wooden implements. It’s too much work.

    So Natives located on lower lands close to lakes and rivers for access to fish and aquatic vegetation they could weave into mats and use for other purposes. But importantly, the large Native villages were in the zone where soils had been sorted as the water of the Great Lakes went up and down over the last 14,000 years. This was the situation in Huronia, for example, where there were loose soils as a result, which could easily be worked. The Natives were great horticulturists, selecting northern strains of corn, beans and squash for their hardiness. I argue that Natives were much more expert at horticulture and farming than the newcomers from Europe.

    Most of the Native peoples in Southern Ontario were urban dwellers. They lived in organized towns and villages and managed their landscapes very actively, including the use of fire to create openings. In Southern Ontario there were at least 100,000 to 125,000 Native people at the time of contact, principally the Huron at 30,000, the Neutral at 40,000 and the Petun at 10,000 to 20,000. And then, farther north in the Canadian Shield, there were another 100,000 plus.

    There are “unknowables” in this story. Smallpox was brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1520. It wasn’t until 1615 that Champlain came to Huronia, and by that time, smallpox had been loose for almost a hundred years in North America. So questions arise about how many Natives may have perished long before Champlain’s arrival.

    ds Am I correct in assuming that smallpox was one of the reasons the Europeans were able to exercise dominion over the Natives of North America?

    jr Without doubt, European disease was the critical element in the collapse of Native cultures. The Europeans who arrived in the “New World” had already acquired a general immunity to the mumps, measles and smallpox and other Eurasian diseases they brought with them. The Natives had not.

    Beyond that, the Europeans had the advantage of hard metals that conferred great advantage in farming and clearing trees. And of course, their new metal weapons played a major role as well.

    These weapons flowed unevenly to the Native people of Great Lakes country. The Dutch and English readily traded weapons for furs with the Iroquois south of the Great Lakes. The Jesuits north of the lakes insisted that there be no trade in weapons with the Hurons and Petuns, except for those few who converted to Christianity. Proud of their heritage, most refused to do this and were thus denied the weapons the Iroquois had.

    In the 17th century, this power imbalance between the Iroquois and the First Nations of southern Ontario exacted a terrible price. All the Huron, Petun and Neutral in southern Ontario were killed, expelled or abducted by the well-armed and well-organized Five Nations of the Iroquois from south of the Great Lakes. Ecologically, the widespread Native land care ceased as of that date.

    ds Can you offer some reflections on the settlement of Great Lakes country by the Europeans?

    jr The first European settlers went for the landscapes that had been opened up by the Natives – the meadows, prairies and the open oak woods of Southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area. They got those lands under cultivation pretty easily without the sweat equity that later immigrants were subjected to. Other areas, including much of the Headwaters region, should never, ever have been cleared. Here in Mono, for example, the harvest of rocks in our fields is quite spectacular.

    The prospect of land ownership lured immigrants. Consider that a lot of new Canadians had the opportunity to own land for the first time in their lives, or even for the first time in the history of their families! In Britain, at the same time, people were being pushed off the land. Here we were carving up the land into workable parcels for ownership by a new middle class, supported by agriculture. This was unprecedented in scale both south and north of the Great Lakes.

    Trading in land – acquiring it, severing it, developing it and selling it – became the greatest industry of that era. And it is still the most lucrative business in our economy, still the anchor of our economy. Forensics tells us to “follow the money” but my book “follows the land” instead – in the “New World,” land and money were the same thing.

    A map of Great Lakes country in the 1500 and 1600s, from The Once and Future Great Lakes Country. Click to see larger version.

    A map of Great Lakes country in the 1500 and 1600s, from The Once and Future Great Lakes Country. Click to see larger version.

    ds What did we lose as the land was developed?

    jr Great Lakes country was changed dramatically. Ninety-four per cent of our upland forests were cleared and put under the plough, 70 per cent of our wetlands were drained or converted to agriculture and 99.9 per cent of our grasslands and oak woodlands were lost. These are big numbers. The dominant fish and wildlife were removed. Habitat loss and fragmentation were the prime causes of nature’s decline here, as they are globally.

    ds What did we gain from the exploitation of nature and the development of the land?

    jr Land and nature are what fuelled, in the 1800s and 1900s, a land-owning middle class, public education and the Industrial Revolution. The result was the world’s most egalitarian, democratic and merit-based society, all of it subsidized by the liquidation of nature’s capital.

    ds Can you speak to the phenomenon of the development of city states and their impact on the rural hinterlands surrounding them?

    jr In common with the rest of the world, city states are emerging here that transcend political boundaries. Here in Great Lakes country, demographers have christened its biggest city state “Tor-Buff-Chester” (for three of its cities: Toronto, Buffalo and Rochester). From space, Tor-Buff-Chester is like a giant incandescent lightbulb stuck in the side of the planet, radiating heat and greenhouse gases. This city state is closing in on a population of 20 million. If Tor-Buff-Chester continues to grow at its current rate for the next 50 years, the population could well double to 40 million.

    Southern Ontario alone, over the next 20 years, will welcome 3.5 million additional residents according to official government projections. The vast majority will settle in the GTA.

    This population growth and the development it drives will have significant environmental consequences. What the growing city state wants, it takes – cheap land, water, energy and aggregates; fields to spread its waste on; roads to bring it stuff; big agro to feed it; places to play; greenbelts to make it feel righteous.

    ds With the struggle to stop the Melancthon mega quarry fresh in the minds of Headwaters residents, what can we expect from the aggregate industry in the future?

    jr Each Ontarian now consumes ten tonnes of aggregate every year. Simple math shows that aggregate extraction will continue to change the countryside of Southern Ontario. The city states of the world demand their aggregate cheap and nearby. There will be holes everywhere. When we say no to a mega quarry perhaps ten times the size of an average quarry, the terrible alternative is ten smaller quarries in ten other communities.

    We should demand that a major part of the profit from aggregate extraction flow to the donor communities. Donor communities should be rich as a result, with rich municipal reserve funds and the acquisition of new conservation lands to offset the damage.

    ds Beyond the demands of the city states on the resources of rural areas, what other environmental challenges is Great Lakes country facing now and in the future?

    jr A major negative change will be the loss of so many of our native trees to non-native, invasive pathogens. Losing a species is a big deal. On our property, we’ve lost all our magnificent pre-settlement beech to beech bark disease. This is very sad. Butternut are succumbing to butternut canker and ash to the emerald ash borer.

    Now, the hemlock adelgid, an aphid-like insect native to East Asia, has arrived north of the lakes. It has killed vast tracts of hemlock in the Appalachians and threatens to do so here. And we’re not totally on top of the Asian long-horned beetle, which prefers our sugar maples but will ingest any broadleaf tree.

    ds What can we take solace in? What good news is out there about the environment?

    jr Nature is an impartial master and the good – from a human’s point of view – happens at the same time as the bad. The countryside of southern Ontario is much better off than it was a century ago. By 1910, the tree cover in Mono had been reduced to only 10 per cent. Now it’s pushing 40 per cent. Ask old-timers about the most notable change in the landscape in their lifetime and some will say, “I can’t see the view anymore for all the trees.”

    If you drive the backroads here, you can spot places where in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, sand dunes were blowing across fields and roads. Tree planting has turned this situation around quite markedly. Our streams and rivers are clearer and cleaner, and our soils are richer and better cared for. We enjoy one of the world’s most egalitarian, best-educated and richest societies, most of it the product of our drawing down the region’s natural capital. This is good news, the dividends of a profligate history.

    ds The phenomenon of “rewilding” is part of this improvement. Can you tell me about that?

    jr I’m really thrilled by things like the return of the turkey. While writing the book in Mono, I had 30-odd turkey feeding right outside my window. On two occasions I watched a golden eagle attack them. Perhaps when eagles were more abundant prior to European settlement, they regularly preyed on turkey in Great Lakes country. A cougar was seen nearby the same winter.

    ds How can we further enhance nature’s prospects in the future?

    jr The species that we haven’t eliminated entirely, we can help. We have already helped the turkey, Canada goose, beaver, deer and many others. The term “assisted migration” is gaining currency. We need to look creatively and sympathetically at all the native species that were here or that are now much less abundant, and say, “Why don’t we help them?”

    Nature can’t do it alone on a diminished landscape. Consider our warming climate. Without our help, many species of plants and animals from Southwestern Ontario won’t be able to make it across the 401 or through the GTA. We have limited the scope of natural movement and hence diversity on the landscape, but we can do something about that.

    Restoration is taking hold. Brave people all over Southern Ontario are taking charge. Oak savannahs and especially native grasslands are being constructed all over the place. There are land trusts and naturalist groups and an incredible fabric of volunteer activities improving things on the non-urban landscape.

    We need to grow our outdoor education systems. “No child left indoors” should be our clarion call. We need to take kids thoughtfully into nature and explain the specifics of animals and plants and the relationships among them. We need to explain that these organisms are rightful occupants of our landscapes. They have ways of behaving and interacting and supporting each other.

    Students should not be told “Don’t touch it!” or “You can’t do that!” Rather, they should be encouraged to engage actively in nature. There was a time in Ontario and the Headwaters region when students got their hands dirty every spring planting trees. Nowadays, many youth and landowners are taking this even further, “rewilding” nature by helping native species succeed again in the Headwaters region.

    School boards could also commit to getting every student out at least once in their school careers to a dump, a recycling facility, a water treatment plant, a farm, a food terminal, a farmers’ market. Experience is always the best teacher. School boards should also have curricula on how energy and products move into and out of their communities.

    ds There is a plethora of seemingly progressive legislation on the books, as well as policies to protect land – the Greenbelt, the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine. Is this enough?

    jr I’m a fan of the Niagara Escarpment Plan. It was Canada’s first environmental land-use plan 30 years ago, and it is even more environment-friendly and user-friendly today.

    Will the protective legislation for the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Green Belt yield similar positive results? I’m hopeful. We need to have deliberately conserved landscapes partitioning our expanding urban areas. When they were adopted, each of these pieces of legislation was passed unanimously at Queen’s Park, so we can stand up with pride and say, “We did something right!” But of course, we will all need to “stand on guard” for them when they are reviewed in 2015.

    ds I understand that Dufferin County has submitted its first official plan. What environmental protections would you like to see in that document?

    jr Yes, Dufferin has submitted to the province its first official plan! The province insisted that all its growth policies be adhered to in the plan, but not all its natural heritage and environmental policies. So a priority now is to map Dufferin’s natural heritage features, develop appropriate protective policies and amend the official plan accordingly. Dufferin, and the entire Headwaters region, deserve to have strong and clear natural heritage policies in its land-use plans – the green infrastructure and natural features we want to see endure. Provincial policy requires official plans to do this, so let’s get it done as a statement of how Dufferin plans to stay green for the next generation.

    ds Can we retain our prosperity in a future with a slowing economy?

    jr I like to think we may now be exploring the beginnings of a sustainable, steady-state economy. Others might call it a protracted recession. Maybe in some ways they are the same thing. Economists are beginning to ask, “What does growth mean? Is it purely material or should it be measured instead by our quality of life?”

    ds If we don’t achieve a sustainable, steady-state economy and continue our rapid pace of growth over the coming decades, what will the Headwaters region look like a century from now?

    jr If Tor-Buff-Chester continues to grow at its present pace for another 50 years, it will rule its countryside hinterland absolutely. Will there be any countryside left at all? Or will what remains be gated and guarded? Will there be any of nature’s special places left? If you project the pace of resource use over another century, the picture is grim.

    We need to think about what it takes to live, farm, build and socialize in Great Lakes country for the next thousand years, not just the next election cycle. Perhaps we can draw on the lessons of the Native nations who showed they could sustain an economy for a thousand years. The Great Lakes country is our very special endowment. We need to treat it with the utmost care.

    ds Can you share a parting thought about writing The Once and Future Great Lakes Country?

    jr If the book causes people to puzzle more creatively over questions of the past, present and future of this special part of the world, I will have accomplished my objective.

    More Info

    Video: The Agenda with Steve Paikin
    John Riley: Great Lakes Checkup

    About the Author More by Don Scallen

    Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".



    1. Could someone define the “Fifth Line”? I’ve guessed and googled and given up

      Jacob Valentine on Dec 8, 2022 at 11:54 pm | Reply

      • I didn’t find Fifth Line or 5th Line in the article, but 5th line EHS is the name of a road in Mono.

        Jonathon Neville from Mono on Jun 19, 2023 at 3:20 am | Reply

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