Monthly Archives: February 2015

Jamie Simpson

Nothing says spring is coming like a chorus of frogs looking for love.   Mating calls of frogs – the ringing of spring peepers and the guttural bass of wood frogs – echo through each spring that I can remember, their first calls before the last of the snow, before the first leaves, before the first fiddleheads.  It’s a promise of a shift in the seasons emanating from woodland pools and wetlands everywhere.

Few might realize that these springtime puddles – or vernal pools as they’re known – are among the richest wildlife habitats in our eastern forests, and may in fact be integral to the health of our forest ecosystems. Come summertime, however, these pools that teem with life in the spring shrink in the summer heat, sometimes drying up altogether, making these valuable habitats rather easy to overlook. While many landowners wouldn’t think of cutting down an ecologically valuable habitat tree, these same landowners might inadvertently destroy a vernal pool by cutting the forest around it just for lack of seeing it. The easiest way to find a vernal pool is to locate it in the spring or early summer, with the tell-tale frog calls, masses of eggs deposited in the pools or swimming tadpoles. In summer, identifying pools can the tricky if they’re dried up, but the presence of darker-than-normal, water-stained leaf mats in low depressions can be a good indicator.

The fact that vernal pools are generally not connected to other watercourses, and may dry out in the heat of summer, ensures that they are free of fish predators that would otherwise devour amphibian eggs and young.  Wood frogs, yellow- and blue-spotted salamanders and numerous other species hatch out in these pools, and live the first part of their lives there as tadpoles in these food-rich pools, before morphing to a life on land.

Unlikely as it may seem, these woodland puddles are so productive that in some eastern forests, the mass of amphibian life nurtured in vernal pools, largely unseen, outweighs the combined weight of all the mammals and birds in these forests.  These frogs and salamanders, in eating and being eaten in such abundance, are far more fundamental to the forest ecosystem than scientists had realized.  As well, vernal pools are used by numerous other species for finding food or as temporary habitat, including species-at-risk such as Blanding’s turtles and ribbon snakes, and common wildlife such as turtles, ducks, snakes, herons and many more.  Some 500 species of invertebrates have been found in vernal pools of eastern forests.

Despite their importance to wildlife, only one jurisdiction in the eastern forest region, the State of Maine, has rules to mitigate the loss of vernal pool habitat.  With an impressive effort, Maine has identified vernal pools with high wildlife significance, which is roughly a quarter or fifth of all vernal pools documented in the State.  These are pools that host an abundance of amphibian life, or species of special conservation concern.  Developers are not permitted to build within the immediate area of the vernal pool depression itself, and are required to maintain at least 75% of surrounding forest intact, within 750 feet of the pool.

Maine’s rules are based on research showing that the forest surrounding vernal pools is just as critical to vernal pool life as the pool itself.  For example, one researcher documented the effects of a development that protected a vernal pool, but which destroyed 90% of the upland forest near the pool. The wood frog population plummeted by 94% in the first year following the development, and within three years there was no evidence of a breeding population left. When reassessed after six years, the researchers still found no evidence of frogs returning to the pool.   Protecting the pools themselves, without protecting some of the upland forest, was woefully inadequate in this case.

Maine’s vernal pool regulations, however, do not apply to forestry operations.  While cutting that maintains deadwood and tree cover can be compatible with amphibian life, researchers find that clearcutting and especially whole-tree cutting for biomass tends to kill frogs and salamanders and fragments and degrades the habitat they need to survive.  While the bodies of amphibians born in water change to allow them to live on land, it is, in a way, only a partial transition to terrestrial life.  Although they migrate out of the pools and live their adult lives on land, their bodies still require moisture to breath, and only a damp forest enables them to move about to feed and migrate to their upland forest habitat and new vernal pools.  Scientists have found that without the cool, moist climate that a forest and deadwood provide, many amphibian species simply die from exposure.

Guidelines for forestry work around vernal pools have been created in Maine, and are a good resource for anyone who wishes to carry out forestry in a way that is minimally damaging to vernal pools and the wildlife they support.  The guidelines recommend first identifying any vernal pools on the property, especially those with an abundance of wildlife, and then ensuring that the forest canopy is maintained to provide a cool and shaded habitat.  The pool area itself should be left undisturbed completely, and at least 75% forest canopy, plus an undisturbed forest floor and abundant deadwood, should be maintained within 100 feet of the pool.  The zone from 100-400 feet from the pool should be kept with at least 50% canopy cover, with ground disturbance minimized and deadwood left undisturbed.  Search the internet for Forestry Habitat Management Guidelines for Vernal Pool Wildlife to read the complete Guidelines. Those interested in learning more can also visit Maine’s website on vernal pools, which includes a video about vernal pool life:

While there are no measures to protect vernal pools in the Maritimes, Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) recently launched a Vernal Pool Mapping and Monitoring Project to document Nova Scotia’s vernal pool habitat. Dr. John Brazner, Wetland Program Coordinator with NSE, is asking landowners to check their properties for vernal pools, and asking those who find pools to record basic information about them and to pass this on to the Department. The NSE website has information about vernal pools, photos of various species found living in vernal pools, and a data sheet that can be used to record information about vernal pools found on landowners’ properties. (

Dr. Ron Russell, a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, is also working to understand life in Nova Scotia’s vernal pools. He and some of his students have been monitoring some 200 wetlands for more than a decade. “Our work with these wetlands shows that vernal pools enable certain species of salamanders and frogs to move across the land,” explains Dr. Russell. “So when vernal pools are lost,” Dr. Russell continues, “we likely lose many populations of these species, even if larger wetlands are protected, because it disrupts their ability to migrate to find food and new breeding habitats.” Loss of wetland habitat is not an abstract concern for Dr. Russell; he and his students have seen the loss of nearly a third of their research wetlands to development and road construction during the last decade. Even when roads don’t entirely destroy a wetland, Dr. Russell has found that road de-icing chemicals can kill amphibian eggs in some sites they’ve studied.

With the efforts of Dr. Russell and his students, and Dr. Brazner and Nova Scotia Environment, we should soon begin to have, at least, a sense of Nova Scotia’s vernal pool resource. As more people come to understand the critical role vernal pools play in our forest ecosystem, hopefully we’ll be less likely to bulldoze over them, fill them in, or clearcut around them, and the spring-time chorus of frogs will continue to delight winter-weary Maritimers.

Nova Scotia’s Wetland Policy and Vernal Pools:

Nova Scotia’s Wetland Policy does not apply to wetlands less than 100 square metres. As vernal pools are often smaller than 100 square metres, wetland alteration permits are usually not required for developments that destroy vernal pools. Furthermore, the Wetland Policy does not apply to forest cutting or to roads that are less than 10 metres wide or less than 600 square metres total (such as forestry access roads), so there is no protection for the upland component of vernal pool habitat .   A wetland alteration permit is required for a development (for example, a subdivision or an industrial park) that would impact a vernal pool (that is, fill it, drain it, excavate it, etc) if the pool is greater than 100 square metres. According to Dr. Russell of St. Mary’s University, this policy falls short because it lacks enforcement measures, and because it does not address wetlands less than 100 square metres, which includes most vernal pools.

Landowners who wish to protect amphibians and their habitat can identify vernal pools on their property in the spring or early summer, and ensure that any forest cutting maintains a forest canopy, deadwood and minimal disturbance to the forest floor within a few hundred metres of the pool. The key to protecting amphibian habitat is to protect both their vernal pools, as well as the forest around the pools so that they can move across the land to find food and new breeding habitats.

Originally published in Atlantic Forestry Review

Giving a Darn about Protected Areas

Jamie Simpson

“Why should someone in the timber business give a darn about protected areas?” My friend wasn’t making a rhetorical point. He wondered, reasonably, why people who depend on the forest resource for a living, many of whom spend their working hours in the woods, should want to protect nature get-aways for office workers.

The question reminded me of a time working for a harvesting contractor. He operated the cable skidder and I worked as hard as I ever had to make sure there was always a full twitch worth of trees on the ground by the time he returned for the next load. As the skidder grunted to a halt, I’d run the cable out, choke the trees I’d just cut, and would catch my breath as I watched them snake up to the back of the skidder.

At lunch, we’d sit in his truck with our sandwiches and coffee. I quickly realized the small comfort of getting out of nature for a few minutes, a brief respite from the bugs and elements. At the end of the day, the last thing either of us wanted was a walk in the woods.

The answer to my friend’s question, I think, is that the recreational value of protected natural areas is only one of many reasons why we protect land from development and extractive industries, and a minor one at that. We don’t protect some of our ecosystems just to ensure we can go for hikes in the woods.

Rather, we protect land for three fundamental reasons. First, there is the unabashedly utilitarian value. We benefit from healthy forests, soils, rivers and lakes. Forests scrub harmful pollutants from the air, moderate flooding, reduce temperature extremes and keep erosion at bay. Forests provide habitat for the diversity of life that moderates insect and disease outbreaks. Forests keep rivers healthy places for fish to live. Forests slow rainwater, allowing more of it to enter the soil and replenish underground water reservoirs. Natural forests also have the species and genetic diversity to best resist and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate.

Protecting forests also reduces our carbon emissions to the atmosphere. World-wide, forests are being cut at a rate that results in a release of carbon into the atmosphere (roughly a fifth of our net carbon emissions comes from forest cutting). With some creative marketing, perhaps Nova Scotia could tap into financial rewards for the carbon that its new protected lands sequester.

Still on the utilitarian benefits, who knows what medicines and other chemicals are waiting to be discovered within our forest’s natural complement of biodiversity? Some promising anti-cancer drugs originate in forest plants and fungi, Canada yew and reishi mushrooms, for example. Forests are veritable warehouses of undiscovered and potentially useful chemicals. Future generations might thank us for keeping that biodiversity around. And keeping biodiversity around means keeping and restoring old forest. Many plants, ferns, mosses, fungi and other forest floor species decline precipitously in cut areas. Many species of lichens don’t grow in managed forests, so their presence helps identify truly old forests. Likewise, numerous forest songbirds (blackburnian warbler, brown creeper, and ovenbird, for example) – those birds that help to moderate populations of insects like spruce budworm – prefer old forest habitat.

Second, we also protect portions of each of our different types of ecosystems for their educational value. Any good experiment has its control group. Protected areas are essentially our control groups in a large land-use experiment. They are our benchmarks of how ecosystems tick, outside of major direct human impacts such as clearcutting and road building. When we want to improve our forest management techniques, it’s useful to see how the forest operates on its own. After all, our forests have been growing along for some ten or twelve thousand years – they are working, sustainable systems that have lots to teach us if we care to learn. And as climate change introduces new stresses to our forests and agricultural lands, it will no doubt be useful to study and learn how natural systems resist, respond, and adapt.

Finally, there’s the notion that we shouldn’t put our mark on every single acre. I suppose we already have, virtually, in the Maritimes, so the notion is more that we should step back from a portion of the land, and simply let it do what it does. Forests and other ecosystems have been growing, changing and adapting here since the glaciers retreated, and letting at least some of them continue to grow, change and adapt in their own way for another ten or twelve thousand years just seems like the right thing to do. I guess it’s a way of honouring the rest of life around us, and honouring the hopefully long line of human generations to come. By stepping back a little, we’re giving to the future forest and future biodiversity, as well as to future generations of Maritimers.

Of course, questions come to mind when we think about the practicalities of establishing a protected areas network. First of all, how much is enough? For me, the answer depends on what’s happening on the remaining unprotected land. If it’s clearcuts and whole-tree harvests, road and residential development, then we need to protect a lot more than we are now. Some biologists recommend 50% protected areas for landscapes that are otherwise intensively managed. But, if unprotected land is used in ways that tend to conserve biodiversity, such as ecosystem-based land use, then perhaps Canada’s target of 17% by 2020 is adequate.

Another potentially thorny question is which lands to protect. Ideally, protected areas protect portions of each of the ecologically different areas in a given province. Further, protected areas should include remaining ecological hot-spots – those areas with high conservation value such as old-growth forests, habitat for species at risk, and rare ecosystems. Of course, there is a temptation to meet protected area targets by protecting all of the bogs, barrens and otherwise unattractive lands for logging. Much of Nova Scotia’s previously protected lands fall into this category, such as the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, which has a high proportion of barrens and low productivity forest area, relative to the rest of Nova Scotia. There is also the reality that governments can protect Crown lands far more easily than private lands. Thus, regions with little Crown land might see a lot of that Crown land protected, in an attempt to ensure that protected areas adequately represent the diversity of ecosystems in a province.

A word about old forests: A patch of old white spruce growing on abandoned farmland, half falling down as bark beetle chews through them, is not old-growth forest. Natural old forest is made up of tree species adapted to old-forest conditions, such as red spruce, hemlock, white pine, sugar maple, yellow birch, beech and ash, to name a few. Old forest also has lots of young trees growing under the shade of the forest canopy, waiting for an older tree to die and open up light and space for them to grow. In other words, natural old forest tends not to just fall over and die, but rather is a dynamic, vibrant, stable ecosystem, constantly renewing itself.

The majority of forest in the Maritimes was once old-growth forest, but old-growth is now a rarity, found only in small, scattered, remnant patches. By protecting some of the better tracts of older second-growth forest, we will gradually restore some old forest to our landscape, along with, hopefully, the diversity and abundance of life that natural forest supports.

I think of my own woodlot, which shares a boundary with a 500-acre protected area. I’m glad it does. I know that my woodlot is healthier for that protected area. I know that if some portion of biodiversity on my relatively small woodlot is lost, then chances are good that it will be replenished from the protected area. I also know that larger areas of intact forest support a greater diversity of wildlife, so with the combined area of my woodlot and the protected land, I have more biodiversity on my land than I would if I were surrounded by other land uses. I’m glad that the ecological benefits of that protected area will flow, indefinitely, out into the surrounding lands, including my property. Even if I’m too tired at the end of a day cutting firewood to hike on that protected land, I’m still thankful it’s there, for me, and for the generations down the road long after I’m gone.

Originally published in Atlantic Forestry Review, July 2014

A Beech Tree and a Rare Genetic Trait

Jamie Simpson

While walking in the Lambs Lake Nature Reserve, near Annapolis Royal, I spied a large, old-growth beech tree. Its massive girth caught my eye first (I could reach only about half way around it), but its smooth bark is what made me look twice. In that tree’s genetic make-up, I knew, there lay a rare and special genetic trait.

Beech trees were once more common throughout the Maritimes. In the early 1800s, beech were noted to cover roughly half of Prince Edward Island, for example. Aside from land clearing for agriculture and timber, beech were hit by a disease accidently introduced to Halifax from Europe in 1890. The beech bark disease, consisting of an insect and a fungus working in concert, spread rapidly throughout the Maritimes and into New England, drastically reducing populations of beech trees. While many beech are able to live with the disease for a time, they are marked by gnarled, cankered bark, resulting from the tree’s attempt to fight the disease.

As luck would have it, not all beech trees are affected by this disease. A few trees, roughly one to four percent, have a genetic trait (or traits) that makes them resistant to the disease. So it was with this massive beech tree that I spied near Lambs Lake. There, among dozens of cankered fellow beech, this tree with its lucky genetic make-up stood with clear, smooth, healthy bark, its branches forming a full crown high above. As in times past, this beech tree had taken its place as a dominant species in this forest. (Note, a few beech trees in the coldest parts of its range may be preserved from the disease by exceptionally cold winters, but this hasn’t been observed in Nova Scotia.)

I thought, as I put my hand to the tree’s smooth grey bark, about the importance of genetic diversity. Before the disease hit the Maritimes, this rare trait (or traits) had no obvious benefit. And that’s the thing about genetic diversity. It’s not so important for dealing with present problems; rather, genetic diversity helps populations of species to survive and adapt to new problems, to changing environments. This tree wouldn’t have been remarkable before the disease rolled through the Maritimes. Now it stands tall among its brethren of diseased beech: a lucky genetic twist of fate.

I can’t resist a good climbing tree, and healthy beech trees, with their smooth bark and many near-horizontal branches, are perhaps our finest climbing trees. The first branches on this tree were some twenty or so feet up, so I used a nearby smaller tree as a ladder into the big beech. I climbed up through the tree’s canopy, noting the layers of tree branches from close to the forest floor to the very top of the tallest trees. Old forests have lots of vertical diversity not easily seen from ground level.

At the top of the tree I poked my head through the canopy, blinked as my eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, and looked out on an abundance of beech nuts. I noticed some broken branches, too, likely the work of a feasting black bear, who climb beech trees for their fat-rich nuts. Beech nuts are favoured by many species of wildlife, but are now much reduced in supply due to the disease. I opened a couple of nuts for myself, hoping for a snack after my climb, but I was too early and the seeds were far from ripe.

I thought about my lucky find as I continued my walk through that forest. Unfortunately, healthy beech are even rarer than they should be. Many woodland owners and foresters are not aware that some beech are resistant to the disease, and resistant beech are cut without thought to sparing them for their benefit to wildlife, and their rare disease resistance. While beech will not come to dominate the landscape again as they once did (at least, not any time soon), it’s worth identifying and protecting healthy beech, for the food they provide for wildlife, and for the possibility of one day seeing a few more healthy beech in our forests.

A bright note in the beech story is the results of research conducted by the Canadian Forestry Service, in Fredericton, NB. Over several years, a team of researchers successfully propagated beech trees that were resistant to the beech bark disease (I team that I was part of in its early days). Although the federal government cut the project, the young healthy beech were distributed to a national park in each of the Maritime provinces. Perhaps, one day, these orchards of healthy beech will be sources of beech nuts containing the genetic resistance to the disease. I’d like to plant a few on my property. Maybe a black bear or ruffed grouse would someday fill its belly with their nuts. Maybe a kid would someday climb high into their branches.

Originally published October 17th, 2014, Chronicle Herald

by Caitlyn Chappell and Jamie Simpson

[click here to read the whole article]

We reviewed and synthesized information sources that examine yield, regeneration, stand composition, costs, revenue and employment generated by clearcutting and partial cutting systems in the Acadian and other forest types in north-eastern North America with the aim of informing an analysis of the potential impacts of reducing the prevalence of clearcutting in Nova Scotia.

Of the seventeen sources reviewed, four sources involved sugar maple dominated hardwood stands (Metzger and Tubbs 1978; Niese and Strong 1992; Robinson 1997; Stevenson 1996). Two other sources examined northern conifer dominated mixed-woods (Frank and Blum 1987; Sendak et al. 2003). One source examined each of the following forest types: black spruce-balsam fir stands (Liu et al. 2007), hemlock dominated softwoods (Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001), red spruce dominated softwoods (Stewart et al. 2009), mixedwoods (Conservation Council of New Brunswick 2000), red spruce and balsam fir dominated mixed-woods (Pothier and Prévost 2008), beech dominated hardwoods (Leak and Wilson 1958) and red maple and beech dominated hardwoods (Leak 2003). Two sources examined forests that cover multiple forest types, including hardwoods, softwoods and mixed-woods (Erdle and Ward 2008; Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001), while another two sources did not describe in detail a particular forest type (Lansky 2002; Salonius 2007).

Each of the six sources that examine growth and yield indicate that over the longer term (30-150 years), selection cutting, including single tree, group and strip cutting methods, generates growth and yield similar to or greater than the growth and yield obtained from clearcutting (Conservation Council of New Brunswick 2000; Erdle and Ward 2008; Niese and Strong 1992; Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001; Sendak et al. 2003; Stevenson et al. 1996). Yield and growth obtained from selection cutting was 2% to 74% higher than growth and yield obtained from clearcutting on similar sites.

Each of the three sources that compare regeneration after group and/or single tree selection cutting and clearcutting, including the only study conducted in Nova Scotia, indicate that selection cutting treatments (1) favour the regeneration of shade-tolerant species over shade-intolerant species, and (2) promote better regeneration of shade-tolerant species than clearcutting treatments (Frank and Blum 1978; Metzger and Tubbs 1971; Stewart et al. 2009). Two of the studies found total stocking after group and/or single tree selection cutting to be 50% and 10% higher than after clearcutting (Metzger and Tubbs 1971; Stewart et al. 2009) and the other study found total stocking to be equal after partial cutting and clearcutting (98-99%) (Frank and Blum 1978). Only one of the five studies examining regeneration found total stocking to be lower following single tree selection than following large scale clearcutting (Leak and Wilson 1958); this study was conducted in old-growth forest conditions, which are unlike most of Nova Scotia’s forests (Mosseler et al. 2003).

The three sources that compare stand compositions 15 to 43 years after clearcutting and partial harvest treatments (group and/or single tree selection) show that selection cutting methods can result in a greater prevalence of shade-tolerant tree species than clearcutting (Conservation Council of New Brunswick 2000; Leak and Wilson 1958; Sendak et al. 2003). One source found that the presence of red spruce and other preferred crop species had increased during the eight years following single tree and group selection harvests (Stewart et al. 2009). As well, one study (Leak 2003) showed that 1/5 ha (1/2 acre) patch cutting increases the abundance of yellow and white birch compared to the original stand.

The five information sources that examine employment indicate that employment per unit volume of wood harvested is approximately equal or higher under partial cutting systems than clearcutting, ranging between 3% less and 370% more employment per unit volume (Erdle and Ward 2008; Lansky 2002; Pannozzo and O’Brien 2001; Stevenson et al. 1996).

The four information sources that examine harvesting profitability indicate that partial cutting can be profitable (Liu et al. 2007; Niese and Strong 1992; Robinson 1997; Salonius 2007). One of these four sources indicates that single tree selection harvesting may yield 11.5% higher mean profits per cubic metre compared to the clearcut treatment ($58.40/m3 and $52.39/m3) (Liu et al. 2007). Another study indicates that relative to an uncut stand, the net present value (NPV) of single tree selection cut treatments ($496) are on average higher than the NPV of clearcutting ($-401) (Niese and Strong 1992). Stevenson et al. (1996) also indicate partial cutting can generate 100% or 190% more revenue per unit area than clearcutting, depending on the site being cut.

Based on results of this information synthesis, we suggest that forestry in Nova Scotia on sites similar to those studied could be profitable and provide increased employment and yield if Nova Scotia were to transition away from clearcutting as the dominate harvest method. Increasing the use of partial harvesting methods, particularly single tree and group selection harvesting methods, could also increase the regeneration of shade tolerant, late-succession species that characterize mature Acadian Forests.

We recognize that single tree and group selection harvesting may not be silviculturally appropriate for all sites in Nova Scotia, thus the results presented here should not be construed to apply equally to all sites. We suggest that these results apply to those sites that are silvicultually appropriate for partial cutting systems, as well as some sites with potential for restoration to silviculturally appropriate, and more valuable, Acadian Forest assemblages.

The possible increase in harvest costs associated with a shift to partial cutting systems could be partially off-set by (1) redirecting a portion of current silviculture spending from practices associated with clearcutting to practices that promote partial cutting, and (2) adding new silviculture funding specifically for partial cutting treatments on private lands.

If our calculations and the assumptions of Erdle and Ward (2008) and the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners are correct, then reducing clearcutting across Nova Scotia by 50% while maintaining a provincial harvest level at Nova Scotia’s 10-year average annual harvest volume would increase the overall cost of harvesting by $4.06 to $5.07 per m3 on private lands and $3.68 to $4.60 per m3 on public lands (14.4% to 18.1% and 12.8% to 16.0% of the current estimated average cost per volume of wood harvested, respectively) due to the lower harvesting efficiency of selection cutting methods. We estimate that $1.87 and $8.65 per m3 are currently spent by the NS government on clearcutting-associated silviculture practices on private and public lands in Nova Scotia, respectively, which indicates an opportunity to offset potential increased costs of single tree and group selection harvesting through re-direction of silviculture spending, especially on Crown land. Other sources indicate that single tree selection harvesting could cost two to three times as much as clearcutting (Niese and Strong 2002, K. Thomas, personal communication, April 6th, 2010), and as a result, re-directing silviculture spending may not be sufficient to cover the increased costs of this harvesting method.

Over the longer term (>25 years), the potential increased harvesting costs of single tree and group selection harvesting might also be offset by an increased timber yield per unit of land, and an increased per-unit-value of harvested wood, especially of hardwood, as the timber quality and species composition of stands improves.

A Paddle to Old Forest

On a Friday afternoon in May, four friends and I left Halifax with two canoes, food and camping supplies for a long-weekend escape from the city. Last minute delays meant it was past dark when we set up our tents beside some nameless logging road, by a quiet, boggy lake. We were not sure where we were, only that it wasn’t where we intended to be. In the morning I boiled water for coffee and studied our map, attempting to deduce our location among the myriad lines of logging roads, trails and watercourses. Maps are an approximation of reality.

By midmorning, after a few false turns, we found our destination and soon dipped our paddles into the sluggish waters of Sporting Lake Stream, grinning as our loaded canoes slipped along through the morning quiet. How quickly the city fades from the mind when breathing sun-warmed air off a slow-moving brook, with nothing to do but follow it towards its source. We lunched at the far end of one of several portages. I cut and gathered year-old shoots from wild raison shrubs with thoughts of weaving a basket. We took turns putting our water filters to work, and enjoyed stretching out on some flat rocks, feeling the sun’s warmth. The distance we wanted to travel wasn’t long, and we didn’t hurry.

We made camp on the bank of a small lake. Once the tents were up, I slipped my canoe back into the water and, in the soft light of the evening, paddled to where the lake narrowed near its out-flow stream. An expanse of shrubs bordered the lake – huckleberries, leatherleaf, sweet gale and other bog plants. The sweet gale’s nutmeg scent spiced the warm evening air and the hermit thrushes’ ethereal calls echoed one another from the surrounding forest. It was that utopian moment of spring – all too brief – after the last of the ice clears and before the torment of blackflies ensues. It was also the moment for mayflies, a marker of spring that torments no-one, as these flies do not feed on anything. They exist in their winged stage only long enough to mate and deposit eggs – they belong to a group of insects known as Ephemeoptera, meaning “winged ephemerals.” Incalculable numbers of the insects hovered around me in clouds, now rising a bit, now descending, over the bank-side shrubs and water. I wondered at their coordinated movement, their group dynamic synchronized to who-knew-what rhythm or purpose. It was a gush of spring-time insect abundance, and the winter-hungry trout feasted. The water’s surface was alive with ripples and splashes of darting fish eating their fill of mayflies.

I drifted my canoe alongside the shrubby margin for a bit, then stepped gingerly amidst the huckleberry, feeling for something solid on which to stand. I paused before casting my line, and let a heavy peacefulness settle over me. I realized with a twinge of guilt that it’d been far too long since I’d connected with wilderness, far too long away from streams and forest and the warm evening smell of woods and a lake. I remembered that kid and teenager in me that spent every possible afternoon and weekend canoeing, hunting, camping, fishing, hiking – whatever activity it was just so long as I was out there – and felt a passion rekindled. Most time in wilderness, of course, is far from sublime – mostly it is hot or cold or windy or wet or buggy. But that moment, on that warm spring evening on little lake in south-western Nova Scotia, was a perfect moment of melancholic joy that only time in wilderness can invoke, and only those who go can know.

I cast my line over the water – a few times and then snap! My rod bent sharply and I kept the tip high as I slowly brought the fish in, the rush just as powerful as when I was ten years old, but a thrill I had lately forgotten. The speckled trout was about a foot long, sleek and striking with iridescent colours. A few casts and I had another. I killed and cleaned them quickly, offering a silent apology as my knife entered. Two were enough, and in the twilight, on the edge of night, I paddled back to our tent-site. We cooked the fish over the fire and then passed them around, sharing the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth trout flesh.

Sometime later I read a poem by William Carlos Williams where he states that food, coming to us from the land and sea, is nothing “but the body of the Lord”, and I thought back to that moment of sharing those freshly caught trout, under massive pine trees on a dark May night in a small outpost of wilderness, and while I can’t describe myself as religious, his words rang true and I saw that we and the fish and the forest and the lake were tiny, real, active and interconnected parts of this mysterious, and yes, sacred expression of life.

[originally published in the Chronicle Herald, June 10, 2012]

sporting lake, morning

Okay – I’ve neglected this blog for a while — so, time to add some new stories!  Here’s one on forest bathing.  What on earth…?  Read on:

Is a Walk in the Woods Good Medicine?

by Jamie Simpson

“I always feel better when I’m in the forest,” my friend said spontaneously, turning to me with a smile. Her comment took me by surprise. We had just stepped into a pine, spruce and hemlock forest, but we were there to go rock climbing. The forest was just something between us and the cliffs. “Yeah,” I said after a pause, thinking about her comment, “I know what you mean.” I looked around at the afternoon light falling here and there on the forest floor, filtered through the tree tops. I breathed the scent of the summer-warmed pine needles. We were fresh out of a five-hour car ride, and too long of a spell in the city. I felt my shoulders relax a little, my mind ease, with each step into the woods, with each breath of forest air. She was right; we did feel better for being in the woods.

I’ve often thought back to my friend’s comment, and wondered what it was about being in a forest that feels good. To be sure, I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, and some of it would be better described as suffering than sublime. The heat, the cold, the rain, the bugs. But without a doubt, I know that I need my quota of forest-time to feel my best in body, mind and soul. I started to read up on the claimed health benefits of time spent in a forest. Turns out lots of others have noticed this phenomenon too. Not just the poets and nature-lovers, but also scientists studying the connection between forests and human health.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet, a psychology professor with Trent University and Carleton University, has found that people with more “nature connection” tend to have better emotional and mental health. Nature, her research suggests, can be thought of as a mood-booster or source of happiness that we can all tap into. The important message, she says, is to make sure we incorporate nature time into our routines, just as with healthy eating and exercise, in order to promote healthy minds and bodies.

In Japan, citizens partake in the practice of “forest bathing” to promote health. There’s no bathtub involved; rather, it’s simply about being immersed in a forest. Japanese and other medical researchers suggest that time spent in the forest correlates with reduced blood pressure, anxiety, stress and depression, thereby helping to reduce stress-related diseases. Researchers also claim that time in the forest improves our immune systems, thanks, it’s suggested, to breathing certain chemical compounds (phytoncides) released by trees into the air. Other claimed benefits of time spent in a forest include increased ability to focus, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, and improved sleeping ability. Others have caught on as well. The New York State government encourages its citizens to get out into the woods for the variety of health benefits time in the forest provides.

I’m curious to watch how the research on the health benefits of forest bathing progresses. Perhaps chemicals released by trees really do bolster our immune systems. Perhaps something about the visual aspects of a forest trigger a calming influence in our brains. If so, maybe schools should make time for taking students out into the woods, perhaps combined with biology lessons. Perhaps employers could benefit from encouraging their employees to take regular forest time breaks in local forested parks. At any rate, I know that my mind and body feel better for a walk in the woods, whatever the reasons. A ramble in the forest and the smell of pine trees sounds like good medicine to me.

[Originally published in the Chronicle Herald, September 28th, 2013]