By John Bacher
‘Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the long ride of the century
In early October of 1905
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year’
Usually when people think of dramatic journeys in North America history, what comes to mind is Paul Revere’s ride to warn the American revolutionaries of impending doom in 1775 and Laura Secord’s walk in 1813 to warn people on the other side of this conflict.
The drama and significance of these marathons, however, is a bit overblown. If they had not been taken the Americans would have enjoyed the virtues of our system of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government, while Canadians would have a mild misfortune of experiencing the system of democracy termed by political scientists the “Presidential” model of republicanism.
More important than“Paul Revere’s Ride” for “the fate of the nation” (to use William Wadsworth Longfellow’s words), was a cycling trip taken by Edmund Zavitz in early October of 1905. He went from the Ontario Agricultural College ( now the University of Guelph) to the farm of E. C. Drury, at Crown Hill, north of Barrie. At this time, Drury was a farm leader. He was active in the Experimental Union, an alumni association for graduates of the Ontario Agricultural College, and a favourite speaker in meetings around the province of the Farmers’ Institutes.
The cycling trip to Crown Hill was the start of a life-long friendship between Drury and Zavitz which ended only in their deaths, both in their nineties in 1968. The basis of this friendship was a passion for the ecological restoration of large areas of Ontario, mostly moraines created from glacial debris, which had become desert wastelands through human abuse.
When Zavitz reached Crown Hill he and Zavitz explored the wasteland moraines of Simcoe County for several days in a horse and buggy. There tour stretched from Orr Lake, to Midhurst, to Angus.
In 1905, the deserts of Ontario, which Drury and Zavitz toured, were horrifying places. Sand dunes with heights of two and a half feet were common. These towered above pits in the wounded earth gouged out by winds twice that depth. Like the prairie dust bowls ominous dark clouds of sand would appear on the horizon, like a threatening thunder storm Fence rows and road were buried in sand. All that could be seen of fence lines were often the tree stumps and dead trees, ghostly memorial of the living trees of the past.
One of the most desolate areas that they visited was an area called the Midhurst Plain, some 2,000 acres, “very thickly covered in stumps.” Despite this bleakness they selected it as a future reforestation nursery.
Drury was able to implement the plan they had after Zavitz’s dramatic cycling ride because in 1920 he became Premier of Ontario a position he held for the next three and a half years. During this time he developed the Midhurst nursery, opened up another nursery targeted for the reforestation of the Oak Ridges Moraine and created the Ontario Tree Seed Plant at Angus. He also established County Forests, which in 1946 were combined with new reforestation efforts by Conservation Authorities.
Shortly before Drury and Zavitz died in 1968 Premier John Robarts planted with the help of one of Drury’s grandsons and one of Zavitz’s sons, the symbolic billionth tree to be planted from Ontario government reforestation nurseries. This figure eventually, (it was originally mixed in with tree planting of northern lands intended to remain in forest) approximated tree planting on the rural lands wrongly converted to agriculture that the Ontario government put back into forest cover.
The reforestation efforts by Drury and Zavitz did conquer Ontario’s deserts and end the threat to flooding of Ontario cities. Tragically however, the wisdom of the past was forgotten by budget cutbacks under both Premiers Bob Rae and Mike Harris. Many streams in Ontario are still dying from lack of forest cover, threatening fish populations and endangered species such as mussels and turtles. Lack of forest cover in stream banks is a major reason for high E. Coli-counts that make rural streams a toxic danger. The small size of forests make them vulnerable to the risk of stronger storms that area predicted to be unleashed by climate change. That is why that in 2010 the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Gordon Miller, wrote in his annual report, that Ontario needs another Two Billion Trees.
To draw the public attention to the need for another billion trees in Southern Ontario, Mary Lou Jorgensen Bacher and I are cycling from Guelph University to E. C. Drury’s farm. We will start at 11am, Wednesday, October 12th at the Zavitz memorial at Guelph University close to the Arboretum entrance off Victoria Road and arrive the next day at Drury’s farm.
John Bacher is a Niagara resident, a longtime members of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society in this region, and the author of “Two Billion Trees and Counting: The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz, Published by Dundurn Press.
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