In the summer of 1979, I sang along when Dan Fogelberg’s love song Longer played on the radio. He loved the object of his affection ‘deeper than any forest primeval’. What could be more compelling to a fifteen-year-old girl pining for romance. I then equated primeval with a dark European forest, thick with moss and trees old as time.
Years later, it was poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who brought the forest primeval closer to home. During a visit to Cape Breton Island, I purchased a copy of his epic poem, Evangeline, the tale of Acadians’ expulsion from Nova Scotia.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight. Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
In 2018, I’d begun writing my (as of yet unpublished) second novel set against the backdrop of the timber era in Bytown, now Ottawa. That summer I travelled to the Ottawa Valley for a week-long research trip. One of my planned visits was to Shaw Woods, a primeval or old growth forest. I wanted to experience an environment more closely representative of what my characters would have experienced in 1830, as opposed to trees of smaller girth typical of conservation areas. The white pine cut a few hundred years ago, gained heights of 45 metres (148 feet) and trunk diameters of 1.2 metres (48 inches).
“An old-growth forest – also termed primary forest, virgin forest, late seral forest or primeval forest – is a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibits unique ecological features and might be classified as a climax community.” Wikipedia
The land was originally settled by John Shaw of Inverness Scotland and his wife Barbara Thompson, niece of the Hon. Thomas McKay (original occupant of Rideau Hall which now houses Canada’s Governor General). In 1847, the couple travelled from Bytown by canoe along with their first child, aged two. On the Snake River, they established a sawmill, gristmill, and lumber business. The later, sill in operation today, is the longest standing family-run lumber business in Canada. The family is recognized for their legacy of “responsible environmental stewardship and (…) forest management practice”. Two national organizations partnered with the Shaw family to create Shaw Woods Nature Preserve which includes “50 hectares of old-growth forest and 160 hectares of wetlands and mixed forest.”
During the era of the timber camp central to my novel, White Pine was abundant and the most sought-after tree species by logging camps. It was a pleasure to walk among the pines of Shaw Woods. It’s unlikely that these trees will generate saplings owing to the fact that several perfect conditions must first exist. A forest fire is needed to incinerate dead leaves carpeting the ground so mineral rich soil is exposed for seed germination. Heat from the fire must be great enough to burn away taller trees so sunlight can reach the seed. Most miraculously of all, the fire must occur just prior to the release of White Pine seeds. If the fire occurs as little as one year before this time, other species will have already claimed the growing space and the White Pine sapling will have lost the race.
Old growth trees here live and die on their natural schedule; there are no sawn logs. Decaying trees become shelter for insects and animals, then return to the earth to create nutritious humus from which new life will spring.
Maps and information-rich guide books are available for download here if you’d like to learn more about Shaw Woods. I hope you enjoy this video by Wayne Campbell.
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