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Opinion: We, and those who come after, all have a stake in what happens to the Laurentian trail system

Sudbury’s former poet laureate, Kim Fahner, shares her love for the university’s extensive greenspaces, and her concern for what might happen if pieces of it are sold off to appease the school’s creditors

For those of us who are walkers, who have walked and hiked for years, the trails around Laurentian University are ones that are probably etched into our hearts and minds, as well as our feet. 

As a writer — and particularly as a poet — I walk to find a still centre within myself. Walking and hiking are meditative and creative undertakings, as well as physical and mental ones. 

There must be many other Sudburians who do this, who go out into the woods, or who sit on the shores of lakes or rivers, to gather their thoughts or work through a problem they might be facing in their life. As a writer, I’m curious about how walking inspires and fuels the creative process. 

Mary Oliver, in her poem, “When I Among the Trees,” wrote: “When I am among the trees/especially the willows and the honey locust,/equally the beech, the oaks and the pines … I would almost say that they save me, and daily.” 

I try to find trails that are the lesser used pathways, so that I can really sink into the landscape. There’s a sacred quiet that comes with being outside, with hiking, that brings beauty and peace even in the most troubled times. 

That being said, the financial chaos at the university is well known, and now the trail system that makes up part of Laurentian’s real estate holdings is at risk of being sold off to the highest bidder. The land in question isn’t part of the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area, so it isn’t protected. It’s suddenly being eyed as an asset that can be sold off in times of financial turmoil. Yet again, another Toronto-based firm has been hired to come in and assess the situation. This will no doubt irk and rankle a number of native Sudburians, especially those who have chosen to live here and not move away. 

A skeptic might just say, “Why worry? It’s only undeveloped land.” As someone who has long loved and walked those trails, and who is an ‘eco poet’ — a poet who writes about environmental issues and concerns — I believe that we all have a responsibility to serve as guardians of the environment. 

That we’ve come such a long way — with regreening so many parts of the Sudbury Basin over the last 40 years or so — is a testament to our tenacity and vision as Northerners: we know that our part of Northern Ontario is beautiful. We also know, I hope, that we need to protect it as best we can. 

The university greenspace includes more than 200 hectares of reforested land and divides the land into two subwatersheds — the Ramsey Lake Subwatershed (including Ramsey, Bethel, and Laurentian) and the Nepahwin Lake Subwatershed (including Nephawin and Bennett). 

A wildlife corridor runs through the greenspace, and if you’re lucky enough, you can sometimes see moose, bear, fox, otters, beavers, as well as a wide variety of bird species. If this land is sold off for development, entire ecosystems will be at risk of destruction. The city’s water source, Ramsey Lake, will also be at risk. 

The argument will be, likely, that the greenspace is owned by the university, and that Sudburians have just managed to use it over the decades, not realizing that parts of it — even those that border on the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area — are owned by Laurentian. This is likely true. We do, I think, have a tendency to take our wilder spaces for granted, and perhaps it has taken this recent pandemic for some of us to realize that they are more crucial than first understood. 

One of my favourite places to walk to is Bennett Lake. You need to go down the Loach’s Road access road to a spot where a tiny wooden bridge crosses a feisty little brook. 

When you cross it, there are a series of paths that lead out to the edge of the lake. There’s a spot there, on a high rock, where I love to sit in the spring and quietly watch the geese return. 

What I love most is how the water and shoreline transforms itself through the seasons, and how the sky reflects it all in a sort of painterly way. I am taken by how light and weather moves in the sky. 

I love swimming in the rain, too, so I am taken by weather, as well. As a poet who is inspired by the beauty of what I see, I use photos that I take on hikes as ways to inspire me to write poetry that is of — and about — the environment and natural landscapes that surround us. This is poetry that purposefully raises awareness of ecological concerns, of how we live in the world as humans, being considerate of our impact on the environment.

I worry that these greenspaces will vanish because of the financial quagmire at the university. These spaces aren’t just for the enjoyment of those of us who live here now, but also for those who will come afterwards. There will always be threats to ecosystems that need protecting. It’s sad, but true. Sadder still would be that we wouldn’t speak up to advocate for their conservation. 

The following poem is inspired by my love of the trails that weave through the university property, but also by the many trails in the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area.

Love Letter 

Go beyond trails, off well marked routes,
set your feet onto desire paths worn deep into earth. 

Catch sight of goose wings tipped in greeting, 
beaver slapping its tail, or loon calling echoes across lake. 

Stand for a minute, well rooted in this place.
Plant your feet into the ground. Then breathe. 

Like a birch, look to the sky above, 
bend in gratitude with thanks for these spaces.

Kneel down. Put palms to texture of stubborn rock, 
feel lichen, twigs, and cast-off bits of pine—cone or needle.

Write a love letter to this place on birch bark with your fingernail.
Press it, along with star flower and poem, between pages in a book. 

Go beyond marked trails, then, and remember that 
we are here for just a blink of an eye, the beat of a heart.

Others will follow, later, long after we have gone. 
What love letter from the woods will they be left to read?

Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury. She has published five books of poetry and is the Ontario Representative for The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. She was Poet Laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury from 2016-18. She also loves a good walk in the bush.