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A Tale of Two Forests and their Soil

A visitor examines the Grandfather Pine, just after it fell.

Dirt.

You can tell a lot about a place with a handful of the stuff.

I stood in front of a group of about 20 Grade 6 students with a handful of soil picked up off the trail we were standing upon.I tossed it in the breeze and being mostly sand, it turned to dust and was carried away.

We were out on a Simcoe County tract, one of the many pine plantations managed by the county to keep large portions of real estate from blowing away in the wind. These plantations are now being managed to under the Forest Standards Certification program which ensures logging is done in a sustainable fashion. They generate significant revenue for county taxpayers at the same time as they provide soil stability and recreational opportunities. It’s a happy ending to a story that started in 1922 when clear-cutting and poor agricultural practices had created “waste lands” in the region. Huge swathes of the area had turned to sand blow-outs once all the vegetation was stripped off. With nothing to hold it down, the sandy soil was literally blowing in the wind. It was a common complaint to find sand in the sugar bowls in farm kitchens around here. This ecological morality play has largely been forgotten by the general public, but the reforestation of Simcoe County is one of the great stories of the local landscape ( For more details, go to: https://www.simcoe.ca/dpt/fbl/about).

But a man-made forest is very different from a natural forest. And while it does many good things, it is never likely to become the crucible of abundant life that a natural forest can be.

“It turned to dust and was carried away.”

Asked to tell me what they noticed about the grove of red pine we were standing in, the students gave me a list: the trees are in straight rows; the trees are mostly the same; you can’t see too far along the forest floor for young saplings.

Okay, job done.

We got back on the bus and drove a short distance on the same road to Grant’s Woods, one of the oldest-growth forests still standing in the area. Our first stop was at the old grandfather pine near the parking lot. It’s trunk is decaying on the ground now, but is still imposing and impressive. Life is popping out all over as ferns sprout from it and insects move busily across its surface. Moss bursts out spectacularly here and there.

“The students gave me a list: the trees are in straight rows; the trees are mostly the same; you can’t see too far… for saplings.”

I reached down and picked up another handful of soil. This time is was rich, dark and loamy. The contrast got the attention of the students. A quick look around illuminated multiple varieties of trees, shrubs and plants. Wide open vistas under the dense forest canopy gave them still more contrast to the man-made county forest. And with a few short questions and answers, they connected the dots between the huge white pine slowly rotting beside them and the beautiful forest soil in my hand.

People sometimes lament the fact that on Couchiching Conservancy properties, we don’t “use” large hardwoods and giant pines once they come down. The lumber to be had in these behemoths is worth a small fortune, after all. Instead we let them lay on the ground, providing habitat and gradually rotting into the earth to maintain that wonderful black soil. It’s a virtuous cycle that forms the foundation of all life in a healthy forest.

Both types of forest serve a purpose, but the difference between a man-made plantation and a natural old-growth forest is vast. And it all starts with the dirt.

Mark Bisset is the executive Director of The Couchiching Conservancy, a non-profit, charitable land trust that protects natural places for future generations. To donate and support our work, follow the link below. 

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