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Photos/Ignatius Jesuit Centre

The Ignatius Old-Growth Forest Project is one of the ministries of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph Ontario. It consists of nearly 100 protected acres of trails, forests, meadows, wetlands, and waterways that are home to a rich biodiversity of plant and animal life. The project encourages the sharing of the sacredness of creation through spiritual development, education, community engagement, and the care and management of the land.

“Working with nature, restoring habitats, and inspiring young people to be part of nature is a spiritual journey,” said Martin Tamlyn, the manager of the Old-Growth Forest. Part of the team at the Centre for the past five years, he left a career as a school teacher to be part of the healing process of the ecological crisis. In the following interview, he gives an overview of the project.

What is the project?

Most of the original forest that was on the project site was removed during colonization, says Martin Tamlyn. The long-term vision of the Ignatius Old-Growth Forest is to restore the site to old-growth forest.

There are two distinct aspects to this project. One is to restore the land, the other is to engage the community—including schools and volunteers in the process of healing the ‘land’. Ecological restoration can have a great impact on a community, helping people develop a greater sense of community and a deeper connection to place and fostering a sense of the common good. People come here to see what we we’re able to do, they see restoration in action and then apply that knowledge to their own ecological communities. It is a catalyst.

What is the purpose of the project?

An abstract of an article by Dr. Peter Leigh from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration addresses the project’s purpose:

“[The human species’] destructive propensities have deep cultural and psychological roots that divide us from the rest of the environment. Significant social change is needed for improving our collective relationship with the earth. Humans, with our unique capacity for self-reflection, are beginning to understand that the underpinnings to our current ecological problems lie within our attitudes, values, ethics, perceptions, and behaviors. New ways to reconceptualize our unity with the biosphere, understand downstream impacts, and link social behavior with environmental transformations are increasing with corresponding intensity. Community-based restoration is a powerful means for facilitating this trend, by reconnecting communities with their landscape, empowering citizenry, and fostering an environmental ethos based on eco-psychological health.”

We are in the midst of an ecological crisis and humanity is disconnected from the natural world: “we need ecological conversion”, explains Mr. Tamlyn.

Through this journey towards healing the earth we are also healing our relationships to it and each other. It addresses one of the key questions toward living sustainably – What does a reciprocal relationship to the planet that sustains look like in our modern times? Not only is it an exciting journey but one of great richness and hope for future generations.

What is the impact of Ignatius Old-Growth Forest?

Ricardo Ramirez, an independent consultant, conducted an evaluation of the Ignatius Old-Growth Forest (Guelph’s “best kept secret”!) as part of the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s generous grant to the project. He explains, “By planting trees… people feel connected to nature and humanity.”

The project gives the students who come to Guelph something they can do to fight climate change. Who benefits from the project? Me, the tree I planted, the environment, the community.

The evaluation indicates that the project has made a significant impact on the participants. The following are excerpts from the findings:

  • There is better interaction between staff members in their work environment.
  • Participants are more sensitive to other natural sites that they encounter in their day-to-day lives.
  • The project fosters a stronger commitment to the environment.
  • Participants recognize the sense of calm that can result from connection with nature.
  • The project helps to develop a sense of community.

Visitors, both adult retreatants and students of different grade levels, enjoyed their experience. Here are some of their comments:

  • “I found the visit to the forest informative and inspiring. I feel that a whole new dimension of spirituality has been awakened. The subsequent walks along the forest trails greatly enhanced my prayer time.”
  • “I have found my bliss.”
  • “It showed me how a simple action can have a big impact.”
  • “In the future, I want to be a person who helps save the planet.”

How are ecology and nature connected with spirituality?

According to Mr. Tamlyn, the metaphor of a journey helps to explain how spirituality and the care of our common home are connected.

It begins with opening your heart. By taking care of something, you fall in love. Choosing to nurture love is part of this journey. To quote Dr. Leigh: “The feeling of awe and wonder is transcendental.” The next part of the journey is mystery. This mysterious involves understanding the magic of the ecological processes and connections. After that comes knowledge, to be watchful noticing the subtle changes, being able to name the plants and animals and having a more holistic understanding of the impacts and solutions to ecosystem degradation and climate change. It provides opportunity for individuals to work in solidarity towards caring for our common home. All these experiences lead you to engage your entire being in a reality that is much bigger than you realized. And this can be described as a spiritual experience.

The evaluators shared that during the evaluation they “witnessed something precious.”

How can Jesuits and colleagues support the project?

The Ignatius Old-Growth Forest projects addresses many aspects of the Jesuit Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP’s) and provides space for reconciliation with creation and each other.

The biggest support would be to share the story of the power of community engaged ecological restoration and to examine how this relates to your own community. Sharing the Ignatius Old-Growth Forest’s work might also encourage members of the larger community to reach out to them for guidance or to support them with a financial donation

Restoration Milestones

Since the project’s conception in 2006, Ignatius staff, in collaboration with volunteers, community groups, and government and environmental agencies, have made great strides.

Here are some key accomplishments:

  • The removal of the Ignatius Dam to allow Marden Creek to flow freely into the Speed River
  • Conducted an ecological assessment of the land and developed a long-term restoration plan
  • The return of cold-water species such as sculpin and brook trout to the section of the creek on project lands
  • The reforestation of the land by planting 2,000 native trees and shrubs per year
  • The securing of a conservation easement through the Ontario Farmland Trust, which protects the land forever
  • The ongoing removal of invasive plant species
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