The biotic citizens of Lanark County: how two people saved 600 acres of forest and wetlands
People & Places

The biotic citizens of Lanark County: how two people saved 600 acres of forest and wetlands

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine.

The four-wheeler is cherry-red and massive, the kind Canadian Forces use to get around in war zones. On this drizzly summer day, it’s not on an overseas mission, but rather rolling up and down a rocky trail in Lanark County, a half-hour drive west of Ottawa. It’s perfect for travelling through these thick forests, around ancient boulders, past fallen farm buildings abandoned long ago, and alongside marshes where great blue herons nest and rare species of flora grow hidden in the depths. And it’s an essential piece of equipment because the steward of this expansive tract of land, Paul Keddy, a 66-year-old retired professor of ecology, suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and can walk only for short spells.

The ATV comes to an abrupt stop over a boarded culvert. “Just checking for frogs and snakes,” says the bearded biologist, his glasses flecked with rain. This is a ritual instilled by his now 10-year-old granddaughter Emma. “ ‘Don’t run over Sunshine!’ ” says Keddy, with a deep chuckle. Sunshine is a frog Emma named one time when she accompanied her granddad on an excursion through this landscape. Assured that no amphibians are being harmed, we roll on into the forest.

Photos by David Trattles

Keddy and his wife, Cathy, also a biologist, live on the edge of this land. Technically, they still own it, but the future stewardship of the property, which is about 600 acres (or almost a square mile), is now in the hands of the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust (MMLT) in perpetuity or at least for the next 999 years. The trees won’t be logged; the land won’t be tilled; the boulders won’t be dynamited out of their billions-of-years-old resting places; the herons’ nests won’t be destroyed to make way for condominiums, golf courses, or shopping centres. The rhythm of non-human life will continue, more or less undisturbed, over the coming centuries. Those who might like to make a quiet expedition to observe it — local field-naturalist clubs, school groups, visiting academics and scientists — will be welcome to tread the territory, taking care to leave behind as little trace as possible of their presence.

                              Photo by David Trattles

If American environmentalist Aldo Leopold, author of the 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac, were alive today, he would hold up the Keddys as prime examples of what he called “biotic citizenship.” He referred to his own book as “a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.”

No doubt Leopold would approve of the land donation, as do many others today — especially those who know how impressive it is that two not-wealthy people, with significant obstacles in their way over the years, succeeded in their goal to leave behind a rich ecological legacy for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. In dollars, the land is worth millions. In ecological terms, the longer it remains wild, the more valuable it becomes.

“We were thrilled,” says Howard Clifford, a founding member of the MMLT and the first donor of land, in 2009, under the trust’s conservation easement agreements. Clifford ran a wilderness school for many years and, with his knowledge and love for the area, has accrued status as “the old man of the mountain.” Clifford’s land is a 1,250-acre expanse of forest and scenic outcroppings with stunning views from the top of Blueberry Mountain, the highest point in Lanark County. He has a deep appreciation of the significance of the Keddys’ land covenant with the trust. “It’s not just 600 acres. At a larger scale, it’s honouring the history of Lanark County and keeping a broad natural corridor intact.”

                  Photo by David Trattles

The rain is more than drizzle as we arrive back at the Keddys’ home and run for the door. A whimsical human-height wooden frog holding a parasol greets visitors from its spot in the spacious foyer. Framed prints of flora and fauna hang on the walls. A glass-doored wooden cabinet displays a Buddha statue, along with leather-bound works of Buddhist philosophy. The couple’s six cats (indoor cats — no bird hunting allowed) loll on sofa backs, trot silently across the hardwood floors, or leap onto a visitor’s lap. It’s a cozy, creature-loving, live-and-let-live kind of place. Paul Keddy sits at the dining room table, a satellite map of the area spread before him. His fingers trace the green and blue of the map as he recounts the history and raison d’être of the couple’s land purchases.

He and Cathy met over 40 years ago while attending a lecture at the University of Toronto. When they married in 1975, they bought their first 100 acres of Lanark forest, with help from Paul’s parents. (Paul had spent some of his childhood years in Ottawa and Carleton Place; he was born in London, Ontario, Cathy in Toronto). The purchase was a fitting way, they thought, to celebrate their new union. The two had fallen in love with the property after walking through it in spring and finding a huge heronry — over 20 nests — in one of its wetlands.

                                Photo by David Trattles

In the initial years, they continued to explore their new property while living in Ottawa and raising two sons, Martin and Ian. Paul taught at the University of Ottawa; Cathy was an ecological consultant on land-management plans for public parks and private land across Canada. They built a small cabin on the land and spent summers enjoying the peaceful setting with their sons.

“You feel responsible for it,” says Paul, recalling the early days, when logging and development were eating up surrounding land at an alarming pace. “You’d see how one act of stupidity could cause such great harm,” he says of the denuded landscapes and bulldozed wetlands that soon dotted the area. It only made the couple more determined to buy as much land as they could.

Photo by David Trattles

Obstacles to their plan were considerable. In 1989, Paul became ill; soon, he could no longer work full-time, a situation that caused both financial and emotional stress. (Paul says some colleagues did not understand his condition.) Fortunately for the family, he was eventually offered a much more flexible position with the University of Louisiana. But before they moved to New Orleans, they built their current house and started expanding their land portfolio, bit by bit. Their eldest son was in high school when Paul took the position in Louisiana; the family returned to the property during the summers. After Paul’s retirement in 2007, the couple moved back to live on their land full-time.

As Paul points out the original property outlines on the map and the subsequent land purchases they made, he and Cathy talk about some of the hurdles they faced in the process. Not only did they take on substantial debt, they met people whose concern for nature preservation was not a priority.

                               Photo by David Trattles

“The last property was the toughest, and we were able to buy it only after the landowner had quite deliberately increased the price and sold the logging rights, just to be spiteful,” wrote Cathy in the April 2014 edition of the MMLT newsletter, which announced the land donation.

Some might express astonishment at the largesse and wonder how the Keddys’ sons feel about not receiving what might have been a huge financial inheritance. They’re not bothered: the Keddys have provided easements on the land so that if their sons wish to build on it in the future, they can. Both have fond memories of those summers in the cabin with their ecologically minded parents, though Martin says he and his brother didn’t have quite the degree of appreciation for it as young boys that they have now. It was only later that they understood what their parents were trying to do.

“I feel an emotional attachment to the place and wouldn’t have the heart to do anything to it,” says Martin.

“My parents, being Buddhists, always gave us the option to pursue whatever we wanted. They taught us the importance of letting go of those things you cannot control and learning to deal with challenges,” says Martin. “I get why they would rather do this than spend money on expensive sports cars and luxury cruises.”

Managing land in this manner is definitely far removed from a cruising lifestyle. With carefully developed covenants in place for handling the land in the future, the Keddys and their land-trust partners are “crackerjack stewards,” says Shaun Thompson, a Kemptville-based biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “Most people would not be this forward-thinking,” adds Thompson of the couple’s decades-long commitment to purchasing and ultimately preserving such a large piece of land — especially an area that contains “provincially significant” wetlands and keeps intact a broad, natural corridor for species movement.

“In ecological terms, the longer it remains wild,
the more valuable it becomes.”

Thompson participated in a “bioblitz” on the property in 2014, when he and over 30 volunteers compiled a list of the 778 species of flora and fauna that call the area home. Thompson says he enjoyed his day on the property, particularly the find he was rewarded with after wading waist-deep into a marsh behind a wall of willows, through thriving cattails and floating water lilies. Surrounded by the primordial chorus of bullfrogs, marsh wrens, American bitterns, and Virginia rails, he discovered, growing beneath the surface of the water, the lichen known as flooded jellyskin. That discovery alone, of a plant once listed as “threatened” on the Ontario Species at Risk list, means the wetlands must be protected.

Standing beside his red ATV as I leave, Paul lets out a roaring laugh. “I tell my kids I want to be buried Viking-style, sitting in this thing.” As an ecologist and a Buddhist, Keddy naturally appreciates the inevitable cycle of death and renewal — and the rare wisdom it takes to let a pristine piece of nature be, for no more simple, yet profound, reason than because it’s there.

Thanks to two wise, gentle, and determined people, it always will be.

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, much has happened in and around the Keddy’s land. In addition to plenty of new eggs and shoots and death and decay, as is expected in an ecosystem, an adjoining landowner was inspired by the Keddys and donated her family’s wooded property to the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust in 2018, adding an additional 110 acres protected in the area. You can read more about the Poole Family Nature Sanctuary, which effectively “grows” this important natural area, here.

Earlier this year, Paul and Cathy were awarded Meritorious Service Medals by the Governor General, in part as a consequence of our land donation.

Paul and Cathy share their expertise and passion through public events in the area. You can view Paul’s most recent lecture, which focuses on wetland science and restoration, here and find additional articles and news here.