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The Web of Life in Nickel City

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Forest therapy walk on the Laurentian Trail, Sudbury, Ontario

I was 10 years old when the nickel and copper mining companies of Sudbury, Ontario — Inco and Falconbridge, began to repair the damage done by the pollution through a government mandated regreening program. I remember as a child, growing up with the taste of metal in my mouth and the smell of rotten eggs in the air filled with sulfur, cars with paint worn off by acid rain, and airplanes flying overhead dumping seeds on the lime covered black rocks below. I also remember picking blueberries with my grandfather always on the lookout for the bears, playing on the moon-like rocks and going with the family to watch the red lava like slag dumps as a fun night out.

This story is a testament to what can be done to reverse the environmental damage from nearly a century of mining and to what has been achieved in my lifetime to rehabilitate Sudbury’s landscape and watersheds. Activity in the years before the superstack was built had been especially damaging, open roast yards released sulphur dioxide into the environment, resulting in high levels of air pollution, acidified soil and the trademark black rocks Sudbury is known for.

As this one-of-a-kind land restoration initiative comes to a close, the organization leading the project believes that some areas of the city are nearing the point when human intervention will no longer be necessary, and nature can start taking over. From 1978 to 2019, over 3,400 hectares of land were limed and grassed and nearly 10 million trees have been planted through a six phase regeneration process.

  • Phase One: apply limestone to barren landscapes to neutralize the acidity and toxicity of the soil.

  • Phase Two: in the summer, fertilize the area to encourage growth and decrease the amount of toxic metals that plant roots will absorb.

  • Phase Three: in the fall, seed the areas that have had limestone and fertilizer applied to them.

  • Phase Four: 1 year later, grass begins grow in those areas. Seeds from nearby trees are blown to the area and begin to take root.

  • Phase Five: 1–3 years later, tree seedlings are planted to grow in the treated area.

  • Phase Six: a variety of plants that grow on the forest floor are planted in the treated areas to help jump start new forest development.

Through the human intervention of limestone, grass seed, plant seed and tree seedlings, biodiversity is returning to Sudbury. The city now hosts 85 plant and shrub species, along with numerous bird species and at least 16 species of mammals. Recently, I spent time in a rehabilitated birch forest near my brother’s home that brought me great comfort during a personally difficult time. I am filled with gratitude and wonder for this beautiful place.

This unique web of life occurred during my lifetime from the bare moonlike rock covered landscapes of my childhood to a healthy and sustainable ecosystem of present day.

Web of Life:

1. Meteor / iron/ore rock

2. Limestone

3. Grass seed

4. Plant seed

5. Birch tree seedling

6. Mature birch tree

7. Moss

8. Carpenter ants

9. Pileated woodpecker

10. Fungus — Inonotus obliquus (Chaga, Indigenous name: shkitagen)

11. Chaga used as traditional medicine/tea

Sudbury serves as a model for other communities around the world. Jane Goodall includes Sudbury as a story of hope in her upcoming IMAX movie and recently spoke at a milestone event where she planted the one millionth tree, "The regreening program started 44 years ago, and provides evidence of the resilience of nature if humans give her a chance, What better example can you have than what goes on here in Sudbury? I talk about your program all over the world as a great example of what could be done when humans help nature to recover. I see our race as at the mouth of a very long, very dark tunnel, and right at the end of that tunnel is a little star shining, and that’s hope, We don’t just sit at the mouth of the tunnel and wait for when that star will come to us, we have to roll up our sleeves, crawl under, climb over, work our way around all of the problems that lie between us and the star. The people of Sudbury who for 40-plus years have been working very hard to reach that star. I think there’s been a disconnect between the clever brain and the human heart, between the brain and love and compassion, I truly think only when head and heart work together that we obtain our true human potential.” Jane Goodall's remarks July 7, 2022.

The United Nations has declared 2021–2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, in which jurisdictions around the world are urged to work to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation to help combat climate change, and increase and safeguard biodiversity, food security and water.

“Restoration is imperative for healing the earth, but reciprocity is imperative for long-lasting, successful restoration. Like other mindful practices, ecological restoration can be viewed as an act of reciprocity in which humans exercise their caregiving responsibility for the ecosystems to sustain them. We restore the land, and the land restores us.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass


Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013

Video: City’s regreening a ‘reason for hope,’ says Jane Goodall - Sudbury News

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