They planted hundreds of native shrubs, chiseled willow branches into spears and shored up the bank of Medway Creek in a widespread naturalization effort on Western’s campus.
Students, faculty and community members spent April 25 along the shoreline behind Westminster Hall, hands in the dirt for an environmental project to mitigate flooding and improve water quality for years to come.
The live staking, an initiative to improve climate resiliency, is a partnership between Western, the Upper Thames River Conservation Area and area First Nations, funded by a Thinking Globally, Acting Locally grant. It’s also one of the projects under Western’s Campus as a Living Lab banner.
Participants used a form of bioengineering called “live staking,” replanting about 100 tree cuttings directly in the soil along the riverbank. Teams stretched out behind Westminster Hall with rubber boots, axes and sledgehammers, sharpening stakes of sandbar willow and driving them into the north bank of the creek. Several metres of grass along the bank were blanketed with newly planted shrubbery.
The strong, fibrous roots will act as a barrier to keep water in Medway Creek, and pollution or other contaminants out.
“Water connects us all. Sometimes we think about campus starting here and stopping there; waterways confound our understanding of boundaries. The same water that runs through this creek runs through our veins. I think it’s incredibly meaningful,” said Tom Cull, writing studies professor and community partnership specialist with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA).
The conservation authority puts out report cards to grade the watersheds under its control every five years. The most recent showed a slight water quality improvement and slight decline in the condition of the forest. Those ratings also include a bevy of community outreach activities eager citizens or service clubs can take on to help the watershed.
The daylong planting opened with a water ceremony and cultural teachings from Wahsayzee Deleary and her daughter, Sequoia Ireland-Deleary, who explained the sacred and medicinal nature of the creek, like all water, as well as the importance of its protection.
“You need water in order for life to grow,” said Deleary, from Oneida Nation of the Thames and Chippewa of the Thames First Nation.
She highlighted Anishinaabe beliefs around the duty to protect and honour the water flowing through Medway Creek and Thames River, which flow to and through Indigenous communities.
“We’re trying to help our environment, help the water, to ensure we have a beautiful space like this to enjoy generations from now,” Deleary said.
The Indigenous knowledge shared on the bank of the creek set the foundation for the day’s work.
“We have a relationship that’s connected through water with First Nation communities. We have a responsibility. We need to foster those upstream and downstream connections.” – Tom Cull, writing studies professor and UTRCA community partnership specialist
It was an interdisciplinary effort supported by multiple faculties. Professors, community members and students joined the live staking to learn from UTRCA and Indigenous educators.
“With so many problems stemming from climate change, I like playing an active role. Coming down here to plant trees is just a good way to help out,” third-year integrated science student Caitlin Oh said.
The goal of the live staking initiative is to tackle a worldwide problem with local action.
“Flooding is one of the most expensive and frankly, scary, climate change risks we have in Ontario. It’s an issue along watercourses throughout the world,” said Brendon Samuels, a PhD candidate in biology and leader of the Thinking Globally, Acting Locally initiative.
The day’s goal was to stabilize the bank of Medway Creek, but also to create educational materials for other groups who may hope to embark on their own live staking work. A documentary and website are also in the works to make the information widely available, Samuels said.
The live staking was “connective in all the right ways,” he said, giving members of the Western community the chance to learn about tree planting, hear from Indigenous knowledge keepers, and forge connections with local conservation authorities, responsible for managing area waterways.
“We live in the so-called Forest City, but I actually increasingly think we are a river city. We are defined by the river that runs through London, and also through campus. Western has, for a long time, recognized the desire to bring people back to the river,” Samuels said.
“How do we do that? These are opportunities to have people take care, reduce harm and learn about ways to take better care of water.”
ABOUT LIVE STAKING
From UTRCA manager of integrated watershed management Brad Glasman
Materials: 100 branches of sandbar willow, cut nearby on Medway Road.
Benefits: Fight flooding and mitigate erosion along the creek bank. Provide shade for the river, thereby cooling the water. Increase biodiversity by creating new habitats along the banks and in the water. Provide a barrier to keep contaminants or garbage from moving into the water.
How it works: Stakes, or branches, of sandbar willow – a native species – are sharpened into stakes so they can be hammered into the shoreline. As they grow in their new homes, the root systems will bolster the creek bank to resist erosion, prevent flooding and improve the health of the river.