The title was inspired by the words of Robert Service: “Have you strung your soul to silence?  Then for God’s sake go and do it.”  Yes go and do it – experience it – don’t take our soul rendering wilderness majesty for granted until suddenly we find it gone, unretrievable, lost forever.

A visitor from Toronto stood at the top of Blueberry Mountain surveying hill after hill as far as the eye could see – forests dressed by the riotous colours of autumn.  “Oh what a blessed spot!” Another said: “I forgot how intoxicating the air can be!”  Similar evocative statements are repeated time and time again from city folk experiencing what we have in Lanark Highlands.  I accompanied a Swiss couple to the top of Blueberry. They gazed in silence before stating: “How glorious!”  I was taken back as they live in the Swiss Alps.  “Oh yes the Alps are beautiful, but we would see cars winding their way below us and houses everywhere.  This is utterly different.”

Children at waterfall Photo: T.K. Marsh

Children at waterfall, Photo: T.K. Marsh

Children say it best.  I was most touched by the writing of Rayna Critchly who penned  A LITTLE RAY OF HEAVEN recounting a visit by the Photography Club of the Sacred Heart  School in Lanark..

“While the rest of us were left speechless by the view, a fellow student said: “ A picture can’t begin to show how beautiful it really was! Walking up to the top of the Mountain, a silence filled the air.  We were all thinking the same thing when suddenly a one syllable word was heard –  “Wow!”


Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that if the stars only showed themselves once in a 1000 years, they would be declared a miracle of the ages. Would he not, as should we, be reduced to tears at the news that the world has lost their night skies.  A staggering 99% of Americans live under polluted skies and 80% of North Americans live where they can not see the milky way.

I once felt smug when visitors from large cities expressed wonder at the awesome splendour of our night skies.  No more.  I cannot imagine it – it’s too painful to contemplate the loss I would feel if these sacred sights were taken from me.  Remember those evenings when the stars seemed close enough to pluck from the skies?  Can you imagine being unable to introduce these heavenly experiences to your grandchildren?  Equally heart-wrenching is to know the grandchildren may not care.  They cannot mourn what they have never known.


There is no place left where silence reigns supreme.  Gordon Hempton found only 12 sites in the continental U.S. having intervals of 15 minutes free from man-made noises.  Even national parks and protected wilderness average less than five minutes intervals.

This is scary –  a threat to our well-being.  People moving into cities initially think they will go nuts from the constant bombardment of sound but in a short period of time state they no longer notice it.  Science tells another story.  Our physiological systems still register the noise to the detriment of our health.  What is happening is what researchers term “learned  deafness” a protective measure against all the background noise.  Our brain works feverishly to block out the sounds we do not need but in so doing develop a state of brain fatique.

I tried unsuccessfully to dispute this nightmarish claim that places of silence, if not already extinct, are endangered.  Our family, over a 12 week period, camped in U.S. parks and wilderness areas.  We loved the beauty but missed the quiet and solitude we found at home.   This trip made me realize how insidiously and quickly the process of nature amnesia overtakes us.  Following one typical night when I found that sleep was hard to come by due to the distant sound of highway traffic, one lady said she came here every summer for “the peace and quiet.”  We stayed overnight at my cousin’s home and he remarked he was glad they lived in a quiet neighbourhood.  Half jokingly I said: “Quiet compared to what, living next to an airport?”  He laughed;  having visited Flower Station he immediately realized our perception of quiet was of a different order.

I began to wonder if I too was suffering from nature amnesia – just how quiet was home?  I visited several protected areas within 150 km west of Ottawa.  To my surprise none met the 15 minute test.  I had previously been oblivious to the background hum of distant highway traffic.   Then, with decibel meter in hand, I spent hours on the trails of cliffLAND carefully recording time intervals free from man-made intrusions.  Finally I could say this is a place that met the fifteen minute challenge: a sanctuary of silence.  The intervals would have been much longer if not for the occasional, usually muffled, sound of aircraft.

We know silence is important.  Humans process natural sounds differently.  It has a calming effect, bringing inner peace and serenity and has a remarkable restorative effect.

THE OBVIOUS QUESTION IS: “Why are parts of Lanark Highlands blessed with wilderness, pure air,  night skies, and sanctuaries of silence  rarely found elsewhere?

Likely dumb luck. Highways 7 and 17 part ways west of Ottawa, one diverting towards Toronto and the other towards Thunder Bay.  Lanark Highlands is that lucky space in between – largely untravelled and unknown – a lonely yet precious paradise.  It makes us remarkably unique,  part of a glorious wilderness concert hall – soul stirring night skies and awesome sanctuaries of silence.  Dumb luck – fine!   But let us jealously protect and experience the little we have left.  In the words of Robert Service: “Then for God’s sake go and do it!”

New additions to the website!

We have added a new video of Blueberry Mountain, filmed by Kyle Starcher with his aerial drone. Check out his beautiful work! Also new are photographs by Barrie Clifford of various mushrooms found on the property. In order to simplify the viewing of photos in our photo gallery, we have broken down the gallery into several themed galleries. Visit the ABOUT section to see these new additions to the website. Thanks for visiting and for your interest in cliffLAND.

cliffland Mushrooms_BClifford-41

A Celebration of the Life of John Muir on Blueberry Mountain

"John Muir"

Howard as “John Muir”

MMLT is hosting its annual Spring Walk to Blueberry Mountain on May 10, 2015.  We take delight and count it a privilege to dedicate this year’s walk to John Muir, considered by many to be the foremost naturalist of the past century.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of his death.  His life story continues to inspire and he has become the unofficial patron to cliffLAND.

Come and hear some of his stories about how his nature experiences became so internalized into the fabric of his personality that when he spoke many felt he was the voice of nature.  Though he was far ahead of his own time, his voice is still in the forefront, calling us to greater aspirations, greater dreams.

You may be surprised how directly he speaks to today`s societal issues and to our individual and personal challenges. The issues may appear very different but at the most fundamental core level of the human condition nothing has changed.

Who of us have never:

  • Felt depressed, anxious, had unresolved anger, or feared losing control of our life?
  • Felt that our work and personal life entrapped us into a web of artificiality, devoid of authentic purpose or meaning?
  • Allowed our fears to interfere with opportunities to follow our dreams?
  • Worried that we may come to the end of our days and realize we have never really lived?
  • Struggled with conflicts between love of material things and the things that nourish our souls – with living vibrantly in the world without succumbing to it.
  • Wondered how to balance preserving the beauty and healing forces of nature and the utilitarian need to use nature`s resources to accommodate an ever growing population.         

John Muir faced these issues and more – head on.  What makes Muir such a powerful influence was his ability to combine science and his intellectual giftedness with an unsurpassed deep, extended immersion in nature experiences.  The synergy between the intellect, the emotional, and spiritual perspectives arising out of these experiences made for a profound authentic voice, rarely encountered.

Blueberry Mountain is located near Flower Station in Lanark Highlands. Click on the link for directions to cliffLAND. Registration is at 9:30 and the Nature Walk starts sharply at 10 am.  `John Muir` will appear at 11:15 at the top of Blueberry Mountain, weather permitting.  If the weather is not cooperative he will appear in the in-door classroom at 12:15. Bring along your lunch to enjoy in this beautiful spot.  Desserts, tea and coffee will be served.  The entrance fee is a $10 donation to the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust. Entrance for children under 12 is free. For more information, please contact Howard or Jean Clifford at 613-259-3412.

(submitted by MMLT)


Tribute to Pepi… Chihuahua Extraordinaire

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On the morning of November 19, 2014, with Jean and I by his side, Pepi passed peacefully away. Anyone who knew him understood he was an embedded part, heart and soul, into the fibre of the cliffLAND story. He lived his 16 years at cliffLAND and knew it like the back of his hand. Times when I was turned around after bushwacking into remote parts of the property not visited in years, somehow he invariably knew the way home.

Just one month ago I sat alone with him at the top of Blueberry Mountain. He seemed to be enjoying the view as much as myself, seemed at peace, and seemed equally engrossed in thought. I asked him the question I have been so often asked and could never answer. “How many times have you hiked to Blueberry?” There have been times when I was two or three years younger and led as many as three trips a day to the top. Almost always Pepi tagged along. Now, like me, his spirit still longed to do so but his body could not. One thing I know, Pepi and I have made this journey more than any other human. I am convinced he loved it too.

Following his death I couldn’t help but reflect on his life. I recalled Tania making us laugh by relaying the words of a lady at our annual walk: “Why would anyone bring a Chihuahua for such a long hike?” If only she knew the half of it! Except for Newfoundland, Pepi has tented and hiked in every province and in remote areas of the Yukon and N.W.T. He climbed mountains in Alaska, visited Glaciers, hiked parts of the Appalachian trail, hiked and kayaked Walden Pond (of Henry David Thoreau fame), hiked to Grey Owl’s cabin in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain Park, and kayaked to Grey Owl’s cabin in Prince Albert National Park. He visited the haunts of John Muir in California. Probably the most amazing feat was hiking a return distance of 28 km up Mount Robson when he was well into his second decade.

But without a doubt, cliffLAND was his turf. He seemed fearless – not afraid of the dark, thunder, or lightning. He once chased a bear and sent a pair of moose running. Both times swaggering back with the look of “You don’t need to worry about them anymore!” He brought to our attention things we would otherwise missed including the first sighting of a Blanding’s Turtle, a new born porcupine who’s bristles were still soft, snapping turtles and much more.

Always reserved with other people, I was surprised by an event on Blueberry Mountain while performing a John Muir story to an adolescent group. One of the supervisors told me how helpless she felt when she observed a girl, who had recently attempted to take her own life, brought out a knife. Afraid to make a sudden move, she noticed Pepi get up and walk over to the girl and climb on her lap. The girl visibly relaxed, put the knife away, and petted him. I knew he was astute and sensitive but this was a side I hadn’t seen before.

Two days following Pepi’s death, Stan Errett, who has a special place in his heart for Pepi, made a motion that Pepi be made an Honourary Director on the Board of MMLT. He related that Pepi had actually attended board meetings in my shoulder-bag, he had attended al the Nature Walks, and was a wonderful ambassador. The motion was warmly and unanimously passed. I noted I was not the only director fighting back tears. PEPI MUST SURELY BE THE FIRST DOG EVER TO BE SO HONOURED BY A LAND TRUST.

I think Pepi would want me to thank them. He might add: “I loved and guarded this wilderness paradise all of my life – I now must pass on the torch. Please let there be many places like cliffLAND forever protected! Please make it happen!”

His shallow grave within earshot of those climbing to the summit, serves to make this spot even more special to Jean and me – may I say even more sacred. As I laid him gently into his final resting place I was at loss for words. Silently I said – WELL DONE – PEPI – WELL DONE!

Runners return to Blueberry Mountain

Last year Dr. Faye Goldman, with five of her Ottawa running friends, ran to the top of Blueberry and I was pleased to learn they were to do it again this year on July 19th. Imagine my surprise when 16 runners and one cyclist arrived. What a jump in numbers. Faye explained, “Yes, my fellow club members were jealous and didn’t want to be left out.”

A half an hour later they returned and were photographed by Tania Marsh. I saw no huffing or puffing. Runners1Just look at the photo – a picture of vitality and health, both physically and emotionally! I doubt they felt extraordinary, but I suggest less than 1 percent of any age category could have managed this feat. We know the research literature is exploding with evidence proclaiming the benefits of recreational nature experiences, including improved memory and attention span, increases in front-line immune defenders, and mood enhancement.

Runners2Researchers documented runners reporting less fatigue following a run on nature trails compared to a run on an outdoor track. Benefits are not limited to athletes. Kindergarten children playing in a nearby forest had much better motor skill development than their peers who were restricted to a fenced-in play area. The case is being made that nature is crucial to the development of gross motor skills such as agility, coordination, balance, and for nurturing aptitude.

Certainly I appreciate the affirmation provided by researchers, but must say I am partial to first hand experiences. Before all the research, testimonies by credible witnesses touted the healing benefits of nature. John Muir suffered a gas attack while digging a well that almost killed him, and which did leave residual damage to his lungs that plagued him for the rest of his life. Yet there were few, if any, who could keep up with him as he reached the peak of one mountain top after another or on one of his leisurely 50 mile week-end jaunts. When he spent extended time in San Francisco or even in his own orchard, his lung infections worsened as did his emotional state. During these times he went to the healing fountain of mountain and forest air. He thought there was no ailment physical or mental that would not be alleviated by these nature exposures.

His good friend Galen Clark was one of a select group who could keep pace with Muir while they enjoyed many wilderness outings together. Yet when Galen was 42 years of age, his lungs haemorrhaging from Consumption (T.B.), was given days to live. He felt his only hope, albeit a long shot, was to go to Yosemite. Not only did he recover, he discovered the Mariposa Grove, was appointed guardian of Yosemite when it was given park status, and was said by Muir to be the best mountaineer he had ever met. He died at the age of 96.

Perhaps not quite as eloquent as Muir, Clark was equally convinced of the healing powers of nature. He stated: “Nature …exhilarates and thrills through every nervous fibre of the body, and makes the old feel young again. THE BRAIN BREATHES AS WELL AS THE LUNGS.”

I recall Faye saying a similar thing: “A vital part of my running is my mind becomes emptied of all cares and distractions. Unfailingly this void is soon filled with creative thoughts as the forces of inspiration flood my consciousness.”

The parting words of one of the runners: “I see this as an annual event!” May it be so!

I add my testimony. Nothing gives me greater joy, peace of mind, or inspiration than to spend time in the wild. I add my voice to that of Theodore Roosevelt who argued in later years that “parents had a moral obligation to make sure their children didn’t suffer from nature deficiency.”

We’re in Plants of Lanark County 2013 Edition

David White’s 2013 edition of Plants of Lanark County has included Blueberry Mountain as one of the 17 areas “considered to be the best examples of botanical diversity and rare native plants concentrations in the county —- plant ‘hot-spots’, if you like.” (p. 10 of the report)

The following description is given:


Blueberry Mountain is the local name given to a high ridge near the northwest corner of the county in northern Lavant Township. The panoramic view from the hilltop is unmatched in the county. The ridge is part of a large, diverse, and undeveloped property that is home to [cliffLAND] the former Alba Wilderness School. In 2008, the property was voted “one of the Seven Wonders of the County”. This area has become the first property to be protected under a conservation easement with the Mississippi Madawaska Land Trust Conservancy. With the agreement, this forested tract will be allowed to develop naturally and to be enjoyed by the public for the next 1000 years. Blueberry Mountain can be found on Hills of Peace Road, east of Flower Station. See Howard Clifford’s website ( for more information.

This property has been little-explored botanically, compared to many of the other areas highlighted in this section. Potamogeton spirillus (Northern Snailseed Pondweed) and Salix eriocephala (Missouri Willow) are known in the county only from this site. Other rare plants include: Carex scabrata (Rough Sedge), Eriophorum tenellum (Filiform Cotton-grass), and Platanthera orbiculata (Round-leaved Orchid). There are also eight species rated as sparse known from this site. No doubt, further exploration of this area will add to the list of significant species. (P. 11)

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A Tribute to the Eastern Hemlock

Like a modern Cinderella story the little known hemlock has taken a backseat in the public consciousness to the official tree of Ontario, the stately white pine. I, too, love the white pines – often standing tall like sentinels guarding the wilderness. It is easy to understand why this majestic tree is sometimes referred to as the king of conifers. However if the white pine is king I would nominate the feathery, lacy, hauntingly beautiful hemlock as queen.. Hemlocks are the most exquisite and elegant of all our eastern conifers. Needless to say I along with many others have fallen under its spell!

For reasons that are not clear there are few pure stands of hemlock left in Ontario. Therefore I was thrilled when along with members of MMLTC we came across a substantial stand of hemlock from saplings to old trees in a wilderness property that has been generously donated to us for future protection. Each time I go for a walk at cliffLAND I feel compelled to stop in their presence and be thankful for their existence.

I first made their acquaintance over thirty years ago. I was horrified with the thought that this beautiful tree was under siege by insects but I was soon to learn that these orderly small holes encircling the whole tree was the work of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers who come early in the Spring to tap their favoured species. It turns out I was not alone in my ignorance, as the majority of those I have taken on guided walks jump to the same conclusion. Often this is their first exposure to a hemlock and inevitably someone asks if this is poisonous. No, our eastern hemlock is completely unrelated to the poison drank by Socrates.

Horace Kephart, the well known outdoorsman of the late 18th and early 19th century, found that of all of the nature cues used in the forest to predict direction, the hemlock was the most reliable. The long and slender terminal shoot points just a little south of east. In his travels he determined that this compass was right at least three-quarters of the time. Pretty good odds if you are lost.

From a less utilitarian perspective the ecologist John Theberge speaks glowingly about the beauty of the hemlock:

Uncut, undefiled old-growth hemlock stands are north-country cathedrals. Graceful limbs, bowing branches, fluted trunks. Tiers of delicate dark-green archways filter the sunlight like a stained-glass window.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the hemlock in a poem:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks. Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight stand like the Druids of old.”

Theberge and Longfellow were describing old-growth hemlock stands. Such stands were once prevalent from Ottawa through eastern and central Ontario. Many now fear they may be irretrievably lost. Hemlock can live to be a thousand years of age but the oldest known one still left in Ontario is located in Algonquin Park. It is 454 years of age and towers at 30 metres in height. This is a bitter-sweet treasure because it also reminds us of what has been lost.

Michael Henry and Peter Quinby in 2010 remind us that hemlock has been declining across most of its range. In Michigan they have decreased by an amazing 70% in a short 20 year span between 1935 and 1955 and have also dramatically declined across most of Ontario. Once hemlock forests covered about 41% of the land area of the Bruce Peninsula and is almost non-existent today. In our area of Darling Township, hemlock-dominated forests declined from about 20% to 0% of the landscape. A recent report by the Community Stewardship Council of Lanark states that Lanark has relatively few eastern hemlocks, perhaps due to early over-harvesting or to forest fires.

Michael Henry and Peter Quinby believe that the loss is largely a result of human activity.

Hemlock has declined by at least three-quarters outside Algonquin Park and even the park itself has not escaped. Hemlock avoided major hits during the river drives of the 1900s because hemlock wood due to its density and weight did not float long distances as easily. Once the railroads opened up access to the forests, hemlock too were decimated with the final hit coming when hemlock timbers from Algonquin Park were used to build the Toronto subway system.

Dan Strickland, an authority on Algonquin Park, agrees with their assessment and explains that when hemlock is cut it is rarely succeeded by other hemlock. In almost all the hemlock stands left in Algonquin Park there are very few young hemlock beneath the old trees. Although there are some seedling-size hemlocks, upon closer inspection they are found to be old as well. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources states that hemlocks in the shade can take 250 to 300 years to mature.

Old growth hemlock forests left undisturbed are extremely stable but very sensitive and vulnerable to disturbances by man. Their requirements for regeneration are very precise and difficult to achieve. If the existing stands do not regenerate then their long term future is bleak.

Dan Strickland poignantlydescribes hemlocks contribution to richness of diversity.

When you walk into a hemlock grove you immediately leave the Red-eyed Vireo and the Least Flycatcher behind and start hearing the songs of the Blackburnian and Black-throated Green Warblers. Or if you visit in the evening you may be serenaded by a Swainson’s Thrush – a bird you would never expect to find in the hardwoods just a hundred yards away.

In our area, and I suspect in most of Ontario, you will seldom find large stands of pure hemlock and they are now generally only found in small patches and/or intermingled among other species.

Let’s hope society will find the resources, the will, and the expertise to regenerate hemlock stands so that eventually old-growth stands of hemlock may yet be inherited from us to future generations.

In the meantime I take great pleasure each time I come across these elegant and beautiful trees. Sensing what we can lose, I hope we will all commit ourselves anew to preserving the little that still exists. The sapsuckers, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird who delight in the treats left by the sapsuckers, the songbirds that depend on the fact that hemlocks release their seeds intermittently from late Fall to early Spring, the Ruffled Grouse and the deer who seeks their protection in deep snowy winters will all be grateful. Last but not least are the yet unborn children who like us may still fall under the magic spell of this most elegant conifer and Cinderella will regain its rightful place in our rich and diverse wilderness.