Sometimes, when I walk in Grant’s Woods, I’m reminded of the first forest I knew.
It was on the west coast and it pressed up against our neighbourhood, darkly massive. There was an enormous fallen tree on the edge where the light still penetrated, and we kids used to wriggle out to the end and bounce on it wildly until it bucked us off into the moss and needles on the forest floor.
Twenty years later I went back and found my old home in a sea of new houses. The forest was gone. Erased.
It turns out it was the neighbourhood pressing up against the forest, not the other way around.
This isn’t an unusual story. In fact it’s so commonplace, almost everyone can relate to a forest, or a meadow they played in as children, that is now just a memory.
Not so Bill Grant.
On the day he died, the forest he and his brother Jack grew up in was still intact. In fact, it was in better shape. The two brothers spent their whole lives together, and much of that time was spent in the cool shadows of Grant’s Woods. Their father Louis was heir to a fortune built on indigo plantations in the British Empire, but he married for love against the wishes of his family. He and his wife, Daisy, took to a quiet life in Orillia where Louis wrote and painted and dabbled in film. They lived in a big brick house on Laclie Street and used a farm on Division Road as their retreat.
Eventually the Grant boys moved to the farm and lived out their lives there, pursuing an eclectic list of interests with the ever-present forest as a backdrop. In those long years, the woods matured, creeping back into farm fields, eventually swallowing the old barn. Big trees became massive and the soil grew wealthy.
When Jack passed away, Bill decided it was time to entrust the forest to someone else. Unknown to the volunteers who had been toiling to build the Couchiching Conservancy, Bill had been watching and he liked what he saw. One day out of the blue, he called up and offered them the woods.
A remarkable gift. In 2006 the Conservancy set up its office in one of the farm houses and Grant’s Woods opened to the public. Today people enjoy more than four kilometres of trails through one of the richest forests around.
But Bill wasn’t finished. When he died some months ago, he left a $120,000 legacy to the Conservancy – a giant push into its third decade.
I like to think that Grant’s Woods was Bill Grant’s first forest and that he died knowing it will be a first memory for other kids. They will smell its verdant life as children, and feel its coolness again as old people with their children’s children.
Unlike the forest I played in as a little boy, Grant’s Woods will endure.
Written by Mark Bisset.