Sarah Harmer loves the Niagara Escarpment...

Photo: Andrew MacNaughton
...and she went on tour to save it

Singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer has a soft spot for salamanders. She recorded the French song "Salamandre" on her soon-to-be-released CD, I'm A Mountain. But her connection to the tiny amphibian goes back much further, to a childhood spent on a Niagara Escarpment farm.

"I know it's been a privilege to have grown up near the woods and ponds, looking at salamanders, being surrounded by all this beauty," says Harmer. "Perhaps that's reflected in my music — a strong sense of place. 'Salamandre' is set in Baroque times, when a boy is calling to his new salamander friend who has shown him the mysteries of the forest. It was a lovely coincidence to have the writers of the song, my friends Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, send it to me and then to record it myself. It fit wonderfully with the CD but also with the theme of the escarpment tour."

Harmer's summer I Love the Escarpment Tour was not your ordinary series of gigs. Harmer and her gang of musicians spent between four and five hours a day hiking, stopping at night to perform concerts in communities along the way. "This was a very grass-roots tour," Harmer says. "I hired my friend Bryan Bean to help organize, and I put together a four-piece band with some close friends. We used biodiesel in our van, to be easier on the air, and started at Tobermory, at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. We just kept heading south. We played eight shows, and received an excellent reception. They were such intimate venues, and we met people all along the escarpment. The final concert was on Lake Ontario at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington — it seemed like the perfect place to end the tour."

Harmer's tour came about through her realization that the escarpment's survival as a unique natural environment is seriously threatened. The land looks like a huge, 725-kilometre-long spine, but in fact, it is all that is left of the shore of an ancient tropical sea. The escarpment itself is composed of eons' worth of calcified sea creatures. A thin layer of soil covers dolostone (formed in ancient seas and coral reefs) that, in turn, covers layers of limestone, shale and sandstone. The escarpment corridor, which runs through southern Ontario from Niagara Falls to Tobermory, crosses boreal needle forests in the north and temperate broad-leaf forests in the south, and includes lakes and wetlands. Along with a human population of about one million, the Niagara Escarpment is home to 1,500 plant species (including 40 percent of Ontario's rare or endangered flora), 90 fish, 300 birds, 52 mammals, 39 reptiles and amphibians, and 100 varieties of special-interest flora such as 39 species of orchids.

But it isn't just nature-lovers who are drawn to the escarpment. Dolostone and limestone make perfect gravel, which Ontario municipalities use in vast quantities for roads and infrastructure. Limestone quarries are big business. Companies like Lafarge, Nelson Aggregate and Dufferin Aggregates have had been in the area for over 50 years, and battling with residents for just as long over noise, ground vibrations, truck traffic and ground-water disturbances. Residents argue the escarpment is not the place to get gravel, particularly when there is no shortage of the material elsewhere.

Trouble is, the Niagara Escarpment is close to Toronto, which makes trucking gravel cheaper, easier and faster than bringing it in from other locations. Meanwhile, though, as Harmer says, "Go west of Toronto, past the wall of concrete, and you can walk on trails where you can see thousand-year-old cedar trees, orchids and ferns in a landscape that dates back 450 million years. We need to protect the headwaters here and the important diversity. It's where the threatened Jefferson salamander lives — it's actually one of its last remaining habitats. We can't lose it, or the many others that live here."

Conservation of the escarpment began in 1973 with the creation of the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), which created a system of development control. In 1990, UNESCO designated the region a World Biosphere Reserve, which should have afforded the area even more protection. But the self-regulated aggregate companies continued — and still do — to lobby for new quarries, and their requests for the most part get approved.

In 2004, Nelson applied to open an 82-hectare (200-acre) limestone quarry on the north bluffs of Mount Nemo near her family home (Harmer herself lives in Kingston). Nelson wants to extract 37 million tonnes of limestone that lies below the water table, removing significant woodland habitat and disrupting the headwaters of two tributaries of Grindstone Creek, one of which supplies water to Hamilton Harbour. The quarry will also dry up the habitat of the Jefferson salamander.

It was around then that Harmer became involved with Protecting Escarpment Rural Land (PERL), the organization spearheading the Nelson protest. "I wanted to help make a difference," she says. "Along with other citizens, planners and politicians, we can make wise land-use decisions. I wanted to do the right thing."

Harmer's deep appreciation of the countryside is one of the strongest themes in her music. Her first CD, Songs For Clem, a collection of country songs for her father, was recorded on her back porch, and the sound of crickets are sprinkled throughout the record. (It wasn't a deliberate decision. The sound engineer put the microphone out in the grass for ambient noise and the crickets sang along with Harmer.) Her two subsequent CDs, You Were Here and All Of Our Names, also conjure up images of the warmth and intimacy of the country. Harmer describes I'm A Mountain as "simple music for everyone. It's not esoteric stuff."

She is equally down to earth about her involvement with the escarpment, pointing out that she is not the first musician to be an activist. Rather, she feels privileged to participate in what she has called "a time-honoured tradition of getting the message out there." She recognizes the battle she has chosen is not going to be resolved quickly, so there are plans for more concerts and a documentary about the tour. She will also continue working with PERL, as well as with the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE). Harmer is in for the long haul.

"This isn't going to be a quick fix. There can't be any waltzing in or out, only a long-term commitment. I find all of this totally compelling and interesting. The people who first set out to protect the Niagara Escarpment were visionaries, and I am honoured to be taking up the torch. I am grateful to them because it was their efforts that helped protect vital water resources and habitats of native plants and animals that we humans rely on and must appreciate. Beyond that, it is about respecting the natural world. We are all a part of it."