Where the "wild" things are


photo credit: Ontario Parks website

According to a story in today’s Globe and Mail, residents near Algonquin Park are fighting the Ontario government’s decision to try to site a wind farm nearby. Why? Because wild areas should be preserved in all their unspoiled glory.

Brent Peterson, a cottager who speaks for 45 families with property on McCauley Lake, says this is not a case of NIMBYism, where people simply don’t want to get too close to the necessary but obtrusive aspects of life. He says it’s not about individuals but about an unspoiled area that is “about to be industrialized.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me to go and tear down a forest to put industry in the name of green,” Mr. Peterson said. “Some areas don’t make sense for the green industry, aesthetics or no aesthetics.”

There’s only one problem here:

There’s no such thing as “wild.” “Unspoiled” vanished approximately 10,000 years ago when the first humans traipsed across the land bridge into North America. This idea that any space without obvious human constructions such as buildings or roads in it is somehow pristine or unaltered is both persistent and completely false.

Human beings are animals. All animals modify their environments. Beavers cut down trees and flood forests with their dams. Insects devour forests. Beech seedlings can’t grow under adult beech trees, and maple seedlings can’t grow under adult maple trees, which is directly responsible for Southern Ontario’s very stable mix of beech and maple trees in its climax ecosystems. The shallow roots and acidic leaves of pine trees choke out the undergrowth. Ants distribute trillium seeds by eating their juicy exteriors. Humans are no exception to this. Whether you can see our activities tangibly on the landscape in something definitely human like a hut or a skyscraper or a wind turbine or a dam is irrelevant; even in the depths of the amazon rainforest, the activities of the local hunter-gatherers have modified the mix of species (in such a way that species edible to humans are far more dominant than they otherwise would be). Layers of pollution coat the antarctic, thanks to air and water currents. And Algonquin Park? Thanks to 10,000 years of human habitation, even before the arrival of the Europeans, Algonquin Park is already not what it would have been without us. By now it is dramatically different. We camp there, hike there, fly over it, fish it, hunt in it, burn coal upwind of it. It is not pristine. It only looks pristine.

There is no wild.

Humans will inevitably modify any environment they live in or nearby. We are animals; we can’t exempt ourselves from natural processes, even with good intentions.

Rather than ask ourselves, “what can we do to keep this place unspoiled?”, which is impossible and puts us in a losing position from the outset, it would be more constructive to ask, “what are the effects of this activity likely to be, and do we want those effects, or not?”

It's cold, not dead

dsc_0060-3

I should preface the photo posts by emphasizing that I’m putting up what I find interesting, not what necessarily would win any photography contests.

This creek runs through a small ravine behind several detached homes, and is part of the Don River watershed. The greenspace it runs through isn’t part of the park or trail systems, but it’s well-used. It is, quite clearly, not untouched or pristine, given the wire that likely once created gabion baskets. It’s all incorporated into a natural system now that seems to run without any human inputs–save the dog-walkers and the offerings they may leave behind.

Who

(The first couple of posts will constitute the inevitable throat-clearing while I get a few things out of the way, such as: who am I, what am I talking about, and why should you read me?)

When I was a child, I spent weeks at my grandparents’ cottage, near Apsley, Ontario. It was a shack. At night I fell asleep listening to mice scuttering through the ceiling; there was no insulation, no heat, no air-conditioning. The running water was not safe to drink (we brought bottles up from the city). No self-respecting city-dweller would consent to rent such a place for a weekend nowadays, but that’s where I learned to love place. The sandy floors of those pine forests are still a part of me. The daddy long legs and the pinecones going over the waterfall. The minnows swimming around my toes, the roar of trucks going by on the highway just over the creek.

Later on, I spent weeks away at camp in the Algonquin Park. I went camping with friends. I fished. I gardened (badly, most of the time). Never for more than a few weeks a year, most of my time spent in the same stultifying suburbs as everyone else–in the foodcourts of shopping malls, in bookstores, movie theatres, on field trips, in science classrooms, my bedroom, the bedrooms of friends, in cars, buses, on sidewalks–but it was enough, apparently, because if you told me I had to move to a place where I would never again see a trillium bloom, I don’t think I could do it.

When sad or lonely or angry, I’d go to a park. I’d walk through a greenspace along the banks of a creek hardly more than a drainage ditch, sometimes late at night, goldenrod growing as tall as my shoulder by late summer, Queen Anne’s Lace and snapdragons thick in the sunnier spots. Nothing exotic, nothing special. But that too must have been enough. Enough to convince me that Nature isn’t something you get into a car and drive out of the City to find.

When I graduated from highschool I went to a nearby university and studied Environment and Resource Studies, a real actual honest-to-god major, graduated with honours, and worked for ten years in the field in a variety of capacities. Environmental assessments, contaminated sites remediation, hazardous waste management, transportation of dangerous goods, recycling, office greening practices, tree plantings, environmental planning, carpool ridematching services, spills response, high-rise composting programmes. A bit of everything.

I also love words. I tried to write my first novel at the age of seven and it’s been a non-stop compulsive stream of dead trees covered with ink ever since.

I love nature. Humans, being animals, are just another part of nature, and I love people too, if that doesn’t sound too corny. After ten years of slogging away on the front lines of the environmental movement, I still haven’t lost faith that most people are genuinely doing the best that they know how. I think our problems are inertia, ignorance and fear, not malevolence or pathological selfishness.

I intend to make this blog an uncomfortable place for misanthropes.

Why

I’m not worried about Nature. Nature is tough. Give her the slimmest of cracks in the concrete and something will come through.

Many people see this as carte blanche to treat Nature any way they like. But just because she can recover from a massive assault is no reason to massively assault her, any more than knowing that a person can recover from a beating is a reason to lay into him with a section of lead pipe. Especially when that person you are laying into with a section of lead pipe happens to be your parent, employer, best friend, landlord and favourite musician.

Still. I’m not an environmentalist because I fear the End of Life on Earth.

I’m not even an environmentalist because I fear for the End of Human Life on Earth, though that is more likely. Listen, anything short of all-out nuclear warfare or a catastrophic impact from a very large asteroid, and enough living stuff will survive to get the ball rolling. You’d come back in a few million years and this place would be crawling again. It wouldn’t be crawling with anything we’re familiar with, but it would be jam-packed and probably a happy crowd. Any particular species, humans included, is more vulnerable. But even global climate change isn’t likely to wipe us all out. Wars, famines, various catastrophes and crises and population reductions, yup. But no one left alive at all? Probably not. There will be a breeding stock. They’ll just inherit a really shitty planet, with all of the non-renewable resources all used up, the atmosphere full of crap, the oceans empty of life, and the fertile topsoil all swept into rivers and lakes.

I’m an environmentalist because that’s not the world I want. It’s not the planet I want to live on, and it’s not the planet I want to give my little girl. I guarantee you that Mother Nature does not give a rat’s ass about what sort of ecosystem inhabits any particular patch of ground or water. There is no absolute value difference between pine forests, prairies or even monocultural suburban lawns. All of the values ascribed to them are human ones. I want the pine forests to stick around because I love them. Period.

I want to know that one day, Frances can take her own children to a pond or lake and catch frogs for them, as I do for her. (Frogs are the species most quickly going extinct due to multiple environmental stresses to which they are highly susceptible.) I want her to be able to trust that there will be plenty of healthy food. I want her to be able to take fresh water for granted. I want to live in peace and relative prosperity, neither of which are possible with large-scale environmental crises. I want there to be places of beauty left that people didn’t make. I want a good life for myself and my girl, in a good place. And I know enough about the path we’re on to know that a good life in a good place is not any kind of given; that without the commitment and hard work of many people, it might not happen.

But it’s the hope that’s motivating, not the fear.

Hope is much harder than cynicism or despair. Hope means work. But you already work hard every day to bring about a good future for yourself and your children in so many ways. You work to give them a good home, a good neighbourhood, a good family, good schools, positive experiences, high self-esteem, confidence, manners, because you want your children to have good lives. You decorate your house and plant a garden and buy nice clothes, work on schooling or training, read books, listen to music, make friends, get married (or divorced), because you have some vision of the future that includes those things for you. You want them. It’s not just because you don’t want to be broke or homeless or alone (or is it?).

Take a risk: love where you live. Not just the buildings and institutions built on that ground, but the ground itself. Invest your heart a little. Get to know your non-human neighbours. Let yourself care what happens there in ten years, in twenty. Imagine what it could be like then. What you want it to be like. It’s nothing you haven’t done before. You do this for your relationships, for your jobs, for your home, for your children. Picture the future you want. Then work to make it real.

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