mini-article

I have it from reliable sources that a short article I wrote on the East Don Parkland Partners has hit the newsstands in the latest issue of Spacing magazine; I haven’t yet seen in my local Chapters, but it is out there.

Spacing is about public space in Toronto, but they’re branching out to other Canadian cities now, especially online. They recently got a few nominations for National Magazine Awards (including magazine of the year) so it’s exciting to be included, even if I haven’t yet seen it myself!

Environmental Psychology

trillium, April 2009
trillium, April 2009

Yesterday was the first sunburn of the season, gained walking, cycling and photographing before the thunderstorms set in. I’m very fair, and I know I shouldn’t go out without sunblock and I should limit my UV exposure and all those other skin-cancer prevention strategies, but I can’t help it; in the face of a sunny day with everything budding and blooming, I crumble. (Keep in mind, too, that I’m allergic to anything with fur, feathers, pollen or spores, so that one might expect I would be the last person to spend time outside; instead I’m outside whenever I can possibly manage it.)

The trilliums are just shy of blooming. I give them another week before the flowers are open. Bloodroot was everywhere a week ago; I didn’t see much of it this weekend, though. Is it over already? The trout lilies were wide open, bent back, and will be going to seed soon.

It’s not that I’m opposed to creature comforts (as I sit here on the couch in my pajamas with my laptop), but outside, oddly, is home.

All right, I’m strange. No matter how much you enjoy the outdoors, you probably feel more at home on your sofa than in the woods. But studies in environmental psychology repeatedly show the benefits to people of exposure to non-human nature. Those who are ill recover faster in a room with a view of a tree. A forty-minute walk in a natural setting is more restorative than a similar walk in an urban setting. No matter how we try to separate civilization from nature, the former remains entirely a subset of the latter; no matter how much we pretend to be separate, humans are still animals.

dsc_01070001-2

So why are so few of us nature-lovers? How can we so easily accept intellectually an idea–the separation of humans from the rest of the world–entirely at odds with fact and with our health? You’d think that getting people to fall in love with nature would be easy.

Hallelujah

trout lilies in bloom
trout lilies in bloom

I am alive, I swear it. For proof I offer photographs of trout lilies taken on a recent walk, which would be difficult to do if I were posting from beyond the grave.

Those of you who know me will know how inordinately happy I was to find these, and in profusion too, all over the floor of a local woodlot. To me, the blooming of the first trout lilies is the best and surest sign that spring is really here; plus, they’re pretty.

Trout lilies fascinate me. They can propogate either reproductively or through runners. For the first two years, all a new trout lily does is grow a root; in the third year, a single small brown-and-green splotchy leaf will appear aboveground.

trout lilies in progress
trout lilies in progress

A couple years after that, it’ll manage to grow two leaves; around year seven or eight, the trout lily will produce its gorgeous yellow flower. Even in the best sites, only about 35% of trout lilies will be of flowering age at any given time. All of which is to say that while there is nothing illegal about picking trout lilies, it’s not a spectacular idea since it won’t be replaced for at least seven years.

Rumour has it that trout lilies have emetic properties and were used by First Nations as a contraceptive. They are also, apparently, edible–but for god’s sake, please don’t.

flowering trout lily, April 2009
flowering trout lily, April 2009

They grow thickest and soonest at the base of substantial tree trunks because the microclimate is a bit warmer, so if you’re hunting for trout lily, look at the base of old trees (or on gentle sun-facing slopes). Trout lilies like moist, relatively open hardwood forests with plenty of leaf litter; they’ll bloom in the GTA from about mid-April through part of May (so if you want to see them, get out there in the next two or three weeks). Because they are so fragile–taking so long to grow and having such specific site requirements–they are easily out-competed in more open environments by tougher and more vigorous annual flowers. In the shade of deciduous trees and on ground perpetually carpeted by decomposing leaves, they can grow and flower–but only until the trees bud and leaf, at which point the shade kills them off.

They look so fragile and delicate, but it is that very fragility which enables them to thrive in environments where stronger plants can’t grow.

~~~~~

I wasn’t able to find any art or folklore related to the trout lily, but if any of you know of some, let me know and I’ll add it. Otherwise, I’ll keep looking.

42 Revisited (or, what parents owe their children in an era of environmental collapse, part I)

On Twitter recently the Toronto Star asked people to define the meaning of life. Sure, why not: an endeavour that has eluded philosophers for 10,000 years can be collated from the 140-character submissions of the general public. Not surprisingly, no one agreed. The meaning of life is to love people. To be good. To do good. To be happy. To take risks.

I submit that life has no intrinsic meaning.

The meaning of life is whatever we ourselves bring to it. Which means it depends on the material of our lives. We take what we have and organize it in whatever way allows us to extract meaning. Or impose it, rather.

Which leaves infants dying of AIDS in South Africa in something of a quandary because what material have they been given, what ability do they have to extract meaning from their experience? None. The idea that their lives have no meaning is repugnant, and I cannot accept that the sole meaning of their lives is to provide more experience to other people.* What meaning their lives have must belong to them alone, no matter how awful it looks, as it does to us over-privileged westerners with our comfortable, self-actualized notions of the meaning of life. None of this–grown men raping infant girls to “cure” their own AIDS, parents selling their daughters into sex slavery to feed their sons, young boys drafted into armies to kill each other–makes any sense or can be justified at all unless life is considered a gift, no matter what happens. None of human history makes sense if it is only ethical to have children when they can have a safe, risk-free life in an upper-class North American suburb.

With every fresh environmental crisis, adult men and women are once again charged with not bringing children into such a messed up world. But even we over-privileged westerners have children who suffer and die in infancy or childhood, who will never smile or speak or know about love. Those of us who have or who have known such children may perhaps be better at recognizing the absurdity of charging adults with only bearing children when they can guarantee a world worth living in to their children.

No, whatever parents owe their children, it is something other than non-existence as the sole alternative to a guaranteed adulthood in a sane and propserous society.

No parent has ever been able to promise their children a world worth living in. Children have been slaughtered, enslaved, sold and raped from time immemorial, as even a casual reading of world history demonstrates. I am still haunted by the image found in a history book of a Spanish conquistador slicing off the legs of a native child who was afraid, and ran from him. Of infants torn from their mother’s arms and thrown to hunting dogs.

The question of whether or not the world can afford our children (the consumption, the pollution, etc.) is a separate one and concerns what we owe the world, not what we owe to our children.

I submit that what we owe to our children begins when they get here, and does not end with shelter, clothing, health care and education any more. No. Like it or not, modern parents, you owe the people you brought into this world every effort you can spare that this world will continue to be there.

~~~~~

* I find this to be the most common meaning that well-intended others like to impose on the life of a young child with a disability or illness: think of what it taught the parents, the friends, the community! Children (and, for that matter, adults) with disabilities and illnesses exist for their own sake, just as you do.

April is the cruelest month (but it has butterflies)

Mourning Cloak
Mourning Cloak

Or will be, at any rate: I may have over-committed myself. I have a couple of book reviews and a post about Horton Hears a Who in the works, but they’re going to take more than five minutes to get up–so–in the meantime, here is another harbinger of spring: the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

Mourning Cloaks have a broad range which includes the GTA, and are one of the few butterflies that overwinter: they find a crack of bark or other warm spot and enter a state of cryogenic suspension when winter begins, then thaw and return to life in the spring. Because of this, they are one of our longer-lived species, living nine to ten months on average. Unlike many other butterflies, they don’t feed from flowers but from tree sap, rotting fruit and mud puddles–nice, eh?–one reason it is able to survive the winter and emerge in early spring, before anything is blooming.

Besides sleeping through most of the winter, it can also estivate (hibernate) during summer hot spells, so you may not see mourning cloaks around during the hottest season.

They were all over the path by Newtonbrook Creek last Friday; this one kept divebombing my camera as I tried to take its picture.

Never turn your back on Mother Earth*

dsc_00160001Take a look at what the snow melt this year did to the streambank protection on Newtonbrook Creek. Ouch.

In case you can’t tell from the picture, the creek flooded and wiped out the gabion baskets on the far bank, digging a new channel, turning the gabion baskets into an island and carving a new bluff. (Gabion baskets are large wire baskets full of rocks placed along river and stream banks to protect them from erosion.) Picturesque, sure, but not good. Trees are toppled or their roots exposed to air. Silt is washed into the river, changing the composition and warmth of the water and depriving it of oxygen, which kills fish and plants.

Incidentally, this is not “natural.”

Yes, snow has always melted (or, you know, when earth is cold enough to get snow–this may not last much longer, folks, so get your fill now), and when it melts it turns into water, and so water has to go somewhere, right? Right. So it always ends up in the rivers and creeks and they always flood in the spring, right?

No.

Because until recently, we hadn’t paved over every surface known to mankind. Soil is permeable; water drains into it. Asphalt and concrete are not permeable; water runs off of it. And into the storm sewers, and the rivers, causing them to flood and taking out the banks. And killing the plants and the fish. And wiping away topsoil that took hundreds or thousands of years to form. You’re with me, right? Paving everything=floods=not good.

I’ll assume you’re not about to rip up your driveway and replace it with gravel. Am I right? Right.

Other things you can do:

1. Disconnect your downspouts from the stormwater system.

2. Put rainwater collection barrels underneath your downspouts. Use the rainwater to water your lawn and garden in the summer. This is especially handy in areas prone to summer droughts and restrictions on water use. Alternatively, you can build a downspout bog garden, depending on how much space you have between your house and your property boundary.

3. Bug municipal stuff about making permeable pavers standard wherever applicable. Often useful for those huge parking lots surrounding big-box stores. Spare a moment to think of how much rain must run off of those parking lots, Dear Readers.

dsc_007400014. For the love of the gods, never, ever, ever, ever, ever put anything down a storm drain. I know you like salt. I know salt is easy and convenient during Canadian winters. Salt is a toxic substance. Just try, ok? And all the rest of it, too–it all ends up in the rivers–and the lakes–and while your little bit might not seem like much, all together, all those bits of chlorine from swimming pools and soap from car washing and bits of paint and cleansers and solvents make up a toxic mess. Stormwater runoff is more polluted than industrial discharge.

I’ll just say that again, shall I?

Stormwater runoff is more polluted than industrial discharge.

To sum up: Pavement: handy for rollerblading and baby carriages. Not a friend to Mother Earth. Use judiciously.

Here’s our “new” Newtonbrook Creek. Poor thing.

~~~~~

*Post title taken from Neko Case’s recent cover of “Never turn your back on Mother Earth” on Middle Cyclone. Good album.

Sprung

dsc_00840001Last week, a single robin in the school garden; this week, a flock of them by Newtonbrook Creek, bouncing through the leaf litter.

A week or two ago, snow covered the park still, ice preserving footprints like plaster-casts. Snow melt flooded the creek and river. You could see squirrels–that was it.

dsc_00940001

Today, a chorus of birdsong, including a single piercing call and a pair of hawks, scanning for prey. Today, sunshine to 7:00 pm. Today, buds.

And this weird colour, watchamacallit. I knew it looked familiar, but I had to come home and look it up.

Oh, yeah:

dsc_00780001Green.

Yesterday it was winter.

Welcome back, spring.

Robin Red-Breast

458px-american_robinIn one native folktale, Robin and Chickadee chased Bear through the heavens (as stars), armed with bows and arrows. Robin struck the killing shot, and was spattered with Bear’s blood. He managed to shake off most of it; only his breast remained red. The rest of it was cast into the red autumn leaves of the maple tree.

But fall is a whole six months off right now, mercifully, and we have summer and spring first, as heralded by Robin’s bear-blood spattered chest.

Robins are, if you can believe it, not actually robins. Early settlers to North American thought they looked like English robins and so gave them the name, but the American robin is actually a thrush. They eat small insects, nuts and berries, and are one of the first birds to return to their northern ranges and begin breeding in the spring. Sometimes, a female robin will build and incubate a second nest of eggs while the first nest is still maturing; in those cases, the father will take over the duties of the first nest until they become independent.

Last week I saw my first red-breasted robin of spring; in a couple of weeks the nesting will begin, and then I’ll keep my eyes open for the first fragile pale blue shell fragments. In the meantime, robins have been a theme of North American poets and storytellers since the settlers first landed, like Emily Dickinson’s poem 348:

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me

I dared not meet the Daffodils
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own

I wished the Grass would hurry
So when ’twas time to see
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me
The Queen of Calvary

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgement
Of their unthinking Drums

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, in the last few years, thanks to climate change, robins have started migrating far enough north to encounter native populations who have never seen them before, and have no name for it. Robin might once have chased Bear through the skies, but he is now wandering a little too far from home.

Skeptical of the skeptics

My google alert on climate change in Canada has been faithfully telling me now for several days about an emerging global consensus that climate change is all a hoax. It’s all over the papers, apparently: all the scientists at the Heartland conference on climate change would like to assure the global public that there is no need for alarm and we can go on burning fossil fuels indefinitely (or at least until we run out–separate problem).

There’s only one little problem: they’re wrong. Rather than reproduce the already-existing and excellent pieces of investigative journalism into this conference, I’ll merely point you to DeSmogBlog (start with this post on the Heartland Institute’s storied past as a mouthpiece for the tobacco industry) and Island of Doubt, the latter of which recently stated:

Here’s the thing: If Will [conservative American columnist known largely for getting climate science embarassingly wrong and refusing to apologize] is right, and there is no global warming, then much of what we think we know about chemistry and biology and ecology and thermodynamics and geology and physics is wrong. If Will is right, then thousands of climatologists are not only wrong, but participating in a global conspiracy to conceal the truth about the state of the planet’s ecosystem. The climatologists have nothing to gain from perpetuating the “lie” of anthropogenic global warming, but they’re doing it anyway, just to be mean.

Amen.

Poor Coyotl's all played out

Pennsylvania Game Commission photo
Billie Cromwelll, Pennsylvania Game Commission photo

On Wednesday, Frances and I went shopping for a new pair of spring pyjamas, in the course of which we naturally found a lovely new spring dress and a matching pair of spring shoes; we were heading home on the 401 when, out the right-hand passenger window, I saw something well-camoflauged loping along the side of the highway. “Frances, look! A coyote!”

“Awwww,” she said. “Isn’t it cute?”

As it happens, I do think coyotes are cute–even beautiful–with their bushy tails, large alert ears, thick pelts and fearless strides. There aren’t many predators you will find scoping out the offerings on Canada’s busiest highway, in full view of thousands of humans. It also has a terrible reputation, thanks largely to its habit of preying on livestock animals, and cemented in popular imagination with Wile E. Coyote’s relentless and bumbling pursuit of the Roadrunner; but this has shifted somewhat in recent years with farmers’ recognition of the role coyotes play in rodent and pest control.

Coyotes, along with squirrels, raccoons and rodents, have benefited enormously from human development of North America: they are one of the few species whose range is expanding. As an animal of edge habitats (where, say, field meets forest, or forest meets stream), the fragmentation of Canada’s vast forests proved a bonanza. That, along with the elimination of wolves from much of the continent (who are among coyotes’ top competitors for prey) may explain why I found one so comfortably strolling through the urban heart of the province. Coyotes are smart, bold, persistent predators who use their signature calls to communicate with each other and who like to play; they’ve got more in common with Fido than you might want to know.

Many previously despised wildlife species are enjoying a resurgence of respect today, probably because, in the midst of the sixth great extinction event on earth and one caused entirely by human activity, it is becoming so rare and so removed from our daily experience. So coyotes aren’t alone in having escaped from the ranks of “vicious pest,” but their rise to the status of “culture hero” may be unique. Coyote-the-Trickster, a god of the first nations similar to Scandinavia’s Loki or the Pan of the ancient world, is an enormously popular character in urban fantasy, and since fantasy itself is one of our time’s most popular genres you might be more familiar with his fantastic rather than his environmental incarnations. (See Charles de Lint’s Someplace to be Flying for a Canadian example–or just read it because it’s a good book.) Even Wile E. Coyote is argued to be a manifestation of the old Trickster myth in spoof form.

Coyote

by Charles de Lint

Coyote’s

all used up now,

some say.

His mystery has

been diminished

by too much attention:

a hundred times a hundred

times a hundred times over

he’s sold as a memory

to tourists—

snout pointing moonward,

howl in throat;

his image has become

quick shorthand

to the apperception

of Trickster as myth

and every would-be shaman,

born of book

or new age guru,

is on a first name basis with him.

~~~~~

(read the rest at the link)

Poor Coyote, destined to be a blank form on which humans project whatever they want whether good or bad. Trickster God to vicious pest to literary icon with barely a rest at mammal in between.

Ann Douglas

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