As it turns out, the friendly suggestion of emailing so-and-so for directions was less of a friendly suggestion and more of a base requirement, which makes me wonder why the directions weren’t just included with the volunteer package. In any case, we got to the right address at what I thought was the right time only to find that we were distinctly not in the right place, and had no idea what to do about it.

Instead of participating in an official bird count, therefore, we walked through the winter woods and counted a few birds on our own. And it was lovely. Cold. Very cold. But lovely. Heaps of pristine white snow crossed by those livid blue shadows you only get in winter. I’ll have to ask all my questions next year, along with the new one: Why on earth would you not include full directions with the volunteer package?


The one bird we heard most was the black-capped chickadee*, that improbably tiny ball of hollow bones and fluff. Chickadees are a species of titmouse, meaning a small bird, and are utterly unprepossessing: grey, black, brown, white. No impressive crests, no fan-shaped tails, no glorious songs. Not as famous as Raven or Coyote in native folklore. One Cherokee legend has it nick-named the Truth Teller for helping a tribe kill Spearfinger, a monster who would in the guise of a grandmother or favourite aunt slay children to eat their livers, but even its stories are not impressive enough to have made a mark on our modern consciousness. Only 12-15 cm (4-6″) from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail.

But it will live outdoors through a Canadian winter.

It’s emblematic of a lot of the less-showy Canadian wildlife. It’s small. It doesn’t look like much; it’s hard to turn it into an award-winning photograph for National Geographic Magazine. It looks fragile enough to be knocked out by a toothpick. But it survives.

For that alone, if nothing else, it would be my favourite bird. I also happen to think it’s adorable.


* Truth-telling, in honour of the chickadee: I am pretty sure that’s what we heard. I’m not an expert on birds by any means, but I think the call was the chickadee-dee-dee for which the bird was named. Finding one for a positive id on the top of a 20-40 ft dense evergreen was too much for Frances’s binoculars, however.


Tomorrow, early enough to drag me out of bed at an ungodly hour for a weekend, I will be standing quietly in temperatures well below zero, in a large urban park, counting birds for a couple of hours.

Don’t ask me for details. I haven’t a clue what it entails, other than–presumably–silence and watchfulness. And layers.

Either disastrously or brilliantly, I will be accompanied by my preschool daughter, who is very excited about bringing her binoculars to see if she can count birds in the big park and help people. Assuming that she hasn’t been bundled up so thoroughly that, like Ralph’s little brother in A Christmas Story, she is incapable of moving her arms and so can’t put her binoculars to her eyes. I thought about hiring a babysitter, and then I thought about my bank balance, educational opportunities, and ways of instilling a love of the non-human in her. I also thought about post-count lunches at favourite restaurants featuring unethically-raised poultry products, but we’ll leave that out for now.

Every January, we cover the Polar Bear Dip–a bunch of people jumping into frozen water for a few minutes, then running inside for hot chocolate and fleece blankets. Every January, a bunch of volunteers stands around outside counting birds to measure the success of local wildlife programs for six hours, and I’ve never heard of it.

How do you count birds? How do you find them, in the first place? How many is a good number? What species do you want to find? Why do people volunteer for this year after year, some of them coming from a hundred kilometres away to do so? Who are they?


I just finished Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken’s book about the global environment-and-social-justice-movement with no name. It is a profoundly hopeful, if at times equally profoundly distressing, book, positing that in the complexity and the relationships between all of these tens of thousands of small organizations, globally, can be seen something like a new life form, an immune response to unsustainable practices. He offers no guarantee that this immune response will be effective, but makes it clear which way he thinks things will go. In a passage sure to resonate with other parents, he quotes from Michael Chabon:

“Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children–in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world–parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally runs down, ten thousand years from now, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imaginations for perfecting it is limitless and free.

Chabon’s son was eight when he asked that question. Children of eight have already learned to doubt the future of the human species? That is heartbreaking.

Also, it makes standing in the snow with a five-year-old, still innocent enough to be afraid primarily of the red roses on her bedroom curtains (they might be the eyes of monsters staring at her while she sleeps), for a couple of hours counting birds seem not only possible, but necessary.

I’ve cast my bet on the Clock of the Long Now, too; and I will do everything I can to stack that deck. 

Wind Turbine Noise and Human Health

I have been over-researching an article on wind energy that will supposedly be published soon, though I have yet to hear back on the edits. It’s a problem of mine, this need to make every argument impervious to nuclear attack, as if it is possible to construct an argument that will convince everyone–especially in 1,200 words.

On the plus side, I now have a couple hundred pages worth of research that, for obvious reasons, is not going to make it into the published piece, or very likely any published piece. It’s all background. Lucky you, I thought it might make for interesting blog fodder.

Today: wind turbine noise, human health, access to science and how to dupe the public.

First, some background:

Wind Turbine Noise

Wind turbines make noise. How much noise and how annoying that noise is depends on who you ask. Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician from New York, will soon self-publish a book called Wind Turbine Syndrome, about the terrible effects that the noise from windfarms can have on human health. Understandably, it’s been snatched up by anti-wind energy groups internationally. She claims it’s peer-reviewed, but it’s not. Peer-review refers to a specific process where an academic journal asks a panel of experts in a particular field to comment on a text and offer suggestions for revision and critical feedback. What Dr. Pierpont refers to as “peer-review” on her website is really testimonial–fan feedback. You don’t get to choose peers in a real peer-review process.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that her information is wrong, although the arguments I’ve read criticizing her work I find at least as convincing as her work itself. It does mean that it lacks credibility. As she herself says on her website, academics publishing in peer-reviewed journals are the gold-standard in unbiased information. Dr. Nina Pierpont is not an academic, her work is not peer-reviewed, and her book does not count as an academic peer-reviewed publication.

A search of an academic database of articles in peer-reviewed journals (PubMed) turned up only two relevant studies, both by the same set of academics (there is a mountain of work on sound from wind turbines, but it is otherwise by acoustic engineers and other techy sorts who work with models and dBa estimates and theories about what should be bothersome, rather than measuring the effects of actual turbines on actual people. That’s not a flaw. We need that research. It’s just not what I was investigating). Here’s one:

The Study

Pederson, Eja & Kerstin Waye, Gotegorg University, Sweden. “Wind-turbine noise,
annoyance and self-reported health and well-being in different living
environments.” Occupational and
Environmental Medicine
, 2007 64 p. 480-486.




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Chances are you can’t read it. The problem with a lot of academic research in those vaunted peer-reviewed journals is that they’re available by subscription only, you can’t buy them at Chapters, and subscriptions are pricey. As a result, generally speaking, only other academics and students have access. Here’s a link to the abstract, and if you choose, you can buy yourself a copy of the individual article from their website.

The sample size is fairly large and the study design is, if anything, likely to overestimate the actual impact on human health. Pederson and Waye surveyed about 750 residents (out of a local population of 3,471) of Sweden living on average 780 metres from a wind turbine, and asked them about noise, annoyance and health impacts.

In other words, it’s based on self-reports. Self-reports are considered potentially less objective because people might not accurately assess what is going on with their own health (consider the number of people who get a cold confused with the flu every year). According to their study, respondents were more likely to be annoyed by wind turbine noise when they could see at least one turbine from a window in their home. The study seems more likely to overestimate the effects of such noise on respondents, then, than underestimate it. (Respondents were also more likely to be annoyed by turbine noise if they had a negative view of wind energy, but as the researchers did not examine whether the attitude came before the noise or vice versa–that is, whether the respondents were predisposed to dislike the noise before the turbines were built, or if they learned to dislike them after being bothered by the noise–it’s impossible to say in what way this information is significant.)

Even so–even though it is likely to overestimate the number of people truly bothered by noise from turbines–the total number of people reporting annoyance was quite low, only 31 out of 754. Think about this: they were only asked for their opinion. No doctor screened their responses. Out of the 31 who reported annoyance, just over a third reported that it disturbed their sleep.

All the usual caveats apply: just one study, needs to be replicated, rather small sample size, and so on. In the meantime, there appears to be little support for halting the construction of new wind turbines on the basis of “Wind Turbine Syndrome.”

Happy New Year

I’m in the middle of Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, and I thought the following passage was appropriate for the first day of 2009:

A familiar biological tease argues that a hen is an egg’s way of making a new egg. Likewise, have we evolved plants to create agriculture, or have plants used agriculturalists to evolve themselves? From a coevolutinoary perspective, both propositions are true. What is the difference between a squirrel burying acorns across the forest and humans planting potatoes across the globe? Who is the master, and who is the servant? Is it the acorn’s or potato’s idea to be nutritious, or the creature that buries them? Evolution is not about design or will; it is the outcome of constant endeavors made by organisms that want to survive and better themselves. The collective result is intoxicatingly beautiful, rife with oddities, and surpassingly brilliant, yet no agent is in control. Evolution arises from the bottom up–so, too, does hope. When fire destroys a forest, the species and plants that were lost will reassert themselves over time. Seeds that have lain dormant for decades and that germinate only when subjected to intense heat will come to life, burst into foliage, and bloom in the spring. These plants may have deep taproots that bring up minerals, or broad leaves that create a canopy to help preserve the topsoil from sun and rain. The older the forest, the more resilient its capacity to regenerate. Humanity is older than the oldest forest. Its capacity to adapt and restore is vastly underestimated. Evolution is optimism in action.

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


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.


(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.


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.

Frivolous At Last

"A life of pleasure makes even the strongest mind frivolous at last." -- Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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