What is a 'navigable waterway'?

Peter Gorrie wrote an article in Sunday’s Toronto Star criticizing the Harper government for rolling back “key” environmental protections by sneaking them into the budget bill.

I need to be about as circumspect as possible when writing about this issue, because for over five years I worked in an office dedicated largely to completing environmental assessments relating to the legislation Gorrie discusses in his article: the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Chances are I’ll end up working there again. So you’ll have to pardon me for being a bit opaque.

The Navigable Waters Protection Act is one of Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation and was passed when Canadians still got around largely by canoe; in that era, the public right of navigation on waterways was uncontested. If someone put up a bridge that you couldn’t navigate under and you couldn’t get your kids to school or your logs to market, that was serious. Now we have sidewalks, trains, subways, paved roads–how many people do you know who commute to work by canoe? The law has essentially not been touched since.

But a few years ago a judge ruled that a navigable waterway included any waterway you could float a canoe in any section during even part of the year. That drainage ditch that floods during the snow melt to a level deep enough that you could theoretically float a canoe on it for 50 feet or so during April? It’s now a navigable waterway. A river with a waterfall at one end and a non-navigable rapids twenty-five metres away that is theoretically navigable in between? Counts as a navigable waterway. Sure, you’d have to dunk your canoe in underneath the waterfall and drag it out of the river again in five minutes–but no matter.

Since a permit under the NWPA is a trigger for an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act,anything crossing a drainage ditch is potentially subject to environmental assessment.

Here’s the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s EA Registry. A search shows 97 active EAs within Ontario alone of bridges and culverts triggered by the NWPA. In most cases, the implementation of best practices for bridge and culvert construction and repair will mitigate environmental impacts for these projects. 

The definition of a “navigable waterway” absolutely needs to be changed.

Now, the method for doing so in this case is not the best, I agree. A budget does not seem the proper vehicle, and they did not consult as broadly as they could have. The potential for abuse through the use of ministerial orders definitely exists. But no, I do not believe that this was done as a broad-based assault on the public right of navigation–only as a way of undoing the absurd effects of a ruling which has hampered the proper application of this legislation for far too long.

Black Squirrels

black squirrel
I haven’t been posting much lately, and I have no excuse except for my daughter’s pneumonia and a really wicked cold for me. Whew. I think they’re finally both over or on the way out, so let’s see if I can write something fascinating before the next bout sets in:

Of all the wild critters universally beloved by children, the one you have the greatest chance of seeing in the winter time is the squirrel. They run, they play, they chatter, they stand adorably on their hind paws with their front paws held in front of their bellies like small furry beggars. They’re small and easily won over with a couple of peanuts. They’re also, like chickadees, a lot tougher than they look, remaining active and outdoors throughout a Canadian winter. This might have something to do with all that black fur.

Until I met (via the internet) folks from various parts of the western and southern States, it never occurred to me that black squirrels might be unusual. Around here I’d say nine out of every ten squirrels are black and most of the remaining ones are grey; both belong to the same species, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.* So our black squirrels are actually grey squirrels, but they’re considered a significant enough variation to have their own name: melanized grey squirrels. Black squirrels are most common in the northern parts of their range, basically throughout eastern and central Canada. Why the black fur? While no one knows for sure, in the 1970s scientists were able to show that black squirrels conserved significantly more heat in the wintertime than grey squirrels did.

Unlike larger mammals, they don’t need large patches of undisturbed habitat and they are, patently, not afraid of people (or at least not for long–studies demonstrate that a squirrel’s response to the approach of humans will depend on the amount of human activity in that neighbourhood); they flourish in city parks and backyards. Squirrels also lie, which might help them survive their larger primate neighbours: when in the presence of conspecifics (relatives and other squirrels) or humans digging around in their food-hiding spots, squirrels dig and fill holes without food in them to frustrate any attempts at finding their food caches. Not bad for an animal with a brain smaller than a pea. And thanks to all the nuts they find, bury and then forget about, they plant a lot of trees.

Squirrels are also the subject of one of my favourite poems, by Canadian poet Ann Carson in her book Men in the Off Hours:

New Rule

A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.
High on the frozen branches I saw a squirrel jump and skid.
Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced

down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed
in stiff recoil–or is it just that everything sounds wrong today?
The branches

He wiped his small cold lips with one hand.
Do you fear the same things as

I fear? I countered, looking up.
His empire of branches slid against the air.
The night of hooks?

The man blade left open on the stair?
Not enough spin on it, said my true love
when he left in our fifth year.

The squirrel bounced down a branch
and caught a peg of tears.
The way to hold on is



*If you’re interested in grey squirrels, there’s a wealth of information available at this link, and anyone looking for information on any wildlife species in Canada should make the Hinterland Who’s Who their first stop.


Cooper, Christopher A, Allison J. Neff, David P. Poon & Gregory R. Smith. “Behavioral Responses of Eastern Gray Squirrels in Suburban Habitats Differing in Human Activity Levels.” Northeastern Naturalist, 15(4): 619-625.

Innes, S. and D.M. Lavigne. “Comparative energetics of coat colour polymorphs in the eastern grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis.” Canadian Journal of Zoology (57): 585-592.

Steele, Michael A et al. “Cache protection strategies of a scatter-hoarding rodent: do tree squirrels engage in behavrioural deception?” Animal Behaviour, 2008 (75): 705-714.

The Green Energy Act, Part 1

It’s no secret that Germany is the envy of climate change activists worldwide for its progressive energy policies; what may be a secret to you is what, exactly, those progressive energy policies are.

It’s simple: their Renewable Energy Sources Act makes it easy for individuals, communities and corporations to get approvals to build green energy projects; makes it easy for them to connect to the grid; requires grid operators to buy their energy; and mandates electricity rates that make building those projects profitable.*

Unsurprisingly, Canadian green energy advocates have been working to pass Green Energy Acts of our own; so far, Ontario is in the lead with an existing Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program (RESOP) that sets profitable prices for renewable energy proejcts ($0.11/kwh for wind energy, $0.42/kwh for solar). Now Ontario is proposing a provincial Green Energy Act based on the input of organizations such as the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association that incorporates many features of the German legislation, not only to address smog and climate change but also to stimulate an alternative to the fast-disappearing manufacturing economy. What exactly the legislation looks like is unknown; we can see what advocacy organizations have proposed, and newspapers have been reporting on the imminent introduction of a new Act, but what’s in and what’s out and what will eventually pass is still something of a mystery.

But I can tell you one thing: it has little in common with this portrayal in the Toronto Star.

He’s [McGuinty] counting on the act, of which few details have been released,
to help create 50,000 jobs over the next three years and boost the
amount of renewable energy feeding into the electricity grid to fight
climate change.

McGuinty wouldn’t say exactly how concerns will
be overridden, but his office noted the bill will “address local bylaws
and regulations that are used to delay or stop proposed renewable
energy projects.”

He stressed that, when it comes to safety and
environmental standards for green projects, “we’re not talking about
compromising those one iota.”

The article was skimpy on specifics, but I’m guessing that the “local bylaws and regulations” he refers to are the motions and resolutions passed by town and city councils prohibiting wind energy development within their boundaries, usually due to pressure from local wind-energy groups, often after they’ve presented their councils with error-ridden “reports” on wind energy. (For examples of such reports, see the article I published recently on Rabble.) Wind energy projects in the province of Ontario have been completely shut down by activists working on the basis of misinformation and biased statistics. That needs to be stopped. Yes, local communities should be involved in the planning process for these projects; no, they should not be able to block them by panicking people with ridiculous claims about increasing greenhouse gas emissions or flocks of birds falling from the sky.

Toronto Hydro is proposing to put up to 60 wind turbines in shallow
water on a natural reef two to four kilometres offshore, from Leslie
St. to Ajax, to create up to 200 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt
is enough to power 300 homes.

This is simply not true. Toronto Hydro is planning to install an anemometer, or wind-measuring device, in Lake Ontario for two years to see whether or not a wind farm of up to sixty turbines is justified in that location.

“If it’s such a great idea, why not do an environmental assessment
and prove there are no health risks?” said an angry Laforet. “Why do we
need to be bludgeoned by legislation if the facts are on their (the
government’s) side?”

Laforet says he is concerned about “wind
turbine syndrome,” the term some use to describe the symptoms of people
who say they have been sickened by the noise.

“Wind energy groups
say it doesn’t exist because there are no reports in scientific
journals,” he said. “It’s why the health effects must be researched.”

This, too, bears little relation to reality. All wind energy projects over 2 KW are required to have an environmental screening completed, as I wrote before. No one is being “bludgeoned” by legislation. Wind Turbine Syndrome is a fancy and scary-sounding name given to a condition that may or may not exist. There are reports in scientific journals; but they don’t support Wind Turbine Syndrome. The health effects are being researched, but so far the studies do not support widespread effects of wind turbine noise on humans, as I also wrote about recently.

You’ll notice, however, that the article mentions none of this.

“He-said/she-said” reporting does no one any favours. How is the public supposed to measure the pros and cons of these projects if the newspapers don’t fact-check the stories given to them by proponents and opponents and report on the science behind them as well? If you didn’t have any specific expertise on environmental issues and you read this article, you would probably come away from it quite scared about the scourge of wind energy and the Green Energy Act. That’s not responsible reporting.


*This last point is a favourite target of anti-sustainable energy groups, who argue that sustainble energy must not be economically viable if it requires this kind of price support. A) Fossil-fuel generation receives a mountain of subsidies, everything from exploration, mining, transporting and, yes, generation, is heavily subsidized by government. The price you currently pay for coal- or natural-gas-fired generation is much cheaper than it would be if corporations had to do all their work by themselves. B) Many of the costs of fossil-fuel generation have been externalized. For example, the Ontario Medical Association believes that around 9,500 people died prematurely last year in the province of Ontario from poor air quality–some of that resulting from our electricity generation–yet you don’t pay for that on your power bill, you pay for that through your health insurance taxes. I can’t remember what the precise dollar figure was for the estimated cost of all that increased mortality–plus the sick days and lost productivity of people who don’t die but who take time off work, go to the hospital, etc.–but it was in the billions. Every year. The same goes for the tremendous anticipated costs of global climate change, which will make everything from health care to infrastructure more expensive. (For instance, roads will need to be built to tougher specifications to handle the changes in temperatures). Again, none of that is included on your electricity bill. “Cheap” fossil-fuel electricity is in fact tremendously expensive. There’s just no pricing mechanism for including that on your household electricity bill.

It’s more accurate to say that the price supports level the playing field, giving green energy a fighting chance to establish itself in a market dominated by a wealthy, heavily subsidized, completely externalized and already entrenched status quo.

New article

Not that I have enough readers who don’t know me on other media to justify including the same link in yet another venue, but:

A mighty controversy: do windfarm opponents have their facts straight?

An article on wind energy by yours truly.

I was, frankly, surprised at how poor the case of windfarm opponents was when I dug into it. The problem is, again, that the high-quality research is locked behind a number of firewalls in academic databases and the like. There has to be a way of protecting intellectual property while allowing access to necessary information by the public.

The finer points of Environmental Assessment in Ontario

Recently, I read on a blog about Toronto Hydro’s proposed anemometer project the following statement: “Here is another fun piece of trivia: How many full environmental assessments have actually been done before wind turbine projects have been built in Ontario? HINT: There have been 17 wind projects. Answer? Are you sure you want it? Here goes: Zero. Who needs an environmental assessment when the project has ‘green’ in the title.”

I won’t provide a link, not because I don’t care about the rules of online discourse, but because the source in this case is not relevant. I’ve read similar claims all over the place, and I’m sure this writer is not the originator of this (false) statistic. I’m also sure that anyone who’s read the blog in question will recognize it immediately.

Every wind energy project over 2 megawatts in size in Ontario is required to have an environmental assessment screening.

And there’s the rub: critics argue that screenings don’t count because they’re not “full assessments.”

A bit about my background: I completed an Environmental Studies degree at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, majoring in Environment and Resource Studies and with a certificate in Environmental Assessment. Since that time, approximately ten years ago, I’ve been involved with hundreds of environmental assessments at the provincial and federal level, many of them joint or “coordinated” projects (a term that indicates cooperation between provincial and federal review authorities and their intention to eliminate duplication of effort by the proponent, but it does not shorten the process–at times, much the contrary), and plenty of them windfarms in Ontario. Ninety-nine per cent of these, at least, were screening-level assessments. The screening-level assessments for a simple culvert repair over a rural drainage ditch alone would be thirty pages long and take at least several months if not a year or more to complete. Those for complex projects, including wind farms, often produced several multi-inch-thick binders of consultant reports and a couple of file folders of correspondence between government agencies and interested stakeholders, and that often doesn’t include emails and other electronic forms of communication (which had a separate filing system where I spent the last several years). Screenings are not EA-lite. They are EA-different. This confusion in terminology is understandable, and I hope to do my bit to clear it up.

From the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s website on Environmental Assessment (the centre links on my computer come up broken, so use the sidebar):

Individual (or “full”) environmental assessments: “Environmental assessment (EA) is both a study and a planning process which evaluates the potential environmental effects and benefits of a project or undertaking on the environment. EAs are typically carried out for large-scale complex undertakings with potential for significant environmental effects and major public interest.”

What does this mean? Uranium mines, other mining projects. Projects, in other words, with the potential to create significant toxic effects for humans or the environment–not nuisance complaints. We’re talking tailings here. Cancer, birth defects, premature deaths, that kind of thing. Black lung disease. Not a decline in property values.

Or, a project can be of a type that is not well understood. Wind farms have been built commercially now for several decades, and they do not fall in this category. The impacts of wind energy projects are known: that is, we already know that wind turbines create noise, have the potential to kill birds, have aesthetic impacts, and so on. A full assessment would be carried out for projects in which the specific nature of likely impacts is not yet known.

Screening-level “class” assessments: “There are currently 10 approved class environmental assessments (class EAs) in Ontario which cover a wide range of projects and activities including: municipal infrastructure, transit, provincial highways, forest management, activities in provincial parks, disposition of Crown resources, nuisance species control, fish stocking, shoreline and stream bank stabilization, access roads, hydro transmission lines, modifications to hydroelectric facilities, as well as flood and erosion control projects.”

What does this mean? Well, for starters, from this list alone you can see that “green” has nothing to do with the likelihood of a project being covered off under a class EA process. Class EAs are carried out when projects are so frequent and routine that doing a full, individual assessment could only be considered a waste of government resources (keep in mind that civil servants need to read and approve the whole thing–do you really want MOE employees reading full, detailed assessments of every road widening project in the province, without any reference to impacts understood from previous projects?)

Streamlined assessments for electricity projects: “Since 2001, both private and public sector electricity projects are equally subject to the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) through the Electricity Projects Regulation (O. Reg. 116/01) and the Guide to Environmental Assessment Requirements for Electricity Projects.

“This regulation sets out the environmental assessment (EA) planning process for electricity projects and determines the categories of assessment based on capacity, fuel type and potential for significant environmental effects. [as noted above, all wind energy projects over 2 MW are subject to this process.] It is a proponent-led self-assessment process similar to the class EA process.

“Projects that may have relatively benign environmental effects, such as a small wind turbine project, are not subject to any EA requirements. Projects that may have some environmental effects that can be easily mitigated or managed are required to complete the Environmental Screening Process. Projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects are required to complete the EA process as outlined in Part II of the EAA.

“Proponents following the Environmental Screening Process identify and evaluate the potential environmental effects of their projects, consult with interested persons, and outline possible impact management measures. Proponents then prepare an Screening Report or a more detailed Environmental Review Report.

“These reports are made available for public and government agency review. During the review period, those with outstanding concerns have an opportunity to submit an elevation request, requesting that the project undergo a more rigorous review. If the Director elevates the project, then the proponent must prepare and submit to the ministry a terms of reference and EA for review and a decision. If the project is not elevated, then the proponent can proceed to obtain other approvals as required for the undertaking.”

What does this mean?

It means proponents are required to assess the known impacts of the project they are proposing with regards to their chosen site. For example, in the case of wind energy, they would take the known impact of bird fatalities and assess the likely impact given the site in question: how many birds are likely to die from these turbines at this location? This is a much better use of resources than requiring the proponent to demonstrate that the wind turbine will not create tailings or toxic effluents, as would be the case under an individual EA.

Local stakeholders, including residents, have the opportunity to be involved throughout the process. Yes, it is self-directed; but it is also subject to government review, and believe me, government agencies are not blindly rubber-stamping screening reports. Civil servants can and do direct proponents to fill gaps where they see them, and this can be influenced by stakeholder input. Ho
w do I know? I was such a
civil servant, and I worked with other civil servants, and I’m sure there were times proponents were cursing our names for the umpteenth information request or nitpicky detail or quibble over calclations we sent their way–and yes, that includes wind farms.

This brings me to my last point: elevation requests. Here’s how it works:

1. The proponent applies for their permits, approvals, whatever.
2. They complete their environmental screening in support of that application (aside: such projects frequently require federal approvals, triggering federal environmental assessment processes in addition to provincial ones).
3. The report is made public. At this point, and not before, members of the public who have concerns not addressed in the report can apply for an elevation, meaning that it is “bumped up” to a full or individual screening process. They may be turned down (the decision will be made by the Ministry of Environment) because, believe it or not, sometimes members of the general public have no idea what they’re talking about. No matter how you feel about any project in particular I’m sure you would not be thrilled by the idea of John Smith at 123 Elm Street bumping up every sewer upgrade in your neighbourhood to a full, individual screening process because he’s worried that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are not receiving an adequate oxygen supply.

Complaining that the proponent will not bump up the process in advance of even proposing a project, let alone carrying out the screening review, is way premature.

I hope this information has added some clarity to the debate for any interested persons who wandered through. Mostly, though, I want you to know that wind energy projects in the province of Ontario are subject to environmental assessment. How do I know?

I’ve read them.

The Geography of Hope

The Geography of Hope had an odd genesis: writer Chris Turner, contemplating his daughter’s future in Canada’s oil capital of Calgary, was driven to find some reason to believe that her life would not be defined by climatic cataclysm.

I think I could teach her to face war, poverty, famine–human problems with practicible solutions, however complex. I could explain to her that life, as wonderful as it can be, is sometimes far from carefree. But I can’t even tell her with any confidence that there is a future with sufficient durability to serve as a drawing board for her lifelong dreams. There’s a legitimate possibility that she’ll face calamity on a scale I can’t imagine, on a scale beyond anything humanity’s ever seen. This is a prospect that makes it hard to think, makes my vision blur with angry, impotent tears. It terrifies me.

Me too.

Turner spent the following year touring the planet, finding examples of sustainability and solutions to the climate change crisis in villages in Thailand, cities in India, eco-communes in Scotland, institutes in America, and a dozen other places beside. As he repeats throughout, “anything that exists is possible”: we already have the knowledge, skills and technology to solve climate change. We just need to get off our asses and do it.

(It’s a salty book, by the way, dropping f-bombs with a far greater frequency than I’m used to in scientific texts.)

Consider the tech revolution, he argues; if someone had told you, in 1992, that one day you’d have a phone you could fit in your pocket that could read newspapers and letters from people all over the world, that could play your favourite songs, take photos, even video, and that you could buy one of these phones relatively cheap in any shopping mall in the western world (and, according to a recent story in the Star, that social-rights activists in the States would argue that having such a phone was a fundamental human right conferring access to potentially life-saving services for poor people), you would have told them they were nuts. It only took ten years to go from a world in which computers were relatively bulky and expensive desktop beasts useful for printing out term papers or keeping track of budgets to little lap-sized miracle gadgets that provide access to the world’s entire stored knowledge-base–and what it took to go from A to B was a whole lot of foolhardy investment in technologies and ideas that no one thought would work.

We’ve done it before, we can do it again. That’s his argument. And hey, this time it might save our collective lives, so supposedly there’s an additional incentive in there somewhere. The world can change on a dime.

Another example? Consider this quote, from near the book’s conclusion, about the futility of waiting for meaningful governmental action on climate change:

Who really expects anymore that dramatic, positive change will come into their lives from the current round of trade talks, the next stage of Kyoto negotiations, the coming election cycle or the one after that?

That was published in 2007.

Remember, on Tuesday, how impossible Obama’s victory seemed just one and a half years ago.

you're late

Recently I took myself to the bookstore to scan the magazine racks for potential markets for a pitch that came back to me the week before. (It came back nicely, with regrets and an invitation for more ideas, but I still need to find it a new home.) Three of the most promising magazines I brought home for detailed study, including ONnature (a publication of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists), the Ecologist and onearth (by the National Resources Defense Council). Frances Beinecke, the president of NRDC, opens her address with:

The end of an era has finally arrived. The man responsible for some of the most destructive environmental policies of the past 50 years is finally packing his bags, and a new president is arriving in Washington who wants to strengthen–rather than dismantle–the safeguards that protect our air, water and wilderness.

Everywhere I turn these days it’s the same. The Toronto Star ran an article in the Ideas section on the weekend about American scientists giddily anticipating having real! actual! scientists! in charge of the nation’s scientific institutions after Obama takes office.

I even saw a magazine cover recently decrying hipsterism as “over” and “hope as the new cool.” I can’t remember which magazine that was, but let me tell you, as someone who’s been slaving away in the hope mines all these years while cynicism and defensive irony ruled above with an iron fist, it was the strangest combination of cognitive dissonance and celebration I can remember experiencing.

No one likes being Cassandra, but you get used to the status of derided outcast, to being ignored; and then to be hauled up on to a pedestal (even if only metaphorically) can be discomfiting. Do you have any idea, any idea at all, how every time I go to the bookstore–which is rather a lot–I stare and stare at the rack of new green titles? It’s been there for months. Sure, it’s mostly lifestyle tomes recycling advice about compact fluourescent lightbulbs and turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth, but there’s an entire prominently displayed section on environmentalism that appears to be a permanent fixture of the store.

They say no one is an atheist in a foxhole. It seems, these days, like
the whole world is feeling the bullets of climate change whizzing by
our ears, and remarkably, it’s making believers out of a lot of former
skeptics. Including high-profile ones. In A Passion for This Earth, a collection of essays “inspired by David Suzuki,” Michael Shermer writes of his own 11th-hour conversion in 2006. Long-time prominent climate-change skeptic Gregg Easterbrook (in his book titled A Moment on The Earth
he argued that environmental trends are nowhere near as menacing as the
media portrays and that climate change is not happening) retracted his
position and switched to alarm. More cognitive dissonance, more celebration mixed with panic.

Listen: I was a working environmentalist through the 1990s, and that was no easy gig. So I think I’m entitled to this.

On behalf of those of us who kept slogging away for the past fifteen years on global climate change and acid rain and deforestation and endangered species and smog while the two primary mainstream responses appeared to be an angry denial of any problems or utter apathy, preferably while prostrate on the floor, playing dead; on behalf of those who kept geekily clinging to hope while being accused of planet-defeating pessimism; on behalf of those of us who have been planting trees and buying organic and writing letters and participating in environmental assessments for the past fifteen years, all the while being told that a responsible adult would have given up on these lofty ideals and traded it in for a career in finance long ago, let me say two things:

Welcome. You have no idea how wonderful it is to finally have you along.


What in hell took you so long?



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.