May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
James Kleinert & Horse.jpg
Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.

What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
Viggo Mortensen And Horse.jpg
Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

February 7, 2011

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon

Perhaps it's because we envy them their ability to soar effortlessly on air currents invisible to our eyes that humans have long equated the flying birds are capable of with freedom. With gravity's grip relentlessly keeping us rooted to the earth we can only watch in helpless awe as even the humblest pigeon easily passes over walls that confine even the mightiest of men. Poetry and songs from all over the world confirm our fascination with birds in the way they are constantly used to evoke thoughts of freedom and escape from peril. Even now when we have developed our own clumsy means of taking to the air, who hasn't stopped to watch a bird's passage and marvel at its effortless crossing of the sky.

Of course nothing we have accomplished to date can match the natural aerodynamics and control exercised by the hunting and diving birds who stalk their prey from thousands of feet above until suddenly plummeting from the sky like a bolt of lighting to swoop away with a fish from beneath the waters or break the spine of a rabbit. Raptors of all kinds can instil fear in the best of us, which could be why the eagle has been a symbol of power and intimidation for empires and royalty since the time of the Romans. Others, with more respect for the natural world, have interpreted their power as a sign of being touched by the divine, and eagles are considered the messengers of the Creator, with the smaller raptors taking secondary roles.
Cover Black Falcon Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt.jpg
While the eagles, condors and hawks of the world are recognized for their power, when it comes to speed falcons are known to outstrip their larger relatives by a good margin. Unfortunately these small birds also seem to have come into conflict the most with humans in competition for habitat. While some falcons have been able to make homes for themselves among the skyscrapers of major cities - some cities have encouraged this nesting in the hopes the falcons will help with pest control by feasting on rat and other vermin - the populations in the wild have dwindled. The peregrine falcon of Northern Canada flirted with extinction until it was declared a protected species. The black falcons of Europe and Australia are not quite as fortunate, and both are considered endangered. Nomadic animals, the very freedom we envy is what's being denied them by the continual erosion of habitat as we devour more and more of the wild.

It's both the steady decline in the falcon's numbers and the conflict between man and the wild which provided the impetus for the collaboration between Turkey's Erdem Hevacioglu and Australia's Ros Bandt and their new release on Double Moon Records, Black Falcon. The seven compositions on the CD combines modern and traditional musical technology as both a lament for the falcon and an expression of the conflict between the wild and humanity's insatiable desire to subdue the untamed. With the disc being recorded in only one day, and five of the seven pieces improvised, the project in of itself isn't what you'd call tame, as the two artists are having to rely on their artistic instincts in order to pull it off.

Even the instruments used in the creation of the pieces reflects something of the tension between the natural world and the technology we use to shape and control what's around us. While Helvacioglu creates layers of textured sound utilizing electric guitar and electronics, Bandt is playing a simple four stringed instrument modelled on an ancient design called a long necked Tarhu. Inspired by instruments as diverse as the double bass, traditional Eastern and middle Eastern spike fiddles and the Indian Vina, Australian luthier Peter Biffin created an acoustic system for the tarhu which transfers its strings vibrations to a featherweight wooden cone suspended from its body. Whether bowed or plucked the design means the instrument is exceptionally sensitive and offers a musician a huge range of tones to work with.

I suppose we could continue to carry the analogy further by stressing how much the tarhu is like nature in when you pluck one string the whole resounds in ways you can't predict. However it would create the misleading impression of the two musical styles being in conflict, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Technology in of itself is not evil, nor are all modern advances. What is dangerous is how we have let them both deaden our senses to the world around us. In the hands of as gifted a musician as Helvacioglu a piece of electronics can create music as sensitive as any acoustic instrument no matter what its pedigree. Needless to say, Bandt proves herself just as capable of producing sounds and tones that are as unsettling as anything you'll hear created on any electric instrument. Maybe the irony here is that both the modern and the traditional employ freedom and wildness to deny our expectations of what they should do.
Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt.jpg
The music itself is a series of abstract creations built around various themes. The opening track, "Black Falcon", does more than just try and define the bird, but also brings us into its world. By that I don't mean the two have gone the obvious route and tried to recreate the sounds of flight. What they have done is created something that might give us the idea of what it could feel like to be as unfettered and free as a falcon. While there is beauty, there is also sadness as the bird and the freedom it represents are slowly vanishing, so in the midst of this celebration of its prowess we are made aware of the awful hole that would be left if it were to vanish forever.

While the various pieces on the disc celebrate the wildness of the natural world, never once do you have the impression they are guilty of sentimentalizing it either. There's nothing idyllic or pastoral about this animal's life, it is a predator after all and relies on killing other creatures to survive. As the music progresses over the course of the disc the two delve deeper into the meanings of untamed and why it strikes such fear into the hearts of humans. Wild just isn't being born free, its the unchecked rage of a hurricane, the explosive power of a volcano and the uncaring nature of the towering mountain. The falcon goes about its life and business in much the same way as it would if we weren't around to intrude upon its existence the same as any other elemental force.

It's fascinating to hear how this image is created over the course of the recording. At times I was hard pressed to remember there were seven individual pieces on the disc and found that I was listening to it as a single entity. Perhaps your experience with it will be different. For like any abstract work, perceptions on what is being presented will change from individual to individual. However, no matter what you "get" from the music, you can't fail to be impressed by the talents of the two musicians and the scope of their achievement. At times I was unable to distinguish who was creating which sounds so adept were each with their instruments. Bandt's control of tone and texture is so good at times it was hard to believe she was creating her sounds acoustically, while Helvacioglu electronic washes of sound were so delicate they could be mistaken for something occurring naturally.

Humans are split between our envy of the freedom represented by a bird in flight and our desire to control the wild nature behind the ability. Unfortunately the one can't exist without the other and if we continue on the way we are going we will destroy that which we desire so much. Perhaps that's why we are so bent on the destruction of nature - our selfishness won't let us simply enjoy something that splendid. If we're not to be allowed those gifts we aren't willing to let anyone else have them either. The music of Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt on Black Falcon might not say such things explicitly, and it may suggest some other idea altogether to you, but you won't be able to listen to it without being affected in some way.

This is a wonderful piece of work created and performed by two very unique talents. With this creation they have given us a perfect example of how acoustic and electronic instruments can work together to create something that combines the best elements of each without either overpowering the other. I wonder if there's a lesson in there somewhere; what do you think?

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon on Blogcritics.)

December 30, 2008

Village Rescues Starving Horses From Mountainside

The newspapers have been awfully depressing recently, filled with forecasts of economic disaster, reports of epidemics (cholera in Zimbabwe and ebola in the Congo), and casualty statistics from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. With millions of people going hungry world wide on top of that, it's sometimes hard not to listen for the echo of hoof-beats heralding the arrival of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse. Once in a while however, you catch the a glimpse of light in the dark that helps keep despair at bay.

The village of McBride, on the border between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), hasn't had much to celebrate this last little while. Up in the mountainous interior of BC they depend on the forestry industry for survival, and they've suffered with the downturns its experienced in recent years. Mill closings and job losses have left them in rough shape, and I'm sure a lot of the town folk are struggling to make ends meet and were wondering what kind of Christmas they'd be having this year. Whatever they had been thinking, I don't think any of them quite imagined the way Christmas would turn out this year, but I doubt any of them will be forgetting it too soon either.

A week before Christmas Logan Jeck went up Mount Renshaw in northeastern B.C. to retrieve a couple of snowmobiles some tourists had abandoned and what he discovered was enough to break your heart. Two horses, believed to have been there since September, were clinging to life, and the mountainside, in a tiny snowed in space. Jeck's family owns horses, and the next day his father sent his sister Toni back up the mountain with a bale of hay, a .44 magnum and instructions to put them down if they were in too much distress or feed them if they looked like they had a chance at survival. She fed them.
Horse Rescue 1.jpg
Then the people of McBride got down to the business of trying to figure out how to get two half dead horses down off the mountain. The first order of business was to ensure that they were strong enough to make the journey. When the animals were first discovered they had lost a third to half their body weight, one of them was covered in sores and missing patches of hair, and urine had encrusted what remained of their tails. The BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) sent a vet in to check the animals out a few days after they were found. On a scale where zero is death and six is ideal, their health was rated a two.

When word began to spread through the Robson Valley where McBride is located, volunteers and donations started to pour in. Blankets and hay were hauled up to feed the two horses and keep them warm, and snow was melted over open fires to provide water. Money to cover the costs of fuel and anything else required was coming in from as far away as Vancouver on the West Coast and Edmonton in central Alberta. However it was still going to be up to the people of McBride to bring the two lost souls safely home.

They considered various options; hoist them out with a helicopter, pull them out on sleds, or even seeing if they could put them on horse snowshoes so they could walk out. Horses, like deer, can't walk on powder snow, their hoofs just break through the crust. With the snow on the mountain piled in drifts higher than most people, there was no way they could walk out in the current conditions even with help. Not only would they quickly flounder, the chances of them breaking a leg while trying to plough through the snow in their weakened condition would be incredibly high. What it came down was being digging a corridor through the snow, with shovels, up the mountain down which the horses could be led safely.
Horse Rescue 3 Shoveling.jpg
For a week the people of McBride BC shovelled and dug a kilometre long passageway up the side of Mount Renshaw. Braving temperatures as low as -40C they cut an avenue through drifts that towered over their heads. On Tuesday December 23rd the two horses and their rescuers walked seven hours down to safety. Sundance and Belle have been placed in foster care by the SPCA, and are expected to make a full recovery. When you think of the conditions that people worked under, there were more than a few cases of frost bite reported among those doing the shovelling, and everything else that the townspeople have to worry about, it's hard not to agree with special constable Jamie Wiltse's, of the B.C. SPCA, assessment of them as heroes.

"They've been struggling lately," he said, "but they weren't thinking of themselves when they were digging out those horses. It just makes me choke up. It's a beautiful story, it was totally selfless." Yet to hear the people of McBride talk you wouldn't think they had done anything out of the ordinary. "They didn't deserve to be left up there with no chance of getting out" said horse trainer Birgit Stutz, one of those who took care of the pair on the mountain side while the escape route was being dug. "I wanted them out and that's all I thought about, and that's all that kept me going."
Horse Rescue 2.jpg
Ownership of the horses has been traced to a lawyer in Edmonton who says that the horses were carrying supplies for some hikers on the mountain in September when he got separated from them. He claims to have returned three times to try and retrieve the animals, getting stuck in the snow twice before he even located them, and then was unable to get them out of the snow. Constable Wiltse is investigating whether or not charges can be laid against the lawyer under provincial animal-cruelty laws. He says the owner had a duty to at least alert the authorities as to the animals' plight. Instead he left them on the side of a mountain and winter setting in with little or no chance of survival.

Thankfully the people of McBride British Columbia weren't going to let that happen if they could help it, and they turned what could have been a tragedy into a story of hope and compassion. A Mrs. Stulz said when commenting on the fact that she hadn't been able to buy presents or a tree this year because she'd been up the mountain,"This is the best Christmas ever, you realize these are the most important things in life - to help something that needs help".

When you read about a story like this, and you hear someone saying that, especially someone who has just done what Mrs. Stulz and her neighbours have done, you feel a little better about the world. They might not have been able to stop people from killing each other in the Middle East, or catching disease in Africa, but they did remind us what it means to care more about somebody else than yourself. If that's not a message of hope I don't know what is.

March 29, 2008

The Meaninglessness Of Earth Hour

Stop the presses: Tonight at 8:00 pm EST people, cities, and businesses around the world will be turning off their non-essential electricity for one hour. Earth Hour is the brain child of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) who have co-opeted the idea from an event staged in Sydney Australia last year where 2 million people and 2,000 businesses shut off power for an hour. The idea was to show people easy and effective means that can be taken to save electrical power on a regular basis.

This year the WWF (no not the World Wrestling Federation - see above) have taken the idea global by encouraging people, cities, and businesses to sign an on-line to pledge to take part in a simultaneous world-wide hour of turning out the lights and shutting off the power. To date only about 230,000 people and twenty major cities have pledged to go along with the idea, which isn't even a tenth of the number who took part in last year's event in Sydney. In other words it's looking like this hasn't exactly caught too many people's imaginations.

Now I'm sure that there are going to be people who will say things like the television stations and advertisers aren't going to want lose that hour's worth of prime time audience on a Saturday night, so they're not going to go out of their way to promote it. It will be easy enough to point the finger of blame at some big media conglomerate who doesn't want to lose a penny, for why this event doesn't fly. It's far better to do that than to admit that the whole exercise is pointless and just another sap to people's consciences that won't accomplish dick all.

It's just another joke like Earth Day, and the corporate sponsored pick up a piece of garbage programs that take place every April 23rd. You know those events where everybody gets in their cars and drives to some spot with garbage bags and collects some of the crap that our society produces on a daily basis so that it can be added to overflowing landfill sites, burnt in incinerators, tossed in the town dump, or buried in abandoned mine shafts. Yep, then every one gathers round and has a barbecue consisting of hamburgers made from cattle that acres of rain forest were cut down to make room for. Very ecological.

I hate to break it to everyone but no amount of Earth Days, Earth Hours, Earth Minutes, or even Earth Seconds, is going to change the condition the world is in. If you want to do something constructive for the environment it is going take a commitment far in excess of anything that any of us, and I include myself in that us, are probably willing to take. One only has to consider the environmental impact we each have going grocery shopping each week to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

According to statistics reported by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral if you were to remove the products made with corn, soy, and canola from the supermarket, close to 97% of what's on the shelves would vanish. Soy and corn are not just found in soy milk, tofu or your can of creamed corn from Green Giant these days. Check the ingredient list on the next box of frozen chicken breasts that you buy and you'll notice some interesting additions; soy protein and maybe even corn meal. Both are added to the "chicken breast" as filler to give it more weight. Yet that's only the surface, because a great deal of the packaging that your food comes in has used corn in the manufacturing process.

Now that might sound "ecological" until you start factoring in something else, how much of our agricultural land is now being used to grow what used to be know as feed corn - corn unfit for human consumption but you could feed it to your cattle - that can be processed for manufacturing purposes? In order to make that box your chicken product came in we've wasted land that could have been used to grow food in order to create packaging that has to be disposed of somehow or other.

Then there's the matter of how that packaging was manufactured. How much fresh water had to used for the paper to be pulped, for the inks to be manufactured? How much electrical power was needed for the various stages of the manufacturing process from the cutting down of the tree that supplied the wood that made the paper until the box ended up on the factory floor where the frozen chicken bits were stuffed into it? What happened to all the waste product from the manufacturing process all the way along the chain?

None of that even takes into account the chicken used to make the contents of the package. Skipping over the whole ethical thing about factory farms for now let's just consider chicken shit. That's the real problem with all these factory farms is the disposal of the animal waste product. You get thousands of chickens in one place you're talking about one hell of a lot of chicken shit that you have to get rid off somehow because you can't just have it piling up on the floor. So where does it all go?

All of that just from buying one box of frozen chicken breasts at the supermarket. If you were to take every product you purchase in the grocery store that came pre packaged and start tracing back through the manufacturing process for each part of it, you'd come up with a similar scenario. Even those so called "green" products we all buy are packaged and contribute somewhere along the way to the damage we're inflicting upon the planet.

So things like Earth Hour and Earth Day are meaningless jokes when compared to the damage we inflict upon the world we live in every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every year just by going about our daily business. No one off event once a year will change that. Sure turn your electric power off for an hour tonight if you want, but while your at it why not sit down and look at the real impact of your personal habits on the planet earth.

Oh and everybody, don't rush to turn on your electricity all at once; the power spike could black out North America for hours.

February 21, 2008

Wild Burros Killed As "Wildlife Management"

“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; ... and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

It looked liked the bleeding would finally be stopped. In 1971 an American Congress finally put the brakes on what had been an ongoing slaughter for one hundred years. The killing of America's wild horse and burro populations looked like it was finally coming to an end. It was quite a sea change from a hundred years earlier when American governments had advocated the extermination of the wild horse as a means of bringing the American Indian to heel.

Even more important than just stopping the killing was their recognition that these animals needed to have territory to live in. "They are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands" would seem to guarantee both the horse, and their far less glamourous cousin the burro, at least equal standing on public lands as all other creatures. But a law is only as strong as the will to enforce it, and there seems to be plenty of interest groups with money who have the ability to sap the will needed to enforce that law.

Cattle ranchers want the land the horses use because of how little they are charged to use public lands for grazing rights, and have been more than willing to supply the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with erroneous statistics and misleading information in order to support their cause. The BLM have done their bit for agribusiness by actually ensuring the wild horse population has been reduced by over 50% since Congress passed the 1971 act that supposedly ensured their population would be stabilized.
Jenny1 -Burro.jpg
If the campaign carried out against the horses wasn't bad enough it pales in comparison to the one currently being waged against the humble burro. Not only have they seen the amount of their habitat space gradually eroded until now it stands at less than fifty per cent of what they had in 1971 but herd levels have been reduced to such an extent that most have fallen below numbers considered sufficient to maintain genetic integrity (150) and some herds are so small (50 or less) that inbreeding is a serious risk.

Somehow or other since 1971 the wild burro has gone from being "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west" to a exotic feral animal that is interfering with the natural order. It's interesting how this wasn't considered a problem until a few years ago when a move was made by big game hunters in North America to reintroduce the Desert Big horn sheep into the same areas that burros were already grazing.

While it's despicable in the first place to re-introduce an animal into the wild just so you can hunt it, displacing another animal and calling it "Wild Life Management", is hypocrisy of the highest order. What's been happening is a smear campaign that would be worthy of any dis-information program run by the current administration. First start referring to the burros as feral and exotic instead of wild so it sounds like they were a recently introduced species instead of having been here longer then almost all breeds of domestic cattle.

Like the horse, the burro was re-introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. The burro was especially adaptable to the climate of the Southern United States and Mexico as the breed that came with the Spanish had originated in North Africa. Not only does it require minimal amounts of water for survival, it also can obtain most of it's required water from the scrub brush that makes up the majority of it's diet.

Like the horse the burros were at various points in time released into the wild and vanished into wilderness that could support little other wild life. It's only been since another introduced creature, man, has wanted to make use of its habitat that the burro has become a "Wild Life Management" issue. Unlike horses they weren't even a concern for cattle ranchers, because they lived in territories that couldn't sustain cattle.

However, once State governments became aware of just how potentially lucrative the Big Horn Sheep hunt could be, (with licences fetching up to $100,000 each at auctions), burros became a nuisance creature that needed to be dealt with. All of a sudden we hear that they are a threat to water supplies, their populations are too high, and of course a threat to the precious Big Horn Sheep gold mine.

What's even more disquieting is the fact that many of the Big Horn Sheep are animals being introduced into areas where there was no prior sheep population. In fact the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society boasts on its web site that over 1000 animals have been introduced and have established viable populations in ten mountain ranges where they didn't previously exist.

Recently I was sent documents that were a record of an investigation into the discovery of burro carcasses in in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. As these documents have not yet been made public my source has asked to remain anonymous for the moment. The documents in question are the transcripts of interviews conducted by an Internal Affairs officer who was following up on complaints of potential animal cruelty.
Wild Burros.jpg
Park rangers having discovered the bodies of burros rotting by the road in the park dutifully reported the crime to state authorities. The only problem was that the shootings had been carried out by Deputy Director of Texas State Parks Dan Sholly and States Parks Region 1 Director, Michael Hil, with the full support of the State Parks Director Walter D. Danby. When interviewed in early November the three men freely admitted that the killings had taken place, and had only just recently stopped.

According to Mr. Sholly's testimony they had started shooting the burros in April of 2007 until they were ordered to stop on October 23rd 2007 (although he did admit that a final burro was shot on Oct. 26th three days after the stop kill order was issued). According to him they had "kept a running total in our mind, and initially in our reports, the number we had shot was seventy-one burros". He also said that he had shot burros on five or six trips into the park, but not every time he went there - mainly because he didn't see them every time he went into the park.

In his testimony Mike Hill said that July of 2007 was the last record he has of burros being shot, and that Dan told him to keep killing burros and not to write anything down about it after that time. He said that Dan had told him that something had been said in Austin (State government offices for Texas are located in the city of Austin) about the burros being killed. It's interesting to note that in his testimony Dan Sholly claims that he never told any park employee to stop recording the number of burros being shot.

It's also interesting to note that in his initial interview with the investigating officer the dates Mike HIll said the shootings took place contradicted those given by Mr. Sholly, but two days later he claims to have reviewed "contemporaneous notes" to refresh his memory, and changed the dates to coincide to agree with those offered by Mr. Sholly. He had said in his first interview that the killing of burros had started in April of 2006, a full year earlier then the date he came back with of April 2007. Of course he might have simply confused the dates, but than again since Sholly denied telling him to stop recording his kills, I have to wonder.

Both Mr. Sholly and Mr. Hill testified that the killing was necessitated because they were wanting to reintroduce Big Horn Sheep to the park and that they had been told that wouldn't be possible with the burros in place. Mr. Sholly also claims they never went into the park to deliberately hunt for burros, but they were trying to impact on the population by taking targets of opportunity.

I thing the most damming piece of testimony came from State Park's Director Walter D. Dabney. After relaying that he told Mr. Hill and Mr. Sholly that they should kill any and all burros on site, he mentions that no other efforts have been made to control the populations in the park since he started. In other words, they haven't attempted to capture, or relocate the herd by any of the means normally followed with protected animals.

I'm not really sure how always carrying a gun and shooting any burro you see on site differs from hunting burros, but them I'm not a Director of State Parks in Texas so I wouldn't know about such distinctions. All I know is that the burro is protected animal in the wild and is not to be killed or have it's habitat displaced by any other animal. Yet in Texas the people who are running the parks system are guilty of both crimes.

The transcript of the inquiry that I received came complete with the investigating officer's findings and recommendations. The only fault he could find with the indiscriminate killing of a protected species was the fact that the people doing the killing hadn't bothered to notify the park's employees in advance that they would be shooting burros in the park. If they had known in advance that the shootings were taking place they wouldn't have been surprised to find the rotting burro carcasses beside the road, and worried that anything untoward was going on.

He recommended that in the future all park employees be better informed about the parks wildlife management programs and that proper arrangements should be made to deal with the disposal of the carcasses. Nowhere in his findings or in his recommendations does he mention that burros are a protected animal in the United States, or that perhaps they should investigate alternative means of wildlife management instead of killing them.

It took a twenty-five year fight by concerned citizens and wildlife conservationists to get the American Congress to pass the The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thirty-six years latter officers and directors of Public Parks in Texas are flagrantly disregarding the two major provisions of the act. Not only are they depriving them of habitat desperately needed to maintain the numbers of wild burros in America, they are killing them in order to facilitate their supplanting. Currently there are only five genetically viable burro herds remaining in the wild and if the current rate of attrition of both habitat and animals is allowed to continue it will result in the extinction of wild burro herds in the American West.

Is this how America preserves its cultural heritage?

Facts and figures concerning the relative sizes of burro herds and Big Horn Sheep populations and habitat, unless otherwise stated are taken from "Wild Burros of the American West: A Critical Analysis of the National Status of Wild Burros on Public Lands 2006 by C.R. MacDonald

February 18, 2008

America's Wild Horses Under Attack

The late British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell used to talk about what he called the paper protection of animals. By that he meant governments made laws that on paper claimed an animal was protected but in reality the animal was still at high risk from humans. The greatest risk that Durrell saw was the fact that while there might be laws preventing them from being killed - there was no law preventing the land they lived on from being taken away.

The biggest threat to all wild life, whether it has roots, legs, fins, or crawls on its belly, is the steady encroachment of humanity into habitat. Humans and their farm animals do not mix with wild life under any circumstances. The least amount of contact will cause animals to change their habits. Look at the bears in parks like Yellowstone who beg for food, or ones near human habitation who have taken to foraging in dumps instead of hunting for food as they used to. Of course minimal contact isn't going to drive an animal to extinction, so government run parks or preserves that allow human visitors, if properly managed, are a lesser evil than the complete eradication of habitat.

In Canada a concentrated effort is being made both publicly and privately to preserve habitats where species or unique ecosystems are endangered. Once these areas are established they become off limits to any human intervention, whether habitation, exploitation of natural resources, or on occasion even human visitors. If an area is considered too sensitive to withstand even humans camping in tents, than they aren't allowed to enter the designated area.
The necessity of programs like these was brought home to me again this weekend by the news that a herd of 150 American wild horses is under threat from a lumber company's plans for the Blackjack Mountain of Oklahoma. The herd was established around twenty-five years ago by Gilbert Jones and includes a couple of horses that are direct decedents of those who came to Oklahoma on the "Trail Of Tears" with Choctaws and Cherokees Indians during their forced removal from the Tennessee mountains.

In spite of the fact that American Wild Horses are considered a protected animal by the American government, The Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has been given permission to plant trees to harvest like a crop. In order to facilitate the growth of this "crop" they need to eliminate all ground cover and foliage that might compete with them. The company had signed a contract allowing for a two year period during which the herd could be relocated, but has since reneged and begun spraying the area with pesticides.

Bryant Rickman of the Medicine Springs Ranch, who manages the herd, has been given until February 29th to remove them from the area by the Lumber Company. Only thing is, where can you find room for 150 wild horses to run free anymore? You see the situation in Blackjack Mountain is a reflection of what faces the wild horse population across the United States as they are being squeezed off public land set aside for them by the very agency meant to be protecting them - the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1971, when Congress and Richard Nixon responded to public pressure and enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was made responsible for the welfare of the remaining wild herds and ensuring that their population was maintained at the current level. At the time the BLM claimed there were only 17,000 animals living in the wild. What this claim was based on is unknown as they didn't conduct a census of the wild horse population for the first time until three years later. The results of that first head count showed them to be off target by more then 50% as the actual total was 42,000.

While on paper the law says that American Wild Horses are a protected species and public lands must be made available to them as sanctuaries for free range, less than half the actual population has been given that protection. In its wisdom, instead of amending the original 17,000 figure when they discovered how wrong it was, the BLM decided that the excess horses needed to be "removed" from public lands. The people who were responsible for preserving the horses have instead managed to reduce their population by around 50% since protection came into place.

The real problem is the fact that the BLM are also responsible for issuing grazing licences to cattle ranchers on the same public lands set aside for the horses. So for every horse the BLM can remove from public land, they can replace it with a fee paying cow. For every horse removed from public land agribusiness gets to graze a cow subsidized by the American government. According to two General Accounting Office reports the BLM was making removal decisions not on the actual numbers of horses that a range can support, but on the recommendations of advisor groups "largely composed of livestock permittees".
So the guys who stand to make the most money from having wild horses removed from public land are the ones telling the BLM that horses are the primary cause of overgrazing and degradation of public lands. The truth is that because horses tend to roam and can find forage in areas where cattle and sheep can't, they cause far less harm to a habitat than any livestock.

When cattle graze they don't chew the grass they pull it from the ground; if the soil happens to be wet they will therefore rip it out by the roots. Horses on the other hand have front teeth allowing them to crop grass as they graze, meaning there is far less chance of them destroying the root system and allowing for new growth. A horse's digestive system is actually beneficial to a habitat, because they pass grass seed through their system and replant as they graze.

As to the BLM's claim that horses are degrading grazing lands; well horse aren't the critter that defecate in their own water supply, while cattle do. Horses aren't the animal that hangs out in one area of land until it's stripped clean of any and all forage necessitating human intervention to move them on to other pastures. Even without any of that information, the numbers don't lie; at current levels livestock out number wild horse by 200 to 1 on public lands. You tell me who is going to have the biggest impact on the environment; two hundred head of cattle standing in one place or one horse wandering around looking for food?

Yet somehow or other, in spite of all this information available to the government and Congress about BLM's record of mismanagement and its history of playing fast and loose with facts and information, their budget was increased by 50% in 2001 and then another third in 2005 to pay for an aggressive removal program of wild horses from public lands. So if the people charged with protecting the horse population in the wild are being funded by the government to remove the horses from the wild it really makes you question the validity of the law that supposedly guarantees their safety.

Back in Blackjack Mountain Oklahoma concerned people have come together to form the The Gilbert Jones Choctaw-Cherokee Conservancy and Historical Land Trust whose immediate goal is to raise $450,000 to purchase the first 524 of the needed 2,500 acres for the Trust to secure a permanent home for these last of a kind horses. The goal is to preserve the original tribal strains of Choctaw and Cherokee and America's Spanish Colonial Mustangs in viable and healthy wild herds for generations.

Return To Freedom, a 501c3 charitable organization has joined forces with script writer John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion Of The Cimarron, and the upcoming Forbidden Kingdom) the Rickman Family, and others in forming the trust. You can find out more about their effort and what you can do to help by following the link above to the Return To Freedom web site.

In 1971, the single biggest letter campaign outside of protests against war, forced Congress and Richard Nixon to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure the survival of America's wild horse population and preserve the strains that are unique to our continent. Thirty-six years of mis-management and conflict of interest has done nothing but reduce the population of horses in the wild by nearly 50%.That's not wildlife preservation in my book.

Unless otherwise stated, information in this article was provided by the The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign web site.

September 11, 2007

The Night Visitor

The bellows effect of a wind gust caught the small fire, flaring it briefly, sending a shower of sparks up in the air. The illumination it caused offered a brief silhouette view of a sharply featured face. Shadows that lived beneath his brow, in the lee of his nose, and in the hollows scooped out beneath his cheekbones were thrown into even sharper relief, until his face was a patchwork of light and dark.

There had been drought again this year and it was second nature to check and see if a spark had ignited any of the brown grass. Fires seeded as easily as weeds, taking root at the slightest provocation they quickly spread to the horizon. Fields of fire didn't sink deep roots, but reaped a deadly harvest all the same.

One moment you could be riding through what remained of the prairie grass, seeing what scant signs of life there were to see, and the next you were ankle deep in ash. Like before and after pictures of a smoker's lungs burnt and un burnt lay side by side. It had to be pure chance why one piece was spared while the adjacent burnt to a cinder. He had given up looking for clues in the surrounding geography, as there were never any clues on offer.

In spite of all attempts to kill her, the land would always hold on to her secrets,. Strip mining caused soil erosion; sulphuric acid used to clean pumice for people's stoned washed, acid jeans had taken care of the water table; at least what had been left of it after they had damned the river for their artificial lakes, fountains and hydro electric.

All that power and beauty diverted because humans were afraid of the dark and its accompanying quiet. What other reason could they have for spending so much money on destroying the beauty of night to make huge pockets of light and noise in the middle of the desert?

On nights like this one, when the moon hung full and ripe in the sky, why anyone would need any more light was beyond him. Even on the nights when she stayed under wraps, or hid herself in the earth's shadow, you didn't need extra light to sleep by. Those who needed to be out and about at night had the ability to either see in the dark or were guided by arcane means known only to themselves.

Even now the darkness began to grow deeper as the night lengthened and the moon eased through her apex. There were nights when he wouldn't leave the fire to climb into his bedroll; when he would feel compelled to bear witness to the darkness and give it the recognition he felt it deserved. Other nights just saw him sitting up keeping his thoughts company so they wouldn't complain the next day that he was ignoring them.

Neglected, they could easily turn vindictive and resentful and make stupid demands on his time during the course of the day. It was better to lose a little sleep now then to have to put up with the abuse that was the certain result of denying their existence. Tonight, though, he was pretty sure he wasn't going to be alone tonight if he sat up.

Sure enough, only a short while later, the flames picked out a pair of amber eyes glowing at him out of the dark. They had first shown up a few years back when the drought had started, and had been showing up on a regular basis ever since. The first time they appeared at his fire he wasn't sure what to make of it. He did know that being scared wasn't going to help, so he stayed as calm as possible and left it to his guest to decide about the proper etiquette for the visit. It wasn't everyday that a God showed up at his campfire after all and he figured that it was only polite to let him set the tone.

It hadn't been too difficult to figure out that his guest wasn't your ordinary coyote. There were a couple of reasons, not the least being that he talked. While bold creatures, the normal wild coyote wasn't just going to up and plunk itself down at a human's campfire. The closest they would usually come is to skirt around the edges of a camp site, seeing if there was any food let out for an easy steall.

Aside from that, the last coyote in the district had been killed off long ago. In fact, it wouldn't surprise him if he found out the last coyote had been killed off in the wild period. Man had never had much use for them for some reason, even though like the wolf their primary prey were the pests like mice and rats that when left unchecked could and did destroy crops. All farmers saw was the potential coyotes represented to their precious sheep and chickens.

Even though payment of an occasional chicken or sheep should have been a fair exchange for preserving grain supplies, farmers refused to see it that way and began a systematic campaign that ended with the eradication of both wolf and coyote and a huge upsurge in the varmint population. With mice and rats out of control, ranchers and farmers both had to resort to poison to take on the rodent populations. A funny thing happened though, the poison they used to try and get rid of the rats, and mice poisoned the feed for the livestock, any livestock that ate it, and the seed for next years crop. Sort of makes the occasional sheep and chicken look inexpensive after all.

Of course they didn't find our about the crop until the following year when they planted and nothing came up. Even going out and buying all brand new seed didn't help much. It turned out that planting the poisoned seed, burying the carcasses of the poisoned rodents, chickens, sheep, and cattle, on top of burying the spoiled grain, was the last straw for the land in this part of the world. Dropping a nuclear bomb wouldn't have done a better job of rendering it fallow for generations to come.

So on that first night when Coyote turned up, there was no one else it could have been. He didn't say anything, those first few times, just sat and stared into the fire. For a trickster god he was pretty morose, but all things considered you couldn't really be expecting him to be jumping for joy. If you believed, like some people do, that he had created the world, it's not surprising he'd be feeling a little down considering the shape things are in.

It was about the fourth time he'd dropped by that he said something. He'd been sitting with his head resting on his front paws staring into the fire like always, when all of a sudden he let out a deep sigh. It sounded like it started at the base of his tail and worked its way on up to the tip of his ears before finally slipping out of his mouth.

"I just don't get it", he said "Things were just fine for the longest time. Everybody understood what they needed to do for things to work smothly. If you were going to try and grow stuff, or raise critters, you made damn sure that you set some aside or sacrificed one in order to keep who ever needed to be, kept happy. All over the world, you human beings used to be quite content with that arrangement. Showing yourselves to be grateful for what you've been given, by giving some of it back. Is that so difficult a concept to get your head around?

When did you folk become so greedy? It's not just the farmers or the ranchers refusing to give away – it's everywhere. You take all the water and you don't even drink it. What do you do with it instead? You use it to power places of self-indulgence that stop you from being aware of how badly you've treated the world

What other species do you know that is so rude that they build an artificial boat safari through a delicate ecosystem like the Florida Everglades? Who else would damn one of the most beautiful rivers in the world in order to make an artificial city in the middle of a desert that uses more hydroelectric power then some countries do? How about creating a plant seed that is specially designed so that it can be safely poisoned without considering what the effects of the poison are going to be long term for themselves or other life forms?"

He stopped then and began scratching behind his ear with his hind leg and then continued his toilet by washing himself in a manner that left no doubt about his opinion of the human race. He raised his head again and looked across the fire, he went to say something more, then shook his head and left. He'd been back to the fire a number of times since, but hadn't had much more to say. When you think about what else is there to say?

So now, most of the time Coyote comes and sits by the fire and looks into it to see if he can find his memories of a better time. Once in a while he'll ask for a cup of tea, just for old times sake, but it sure don't look like his heart is really into it. Sometimes they'll sit there and let the fire burn out until the two of them are left in the dark with their thoughts and the stars shining down on them. They can almost pretend when the dark is at it's purest and most deep that maybe its the beginning and they're waiting for everything to be born.

But that thought doesn't stand up to the harsh light of day any more than any other illusion. Usually just before dawn has fully broken Coyote will pick up his tail and leave, although not before saying goodbye to his one true love as she sinks behind the horizon; another impossible dream that he won't give up on.

June 3, 2007

Book Review: The Horse Is Good Viggo Mortensen

I wonder what it must have felt like for early man to first meet the horse. Did they hunt it to start with? How did they figure out that they could make use of it? Who was that first brave soul that said, "Maybe we should try climbing on and riding" or the intelligent one who thought of hooking it to a plough?

When the native peoples of North America first saw the horses that had escaped the Spanish conquistadors to roam free over the plains they were astounded. They had never seen dogs so big before. They soon became an integral part of their lives, replacing the camp dogs that pulled the travois and facilitating the hunting of the buffalo.

When the American government wanted to destroy the nation of Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountains was his real name) they ordered the destruction of all Appaloosa horses, as they were integral to the lives of the Nez Pearce. The rationale went that by destroying their horses the Nez Pearce would have to surrender and live on the reservation the government has so kindly provided for them.

Anywhere horses lived, their lives became integrated into the culture of the people who have lived there. From the Russian Steppes where the Cossacks raided, China where they were immortalized in statues of jade, Arabia where they were bred for speed, and in farmer's fields around the world they tilled the earth.
There's something about a horse that makes it hard to visualize them as static; they need to be in motion or at least animated to capture their essence. For me this has always meant the majority of photo essays, or any type of attempt to capture a moment in time with horses, has been inadequate in expressing who they are. Too much attention is usually paid to the look of the animal, to show jumping and walking it around the ring, and not enough to out where it comes alive on the prairie.

Viggo Mortensen's The Horse Is Good is a horse of a different colour in that it attempts to capture moments of movement and non-traditional times of stasis. Through his involvement in movies where horses were utilized in the couple of years prior to the original 2003 publication date of the book, he had some unique opportunities to both observe and photograph horses in circumstances that showed off their unique qualities.

Instead of mere portraiture Mr. Mortensen's photographs show movement through shutter speed adjustments, point of focus, and perspective. By shooting from atop a horse he allows us to experience the sensation of movement as much as possible in a static format.

I'm sure most of you have seen photographs of car's headlights caught in a timed exposure where they become lazar beams that streak across the night sky. Horses caught in the same fashion in daylight leave pieces of themselves and their riders strewn in lines behind them while the background behind dissolves into a blur of unrecognizable shapes.

Of course freezing them in frame and capturing them as sculpted figures of muscle, sinew, and bone displays the power that fuels that speed. Looking at them from below, their rolling eyes, powerful neck muscles, and broad chests one can only imagine the terror people felt when first meeting mounted soldiers charging down on them.

The warhorses of old were bred for speed and strength – a mixture of a draught horse and a thoroughbred which, even encumbered by the weight of a knight and his armour and encased in metal itself, could obtain gallop speeds. Imagine having that bearing down on you with your only defence being a skinny post with a metal tip on the end?

Mr Mortensen also treats us to some of the more intimate moments between man and animal. The connection that can be forged between the rider and steed where each becomes an extension of the other to the extent that communication is thought and felt rather then indicated or spoken.

The hand that rests on the back of the horse against the bright blue sky and nothing else; one hand reaching out to a head and bridle while the other holds a mouthful to bring to the muzzle as reward; and two foreheads touching, human and horse, sharing something we onlookers can't begin to understand.

Of course not all people have affection for horses and wild Mustangs were almost hunted to extinction for the sake of politics, ranchers, and dog food. Others have treated them like machinery and use them until there's nothing left but to send for the knacker to come haul the carcass away.

But still they continue in their relationship with us in spite of that and we are honoured by it. The horse brings a certain dignity and romance to our life that nothing else can. How many motor carriage rides around Central Park or the Old Town in Quebec City do you think people would be interested in? Look at the pictures of the horses drawn up around a grave and on the march in honour of Big Foot who was wiped out at Wounded Knee in The Horse Is Good and if something doesn't stir in your breast than you should be checked for a pulse.

Mr. Mortensen has managed to capture aspects of the horse's character and our relationship with it that is very rarely depicted anywhere. Without words or descriptive titles I learned more about horses from this book than any encyclopaedia or reference book I've glanced through in the past. There have not been many occasions where I've been fortunate enough to be around horses, but this book brought back memories of those times as effectively as watching a movie. All that was missing was the quick hop to avoid stepping in something you'd rather not, but aside from that it was just like being in the company of horses.

The Horse Is Good has just recently come available again and can be purchased directly from Perceval Press until June 17th 2007 for half its list price as part of the spring sale. Horse lovers everywhere should rejoice.

February 12, 2007

Canadian Politics: The Green Game

The politicians in Canada have discovered a new game called " I Can Be Greener Than You"`. Everyday without fail you can open a newspaper or turn on the television news and you'll see either one of the four party leaders. If they happen to be tied up with actually governing, the environment minister and the official opposition party critics will be run out for commentary.

As Prime Minister, Steven Harper should have an advantage in the game of one-upmanship as he gets first crack at the press every day. But instead of making any great steps that would put the opposition on the defensive, he ends up responding to their proposals not the other war round.

The impression that this gives is that the Conservative Party of Canada, Harper's political party, doesn't care enough to come up with anything of real substance on the issue. The other problem that Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada have is bridging their credibility gap when it comes to environmental issues.

They are the same government after all that after only a couple of months in power announced that they were going to renege on Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Accord. They offered up a Clean Air act instead, that was so ineffective it wouldn't even kick in until seven years from now, and even then it would be partially voluntary which meant there was no guarantee of any results.

In fact their biggest effort in this new game has been to discredit the new Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion. For all the Conservative Party posturing about how they don't worry about polls, this guy absolutely terrifies them. Ever since his election as leader in December of 2006, he's pulled the Liberal party up by the bootstraps and kept them ahead ever since. On top of that he was pushing the environment as a key issue even before he was elected leader.

Of course the other reason Dion worries the Conservatives so much is that he was Minister of The Environment for close to two years. While he didn't do anything spectacular at that time, he at least prevented the slashing and burning of programming that has occurred in the first year of the Conservative Government. Considering that both of his Prime Ministers were intent on cutting the budget that in of itself is an accomplishment.

Of course Mr. Dion is also in the position of being able to take the moral high ground when it comes to the environment. All he has to do is keep repeating I wasn't the one to scrap our participation in the Kyoto accord and drop hints about Stephen Harper being from Alberta where the most business opposition to Kyoto – the oil business – comes from and let people draw their own conclusions. If they come up with Stephen Harper is a lackey of the oil and gas industry it won't be any skin off his nose.

Now the New Democratic Party (NDP) under Jack Layton are trying to look like they have some influence over events but in reality what little power they might have had is gone. Sure the Conservatives need them if both the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois vote against them, but if that happens can you see what passes for a left wing party supporting the most right wing federal government in Canada's history? Not bloody likely.

Jack has been one of the staunches supporters of the Kyoto Accord and other environmental initiatives with actual teeth in them that will make a difference. Of all the leaders he seems to be the only to understand that we can't put off taking action any longer. He also knows that the longer we wait to start, the harder and more expensive it will become.

The real problem is that none of them are seen to be offering any real viable ideas except the opposition wants us to sign back on again with the Kyoto Accord, which wasn't that great to begin with, but at least it was something

In the middle of all the politicians posturing, posing, and proclaiming, someone who relay knows what he's talking about when it comes to the environment is touring the country to push for people to force politicians to realize it's not just a fad but folk are genuinely scared.

David Suzuki has climbed on a bus and is touring the country like some latter day traveling evangelical show preaching the gospel of how we can save ourselves from Global warning. Since Suzuki is usually more popular than any of the politicians people are paying attention to him when he rolls into town.

Will that translate into any real increased pressure on the political types? Well Suzuki has set up an online letter writing campaign at his web site where you can get a letter in your name written to all the previously mentioned political leaders, as well as the leader of Bloc Quebecois.

I don't know how effective this will be except maybe to remind the politicians that the people of Canada believe that the issue of air quality is just as important as the budget and tax rebates. But of course that's the reason that all of them have for spending any time on the issue. If the Canadian public didn't care as much as they do now do you really think that any of these politicians would give a rat's ass?

Probably not, which is all the more reason to go over to David Suzuki's site and sign up to send a card to remind the political types what's important. Sometimes I don't think they'd remember their own names if the Speaker of the House Of Commons didn't call upon them when they stood up to speak in Parliament. Hoping they'll remember the environment without help when there are no cameras present is a little too much to ask

Right now they are playing their Green Game because they know it plays well with the Canadian Public. But until the House actually votes in legislation that curtails emissions from car and industrial smokestacks sufficient to meet even the bare minimum asked of by the Kyoto Accord, it won't be anything but a game.

The real losers in this game are going to be all of us; the planet, and anybody who is able to come after us without being born with an oxygen tent built in.

December 23, 2006

Moments Of Magic

I think I've always wanted there to be magic in the world. I'm sure that as a child I would have dreamed that there was something that could be called upon to change my life. If I could only discover it or find the right clue that would lead me to the place where it existed then everything would be perfect.

But the type of magic I was looking for and the type of magic that exists in the world have very little to do with each other. It wasn't until I was much older that I faced up to the fact that there are no magic wands we can wave to whisk us away when we wish.

Bad things happen to children, adults have to deal with their problems, and each of us is forced to bear the burden of our responsibilities. The avoidance techniques that we do have are far less wholesome than broomsticks and only delay the inevitable. But in spite of these reality checks I've managed to keep a tenacious hold on my belief in magic.

Maybe it was because of the fact that I worked in theatre for a period of time and in some ways we created magic each time we gave a performance. There's always been something about the theatre that is somewhat magical, perhaps because of it's previous association with travelling shows during the renaissance, or it's even earlier associations with the god Dionysus. Anyway what else would you call it when a person becomes someone else before your very eyes if not magic?

No matter what the reasons I am as certain of magic's existence as I am of the fact that I'm dependant on oxygen for survival. Does that make you uncomfortable to hear a supposedly rational man admit that he believes in magic? Well I can't say that I blame you, I have a fairly good idea how ridiculous that sounds. Like some new age psychobabble I 'm sure leading up to some stupid talk about guardian angles or something equally nauseating.

Fear not, it's nothing to do with guardian angles, whether you consider it new age psychobabble is another thing I guess, but that is something we'll all have to live with. Those of you who wince with embarrassment when you read this, will consider yourselves the most martyred I'm sure, but I think I've given fair warning and you've had plenty of time to turn aside so you've only yourself to blame.

However I don't think anyone really needs to worry that much because the magic I'm going to talk about is readily available to anyone with eyes and ears willing to use those senses and keep their mouth shut for a short period of time. In other words using your powers of observation not the ones for making observations.

Walk down almost any block in a residential neighbourhood and you'll see at least one or two front lawns adorned with some sort of ornamental hedge or shrubbery. As you approach from down the street, if you are paying attention, you may notice a fair amount of activity going on within and around the piece of topiary. The air is full of the small, feathered bodies of sparrows and the sound of their excited voices.

As soon as you get to within two feet of the bush it's as if something has pulled a plug. All the bird sound stops and nothing is moving. If you were to only give a causal glance, as you walked by you'd wonder where they all could have dispersed to? There's only one or two visible now.

But if you look closely you can see them all perched on the branches that shouldn't support even their weight. They are stock-still and not a sound can be heard save the occasional "peep" which is quickly hushed. Yet continue on only for a few feet and the air is once again filled with sound; a quick glance over your shoulder reveals that the action you had interrupted has continued as if it had never been interrupted.

If you were to continue to walk and head out onto a main street, you'll be grateful to see that because there are few buildings taller than four stories high that the sky is laid out for you like an expanse of ocean. Except of course no sea on this planet could be that colour blue or contain clouds that tower in quite that manner.

For just a second you see why the Hopi of the South West say the Kachina spirits live in a mountain range in the sky. It appears to be running on a diagonal over your head, magnificent piles of solid white flecked with grey. Streaming off to the side are the insubstantial veils that the sun is using to partially shield his face with today.

The unexpected sound of bus engine engaging almost pulls you back to the earth but out of the corner of your eye you see a ballet group of pigeons take flight in their tight spiral formation. Twenty, thirty, maybe even forty of them are attempting to scale the heights of the sky momentarily. But as if they are attached to a string, or are bound not to climb further, they invert the motion that took them aloft and settle back onto the roof they had been roosting on a moment before.

All the way down the street as far as you can see the same pattern is repeated as group after group respond to the flight of the one prior in line. Wave after wave crests against the lower breakwater of the sky before returning to their point of origin until all you see are black specks at the far end of your vision.

Continuing to walk you veer back away from the traffic onto another residential street and from nowhere appears a flock of starlings to settle in a tree some twenty feet from you. There is no way of knowing how many of them there in front of you, only that they blacken the tree and the sounds of their voices are a cacophony that mysteriously attracts no one else's attention.

At some unseen signal they lift off as one unit and if the pigeons were a dance troupe the starlings are a brigade on parade ground formation, so sharp and tight are their turns, and precise in their intent. This is no mere reaction flight; it is a deliberate manoeuvre that lifts the whole flock to their next feeding location or roost.

Ask yourself how can the sparrows know when to turn on and off; how do the pigeons take off into those spirals every time; and most especially how does a flock of starlings obey such precise movement commands?

In our pre rational days when we didn't look to science for every explanation, when we were dependant on the generosity of the planet's bounty for survival, we believed in the spirits of the game we hunted and that the earth beneath our feet was a living breathing entity. But in spite of our new ability to offer reasonable solutions to puzzles like those I've posed above, I can't help but wonder if we might not have been on the right track all along in our "primitive" times.

You can offer me any number of words of scientific explanation, but they won't quiet the feeling inside of me that when I watch these occurrences, I'm witnessing a type of magic that goes beyond anything a human being could hope to create. It may not be exactly what I hoped for as a child, but it does the trick now every time.

December 21, 2006

The Magic Of Winter Light

Forty-five minutes ago the clock rolled over and it became officially December 21st, the winter solstice. Although my calendar says that December 20th was the first day of winter, I can't help but always think of the 21st as being the longest night of the year.

I realize given the inaccuracies inherent in our system of measuring the passage of time that dates jump around a bit. When your year is 365 days and a quarter long there are bound to be some variables that even a leap year can't correct. But since the difference in the length of the day on the 20th or 21st is so minimal I don't feel too badly for adhering to the date I've always associated with the event.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm about to go out and enact some archaic ritual to commemorate the event, I'll leave that to those who feel the need to do those things. It's just that I've always found this time of year to be extremely magical in a way that has nothing to do with the Christmas season.

One of the things I appreciate about living in a small city is the fact that there are very few small building to cut off my view of the sky and the ability to see large swaths of it at once. Because of this I get to experience one of the great pleasures of living in an area where there is a noticeable shift in the earth's position in terms of the sun and the quality of light.

Near the end of August is when I usually first begin to notice that the days have started to run out of steam, and the sun has started to set earlier. By the time the end of October roles around and we set the clocks back an hour, by six o'clock in the evening the sun has pretty much set.

But it's not until near the end of November that the real magic begins. As the earth has spun on it axis and taken the part of the world I live in further below the sun's line of sight the quality of our light has started to change. Not only do we receive less of it over the course of a twenty-four hour period, what we do receive comes to us on an angle such that it seems to cut across the path of the planet instead of shining right on to us.

I'm sure that people who are equal distance south of the equator to our position to the north will experience something similar. But I also think that there's something about the quality of the light in the Northern parts of the world that isn't replicated anywhere. Perhaps it's the cold air creating a thinning of the atmosphere, I don't know. All I do know is that it's one of the reason's I'd never move to a place where there's no winter.

It's the shadows that are the first indication of the change. With the sun tracking lower in the sky every day shadows are exaggerated in their elongation until they become as much part of the scenery as the object that cast them. Walk along beside a stand of trees and you are walking through them as well beside them. Or you are seeing their shadows prostrate, while your second self steps from one to the next, merging and separating, merging and separating, until you lose track of which is moving and which is stationary.

You often hear people complain about the brightness of the winter sun, what they are talking about is the sun shining off snow that has accumulated over a period of time, and been subjected to a deep freeze. These are the glass like conditions when combined with the angle of the sun that make the need for sunglasses or eye protection paramount. If you are around vast fields of snow then snow blindness can be a potential hazard. In fact winter is usually the only time that I find I'll need, or want to wear sunglasses for just that reason. Well maybe not snow blindness but the harshness of the glare at any rate.

But it's in the days leading up to the twenty first of December before too much snow has fallen and the temperature has had a chance to really dip below the freezing point too far that I'm talking about. It's those days when the sun has risen only so that he can begin to set, when it feels like it's permanent twilight, then the feeling you've entered into another world becomes really strong.

If somehow you are able to get away from the elements that distinguish the twenty-first century, traffic, buildings, and noise, to walk amidst the quiet of some trees or by the water, it feels like you've stepped out of anyone particular time. The light has been watered down enough on these days that shadows gather at the edges of everything, smoothing sharp edges into soft curves so that distinctiveness is blurred and objects seen at a distance become almost indistinguishable from their backgrounds.

I can see why earlier societies could believe this time was the end of the year as everything faded from view gradually each day earlier and earlier. The date that marked the reversal of that process, the longest night of the year when you could almost swear that the sun wasn't going to return, would be the day you celebrate the end of one year and the start of a new one.

To them it was if a new sun was being born on the midwinter day and the light would gradually start to return. It's an experience that we can still share today if we take the time to look around what is happening to the world beyond the rush of the artificial season we have created.

I personally find it much more satisfying to watch the year end in the physical world then on the calendar. In particular I enjoy the time leading up to the solstice because it's one of the moments of magic that bridge the span of years between us and those who lived on earth thousands of years earlier who watched the world do much the same things it does today

December 13, 2006

Critical Habitats Left Unprotected Puts Endangered Species At Risk

I don't know about you, but normally when I hear about a government being taken to court for not obeying the laws of the land, it's not usually while they are still in power. But that's what's happening to Prime Minister Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada government.

I'm not talking about some nuisance suit or personal vendetta brought about by a vindictive ex politician with an axe to grind. This is a genuine suit aimed at forcing the government to live up to the letter of the law when it comes to the protection of Scientists warn the summer ice pack could vanish from the Arctic by the year 2040. At the same time the winter ice would be reduced from its current ten-foot thickness to three feet.

The impact this would have upon wildlife and the environment in not only the Arctic but the rest of North America as well is almost too severe to imagine. Already we are hearing reports of polar bears starving to death due to their inability to hunt during the summer season because of the thinning ice pack. One can imagine only too well what will happen to their population in the far North if the predictions for the next thirty years follow the patterns predicted by these scientists.

Given these circumstances and the others around the world, protection of habitant becomes more and more essential not just as a means for specific species preservation, but as a means of ensuring environmental integrity. Knowing all this it makes the government not complying with the act even more negligent.

They don't even deny the fact that of the past thirty recovery plans for endangered species, only five have included habitat protection, and three of those were in already protected areas. Their excuse that there are many interested parties in the land doesn't wash at all.

In fact I would think the fact that so people have "vested interests" in what's done with the land should be a clue to how necessary it is to supply the designation of critical habitat to an area. If so many people have a "vested interest" it means someone is going to want to do something with the land. If they are allowed the animal who was supposed to have been protected, will have far less chance at recovery because of the degradation of their environment.

I remember reading an interview with the late Gerald Durrell, the British Naturalist and Conservationist. In it he was talking about how governments pay lip service to the idea of endangered species preservation with laws that are meaningless. Unless they were prepared to ensure the survival of habitat as part of the law, the paper they are written would best off be used in an outhouse.

There have been many times when I've disagreed with various government policy decisions, and I consider that par for the course. But when a government enacts legislation that makes them look good on paper (and in the papers) that doesn't really do anything it's an entirely different matter. It means they don't have the integrity or the balls to stand up for their own beliefs, and feel compelled to sneak around behind everyone's back.

We aren't the only inhabitants of this world, we share it with numerous other creatures and plants. But we use up a disproportionate amount of space and energy compared to our neighbours. Only occasionally do they intrude upon us and that's usually only if we've built right on top of their homes, or in their territory, but they are the ones who either learn to adjust or move.

Don't you think it would be nice if on occasion we humans returned that favour, and left their homes alone so that they could get on with the business of living without having to worry about being shot, or dying from the drinking water?

Canada is one of the few countries in the world that has an endangered species program if properly implemented would allow an animal or plant under threat of extinction the opportunity to recover. Unfortunately our government doesn’t seem to want to live up to their obligation when it comes to this act and would be perfectly content with never protecting another square inch of habitat.

They are the loudest complainers when it comes to the courts of Canada "ruling the country instead of the legislature", but if they ever learned how to obey the laws of the country, or understand the constitution that wouldn't be such a problem. When the courts up hold the law of the land one more time and find against the government, maybe Steven Harper and the Conservatives will finally learn the difference between right and wrong.

December 2, 2006

Humanity: Just Doing What Comes Unnaturally

I sometimes wonder where we humans ever come up with our ideas. How we can look at a set of circumstances, or a reality and then posit something completely opposite to what the facts suggest is one of our biggest deficiencies as a species. It's not even as if conclusions our reached out of ignorance, which could at least be an excuse, for all the evidence is usually right there for any and all to see.

In some ways it's a rather extreme form of denial; a wilful blindness that allows people to ignore reality in order that their vision of the world remains intact. One of the worst examples of this that I have come across is the manner so many new age folk have taken to viewing the natural world. In spite of all evidence to the contrary they have created some Pollyanna world where everything is bright and beautiful and all live in harmony in bucolic splendour.

They have their books to tell them how to go about finding their animal totem to act as their guide. They will learn how the animal's attributes and characteristic behaviour will be their clues to leading a better life. A person who has a beaver for a totem, for instance, is industrious but needs to watch that they don't create bottlenecks of their emotions by damming them up.

Since they are an aquatic mammal that can stay submerged for great lengths of time there is some sort of lesson to be learned from that, just like there is from the big flat tail and the ability to chew through wood. Of course the fact that they wouldn't recognize a beaver in the wild state if it walked up and shook their hand is far less relevant than the fact that going in and out of the beaver lodge is similar to travelling the birth canal repeatedly.

Of course they need to learn how to invoke the "teachings" of the beaver in order to fully integrate its important attributes. Don't worry if you are at a loss as to how to go about doing this, the book will explain all about creating a ritual to fully realize the potential of the beaver within you.

Now, aside from the cultural appropriation of vision questing from the Native Americans, without the bother of actually questing, it's all pretty much harmless. The real problems start to arise when they start thinking of nature as something beautiful and idyllic. Images of happy nature spirits frolicking in fields of wildflowers surrounded by happy birch maidens and gentle beech men.

The problem with that image is how far removed from even the reality of the old stories they think they are worshiping as to be ridiculous. The old nature gods were untamed and fierce as befits things that are far beyond our control. Ask anyone whose ever lived through a hurricane or even a tropical storm how sweet and gentle nature can be.

That is the tip of the iceberg as far as their misconceptions and silliness goes. They don't see why animals like the Coyote, lynx, and wolf have to hunt and kill that lovely wide-eyed faun or eat the bird that was just talking to them. They've sentimentalized nature to the point where it's nothing but a Walt Disney animation.

While that may not sound like such a bad thing, the problem is that they have developed expectations about how the natural world should be that are no different from the way those who believe that nature is man's to exploit. For all their supposed spiritual connection to the natural world they are no more connected to the way things really are then anyone else.

Of all the species in the world the only one whose extinction would have no affect on the natural order of things is man. We do not exist inside any of the food chains or do anything but take from the planet for our own personal gain without giving back. As it stands now if man were to cease to exist at this very moment it would take probably a few thousand years for the world to completely heal from our occupation.

Now while that may sound like quite a length of time, in relation to how the long the earth has existed it's a mere blink of the eye. In spite of everything we are still of really no importance in the bigger scheme of things. The only ways in which we make impressions on the planet is the extent of the damage we inflict, and thankfully as soon as we're gone it will begin to recover.

All through the history of man we have done nothing but try and bend nature to our will, with generally little or no success. Look down at the sidewalk you walk along in your city and you can usually see grasses or small plants growing up between the cracks. It would take very little time for nature to reclaim everything that we've built.

We do things like try and change the flow of the Mississippi river and build farmland in the areas that we've supposedly drained. But the river remembers where it ran for years and years before men showed up and periodically attempts to follow its old path. The ensuing flooding is called a tragedy and human's rail against nature and her cruelty.

But there's nothing cruel about her. She only does what she would do whether we were here or not. Any time that we have ever pitted ourselves against her or tried to coerce her into doing something that serves our purposes we end up suffering for it in the long run. The fault lies not with nature in those instances but with us for thinking that we are able to work against her or even control her.

Anybody who believes that nature is here to serve us in someway, or that the natural world gives us any consideration is at best misguided. You can have as many totem animals as you want but you are no more harnessing the power of the natural world for your benefit then anybody else.

We can only lose when we come into conflict with nature. If we do end up somehow subduing her the cost is so great that the area we have exerted our "dominion" over will become uninhabitable by any life form within a very short period of time. In all other cases the chances are what we have built will either be swallowed, washed away, or somehow or other destroyed.

August 6, 2006

Canadian Poltics: The Case Of The Vanishing Kyoto Accord

It only took me until noon to decide that I wasn't going to like Monday that week, which usually meant that the rest of the week lay stretched out in front of me as invitingly as a three day old corpse in July on the slab. August in Ottawa was so putrid with humidity that even the politicians have fled the luxury of their expense account lives and mistresses to return to the loving arms of family and constituents.

Obviously that meant a drastic improvement in the air quality for those of us still here. Talk about global warming and the release of dangerous emissions all you want, there's nothing that can compete with the Canadian House of Commons for being a source of C02 and, dependant on what was on the menu at the Commons Cafeteria, other noxious fumes.

I was sitting by the one window in the office that could open with a fan blowing, hoping to capture something cooling from the oozing fetidness that passes for a breeze at this time of year. Damn it, I thought, this is ridiculous. We're in the capital city with coldest mean temperature of any country's seat of power. Moscow may have slightly longer winters, and may even get days colder than Ottawa's coldest, but on average we take the cake.

I had entered into that pre heat stroke daze of semi consciences when the sounds of the phone ringing and someone rapping at the door nearly stopped my heart for good. Unpeeling myself from the back of the chair was a matter moments and allowed me to reach the phone within ten rings and yell to the door "Hold your horses". If I had hoped that standing at the phone would give me time to get what felt like a yard of cotton out of my butt cleavage, I was sorely disappointed.

The voice on the other end of the phone was succinct and to the point. "Where has all the water gone?" was followed by a renewal of the dial tone. Swearing under my breath at phone pranksters abusing old song lyrics I really wasn't prepared for what was waiting behind the door. Considering the circumstances I think my reaction was within reason.

She had to be about 5'9" and her three-inch heels only added to the illusion that her legs went up to her chin. Which should have been physically impossible given what lay between the waist and the long swan-like neck, but go figure. Human anatomy has never been my strong suit, but I could see that she would be a wonderful textbook if I ever decided to broaden my horizons and open my mind to new areas of learning.

I could tell any hopes that I may have had of leafing her pages were minimized by the "Holy Fuck' that had slipped out of my mouth on opening the door. The part of my brain that still functioned realized the longer I stayed there gaping like some slack jawed inbred was reducing the chances of me even getting a peek inside the cover. Even so it took a loud throat clearing on her part to get me to come around

Still not trusting myself to speak I stood aside and bowed her ever so slightly into the room indicating the chair directly across my desk from my own. Following her back across the room I was reminded of why I had put the desk at the point in the room furthest from the door. Of course it didn't do my equilibrium any good, so by the time we sat facing each other across a span of pine veneer, I was quite ready to jump out the window if she demanded.

She looked at me and shook her head slightly, which had the effect of making her ash brown hair float halo like around her face. "All you guys are the same aren't you," she said piercing me with the ice chips that were her steel grey eyes. I all of sudden felt pinned to the back of my chair like a butterfly under glass.

After three false tries I managed to get my voice to squeak out " What brings you here today, Miss, what can I do for you?" Instead of the hoped for steady and reassuring voice that was normally at my disposal, I sounded like I had small cricket in my throat.

She looked at me with a grim little smile that implied she didn't think there was much of anything that I'd be able to help her with, but her options were limited. "First of all it's Mrs. not Miss, Ms. or anything implying availability of any kind what so ever." She paused to see what kind of effect that might have on me. Since I was still too numb to do anything but sit and nod blanked faced, there was nothing to indicate how much or little impact her being married might have effected me.

With a purse of her lips, which could have expressed some mild disappointment in reaction to my seemingly nonchalant attitude about her place on the open market she began to talk again. It turns out this drop dead gorgeous woman is in fact a professor of Marine Biology specializing in ecosystems and other words that just were too many syllables for a day like this.

She talked about a lot of things that didn't make any sense but a picture started to evolve of something terrible happening. The average mean temperature was rising around the world by a degree or so a year, and had been for the last ten year or so. Sure it meant warmer winters, but that meant less snow, which meant less spring melt.

When the spring melt is reduced, the water table is reduced and the level in the rivers and lakes drops. The less ground water there is the lower the likelihood of rain which in turn depletes the water table and the lakes and rivers and so on. She stopped than and I looked at her in horror.

"If it's allowed to continue the climate will continue to change and we'll be living in a desert but worse. A dessert has its own natural ecosystem, but here if there is an enforced desert the first things to go will be the trees, followed by the shrubbery and then finally the smaller plants

Farm crops will be devastated and we will no longer be able to produce basics like corn and wheat in amounts sufficient for feeding ourselves. The animal life won't be able to adapt quickly enough as there won't be time for successful mutations to increase the gene pool and allow evolution to occur."

For the second time that day she had stunned me and left me sitting with my jaw agape. This couldn't be possible was my first thought, but it was of course, even during the ice break-up during the spring the Ottawa River failed to rise to the level it had achieved last year let alone any of the previous ones.

She watched me come to these realizations on my own before she continued, " What I need you to do is find out what happened to the Kyoto accord. Parliament had ratified it in the last administration, but now Steven Harper and his Conservative Party Of Canada have said they are going to renege on our country's commitments to meeting certain reductions in toxic emissions.

We think somebody got to him and is putting pressure on him to do this. There can be no other reason whatsoever to go back on a promise to the world. No one could be that inconsiderate or stupid without having a good reason."

She stopped again and looked straight into my eyes, those grey chips of ice had melted into something sad and scared. "Please find the Kyoto accord and bring it back. It wasn't the best solution in the world but it was the only one we had"

How could I say no to that?

July 28, 2006

NAFTA, The Environment, And You!

Back in the old days when the governments of North America were still negotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) one of the major concerns raised by opponents of the deal was its environmental impact. The primary concern was that companies in one country might be forced to bend their environmental standards in order to compete with businesses working in an area with less stringent rules.

At the time, in these pre Kyoto accord days and greenhouse emission targets, it was primarily Canada and the United States concerned about whether Mexico's standards would be so slovenly that they would be able to produce products far cheaper than corporations in either of the two biggest players.

Environmentalists were concerned that there long, hard fought battles to regulate aspects of manufacturing that dealt with environmental impact would be for nought as companies slashed budgets in these "non-essential" areas, leading to a return of the bad old days. In an effort to appease both the business communities and the environmentalists a side deal was struck allowing for the creation of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC) to monitor how well environmental standards were being maintained.

It interesting to note how some things never change for business people, it doesn't matter whether they are dumping Mercury poisoning in the English River system in Northern Ontario as the Reed Paper mills did in the seventies, if it ensures they can compete with polluters elsewhere. The same arguments are being use against the reduction of smokestack emissions and other poisonous wastes into the air we breath, as a reason by the Bush government for not signing the Kyoto accord and the Harper government for reneging of Canada's signature.

We can't compete, they bleat like lost little sheep, we can't compete. What about all those countries that don't sign they say, we can't compete. That argument is as spurious as it selfish. First of all for any country outside of North America who doesn't sign on the dotted line to abide by the Kyoto accord, slap them with such huge tariffs that our borders would be effectively closed to them. Watch how quickly they'd sign on and fall into line.

Within North America the means for ensuring that all countries and companies are complying with the aims of the accord, and that everyone is suffering equally from having to pay for the one time retooling of their equipment exists. That's what the CEC was created for in the first place, right?

Well in theory yes, but in practice it seems not to be the case. First of all there is the matter of their budget. With the money they receive they are supposed to conduct investigations, hire staff, perform research, etc. etc. Activities that are going to run in double digit millions per annum are still being covered by the same $9million dollar budget they were given in the year they were established.

Although they were officially designated as an independent body, in reality they are very much controlled by the three countries party to the treaty. Aside from the 40% reduction in real spending power they have had to endure because of inflation and zero increases in budgets, they are dependant on the respective governments for the data they use in formulating their reports.

As an example, The Globe and Mail newspaper cites the instance of the report on environmental impact of the concrete industry. The information they used to compile their comparison between the American and Canadian industries was supplied by the respective governments, who in turn had been supplied by the industry in question.

So the governments, and everybody involved, are counting on the industry people to step up and say, "oh by the way we went way over the top last year and polluted like crazy – sorry about that". Even the CEC realizes that this makes their findings a little suspect and added an addendum to the report saying that it doesn't fall within there mandate to investigate the provenance or integrity of the information supplied for the report and findings should be judged accordingly. In other words take this side of fries with lots of salt.

It's conditions like this that have environmental specialist and University of Ottawa professor Stewart Elgie thinking the committee is next to useless because they are hamstrung by the governments they are supposed to be checking up on. Instead of being a watchdog he says they have become a house pet, implying they work only to the limits their masters allow.

The outgoing chair of the committee, with only a month left on the job, William Kennedy freely admits there are problems that make their job next to impossible. The primary reason for their inadequacy he says is down to the fact that they were created as window dressing to allay the fears of the public, not because any of the governments actually supported the idea of their creation.

They dare not open their mouths on greenhouse gasses, because the Bush administration would block them issuing the report because it doesn't follow their line of thinking. It's probably safe to say given Steven Harper's decision to ignore parliament ratifying the Kyoto accord that the current administration in Canada would be of the same mindset.

The CEC already ran into hot water when they were able to commission a report on the dangers to Mexico of genetically modified corn. Although the report was written by some of the world's leading agricultural scientists, it's recommendation that a cautious approach be taken so as to preserve wild strains of corn in Mexico, was denounced as fundamentally flawed and scientifically unsound by the Bush administration.

That the American food industry is anxiously trying to sell genetically altered products in markets all over the world wouldn't have anything to do with that reaction would it? With most of the world's markets already resistant to the idea, a bunch of disagreeable scientists could only make matters worse by clouding the issue with facts that seem to offer support for their position.

NAFTA was designed to allow the businesses and people of all three countries freer and greater access to each other's markets. In theory this was supposed to allow the manufacturing and resource industries of each country to flourish, but in practice has fallen far short of that objective.

Never has it been harder for people from Mexico and Canada to cross the border into the United States, especially if they are looking for employment. Canada and America have been locked in a bitter dispute over duty that the Americans have been collecting on softwood lumber being sold by Canadian companies in the U.S. for close to five years now.

Instead of the intended result of countries thinking in terms of one big happy business community working together to strengthen the economy of North America as a whole, more then ten years after the signing of the pact everybody is still as protectionist as before. Is it any wonder that their environmental watchdog pretty much reflects that outlook?

It just wouldn't do, now would it, for one country to admit that they are actually polluting more then their counterparts in another country or that one of their businesses practice's could be detrimental to another county's welfare. The environmental business of our businesses is nobody's business but ours has become the official environmental policy of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the meantime instead of studying the impact of 145,100 tonnes (metric) of cancer causing materials into the atmosphere on the health of children, the CEC concentrates on providing reports that their sponsoring governments can really support: energy-efficient buildings. According to Mr. Kennedy there's a lot of support for it and that the agency has got a real winner with it.

If that's the winner, whose the loser?

July 27, 2006

Oak Trees: Link To The Past

I have a couple of tattoos that circumvent my forearms. On each arm are two stylized dragonheads accompanied by leafs of a specific tree; the left arm has Holly leaves while the right acorns and a solitary Oak leaf. In the old beliefs of the British Isles, long before the Romans came, it is thought that the year was divided up amongst the reigns of two kings: The Oak King and The Holly King.

One king represented the period of growth and fertility and the other the period when the land was cold and sterile. Symbolically they can be interpreted, in probably a million ways, but I like to think of them as representing the two halves of the creative process: a period of dormancy for introspection and a period of fertile creativity.

While the Holy tree has been retained in our modern celebration of Christmas as a nod to the pagan past, the Oak was not granted the same leniency. Since so many of the pre-Christian rituals involved sacred groves of Oak trees, the church had many groves of Oak destroyed in an attempt to eradicate the practices of its predecessor.

While the Oak may not have the ritual significance it once did, its effect on people cannot be denied. Who can truthfully say that they have not been moved by the sight of an Oak standing solitary sentinel in some farmer's field? Why is it that even to this day we are moved by stories of Oak trees, and that some individuals have even grown to have mythic status beyond what would normally be associated with a tree.
0-Robin's Oak
In England, just outside the town of Nottingham lies arguably one of the most famous forests in the English-speaking world, Sherwood. Within Sherwood Forest is a venerable old tree that is referred to as "Robin's Oak", in reference to the forest's most infamous inhabitant.

That both Robin Hood and the tree existed is true enough, but the tree's reputation for being his hideout in the woods unfortunately does not stand up to close examination. Although the tree is currently hollow enough for people to move around inside and even take shelter, it is at most only a thousand years old.

So even if "Robin's Oak" was around at the same time as the outlaw, it would have been a mere hundred year old sapling, living and vibrant. Remember, hollowness is a sign of age and death in a tree, not a convenience for human's to take shelter. If the tree had been dying in the 1100's, it would long ago have turned to mulch on the floor of Sherwood Forest.
Windsor Oak
In the grounds surrounding Windsor Castle, Windsor Park, in the Thames Valley outside of London, stands a solitary Oak tree of equal if not more years than its counterpart in the North. It is known simply as Herne's Oak, although there is nothing simple about Herne The Hunter and the Wild Hunt that he leads across the skies on the eve of the Twelfth Night of midwinter. Herne has the body of a man, the beak, of an owl, the antlers of a stag and the ears of a wolf and he rides on the back of a white horse accompanied by his pack of white skinned, and red eyed Yell Hounds.

Twelfth night used to mark the turning of the year for the peoples of England. Twelve days prior had been Midwinter, marking the return of the Sun after the longest period of darkness in the running of the year, December 21st. On the eve of Twelfth Night The Wild Hunt was said to ride the skies looking for prey, which was anyone foolish enough to be out on that evening. Farmers would make sure that all livestock was safely in on that night or they could awake the next morning and find themselves short a few head of cattle or sheep.

Herne was a force of nature, answerable to no one save himself, and was said to reside in the Oak tree in Windsor park. He would serve as a reminder to the people that nature is impartial to them, their needs and desires, doing what it must when it must. Although the longest night of the year may have passed, the worst of winter could still be yet to come.

I was reminded of Oak trees again today when reading through the morning paper full of war and horror I came across this one article in The Globe and Mail about one an older Oak tree in Canada and what steps were being taken to preserve it.
.Papineau Oak tree
About one hundred kilometres (80 miles) outside of Montreal in Montebello Quebec is the former residence of Louis –Joseph Papineau. Papineau was the leader of an uprising in 1837 in Lower Canada (Quebec) that demanded representational government for the colonies. Upper (Ontario) and Lower Canada were ruled by an appointed Governor General and a few wealthy individuals. Due to their nepotistic nature they were known derisively as The Family Compact.

Papineau's attempt at change was a failure and he and other leaders were forced to flee to the Untied States where they spent ten or so year in exile. When he returned to Quebec in 1845 he set to establishing his home in Montebello and it was while having the lands cleared for it's building he preserved this solitary Oak to give his home a sense of history.

Today, 170 years later, the tree is beginning to suffer from symptoms of old age and is need of assistance. Parks Canada (The supervisors of all national parks and historical sites in Canada) sought out the help of an arborist to try and devise a means of preserving the three hundred plus year old tree.

Today, just like some of its older relatives in Europe the Papineau Oak is on crutches. Three props, one ten meters and two six meters, are now being used to help support the weight of the lower branches. Parks Canada is hopeful that this will be sufficient to ensure that the tree outlives the rest of us.

Near the beginning of this post I wondered what it is about Oak trees that makes them appeal to so many people. While some, like me have specific reasons for being attracted to Oak trees; I think the fact that they are so old gives them a certain romantic appeal. You can stand in Sherwood Forest and say Robin Hood walked by that tree. Or you can visit The Chapel Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse in Normandy, France that is two chapels built inside the hollow core of a nearly 800-year-old tree and think of the pilgrims over the years who have worshiped in the shrine.

In this highly impermanent world that we are living in now, the Oak tree is a sign of strength and endurance in the face of all that the world and nature has to throw against it. Perhaps we look to it as an example to help us carry on in the face of so much strife. Or maybe it's just because they make such nice places to have picnics under, with lots of shade.

Either way Oak trees have endured over the centuries, and continue to fascinate and amaze us. They may not be part of any organized religion, but that doesn't seem to have stopped us from doing them honour.

July 15, 2006

Natural Selection: Still Going Strong

For me there has always been a huge flaw in the arguments condemning Natural Selection, the fact that it works. You can talk all you want about Creationism, or Intelligent Design, but Natural Selection is based on plain and simple observation of nature at work.

So many times the argument you hear from people is that "I'm not descended from some monkey, God made me." which has little or nothing to do with Natural Selection. Even if it turns out that a Creator was involved with the design of the human species millions of years ago, it has nothing to do with whether Natural Selection as a process works or not.

For those of you who missed grade ten biology I'll give you a little summary of how evolution works, okay. The first thing you have to realize is that it's all about genetics and errors in genetic code called mutations. Now don't go confusing mutation with the Marval comic's title The X-Men version of mutants, because in nature a mutation can be something as subtle as a colour change in feathers or fur.

Mutations occur all the time in all species, usually they have little or no impact on that species and the strain dies out because the carrier of that new genetic code doesn't survive, doesn't mate, or its progeny don't make it. But once in a while a genetic variation comes along that is able to do better in the environment it finds itself in than other members of its species.

Whether collecting food or hiding from predators its deviation or mutation gives it a better shot at surviving and when it breeds that gene is passed along to some of its offspring who in turn… well you get the picture. As this happens the members of the species who lack the mutation that either keeps them safer or allows them to eat different foods, start to die out because they can't compete and gradually that gene pool is effectively eliminated as the dominate one; hence the saying Survival of the Fittest.

More or less that was the theory Darwin put forward after his infamous voyage on the HMS Beagle took him to the Galapagos Islands. Darwin's wasn't the only theory of evolution to come out of the 19th century. Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarc proposed that animals would evolve because of their surroundings and that genetic changes would occur as they attempted to adapt to what was around them.

Unfortunately this theory doesn't stand up to close examination; what it implies is that a species notes a more efficient way of surviving and is able to change its genetic code at will. If this were the case don't you think humans would have grown an extra set of hands by now? How many times have you needed that in a multitude of situations.

As anybody who has studied evolution knows Darwin came up with his ideas based upon his observations of the different species of Finch on the Galapagos Islands. As he travelled from island to island he made note of the different styles of beak that individual species had, and how they were particularly suited to the food source available to them. As the concept of evolution wasn't a new thing, ancient Greeks and Indian scholars had written on the subject, he had a body of knowledge upon which he could base his theroms.

It's interesting to note that the big dispute about evolution in the 19th and early 20th century did not revolve around whether it existed or not, but whether it was caused by, as Darwin postualted hereditary means, or as Lemark said, adaptive means. As research into genetics grow more sophisticated, including discovery of D.N.A. it's become more and more obvious that Darwin's theory of inheritated characteristics caused by mutations is the correct explanation for evolution.

In the last little while there have been renewed attacks on the theory of evolution by religious people who don't want to accept that anything but the hand of God could have gone into the making of the world. They call themselves Creationists for the obvious reason that they believe everything was created by God.

A third alternative, Intelligent Design has been offered up to explain evolution and other "unexplainalbe" natural occurances. Proponants of this theory claim that certain things are just to sophisticated to have occurred all on their lonsome and that there has have been some sort of intelligence behind those events.

Since they are deliberatly vague about the nature of the intelligence – mainly because they want to keep religion out of it so that it will be accepted as science – it could lead sceptics like myself to wonder what they mean by intelligence. To me these sound like people who aren't honest enough to admit they are Creationists, or embaressed by believing in God and are trying to make up science to justify their faith.

I have more respect for a Creationist because they are honest about who they are and what they believe in. Besides if you have to justify or prove faith, doesn't that contradict the whole idea of faith? Oh well I'll leave that for the theologists to fight over.

But just as all these theories are coming back into vogue at the expence of poor old Darwin, it looks like he's about to be rescued by his old buddies the finchs of the Galapagos Islands. It seems the little rascals went ahead and evolved again, while somebody was watching.

Peter Grant of Princeton Universtiy has been studying the Darwin Finches of the Galapagos Islands for decades and had recorded the effects on drought and other environmental changes on the populations.

From 1982 until the present he was able to watch a smaller species of ground finch evolve to cope with the intrustion of a larger species that was in direct competition for its food supply. The larger bird was able to consume the shared food supply at three times the speed of the original inhabitant of this particular island. When a drought hit in 2003 and 2004 further reducing food stocks and increasing competition, the only birds that survived form the island's original population were ones with a smaller beak that could eat a different seed.

They are now the dominant strain of that species because of the mutation that caused them to be born with a different beak. If that second, larger species of finch had never shown up on their island, that mutation would either have made no difference and died out because they could not eat the large seeds easily. Instead they were in a position to survive rather than die out because of their genetic difference.

Natural Selection at work, nature chose which was the version of the smaller bird that was more suitable for survival based on the circumstances at the time. A few years from now things may change again and a new mutation might be the one that becomes dominant. There is nothing evil or mysterious about evolution, Darwin, or Natural Selection. It's happening all the time all around you in many different species.

Most of the time it's far too subtle to make any difference, but sometimes, as in the case of the finchs of the Galapagos Islands, it ensures the survival of a species, in one form or another.

April 7, 2006

We Always Cry Wolf

The big bad wolf is back. Maybe he never went away, but for a while there he seemed to have achieved a form of rehabilitation. There were programs to reintroduce him to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and ensuring that pack numbers in the wild were maintained.

So it was something of a shock for me to read about the government of Alberta's repeated culls of the wolf population. Wolves and ranchers out west have a long history of an adversarial relationship, with wolves being blamed for every single loss of live stock to predators.

Well of course there is truth to that complaint, but what do you expect is going to happen when you destroy the habitat of a major predator's prey, and offer it a smorgasbord that doesn't have the brains to run away? If you were a wolf what would you do? Go hungry or eat those stupid fluffy things that just bleat and don't even fight back? That's a real no brainer as far I'm concerned.

It was proven that culling the pack in the neighbourhood of where the attacks take place doesn't reduce the amount of live stock that fall victim to wild attacks anyway. First of all there are more than just wolves who are predators in this world, and secondly you get rid of one pack, another will move in to take its place.

Anyway that's not even their excuse this time for killing off wolves. Nope this time they're trying to protect one a herd of caribou that we've almost driven to extinction by our behaviour. The Alberta government is not satisfied with being able to boast a 4 billion dollar surplus, and continues trying to make more money through exploiting as much of the environment as they can to pump more natural gas.

As they push further out into the hinterlands and the tundra, they intrude more and more on the habitat of animals like the migratory herds of caribou. This was the main objection that environmental groups were raising to Bush's plan for drilling in Alaska, that they would disrupt the caribou herds.

In a balanced eco-system wolves play an important part in population control among prey animals. When you're dealing with an animal as large as a caribou or an elk, most wolf packs are only going to take down the sick or the lame or the elderly, who wouldn't survive anyway. A healthy adult caribou is not an easy take down even for a pack; somebody is going to end up with their head caved in by a hoof or gored on an antler.

The herd in question has had its number reduced by loss of its habitat. Roads built into their territory have resulted in fatalities. The same birth defects that plague domestic stock where ranches are too close to drill sites prevent the herds from repopulating at a normal rate, and just the presence of humans in an area cuts into a herd's potential grazing territory.

But instead of accepting that we could have had any role in the matter and cutting back on human intrusion into the situation, its been decided to blame it on our old enemy the wolf. He's such a handy villain, what would we do without him?

Somewhere down the years we humans have developed a mysterious, almost pathological fear of wolves. Maybe because they were the canines that told us to take a hike when we domesticated the species all those thousands of years ago, or maybe because we used to compete for the same prey, but whatever it is, no other predator has been more maligned through out the history of Europe. (The coyote is a relative new comer to that list, as Europeans didn't encounter him until we showed up in North America.)
Wolves have been pretty much wiped out in most places that they were native to in Europe, mainly due to the loss of habitat as man expanded and destroyed the living space for them and their prey. But there was also a deliberate attempt to destroy them out of superstition and fear.

Folklore and fairy tales have darkened the wolf's image in the eyes of Europeans. Most of these depictions have come about through our giving human attributes to animal behaviour. The National Wildlife Federation offers the examples of them being rarely seen in the wild being interpreted as secretive, hunting in packs as being sly, and howling as being evil.

Although the site doesn't say this, it's hard not to notice how the rise in fear and superstition about the wolf increased with the rise of Christianity. Prior to tenth century AD wolfs were not universally feared in fact they played prominent roles for good in mythology. Twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were saved from death by a mother wolf who suckled them as infants, founded the city of Rome according to Roman myth.

Other pre-Christian stories were also full of praise for the wolves, and the attributes that latter became evil, were held in high esteem. Perhaps the demonising of the wolf was a deliberate ploy on the part of a new religion feeling insecure of its place in society and that needed to remove the competition. At any rate the wolves' reputation went to hell, so to speak, in the middle ages.

The reputation of being devil spawn and eaters of little blond girls and their grandmothers doesn't do much for a creature's popularity. It's also something that travels well, especially when you come over to a new world, populated by savages living in deep mysterious forests. It was easy enough for settlers coming to North America to hold onto their beliefs of the wolf, if not being the devil incarnate, than at least a good buddy.

But you know what? In all the time Europeans have been in North America; there is not one verified account of a wild wolf attacking and killing a human. Cases which people accuse wolves of such attacks are the result of wild dogs, and hybrids of dogs and coyotes (coydogs) that lack the fear of humans that wolves have.

Years ago back in the 1950's, Canadian author Farley Mowat was working for the government in wildlife department up north. He was sent out into the field to gain evidence to support a proposed policy to cull wolf populations because they were decimating the Caribou herds and the large prey populations in general.

His discoveries, which were popularized in the book and movie Never Cry Wolf, did the opposite of what was wanted. He found, through observing the wolves, that their primary source of food were mice and other small prey animals. The only time that they would hunt the larger prey was when an animal was easy pickings, the sick and the elderly who the herds of deer, caribou or whatever were abandoning to their fate.

It just wasn't worth the effort to track down and hunt a healthier animal, and they would take the easier way of feeding themselves by going after the lesser creatures that we consider pests. This of course goes a long way to answering the age-old question of "What purpose do they serve?"

Humans have this wonderfully selfish attitude of only seeing the world from their own point of view. An animal is judged based on what it does for humans, not on the fact that it is a part of the mystery known as creation. We don't seem to want to accept that things haven't been created solely for our benefit, but have a role to play that in the world that doesn't take us into account.

The large predators of the world serve to keep prey populations in check so as to prevent the spread of disease and ensure the balance of a local ecosystem. Look at all the parts of North America where we have to have annual culls of the deer herds because they have no natural predators. Populations of deer in many states have become riddled with illness; like in Pennsylvania where the risk of Lime disease is so high that it is a crime to touch deer that are road kill.

It's become obvious that punishment of wolves is not a deterrent when it comes to protecting livestock and extermination is an unacceptable alternative. Not just on tree hugging moral grounds, but based on the key role they can play in keeping the population of pest animals under control. In fact farmers and ranchers could, if they work it right, put the wolves to use for them preserving their harvests and grain stores from rats and other so-called vermin.

What they need to do is develop systems of making their livestock less attractive as prey. Like in the case of the wolves observed by Farley Mowat make the effort involved not worth the pay off. In Ontario you can't drive by a flock of sheep anymore without seeing a donkey or two installed in the field with them. It turns out they make great guardians for the flocks. A couple of donkeys can fight off wolves and coyotes with ease.

It is important that we get over ourselves and learn how to co-exist with nature sooner rather than latter. So far we've been able to prove that our current idea of dominance is not working out so well. Maybe for those who have been able to line their pockets and who don't have any children it doesn't matter what shape the world is in when they leave, but the rest of us might like have some of the wild spaces preserved.

The most important lesson that we as a species need to learn is the one we can be taught by examining our relationship with the wolf. We can't look on animals and impose human values, characteristics or expectations. We can no longer continue to look upon any creature as separate, including ourselves.

The sooner we realize that all life is interconnected the better our chances of keeping the wild spaces alive and vibrant for all. What better place to start than with the wolf, which of all creatures in the West we owe the biggest apology. If after hundreds of years of animosity we can work out co-existence arrangements with them, it will be a huge step in the right direction.

May 16, 2005

Public Environmental Enemy Number One: Human Beings

My attempt to maintain a listing of the worst environmental villains has failed miserably. As we are closing in on the three month anniversary of this blog (have you noticed that spell check doesn't recognize blog) I have devoted a grand total of two posts to the topic. Its not that I'm not fanatical about the topic, more that when I think about it I get completely overwhelmed. There are just so many to choose from I don't know where to start.

There's the American government sponsored by the oil industry raping the Alaskan wildlife preserve instead of investing those billions in developing alternative energy; the builders of subdivisions everywhere destroying land of all types to build butt ugly housing; the Big Three auto makers and their insistence on performance over efficiency; electrical suppliers returning to coal powered generators instead of enforcing conservation efforts. The list is endless.

But the real reason is that you can reduce the list down to one commonality that is painfully obvious. There is only one thing that drives all the different enemies, one desire. Fulfilling the needs of the consumer. Each of the aforementioned groups of people do what they do based on the demands placed on them by us. Human beings.

That's the painful truth. We can try and blame it on corporate greed, government indifference, or some other excuse, but if we were not compliant, or even worse, demanding of the services provided, there would be no need for them to deliver. As long as we demand the luxury of five bedroom houses for two people to live in, massive automobiles for no other purpose but to convey us to and from work, and conveniences to cool our air, trim our hedges, change our environment, and open our cans we create the raison d'être for all of these crimes.

By sitting at my computer at this time of day and writing this blog I have very little idea of how much demand I'm making on the system but at a guess I'd say there is the minimum of a light on to see with, the power to run my computer, to run my internet connection, to have the blog's server on to pick up post, and the power on in all the offices that are needed to be staffed to allow all of that to happen. That's just scratching the surface.

When it comes down to it there is really only one enemy of the environment and we are it. None of our actions do anything to recompense for what we take. We don't even make good fertilizer as corpses. Most other animals, minerals , plants etc. either give something back or are neutral. When was the last time you saw a rock use a hair dryer? Prey and predator serve a purpose, make a balance. If left alone most animal populations adjust themselves over time, or there is sufficient habitat to allow for one area to be abandoned in favour of another for a time to allow overgrazed areas to recover.

So called primitive tribal humans recognized this flaw in our make up and organized specific rites to remind themselves of their need for gratitude to the natural world. The "give-a-ways" and the "pot -latches" of native Americans were in recognition of the fact that we don't give anything back, that we have no integrated way of saying thank you. Even though those ceremonies did not actually give anything back in the physical sense they served as a reminder of our limitations so that we could govern ourselves accordingly.

Humans leave a massive "footprint" behind and do little or nothing to repair the damage. Whether strip mining pumice to make stone washed jeans and leaving the tailings to pollute the water table, clear cutting old growth forest and destroying thousands of species' habitats in order to build more housing modules, or refusing to practice sensible family planning in order to maintain sustainable levels of population, it all amounts to the same thing.

The ever continual population boom is probably the biggest contributor to the ill health of the planet. In the wild when a population booms one of three things happens, predators thin the herd, the food runs out and famine reduces the population to a sustainable level, or decease ravages the group. Since humans have no predators except themselves, we are mainly the victims of famine and decease of our own making. Each new virus that springs up, every new famine in the sub Sahara, are a direct or indirect result of our overpopulation.

We in the so called developed world have stood idly by for too long allowing the populations of the former colonies to be manipulated by the religious and political agenda of a minority. Under the guise of aid they ensure their morality is imposed upon populations that are suffering from the rapid mutation of viruses via the huge petrie dish of a large population weakened by starvation. A virus is like any species playing out its little evolutionary war, mutating to resist our medicines at an alarming rate. As far as a virus is concerned the more warm bodies to grow in the better. We must pressure bodies like the U.N. etc. to start handing out condoms instead of prayer books. If the world population is not brought under control soon, well, to put it succinctly we're f***ed.

The thing is that there is good news. It has been predicted that the upcoming generation of women in the developing world, with the advent of education and the opening up of options for a better life, will actually have less children then previous ones. But that has to be sustained over the long term, and we have to actively work to promote that lifestyle everywhere. There is no way this world can hope to support the over 5 billion people on it for much longer. It's already cracking at the seams.

What had started out as a sort of neat idea to highlight the worst polluters or environmental offenders just sort of fizzled out as I whittled it down to the bare essentials. Sorry about that but sometimes looking in the mirror isn't pretty. Our species has been partying without caring for a while now, its time to deal with the hangover.

May 7, 2005

The Joy Of Gardening

If you had happened to look out in the backyard of my building over the last two weeks you would have seen me toiling away building a new garden plot. First there I was out in a soft rain ripping up turf in the mud; joyously mud-splattered and a little wet. As any gardener knows its far easier to take up grass before the roots get a good chance to set after winter, so the first good rain of spring is the best time for the job. Then there was the tilling. I was able to borrow a lovely tool from a friend which is sort of like a squared fork on a long handle which you can twist around and break up clumps of clay and packed earth. Following this came mixing in the peat moss to ensure drainage, then four inches of top soil over top the mess. A generous neighbour gave me some limestone flagstone which have made a nice retaining wall for three quarters of the plot, and so I'm all set for flowers.

This is what spring is for me: renewing my connection with dirt, and the natural order of things. In my own way I feel like I'm restoring some of the mother's vitality by taking soil that has been rendered useless through neglect and abuse (I dug up huge chunks of concrete, pieces of glass, rusted nail, and other debris from the ground). Planting a garden is one of the ways that we can give back for the gifts we receive from nature. I always try and maintain a certain respect for the wildness of the area, harming as little as possible and working with what's there. No hacking down trees because they block the sun for daisies, or anything intrusive like that. Defiantly no effort made for artificial landscaping either: well kept lawns are such a waste of resources, give me a field of wild flowers any day of the week. No fertilizer, lawn mowers or other noisy contraptions like weed eaters needed to keep everything looking trim, and the water wasted on keeping a lawn green, sheesh.

So there I am, communing with nature, getting my fingers dirty, talking to worms, and listening to the birds, just generally relaxing when the curse of nice weather rears its ugly head. The first warm breeze in the air invariably causes that species of human that I refer to as " Homo Penis lacking " to stick its butt ugly head out of its cave. Easily identifiable by the ball cap perched on their head(younger members of the species wearing in backwards emblazoned with ball teams and brand names while the more mature male usually has beer brand, farm machinery or trucking company apparel) behavioural patterns vary but all seem to centre around the creation of as much noise as possible.

The youngsters of the species seem more inclined towards mobility, propelling themselves around in contrivances designed for noise and speed. Multiple amplifiers and speakers combined with a bass setting guaranteed to sterilize at twenty paces reverberate across multiple city blocks. The body works rattle offsets the grinding of exhaust and squealing of tires that propels the vehicle at high speed from one red light to the next.

The older members of the species are more sedate, but compensate for the variety of means at their disposal for noise creation. There are two major categories of devices, of which there are many sub headings: Portable and stationary. Portable encompasses anything from an electric drill through to a lawn mower and include such lethal items as weed wakers, hedge trimmers, chain saws, leaf blowers, and a battery of cutting, hacking, bludgeoning, boring, and ripping tools(many available in the equally smelly gas powered variety) The stationary product is slightly less obtrusive in that it has to remain fixed in a den like location(usually referred to as a "garage" or "shed" sometimes even the more optimistically named "workshop" thus implying something useful is under way) but compensates with its abilities for destroying a wider range of materials and generating larger volumes: table and band saws, belt sanders, drill presses, and grinding benches graduate up to compressor driven nail guns and power washers.

After one week of May I'm already thinking with fondness of the cold dank days of January when the only tools at their disposal are acquainted with snow removal. Its amazing how less of a tool a tool is when they are tool-less.

April 22, 2005

The Hubris Of Humans And Earth Day

I can think of nothing that more symbolises our catastrophic situation environmentally than the fact that we have an event called Earth Day. One day of the year in which we think about this place we inhabit. That's it. For 364 days of the year we pretty much ignore her, and then we have the unmitigated gall to believe we can make up for the neglect by organising community barbecues to pick up garbage. Everybody shows up in their S.U.V.s with plastic bags to fill up to take to non degradable land fill sites. As meaningless gestures goes this ranks up there with Jerry Lewis telethons and an associate producer credit(something you give your secretary instead of a raise)

All that an event like Earth Day does is emphasize how far we have drifted from the understanding that we are only one life form on this planet. In our hubris we have come to believe that laws of nature simply don't apply to us. Simple things like overpopulation, food supply and sustainability of an area apply to other species but not us. When we see a deer herd increase in population to the point where it will not be able to sustain itself due to insufficient food supplies (due to us killing off all the major predators which would keep their population in balance) we endorse what's known as a culling of the herd. Kill off some so that the majority can survive. But the same rules of supply and demand do not seem to apply to us.

We have population densities so high that the land we live on can't handle us anymore. Our wastes pile up, we have to import food, and natural resources are depleting. Yet we refuse to see the problem as one of our own making, or even to see a problem at all. Kyoto, recycling, alternative energy are not cures, they are simply treating the symptoms not the ailment as far as I'm concerned. We need to address our very relationship with the planet.

As a species, when we were directly dependent on our environment for survival, we had an understanding of where we fit in. We worshiped and were grateful for the gifts we received from the planet. Crops, hunting, clean water, or fresh air, were not taken as our due or for granted and we knew we had to abide by the laws that governed all life. From here, the usual argument goes, we moved on into a more mercantile society where the concepts of profits and control became more important, the direct relationship to the land was lost, and we were sundered from the other species. But why did that happen? Even without depending on the land for survival we could still see that we were the same species and that the same laws would still have to apply that did before.

Well I hate to sound cliched but the truth of the matter is that as patriarchal societies replaced matriarchal ones we stopped understanding nature and our role in it. As soon as we began simplifying things into good and evil, the us against them attitude of the monotheistic religions that we now follow, we began to think of ourselves as superior and separate from the natural world. Instead of just another species we became The Species.

The world was around for billions of years before we showed up (sorry creationists it's true, we're the Johnny come lately here) and was doing pretty good without us. How well do you think we'd do without her? Don't you think it's time we showed her a little more respect then a one day a year event? You don't have to go back to worshipping nature spirits (although that wouldn't hurt) to accomplish this, all you have to do is remember that you are bound by the same rules that apply to any species that lives on this planet.

April 15, 2005

Honoured By Pets

I was laying in bed this morning preparing to go back to sleep in an attempt to get a few more hours rest, and one of my cats, Pippin was curled up next to me. It struck me, once again, what an honour it was for an animal to bestow such affection and trust upon me. Humans and those we share the world with have a generally adversarial relationship. When we deign to notice them it is either as food, a nuisance, or something to be controlled, yet here was one of them looking at me with unconditional love in his eyes.

Some of you might be saying, well what do you expect its a domesticated animal and you feed it etc. etc. but I think there's more to it then dependency. (especially with cats) The majority of domesticated animals have the power and capability to survive on their own. The instincts are not very far from the surface. Watch your pet in play sometime; your cat as it hunts a toy, or its eyes follow the path of a ribbon, your dog worry at a chew toy, or follow scents with its nose, even a pet bunny will react to danger in the same way as its wild cousins. We've done our best to breed out the animus in our animals, as has been done by society to us, but if the trappings of civilization were to fall away tomorrow and all of us had to revert back to hunting and gathering I'd give them a better shot at survival.

There is a point in the wonderful book The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery when the Fox says to the little Prince: "When you tame something you become responsible for it" Earlier when he is defining taming to the Little Prince he says: "To tame something is to understand it and you can never truly know something until you understand it... Once you know something its unique in all the world." To St. Exupery "taming" is the building of relationships between oneself and another. One has to be deserving of the affection and trust of another.

Why should any of the animals we commonly associate with humans be that way. Sure some of them have been genetically modified, i.e. bred, to be more malleable, but ask any farmer what damage a bull can cause if it breaks out of its pen and even the so called docile cow becomes a force to be reckoned with. We don't seem to be doing a very good job of living up to our end of the taming bargain, hell we don't do a very good job of it within our own species. If you were an elephant would you agree to work in a circus; be a performing tiger in a Las Vegas magic show? What have humans ever done for you?

I'm not going to bother with listing our crimes against the rest of the world here, (I'll save that for another time) but if you think about it there is no real reason at all for animals to hang out with us. For a lot of them their lives are equivalent to that of a prisoner on death road and they have no choice in the matter. But those who do choose do share our living space with us, do so willingly.

The ancient Egyptians thought so highly of their cats that they mummified their remains, some cultures have identified themselves with animals (The Lakota and other planes peoples referred to themselves as "People of the Horse") or have clans designated by animals because of their strengths and abilities. Creation stories involve the animal kingdom integrally, North America being referred to as Turtle Island by the Hay-de-no-sau-ne (Iroquois confederacy). Maybe we need to reflect back on those attitudes more often and think about the honour being bestowed on us by our pets.

My buddy Pippin at rest.

For those of you who have been here and not seen a picture I figured out what was wrong, well my wife did, I was using an image way too big. OOPS.

April 9, 2005

Enemies Of The Environment

They say its always good to know who your enemies are, and to try and know what they are up to.(who are they anyway these guys with all these sayings and advice)To the end I've decided to try and revive a weekly ENEMIES OF THE ENVIRONMENT list. These are coporations and people who are contributing to the demise of some part of our non sustainable resources. Who are shortening the life span of our planet. I think I'll start with a local company in Canada.


These guys are a multi national company that is currently best known for always threatening to go under unless the government of Canada props them up with sweet deals on loans and tax breaks so they can keep manufacturing rolling stock for rapid transit systems world wide. They have also recently expanded into the aerospace industry and are developing a mid size jet for the short hops that are in such demand by business travelers. But their real crimes lie in the roots of their business.

Their first item, and the one they are responsible for introducing to the world are two of the most environmentally damaging recreational vehicles: snowmobiles and jet skis. Although an argument could have been made for the need of the snowmobile when it was first introduced. I'm sure for the people who live in the constant snow of the arctic these vehicles were a boon to their survival, but with its continued growth as a recreational vehicle we have seen them become symbolic with the destruction of quiet in the winter and the decimation of forest habitat.

Cutting huge swaths through fields and forests they indiscriminately plow through habitats that were previously untroubled by human noise. Fright factor alone is enough to condemn these noise makers. Then there is the simple fact that they allow humans mass access to areas that would have been relativly undisturbed, which in turn sets up disruptions in animal behavior, plus the inevitable spread of physical pollution that travel with us like a plague. They will disturb mating and hibernation periods, nesting and gestating families and spread carbon dioxide into even further reaches of pristine wilderness.(the off shoot of these vehicles is of course the horrible ATV which travel the same fields and paths in the non snow months ripping up the undergrowth as well as doing all the above)

Then there is the Jet Ski which has never served any discernible purpose except to create horrendous amounts of noise and disrupt wildlife. Even worse is that they are having a noticeable effect of lake side nesting birds. With their shallow keels they are able to approach further in shore at high speeds, which leads to large wakes washing up on the shore line and swamping nests. This has already had a noticeable effect on the Loon population throughout lakes and rivers in populated areas.

Many's the time I have an idyllic moment destroyed by one of these monsters of recreational fun. Human beings seem to have a unique talent for inventing ways to have fun at the expense of something else. I say if your looking for thrills and speed why not try and hitch a ride on a shark tail while scuba diving. There's the risk of death and high speed right there.

Some of you may say that Bombardier is a small time offender compared to some others, and maybe compared to oil companies and agri-business they are, but its because of that they need to be pointed out. Its important to realize how widespread the rot in our society is. Remember cancer always starts out small, but it quickly grows to dominate the healthy body.

April 7, 2005

Oil: The End Is Nigh - Thank Goodness

All good things must come to an end, and even those things which were never that great to begin with will finish eventually. And this looks like its the beginning of the end for oil as a source of power in our world. The amazing thing is the shock people in North America are feeling as the price of pumping fuel into their steel boxes on wheels rises on a weekly if not daily basis. We have lived so long in our artificial cocoon of cheap gas that having to face the reality of paying the true value of fuel is hard to bear(I remember travelling in Germany in 1980 and seeing the price at the pump being @ 75 cents a litre)

But what is truly scary is the fact that our governments seem to be trying to placate these fears with promises of more bounty buried throughout the earth. Instead of speaking the unfaltering truth that we are nearing the end of the usefulness of petroleum as fuel, and that as the inevitable happens prices will continue to spiral upward, they are full steam ahead in the exploitation of more and more environmental delicate oil exploration projects. The Alaska wildlife refuge, and offshore drilling off both coasts of Canada are just three projects that will risk more then they can ever deliver on. The costs involved in the development will continue to out weigh the increase in availability so prices will never come down again( When have you ever known a price increase to be significantly rolled back)

Through greed and short-sightedness our society has become oil dependent(George Bush calls the Alaska Wildlife Refuge exploitation "protecting America's oil requirements" when it should be called "protecting my family and friends wallets") Transportation, heating our homes, the manufacturing base, plastics, and who knows what else are all dependent on a ready supply of oil. We are about to have to go through a period of radical change over the next few decades, with no plan for a future without oil.

I would like to offer a simple solution that will not only reduce our dependence on oil, but would have the added benefit of allowing every nation on the face of the earth to meet its Kyoto accord gas emission reduction goals, and then some. Ban private ownership of fuel based cars, except in the case of business. Metropolitan Centres already have public transport infrastructure in place, and the auto manufacturers can be retailed to produce more mass transit vehicles. Outlying communities can have publicly owned fleets of cars that are available for us on a needs only basis; business commuters on short hops can access these same types of vehicles, and so as to prevent wastage businesses can schedule people's travel to coincide with others so as to enable car pooling.

Think of the other side benefits: a reduction in noise pollution with less cars on the road, less auto related deaths(both human and wildlife), people will actually be brought into contact with each other instead of being isolated in their own private boxes, and we can rid ourselves of a lot of the ugly concrete that desecrates our landscapes by scrapping a lot of now useless supper highways. Imagine being able to hear the sounds of nature, not traffic. Smelling fresh air not carbon dioxide and seeing the sky not a brown smudge in late August.

I know it sounds ridiculous to most of you, and you can't even picture what it would be like to no own a car, but in the long run it may well be the only hope we have for salvaging something of this world.