Tag Archives: ecology

Giving It My Best Shot

The approach of the autumnal equinox seems to usher a familiar feeling. I haven’t totally figured myself out yet, but fall always has some power over me. For one thing, my childhood ensconced September as “back-to-school”. That’s one thing I thought I had moved away from…but this year, I have summoned it back.

Of course, on a subtler note, the earth is tilting. The daylight swings wildly enough where I live that the difference between June’s all-night glow and December’s darkness is noticeable. Already, the days are shorter. The fifty-foot balsam poplar in my neighbourhood that serves as my seasonal barometer showed its first yellowing leaves over a week ago.

There is no burst of colours in the trees. The electric yellow canola fields trail off into a pale green before it’s piled into swaths which accentuate the topography. The other crops turn brown before they disappear. Trees denude back to twisted branches and twigs, their silhouettes etched like lightning against the sky.

2017-09 Brown Prairie

I can’t explain why the leading lines make my eyes shiver, or why the smoothed contours soothe me—but there is a certain space I can enter when that certain blend of summer and winter meet on an archetypal autumn day—and even when I’m outside for the briefest moment, there’s a quietness that follows the thought that I lose as it’s whisked away by the nippy breeze.

The geese are in the air, they know what that breeze brings. Soon flocks of hundreds of birds fly overhead, charting a magnetic path they can see with eyes evolved for the task.

Waterfowl move methodically and rhythmically, setting up shop when necessary or where food is available. Warblers are more blindly determined—they only pass through for days, as opposed to the weeks that it takes ducks and geese. Warblers cause tumults in the middle of the night, quite literally warbling like a comet made up of a hundreds-strong (yet short-breathed) church choir.

But I don’t hunt warblers. At least not with anything besides a pair of binoculars. The geese and ducks are not so lucky. Wild waterfowl makes for a delightful meal, which is a foreign concept for someone who was raised in a metropolis (like myself) and saw geese and ducks as companions to pigeons and seagulls (i.e. garbage birds). I had heard of homeless people in Toronto eating goose, and it sounded no different than someone eating a subway rat.

Now that I live in the fly-path between the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, I think I can appreciate geese and ducks as something more. These birds certainly reside in cities at some point on their journey, but they benefit from a lot more free range than their eastern (or city-bound) counterparts.

(Some of that, I realize, is an idealization; and I am okay with that dissonance because so far, all the meat I have tasted has been delectable, and if it had any garbage-infused flavours they paired perfectly with the heartiness of goose).

2017-09 Goose Supper

Hunting can be a polarizing activity. It’s a complicated issue, and cannot be painted with the broad brush it so often is. It’s not a familial or cultural tradition for me. I have no compulsion or obligation to hunt. However, it seems disingenuous to me to eat and enjoy meat, but refuse to be part of the process.

I say, if you eat apples, go pick apples.

In a similar vein, I enjoy being entertained—therefore, I entertain. I don’t think that’s a comprehensive reason why I write, but it certainly feeds into my overall creative ethos.

Hunting and writing have some parallels for me—they’re done alone; can be fruitless no matter how much time and effort is spent; and, can be done without any instruction.

But the latter is only true if the outcome doesn’t affect your lifestyle. If I dick around in the field for three days and come back without so much as a feather, it’s all good. We go to the grocery store and buy whatever we need.

2017-09 Horseradish

So far, writing has been similar. If it fails (as it so often does), it doesn’t really matter. I have a job that pays the bills. No one will starve or suffer because my story sucked.

North Korea might force our hand to need to know more about sourcing our food. In the case of creativity, I am being my own North Korea, forcing myself out onto the proverbial gangplank, where I either succeed as a writer or I flounder as a provider for my family.

Just like the apprentice hunter of yesteryear would seek a master to teach the skills needed to excel, I am also seeking out masters to help me excel as a writer. I am super-psyched to have been accepted into Stanford’s Online Writing Course for Novel Writing. It’s a huge opportunity…so huge, it feels too good to be true, like I’ll finally be outed as the impostor I have always been.

Until that happens, I have to trust it’s just a syndrome. An impostor can’t really try. And I am trying. Even if no one knows it—and of course, it’s this chink that my inner critic can still hang out and harangue me.

Because identity is everything—encapsulated in that millennial idiom I’m tired of hearing & writing: “If it can’t be shared, it didn’t happen.”

My family doesn’t value creativity, I have no friends to call up about life events, and the place I live & work isn’t a particularly cultured/artsy place. Social media is supposed to be the panacea for my kind of situation, but I can’t help but see it for what it is (a placebo, and not a very good one).

So basically, none of this is happening. My inner critic has a field day with that shit.

Not everyone seems to have the same hang-ups about pride. Anton Chekhov wrote a short story about a man who borrows a medal for a dinner party, only to find out someone is there who knows he didn’t earn that medal—only to later find out both of them are frauds trying to impress the host. Usually we never have that final reveal. Instead, we really buy into our borrowed medal and convince ourselves the illusion is real.

2017-09 Upside Down Prairie

All I can do is give it my best shot, I’ve convinced myself. Until I shoot my eye out or carpel tunnel limits my ability to type, I only have my best shot. (After that, I have pain medication).

As September rolls on, I am re-acquainting myself with that “back-to-school” mentality. I am looking for my fingerless gloves and cleaning my shotgun. I keep one eye on the skies and the other on my prize. And then I put my sunglasses on, because no one can know.

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Somewhere Up Meander River Way

For the past couple weeks, in my part of the world, there has been a disheartening deep freeze. That damn “polar vortex”. Or for those whose memories stretch past this decade’s latest fad, or don’t care about feigning a peripheral knowledge of meteorology, it’s more cozily known as a “Canadian winter”.

Nationalities aside, we are talking about temperatures that are unfriendly to a hairless ape. At -25⁰C (-13⁰F) to -40⁰C (-40⁰F), the outside becomes intolerable very quickly. At the bottom of the range, the inside of your nostrils freeze, your eyelids feel cold, and your fingers become utterly useless unless they are bound in mitts or gloves.

The coldest wind chill I personally experienced was just below -50⁰C. But you don’t need to get to those extremes to empathize. The experiential difference between -25⁰C and -50⁰C is often negligible. It’s the difference of a few minutes of toleration. It’s fucking cold.

So when I am out, unable to feel my face, I often wonder what the hell all those pioneers were thinking. Who thought Europeanized “civilization” belonged in a place where the air hurts your skin?

And I think even more fundamentally about all the people who called the northernmost reaches of Turtle Island home for millennia.

For many First Nations, centuries of oppression and white-washing have rendered them not all that different than the paler naked apes who have flung their shit all over the place. Biologically speaking, it is difficult to discern whether aboriginal peoples are better equipped than any other human from any other continent to manage the cold. With that said, I am sure there are some epigenetic triggers from living in the northern environment generation after generation.

But I will assume we are all equitable, from the perspective of the overall energy system we consider an individual human being. I assume there is biological adaptation, but no super-human difference (I am open to compelling evidence otherwise). No difference, particularly after any cultural techniques to bear the cold were forcefully rubbed out by residential schools. Particularly after the environment that influenced those genetics for so long changed so quickly.

But where Wasichu have high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and pink insulation, First Nations often have woodstoves and plywood walls.

segó͔łį gots’ę jo͔ deneilé

“I lived here since I was born”

So my mind, detached from my frostbitten senses, goes to a Dene Tha’ community in northern Alberta, where earlier this year I was wandering around with hurt in my heart and a chill in my bones (my cold tolerance was lower then, the freezing point felt brutal).

I had Meander River, AB specifically marked as a stop on our road trip to the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. If you are travelling through Alberta, there are two ways into the Territories. The more travelled route is Highway 35. Also known as the Mackenzie Highway, it heads north from High Level, AB (once poised as the new capital city of Canada II), until it turns into Highway 1 at the Territorial border but maintains its moniker until Fort Simpson, NWT.

Even Wikipedia notes Meander River, AB is a highway service centre on that route. Otherwise, there is a stretch of ~175 km (109 mi) between the gas stations in High Level and the gas station at Indian Cabins, which is the last stop for gas before Enterprise, ~100 km (62 mi) north.

If we could gas up in Meander River, we could get to our campsite in the NWT for the night, and gas up in nearby Enterprise the next morning. It was all set.

Dark was a few hours away, but it had been dim all day and had rained steady the day before. We woke to more of the same. As we crossed degrees of latitude the air became chillier and some of the rain became sleet. I fueled up in Fort Vermilion, AB and passed clean through bustling High Level.

It started raining again when we detoured off the highway around bridge construction, off the asphalt and onto the red clay that lay underneath the dense forest we were starting to see more regularly. I knew I had 151 km (94 mi) to Meander River. Right around the sign that said 1 km Up Ahead I prepared myself.

And then I saw the 1 km Up Ahead sign again, in my sideview mirror. We passed no gas station, no highway service centre. I pulled over on an approach, rocking our 1973 Boler as I cranked us around to head south. I drove slower this time, and passed both signs for Meander River again without seeing so much as another vehicle on the highway.

I made another U-turn and decided to take the first unmarked road after the sign. There was another unmarked road further north. These were the only access points to the town. I took us on a loop, trying to keep my bearings and hoping I didn’t run into any dead ends–turning the Boler around was a pain in the ass.

Behind an outcrop of trees we started seeing houses. They were large and spaced out. They weren’t surveyed on proper streets, it seemed, but their placements seemed to work. There were outcroppings of the town, undulating westwards to the Meander River.

This reserve was not unlike other reserves I have been on. It appeared neglected, with a noticeable need for up-keep. Siding was missing, windows were busted, shingles peeled, cars rusted, garbage clumped in tall grasses. There were cars at almost all the houses, but it felt like a ghost town.

The road I took looped us back to the Mackenzie Highway. At this northern access, there was the service centre. But where there would have been pavement or gravel or something to drive on, there was grass and weeds. The pumps stood in the middle of the clearing, white and shiny.

I parked on the road and took a walk around the abandoned gas station. The door to the store was locked. The windows were covered with plywood, except one. The interior was gutted. I checked the pumps. Their Measurement Canada inspection was still valid. The pumps looked hardly used.

The cold was making me paranoid. This was no place to spend the night, mostly because it would be below zero that night and we would feel it inside the un-insulated Boler. We would later find out from a woman in Hay River that they didn’t ever want to end up stranded on the Mackenzie Highway. Too many anecdotes of sexual assaults on that long, lonesome highway [Note: I wasn’t able to find anything to link, though].

No gas at Meander River made this leg of the journey ~250 km (155 mi). That doesn’t sound so bad, but on a loaded crossover’s 55 L tank hauling a 1000 lb Boler with headwinds on the western jogs, it was cutting it a little closer than I liked. If there were troubles at Indian Cabins getting gas, we would have another ~100 km (62 mi) to Enterprise which we probably would not make.

Cell coverage was spotty. I could load a map, but not do much with it. I have done most of my travelling without the crutch of everything a Google search away, so it didn’t bother me. I was in a town and there was bound to be someone around that could help me.

So I left the car parked and went for a walk into Meander River. I could go north and check out some houses, but there were some on the same road I was on. So I started for the first house. There were four vehicles parked in front of the house. There was no noise from inside but I knocked anyway. When no one came to the door, I started to the next house.

On my way a black pick-up truck was coming down the road. I made eye contact with the driver and waved to him. He took a corner and disappeared.

Before I reached the next house, I could hear people. That was promising. There were no windows on the top floor, so I could track down the voices to a corner room. There must have been about a half dozen people. They were shouting at each other. Screaming, and it didn’t sound like anyone was listening. The television played infomercials on full blast, filling in the space of what sounded like a party.

There was a thin bed sheet that looked like it was meant to cover the window, but it did nothing. Half of it hung out the window, the rest of it barely attached to the rod. The icy rain blew into the room, and still they all shouted like it was just another Saturday afternoon in Meander River.

I tried to outdo their roar. I shouted Hello! and Yo! and Can I get some help? and Anyone there?

That last question seemed stupid. No one was there. At least not for me.

I eventually found someone on a bicycle, who felt safest shouting at me across a patch of tall grass that was too wet for either of us to cross. She was perfectly fine with me not getting any closer. She was already on her bicycle and heading away before she finished explaining that I couldn’t get gas until Indian Cabins.

On my way back to the vehicle, I passed the house with no windows. They were no quieter. I tried to get their attention again. I wanted to ask them about the windows. If they were planning on replacing them. It was only fall, things would get colder. What would they do in January? What happened to all the snow that came in through the windows? Were they okay? Was there anything I could do?

That last question seemed stupid. Of course they were not okay. And there was nothing I could do.

Things became colder, of course. Like, 40⁰C colder. In that cold, when each icy breath rasps the back of my throat, and my hands became bricks, and frost starts to build on my eyelashes, I think back to that house with no windows in Meander River.

The memory doesn’t stop the cold. Doesn’t help my sunless mood, either. Whether I shunt reality or try to embrace it, I have to live through it all the same. And maybe that was what they were doing in that house that afternoon. They were living through it, all the same. Heat-trapping windows be damned.

Are You Down With the IPCC?

The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published its report on climate change.

Last year parts of the report were leaked, and some of the corrections made to the 2007 report were a win for climate change denialists and skeptics—the report contained adjustments to modelling predictions, and included tidbits that certain climate indicators were not occuring as predicted. Nevertheless, the report included its typical warnings about the coming climate apocalypse.

This year, climate change champions are hanging the report on their banners (unless you lend any credence to the NIPCC). News article after news article expounds how the IPCC is painting a perilous picture of the future of the world…if we don’t change our ways.

I will not be treading on ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments [Note: yes, there is a debate…maybe not on the science itself, but surely on the meaning and implications of the science…this is its own blog entry that I won’t even bother to write]. I’m not a climatologist and I just don’t have the time to wade through the science. I am an environmental scientist, true, but I am far more interested in the small ‘e’ environmentalism that the charismatic big ‘E’ environmentalism. People ask me all the time about climate change—or, according to their bias, ‘global warming’—and, quite frankly, I have nothing constructive to say. My brain shuts down when I hear the climate arguments. I blame it on years of obsessive philosophical contemplation that has led me to an existentialist nihilism on the subject, for the most part. It’s not that I don’t care; I just don’t think it really matters what we think.

James Lovelock conceived the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1960’s. My ecology instructor avoided Lovelock at all costs. I brought it up on certain occasions, and I like to feel that if it wasn’t for me, my fellow peers might not have ever even heard the word Gaia (none of them cared, anyway).

But it’s an important theory, one that really characterizes my ‘nihilism’ (for lack of a better term, right now). The basic tenet of the theory is that the Earth as a whole is a living organism, named after the Greek goddess, Gaia. This organism is evolutionarily inclined to survive. It does what it has to do. Its component parts, including biological life, all interact to support the survival of the organism.

There are some quandaries with the theory—such as what’s the point to survival? and at what point in the formation of this rock in space did it become an organism?—but the idea provides a fractal-esque postulation of the macrocosmic globe as no different than the single-celled organisms that we figure first populated the Earth.

 But why wouldn’t my ecology instructor want to include this theory in his teaching plan? Well, he said, it applies too much of a nihilist view of the world, like there is nothing we can do. He was partially right—as much as the theory promotes interconnectedness and purpose to biodiversity, it also contains the idea that humanity really means nothing in itself. Humanity is merely a component part of a larger organism, an iteration of biological life that fulfills an ecological function at this current period of time. Apparently, this is a scary thought.

 But I’m not too proud to acknowledge that humanity is not special. This isn’t even a special thought in itself. We are animals, nothing more. We are not God’s chosen creatures, or the epitome of evolution, or even the beloved experiments of a race of hyper-intelligent aliens. That’s my take, anyway.

 Ecological function is a well known and studied aspect of ecology…but one that typically excludes humans from the picture. It is a common battle cry of the environmental movement that we are all connected—when something affects one aspect of the environment it affects every aspect. But, at the same time, the movement’s arguments typically distinguishes between ‘natural’ activities and ‘anthropomorphic’ activities, as if humans are not fulfilling a suitable biological function on the earth.

 So Gaia leads me to beg the question—what if ‘destroying’ life on earth is our function? What if, like Methanosarcina, the newly proposed culprit of the largest extinction in our fossil record, humans have evolved to reduce biodiversity in the Gaia system?

Cyanobacteria were single-celled organisms that are theorized to have been the first photosynthetic life-forms—they essentially transformed earth’s atmosphere into one that had enough oxygen to support a proliferation of aerobic life-forms. Were their actions unnatural? Could the (hypothetical) carbon dioxide-supported life pre-cyanobacteria have been destroyed by the selfish bacteria and their addiction to photosynthesis?

 There is an entirely different aspect of the climate change—the urgency, the redemption, the eerie religious undertones that we shall receive the utopian Eden-on-Earth if we shall only change our shameful, sinful ways. Don’t feed me end-of-days salvation bullshit. At the same time, the corporate-driven denialist movement is just as repulsive, feeding empty and desperate rhetoric for the purpose of profit.

 Taoism has a wonderful concept, wu wei, or ‘do nothing’. In essence, act natural. Do what thou wilt, in a way. And, it would appear, acting natural to the modern human is to act in a way that we see as harmful to the Earth (which is a weird dichotomy in itself, but one I won’t delve into because this is convoluted enough).

 Who knows. I don’t. Here again, my brain is shutting down. I’ve overworked these neurons thinking in circles, only to come to the conclusion that you just need to choose what’s your natural. And who even knows what that fucking means?

 Aldo Leopold was absolutely right when he said that the environmental question is fundamentally a philosophic question. The science is auxillary to the philosophy. That’s probably why there is logic to certain arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ climate change. I really enjoy engaging with people so embroiled in one view or another. They are unwavering. They are so fucking sure of themselves. It’s kind of like a form of yoga, to be so steadfastly sure of yourself.

 Unfortuantely I don’t have that reassurance. I have my ideas, but that’s all…par example: yes, the climate changes, and we are probably not helping it not change…but the morality of it, that is a tougher thing to chew. I’ll leave it in your mouth, mine’s getting sore.