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Nature

I was on CFRU’s Family Matters show with Wendy McDonnell again this past Sunday to talk about the subject of nature deficit.  The other guests were John Jantunen and Anne Gajerski-Cauley.  If you are interested to have a listen, you can get the link through Wendy’s blog, Compassionate Solutions, or you can listen to the archived .mp3 file here.

We have had a few hot days lately, and so the complaining has begun, as it always does, usually by the same people who complain about cold in winter and rain in spring and raking in autumn, which is to say almost everyone, at least it seems that way to me.  Wherever I go, people are constantly rushing from their air conditioned houses to their air conditioned cars to their air conditioned offices to their air conditioned shopping centres to their air conditioned gyms, most of which keep the air cooler in the summer than they keep it warm in the winter, so that you almost need to wear a sweater indoors.  The outdoors has become merely a desert to traverse between one oasis and another, and as quickly as possible.  Any temperature higher than twenty-five degrees is an imposition, something to be endured for only as long as necessary and then remedied with all possible haste.

What seems to be lost on this culture of artificial environments is that most of the world’s population manages to endure much hotter climates without any air conditioning at all.  They wear appropriate clothing.  They organize their routines so that they rest during the hottest parts of the day and do their work when it is cooler.  They stay in the shade as much as possible.  In other words, they adapt to their environment. They endure it as  part of living in their landscape and their habitat.   The human animal is capable of this.  It has been doing it for the life of the species.  There is nothing that prevents it from doing so now.  Nothing accept laziness and gluttony, of course.

We live in a world that faces the manifold implications of high energy consumption, with oil prices continually rising faster than inflation and constituting the biggest driver of inflation, with air quality around the world steadily declining, with global climate change threatening to cause any number of unpleasant problems, and with the occasional energy disaster (the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, for example, or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown) just to top things off.  Yet, despite all this, our culture still insists on air conditioning itself, not just on the hottest days, when a certain degree of air conditioning in certain places could conceivably be said to be necessary for the elderly and the invalid, but most of every day, at a temperature that is indefensible by any standard at all other than the most excessive self-indulgence.

What is more, this unwillingness to experience our climate distances us from our environment.  It makes us strangers to it.  We are no longer at home in our landscape and our habitat.  We are disconnected from the world, prevented from living in it naturally.

It is possible, however, to live otherwise.  It is possible to turn off our air conditioners, to wear clothing that breathes in the heat, to do our business in the cooler hours.  It will hurt no one to sweat a little, to feel the sun a little, to endure the heat a little.  If nothing else, quite apart from any benefits to the environment and the economy and the energy crisis, it will remind us of the place where we we live.  It will relocate us in our landscape, make us more aware of our habitat.  It will, in other words, make us more at home in our environment.

I have never seen a muskrat before, and I was not expecting to see one when I wandered down for a walk by the river the other day.  I thought I might see the mallard ducks that can usually be found just north of the park, no matter how cold the weather, and I hoped to see some winter birds, some nuthatches, or grosbeaks, or chickadees, or cardinals, but I had no thought whatsoever for muskrats.  As I was taking some photographs of the mallards, however, I saw that they were circling and feeding around a disturbance in the water, and the disturbance soon revealed itself to be a muskrat that pulled itself onto the far shore and began grooming itself as the mallards kept feeding where its foraging had disturbed the river bottom.  I took a few photographs and then tried to get a little closer, but the river was too wide to get a really good shot, and the ice was not as thick as I thought, so I only ended up getting my one leg wet up past the knee.

Now, a muskrat is only a muskrat, granted.  It is not exactly rare as wildlife goes, certainly not if one can be found on the Speed River in the middle of Guelph.  Even so, I was struck by the sensation of newness as I was walking back, the feeling that I often have when I encounter something for the first time, and I reflected on the curiously wonderful fact that I could still have this experience so close to my own door, that I could still walk down the road such a little ways and find something that I had never found before.

As I was thinking these things, it occurred to me that the key to this experience of discovery is a certain willingness to look and to see.  I have said something like this any number of times before, and I know that I am repeating myself, but I think this fact is unavoidable: We must go looking in order to find.  It is not that I went looking for muskrats.  It is that I went looking for something, for mallards, and for some song birds, and for the river itself, and this looking was surprised by something that it did not expect.  I found something new, not because I went looking for it, but because I went looking, pure and simple, and so I was able to find something, even and especially something I did not expect.

For those who are interested, here are some photographs of my walking and looking.

I am always confronted by the verticality of the forest, by the way it ascends, layer on layer, from the underbrush to the canopy, and my walking through the forest, even when I am walking along its paths, seems like it moves along the wrong plane, fails to recognize the movement proper to its place.  I am always finding it necessary to stoop toward the flowers and the insects and the snakes, always finding it necessary to crane toward the birds and the butterflies and the leaves and the very sky.  I am pulled in both directions, stretched between earth and sky, and this tension is not lessened, only intensified the further I walk in it.  Though I know it is not so, though I can think of countless examples to the contrary, it seems impossible to me that horizontality is not a purely human thing, a purely unnatural thing, confined to those places where we have cleared the forest so that we might break the terrible tension that suspends us, longingly, in verticality.

The dogwoods stand among the still winter-gold grasses, red on gold, defiantly, though everything will soon succumb to green, to fecundity, to the leaves just now budding on the dogwood stems, to the shoots hidden beneath the litter of the grass, and to the evergreen of the forest, the scrambling junipers, the saplings of spruce and balsam, the outliers of a green that will soon permit no red and gold to mar it.

My eldest son set me a task as we were driving up to Parry Sound this past Saturday: “Dad, let’s find a salamander.”

This task, I knew, would be harder than he realized.  Though my brothers and I regularly found salamanders during the summers we spent on Manitoulin Island and in Blind River, I found the little creatures to be much less common when I went to find them as an adult, even in the same places.  We used to keep in a bucket six or eight specimens at a time of what I now think were Redback Salamanders, but I have not seen more than one of these a summer in recent years, though I am unsure whether this is due to a decline in their population or to a decrease in my patience in looking for them.

In any case, I was non-committal about our chances of finding a salamander during our stay at the lake, and my caution proved justified.  I turned countless rocks and logs, discovering more ant nests than I thought possible and a precious few worms that went to feed our catch and release fishing sessions from the end of the dock.  I also found a toad, a patch of previously unknown blueberry bushes, and several species of beetle, but no salamanders.

On the first day we were there, however, on a whim, I tossed the minnow trap into the water beside the boathouse.  It was unbaited, and I did not expect to catch anything much.  I may even have forgotten about it entirely if it had not begun to rain on our fishing yesterday afternoon.  I caught sight of the trap as we headed for shelter in the boathouse, so I decided to check it as we passed, and there, huddled against the side, was a common mudpuppy.

This was certainly not what my son had meant by a salamander, and certainly not what I had expected to find for him, but it was a very interesting creature nonetheless.  The mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander, having external gills and spending its time almost exclusively in the water.  It also grows quite large, our specimen being something like ten inches in length.  My son was overjoyed, and I was excited as well, since it was the first time I had been able to hold and examine a mudpuppy at such close quarters.

As we were releasing the salamander back into the water, I suddenly remembered a conversation that I once had with Dave Humphrey about seeing.  It occurred to me that I had been looking for something in particular, for something that I expected to find only in a certain way and in a certain place, rather than seeing what was actually there, rather than being watchful for what I might actually encounter.  Rather than allowing myself to simply explore and see what was there, and I had been looking past my surroundings in search of something that may not have been there at all.

Of course, the act of seeing may still involve rolling stones, or tossing out a minnow trap, for that matter.  It just rolls stones differently.  It rolls them, not in order to find something in particular, not in expectation, but in order to see what there might be, in wonder.  It explores rather than searches.  It attends.  It approaches.  It encounters.  It experiences.  It allows itself to be surprised.

I have some fairly large sections of Wild Carrots in the areas of my yard that are still pretending to be a lawn.  Wild Carrot is sometimes also called Queen Anne’s Lace or Bird’s Nest or Bee’s Nest or Devil’s Plague or a variety of other things, and these names are sometimes applied to other similar looking plants as well, but only the species Daucus carota is properly called Wild Carrots.   It is a very common plant in our area and is usually considered a weed because of how prolifically it seeds.

Wild Carrots are edible, though few people actually eat them, perhaps because they look similar to the poisonous Water Hemlock plant, though the roots of true Wild Carrots can easily be identified by their distinctively carrot-like smell.  Wild Carrot roots are tasty when they are young, though they get woody much sooner than their cultivated cousins.  Their leaves can be used exactly like those of cultivated carrots, as a way to add carrot flavour to a broth or a stew.  Their flowers and roots can both be used to make a tea, though there is some evidence that it interferes with the implantation of fertilized eggs in humans, so it should be avoided by women who are pregnant or who would like to become pregnant.  Their flowers also make attractive and edible garnishes for salads and other foods.

Beyond their culinary uses, wild carrots play an important function in the ecosystem, as highly nutritious food for browsing herbivores, as habitat and nourishment for butterfly larvae, and as nectar for bees.  They are also an attractive plant with large delicate white flowers that attract butterflies over a long blooming season, so they make and interesting addition to a garden, even if they are difficult to control.

Now, I have not spent all of this time describing Wild Carrots merely for the sake of information, but also for the sake of making an observation about how urban gardens have come to be cultivated.  Despite the fact that these edible, nutritious, attractive, ecologically significant plants grow easily around us, even without cultivation, we ruthlessly eliminate them whenever possible to make way for less useful and less attractive and less beneficial garden plants.  Though there is some justification for this on the basis that Wild Carrots are technically an exotic species, they are nevertheless a long naturalized species that poses no particular threat to the ecological system, to browsing livestock, or to humans.  The reason for our objection to them, the reason that we classify them as weeds, is far more based on the simple fact that they are common.

Gardening generally, and the urban garden in particular, is dominated by an obsession with the rare and a distaste for the common.  What distinguishes the expert gardener is the cultivation of plants that are rare and difficult to grow and that are uncommonly showy in their bloom or their foliage.  What reveals the poor gardener is the invasion of common local plants into the garden space.  Yet, I would suggest that rarity is not actually a very useful criterion for judging a garden or a gardener, particularly in a world that can less and less afford to spend its resources on the merely frivolous and ornamental, and in a world that must find ways to make the most of its land and its labour.

However, if we are not entirely to replace aesthetics with functionality, we will have to find ways to make the functional beautiful and ways to understand the functional as beautiful.  An essential part of this movement, in my opinion, will be to reassess the value of the common and the rare.  Rather than regarding the common as something to be eradicated in favour of the rare, we will need to regard it as beautiful precisely in its commonality.  I do not mean that we should merely let our gardens be overrun by what happens to sprout there, because this commonality would not be any more functional than rarity.  Neither do I mean that we should leave our gardens altogether without aesthetic form, because this would serve only to eliminate the essential role that the garden plays as a place between the human and the natural.  What I mean is that we need to identify and cultivate and form the very things that grow naturally around us, to recognize the beauty that is found precisely in their commonness.

I took my two boys to The Green Legacy Tree Nursery yesterday morning.  I ran across this operation when I was looking for seed-grown Red Mulberry trees a month or so ago, and I thought that the boys might enjoy seeing how trees are grown, so we borrowed a car and went to volunteer for the morning.  We enjoyed our time very much.  The boys mostly chased the resident dog and cat or played with the daughter of one of the nursery’s employees, while I helped transplant seedlings that will be kept in the greenhouses for another winter.

On our way into the nursery, however, and on our way out, I was startled to see a number of signs that a neighbour had posted along the edge of the nursery’s property in plain view from the laneway.  The signs aggressively abused the nursery, describing it as a waste of tax dollars and discouraging people from volunteering there.  The signs were professionally made and had clearly cost a significant amount of time and energy and money, and they were a disturbing reminder of how much remains to be done in changing the way that people understand the significance of naturalization and reforestation in our communities.

I found the signs doubly disturbing in light of a similar situation that I had encountered the previous week while the boys and I were vacationing on Manitoulin Island.  The beach at Providence Bay, where we spent much of our time and where I have gone frequently since I was a child, has become increasingly vegetated over the years, whether because the boardwalk has kept walkers off the dunes, or because lower water levels have allowed better conditions for the plants, or because warmer weather has allowed a longer growing season.  Though I find this naturalized dune habitat very beautiful, many of the local residents see it as destroying their biggest draw for tourists, who provide most of the town’s income.  They would like to dredge the beach to remove the encroaching plant material, but several threatened species now grow there, so dredging is no longer permitted, and the residents feel that the future of their town is being threatened.

I am not unsympathetic to the feelings of those in Providence Bay who are trying to protect their livelihood.  They have already seen their shipping and fishing industries disappear over the years, and they may very well be right in thinking that a second stage dune ecosystem will not attract tourists nearly as much as a pristine sand beach.  The situation, however, need not be as insoluble as they suppose.  Though it may no longer be possible to advertise their beach as a vast stretch of unmarked sand, it has now become possible to market it as a unique ecological habitat, to offer guided tours of the dunes and its flora, to make effective use of the already existing interpretive centre, and to build a local eco-tourism industry.  This approach would allow them to qualify for various government grants and would position them well for the future.  It would require, however, a substantial shift in the attitudes and the expectations of the local residents, both in respect to what the relationship between the economics and the ecology of tourism should be and also in respect to what it means for a beach to be attractive.

In the case of The Green Legacy’s neighbours, I am not sure whether their concerns are as valid as those of the Providence Bay community, but I think that the situation is likely structurally similar.  I suspect that the conflict has arisen, as it usually does, because environmental idealism has contravened long-standing assumptions about how tax dollars should be spent, communities should be built, businesses should be run, and priorities should be determined.  I also suspect that the solutions would be similar to those of Providence Bay as well, involving a better integration of economic and ecological needs in order to produce a relationship between the environment and the community that sustains both.

The shift in attitude that is required, I think, and often in both parties, is away from the assumption that economy and ecology are necessarily opposed.  While I would suggest that a balance between the two will often come at the expense of economic efficiency, simply because of the degree to which these kinds of concerns have come to dominate ecological ones, ecological change will only be sustained if the people who are driving it can sustain their own livelihoods as well.  It is difficult to convince people to work for environmental change when this seems to mean the loss of  their jobs and of their communities.  It is much easier when there seems to be a possibility for new jobs and more vital communities.

An ecologically aware economy will almost certainly be less effecient than an ecollogically absuive one, but this does not imply that we need to abandon either ecological or economic sustainability.  It means only that we need to understand the goals of an economy to be other than mere effeciency, to be the creation of both healthy environments and healthy communities.

Walking the beaches of Manitoulin Island, as I did today for the first time since last summer, is my surest therapy.  It is always a journey through the flora of my unconscious, the unnamed and half-remembered flowers of my childhood. Though I could not begin to name and recall all of the growing things that I encountered today, or to explain the significance that they have for me, or even to relate the experience of coming upon them, I offer the following list as a memorial of their place in my history and in my imagination:

Sand Cherry (Prunis pumila var. depressa)
Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
Purple Flag (Iris versicolor)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)
Great Lakes Wheat Grass (Agropyron psammophilum)
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Beach Pea (Lathyrus japonicus)
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum)
Wild Rose (Rosa carolina)

Some of these plants are found in amost no other place on earth, though I have walked among them every summer of my life.  Others are among the commonest of plants.  All of them, however, have a rarity quite apart from their quantity and their geographical distribution.  They are, in fact, the rarest of things: the source and the reminder of an imagined history.