Thursday, July 23, 2015

Whither the Birds?

Delicious little wild strawberries grow in a sandy patch of soil in the woods where I walk. The birds usually snatch them before I get a chance, but this year they are all mine.

Across the lake a friend notes that the red currents on her bushes have ripened but have yet to attract any birds.

The woods seem quieter this year.  The gulls, whose numbers grow each year, continue to complain as they circle the lake. But within the trees there is less flickering of wings and only occasional bird song.

Where are all the birds?

We once were visited by squadrons of birds, either locals or transients just passing through. Almost daily we were amused by the antics of the nuthatches as they walked the trunks of trees upside down. Grosbeaks and finches added colour to our dull days.

There was always noise in the trees around us. Scolding from the blue jays. The dee, dee, dee calls of the chickadees. The morning and evening moaning of the doves. And, of course, the non-stop warbling of the vireo that decided that the best place to sing at dawn was outside my bedroom window.

We don’t feed the birds like we used to and perhaps that’s why I don’t see or hear as many. Rampaging bears smashed most of our birdfeeders a couple of years back and I haven’t got around to replacing them.

However, there is little doubt that bird populations everywhere have declined and continue to decline. Birds are among the most studied critters on earth and any of the many reports about them do not make for happy reading. Losses over the last 40 years are in the billions.

Our birds are dying off for many reasons. Habitat loss is the main one. When we cut down a patch of woods to put up a shopping mall, we eliminate the homes of thousands of birds. When we slash and burn tropical forests for plantations we eliminate the habitat of many of the migratory birds that spend summers with us.

New reports show that the increasing number of wind turbines are killing hundreds of thousands of birds. There are many other obstructions, however. Millions of birds in North America die each year after crashing into communications towers, the plate glass on high-rise buildings, power lines and guy wires.

Now there are studies claiming that cats kill billions of birds. The U.S. 2014 State of the Birds report claims that domestic cats kill 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States and 196 million in Canada.

Yes, cats do indeed kill birds but by the billions?

It’s difficult to put much faith in many of the statistics now tossed around about bird losses. We have to suspect everything we read because we live in a marketing society drifting into the Donald Trump School of Communication.

But exact numbers do not really matter. Throughout the world our birds are disappearing. Martha, the world’s last known passenger pigeon, died 101 years ago. She was one of 100 species of birds that have become extinct in the last 400 years.

The watch list of birds nearing extinction continues to grow. About 1,200 bird species, roughly 12 per cent of all bird species, are endangered, threatened or vulnerable, says the environmental group Endangered Species International.

When birds disappear so do other things. Some birds are important pollinators. Some are seed dispersers important to plant reproduction. Woodpeckers, for instance, pound at trees and create cavities that are important to insects and other living things.

When birds disappear so do some flowers and plants and insects.  It’s a chain that when broken changes our world, sometimes in tiny ways, sometimes in large, critical ways.

But for all the studies and reports on what is making the birds disappear, one thing is definite. Almost everything that is killing the birds is created by human beings.

When we walk into the woods and notice fewer flickering wings and less birdsong, we have to ask ourselves if there are ways that we can be living differently.

(From my Minden Times column July 23, 2015)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Turtle and the Transport Truck

A turtle is crossing the highway and if it doesn’t change direction, that 18-wheeler coming around the corner is going to make it part of the asphalt.

Turtles are taciturn critters. Very stubborn. They wish to be left alone and don’t like to communicate. When you try to communicate with them they withdraw into their shells.

They are not like the loons that sing information about what is happening on the lake. Or the wolves that communicate with their night howls. Or, the cheeky red squirrels and audacious crows who never hesitate to offer their thoughts.

Not turtles. They keep what they know to themselves. They dislike sharing information, perhaps operating on the fusty thinking that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

We Canadians are governed by turtles. Our governments are notoriously unforthcoming. Maybe they feel we citizens are not smart enough to handle a lot of information. Maybe they just want to shield us from facts that might upset us. Whatever, they don’t want us to know too much.

The result is that we live in a country that ranks very low in providing its citizens with the information they need to make intelligent decisions. All levels of our government – municipal, provincial and federal – are overly secretive.

We point fingers and sneer at the often dysfunctional American political system. In terms of freedom of information it is light years ahead of ours.

Americans are willing to share information. Canadians are not.

We have 17 laws in Canada aimed at giving citizens access to government information. Governments, however, have found ways around those laws to delay or withhold information they don’t want the public to see. Usually the information blocked has the potential to hurt a government politically.

A common tool governments use to block the release of information is fees. If a government department does not want to meet an access to information request, it simply places an exorbitant charge on providing the information.

Fees assessed for providing information have tripled in the past couple of years.

Chad Ingram wrote recently about The Times’ efforts obtain a copy of the contract between the Ontario government and Carillion, the company that provides highway maintenance in our region. The Times applied to see the contract under the Freedom of Information Act more than six months ago and has encountered one roadblock after another.

Many people are not happy with Carillion’s highway maintenance, especially in winter. Without seeing the contract, taxpayers can’t determine whether Carillion is properly performing the work it is being paid to do.

Federally we have one of the most tight-lipped governments in history. And that’s saying something considering that governments in Ottawa – no matter what their political stripes – are famous for hiding their lights under bushel baskets.

The current government takes its cue from Prime Minister Harper, a diligent man focused on his own view of the country, and very turtle-like when it comes to sharing information. He has read too much by Cardinal Richelieu, who directed much of the development of French Canada, and famously said: “Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of state.”

Newspapers Canada, an advocacy group representing more than 800 newspapers, does an annual audit on government performance under access to information laws. The results often are discouraging.

Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, helps Newspapers Canada conduct the audit.

“Sadly, some (governments/public institutions) are getting worse,” Vallance-Jones said following release of last year’s audit. “And particularly troublesome is the worsening performance by the federal government.”

John Hinds, Newspapers Canada president, says the 2015 audit is being compiled and he expects it will be made public in September, or early October. The public likely will have the results before the October federal election. 

That election is the 18-wheeler. The Harper government is the turtle. If the turtle gets squashed by the 18-wheeler, and that is a distinct possibility, it will be partly because of its unwillingness or inability to share information with the citizens it serves.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Ghost Canoe

This is the week for sitting on the shoreline of a northern lake and staring into the evening mists that creep across dark waters at sunset.

You never know what will emerge from the mists. Perhaps a dove grey cedar strip and canvass canoe paddled by a lone man wearing a yellow bush shirt. If you do see him and call to him, he will not answer and the canoe will dissolve into the mists as if it had never been there.

Ninety-eight years ago this week Tom Thomson, landscape artist, drowned in Canoe Lake. He was last seen alive July 8, 1917 and his decomposing body was found in the lake more than a week later, on July 16.

Some people believe Thomson’s ghost still paddles through the mists on Algonquin Park lakes. There have been reports of sightings, none in recent history.

The most famous sighting report came back in 1931 from a Mrs. Northway, a summer resident on Smoke Lake. She and her guide were paddling the lake one evening when a man in a canoe appeared. As the guide steered their canoe toward the man to exchange greetings, the canoe vanished.

One of Mrs. Northway’s guests that summer was Lawren Harris, Thomson’s friend and a member of the Group of Seven artists. He believed her story because, he said, persons taken unexpectedly continue to haunt the places they loved.

Jimmy Stringer, long-time Canoe Lake resident who met Thomson when he first arrived in the Park in 1913, told of two encounters with Thomson’s ghost.

He said he saw it once while paddling in the Park alone. Another time he was guiding an American who was part of a group. Their canoe fell behind the rest, and somewhere along the route the American began yelling from the bow.

Stringer asked what was wrong and the American said he had seen a ghostly canoe with a lone man up ahead. The man in the ghost canoe shouted that someone had drowned, then disappeared. When they reached their destination, Stringer learned that one of the lead canoes, carrying the American’s brother, had tipped and the brother had drowned.

Stringer himself drowned in Canoe Lake. He was pulling a toboggan on the lake when the spring ice gave way – in almost the same spot where Thomson’s body was found.

Mystery shrouds much of the Thomson story. His body was buried in a tiny bush-choked cemetery at the north end of Canoe Lake. The burial was hurried because the body was decomposing.

However, Thomson’s brother George send a telegram to the lake saying the family wanted the body reburied in Leith, near Owen Sound, where Thomson’s parents lived. He hired an undertaker to travel to the lake, exhume the body and bring it home to Leith.

The undertaker arrived with a coffin on an evening train and went to the isolated cemetery about midnight. He left with the coffin on the next train. Rumours circulated that the undertaker did not exhume the body and brought an empty coffin to Leith.

Thus the Great Canadian Mystery: Do Tom Thomson’s bones lie under his headstone at Leith, or in the dark tree-shrouded soil at Canoe Lake?

The other part of the mystery is how did Thomson die? Some people say it is impossible that the wandering woodsman-artist who spent so much time in his canoe could simply fall out of it and drown. There are theories that he was murdered. There was much speculation about fishing line wrapped around his ankle.

What is known is that on the night of July 7 there was a drinking party at one of the cabins on Canoe Lake. Thomson was there. Arguments, no doubt fuelled by too much booze, broke out.

Thomson was last seen the next day paddling his canoe away from the Canoe Lake shore and letting out copper fishing line as he went. He disappeared behind Little Wapomeo Island and his canoe was found overturned the next day.

The mysteries remain, elusive as the evening mists. Elusive as the ghost canoe that some people say still glides through them.

From my Minden Times column @
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Thursday, July 2, 2015

How To Live Without So Much Stuff

There is important new thinking out there on rescuing the environment and it comes from what some might consider an unlikely source.

It is found in Laudato Si, an encyclical from Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. That’s not breaking news. The 184-page document was released earlier this month. Many people have forgotten about it already, which is a shame.

Anyone seriously interested in our deteriorating environment should read this document. Forget that it is written by a pope. Ignore, if you wish, the religious references. Whether or not you believe in God and Creation, the earth is a shared inheritance for the benefit of everyone, Francis writes.

This encyclical needs to be read as the thoughts of a pensive, superbly educated and intelligent man. It is clear and relatively easy reading, drawing on scientific research, reports, observations and other opinions.

Its key message, in my opinion, is its call for a global dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We all need to better inform ourselves with facts so we all can participate fully in discussing how to stop the deterioration of our world.

The Pope’s message is not just about climate change and other symptoms of environmental abuse. It is about changing our attitude that the world must be respected and cared for only because it benefits us. We share the earth with all kinds of other life, and those other forms deserve our respect and our caring.

We live in an industrial system of over-production and over-consumption with woefully inadequate capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. Dollar stores and other discount operations bulge with mountains of our over-produced goods. Our garbage dumps overflow despite positive advances in recycling.

Walk the edges of Highways 35, or 118 or 121 and see the piles of soda cans, beer bottles, cigarette packages and other detritus tossed from vehicle windows.

Ontario produces 12.5 billion tonnes of garbage a year, almost one tonne per person, says the Ontario Waste Management Association.  We have so much garbage that we have to ship some of it to landfills in the United States.

We think we are better handling our waste, but that’s an illusion.

For example, we recycle only a fraction of the paper we produce. Most of the paper we use goes into the air through burning, or into our soils through burying. Roughly one-third of the food we produce is not eaten and is thrown out.

We keep talking about fixes but our fixes are simply bandages. Fixes like carbon credits, or other pay-to-pollute solutions, are not the answer because they do not treat the underlying causes.

The encyclical says the world needs to talk seriously about changing the culture of consumerism that prioritizes short-term gain and private interests.

“Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction,” the Pope wrote.

Much of the reporting on the encyclical focussed on climate change and eliminating fossil fuels but the papal message is much more than that. It sees environmental destruction as a symptom of a human crisis resulting from an obsession with economic growth and material accumulation.

Production means jobs and profits, which lead to a better life for many. However, our reliance on constant economic growth leaves us with a growing environmental crisis. The encyclical says that we lack the culture and leadership needed to find new paths.

It notes the positive environmental improvements made in some countries. These do not solve global environment problems but they do show we are capable of positive interventions.

We have made some positive changes. Certainly, ecological awareness and sensitivity are growing but this has done little to change our consumption habits.

People throughout the world need to begin talking seriously about how we can start changing our living style, especially our economic system of more and more production. We need to start talking about how to live happily and successfully without so much stuff.