When I was a child, I loved collecting seashells along the New Jersey coast. I’d walk the beach, small bucket in hand, and find tiny rainbow coloured clam shells, the occasional little conch, scallop and mussel shells. There was also a round snail-like shell whose name I forget. I had a book, written in 1955, that I’ve kept to this day. I read it many times, pouring over the line drawings and photos.
This love of shells has remained with me throughout my life. They’ve travelled with me to the various apartments I’ve lived in. The majority of shells and bits of coral in the glass jar in this post are ones I found on beaches in the Caribbean during the 1970s and early ’80s when I used to visit relatives there. There’s also the odd shell from other wanderings plus 4 or 5 interspersed that I bought in the ’70s while travelling in Florida.
Science: The systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms. — Collins English Dictionary
I never go through a day without thinking, at some point, about the destruction of nature in the world and the efforts to halt that destruction and restore natural areas. You’ll likely have heard that the Canadian Conservative Party, who are in power now, sees oil extraction and pipeline building as priorities for the country’s prosperity. At the same time, they have fired publically employed environmental scientists, cancelled whole projects and prohibited public scientists from speaking about their findings without first being vetted so that they are “on message.”
Recently the government has closed a series of science libraries connected with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. They say this is to consolidate information, digitize it and save money. Apparently, however, a government email has surfaced that speaks of culling the information and lists the savings as around $440,000. This may be a lot of money for most of us, but it is quite a low saving for a federal budget. In the last few weeks, researchers have discovered that materials from the closed libraries, some with records dating back a century, are being destroyed. A photograph showing books and papers in a dumpster has appeared online. I find this deeply troubling.
My own belief is that these destructive actions toward environmental scientists and scientific information speak to the Conservatives’ desire to withhold knowledge (inconvenient truths) of our eco systems from citizens. Not only can destroying knowledge have destructive consequences for our health and wellbeing in Canada and beyond, but it is deeply undemocratic.
I’m writing about this today to do my small part in spreading the word and to say there can be no justification, financial or otherwise, for destroying knowledge or for censoring the messengers. I’ve added a few links if you’re interested in reading further. Plus some photos of the beauty of nature in Canada.
I’ve recently read a wonderfully written book of contemporary Canadian nature writing called Northern Wild. The editor, David R. Boyd, an environmental lawyer, chose essays from twenty authors for the collection. The writers all share a love and knowledge of land, water, sky and wildlife. Because we are in a time of intense destruction of nature, their stories are both ones of beauty and of loss. Many are poetic, others are humourous.
One of the amazing things that stands out that I learned from this book was in the essay by Wade Davis. In it, he speaks of the Inuit and how they navigate on cloudy days in the arctic. They study the reflections of the ice on the undersides of low clouds. From these reflections, they can tell where open water appears, where sea ice is, where ground is covered, or not, by snow. Imagine such attunement to one’s surroundings. Now that I think of it, in one form or another, many of the essays speak to moments of such attunement, calling on us to be attentive to and nurture our connection to nature.
This book is out of print, but I borrowed it from my library and then found a copy online that I’ve since purchased. It’s the kind of book that asks to be reread.
I recently read a moving book by Andrew Westoll called The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. He’s a writer and primatologist who spent a summer at the sanctuary working with and meeting the chimps and human staff members. The book tells the story of thirteen chimpanzees who had spent years either in zoos or a medical research lab where they were deeply traumatized. In the lab, they underwent multiple surgeries and other invasive, painful experiments and treatment. The belief was that this might help human health although that has turned out not to be the case.
Nineteen chimps originally were rescued and sent to the Fauna Sanctuary in Canada, in the countryside near Montreal. Fifteen were from a lab and four from zoos. Some have since died, leaving the thirteen we encounter in this book.
At Fauna, Andrew Westoll saw the apes’ amazing ability to begin to trust humans despite what they had been through at our hands. He wrote about the deep effects of their trauma. Having worked as a therapist and counsellor myself in the past, I was repeatedly impressed by the similar ways in which chimps and humans react to trauma. We share many symptoms, such as self harm and dissociation.
This book also tells of the determination by the sanctuary’s founder, Gloria Grow, and the staff and volunteers, to give these apes a chance for some healing after extremely difficult lives.
The book is also the story of what we can learn about ourselves from knowing these sentient beings who, along with bonobos, are our closest relatives. Each chimp is shown as an individual not only in Andrew’s words, but also in the wonderful photographic portraits Frank Noelker took of each of them. Looking at these photos makes it less easy to dismiss or distance ourselves from them.
At the end of the book, Andrew Westoll gives information on how to help chimps. In the U.S., you can support the passage of GAPA—the Great Ape Protection Act. You can get information about the act at releasechimps.org and other sites. You can also go to the author’s site: andrewwestoll.com and you can donate the Fauna Sanctuary at faunafoundation.org or faunasanctuary.org in the U.S.
I’ve just finished reading an extremely powerful, well written book called The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. Among other things, it’s the story of logging in North America and the destruction of a rare golden spruce sacred to the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of Canada. It’s also the story of the man who attacked the tree and the mystery as to his whereabouts.
When I write of humans and nature, the destructive side of our practices is always in my mind. John Vaillant speaks to this, but though his book is painful reading, it’s enlightening. I have previously been ignorant of the extremes of our destruction of trees and forests on our continent and others. Perhaps this has been a form of cushioning denial—in which I have refused to allow into my consciousness painful realities. I say this because I have been aware that our continent had vast forests before the arrival of Europeans. And yet, the scale and speed with which we have removed and continue to remove forests was something I never fully grasped until reading The Golden Spruce.
The denial and self-protection I have felt seems to me wide spread as we continue to live with the effects of the destruction of natural settings. The book, The Nature Principle, that I wrote about earlier was written with this backdrop in mind. I believe that Richard Louv, the author, wrote that book with a positive vision in order to turn people away from denial and despair. He calls us to face our essential need to live in nature for our healthy continuance.
Here’s a card from my card deck Mirrors of the Heart which shows an image of humans and nature in wholeness.
I’m reading a book that I find very meaningful. It’s The Nature Principle by Richard Louv. What I find important about Richard Louv’s book is that he’s looking at the great help humans receive from time spent in nature. He has coined the phrase nature deficit disorder that many of us suffer from. He doesn’t deny the crisis we’re in. But he talks about worldwide actions by ordinary people that are bringing people and nature together for the benefit of humans and wildlife. This doesn’t always mean going off into the wilds—although some people may have the means and desire to do this. He talks about the ways we city dwellers can be in the natural world, for example: in gardens, parks, through learning about the wildlife that lives beside us in cities. He points to the necessity of our connecting to nature to develop our love for the natural. He imagines a future where, through our actions today, we live in nature in our cities, homes, work and play places.