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’ve been thinking again about my time in the Canadian Rockies this past September. One of our favourite trails was the Wilcox Pass Trail off the Icefields Parkway, just south of the Columbia Icefield. We only had time to walk the start of it—an hour and a half in total— because we had a long drive ahead of us. Someday we’d love to return and hike the entire trail.
The path climbs pretty quickly, through forest, to a ridge where you can look down over the Parkway on one side and up across meadows to mountains on the other. These are wonderful sweeping views of the land.
We saw several other people out enjoying the day. One we spoke to was a man from Homer, Alaska who told us that this past winter had brought extremely heavy snow to his home. What a contrast with Toronto which, last year, had only a dusting of snow and which, up to now, has had only a few melted inches.
On this, another day of grey skies in Toronto, I have returned to memories of the Rocky Mountains in September. One of my favourite places was 30 kms south of Jasper, Alberta, off the Icefields Parkway—Athabasca Falls. We went there twice, the second time on a day when we were not exhausted by beauty and could take leisurely time there.
Here’s a few photos of the rocks and the water that has shaped them over time. A wonderful and healing tonic!
We had heard that Peyto Lake was a beautiful spot, so we turned off the Icefields Parkway 40 kms after its southernmost end to see the lake. The trail was steep but not too long. We took our time, among other travelers, walking up to the Bow Summit, past many fir and spruce trees. Interpretive signs pointed out the differences between these two most prevalent conifers prompting us to attempt to identify which tree we were near at any one time. This became a playful exercise throughout our trip. I am very much in the dark about so much of what I see in nature and wanted to begin learning even the simplest of things to enlarge my horizons. I believe the photo I’m including of conifers on the trail shows a subalpine fir in the centre.
When we arrived at the lookout point, we joined our fellow hikers to look out on the mountains and distinctively shaped blue green lake. For someone like me who has not grown up in such land, the beauty was almost shocking. At the summit was an interpretive sign, this one about the Peyto glacier, which originally carved out the shape of the valley and the bowl of Peyto Lake. During the past century or so, the glacier that once filled the valley has receded about two kilometres. And before the glacier materialized, there stood a forest in its place. This was revealed through the discovery of 3000 year old wood fragments under the ice.
The Icefields Parkway in Alberta begins, at its southern end, a little north of Lake Louise. It extends 230 kilometres north to Jasper. We took the Parkway, route 93, twice this past September during our time in the Rockies. Both days were sunny a good bit of the time with the trip northbound being colder. The land that we drove through, stopped and walked in was intensely beautiful. So much so, that although we followed the advice of others and took our time, we were still emotionally exhausted by the time we arrived in Jasper.
Again, many of the photos I took are of mountains whose names I don’t know. However, the force of their beauty has remained with me. I’ll have separate posts on Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls and Wilcox Pass trail. Among the photos I’ve included today is one of the Bow Lake area plus the sweeping vistas that we looked down upon after the Parkway had climbed and doubled back on itself. These last were some of my favourite views.
I have no photos of a few wonderful minutes on our trip south when many bighorn sheep stopped cars in both directions. The animals crossed the road and leapt over the guardrail proceeding down the side of a steep incline. One, in particular, looked through the car window as I returned his or her gaze. Seeing them was a reminder that we are the migrants in their habitat.
We stayed in Canmore, Alberta when hiking in Banff National Park. Often we travelled west on the Trans Canada Highway to Banff and beyond. East of Banff, we’d come to what I believe to be Cascade Mountain. At one point, as you are driving west, the mountain is directly in front of you, powerfully beautiful. Finally, one day when I was in the passenger seat, I decided to photograph the mountain through the windshield of the car to have some image of what I so loved seeing.
I didn’t, however, photograph the most dramatic scene on that leg of our journey which we had encountered on an earlier day. We awoke that day to dense fog. Our bedroom window looked out onto mountains which were completely hidden that day. As the morning wore on and we drove toward Banff, the clouds began dissipating. Occasionally, they revealed pieces of mountains and glaciers high above a white blanket of cloud. What a haunting, wonderful sight that was. We had glimpses of Cascade Mountain in such a fashion–as though a piece of what we think is reality had been torn away to show life that we hadn’t known was there.
I think of our human blindness here. Perhaps you can relate to this yourself. I know I often go about my life in a fog, not knowing the huge presences that await beyond clouded veils that surround me. I am startled when they reveal themselves or bits of themselves, signs asking me to notice life more closely, signs that forces beyond my normal consciousness are at play and at work in my life and in that of all nature.
I’ve mentioned before that being in the Rockies awakened in me an interest in geology and earth history. As I travelled, I wanted to learn how the mountains, lakes and canyons were formed. Here’s a small bit of what I’ve gathered about Lake Louise and Johnston Canyon.
Near the end of our travels, I bought a book to help in my learning called How Old is that Mountain by Chris Yorath. From that book I’ve learned that Lake Louise may be a tarn. And for those of you who have never heard of a tarn, as I had not until a short while ago, it’s a lake that has formed at the base of a steeply walled recess—shaped like a deep bowl—on the side of a mountain. These deep recesses are called cirques and are formed by mountain glaciers eroding the mountain’s rock.
In the case of Lake Louise, it’s possible that when the glacier on Mt. Victoria was much larger it carved Lake Louise’s basin. This may have happened around 25,000 years ago.
Here, the huge lengths of time geology deals with need to be put in terms that our minds can comprehend. In geological terms, 25,000 years ago is very recent. For example, scientists estimate that the earth was formed around four and a half billion years ago and that our human ancestors arrived around 3 million years ago.
To help us, Chris Yorath includes the following analogy. If we imagine the entire history of the earth as a 24 hour clock, the creation of the planet would be at midnight—00:00. And the appearance of humans would not be until well past 23:00 hours, at one minute and a few seconds before the following midnight. This has certainly given me pause for reflection and helps me grasp that Lake Louise was formed in recent times.
Back to her now. I learned, from information in Banff National Park that the beautiful green blue of Lake Louise and other Rocky Mountain lakes arises in large part from rock flour. That is, from fine particles of sediment washing down from the mountains into the lake. This was visible to us at the end of the lake closest to the Plain of Six Glaciers hike.
In the case of Johnston Canyon, Yorath reports that according to Parks Canada the canyon was created around 8,000 years ago. At that time, a landslide that brought masses of rock down from a nearby mountain diverted Johnston Creek from its path. Then, over time, the canyon, which is 200 metres deep, was carved out.
I alternate between contemplating geological and human time scales. Either way, while I was in the presence of the mountains, lakes and canyons, I felt something very old, compared to my life, surrounding me. Being part of nature in that way, experiencing that sense of time and change, was life giving. Because of that, I hope to always draw on the memories of my time in the Rockies and to return to them again.
On our first full day in the Canadian Rockies in early September (after Labour Day), we went on the Johnston Canyon trail. It was a cloudy, drizzly day and we joined many walkers on the cool, shaded trail. This is one that many people would find quite do-able, particularly the lower trail. There were elderly as well as young people, including some with babies in strollers. The presence of other people did not diminish the beauty of the canyon which we found to be a great introduction to Banff National Park.
We eventually took the upper trail, which lead us to deep ochre coloured rocks. There we spoke to a couple from Great Britain who were delighted, as we were, by the beauty we were in. We did not continue on to the inkpots but will likely do so on a future visit.
The drizzle turned to rain as we retraced our steps, watching our footing on slippery rocks. Despite the chill and dampness, I felt the trees, rocks and water giving me a feeling of well-being and calling to me to learn more about the history of this dramatic part of the country.
Being in nature has always evoked strong feelings in me. There’s the love I felt at Lake Louise and the plain of the six glaciers trail. But even that changed for me. It is easy to feel love, exhilaration in the bright sun or in the morning and early afternoon. As the sun gets closer to setting, more somber feelings take hold, as they did when we retraced our steps back toward Lake Louise in the dusk.
The beauty of being in nature is that I am faced with myself by virtue of experiencing the earth in a direct way. The land or ocean speaks, bringing forth emotions from love and awe, to unease and fear.
My times in natural settings at night have sometimes brought me fear of the dark, the unknown and the sounds of animals I could not identify. But I have also had profound feelings of peace. One such time was in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, a tiny town on the edge of Grasslands National Park. There, awakening in the night, I was in the midst of a quiet that I had never experienced. And there are the times I’ve looked at stars on dark, clear nights in the countryside that elicit a sense of awe common to many people who have shared this experience.
I’ve also experienced a change in feelings toward aspects of nature in my 40 plus years in Canada. When I first arrived, I had certainly been among conifers at some points in my life, but not to the degree that is offered when travelling north in Ontario. Though I could see their beauty when I was young, they felt austere and elicited loneliness in me. This has changed dramatically for me over the decades. It’s not something I willed to happen, it just has. Now I feel love for the same spruce, fir and pine that I felt such unease towards.
Beyond myself, it seems to me that our attitudes toward nature have greatly shaped our relationship with the natural world, too often in the destructive ways we are familiar with. I wonder if humans could learn to rest easier with our own feelings, whether we could view nature differently. Perhaps we could begin to view the natural world less as something to be dominated or feared, but as part of the life we all share on earth. Perhaps we could learn to know that we are part of nature and nature, part of us. In that sense, care for nature is care for ourselves.