Several days ago and today, Victoria Day in Canada, I went to one of my favourite haunts–the Evergreen Brick Works. Sometimes the textures and shapes of the landscape call out to me to be photographed in black and white. These were from wooded paths around the perimeter of the Brick Works, some of which lead to ravines that wind through the city.
On February 10th, the Sunday after the significant snowfall in Toronto and all of southern Ontario, my husband and I drove to Kortright Centre for Conservation to walk in the snowy woods. We belong to a car sharing company and had fortunately reserved a car for the day in the hopes of having a snowy outing. We’d missed being in the snow at Kortright the previous year when so little snow had fallen.
In the morning, we walked through deep snow. We don’t have snow shoes, so the going was strenuous but very beautiful. Our afternoon hike was on trails that had been cleared or walked on and was easier going, but no less lovely. The afternoon light was diffused and the snow seemed to shine from within as it softly covered the ground. The blue grey shadows of the trees and logs washed across the warm white. What a miracle snow is.
As I often write, the poignancy of this beauty in light of human contribution to the warming of the planet was with me. I took solace in the day: in the chickadees, woodpeckers, finches, mourning doves and cardinals we saw and heard, in the trees, the stream and frozen marsh and so much that is life-giving and calls out to be seen, heard and valued deeply.
I heard a radio interview on the CBC on Friday with David Suzuki, a well-known Canadian scientist and advocate for nature. David and another guest spoke about Ecuador, which, first of all, placed the rights of nature in its constitution in 2007. This was ratified by Ecuadorians in a referendum in 2008. I believe I had heard about the rights of nature before but not paid adequate attention to the concept. The idea that the natural world has rights that are worthy of protecting as opposed to being property is a belief alien to most North Americans. So this move by Ecuador, the first country to protect nature’s rights, is an excellent challenge to widespread, habitual ways of approaching the natural world.
In addition, Ecuador came up with the idea in 2007 to leave a huge amount of oil in the ground that lies beneath the Yasuni National Park. This park is apparently a fantastically diverse and rich area of rainforest. Ecuador, which is not a wealthy country, proposed that it be compensated half the price the oil would bring in for not extracting it. Here is another idea that likely seems impractical and outrageous to most North Americans. Yet I’ve read in The Guardian newspaper that $300 million has so far been given or pledged to Ecuador from countries, foundations, corporations and individuals–money that will be used for renewable energy projects to help finance reforestation, conservation and social projects. The money is not given directly to the Ecuadorian government but is held in trust and administered through the UN.
Though these bold ideas and actions coming out of Ecuador will not save the world in themselves, they seem entirely fitting given the serious problems we all face through global warming and the ongoing destruction of the natural world, on which we depend for life. They are inspirational paths that have the possibility of jolting us out of the usual boxes we find ourselves in and toward much needed constructive change.
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.
Late last week I returned from a trip to the Canadian Rockies. I have only seen mountains with glaciers one other time in my life. That was for one day in the early 1970s when I was in Yosemite Park. So, to see the mountains in Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks in Alberta and British Columbia was a profound experience. I’ll be writing about that time over the next while. But for now, here’s a photo of famous Lake Louise with its jeweled reflections that I took one late afternoon. There’s a reason Lake Louise is famous!
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 went for more walks on the weekend and mid week to the Brick Works in Toronto, Canada to be in a natural setting. Each time, I took the usual route down a hill, then beside railway tracks. This part of town is very close to the Don Valley Parkway, a busy expressway. Yet there are natural settings all around: trees, parkland and shrubs.
I love seeing the flowers and grasses that grow wild along the edges of railway tracks–those discarded places reclaimed by nature. The wildflowers here were profuse, with the yellows and whites now joined by purples. I could hear birds singing above the din of cars and the buzzing of cicadas. I was struck by what seemed to be the parallel worlds I was walking through: the thundering traffic where we are insulated in cars and trucks and the natural setting of plants, birds and insects. This is not a new observation; many people must feel this. However, it struck me more dramatically than it had before. I felt I was walking in a corridor between two worlds.