Category Archives: Nature

No Nature

 

 

Dandelion: friend or foe?

On the last day of our trip, listening to CBC radio I heard about a scandal in Regina. Apparently they have a local bylaw there that if the “lawn” on your yard is more than 15 cm high it must be cut down. What a draconian rule! If you don’t do it the weed inspector will come down and do it for you and send you the bill.  No wild flowers permitted in Regina.

It reminds me of the war that most of us who reside in towns have waged on dandelions.  Such beautiful little yellow flowers. Some say the problem with dandelions is that they take over. They invade the lawn. That is true. Nature hates  monoculture. If we didn’t insist on creating monocultures on our property,  dandelions would have no place to invade. People forget that in nature there are seldom vast fields of yellow dandelions. Dandelions enter where nature has been destroyed. People in towns don’t want nature. So they get dandelions and want to use various horrid chemicals  to defeat them.

Some town folks even think golf courses are nature at her finest! Those wide fairways where golf superintendents apply vats of carcinogenic substances to kill the weeds are what they think is nature. They actually consider that nature. Just goes to show how far they are removed from nature, they have forgotten what nature is like. The only difference between a wild flower and a weed is a public relations firm.

On the way home from British Columbia I saw another example of our war on nature. This was actually a big example. Just after we crossed the Alberta/B.C. border we lost nature.  After we left Banff National Park we saw no nature until we arrived in Steinbach other than rain clouds. That was about 1,000 km.! Not one single animal other than an occasional cow. I don’t think cows were native to North America. The prairies that we took the better part of 2 days to travel through used to be grasslands.  Less than 1% of the tall grass prairie remains. Less than 30% of the remaining grasslands are gone too. Actually, to me it looks like more than that has disappeared. We saw none other than in occasional sloughs or river banks. The grasslands seemed to have vanished.

The first European explorers were stunned when they encountered what they saw as an ocean of grass. They had never seen anything like it. After all, the grasslands of Europe were all but gone before they arrived. Most of that grassland is gone.

We have destroyed so much of nature in the holy names of progress.

I have also been told that the wildlife in North America, before contact with Europeans,  was even more abundant than Africa. To me having been to Africa and having seen their depleted wildlife that makes ours pale into insignificance , I find that hard to believe. It is an awful desecration.

For two days,  we saw virtually none. That is a pity. As the Red Rose Tea commercial used to say, “a dreadful pity.”

I even like dandelions when they have gone to seed. I think there is a beauty in old age.

Forest Bathing

 

 

Stef, Charli, Chris and I had most pleasant walk through the temperature rainforest called, most appropriately, Cathedral Grove MacMillan Park B.C.  I could not help but think about forest bathing. Many people, like me, believe that there is a power in nature to heal. This is not heebie jeebies stuff.  Nor nude walks through the forest. While this is not yet scientifically proven, there is growing evidence that there are healing powers in nature that are becoming increasingly well documented.

In Japan there is a interesting notion that they call Shinrin-yoku.  This refers to walking and/or staying in forests in order to promote health. It is a major form of relaxation in Japan; however, its effects have yet to be completely clarified.  There was a scientific study there whose aims  were: (1) to evaluate the psychological effects of shinrin-yoku in a large number of participants; and (2) to identify the factors related to these effects.

Shinrin-yoku means literally forest bathing and the activity has become a recognized stress management and relaxation technique.

Some people, like Richard Louv who wrote the book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, points to research that shows that the diminution of life in the world of nature has been one of the causes of increased rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (‘ADHD ‘) as well as other mental health problems. He is the person who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what happens when virtually a generation of young people is disconnected from nature.  The result is an illness—a disorder.

Louv says that it is a short hand way of describing what people knew was happening but had no short way to describe. It is related to the increasing alienation between children and the natural world.  That is the alienation or disconnect that humans feel toward the natural world. He points to recent studies that show that the symptoms of attention deficit disorder frequently are minimized with just a little contact with nature. There are other studies that show childhood obesity is partly caused by the absence of a natural connection between children and nature. Some of those studies also show the extraordinary benefits of connecting to nature  for both children and adults.

Frances Kuo is the Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois where they studied the relationship between green spaces and human health. She said that the range of outcomes related to deprivation of nature were staggering. Everything from earlier mortality in adults to general ailments in the population, ADHD symptoms, cognitive functions, mood issues and social functioning were often related to this deprivation of nature that many of us too often experience. The symptoms of this deprivation are vast.

On the 2011 CBC radio series The Bottom Line Professor Kuo said “just everything across the board,”  is improved in nature.  According to Kuo the presence or absence of grass or vegetation in a landscape is a huge predictor of whether or not people will like a place. People like nature. They want to see it. They want to be in it. They want to be a part of it. And if they do not feel that connection they often react adversely. They may not understand why, but that feeling of disconnection from nature is uncomfortable. It is literally disconcerting.

Kuo also studied the effect of nature on cognitive and emotional functioning. Her group went to homes in the inner city of Chicago. Some had more green areas than others. They looked at verbal and physical aggression and they found that people who had more grass or more shade trees were significantly less aggressive than nearby neighbours without any green space. Even a tiny green space helped a lot. She was surprised how such a small space could have such a remarkable effect.

Kuo points out how people often feel rejuvenated or refreshed after a brief walk in nature and she said, “It turns out that refreshment effect is quite documentable and quite consistent.”  Her research shows that the part of the brain that deals with effortful activities gets a respite when one walks in nature or is around nature. “By giving that part of the brain a little vacation it gets rejuvenated and is able to operate better afterwards,” she said. It really is resting and then recharging the brain. It is good for us to be in nature. I know this is exactly how I felt after our brief walk through the woods in Cathedral Grove this afternoon.

Kuo also pointed out how there is research that showed that people in prison with no connection to nature had more self-aggression than people who have some connection to nature. They get aggressive with themselves because often there is no one else they can be aggressive towards. That research also showed that the nature deficit prisoners tended to have all kinds of illnesses more frequently than those better connected to nature.

She said that when we design cities we have to recognize the importance of nature to community health and stop thinking of trees and parks as “merely pretty.”  They are much more important than that, though that is very good too. One of her colleagues calls it “the parsley around the pig.”  According to Kuo, “nature in the city is functional. It helps to provide a healthy human habitat and it is as essential as providing vitamins.”

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is another person who understands the profound importance of nature on health. In particular she concentrates on the value of our relationship to trees. What better place to think of her than Cathedral Grove? She is a botanist who describes herself as “a renegade scientist.” Her latest book is called The Global Forrest.

Even in Victorian times they recognized the “forest as a spa”. They knew how it could rejuvenate and heal a person. First Nations people thought along those lines too when they initiated the sweat lodge system. They used the natural antibiotic fungicides from a forest to help heal people. Walk in to a pine forest when the temperatures are about 60º C and the air is rising, the pine trees produce a huge chemical factory from the needles, which are really modified leaves. From a distance you can even see a slight bluish haze rising from a pine forest. This reminds me of the Blue Ridge Forest, which was mainly deciduous. Chemicals are literally exhaled from the trees. They help breathing and provide a mild anesthetic.

Beresford-Kroeger says that in Ireland where they do deep meditation in forests they can actually “hear the trees”. Like children who have much better hearing than adults, can sometimes actually hear the tree. Her theories have not all been scientifically validated at this time. Yet, perhaps, it makes sense to hug a tree.

Many of us realize that nature infuses us with an inexplicable calm. Without understanding why, many of us find refuge in a park, even if just for a short stroll. That was how I felt at the Cathedral Grove.

This was forest bathingat its finest.

Mount Robson

 

The Rocky Mountains contain the highest mountain peaks in central North America. The highest peak in the Rocky Mountains is not in Canada, as I thought. The highest peak is Mount Elbert, which is found in Colorado and is 4,401 metres (14,440ft.) above sea level. Mount Robson, which we saw today, is the highest peak in Canada, but it is “only” 3,954 metres (12,972 ft.) above sea level.

When we saw Mount Robson today I was immediately brought back to my days as a Canadian National Railway porter in the summer of 1970 and 1971. I got the job to work in the summer. On every trip to B.C. we stopped right here and our passengers clambered out to gawk at and photograph Mount Robson. I did not have a camera so I never got a single photograph it. I made up for that today.

Mount Robson is special.

 

Helmcken Falls

 

After a fairly long drive in to the park from the main highway we had been following in  BC since we left Jasper, and a wonderful stop for Ice cream and directions, we found the falls. They were not a disappointment.

Helmcken Falls is 141 m (463 ft.) high. It is located inside of Well Gray Provincial Park. In fact, the park was created partly to highlight the falls. And I am glad they did!

Helmcken Falls is the 4thhighest waterfall in Canada measured by total drop without a break. The three higher falls are Hunlen Falls in T in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park and Della Falls in Strathcona Provincial Park. Interestingly, all of these water falls are found in British Columbia and we have a chance of seeing the  Takakkaw Falls. It is found on the Murtle River. The falls were easily accessible by a drive of about 47 km out of our way. I felt this was a small price to pay for such  spectacular falls. Chris was not totally convinced. It did not help that we approached them sort of late in the day and were a little worried about a hotel in this area as a result of the Labour Day Weekend starting today. I figured it was worth the risk. Of course, I am a waterfall guy (just like I am a wild flower guy, a bird guy, a lighthouse guy, a bog guy, a….

 

The falls were named after John Helmcken, a physician with the Hudson’s Bay Company who was instrumental in bringing British Columbia into Confederation in 1871. He never actually saw the falls, so I consider this an inapt designation. But, of course, I am a waterfall guy, not a guy trying to honour politicians.

The falls drop over the western escarpment of the Murtle Plateau. The escarpment consists of a huge lava deposit that occurred about 200,000 years ago and filled the Clearwater River valley.  At the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, the massive floods that occurred when the continental ice sheets started to melt, carved out a huge canyon in the area. When water gets trapped behind ice if the ice damn later dissolves, as they tend to do, they can emit an awesome deluge. This happened many times in North America creating astonishing canyons. The canyon here is called, of course, Helmcken Canyon.

Wild life in the Rockies

For the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

– Henry Beston

 

An “animal traffic jam” on the highway in Jasper National Park led us to this elk.   A long line of cars were stopped beside the road and we noticed many people out with cameras. This was a sure sign that there was some wildlife on display.

The Male elk was keeping a close eye on this female elk and 3 more that made up his harem

Down the road we found a Rocky Mountain Goat.

We also saw a Bighorn Sheep. The Rocky Mountains are a fine place to find wildlife.

Rocky Mountain High

The Rocky Mountains are, in my opinion unsurpassed by almost anything I have ever seen before. I wish I was a much better photographer than I am so that I could show you what I mean.

 

Notice that many of the pines are red!  That is the deadly work of the Mountain Pine Beetle.  This photo was taken just south of the town of Jasper on the banks of the Athabasca River.

The colours of the lakes vary from blue to turquoise, to green , depending on the sediment.

Maligne Lake has a totally inappropriate name. It is not malign at all.

Medicine Lake is better named. It is medicine for the soul.

This photograph was taken near Spirit Island when the spirit of the lake was calm.

Manitoba’s Cactuses

 

 

In June 2016 I went on one of my most spectacular botany trips ever. That is saying a lot since I have on some outstanding trips. This was truly one of the best.

Normally I am a bog guy. I love bogs. I love the orchids and other plants that inhabit our wetlands. Most of my flower hunting has been in these wetlands.  Today I felt a bit like a faithless lover because I wandered a near desert in search of cacti. I have come to love cacti as much as orchids. Both are pretty close to divine.

 

I love deserts. I just never thought I would experience one in Manitoba. Actually, I did not experience one that day. It is not really a desert but it is as close as we get in Manitoba. Spruce Woods gets about twice the amount that is the limit for what is considered a desert. The annual moisture received there is 300-500 millimetres per year-nearly twice the amount received in a true desert region. This rainfall enables plants to colonize the sand dunes, hiding most of the sand. In fact as I walked along the trail I was struck by the great variety of vegetation. For a plant guy like me that was fantastic.

 

Of the original 6,500 square kilometres of delta sand, only four square kilometres remain open today. The balance is now covered with vegetation that is gradually covering the sands. Most of the sands are now covered with a rich variety of plants and wildlife. The Spirit Sands had their origin more than 15,000 years ago when the ancestral Assiniboine River, was much larger than it is today and it created a huge delta as it carried glacial meltwaters into ancient Lake Agassiz.

The origins of the Spruce Woods require one to consider the massive continental ice sheets that covered Manitoba and much of the northern part of North America.  About 20,000 years ago, all of Manitoba was covered by an enormous ice sheet that in many places was up to 2 km. deep.  There was an awful lot of water locked up in that  ice.

When that fantastic ice sheet started to melt, a wide melt stream flowed into the recently created Lake Agassiz.  It was the largest lake the world has ever seen! As the water flowed in it dropped silt, sand, and gravel into many parts of Manitoba including a pathway that was centred roughly on what is now the Assinboine River.  This created a huge river valley.

The sand deposits thus created were vast and deep. In places they were up to 200 feet deep and covered approximately 6,500 square km. These deposits spread out in a fan shape that reached as far as Portage la Prairie. Winds created heaps of sand that we call dunes. Large dunes were built up in this area. Those dunes are still active today.

When the great continental ice sheets finally melted away, about 12,000 years ago, the Assinboine River was a mighty river, about 1.5 km wide. The modern descendant is a puny shadow of that.  The river drained into huge Lake Agassiz just south of present day Brandon Manitoba. As the glacier continued to retreat northwards Lake Agassiz drained south—opposite of today. The massive ice sheets blocked northward flow. This south flow of the river exposed massive sand from the river delta.

 

To the aboriginal people the Spirit Sands were a spiritual place close to the Great Spirit or Kiche Manitou. The present name—Spirit Sands acknowledges the religious importance of the dunes to indigenous people.

Today Spirit Sands is a fragile sand dune about 4 km2.  The rest of what is left is covered with vegetation. The dunes are moved along the prevailing northwesterly winds and like so many dunes, cover anything that stands in their way.

 

Cactuses or cacti  are magnificent. I have spent  a few winters now in Arizona looking at cacti and have come to love them nearly as much as orchids, as heretical as that might sound.  Our Manitoba cacti are small low plants but the flowers are extraordinary and can hold their heads up high to any Arizona cacti.  And they love sandy conditions.

Many people are surprised to learn that cacti can be found in Canada. After all, are cacti not a plant of the southwestern deserts? Yes and no. Certainly they can be found in the southwest of the US and are in fact famous for that. Yet they can survive in the north as well.

There are actually 4 species of cacti native to Canada. These are Escobaria vivipara, Opuntia fragilis, O. polyacanthaand O. humifusa. None of these species are found farther north than their locations in Canada.

There is another species of cactus in Manitoba that I have not seen yet. That is prickly pear and it can be found from BC to Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. There are as well a few sites in northwestern Ontario. I have seen this cactus in Manitoba but not when it was in bloom. A nature group of which I am a part, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. went to see it but I had to miss that field trip. Sometimes life sucks.  Next year for sure!

David Suzuki and the Indigenous Attitude to Nature

At the University of Winnipeg talk after showing the film Beyond Climate, Suzuki also discussed a new attitude to nature. He  began by talking about the American economy.

After World War II and the end of the Great Depression, America President Franklin Roosevelt realized that the war economy had saved capitalism from self-destruction. But a war economy carries with it enormous unpalatable costs far beyond mere economic costs. He realized that what it needs is consumption. Constant relentless consumption. That was his solution.

Of course what the United States has actually done is to maintain both a consumer economy and war economy. The U.S. spends as much on the military as the 9 countries that are next in line, spend combined.

Suzuki thought we needed a better way. Climate change was just one of the things such an attitude had ushered in. He said  he had learned a lot from indigenous people. In fact he said, “Indigenous people have taught me all I know.” This was important because much of the film dealt with the opposition of First Nations to the plans of Alberta and the Canadian government to build pipelines from the Oil Sands of Alberta to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) or oil or bitumen to the coast of British Columbia. Alberta was upset that the federal government could not ram through the pipeline approval process. Of course that is just not feasible. Those days are done. The Supreme Court won’t put up with it.

In the late 1970s Suzuki realized that we needed a new attitude to nature. And he found it. He found it in the 1980s when he went to interview indigenous people at Haida Gwaii. He wanted to talk to them about the protests by indigenous people over logging on their land. He talked to forest company executives, environmentalists, politicians, and, most importantly Haida. That was how he met Guujaaw a young artist who was leading the Haida opposition to the logging.

Suzuki wondered why the Haida were so vehemently opposed to logging since many of their own people got jobs with  logging companies. And many of them badly needed jobs. Suzuki asked him, “What would happen if the trees were cut down?”  His reply was profound, but Suzuki did not realize at first how profound. Guujaaw said, “Then we’ll be like everyone else, I guess.”

A few days later Suzuki thought about that answer and it “opened a window on a radically different way of seeing the world.” As we keep getting reports from the World Wildlife Fund and others about the incredible impact humans are having on the world, I think a new attitude to nature is exactly what we badly need. Suzuki explained it this way,

“Guujaaw and the Haida do not see themselves as ending at their skin or fingertips. Of course they would still be around physically if the trees were all gone, but a part of what it is to be Haida would be lost.  The trees, fish, birds, air, water, and rocks are all part of who the Haida are. The land and everything on it embody their history, their culture, the very reasons why Haida are on this earth. Sever that connection and they become ‘like everybody else.”

Indigenous people around the world have similar attitudes. They  are based on a deep attachment to the land they occupy. They are connected to that environment. It is part of who they are. Suzuki like other people from the west had a different attitude to nature and that has made all the difference. To the Haida, and other indigenous people, and as Suzuki concluded,

 

“…there is no environment ‘out there,’ separate and apart from us; I came to realize that we are the environment. Leading science corroborates this ancient understanding that whatever we do to the environment or to anything else, we do directly to ourselves.The ‘environmental’ crisis is a ‘human’ crisis; we are at the centre of it as both the cause the victims.”

 Suzuki realized he had found the new perspective he needed. It allowed him to see the world through different eyes.  He realized, as the Haida had before him, that what we needed to survive and thrive was not more money in order to live rich and healthy lives. This new attitude to nature was reflected in all the Haida did and found its fruits in how they wanted to interact with the land. As Suzuki said, “Rather than being separate and apart from the rest of nature, we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on the generosity of the biosphere.” I use the word “affinity” to describe this new attitude to nature. I will comment on again in these blogs.

It is this attitude that Albertans don’t understand. It is not just a matter of paying the Indigenous people money. They want jobs, they want money, but not at any cost. They don’t want it at the cost of their identity. That is why some of the indigenous people, but not all of them, do not want pipelines on their land and will sacrifice the jobs if necessary. I know that seems bizarre to Albertans and most Canadians for that matter. Alberta and Canada have to learn to respect that. Only then will they be able to successfully deal with Canada’s first nations.  And perhaps Canada will learn something valuable in the process. Perhaps there is something of value in that new attitude to nature.

Golden Circle Tour

 

Our last day of the Iceland tour was something called the Golden Circle Tour. This has nothing to do with Trumpian hijinks. The Circle Tour is a famous one-day trip around many sites within a couple of hours of Reykjavik. That is all most tourists see of Iceland. Don’t get me wrong, it is a a wonderful part of Iceland, but it is only a small part. We were very fortunate to be able to see large part of the  island from west to east and north to south.

Skálholt, which is Iceland’s first Bishopric (that is not Bishop’s prick). Christianity in Iceland  has been a powerful religious force for more than 1,000 years. This power was carefully built up over hundreds of years by an influential dynasty of chieftain priests. Naturally, like the rest of Europe no one believed in the separation of church and state. The first of the bishops was Gissur the White a bombastic priest who led the pro-Christian faction at the AD 1,000 Alpingi where the people’s leaders decided to convert to Christianity mainly to improve their chances of trade with Europe rather than out of any sincere religious convictions. The people of course had no say in their conversion to Christianity, not unlike the princes of Germany in the German Reformation. Commerce was more important than religion. Sort of like it is now.

Often the best part of church interiors is the stained glass. This was one of those churches.

 

On the Circle Tour was Geysir which has lent its names to all water spouts around the world. Actually Great Geysir started erupting in 1294 and reached heights of 60 metres (200 ft.) but it has not kept up for decades.  In the 20thcentury, eager (read stupid) tourists tipped gravel and garbage into its mouth hoping to cause an explosion. They also used soapy water on special occasions such as Independence Day but that did not help either. As a result of this abuse, the geyser became nearly dormant. Surprisingly, in 2000 it sprang back to life spouting 40 metres (130 ft.) into the air. It is no longer that robust but still lifted off impressively.

I am supposed to be the orchid guy, but while we were looking at the geyser and some hot pots of water, Chris spotted an orchid with her eagle eye. According to a German tourist near us it is called Knabenkrautin German. I think the common English name is marsh orchid or Common twayblade.  I tried to photograph it, but we were too far away and were not allowed to walk closer.

 

After that we drove to Gullfoss(Golden Falls). No this was not a golden shower either. This is one more spectacular waterfall. Actually, it is a double water fall. First the River Hvítá tumbles 11 metres and then the lower falls drops 21 metres. The rock of the riverbed was formed during an interglacial period. Apparently it has flowed for thousands of years. It was a very impressive falls.

We learned that at one time Iceland was planning to build a hydro electric dam and plant here, but a heroic protester led the opposition. She said, “I don’t sell my friends.”  Now it is a UNESCO world heritage site, one of two we visited today on our golden circle tour. No doubt Iceland has earned more money from tourists visiting the site than they would have from the electrical power from one more damn dam. I promise this is the last waterfall I will show from Iceland.

Our last stop on our Golden Circle Tour was Thingvellir National Park the historical heart of Iceland and now the second UNESCO world heritage site we saw in one day!  It is a fantastic natural site as well as the site of the Viking Parliament, the first in the world. The National Assembly was established there by the Vikings in 930 AD and was regularly convened there until 1798. As well the geology there is incredibly important because one can see the continental tectonic plates pulling apart.

This was the end of our tour around the island of Iceland. we finished our visit with a  couple of days in Reykjavik.

 

 

Moccasin-flower

 

Today I went in search of more orchids. I started out at Belair Provincial Forest. The orchids I was looking for reside in dry pine forests, unlike most other Manitoba orchids. It was extremely hot today. In fact it was so hot even the mosquitos did not venture out. Only mad dogs and orchid nuts go out in the mid day sun.

I found what I was looking for.  Moccasin-flower or Pink Lady’s-slipper as it is sometimes called. I don’t really think they look pink. More maroon I would say.

The name for orchids is derived from the Greek word ὄρχις (orchis)which means testicle. Looking at the moccasin flower you might think you knew why. But you would be wrong.  The name actually was used in reference to the underground tuberoids of orchis that are supposed to resemble testicles.