It was the 18th of August when I gained the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, an alpine peak of shattered stone and meager vegetation some 1,270 metres above Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Several stones were organized into mounds marking the trail all visitors were obliged to follow, and just beyond them, lounging in no-man’s-land with a mountainous backdrop, were the very last of the Atlantic caribou. Here was the end of a very long pilgrimage, for me, but more so for them.
I never appreciated the term “natural resources,” precisely because it reduces everything, from individual animals to entire ecosystems, down to dollars and cents. Through the subtle power of language it implies forests contain only wood, and rivers only water, ignoring their ecological complexities or intrinsic values, defining them instead by their human utility. It suggests, to one degree or another, that our regional environment is inanimate, an object worthy of no more legal or moral consideration than a warehouse from which we take regular inventory.
That sliver of land connecting Nova Scotia to the rest of North America is known as the Chignecto Isthmus, functioning more as a concept than a bridge with hard borders, its thousands of relevant acres our only defence against islandhood.
The entire global population of Atlantic whitefish is restricted to a single watershed in southern Nova Scotia, which is as alarming a statement as I am capable.
Us Canadians endure a distorted sense of distance when visiting the United States, doubly so for us Maritimers. Sure, I know there are 1.6 kilometres in each mile, but seeing an 8.5 mile hike on my overpriced trail map still didn’t frighten me as much as it should have. As a denizen of our flat eastern provinces, I also didn’t appreciate the 5,260 feet of elevation these miles entailed.
We live in the age of mass extinction, a harsh reality which dogs me each week. Our tactless conquest of the natural world is leaving precious little habitat for the species and ecosystems which made this planet beautiful, mysterious and, incidentally, habitable. My summer reading of authors like David R. Boyd, Lawrence Anthony, Edward O. Wilson and Frans de Waal brought this modern crisis into sharp focus for me, and the weight of my realizations left me with two choices – to implode, like so much weak sauce, or to volunteer.
The so-called Earthship is defined by a heavily windowed south facing wall passively absorbing the sun’s heat; a north facing wall buried in several feet of soil to create thermal mass; load bearing tires packed tightly with 300 pounds of soil; a botanical cell for growing vegetables indoors; and the means to generate electricity on site.
There was a time when American beech commanded much of the Maritimes, growing to tremendous sizes with porcelain smooth bark, a generous abundance of seed and autumn beauty to rival any hardwood. But that’s not the American beech we’ve come to know, seeing instead a tree corrupted by black rot, its bark twisted and cankered beyond recognition, stunted and with very few seeds. In little over a century this species fell from canopy heights, now a leper among plants.
Few species are as iconically North American as the Plains bison, once numbering 30 million strong from central Alberta to northern Mexico, from the Rockies in the west to Washington City in the east.
It’s extraordinary to me that European settlement could have been so unforgiving to this magnificent ruminant, stealing away its prairie habitat and hunting them within a few dozen members of extinction. All those persevering today are descended from the 85 individuals who survived our onslaught by 1888, bred in the confines of federal protection until numerous enough for reintroduction.
In 1968 the United States federal government saw fit to establish Redwood National Park, an outstanding slice of the only Coastal redwood habitat on Earth, stretched along California’s west coast. These trees would lose over 90 per cent of their historic 2 million acre range in time – two thirds of the park itself were logged before its protection – but within these 58,000 acres at least, they would be allowed to recover and persevere.