Saturday, July 27, 2013


It is the paradox of working in the environmental assessment business that we are part of the process of irrevocable destruction of the natural world, usually in favour of soulless residential or industrial development which will forever make the land unsuitable for a return to nature.  Sometimes we can swallow the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach by saying to ourselves that at least we care about the resources that we are seeking out, and that if there is anything there to find, we will be sure to do so, because we care.  Other time we rationalize our work; after all, we have to eat too.  But sometimes, it gets to me.

We went to look at a piece of property near Ottawa the other day in order to price a job.  The land was in corn so it was going to be hard going.

"Watch out for Baseball Players!" Nick joked as we plunged into the space between the last two rows.  Within seconds we were soaked with dew and covered with miniscule cuts from the razor sharp edges of the corn leaves.  It was a jungle in there.  

Eventually, we came out of the corn into a wood.  We saw the telltale cedar rail fences, all down now, that marked the field boundaries.  Somewhere in this wood were the remains of a nineteenth century cabin.  We already knew who had lived there, an Irish emigrant, who'd left his impoverished homeland on the promise of more land that he could even imagine at home.  He'd struggled to clear the land, planted crops, made a home.  The only traces now, amid the car dealerships and hockey stadiums we knew were just on the other side of the trees, were these fences and perhaps some lumps and bumps which indicated where the foundations of the cabin had lain.  

The edge of the wood was thick with cedar, shrubs and bramble, but once inside, the going was easier.  Until I got a sharp smack on the head by a ninja grapevine, that is.  Instant goose-egg!  

As we struggled through the rest of the wood into the meadow which lay on the verge of a major road, I could feel the pain in my head, the pulling of the wet denim across my thighs. The smell of sweet white pea and road dust were in my nostrils.  I felt more alive than usual because I was doing something in the world and I'd engaged all my senses.  I felt great!

It made me think about the book I'd been reading about rewilding,  Feral, by George Monbiot.  He argues that we need to have places which are uncontrolled by humans to improve the health of the planet and reduce what he calls our "ecological boredom".   The places I'd just been were rich with plants and birds and butterflies.  The places we were walking now were sterile and supported only a few species of animal; humans, their pets and their pests, and the odd transitory bird.  Not a great trade-off.  

The feeling of loss became more intense as we explored the next part of the property.  Here we could walk easily into the woods on an old farm track, across meadows and through a cedar wood. In the warm July sunshine it was paradisical.

  Waxcap mushrooms, deerflies,  coyote scat and bicycle tracks told the story of the dominant species here.  Fritillaries fluttered among the black-eyed susans and Queen Anne's lace.  The bedrock was right at the surface here which meant that the land had never been "useful" as anything but second-rate pasture, but everywhere were signs that humans were really enjoying having the land available for recreation.  These were the very humans who had led to the destruction of this very environment by buying up the houses on offer in the next block.  Did they really imagine they'd get to keep this idyllic back forty?  You can bet they'll be p.o'd when the first shovels go in.  

Rampant urban sprawl.....coming soon to a meadow near you.....Ugh.  But as long as the almighty dollar trumps our understanding that we can't go on like this, that is what we'll get.  Makes me want to stop mowing the lawn.

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