The steady incursion of the coyote into North American cities is an outstanding example of the kind of hyper-ecologies I am interested in. Though it is native, the coyote evolved as an interstitial species, having to eke out a living in the ecological between the wolf and the fox, and so it always had to be adaptable. Vacant industrial lands and suburban cul-de-sacs have become as much home to the coyote as the arroyos and sage steppes of its traditional habitats, but they offer rich new food sources in the form of ubiquitous garbage and dim-witted house pets. Quick to learn and selectively omnivorous, the coyote thrives in the wreckage of wilderness, where its larger cousin the wolf has been largely extirpated.
Among the sidewalks and rhododendrons and stupendously overpriced little stucco houses of East Vancouver, I was charmed to come across one of these clever canids, making its rounds; methodically investigating the driveways and gaps between houses for a chance at some badly packed trash or a succulent, over-fed cat. I followed it for, a while and though it seemed well aware of my presence, it maintained just enough distance to continue with its nonchalant foraging, never once breaking its stride. Despite our fantasies of control over our built environments, there is no doubt in my mind who will ultimately inherit them. Whether tearing into our garbage or chewing on our bloated corpses, the coyote will surely outlast us. Whether we like it or not, the future is feral…
At the very end of March, I went back to Mississauga, my home town, city, conurbation (I don’t even know what to call it!) to visit my elderly parents. My dad was up for a heritage award for his work in a campaign to restore the steeple of the church, (Presbyterian), he and my mother have been attending for years. A charming little brick edifice dating back to the 1870’s, its steeple was smitten from the tower by lightning in 1920, and then hastily replaced with an ignominious asphalt shingled pyramid, which stayed there for the next 90 years. As a retirement project, Pop, who was, by the way, brought up a Swabian Lutheran, organized getting a replica of the original (wooden) spire made in lightning resistant steel and he and the other parishioners were thrilled to see it hoisted into place by a giant crane. The result, it has to be said, is quite handsome as the church sits atop a hill and has now regained its long lost stature as a landmark, with a much more commanding presence over the nearby houses and the vale of the Credit River, a visible link to the past in a context in which most such points of historical reference have been wiped out.
On the unseasonably hot (it was only the end of March after all!) globally-warmed morning of the award ceremony, we drove to Mississauga’s strangely triumphalist, Adolf Speer inspired city hall, left the car in its subterranean catacombs, made our way across a desolate plaza and eventually entered the council chamber where we settled into the gallery to wait for dad to be summoned. There were several bonhomous speeches about the value of Mississauga’s heritage, but my God, I thought, almost the entirety of the places I had known there as a boy had long since been obliterated by strip malls and low rise industrial parks. Yet dad got his award and deservedly so, from the mayor no less, a minuscule lady, so ancient she seemed almost animatronic in her proficiency, performing her duties, astonishingly well, I might add, despite a tubercular sounding cough.
‘She’s been ruling Mississauga with an iron fist for 33 years,’ I heard someone say. ‘And everyone’s damn proud of her – Damn proud!’
Perhaps I caught a whiff of UBIK, or something, but as I sat there I was overcome by a strange feeling as if I’ve been asleep for a long time and had awoken, like Rip Van Winkle, into a distant future. It is 1968 and I’m a boy standing in a warm field of yellow goldenrod and mauve Virginia asters and into the shimmering distance sweeps a blonde expanse of pasture and corn stubble and here and there, a weathered grey barn or a small woodlot punctuated by the vermilion of sumac and swamp maple. Above it all, the crows caw and wheel and a contrail dissolves slowly into the great blue dome of the sky, reminding me that it is, after all the jet age. It was a dirt road that brought us here, my father and I, and we have come to shift the wire pens that contain the flock of unruly geese we are raising in a not-very-profitable after-work venture that dad had concocted to ‘help make ends meet,’ as he likes to say. The farm has been rented by a certain Mr. Baker, a taciturn workmate of his from the factory at which they spend their days supervising the machinery that spits out concrete blocks onto an assembly line and he is in the background right now quietly, as is his manner, tending a couple of horses that belong to his teenaged daughters.
It was all so clear to me but – so what? Forty four years later, everything has changed. Everything that is, except the contrails, which are still there, only there are many more of them. Driving around with my now elderly parents, dad points out a parking lot and says ‘do you remember Oliver, the place where we raised the geese?’ – just one parking lot in a continuum of parking lots that have entombed the soft earth of my boyhood fields beneath their genericizing tarmac. There is nothing, absolutely nothing left of the bucolic landscape I once loved – the red brick farm houses with the white trimmed front porches, their quiet lanes overarched by the green tunnels of elm trees, the raucous retort of ring-neck pheasants erupting skyward from the shrubbery as we passed them by, the dust billowing behind us with me in a heat daze in the back seat , the bobolinks, the meadowlarks, the ancient snapping turtles, covered with water moss, with their eyes tearing up and their anuses straining as they exuded their glistening ping pong ball eggs into the holes they laboriously dug into the gravel of the railway embankment, holes dug with their hind feet, holes they would never see for their precious eggs that also remain invisible to them, because these sad and ancient beasts never looked back and after they deposited their precious burdens they’d track like weeping suitcases across the dirt roads and fields, back toward the mire of their sheltering marshes, the mire which is all now gone and has been gone for years and years.
There are few of us left now who remember the mire and the burble of the marsh wrens and the swoop of the bank swallows attending to their burrows in the grey clay bluffs by the river. Was it all worth losing? Not that we had any choice. We’re having coffee now, mom and dad and I. They are old but the three of us were all born in the same last century, they closer to the beginning of it and me, toward the end of its middle. ‘What’s that?’ I ask, pointing to a sort of mountain rising up on the other side of the highway, a yellow bulldozer creeping up its summit, spewing red dust across the white blue of the Southern Ontario sky. ‘It’s topsoil,’ says dad. ‘They pile it there and sell it back to people.’ ‘Oh,’ I reply and watch a paper cup blow slowly across the coffee shop parking lot till it hits a concrete barricade and then just sits there quivering.
Robert Crumb’s version of North American History from Fall 1979′s Coevolution Quarterly
Vancouver Island style old growth forest liquidation
detail of a Japanese demon scroll from the Metropolitan Museum
I’m in New York again and have been here for a while. Right now, it’s about 3 pm, outside Washington Square Park, on the first day of 2012. A man wearing an expensive overcoat is projectile vomiting against a tree – a linden, I believe it is. An eager pug strains at its leash to lap up the mess, but the firm hand of his mistress snaps him back at the last instant.
New Year’s eve—the East Village was full of young women in spangly short skirts and tottery high heels, throwing up in the street and crying, while their boyfriends bellowed primal indignation at the indifferent, night air. Overhead, police helicopters rumbled and sirens caterwauled from all directions as Zuccotti Park, one of the city’s parsimoniously conceived ‘privately-owned public spaces’ got temporarily re-occupied by the anti-Wall Street protesters, before the riot-garbed might of New York’s finest wrested it back from the dangerous band of raw food enthusiasts and bicycle couriers (who posed such a clear and present threat to the security of this, the most powerful nation on earth), while each round of pepper spray and arm twist got live streamed into the ether by a hovering coterie of electro-pundits. All in all, it was a hell of an evening.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much purging. It is said that Tibetan soothsayers and the Oracle of Delphi vomited after making their prognostications. The future made them sick, but then the past isn’t always so great either, and in 2011, the world seemed thoroughly to have gotten sick of itself. Though Occupy and the Arab Spring reminded us that entrenched, globalized systems of neo-Liberal economics and authoritarian government have (to quote Zizek) “lost their automatic legitimacy,” the outlook for the global environment has never, in the history of humanity, been so grim.
While some still pine for the evaporating American Dream, the opportunity to avert catastrophic climate change and forestall the extinction of countless fascinating species is slipping through our fingers like so many Styrofoam peanuts. Of course, at least subconsciously, we can all sense it, and to cope with the ubiquitous sensation of doom we sedate ourselves with apocalyptic pop culture, never more prevalent, as a casual perusal of Wikipedia’s listing on apocalyptically-themed video games will attest. These digital dystopias of burned out cities and smouldering, post-ecological terrains have infiltrated our optical-subconscious to the degree that we now feel increasingly at home in them, making the vestiges of the real, biological environment seem aberrant and atavistic.
You’re wondering now,
What to do,
Now you know,
This is the end.
Not to be outdone, I recently arranged my own ‘Apocalypse-athon’ watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, more or less back-to-back, and I have to say the experience left me feeling strangely numb, as if someone had thoughtfully smeared Novocain on the insides of my wrists before handing me the X-acto knife to do myself in.
Let’s face it — contemplating the end of the world can give us a kind of frisson by stoking our anthropocentric egos, because after all, on some level, we would like to think the world will end with us. But that’s not likely to happen. There are plenty of tougher organisms out there who’d be happy to feed on our heaped, irradiated carcasses, while they watch us fade into geological history. Perhaps the rats and kudzu vines or whatever else moves in to take our place as the planet’s most visible organisms can work out a more sustainable contract with the planet than we did. One can only hope.
Barring all-out nuclear war or withering pandemic, our world, as we know it, will continue to diminish in increments —a forest here, a coral reef there, a watershed in some distant part of the world or maybe a bit closer to home.
A sad and perhaps typical small example of such ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ is taking place right now on Cortes Island— a mostly overlooked, densely forested blob of rock, off the inner coast of Vancouver Island, where I live part time. With its abundance of wild mushrooms, smurf-like New Age seniors and flaxen-haired hippie children, it can sometimes feel like living in the label of a Celestial Seasonings tea box, yet through good fortune and its reputation for a fierce culture of environmentalism, Cortes has been left with a few tracts of magnificent, old Coastal Douglas fir forest, a type of habitat largely extirpated from its former eastern Vancouver Island range. This enchanting ecosystem, where individual trees can tower to 200 feet, is the habitat of mountain lions, a unique maritime race of timber wolf, the endangered Queen Charlotte goshawk, rare bats, and an amazing diversity of fungi —some of them, such as the medicinally potent Agarikon, exclusively dependent on this age class and variety of tree.
Yet precisely because of their rarity, these large old trees are now valuable on the international timber market and have of late been under the acquisitive scrutiny of the corporate Eye of Sauron.
The Eye of Sauron
In a twist of globalized connectivity, Brookfield Asset Management, the company behind the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protestors from New York’s Zuccotti Park (which they own) recently bought up much of Cortes Island’s standing inventory of mature forest, which also contains most of island’s remaining old growth, particularly of Douglas fir.
One of the best sources of large Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar in North America for a broad customer base primarily located in Asia and North America…
Brookfield’s business model is perfectly clear: buy up the last commercially available pockets of ancient forest and liquidate them for maximum profit. This is eco-cide, pure and simple, but there may be little the good people of Cortes can do about it, save for physically blockading the logging equipment as it arrives in, to delay what perhaps is inevitable. In British Columbia’s privately owned forest lands, property rights trump all other environmental and social concerns, a status quo the forest industry lobbied hard to achieve, with substantial contributions to the governing Liberal party, who rewarded them by gutting regulation and oversight in a revised Private Managed Forest Land Act.
As outlined in their prospectus:
Brookfield focuses on investments in the region with a strongly embedded concept of private property rights generally supported by effective legal and land title systems.
By effective, they of course mean ‘industry friendly’ and the legal system in British Columbia is definitely that. Yet 2011 was the year people the world over stopped seeing the property rights of corporations as ‘self-evident’ and ‘automatically legitimate,’ when such rights override the well-being of communities and the environment. That is what the OWS movement was all about. What Cortes needs right now, is a massive ‘Forest Occupy’ response from those committed to maintaining the integrity of the vanishing ancient Coastal Douglas fir ecosystem in the face of a determined corporate assault. But will the islanders be able to muster the hundreds of occupiers it will take to pull this off? We’ll have to wait and see. Island Timberland plans to start its operations later this January.
What we will lose
But what if Brookfield/IT prevails and logs off the venerable trees from its Cortes lands? To be sure, investors in its Timberlands private funds will get a little richer as the ships full of ancient logs ply their way across the Pacific and get fed into the maw of the Chinese construction industry. There is a painful symmetry in the fact that the profit squeezed from liquidating some of the last 1% of the original, ancient Douglas firs left on British Columbia’s coast will further line the pockets of society’s wealthiest 1%.
They probably won’t even notice. Environmentalists and bird-watchers will likely get a little more depressed as the sitings of Queen Charlotte goshawks and rare bats decline with the elimination of their prime breeding grounds, but even these people will start to focus on other things as the giant stumps sink slowly into the shrubby verdure of second growth. The timber company might even replant the ravaged land with industrially reared seedlings, each one secure under its own deer-resistant plastic cap. Gradually, what Jared Diamond calls ‘landscape amnesia’ will settle in and the degraded, industrially abused landscape will simply become ‘the new normal.’ And that to my mind is the greatest tragedy of all. We’ll lose something once basic to the human experience— the sense that a truly wild and ancient landscape can exist solely on its own terms, for everyone to appreciate, and not be sold out for the financial betterment of a wealthy few.
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper…
Much has been made of the damage caused to ecosystems by so called ‘exotic’ species but things can get pretty complicated when you look at them more closely, particularly in urban environments, where the built landscape so obscures the preexisting ecological underpinnings that all kinds of strangeness can result.
During the early days of Cottonwood Gardens, we had a hard time growing such common natives as Oregon grape (Mahonia) and Salal (Gaultheria) because growing conditions were too hot and dry and the degraded urban soil too alkaline for the comfort of these native woodland plants. Even the ubiquitous Red alder (Alnus rubra) hadn’t yet managed to move in, though it flourishes in the Grandview Cut, just a mile or two away. Instead what had established itself was a so-called ‘ragamuffin’ ecology dominated by exotics such as Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), tansy (Tanacetum) and Scotch broom. Black cottonwoood (Populus) was the only native growing widely on the site, though I did find one stressed-out looking clump of sword fern and a straggly Nootka rose hidden among the dense thickets of blackberries.
In the intervening 20 or so years, conditions at Cottonwood Gardens gradually changed enough to allow the establishment of native species, due largely to the increased humidity under the maturing canopy of trees and the soil becoming more acid with the accumulated inputs of leaves and compost. Yet is this natural? Of course not. It was a completely man-made intervention, albeit one that might well provide ecological benefits such as furnishing habitat for native butterflies and other pollinators. I would argue that Cottonwood’s combination of native and exotic species is a ‘hyperecology,’ potentially more ecologically diverse than the native ecology that long ago preceded it. On my several visits to Cottonwood this year I was once again delighted to see bald eagles, icons of British Columbia’s wilderness, soaring over the exotic groves of Chinese chestnut, Paulownia and bamboo. It is important though to note that the native keystone species, Black cottonwood, is still part of the system and indeed a necessary one because it provides the lofty nest sites required by eagles and other native raptors.
Yet exotic species often do become invasive and a threat to biodiversity. But why? Take English Ivy (Hedera helix) for example, widely reviled for its invasive tendencies in the Pacific Northwest. It is most troublesome in areas where the ungulates, such as the native black-tailed deer no longer no longer are allowed free reign. In such places ivy can soon overwhelm even the tallest trees, sometimes literally pulling them down with its sheer rampant mass. English Ivy is much less a problem where deer are still abundant and the native ground covers such as salal have already filled any available niches. On Cortes Island where I live, in second growth, coastal rainforest, any English Ivy that grows beyond my garden fence gets immediately eaten by hungry black-tails. As a result, it manages to establish itself in the wild only occasionally, in places that deer have trouble reaching and where some other disturbance has taken place. In that light, English Ivy should be considered invasive only when the host ecosystem is already compromised through other factors such as fragmentation and the removal of key herbivores.
Instead of expending a lot of money and effort pulling out ivy, why not bring ungulates back to such out-of-whack ecosystems? In places like Vancouver’s Stanley Park, where the re-introduction of native deer might not be practical, why not bring in goat herders to take advantage of the ivy’s vegetative bounty? According to the old song: “A kid’ll eat ivy too. Wouldn’t you?” Well I wouldn’t but I’d certainly eat some delicious chèvre prepared perhaps by a cadre of anarchist urban goat herders, who might one day tend their flocks in the dappled groves beneath the din of the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Though this has yet to happen in Vancouver, Los Angeles has already instituted a trial program to use goats for weed control, a strategy particularly effective on highway hillsides where mechanized mowing can be hazardous. A few crusty kids with mountain bikes and herding dogs is all it would take to start a goat-based ivy control program in Vancouver. Maybe they should be allowed to live in Stanley Park too, in picturesque goat sheds of their own construction, lovingly fashioned out of cob and wattle. Are there any takers out there? The tourists would love it!
Licorice fern in artificial cliff habitat with pigeon
Glaucous-winged gull on rooftop
Though it it might not be obvious, the coastal rainforest is always angling for a foothold even in Vancouver’s most built-up environs. I have posted previously on how black cottonwood and big-leafed maple form emergent forests on disused parking lots and vacant industrial lands. Lately, I’ve been encouraged to find licorice fern, usually found growing on drippy forest cliffs or festooning ancient trees, happily attaching itself to concrete warehouse roofs and (horror of horrors!) the crotches of much loathed Chinese Elm. It is just a matter of time before more rainforest species make the jump to live among us in the West Coast’s cities. We certainly could design buildings to be more amenable to such natural re-colonization, perhaps creating buildings that more overtly emulate sea cliffs and nurse logs. Certain sea birds such as glaucous-winged gulls have already made themselves at home in our built environment’s plethora of niches. Why not start attracting others through the deliberate inclusion of nesting shelves in buildings? The guano could be harvested to amend plantings in city parks and community gardens and the bird watching opportunities might be mind-blowing! One thing is for certain though: as native species return, exotic species will always be part of the mix, resulting in more examples of hyperecologies where they gradually learn to adapt to each other. To keep things in balance, the occasional, mindful intervention such as bringing in a few goat herders might be just the thing. But mostly we should just sit back and watch. Nature in the city will always surprise us.
As post-hockey riot Vancouver sweeps the last shards of glass from its sidewalks and processes a myriad insurance claims, the hand-wringing and finger pointing are proceeding apace in the mad rush to save the reputation of the so-called ‘most livable city on earth.’
But my question is – why were we so surprised?
To make sense of the images of water-polo playing sons of surgeons setting fire to police cars and private school toffs rampaging through the ruins of bank lobbies, we might learn more from the words of a dead science fiction writer than from any of the outraged utterances of the mayor and the chief of police.
J.G. Ballard would have loved this riot. In fact he consistently imagined situations like this (and worse) in his dystopian novels and short fiction. In his novella Running Wild, the children in a gated community of middle class professionals band together and slaughter their parents within the tasteful grounds and interiors of their designer homes. In High Rise, the residents of a luxury apartment tower wage tribal warfare against rival floors in an effort to alleviate the boredom of their cosseted and privileged lives.
My copy of 'Running Wild'
“Unable to express their own emotions or respond to those of people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped forever in a perfect universe. In such a society, madness is the only freedom.”
J.G. Ballard: Running Wild (1988.)
In many ways Vancouver’s hockey riot was likewise an expression of raging bourgeoise ferality; essentially, a riot about nothing – a ‘Seinfeld’ of riots to which it is a mistake to ascribe any political motive. In the wake of the play-off defeat, with the Canucks scoring ‘zero,’ something had to take the place of that nothing even if that something was pointless violence. At least that could be remembered, tweeted and socially networked. To read any more into this is to be mistaken, yet for me, the underlying message is clear:
Beware of the middle class.
Especially its young men. For they exist increasingly in a state that could be described as a deficit of the real, which is dangerous and unstable place, full of unfocused outrage and an overdeveloped sense of personal entitlement that constantly simmers just below the surface. The riot wasn’t a conspiracy of any kind but rather the lack of one – a set of preconditions where a massive charge of nothingness had accumulated to which the riot was an almost electrical response; the closing of a circuit to the unmet expectations of an ontologically bereft, predominantly suburban, mob. With the loss of the game, the value of the Canuck brand (temporarily) evaporated for them, triggering a wave of buyer’s remorse through the hyped-up expectations of the crowd. In the brutal logic of the situation, the outpouring of rage had to be taken out on the city itself, the brand’s associative container. In that sense the ubiquitous slogan: ‘We are all Canucks,’ proved truer than it needed to be. The ensuing riot and looting were pure reification, a desperate desire to wrest meaning from the void, to be part of an authentically ‘real’ experience outside the purview of the corporate machine that had so spectacularly failed to deliver. No matter how one feels about it, the hockey riot unarguably ‘happened,’ the physicality of its burned-out automobiles and pillaged storefronts comprising an iconic collective experience that will be remembered for a long time to come, despite the almost immediate attempts by civic boosters to re-narrative-ize it by drawing media attention to isolated acts of heroism and the bonhomie of those engaged in the clean up effort.
Grand Theft Auto
sports fan ferality
The Stars of the Riot:
White Riot – I wanna riot
White Riot – A riot of my own
The Clash – White Riot 1977
But getting back to the situation of those young, suburban men…
What would prompt a privileged Maple Ridge kid like 17 year-old Olympic hopeful, Nathan Koytlak to be photographed in front of a cheering crowd, holding a lighter and stuffing a rag into the gas tank of a police cruiser?
he's 'caught up in the moment'
Not to pick on young Nathan, who like so many others has issued his legally-vetted and suitably contrite public apology. In keeping with his class privilege, Nathan’s ‘brand of one’ might someday be rebuilt, but such scenes were played out countless other times, the perpetrators more or less interchangeable, all of them egged-on by appreciative, live-blogging audiences recording each detail on a panopticon of socially networked devices. In a sense the individual stars of the riot, served as avatars for the feral aspirations of the many, a kind of crowd-sourced, ‘Vancouver’s Got Talent,’ reality TV show, where in order to distinguish themselves, participants vied against each other in contests of escalating ‘bad-assedness.’
There are parallels also with computer gaming, though it would be too simplistic to call it a cause. One wonders if the ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto trope of flames and pixelated blood spatter against the backdrop of a burned out city has so thoroughly colonized the optical subconscious that it now seems natural somehow, even reassuring, a kind of default habitat where young men in particular are used to operating. The post play-off anomie created the perfect psychological environment for the unleashing this pent-up, first-person-shooter energy against the bland, manufactured seamlessness of the theme-parked urban landscape, every broken window and burned-out car as unique as a snowflake and a marker of the perpetrator’s now extended personal space.
And what of the grand old game itself? Much ink has been spilled about the gratuitous violence in professional hockey. But it isn’t hockey per se. As in other sports, there is an obvious mimetic component that compels some spectators to re-enact the gladiatorial dynamic of the game outside the confines of the arena. This isn’t exactly new. Sports riots have been recorded from as far back as Roman times and have more to do with tribal rivalry than anything intrinsic to specific games. Soccer isn’t a particularly violent sport but English football hooligans are some of the most brutal fans on earth. That team sports serve as a kind of proxy combat onto which spectators project their own polemical aspirations is well known, and the environment around high stakes matches can provide ideal conditions for territorial violence by concentrating large numbers of adrenally stimulated and often intoxicated young males into confined spaces. The resultant eruptive behavior closely resembles a form of animal territorial display called ‘lekking,’ prevalent in such species as sage grouse and certain ungulates. It works (to paraphrase Wikipedia) like this:
In a lek, males of the same species meet at a preordained place (actually called an ‘arena’) and take up individual positions, each occupying and defending a small territory or ‘bubble’ where they intermittently or continuously spar with their neighbors or put on extravagant visual or aural displays. The higher the male’s status, the larger the size of the bubble he can occupy and the better and more central its location. Physical contests in these situations are frequent and females choose their mates in accordance with their dominance.
By funneling crowds containing a large proportion of young men into the so called ‘fan zone,’ the city of Vancouver unwittingly created the perfect conditions for an enormous, testosterone-charged lek. From the standpoint of biology, the mayhem that ensued was pretty much inevitable.
sage grouse lekking behavior
The only surprise to this whole sorry debacle was that police and civic officials were so woefully under-prepared. Though a similar situation had occurred back in 1994, the city was once again caught on the back foot. One can only speculate as to why. Against its spectacular backdrop of snow capped mountains and unspoiled forest verdure, the haze of magical thinking frequently occludes acknowledgement of some of Vancouver’s most pressing problems. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, but a kind of climatic reality – an endemic social viscosity and an overarching cultural attachment to the pursuit of personal bliss. The result, unfortunately is that some pretty big issues get swept up under the rug. The riot of 2011 affords this odd, little adolescent city an opportunity to take stock and finally begin to grow up. Let’s hope that happens soon.
Fuck you said the shrew. Fuck you for feeding the cat that plucked me from my grassy itinerary and left me to die on the ignominious vinyl of this nineteen-seventies kitchen floor. Fuck you said the shrew, for ending my life before I was ready and the lives of my unborn shrew-lets asleep in my belly, who now will never taste the sweetness of milk from my swollen teats. Fuck you for making me die so slowly and for making me twist my tapir-like proboscis at your human stink to try and make sense of it all. Fuck you too, to the ticks that still hold fast to my neck’s velvet nape, even as my life seeps away from me and my little swarm of fleas skitters toward the baseboards.
Another spring is upon us here on Canada’s West Coast, replete with its promise of respite from the brooding winter sky and the months of cold, slimy rain. The occasional few hours of sunshine, the unfurling of tender buds and in the hollows – the din of tree frogs in their tremulous nuptial chirping; it all reminds me that this is the season of new life and new beginnings.
Though Timothy Morton describes the current ecological moment as a kind of planetary ‘charnel ground’, i.e. we have basically already died and just haven’t realized it yet, I am perhaps stubbornly holding out for some hope. Despite the epic damage our species has wrought on its fellow organisms and on the very climatological systems that keep everything in its finely tuned balance, I am seeing signs here and there that the processes of planetary repair are kicking in, and that one day, the worst of what we have done will be obscured beneath layers of unquenchable biomass.
Which is not to say I am in denial about the severity of our present situation. Accelerated extinction and human-induced climate change are all too real and many of earth’s more fragile ecosystems have been badly diminished or at reduced to ‘museum’ status, surviving as relics only within the confines of national parks, constantly under threat from illegal logging, poaching and the abrasions of excessive tourism. Though I think it premature to declare the ‘end of nature,’ it is safe to say we are at the end of wilderness.
But what does this mean exactly? To be sure the figure/ground relationship between man and nature has changed fundamentally, perhaps irrevocably, as Bill McKibben pointed out in his prescient book, way back in 1989. A single species, ours, is now the greatest driving force behind species biodiversity, climate change and even geomorphology, via the amount of the earth’s crust we move and the structures we build, activities that geologists calculate now use up more energy annually than is expended by the natural growth of mountains and the deposition of sediments. Yet there are also signs that species are responding to us by evolving at an unprecedented rate. The New Scientist describes a type of ‘fast-track’ evolution, in which significant morphological traits of animals can evolve in mere decades to help them adapt to changing environmental conditions, provided there is enough genetic diversity in the original population to allow the expression of ‘back-up’ genes. Several of Darwin’s iconic Galapagos finches are already changing their beak sizes as they literally evolve into new species as the conditions of their Galapagos habitat are altered by changing climate and by the selective pressure of being fed leftover rice by the throngs of eco-tourists who have come to see them. The article also cites the now classic case of ‘industrial melanization’ in peppered moths, which rapidly evolved darker pigmentation in response to the contamination of the English Midlands by coal soot during the Industrial Revolution. Blackness too confers a survival advantage to organisms, especially birds, living in the ‘zone of alienation’ around the Chernobyl reactor site. It turns out that darker pigmentation frees up a molecule called glutathione (GSH), an antioxidant which protects tissues from radiation damage. So darker birds succeed, while their lighter cousins don’t, which has already skewed the way birds in the area look in the past twenty-five years since the explosion. Amazingly, a conspicuously black, radiotrophic fungus now thrives in one of the most radioactive places in the whole disaster area – the inside surfaces of the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed to contain the radiation spewing from the stricken reactor as they continued to melt down.
As well as appearance, animal behavior is rapidly changing as the evolutionary pressure to adapt to the ubiquitous humans presence steadily mounts. These ‘cultural’ shifts are cropping up all over the place as in the case I wrote about previously concerning the extirpation and subsequent recolonization of wolves on Cortes Island, BC (where I live part time.) What is amazing about this situation was not that the wolves came back; they weren’t after all extinct on the nearby mainland; but that they adapted their behavior in response to the denser human settlement they encountered on their return. They now unabashedly lope through populated areas even during daylight hours to feast on a bounty of domestic animals, yard-fattened deer and household trash. Though normally a shy, secretive species, wolves on Cortes are now pushing the envelope in their interactions with the people, maintaining very little distance between themselves and us, their primary predator, and acting nonchalant. I’ve encountered them several times now and I have to say it is quite something to be given the once-over by one of these iconic predators, as is saunters nonchalantly down the same dirt road I frequent on my morning jog. The wolves’ adaptive strategy is clearly working on Cortes as the numbers of wolves remain more or less stable, despite occasional shootings by locals and Provincial Conservation officers, who get called in to cull overly habituated ‘problem’ animals. On the whole, the benefits of associating with humans must outweigh the risks them. The population of their main prey items, raccoons and black-tailed deer, explode in the disturbed, edge habitats humans create such as residential gardens and former clear-cuts that come up in lush alder groves after the conifers get logged out. Though not nearly as successful in our presence as their smaller cousin, the coyote, it’s only natural, I suppose, that some wolves; which are after all a highly intelligent species; have learned to live in our midst. Yet it is an open question as to whether this has a genetic basis. They sure are acting differently though. During the past week, I have heard two reliable reports of wolves, individually and in packs, chasing cars along the roads of Cortes. Clearly their behavior hasn’t stopped evolving yet.
A similar situation has arisen in upstate New York, where fishers, previously trapped out from much of their North American range due to the demand for their valuable furs, are returning in droves – not to the remote wildernesses we thought they preferred, and where they continue to decline, but to the fragmented suburban forests and the margins of golf courses of cities like Albany. Like the Cortes Island wolves, these over-sized weasels are learning to exploit the rich food resources available in the interstices of human settlement, hunting down house cats and dodging highway traffic, in marked contrast to their secretive wilderness cousins who abandon habitats frequented by people. These are decidedly cultural shifts from a species we thought categorically could not co-exist with us. Something has definitely shifted within this eastern population of fishers. Human induced hyper-evolution seems a likely explanation.
Perhaps most lovely of all is the oft-blogged spectacle of the thousands of Vaux’s swifts that have colonized the disused smoke stack of a school in Portland Oregon. Swifts, small, swallow-like birds, traditionally need the large hollow trees, once characteristic of the region’s now largely extirpated old-growth forests, in which to communally nest and roost. Yet the Portland population has somehow transposed this crucial requirement onto what seems a very different set of circumstances.
It makes me wonder how many other species are rapidly adapting to our built environment to use as their primary habitat, in the face of the massive evolutionary pressure to do so. Hawks certainly seem to be making this adjustment. During my last few winters in New York City, I was delighted to observe red-tailed hawks roosting in the stately American Elms of Tompkins Square Park, disemboweling the rats they’d snatched right in front of squealing crowds of spectators. These magnificent birds have spawned a new class of paparazzi, who blog their behavior in minute detail and lobby for their protection. A similar situation arose after a group of fellow squatters and I started Cottonwood Gardens in Vancouver. For a short while we were plagued by rats, attracted by the sudden availability of compost piles and the produce we were trying to cultivate. Just as we were about to despair, a pair of red-tailed hawks established a nest on a nearby cottonwood tree and they soon made short work of the rodents. They resided there every nesting season for several years until they were themselves supplanted by a pair of bald eagles who increased the size of the already enormous nest. Twenty years later there are now two bald eagle nests at the Cottonwood Gardens site, in close proximity to each other and one can regularly thrill to the site these apex predators soaring over the factories, warehouses and trash-littered terraine vague of what at first glance seems a most unprepossessing habitat from a wildlife point of view.
Tompkins Square hawk with rat
A recent report in the Guardian described a heavily contaminated refinery site, near Rochester in the UK, as a ‘Lost World,’ of critically endangered insects, which have been all but wiped out in so called ‘natural areas’ elsewhere. There is something about this ruin ecology’s unique interplay of disturbance and neglect that makes it an ideal habitat for these rare creatures. Yet perhaps it is the creatures themselves that have also changed, slowly adapting to live among us in the wastelands and ruins we have worked so hard to create. Our abandoned industrial sites and DMZs have become ‘disaster edens’ – a new frontier in ecological study. My first inkling of this happened during a visit to Berlin in the early 1980’s. I was astonished to observe a thriving diversity of wildlife in the land mine studded strip of no-man’s land between the two sections of the Berlin Wall. Clearly visible were scores of European hares grazing freely on a verdant meadow, too light to trip the lethal devices hidden mere centimeters beneath their twitching noses. They did not however escape the notice of the squadrons of kites, falcons and honey buzzards who regularly patrolled the air above them to pick off any stragglers. Though the Wall has long since been down, Berlin has lately been overrun with native wild boars who swarm in from the countryside to avail themselves of the city’s leafy boulevards, parks and gardens. Their population has grown so precipitously that urban hunters have been contracted to keep the numbers down.
In cities we get a preview of the larger trend toward ragamuffin ecologies or what has been called ‘Nature 2.0.’ Here native and exotic organisms co-mingle in hitherto unheard of combinations resulting in meta-ecologies that are adaptive and emergent. These are ecologies of disturbance, often first colonized by fast growing, cosmopolitan so called ‘invasive’ species such as Ailanthus (a.k.a. ‘Ghetto Palm’), Scotch Broom and Buddleja. These are blamed for wreaking all kinds of havoc, though I am increasingly convinced they often stabilize damaged landscapes long enough until native organisms can regain a foothold. I’ve seen this happen in the urban steppes of East Vancouver; abandoned car parks and railway sidings, which are first colonized by the nitrogen fixing Scotch Broom that move in quickly to cover exposed ground until the native Cottonwoods eventually dominate. Though they look different from the cathedral like groves of ancient conifers that are associated with the BC ecological brand, these emergent, pavement loving forests soon attract native birds such as the northern flicker and white-crowned sparrows as well as other creatures such as the coyote, only recently native to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland where it migrated from the province’s interior. Exotic species will forever be part of the mix though, despite the efforts of botanical nativists to ethnically cleanse the landscape of them.
Well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species (Himalayan Blackberry, English Walnut, Big-leafed Maple, Castanea, Corylus, hops etc.) - East Vancouver (1994)
Such processes of colonization and re-adaptation are important to track as they fall outside canonical notions of ecological restoration, which generally presuppose a return to a ‘native,’ prelapsarian kind of species composition, which is becoming increasingly meaningless in the now overarching context of the Anthropocene. I find these new hybrid realities fascinating and hopeful. It means we can do more than just wring our hands at the decline of nature as we thought we knew it. We might as well face it. There is no going back. Now is a good time to intelligently assess our limits and ask ourselves the Zen question: “What can I not do?” Nature might already be several steps ahead of us.
BTW: If any of you are in Vancouver from June 20th- 24th of this year, I am teaching a little Continuing Ed Course at Emily Carr University entitled: Open Source City: Field Studies. We’ll travel around town on the Skytrain, examining various emergent landscapes and also examples of temporary autonomous zones – places that people have created as urban commons, which exist outside the mainstream models of planning. I promise it will be a lot of fun, so please sign up if you can!
emergent cottonwood and birch grove in East Vancouver industrial zone
northern flicker using the emergent forest habitat
Marmaduke (left) and Isadora (right) in a postcopulatory moment
For forty-one years I have been intensely fond of her. Then one morning last week, I found her lying on the wood chips of her terrarium, frozen in mid crawl, her eyes closed tight and oddly withered into her leathery, beaky skull. Neither prodding nor cooing nor a soak in a dish of tepid water elicited the hoped for wriggle of the neck or the twitch of a scaly leg. Isadora at long last had died, though I can still scarcely believe it.
It was the spring of 1969 when I’d first got her, sending away for her from a mail order pets ad at the back of a comic book. I was a small boy living in suburban Toronto. I had wanted a friend for my box turtle Marmaduke, whom I had acquired two years before in the pet section of a brand new department store, in a new shopping plaza that had just superimposed itself onto the sleepy, Upper Canadian streetscape of my small town home. I still remember sealing my five American dollars into an envelope and dropping it into the red void of the corner mailbox.
As if by magic, a couple of weeks later, a package arrived, postmarked Hermosa Beach, California, an impossibly exotic sounding place at an impossibly exotic southerly latitude. I imagined a place full of Flintstones style houses and curly-fronded palm trees, (which was not far from the truth as I found out many years later) I carefully cut through the packing tape, lifted off the lid of the little carton and caught my first glimpse of her exquisite horn-colored shell. She’d sealed herself in, the way box turtles do, barricading her soft bits behind her hinged plastron to wait out the long, bumpy journey into uncertain future.
Of course turtles might not have a sense of the future. But they live so very long. Perhaps life for them is some kind of infinitely extended present. It took over an hour for her to relax just enough to give me a glimpse of her mottled head. For the longest time , even the smallest movement would cause her to pull it back into her shell with a hiss of expelled air as its horny scutes snapped closed again.
It was my mother who named her Isadora, though no one remembers why. Isadora remained shy throughout her life. She was already an adult when she arrived. No doubt she was traumatized, wrested perhaps from some peaceful forest glade by some gruff collector. I hadn’t thought about her provenance at that time, but to acquire a wild-caught turtle now would be unthinkably immoral, given the imperiled state of turtles world wide. After she’d settled down, she would range the perimeter of my bedroom during the day and nap in a corner or bask for awhile in a pool of ephemeral sunlight. In warm weather, I would take her (and the rather libidinous Marmaduke) into the yard to feast on earthworms and sun-softened fruit. The pair of them would spend the nights and cold spells sequestered in their terrarium, which, with the aid of a ramp, they could enter and leave at will.
And so it went on through the decades. I grew up fast and by seventeen left home, but I took my turtles with me almost everywhere, even mailing them to myself on occasions when I had to cross the continent. Over the years, they have shared the hovels, artist lofts, apartments and houses I have lived in, seeing me through the highs and lows of my with their somber reptilian eyes – Isadora’s a warm brown and Marmaduke’s flaming red. Despite their steadfast attempts at procreation, it makes me sad to think that I was never able to successfully incubate a single one of the leathery eggs Isadora laid. Somehow they always shriveled up on me, despite the elaborate contrivances I came up with to keep them warm.
I’m not sure how, or if, box turtles grieve. Right now, Marmaduke is methodically devouring a ramekin of organic dog food after which he will probably bask under his heat lamp for a while before retiring beneath the book shelf for a couple of days of napping. Meanwhile, the relentless Pacific rain pounds against the window of my room and the corpse of his mate of forty-one years lies buried under a hazel tree in the yard. Everything must end, I suppose, even the lives of a very old turtle, although exactly how old she was remains uncertain. She might have been as old as twenty when she came into my care all those many years ago. So goodbye Isadora, my shy and ancient friend. A long time ago, you crawled out of the soft earth somewhere as a little hatchling, packed in your own armored suitcase to make your way with in this world. Thank-you for spending so much of your time with me. May you have the sweetest turtle dreams. You will always be in my heart.
Happier Days – A once plump Mittens napping on a sunny couch
I wanted to inform all of my cat-loving friends about the passing here on Good Friday of our dear and ancient friend Mittens. She’d been withering away for the past year or so, becoming progressively more matted and skeletal till finally, reduced to a dusty husk, she decided it was time to die. What had kept her going these past few months was her indomitable appetite. Deaf and nearly blind, with an arthritic spine and fur falling out by the handful, her tiny clotted heart still quickened enough for a hobble over to the dinner bowl if she caught the scent of an open can of “Fancy Feast”. Mittens lived for food and when she stopped eating a few days ago, it was clear what was to come. In the end, she stumped down the basement stair and curled up under the work bench to die. When we brought her a little heater, she dragged herself away and settled onto the concrete floor. Warmth was not what she wanted. Perhaps she had a fever. It was there that we found her the next morning, stiff and cold with her eyes still half open, like she was trying hard to pay attention. Goodbye old friend. We’ll miss you…
a single, giant cell
Newly hatched duckling
one day old duckling
10 day old duckling
But with ending comes new beginning and the three Khaki Campbell ducklings that hatched out in the incubator last month continue to grow apace.
When I ask myself, “What did I do in the past month?” I don’t come up with much. But a duck egg develops from a single, albeit giant cell, into a fully formed, walking, squawking, opinionated ball of fluff in just about the time between two credit card statements. A duck egg gets fertilized about 10 days before it is laid, and then takes 28 or so more to hatch. The math of cell division is astonishing. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations: It is commonly estimated there are about 10 to the power of 14 cells in an average human – which is 100 trillion, in non-geek terms. Assuming the average weight of a human to be, say 70,000 grams (70 kg), and a duckling weighing around 50 grams at the time of hatching, the duckling already has 7 trillion cells when it pecks its way out of the shell. Seven trillion cells that have divided, differentiated and self-assembled into a coherent constellation of throbbing, sentient life, made up of the same raw material that might have been my breakfast. And it happens in a month!
Though our technology might be enthralling, nothing we as a species have ever constructed comes even close to the amazingness of an egg. Not surprisingly, in many cultures the egg is seen as the foundation of the universe.
In the Kalevala or Finnish national epic, the world unfolds from a duck egg that is laid upon the knee of a goddess:
One egg’s lower half transformed,
And became the earth below,
And its upper half transmuted
And became the sky above;
From the yolk the sun was made,
Light of day to shine upon us;
From the white the moon was formed,
Light of night to gleam above us;
All the colored brighter bits
Rose to be the stars of heaven
And the darker crumbs changed into
Clouds and cloudlets in the sky.