A wall of creation and co-existence

Joseph Sagaj stands in front of the 86-foot-long mural that includes artistic contributions from Denise Aquash, Sonja Clarke, Larry M. Holder, and Mike Rowade (aka Ron Wild).
PHOTO COURTESY Of JOSEPH SAGAJ

Joseph Sagaj is Anishinaabe, a residential school survivor, and an artist. A few years ago, he took up gardening as well and joined a group of Indigenous tradespeople and Elders known as the Earth Helpers who made it their mission to bring biodiversity and native species back to Paul Martel Park in Toronto. As Sagaj weeded and put plants in the ground, he would look up at the bare wall of the TTC station that bordered the park and conjured scenes of what could be there.

“I had the idea of doing something on creation stories because we all have creation stories,” he says.

“And I heard this Elder Jim Dupont say, ‘In the beginning, before the beginning,’ and I kept thinking about that. I thought about something totally pitch black—something darker than a thousand midnights—and it triggered a sort of big bang in my process.”

Fortunately, that big bang of creativity came with permission to get to work.

A juried committee  selected his proposal to create a mural with the theme of “Indigenous Storytelling.” Creation stories would be the starting point, but Sagaj said there was a line in the Bible he needed clarification on first.

“I have never felt too connected to the story of Genesis,” he says. “But in that story, there was one line that nagged at me. It’s the line that says, ‘And God moved over the surface of the waters.’ I kept wondering what it meant. So, when I saw a Pastor that I knew walking across the street, I caught up to him and asked him about it. He said to me, ‘As an artist, you’ll get this. He’s watching how it’s coming along, this work he’s started. He’s in process.’ I thought, that’s where I’m at! And I knew I needed to just keep going and keep listening to the Elders.”

And so, for every day of painting, which started in August 2021, Sagaj was joined by Elders of various backgrounds who would sit nearby and tell stories.

“There are so many stories intertwined that show our various ways and knowledge in there. While all our cultures are different, the Indigenous people of this land have a shared history.”

And while the stories are different, there’s a commonality in how the stories are told.

“Our stories are told through metaphor, and when I was a kid, my cousins and I would race for the rocking chair, as it was the best seat in the house, and gather around and wait for the Elder to begin telling stories. You had to figure the stories out. But when Europeans landed on these shores and started hearing these stories, they dismissed them and said they were ridiculous. Then, when Charles Darwin or Carl Sagan told the same stories in a different way, they said, ‘Hey, that really makes sense.’ Our stories have been disregarded, but now I have the chance to share them on a wall and people really want to hear them.”

Joseph says he has spoken with locals about the mural (the response has been positive, and they’ve bought him a few coffees) and with people from all over the world.

“I hope people see a little of themselves in this mural no matter where they come from,” he adds. “And I hope that they see that we are all here for the same purpose whether you are two-legged or four-legged, one of our winged brothers and sisters, whether you are fire, water or air, and they understand that we will not exist without each other. By sharing our stories—whether we choose to do so from an ecological perspective, a cosmological perspective, a mythological perspective—there’s so much in there about how we can and should relate to one another.”

 

A version of this article was originally published in The Annex Gleaner.

 

History and a highway sign

Ginger Goodwin: Coal miner, labour activist and conscientious objector was shot through the neck at age 31.

When you drive north on Vancouver Island’s Highway 19, keep your eye out for a sign marking Ginger Goodwin Way as you approach the town of Cumberland. That road sign has been there since 2019, although the name was originally given to that stretch of road when the highway  opened in 1996. The local MLA in 2001 removed the sign. Why so much fuss over a road sign? May 1st, International Workers Day is a good sign to tell the story of a man who died for his commitment to improving the lives of his fellow workers and his refusal to bear arms in a war he didn’t believe in.

Let’s begin the story in the second half of the 1900s, when advertisements and recruiters in English coal mining towns promised higher wages in British Columbia’s booming mining industry. The journey was dangerous – around  Cape Horn, through the Panama Canal, or trudging across the continent – and ended with a notoriously a gruelling and dangerous job. Albert Goodwin, didn’t get to BC until 1910. He was 23 by then, with nine years of mining already under his belt. He was short and stocky and had a shock of red hair upon his head, hence his name, Ginger.

That same year, James Dunsmuir sold two coal mining companies to Canadian Collieries Ltd. He had inherited these from his father, Robert, who left Scotland in 1851 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company on Vancouver Island. He would go on to stake a claim on 1,600 acres of land, becoming the richest man in British Columbia, owning some two million acres of land and enjoying an income of an estimated $1000 per day.

James Dunsmuir carried on his father’s legacy of hard work and opposition to organized labour. Both men were willing to use their political influence to crush attempts at unionization – using blacklists, law and order (government militias), racial divisions and scabs to break strikes. Never in 42 years of owning coal mines did they recognize a union or agree to limiting the working days of their employees to eight-hours. James, in particular, is viewed as being responsible for one of the most fatal mining disasters in BC history.

The Dunsmuir’s coal mines may have been in different hands by 1910, but their management’s anti-union stance and disregard for the health and  safety of their workers persisted among the business owners. The one concession the miners had gained over the years was the authority to inspect the mines and report safety hazards before beginning work. This did not prove to be a favourable concession, as miners who reported unsafe conditions often ended up getting fired for doing so.

In 1912, miners in Cumberland declared a one-day holiday in support of a man named Oscar Mottishaw, who lost his job for reporting noxious and flammable gas in one of the mines. Canadian Collieries responded by asking the Cumberland miners to remove their tools from the mine and insisting that all of them sign two-year contracts with no change to wages or conditions. The one-day holiday quickly culminated into what would go down in history as one of the most fiercely fought labour disputes in BC history. More than 3,000 miners on the island joined the strike, even though doing so forced them to live in tents through the winter, as their homes were owned by the company. The mining company threatened local workers of Chinese and Japanese origin with eviction from their homes if they did not continue working – and brought in scabs from the US and UK to keep up production. When rioting broke out in August of 1913, Attorney General William Bowser sent a militia of 1000 men with 24,000 rounds of ammunition to subdue the miners. Standing strong in numbers, the miners didn’t give up until the following summer – a month after the United Mineworkers of America withdrew strike pay, and two weeks after the outbreak of war in Europe.

Ginger Goodwin, who was a recognized labour leader by this point, was not welcomed back by the power barons at Canadian Collieries Ltd. He took temporary road work for a while before drifting into the interior and landing a new job in mining. As a member of the Socialist Party of BC and vice-president of the BC Labour Federation, he spoke openly about his rejection of capitalism and the belief that  the war in Europe was fuelled by greed. Ulcers, rotten teeth and “a bit of TB” saved Goodwin from conscription.

In  November, 1917, Goodwin led a strike of 1,500 workers with the Mill and Smeltermen’s Union in Trail, BC. They wanted an eight hour day (as opposed to nine) and a wage increase. Eleven days into the strike, Goodwin learned that his status of “unfit for service” had been changed to “fit for combat.” After unsuccessfully appealing the change, he traveled back to Cumberland to seek refuge in the woods with a group of other war resisters. Local labour activists supported the resisters by bringing food and supplies, and Goodwin’s safety was ensured for a time by the support of Cumberland’s police constable. But the province was under pressure to provide more soldiers for the war effort, and sent out special police forces to track down war resisters.

On July 27, 1918, a disgraced police constable named Dan Campbell, joined these forces.  Campbell came face to face to face with Ginger Goodwin that day – he was on a trail picking blackberries, apparently.  Campbell shot him in the neck and claimed that Goodwin had raised his rifle, making the shooting an act in self-defence. This was never proven, but it didn’t seem to matter because charges of manslaughter against Campbell were dropped. He never went to trial.

Cumberland miner’s stopped the police from taking Goodwin’s body out of town and a procession of several thousand people accompanied his coffin to the local cemetery. On that day, August 2, 1918, BC miners walked off the job.  Stevedores, transit, construction, shipyard and many other workers across the province joined them. This day marked Canada’s first general strike. 

Every June, people in Cumberland still gather at Goodwin’s grave to hold a vigil for him as part of a larger event commemorating the nearly 300 men who died working in local mines.

The same weekend that the government re-instated the highway sign dedicated to Ginger Goodwin, someone defaced his grave, filing off the red hammer and sickle that was etched upon it. Clearly, Ginger Goodwin’s story matters enough that there are people willing to go out of their way to conceal it. As far as I know, there’s never been an open conversation about why the road sign was taken down in 2001. So I am left to assume that  a man who put principles before money and pushed against the levers of power to make life a little better for those around him does is not considered worthy of admiration by the powers at be.

Tributes to the Dunsmuirs include a village, a private island, a point (dedicated to Robert’s wife, Joan), and several streets. There’s a town on Vancouver Island named for Attorney General William Bowser who, by the way, not only brought in the military to subdue striking workers but also orchestrated Canada’s first racially-motivated internment policy.

Meanwhile, in the past two years, Canada has seen six statues of John A. MacDonald toppled, alongside monuments commemorating numerous architects of residential schools, monarchs and a bar owner who married a twelve year-old. The status quo, thankfully, is shifting. And there has never been a better time for it. 

Not a solution, but a crutch

Haiku asks us to listen for silence and to be okay with untouched bits of canvas. “Grumpy Frog,” by Matsumoto Hoji

Five, seven, five.

Three lines of writing, with a precise number of syllables in each; this is haiku.

In sixteenth century Japan, the beginnings of Renga poems, which were hundreds of stanzas long, broke off into their own form. A wandering daydreamer named Basho, would go on to make haiku a widely accepted form of artistic expression.

Over the centuries, poets have routinely broken the rules of haiku. The International Convention on World Haiku in 1999 stated that seasonal words are not necessary in “global” haiku, and that the content of the poems would not be independent from the cultural backgrounds of the poets. Simplicity is the one rule of this form that remains strictly adhered to.

If haiku found the ground in which to flourish during a prolonged period of economic growth, social order and peace (Japan’s Edo period, 17th Century), it might be what is needed to help humanity get through a period of chaos, uncertainty, and collapse.

While haiku is no longer directly tied to nature, I believe it asks us to look up, look around, and engage in what is tangible. The goal is connection, and I hereby deem haikus about virtual life, banned.

The screen is glowing,
The Facebook is exploding,
And I am alone.

No, no… that is not what we need right now. We are drowning in data, in pixels, statistics, opinions, disasters, and facts. We’ve forgotten what quiet even sounds like. Haiku asks us to listen for it, to be okay with untouched bits of canvas. Maybe navigating a world of complexity actually requires us to embrace the limits of what we know. Maybe big picture thinking asks us to look carefully at things that are very small.

A world of dew,
And within every dewdrop,
A world of struggle.

(That one’s not quite 17 – in English. But here’s the original: 露の世の露の中にてけんくわ哉)

The author of the above poem, Kobayashi Issa, lived in that lively and flourishing Edo Period. But his was a life of struggle and tragedy. The little things, it seems, got him through. He wrote over 20,000 haikus and included among those are 54 on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, over 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada. I haven’t read the collected works but, digesting 20,000 poems of 17 syllables each is a fairly modest goal, which leads me to my next point.

Our brains (collectively) have been wrecked. Maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s micro-plastics, I don’t know. But I’m not the first to point out that we’ve largely lost our ability to focus, and in a world where everyone is talking all the time, we’ve lost our ability to communicate. Maybe committing to 17 syllables, and 17 syllables only, can help us get clear enough to actually say something worthwhile. Maybe the collective practice could help us evolve enough to revive the much longer Renga poems – which are a dialogue between poets, where the second poet must build on the first poet’s stanza, with repeating patterns.

I propose haiku, not as a solution to the broken-ness of our world, but as a crutch to keep us hobbling along in the hopes that there is an “other side” to all this. The museums of the world are filled with relics that quite simply prove, “things were different then.” The landfills are full, and every being on earth breathes in yesterday’s technology, incinerated. We know, that  whatever’s new today will be obsolete tomorrow, so why not turn to things that have already stood the test of time?

Now go outside and walk around a while. Touch a tree. Introduce yourself to an ant. And remember to count the syllables: five, seven, five…

A Life Story, and a Plan For Planetary Repair

Diana Beresford-Kroeger could have written a dramatic memoir about childhood neglect and the journey to overcome it. However, she admits to being a reluctant memoirist and sees the telling of her life’s story in To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest as part of the fulfillment of the sacred trust passed onto her by her elders. It is also a call to action: it asks that we learn to listen deeply, as our ancestors did, to the trees and forests of the world. If we can only hear them, writes Beresford-Kroeger, we will hear the solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems.

I can’t decide whether it is ironic or perfectly fitting that this story should be rooted in Ireland, a country that conjures images of rolling green fields, not trees and forests. Ireland’s story, as Beresford-Kroeger tells it, is one of systematic deforestation. The Penal Laws, enacted by the Protestant parliament of Ireland in the 1600s, aimed to deprive Irish Roman Catholics of economic and political power, making it impossible for them to threaten the rule of the Protestant occupiers. In the ensuing two hundred years, the Protestant minority would claim ownership of most of the land in Ireland. The occupiers cut trees to build ships, to burn for industry, and to make it impossible for their enemies to hide. “The Celts were a woodland people,” writes Beresford-Kroeger, and during penal times, “the Irish weren’t allowed to own trees or even certain seeds—they were effectively only allowed to grow potatoes for food” (79).

A descendent of both the occupiers and the occupied, Beresford-Kroeger writes that as a child she felt separated from the people around her, “by nationality, religion and class”(8). Orphaned at the age of thirteen, she was saved by her English heritage and surname, Beresford, from spending the rest of her youth in the Magdalene Laundries, institutions that were later exposed as “nightmarish hotbeds of abuse and death” (24). Equally important is the fact that she was saved from despair by the elders on her mother’s side.

Beresford-Kroeger was sent each summer to a remote and sparsely populated valley near Ireland’s southern tip. The Lisheens valley is known for artifacts dating back to the time of the Druids and for the devastation brought by English occupation of the area. The aging inhabitants of that place, who “held their lands by birthright” and “still lived much the way people had in the valley for hundreds of years,”(35) took Beresford-Kroeger on as a sort of project, passing to her every story and bit of traditional knowledge they held. Her many lessons, she writes, taught her “ways of approaching the world that have allowed me to accomplish everything big I’ve ever accomplished” (64).

In the Lisheens, Beresford-Kroeger learned the medicinal properties of the plants that surrounded her, that “biodiversity is a good thing, even for a cow,” and to value herself. Her elders fortified her body, mind, and spirit, ensuring that she was not only capable of taking care of herself, but that she understood that “everything in the natural world possessed innate value and was owed the same duty of care I granted myself and the people I held dear” (86).

As a young scientist, Beresford-Kroeger started to encounter chemical and biological explanations for the traditional plant medicines she had been taught in the Lisheens. She made it her mission to bridge the ancient world to the scientific one, and she developed a model of investigation that she says formed the basis of her career. In brief, that model involved studying the links between a specific plant’s biochemistry and human biochemistry. “I have never failed to find a point, or points, where they meet. Every plant is intimately tied to human beings and our health,” writes Beresford-Kroeger. “The people of the Lisheens knew this and a great many other things. From those first investigations through to the present day, I have been able to scientifically prove almost everything they taught me during my wardship” (102).

Before completing her undergraduate degree, Beresford-Kroeger was teaching a third-year botany class at University College Cork. She took the job as an invitation to investigate the connections between all living species on Earth and track the evolution of plants from cellular algae to evergreens. Her conclusion? “Trees don’t simply maintain the conditions necessary for human and most animal life on Earth; trees created those conditions through the community of forests. Trees paved the way for the human family. The debt we owe them is too big to ever repay” (105).

As an academic, Beresford-Kroeger studied nuclear chemistry and the effects of nuclear radiation on biological systems; she studied medical biochemistry and proved that certain chemical pathways found in the human mind are also found in trees. She also adapted an electron microscope to harness the power of bioluminescence to trace cancer in cellular tissues, and she developed “stroma-free hemoglobin” that would prove useful in organ transplants and other biomedical procedures. In spite of these accomplishments, she faced persistent discrimination in the male-dominated world of science and eventually decided to follow her own path.

In the wake of her departure from academia, Beresford-Kroeger and her husband Christian dedicated their spare time to plant-finding expeditions. Her goal was to cover their property, near Ottawa, Ontario, with trees that had the genetic strength to survive drought, swings in temperature, and other effects of climate change. “I wanted trees that were as close as possible to virgin forest because their genome is the healthiest, though unfortunately only the runts have been left behind in many forests,” she writes (135). When she found “quality” trees, Beresford-Kroeger and her husband would introduce themselves to the landowners and ask permission for seeds and cuttings. She’d take these back to the farm, set up growth trials, and plant the trees that survived and grew best. Their property has become a refuge and lifeline to rare trees and a monument to biodiversity.

The pursuit of this project evolved into a strategy for halting climate change. “I call it the global bio-plan, a patchwork quilt of human effort to rebuild the natural world that will envelop the entire planet,” she writes (159), adding that if every human on Earth planted one tree per year for the next six years, we could stabilize the climate and properly address the behaviors that have destabilized it. She elaborates on her thesis with the following explanation: “Three hundred million years ago, trees took an environment with a toxic load of carbon and turned it into something that could sustain human life. They can do it again” (159).

Perhaps the Irish government took inspiration from Beresford-Kroeger when in 2019, they announced their plan to plant 22 million trees in the name of carbon sequestration. Irish reforestation efforts, which started in the 1980s, have already boosted the forest-cover in the country from 1 percent of the land to 11 percent (at one time, forests are said to have covered more than 80 percent of the “Emerald Isle”). However, the government’s current plan has ramped up the planting of Sitka Spruce, a quick-growing species native to the Pacific Northwest of North America. Had the Irish government listened to Beresford-Kroeger, or to the forest, they would have planted aspen, willow, or even oak trees, despite their slow-growing nature. They would have planted something native to Ireland. Had they planted oak, they might have opened the door to the fulfillment of a druidic legend which tells of a time when the sacred oak woods of Ireland will one day be repaired starting in County Clare, where the one-thousand-year-old Brian Boru Oak still stands.

“The legend says that the idea will catch the world like a wildfire,” writes Beresford-Kroeger (209). Maybe the world is not quite there yet.

 

This article was originally published in the spring of 2021, by The Centre for Humans and Nature.

The family that trains together, stays together

Daxton Curry (left) with his brother, Scott, and father, Royce, after completing Tough Mudder in Whistler.

In the spring of 2019, SwimBowen received registrations from two sons and a father. Event organizers were intrigued: there must be a story there, they thought. Sure enough, there was.

A Bowen Island resident, Daxton Curry (the older brother) brought up the idea of participating in SwimBowen – an open-water swim event that raises funds for people in the midst of cancer treatment.

Daxton and his siblings swam competitively at the local YMCA as kids, and as he tells it, his younger siblings Scott and Samantha were more competitive than he was. As a teenager, their dad, Royce, was the provincial swim champion in the province of Bay of Plenty, in New Zealand. Royce’s brother took his swimming career to Oregon State University and went on to become an elite swimming coach himself, eventually acting as the head of development for the Canadian Olympic Swimming Team.

Competition is obviously a strong thread in the Curry family’s story, it is almost as strong as swimming. These days, however, the thing that really stands out about the Curry clan is how they support one another to stay fit and keep laughing.

After a decades-long break from any kind of competitive swimming, Scott, started competing in triathlons.

“I started swimming about 20k per week when I started doing triathlons,” says Scott. “I also started running, and racing, as part of my training regime. I would run a 10k or a half marathon almost every week, and I encouraged my Dad to join me, even if he just wanted to walk the race. I figured I could help him get back in shape and we could spend time together, maybe grab a beer together afterward.”

Before long, Royce started setting goals for himself.

“Dad needed a pacer,” says Scott. “That became Daxton’s job.”

Royce, Daxton, and Scott trained together. As a trio, they entered eleven half-marathons.

“Scott would be suggesting crazy things like warming up for a race by running a quick 5k,” says Daxton. “Meanwhile Dad and I were making plans to sneak off for brunch.”

And while Daxton’s official job was to be his Dad’s pacer, the two ended up keeping one another motivated.

“One race I’d be struggling to finish and the next Dad would feel like he didn’t have enough steam,” says Daxton. “But we’d always fuel each other just enough to get over the finish line. I’d say we went fast enough to break a sweat but slow enough that he could provide me with life advice along the way.”

When Daxton suggested they participate in SwimBowen, Scott said “yes” right away. Royce did not join in 2018, but took the leap in 2019. Royce was shocked by the temperature of the water, but still managed to complete the event.

“By the time Dad and I finished,” recalls Daxton, looking back on the 2019 race. “They were handing out prizes to the winners.”

Royce, Daxton, and Scott were all disappointed to not be able to participate in SwimBowen in the summer of 2020. The pandemic has shifted their ability to train together, but they’re doing the best they can on their own. Scott is finding creative ways to stay in shape so that he can participate in the Boston Marathon, the Ironman Canada event and Ironman International events – which he’s hoping will happen this summer. Daxton’s goal is to get up and down Mount Gardiner in an afternoon so that he can pick up his daughters from school. Meanwhile, Royce enjoys running through Porpoise Bay Park near his home on the Sunshine Coast.

“When you’re in your 80s, it is important to stay fit,” says Royce. “And a healthy lifestyle is something I always worked hard to impart upon my kids. That, and supporting others.”

It seems he’s succeeded.

Royce Curry will turn 82 in May.

This story was originally published in the Bowen Island Undercurrent and on the SwimBowen website.

Turn your pandemic garden into a Tiny Victory Garden

Building a lasagna bed at a community pandemic garden. (Grafton Agricultural Commons, Bowen Island, British Columbia)

It was more than a year ago now that grocery stores started struggling to keep toilet paper on shelves. Not long after the words “global pandemic” started being thrown around, the whole world stopped. Stuck at home we found ourselves thinking hard about resilience and self-reliance. Deep in our lizard brains, a great many of us knew that when faced with a worst-case scenario-type situation we’d need more than toilet paper to survive. So we stocked our pantries, ordered seeds, and started planting “pandemic gardens.”

A study published by Dalhousie University and Angus Reid found that in the spring of 2020, almost one in five Canadians started to grow food at home. Sixty-seven percent of poll respondents were new to gardening. A study by Kwantlen University, published in December, showed that consumers in British Columbia remained concerned about how variables such as trade policies and natural disasters would affect their ability to access food in the future. Many also stated their worry about increasing prices. People might be onto something, so… how ‘bout we keep those gardens going?

I would imagine all the first-timers discovered what the gardening veterans among us already know – there’s an endless amount of learning to be done when it comes to growing food, especially if you hope to enjoy the fruits of your labour. So the timing couldn’t be better for the release of Acadia Tucker’s new book, Tiny Victory Gardens: Growing Food Without a Yardwhich also happens be a great resource for people with yards.

Tucker is a graduate of the UBC Department of Land and Food Systems, a regenerative farmer (currently based in Maine), and a prolific writer. Her first two books (Growing Perennial Foods: A Field Guide to Raising Resilient Herbs, Fruits and Vegetables, and Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming) were inspired by the possibility of “building out a foodscape large enough to help cool our planet.”

I’ve been driven by similar motivations since October 2018, when the IPCC gave us 12 years to sort ourselves out and limit atmospheric warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Business as usual and plans to tinker at the edges of our suicidal status-quo seemed to be the standard institutional reaction to this news. I had to find some way to keep myself sane and building a healthier food system that could help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, that enhances biodiversity and human health, seemed like hopeful work. 

Half of the carbon released into the atmosphere every year is absorbed by the ocean, plants, and soil. Soil, when left undisturbed, absorbs four times more carbon than plants. Illustration from Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming.

Tiny Victory Gardens recognizes that potted plants and raised beds are unlikely to be effective tools for carbon-sucking.  It is inspired, rather, by the belief that anyone with access to a small patch of light can become more resilient.

While Tucker’s day job is growing ingredients for craft breweries on a regenerative farm, her side gig (and obsession, it seems) is her “mini-farm.”

“I experience February a little differently than most New Englanders,” she writes and then goes on to describe her house mid-winter: herbs in the kitchen; root crops and kale (brought in from the outdoors) in the living room; avocado tree in the bedroom; fig, lime, banana and cherry tomatoes growing under lights in the dining room.

Tiny Victory Gardens provides all the tips and tools you need to start your own indoor, or indoor/outdoor, mini-farm. 

If you don’t trust the potting soil purchased in bags (Tucker doesn’t particularly seem to) Tiny Victory Gardens includes recipes for you to make your own. There’s a section on raised beds. There are planting charts to make your season as long as it can be. There’s information on indoor composting, and DIY pollination, what plants to put under lights, and how to make really pretty pots of edibles. 

There is truly something for everyone in this book. If you are a long-time gardener and deep into your own method, you will want to swap tips and compare notes with this master-grower. If you’re looking to take the pandemic garden into year two (or year one, for that matter) you will undoubtedly find answers to your questions, and tips to make your garden, whatever size it may be, more abundant. 

We’re going to have to do a lot more than become really great gardeners to build a truly resilient food system, but getting our hands dirty is a great place to start. Growing food is a gateway to understanding and caring about the system that nourishes us. The gifts of this work also happen to be very tasty.

This post was also published on the site of the book’s publisher, Stone Pier Press. Tiny Victory Gardens was sold on Nex̱wlélex̱m as a fundraiser for the Bowen Island FoodResilience Society.

The Sense of Home

Elmer Starr (Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation) gathers his share from a harvest of herring eggs on hemlock boughs, Klemtu, March 2017.
photo by Alejandro Frid

Throughout my reading of Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene, I found myself distracted by updates and conversations on social media about blockades, arrests, and ceremonial fires in northern British Columbia, then in Vancouver and across the country. A group of hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation had been in court battling plans for the construction of a pipeline through their traditional territory since 2012, and in the winter of 2020, the fight was raging on the ground. “Land defenders” blocked roads and faced off against militarized police, helicopters… 

It occurred to me that the common acceptance and use of the term “land defender” indicates a willingness to acknowledge that human beings are more than self-serving consumers. We can also be protectors. This is the shift Changing Tides’ author, Alejandro Frid, hopes to promote with the stories he tells in his book.

Frid works with a group of Indigenous nations on the central coast of British Columbia who have joined forces to actively manage the marine resources in their territories. One of his central learnings from this work, he writes, is that despite having had the ability to deplete critical marine resources in the area—in pre-colonial times, the human population of this area was robust, and people had access to sophisticated technologies used for hunting and fishing— the first people in this area did not do so. To be clear, Frid does not claim that pre-industrial humans lacked destructive abilities or the inclinations of modern humans. Hunter-gatherers spent centuries, he writes, wreaking havoc and causing extinctions on new continents. Eventually, though, they settled down. “The land ceased to be an expanding frontier and became home, the place where we humans can find our medicines, our songs, our stories—the reasons why we humans exist at all.”

Despite the damage inflicted by the past several hundred years of colonial oppression, this sense of home is still alive among many indigenous peoples. As one hereditary chief explains: “Heiltsuk have been present in traditional territory since time began and will be present until time ends.” The implication of that belief, writes Frid, is a “cascade of commitments and responsibilities.”

Frid points to traditional stories to demonstrate how the principles of restraint, responsibility, and respect of other species operated in both spiritual and social realms. These values also translate into reciprocity, which goes beyond conservation and “stands out for its tangible marks on the landscape in the form of tended landscapes that enhance wild species, allowing them to thrive in ways that are completely unlike industrial agriculture and its objective of homogenizing the landscape into a few domesticated crops.”

In rock walls built at the intertidal zones to increase the productivity of clams, in patches of shoreline modified to boost the productivity of root and berry plants, we see evidence of reciprocity. We humans are capable not only of restraining ourselves but also of nurturing the living world. In return, it nurtures us.

The colonial mindset, writes Frid, thrived on the simplification of the world. The result was the severe diminishment of native species and the suppression of any culture that stood in the way of the land “over which they believe they have been granted divine authority. The consistent outcome has been a suppression of world views about how humans might interact with all other living things, a narrowing of the collective psyche.”

Frid sees the story of industrial fisheries on the west coast as a reflection of that collective psyche. These fishers, he writes, “have a track record of targeting the best and easiest pickings first—whatever is closest, shallowest and has the best market price—until the near annihilation of a resource forces them to go farther and deeper in pursuit of other species that might yield a lower financial profit.”

Between 1970 and 1990, commercial fishing fleets removed more than 90 percent of rockfish biomass along the BC coast (less than 1 percent of the documented history of indigenous fisheries for rockfish). This decimation, however, pales in comparison to what happened to the herring. Between 1954 and 1967, industrial fishers removed an estimated two-thirds of herring biomass every year.

And all those fish were caught to be processed into fish meal and oil, meaning that the overexploitation of an ecologically significant species that is also a cultural keystone occurred not to feed people directly but, rather, to produce fertilizers and animal feed—key ingredients for industrial agriculture that exacerbate climate change and other global problems.

While Frid acknowledges that a lack of good data on fish populations may have played a role in this devastation, he states his belief that there was—and remains—a more significant force at play than mere data. “The declines of herring and other culturally significant species is rooted in racism,” he writes.

The story of Indigenous leaders on the central coast of British Columbia fighting to protect the health of local crab populations is enough to make a reader think he just might be right. Traditional laws of the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk people dictated that if fishers caught a male crab that was large enough to have reproduced for several years, it could be harvested. Harvesters were also expected to make qualitative observations about the health of local crab populations:

They would also watch other crabs walking along the bottom and, based on prior experience of the place, assess whether local crab numbers were going up or down, or were stable. Then they would think about relatives back home. Who has not had crab for a while and could use some? How many do I need for my own household? Do I have enough for the next potlatch? All these pieces of information would then determine whether the harvesters would haul the hoop trap with crab or empty, and whether they would reset it.

During the 1990s, the levels of commercial crab fishing increased in and around the traditional territories of the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk. The commercial fisheries managers (from the Department Fisheries and Oceans) were allowing only the harvest of large males. They had no data to back them up, but they assumed that if females and smaller males were not harvested, then reproductive rates would remain adequate. For a decade they ignored contradictory evidence brought to them by local Indigenous leadership.

The three neighboring communities started working together to ask for the closure of the commercial fishery in traditional areas. Frid says that by the time he started working with them in 2013, the relationship with the DFO had become combative. “‘Prove that you have a problem,’ had become the tired, and vacuous, challenge from one particular crab manager.”

In 2014, community leaders, invoking legal principles that require hereditary chiefs to protect resources within their tenure areas, closed off ten areas to commercial and recreational fishers. They asked DFO crab managers to recognize those closures, writes Frid, but they refused. So, with the co-operation of commercial and recreational fishers, the communities worked with Frid to conduct a ten-month experiment that would produce data showing the impact of the commercial fishery. Frid writes that he expected the data to settle the issue, but DFO countered with a request for more data—to prove that Indigenous fishers were having problems catching enough crab to satisfy their cultural needs.

In the years following, further research set out to create quantitative data to do just that. Researchers found that until the 1990s, fishers caught an average of twenty-two crabs per trap. At the time, the interviews were being conducted, that number was closer to five crabs per trap. Perhaps it was this “proof” that people were struggling to access an important traditional food that caused the tone of conversations between community leaders and fisheries managers to shift. Since 2017, the DFO has honored four requests by these communities to shut down commercial fisheries.

For Frid, while this story exemplifies the racist attitudes that allow over-exploitation, it also offers hope: things can change. Indigenous groups who were historically at war now work in close collaboration with one another. The Supreme Court of Canada now recognizes oral narratives as valid evidence used to reconstruct historical land relations in support of land title cases brought by indigenous nations before the court. Science and policymakers, like those at the DFO, can embrace traditional ways of knowing. If they do, it will create stronger foundations for resource management and fundamentally alter the “collective psyche of industrial civilization.”

Frid points to the system of Hereditary chiefs, who are responsible stewards of specific places, as being critically important in the Anthropocene. Their authority, he writes, is contingent on the chief maintaining knowledge of those resources and their sustainable management, transmitting that knowledge intergenerationally and redistributing his or her own wealth derived from those resources. “Staying connected to place, for the long run, is a key responsibility of the chiefs.” In his work with Indigenous communities, Frid says this system of governance is often invoked to push for the establishment of marine protected areas. While such actions can’t stop the change that comes with a warming climate, they can give certain species a better chance of survival and keep ecosystems from tipping over into a state from which they will never recover.

Most of us, like Frid, are “descendants of wandering ancestors.” We can’t be expected to understand or adopt the visceral sense of “home” felt by indigenous peoples. However, he urges that what we can do is learn, respect, and embrace the laws and ways of knowing that came before us. Based on his explanation of the system of Hereditary chiefs in this book, it seems to me that finding ways to engage with them in the co-creation of the laws we all live by seems like a critical step to becoming naturalized citizens of the lands we live on.

In Changing Tides, Frid does not offer us a way out of the Anthropocene—out of climate change and species extinction. Similarly, he does not offer us any straightforward manner of resolving the conflicts between industry and the land defenders who stand in it’s way. What he offers is the possibility that with a shift in perspective, we can better manage these challenges. That shift is initiated when we change the stories we tell. When we tell ourselves that humans are rabid consumers and an unstoppable geologic force, we will be so. If we tell ourselves that human nature is not fixed and that collectively we are capable of continuous improvement, we will step up and do the work.

 

This review was originally published by The Centre for Humans and Nature, and is accompanied with an interview titled Reciprocity and Responsibility.

 

A World Away: The journey of a lifetime in social isolation

A socially isolated family dance-party, Bowen Island, BC.

If she were home right now, Mwai Mphande, would be locked-in with her family, homeschooling her sister’s two kids, dancing and playing board games at night. Instead, she’s a world away, on Bowen Island, doing everything she can to not let a global pandemic take away the opportunity of a lifetime.

“When you come from where I come from, to see somewhere outside of Africa is SO huge. It’s everyone’s dream,” says Mwai. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here, it’s overwhelming.”

Mwai comes from Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, and one of the least developed countries in the world. There, she is known as Lady Pace and she can be seen frequently on TV and heard on the radio. She’s known for her music, but also simply for daring to step into the world of hip hop as a woman.

Mwai says that in the early part of her career, she wrote her songs just to try and get people’s attention. Once she managed to do that, music morphed into a vehicle for self-expression. In 2016, Mwai’s art took on a greater purpose: to fight for the rights of women and girls in Malawi and around the world.

That year, Mwai met her friend Patti de Sante, who she is currently living with on Bowen Island.

“She was telling me about all these things, and talked about the Chief, who she later introduced me to,” says Mwai. The “Chief” by the way, is Chief Kachindamoto, a former secretary chosen to lead some 900,000 people. She’s made it her mission to end child marriage in Malawi. “When I met the chief, she was in the middle of stripping down a lower level chief who had allowed a child marriage to be performed in his village. When I saw this, I felt like I was meeting the most powerful woman I could ever imagine. Of course, I knew that child marriage happened in Malawi, but you get busy in your life and don’t really pay attention. When I met the girls though, it got really personal for me.”

Mwai Mphande and Patti de Sante on tour and celebrating the UN’s Year of Indigenous Languages, in Zanzibar.

Since meeting Kachindamoto, Mwai has recorded an entire album devoted to the subject of gender rights. She has yet to release most of the songs, as she is considering the best strategies to ensure that her message is heard.

Coming to Canada was part of her plan to also get known outside of Africa and continue her activism by initiating a new organization called, “Music Heals Malawi,” learning from and complementing the Canadian organization Music Heals. 

After a few initial gigs and lots of enthusiasm, Mwai was sure by the date of her scheduled departure in June, she could achieve her goal of recording a few songs with artists here. She was sure that new connections with music therapists and Music Heals would move the organization forward, too. She hasn’t given up on those goals but clearly, respecting the request to stay home, she’s been forced to shift, and rethink the next few months. She’s taking free online courses on early childhood development as well as gender and health, offered by USAID. She’s also HOPING to start an App-development course, starting on April 9 with a leading-edge organization called BrainStation, who she has met with already.

“I’d like to build apps that will actually help us, in Malawi,” says Mwai. “Like my friend Caroline, a medical doctor, she’s created an app that combines data entered by healthcare workers to support evidence-based decision making in the care of newborns. Malawi has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world – 25% of newborns don’t make it. We need more technology that the youth are engaged in and welcoming.  We need these apps designed by Malawians for Malawians. I know that if I can learn how to do this work, I can teach others, and we can work together to get really important things done.”

The catch, of course, is that this is not a FREE course. Bringing valuable skills back home comes at a cost – and not one Mwai can afford to pay. So, she’s looking for support to help make it happen:

The user interface design course costs $2900.00  So far she has raised $200 so she still has $2700 remaining.  She did ask Brain Station for assistance but they have not responded yet, most likely due to COVID and their need like others to pay their bills.  

Mwai is willing to offer some unique programming in lieu of a donation.  She is happy to set up some online educational sessions with school-age kids regarding her life and children’s life in Malawi that would include games, the local language of Chichewa, the geography, animals and food.  For others who might like to hear her journey of becoming a female hip-hop artist and activist Mwai will offer a single session. 

Patti and Mwai want to thank you for contributing and sharing this with others.  The course starts on April 9th. CAN WE DO THIS IN 3 DAYS.. You can send email transfers to insightintegrator@gmail.com and 100% will go towards the course.

2020, the year when…

Apparently, I’m not the only one not driving anywhere.

…whatever you were doing or planning back in January is probably irrelevant by now.

For me, this year started out so well, so ambitious and on-track, despite all obstacles. For a short time, I reveled in life without a car: all the money I was saving, all the exercise I was getting walking up and down hills every day. I was dreaming of a summer vacation cruising by sail through the Gulf Islands, and of creating a car co-op.

Tail between my legs, I was going to write to you about how short-lived that car-freedom was, to tell you about that time that I paid $2000 to make my way to a little-kid birthday party. The car cost $800 and a year’s worth of insurance cost $1,200. The decision felt financially wreckless and also like bad parenting (my kid doesn’t get many birthday parties, she would’ve been crushed, I am clearly a push-over). In the end, though, the decision has proven sound: my husband is one of those rare and brave people who still has to make his way into work every day, and public transportation feels suddenly, unsafe.

While he’s got the vehicle in the city, I am confined to destinations I can arrive at on foot. It is easier than I could have EVER imagined. Going to the grocery store is over, as is loafing around at coffee shops, working in offices, dropping small people at daycare, and so on. Right now I figure I am one of the luckiest people on earth to be able to go nowhere with a paved road in front of my house for the kids to ride their wheeled-things on, and the woods on the other side of that, and the ocean on the other side of that.

My privileged circumstances offer a thin layer of protection against inevitable anxieties. If I feel tired or sniffly, sometimes I panic. Then I reassure myself with the reminder that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen other humans in the flesh, and not had to holler to communicate.

Then there’s the anxiety for humanity in general. It doesn’t help that my seven-year-old pulled Lord of the Rings off the shelf for a bed-time reading last week. I’ve now been sucked into a world where the forces of evil are gaining strength, threatening to enslave even the simple hobbits.

When apocalyptic thoughts creep up on me, I think about how air pollution is plummeting. For a second, I got really excited to learn that dolphins have returned to the suddenly-clear waters of Venice (not true). While news about air pollution is true, it is also likely short-lived. Especially given the fact that real-life forces of evil are taking this opportunity to roll back emissions standards.

Author David Quammen compares the legion of 7.6 billion humans on this planet to populations of various insects, that grow exponentially in short periods of time with devastating effects – then collapse. The difference between us and insects, he says, is that we have the ability to change our behaviour to avoid danger. What we are living through now proves this to be true.

None of us know what life on the other side of this pandemic looks like, what will stick with us and what we’ll forget almost instantly. I assume many of us will hold on to our improved our hand-washing techniques and the frequency of the act. Many of us will be better at making bread. We’ll be more comfortable with video-conferencing, and forging-on at the office through the common cold will likely fall out of fashion. But will we have settled into the idea of slowing down and staying put? Will we come out of this with an ability to eat out of the fridge instead of rushing back and forth to the grocery store every thirty seconds?  Will we have gained the patience and fortitude to fight the longer emergencies? 

Your guess is as good as mine. For the moment though, I’m holding off on making any plans beyond my garden.

Car-free in 2020?

RIP family mini-van.

Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car. 
–EB White

Back when I was dipping my toes into the waters of adulthood, I went to a job interview and by the end found myself in an intractable argument. 

Interviewer: Do you have a car?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Do you plan to get one?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Well what if we paid you enough to get a car?

Me: Still no.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.

I didn’t get the job, and that was totally ok with me. I was very young and there were other jobs (there actually were!) I knew very little about what I wanted from life, aside from the fact that I didn’t want a car. I didn’t want to grow old sitting in traffic, and I didn’t want a job that asked me to. I had a bike and working legs when those didn’t cut it there were subways and buses and taxis.

Life was good. 

Twenty years on, I still have working legs and a bike, but now I also have two small(ish) kids. I have a bus that drives by my home intermittently, but there is no actual bus stop anywhere to be found in along any of the local routes. I have no subway, but I do have a mini-mountain between my home and the nearest place of commerce. I believe there is a taxi in these parts, but it is one of those businesses whose operational status I struggle to keep track of.

My local government has hatched a plan of sorts, promising transformative transit services and a network of paths to make “active transportation” an actual thing here sometime around 2040. 

For now though, when we want to get somewhere, we drive.

Until the beginning of December, a 2001 burgundy minivan with one white door handle, a non-functioning air conditioning system (rats, I think), and a cd player hauled my family everywhere, all the time. I’m not too cool to admit that I actually kinda loved this vehicle. It symbolized the completion of my family and had the crumbs ground into the back passenger seats to prove it. Aside from kids and bikes and groceries, I lugged straw and soil and chicken coops in it. I never once stressed that the car might be scratched or dented, it was made to be scratched and dented. Then the engine “got dead,” as my four year old likes to tell people. 

My husband and I were left pondering how to tackle the family transportation conundrum.

We debated the ways an EV would be compatible with our lifestyle, and the ways it would fall short. We got excited for a moment, to learn about a particular model of hybrid, until we saw the price tag and compared it with our financial reality. I think it might have just been fatigue that led us to decide on not replacing the van at all. 

We figured: we get groceries delivered to our doorstep, and our seven year-old gets picked up five mornings a week to get on a school bus that delivers him home again 7.5 hours later. If I can hussle my little one out of bed before 8am, I can hop on a bus that will deliver her to daycare. If that fails, we can potentially hitch a ride with one of the care-givers who drives by our house each morning at approximately 8:25. The bonus of both scenarios is that we can avoid the horrendously overcrowded parking lot at drop-off and pick-up times.

I brought the kids by bus to their off-island skating lessons twice. I not only deemed the ventures to be successful, but perhaps more enjoyable than driving. We met a few other families on the bus, and each kid acquired a friend for the journey. I managed to run errands along the bus route. The kids were as bouncy and crazy as ever, but I’m not sure which I consider more stressful: constantly urging them to stay out of traffic, sit properly and not climb so far up that tree or – being trapped in a metal box with them.

We can do this, I thought, and it doesn’t even have to be a sacrifice.

At some point mid-December, a friend texted to say that she was going away for a month and if I wanted to cover the cost of insurance, I could borrow her vehicle.

“Awesome!” I texted back. “Happy to cover the cost of insurance, but I am planning on not driving it too much anyways.”

Let me tell you, that first day with her little jeep I felt a deluge of relief wash over me. I could just hop in, go to the post office, pick up a package. Freedom.

Several weeks later I am as securely attached to this vehicle as a I am to any member of my family. I would rather not look at a calendar – less than 10 days and I have to give it back. In ten days it’s just me and my feet. I’ll be begging for rides and becoming besties with the local bus drivers. 

Will 2020 be the year of slowing down for me? Will I shift perspective, or lose my mind? Will I feel more connected to my community, or become that annoying person who can never drive the kids to playdates, to baseball and responds laggingly to calls from school saying my kid is sick?

Or will I just crack, and get a car?

My younger self will urge me to stay strong, to fight the man, to start a car co-op, buy an e-bike or maybe just skip the country. I’ll keep fanning the embers of her idealism while paying the mortgage and trying to figure it all out.