1 – FOREST
The North has always been with us, an unspoiled retreat and refuge from human civilization’s excess and noise. “Up north” means a clear cold night filled with stars, frozen lakes and rushing rivers. From northern Michigan to British Columbia to Alberta to Alaska to the Arctic Circle, up north has been described as a state of mind as well as a geographical area.
In April, the family of crows living in our neighborhood joined a long line of robins and other song birds, sand hill cranes, swans and ducks in their annual migration north to the remote forests of Canada.
Survivors live here. In the huge boreal forest at the top of the world covering Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Scandinavia, evergreen trees, a third of the forest on our planet, have been struggling to hang on, like the north itself, amidst rising temperatures, increased lightning, and fire.
Because increasing temperatures cause more lightning, northern fires have now burned vast areas of black and white spruce, lodge pole pine, and balsam fir, among other coniferous trees in this forest just below the Arctic Circle. These needle leaf trees have evolved over eons to deal with a cold and damp habitat and have not had enough time to adapt to a new warmer world. Coniferous fires have caused almost a quarter of all the forests to be lost across the globe.
Many of the planet’s surviving predators and large mammals live in these upper latitudes: black bears, grizzlies, wolverines, wolves, lynxes, foxes, moose, and ever-moving herds of stoic caribou. They have long endured a cold and lonely place with endless dark winters, a short summer, and scarce food supply. Temperatures in spring and the beginning of summer often hover around -7°.
Billions of North American birds also use this wilderness at some time during the year. They are drawn to the largest intact forest and the largest area of wetlands of any ecosystem in the world, and to the abundant insect life. There are over a million lakes spread across Canada’s boreal forest region, home of trillions of mosquitoes. This is the continent’s bird nursery, the breeding place for billions of birds.
The spartan vegetation still growing here belongs to distant time, the last remnant of an ice-age winter. Muskeg, or spongy low-lying marsh, is widespread. In various stages of decomposition, parsnips, wild onions, dandelion root, chicory root, and mustard stalks, among other ancient plants, grow atop permafrost (frozen soil) which prevents drainage, keeping much of the ground permanently soggy. At the very bottom layer of this widespread marsh lies the most decomposed organism: peat. These plants and the animals who feed here have survived, grown and propagated for a half million years. Lately though, in Alberta, their solitude and skillful endurance has been disrupted by logging, and particularly, by Fort McMurray.
2 – OIL
Located in northeast Alberta in the middle of the Athabasca oil sands and surrounded by vast and remote boreal forest, Fort McMurray was established because underneath it lies bitumen, oil that is too heavy or thick to flow or be pumped without being diluted or heated.
Over 100,000 people have emigrated to this gritty tar sands city on the banks of one of the most beautiful rivers in North America: the Athabasca. A typical rowdy oil town, similar to a gold rush town in another era, Fort Muck as it is derisively known is a place of sex, drugs, violence, homelessness, massive trucks, polluted air and contaminated water sitting at the end of Highway 63. It is also known for six figure salaries, (the average income is about $180,000), opportunities for overtime, and young people in their late twenties paying off their mortgages, and buying the latest Silverado pick-up truck with cash.
Notorious Highway 63, the only major highway connecting Alberta’s oil sands to the rest of the province, is a single-lane highway heavily used by the oil sands industry to transport massive amounts of equipment, supplies, even entire houses, (some of the heaviest and largest loads ever transported on Canada’s highways), to Fort McMurray. It is also known as the Highway of Death. Slow-moving over-sized trucks carrying over-sized loads make passing difficult. For the impatient or drunk or weary, head-on collisions are inevitable. And there is always black ice and blowing snow in winter and of course wandering wildlife families.
The Alberta oil sands holds the world’s third largest oil reserve after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela in a time of peak oil which explains all the frenzy, money and economic migration. Peak oil is the point in historical time when oil production will reach its maximum haul, after which all production irrevocably declines. That time is now and our thirst for oil has become maniacal. A barrel of crude yields 50% gasoline (about twenty gallons), and 40% diesel fuel, plus heating oil, jet fuel (four gallons) and kerosene. The remaining 10% is heavier fuel oil used by ocean-going ships.
There are no holds barred in getting this product out of the ground. In its effort to do this, Suncor, Canada’s giant energy conglomerate has created a bleak and scary world. Towering stacks belch out huge plumes of smoke filled with choking stench. Deafening air cannons blast every fifteen minutes to scare away birds from landing in the highly toxic tailing ponds stretching for miles into the distance. Earth-moving machines endlessly roar. The magnificent Athabasca River is now contaminated and defiled for miles downstream with dead fish.
Oil is the whole basis of our civilization. Once refined, the end product gives human beings cement, asphalt, roofing shingles, pipes for sewer systems, plastic in every conceivable form, newspaper and magazine ink, computer circuit boards, trash bags, golf balls, aspirin, insecticides, credit cards, cosmetics. The list goes on and on. Oil is more than just gasoline. Cell phones and smart phones wouldn’t exist without components made of oil.
3 – FIRE
We have been drilling and burning crude oil for 156 years. The fumes from this activity have overwhelmed and overheated the atmosphere. Our lust for this particular fossil fuel, our “carbon lifestyle”, has run riot over the rest of the planet. The human community has evolved into a consumer society which exists to buy and sell and hoard over 6000 products of oil or petroleum. In doing so, we have become quite blind to the reality of earth and the life forms here.
The recent Fort McMurray fire in May of this year was an extreme example of a raging wildfire that can occur in a boreal forest made tinder dry by severe climate change; conifers and peat are especially flammable and the warmer atmosphere becomes vulnerable to massive lightning strikes. Everything in the path of such a conflagration is incinerated. Flames leap from the top of one coniferous pine tree to another, crown fires descending into the chaos of broiling muskeg for an opening into the peat underneath where it burns and simmers underground for years, steaming and smoking, invisible. Such a forest fire is devastating to the wild community. It turns centuries of trees into ash, suffocating and cremating every living creature in its path.
Along the banks of the Athabasca, the most distressing sight in all of nature frantically played out: swarming throngs of bewildered animals stampeding for their lives, desperate to reach the riverbank; predators and prey running side by side in horrified confusion. Fawns and wolves passing each other without recognition; inconsolable moose babies, coyote mates, struggling grizzly cubs, their legs too short to outrun the terrible heat and unbreathable air behind them, limping charred caribous: all turned out of their fire-ravaged homes.
And then of course the thousands, millions even, of harmless little birds. The McMurray fire actually started in the middle of the spring migration when a staggering three billion songbirds were still migrating into Canada to breed, including many of our most beloved backyard birds. What happened to all those birds who built their precious homes under dry clumps of muskeg grass? Did they remain bravely sitting on the rims of these nests while the terrible skies around them turned orange-black, while flaming branches exploded into sparks around them? What happened to the thousands of their newly hatched groggy babies, tiny feathers all askew, heads wobbly, mouths agape, eyes closed tight? The 2000 firefighters and twelve low-lying helicopters hired to fight this tremendous inferno could only try and save the 2400 human-made structures of the town. It was too late and frankly too unimportant to save a generation of helpless devastated wildlife, a generation of cheery woodland calls and whistles and trills, a generation of bird song.
4 – NOW
It is the beginning of July. Highway 63 has re-opened and the young prime minister has assured the world that no one is known to have died as a result of the fire. Soon, the towering stacks with their smoking stench will be up and running again. And not a moment too soon. Suncor Energy has lost one billion dollars as a result of delayed production. The oil industry has lost 30 million barrels and must still deal with damaged and clogged pipes. And Americans are already turning in their Priuses to buy SUVs since gas prices are at their lowest in eleven years.
The global warming-fueled beast which caused all the trouble has consumed more than one million acres across northern Alberta and is still burning. The dreaded smoke and ashy air has crossed into the remote forests of Saskatchewan and fires will continue to burn in Alberta and Saskatchewan throughout most of this summer since the cold and damp climate of the north is no more.
Closer to home, our crow family has just returned. Their feathers seemed unharmed, unscorched. Their younger son returns to his post on the mailbox looking out for the ibis who does not yet know he is back. The rowdy parents are trolling the trees as usual for any remaining eggs they can steal. As usual their odd son takes no interest in these normal crow activities. He is content preening at his post, happy in the sunshine, the clear blue sky, the old familiar neighborhood, so different from the silent dark boreal forest. The crow does miss his close friend, a young raven. And he misses the cry of the loon. His own voice disappoints him, a hoarse squawk. He knows nobody would ever sit by a shining lake and cry when they heard it.
5 – MYTH
An ancient Mayan myth from the sacred text of the Popol Vuh gives us pause. It goes something like this: When the gods first designed the world and all the plants and animals and trees were fully formed, they noticed that none of these life forms could speak. So they created the first rudimentary people out of mud who might offer prayers and respect and praise to the gods and keep track of the passage of time. But these mud people proved unequal to the task. They mumbled incoherently. They had trouble walking and could not even reproduce. In the end, their mud bodies grew soft and finally dissolved into nothingness.
In their next attempt, the gods boldly decided to create people made of wood and they were the first numerous people on the face of the earth. But these wooden people possessed fatal flaws for all their chattiness. It turned out that they were utterly lacking in compassion, empathy, and spirituality. There was really nothing in their hearts. Their minds were empty of any gratitude or even any memory of their creator. Not only that, they just walked wherever they wanted, invading and damaging even the most private and secret homes of the other creatures. Despite their extraordinary dexterity in making material things and manipulating the natural world for their own amusement and pleasure, the wooden people were arrogant, greedy and spiritually numb.
The Mayan gods despaired at how these wooden people lived out their materialistic lives. They endowed all the animals and plants with the power of speech. Each indignant life form had a chance to voice its grief; each element of the earth who had ever been wronged by these chiseled people was suddenly empowered to retaliate against them for the terrible damage they had brought to the earth by their persistently self-centered ways, their heartlessness, and their overwhelming hubris. Of course in the end, the wooden people were destroyed.
Then they created us, the human beings.