It is undoubtedly true that nature is rude in tooth and claw, as the popular saying goes. But it is also true, as I have discovered during my many dabblings in this subject over the years, that it is incredibly beautiful. I am not talking of the sort of beauty with which one might describe a woman. I have in mind something far deeper, a beautiful system that left to itself is perfectly balanced between all its components, balanced in such a way as to have established for every creature, whether animal or vegetable, modifications and behaviours that are utterly dependent on other aspects of the system.
When the Crees of northern Quebec entered court in 1972 to challenge the decision of the Quebec government to build in their traditional hunting and trapping lands a huge project designed to produce electricity for southern markets, I discovered a fact that I had not previously known: every piece of land or water, every so-called ecosystem, at any given time is bearing its maximum population of creatures.
This was evidently unknown to the Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, (although he had much more reason to know it than did I, a mere journalistic observer), when, on April 29, 1971, he announced the creation of the James Bay hydro-electric project in terms that made it sound like the biggest thing since the Pyramids. He spoke of the great rivers of northern Quebec --- the Rupert, the Eastmain, the La Grande, the Great Whale and Little Great Whale --- as “wasting away” into the sea of James and Hudson Bays, having evidently never heard of the dependence on these rivers of the wide range of creatures that occupied the territory. Indeed, he spoke of the land up there as if it were empty, unpopulated, which, since few white people lived there, presumably he believed, ignoring the fact that his advisors must have drawn to his attention, that the area had supported a permanent population during all the thousands of years since the decline of the Ice Age, Cree and Inuit indigenous hunters, who had occupied every square inch of the country from which they had always drawn their subsistence living.
He could hardly have known that, as the witnesses for the plaintiffs established in court, when these great rivers froze, and their waters diminished in volume, little lanes were established under the ice along the shore that were vital to the existence of one of the riverine species, the muskrat, that had become part of the diet and livelihood of the indigenous inhabitants.
Similarly, when, towards the end of the winter, the rivers begin to thaw, in the last days of their thaw, the surviving ice, extending into the bay, is essential to the survival of newly-spawned seal pups, who begin to grow into adulthood by feeding themselves on these last remaining spurs of ice. Interruptions of the river flows would be devastating to the survival of these growing species, Judge Albert Malouf was told. One of the most revealing and surprising days I ever remember in my life occurred when an Inuit called James Watt, from Fort Chimo, as the town of Kuujjuaq was then called, gave evidence in his own language for a whole day about the likely effects of such riverine changes on the wildlife so necessary to the lives of the hunters. When he had finished, the high-powered lawyers for the $16 billion James Bay Development Corporation asked the judge for an adjournment. When he queried their need, they said that the evidence they had just heard was so technical that they did not know what questions to ask, and needed at least an overnight pause for them to get up to speed. For me, this was a triumphant demonstration that a person does not need to have attended a university to become a scientist.
To pick up again on the question of forest fires that I have touched on in my previous Chronicles. One of the most wonderful facts I learned from my dabbling in this subject concerned the jackpine, one of the half- dozen most prominent trees of Canada’s boreal forest, that stretches virtually across Canada from coast to coast. That forest fire has always been a natural phenomenon in the Canadian forest is proven by the fact that jackpine (and lodgepole pine, too, I believe, another stable of the boreal forest) have adapted by what is called serotiny, to forest fires, by developing a seeding mechanism of such tightly packed cones that they will respond only to fire. In other words, a jackpine can stand in the forest with its seeds for many years and will not open its seeds until they are persuaded to open by the heat of a forest fire. To me there is something so amazing about such an adaptation as to almost take one’s breath away. (For those who are interested, serotiny is defined as “an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, in which seed release occurs in response to an environmental trigger, rather than spontaneously at seed maturation. The most common and best-studied trigger is fire.”)
I have something of this same wonder-struck attitude towards Nature every spring or autumn when I hear the curious squawking of a fight of Canada geese flying over on its bi-yearly migration. South of Ottawa on the St Lawrence river is a major stopping over place for these birds, and it is astonishing to see them, and to think that all this life has been going on, being born, grown and died, independent of we humans. Mind you, I believe that was not always true: another story told in the court room was that before the war the population of Canada geese was so diminished by over-hunting, that a group of interested scientists got involved, established the flight routes, and worked to limit hunting along these routes and at those particular times of year, with such spectacular results that nowadays many locations in Canada complain about the birds stopping off in their parks and making an unholy mess of them. For me, it is worth any amount of mess, just to see the flocks, as I used to do every migration when they could be seen on Ottawa’s Experimental Farm in their thousands.
I put all this knowledge I gathered from the witnesses in that 1972 court case into a book I wrote called Strangers Devour the Land, a book originally published by Alfred Knopf of New York in 1975, that has since been re-published by at least three other publishers. I want to end this Chronicle by quoting two paragraphs from that book:
“In these wondrous ways does nature perform: the caribou munching away on the lichen that has attached itself to the branches of dead and dying trees on the uplands; the moose easting the young vegetation in the burnt areas or along the rivers; the lynx preying on the little snowshoe hare (from which, when the fur around its hind legs begins to turn brown, the Indians can tell that winter is gone and colder weather will not return); the beaver creating its own permanent high water; the muskrat burrowing around in tunnels under the shore ice; the birds eating sedges and grasses, nesting under tender little spruce trees, building their nests on well-protected points that nobody else needs; the wolf following the caribou herds, culling the old and the feeble, maintaining in this way the strength and vitality of the herd.
Even the falling leaves blown into the lakes by the high winds, play their part in maintaining the infinite variety of life that has adjusted itself to the wondrous rhythm of nature’s year.
“With this system the people who govern us showed no concern of any kind. They knew only one fact, and cared about no other: we needed electricity for our factories, homes, offices, streets, refrigerators, televisions and hair dryers, and by fulfilling this one need, they claimed, they would be improving the variety and quality of life on his earth.”
Oh, yes, there’s no doubt about it: there is much still to learn if we are not to destroy the elements on which all life depends on this, our precious earth.