Sunday, June 27, 2010

Overlooked and Undervalued

"When some portion of the biosphere is rather unpopular with the human race - a crocodile, a dandelion, a stony valley, a snowstorm, an odd-shaped flint - there are three sorts of human being who are particularly likely still to see a point in it and befriend it. They are poets, scientists and children. Inside each of us, I suggest, representatives of these groups may be found."
Mary Midgley,
Animals and Why They Matter; A Journey Around the Species Barrier

My experience in the dinosaur museum...the reality of the scenes that transported me to place where I began to imagine myself as prey instead of predator...has me pausing to consider differently the many small worlds with which I share my space. Not so much as a curious observer, but with an empathetic heart.

A prehistoric-looking spider, painstakingly maneuvering her egg case across our driveway.

A soldier fly - Odontomia cincta - primping and preening.

Even a slug can exhibit beautiful patterns when closely observed.

Did you know that in Italy their slime is used to treat dermatitis, warts, inflammations, calluses, acne and wounds? An old folk remedy. In my garden, they also support a healthy population of toads.

Each living creature has a purpose...who is to say that mine should be more important than theirs?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Against fear

We were touring the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, while on a trip out west to visit family. The museum houses the world's largest display of dinosaurs. Most are depicted in lifelike dioramas designed to transport the viewer back in time.

The first impression that swallowed me was the sheer size and fearsome ferocity of these prehistoric creatures. (The second was the work that went into creating such lifelike displays.)

Our family group of 12 split up, each following his own path through the museum, each lingering in moments of awe, gathering his or her own impressions, thoughts. As I stood under the skeleton of a T-Rex, mine continued along one common vein. What would it be like, to live in a land of giant predators? Living each day in mortal fear. When, in given moment, one might be snatched up the jaws of such a fearsome creature - part of the prehistoric food chain?

I thought of how these huge creatures had been annihilated by weather patterns, shifts in their environment. These incredibly complex intimidating animals had not been able to withstand these factors and adapt, while other, smaller creatures found the path to survival in evolution and migration.

Walking through this recreated world left me feeling small and insignificant. It also made me wonder what smaller creatures in my world might feel in my presence.

Do I invoke fear in bird, ant or little caterpillar hearts as they go about their day to day quest for survival? Or do they sense I mean them no harm? And will they stand a better chance for survival in our changing environment than me?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Spirit of a Place

I had looked forward to seeing the Canadian Badlands while on a family vacation, having been so taken with similar landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico. While not quite as spectacular as its wild southern counterparts, there was unmistakable subtle beauty in the wide sweeping plateaus of grassland and carved valleys and coulees, bounded with the multi-coloured and layered strata of the earth's history. It felt like I was cradled in a pocket of time. This is truly where once dinosaurs roamed...and died.

But during the five days we spent here, I began to wonder how much the history and story of a landscape can impact the spirit of a place. In this arena of subtle evolution and mass extinction, I sensed this struggle remained. Aboriginal cultures are sensitive to the voices and wisdom of the land. They say some places speak to men, others to women. Our culture pays little heed to such things, but if we listened to the wisdom - the voices of the land - what would they advise?

In the midst of the badlands is Drumheller, a small city, located in the valley of the Red Deer River and known for the rich fossil beds of prehistoric bones. Perhaps it was only the weather, or the season, but a sense of unease was almost palatable. Amongst a few new hotels, grocery stores and restaurants, a multitude of dinosaur statues in Crayola colours seemed like forced humour, at odds with the sand-coloured homes huddled side by side.

Despite the beauty of the surroundings and open friendliness of its people, I perceived few feelings of pride here; many homes looked dejected and uncared for, yards small and overgrown. There was an air of neglect...of wistfulness.

People still talk about the great flood of 2005 when the waters of the Red Deer River rose to their highest levels in 200 years. I spoke to a lady whose business had been destroyed. She tried to push the government for compensation, she told me. But no one would join their voice to hers. She fought alone for a time, then discouraged, she moved away. She's back again, now five years later - it's my home, she told me -but her eyes are sad.

This is a man's town. Coal mining first grew the town, then oil sustained it, now a penitentiary provides employment and the bone beds of ancient creatures bring fame...but not fortune.

Perhaps it is presumptuous of me, having been there such a short time, but everything about these streets seemed contrived. As if at the heart of it, this town knows it does not belong here, in this sacred cemetery - this valley of death - but it struggles onward with a human spirit unwilling to give up.

But it all made me wonder. What if some places are just not meant to be settled? What if some places are simply meant to be wild?