Pontificating about wildness from an artificial lawn in the desert

I am a biologist. Whenever possible, I am found in the woods, making sure that I know each plant, bird, and tree by name.

Since I was young, I have been going on canoe trips and spending summers at my parents’ log cabin by a lake. I was happiest when carrying my food on my back, falling asleep to the haunting call of loons and waking up to the ‘oh sweet Canada Canada Canada‘ of the white-throated sparrow. That is what I thought when I thought of my country; endless swathes of boreal forest where I could paddle a river for a week and not see another soul.

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It didn’t take me long to learn how wrong I was.

By my early teens, the algal blooms had started. The other kids called it “pea soup.” The lakes near the southern border of Manitoba and Ontario began to turn a thick, viscous green earlier and earlier each year. I soon learned it was called eutrophication, caused by pollution. It was destroying the lakes’ ecosystems. The spots I used to go with my father to gleefully catch dozens of tiny perch and toss them back were suddenly devoid of fish. The delicious pickerel that my Zaida coveted on his annual trip to our cabin were soon gone, between pollution and  the Americans that flew up in droves to sport-fish. and He instead settled for dinners of small, bony  northern pike.

My father is a professor of environmental studies. I’ve been helping him with his research on butterflies, moths, and forests since I was small. I have watched him agonize over trying to find endangered skipperlings, quick little butterflies, that we are losing to climate change and habitat destruction. Now, it is my turn to agonize. My PhD research is on the habitat relationships of three bird species at risk. The complexity of the problems and the mountain of work is often overwhelming. I wake up each morning and lie to myself, “Get out of bed, Alana. You have to save the birds.”

I cannot save the birds. I can only delay the inevitable.

No matter how hard I work to identify and protect their habitat, the birds and forests I am fighting to conserve will likely succumb to climate change. The Rusty Blackbird, once flying in dense flocks that blackened the skies, has suffered a population decline of up 95%. But here, in these air-conditioned halls, are decision-makers with the power to shift the course of this catastrophe. Their commitments to green economies and renewable resources can save the Rusty Blackbird, even if I can’t.

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Here at COP, the talk is all human. And rightly so… people are all over the world are suffering and dying from the effects of climate change, such as in the Philippines right now. Yet nowhere in the rhetoric of the negotiators and policy-makers do I hear anything about the natural world we depend on.

We are in the middle of the fastest mass extinction in history, and so I am here out of duty. In the midst of all this anthropocentrism, someone has to speak for those that truly have no voices. As cliche as it might sound, I’m here for the forests that I hike, the rivers that I canoe, the birds that I study. Not just so that my children can experience the wonders of nature… I am here because our exquisite wilderness deserves to exist in as unharmed of a state as possible, in and of itself.

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I am so privileged to be able to make my living studying  birds and trees in the enchanting Canadian wilderness. I am lucky that my research can be used to make small positive changes. But it is not enough.

I am here at COP, trying to convince the Canadian government to commit to a sustainable future, domestically and internationally. The reason why is simple. I refuse to live in a world without wildness, and like most people, I will do everything in my power to protect that which I love.

Comments
One Response to “Pontificating about wildness from an artificial lawn in the desert”
  1. Alana, I am one of those people who mostly talks about human survival when presenting on climate change. But this nearly reduced me to tears. Because, I guess, it made me think about all those species of bird which were common when I was growing up in England but which are under threat there now. Whenever I go back I feel their absence – even in a place which is sometimes as far from wilderness as you can get.
    Thank you.

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