Thursday, December 1, 2016

How We Treat Our Trees

My daughter’s steep-sided backyard in California has a strangely shaped tree. It grows out of the hillside naturally but then bends, forms an arch, and follows the ground down the hill to the patio.

This isn’t a vine. It is a Coast Live Oak with a trunk you would have trouble wrapping your arms around. It is one weird tree, worthy of a Stephen King horror story. (In fact if he is reading this, which is a ridiculous fantasy, he should take some notes).

I imagine the plot. The tree, driven mad by human abuse of nature, extends its trunk down the hill toward the house. It eats the house then moves on through town eating everything in sight as revenge.

Trees have good reason to go nuts. We abuse them badly. We continue to clear cut for convenience and better profits. Our lifestyles are changing the world climate, resulting in bug infestations and droughts that are killing trees by the millions.

In California, 62 million trees have died this year alone in the state’s drought-stricken areas. The U.S. Forest Service says the California die-off is unprecedented in modern history. It estimates total California tree deaths from drought at 102 million since 2010.

This is only the start of this particular ecological disaster. All those dead trees are tinder for wildfires and heighten the danger of dangerous erosion events. Stay tuned for more disastrous wildfires and floods.

Tree losses and the dangers they present are not just a California problem. In 2013, Canada lost 24,500 square kilometres of forest, mainly to wildfires, according to a report from Global Forest Watch. That was the second biggest loss of forest in the world that year. Russia had the most loss at 43,000 square kilometres.

We need not go far from home to see the losses. I stand on my deck at the lake and look across to see dozens of pines dying, presumably from lack of usual rainfall over the last two years.

The large balsam to the right of the deck died this year. As did two or three balsams down the road. I don’t know what killed them but there are plenty of things attacking our trees: invasive species, fungi and dozens of threats from changing weather.
Natural Resources Canada says things will worsen for trees. Droughts and other weather extremes are expected to become more frequent, triggering more forest declines.

The more dead trees I see the more I wonder about our forestry practices. I wonder if they need to change.

The forestry industry, and government folks who regulate it, believe that dead trees and slash should be left to rot. Nature will take care of it. The rot nourishes the earth helping the forest to regenerate.

I question that, especially when I wander the bush around the Margaret-Dan Lake roads near the Frost Centre. Piles of slash and unwanted logs from logging are everywhere.

Hunters have complained that the logging residue makes it difficult to walk through the bush. I worry about a fire starting in all that dry brush.

I also wonder if saying that logging debris helps forest regeneration is simply an excuse for not cleaning up. Another rationalization for our wasteful, throwaway culture.

And, I wonder why some use cannot be made of the slash and unwanted logs. Chipping it, or doing something to provide useful products of some kind. Making use of the slash instead of letting it rot also would provide more work in an economy where jobs are becoming fewer.

Maybe my thinking is way off base. But it seems to me that with the world changing before our eyes, we should be questioning everything.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Only in California

Calm and reason appear to have returned to the isolated corners of America. At least they have in the corner that I am visiting.

I am strolling North Oakland, California watching people drink coffee, eat ice cream cones and chat about the weather. Any anxiety over the country having elected a president suffering from HPD (Histrionic Personality Disorder) certainly is not evident.

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth continues in places like Washington and New York, but this is California. Surf is up, sun is out and life rolls along through good times or catastrophes.

I step into a short, cramped pedestrian walk named Temescal Alley, which originally housed stables for the horses that drew wagons through the tunnel connecting the San Francisco Bay area with the country east of the mountains.

Temescal Alley has been reborn. The stable doors have been replaced by artsy doorways into boutiques where shop owners not only sell, but craft on site their jewellery and other goods.

Inside the Temescal Alley Barber Shop I find a slice of what I grew up understanding was the real America.

It is a small shop with six chairs, antique style with cast metal foot rests, white porcelain trim and black leather seats and backs. Guys wearing gray-striped barber’s drapes occupy the chairs, getting haircuts, a straight razor shave or beard trim.

Two small dogs sleep in a basket in corner. One of them wears a knitted doggie blanket coat featuring Frosty the Snowman.

The shelf above the dog bed holds a whiskey flask and shot glasses for any customer wishing to enjoy a free shot while waiting for an empty chair. (During Prohibition, people wanting an illegal drink in San Francisco usually could find one in a barbershop).

The waits can be long here. There are no appointments. You just walk in and add your name to the list on a chalkboard by the door. When the place gets busy and seating room is limited you can sit outside on a bench in the alleyway and sip a whiskey and chat with others.

Few customers mind the waits. If you do mind, you should find a quick clip place where your hair is buzzed into shape in 10 minutes.

This place hums with  conversations covering everything from kids to Golden State Warriors’ basketball. Everything, it seems, except the election of Donald Trump, now to be known as vulgarian-in-chief.

It is a flashback to an earlier America when barbershops were gathering places where community news and gossip were exchanged. When life was slower and there was time to think, discuss and exchange information in more than140-word bursts.

Past does meet the present here. The antique shop look is broken by modern Douglas Fir trim and a large skylight with frosted sliding panels. And, most of the barbers – four male, two female – sport tattoos.

The barbershop was opened five years ago by two guys seeking a return to old-style craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship is evident. The barbers take their time with scissors and razors, giving their customers a cleanly sculpted look. Hairlines are shaped with shaving cream and razors. Haircuts usually take 25 to 30 minutes to complete.

Customers pay for the old-style ambience and the close attention to their grooming. A haircut is $30. A  straight-razor shave is $35 and a beard trim $15. No credit or debit cards. Cash only.

The barbershop and other little shops of Temescal Alley are born of the individualism so characteristic of California. Individualism that made it a leader in the entertainment and high tech industries, among other things.

It is an individualism that creates new ideas, new things and cultural changes, many of which usually come our way. Individualism carries Californians through droughts, wildfires and earthquakes. It will carry them through the political earthquake of the 2016 presidential election.

This is Thanksgiving Week in the USA. Friday is Black Friday, the day when millions lay their credit cards on the altars of consumerism.

For some Californians, however, it is Green Friday, and environmental groups have arranged free day passes to 116 state parks.

Green Friday. A day in the woods instead of the malls. Another cool idea.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lessons from the Back 40

Blue jays are such contradictory creatures.

I’m not thinking baseball’s Blue Jays, who hit everything out of the park one day, but can’t make contact with anything smaller than a 10-pin bowling ball the next.

I am in the Back 40  watching genuine blue jays gorge themselves on a pile of cracked corn. Their brilliant blue crest-to-rump feathers, white chests and underbellies, plus sharp black detailing, are a contradiction in the autumn forest.

The time of spectacular colour has long passed. This is the time of sombre dullness here. The canopy’s few remaining leaves, almost all stubborn oaks, are the colour of wet rust. The scarlets, persimmons, and golds that drew oohs and aahs last month have succumbed to the greyness of a Back 40 waiting for winter.

Yet the gaudy jays flitter and soar, vibrant blue-white-black flashes brightening an otherwise comatose landscape.

Their noise also is a contradiction. This is supposed to be a time of quiet here as living things stand silent, listening for winter’s approaching footsteps.

Not the jays. Their piercing ‘jay, jay, jay’ and other vocal hysterics are unnerving breaks in the Back 40 quiet.

I come here to escape the noisy conflicts of the outside world. We all need occasional breaks from the clashing and crashing of a society that seems to be losing its collective mind.

The noise of the jays at least is bearable, until a squabble breaks out in the corn pile. I’m guessing there are 3,000 kernels of corn in that pile. Maybe more. There is at least enough to feed every blue jay in the forest for the next week. Yet, we have a fight over who gets what kernel first.

Blue jays, like humans, are extremely territorial. But their territorial disputes, unlike ours, are brief because the birds realize that fighting only diminishes eating time.

Humans have yet to figure that out. We continue to go to war against each other, and when we are not fighting, we yell at each other and hold grudges, often for years, sometimes centuries.

We enter desperate periods when we turn to leaders with small minds and hard hearts; leaders who base their opinions and actions on emotions, not facts. Hello, Trump, Marine La Pen, Vlad Putin, et al.

These extreme leaders make loud noises and flash bright colours. Like the blue jays, they are contradictions in a time when patience and calm and quiet intelligence are needed.

There are voices of quiet intelligence and reason among us. Unfortunately, the masses are not hearing them, or perhaps don’t want to hear them. These voices are little heard in the global news media, which has decided it is better to tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.

There was an example recently of what can happen when intelligent people understand that when they stop fighting there is more time to share good things.

The heads of the Lutheran and Catholic churches met in Sweden three weeks ago to set aside differences and work to understand each other. Pope Francis and Lutheran President Bishop Munib Younan met to begin healing the wounds of a 500-year-old religious war that dramatically altered global Christianity.

The war started in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 arguments to the door of a Catholic church in Germany. His statements denounced Catholic Church corruption, notably the sale of indulgences. That incident created the Protestant Reformation, and centuries of hatred and bloody wars.

In Lutheran Sweden, Catholics were persecuted and barred from certain professions and until the 1970s Catholic convents were forbidden. Lutherans were called heretics by Catholics.

Luther of course was right. The church was corrupt, but he was excommunicated for saying it.

Francis has exercised his quiet leadership by calling Luther a reformer and admitting that the Catholic church had made mistakes. Younan said the Swedish meeting was an example of how religions can work together without always contributing more conflict to an already troubled world.

The lesson from the Swedish meeting, and from the blue jays in Back 40, is clear: when we stop pecking at each other, we can get a lot more problems solved.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Torture in the New Residential Schools

The torture of Adam Capay in Thunder Bay Jail says as much about how politicians are failing us as anything else happening in the world today.

As much as Brexit, as much as the U.S. election nightmare, as much as the surge of the Pirate Party in Iceland. As much as any of the political upheavals created by people rising up and demanding better government and better politicians dedicated to providing it.

Capay, a young man from Lac Seul First Nation near Sioux Lookout, has been in solitary confinement for more than four years. The lights are on 24 hours a day in his Plexiglas cell, making it impossible for him to know if it is night or day. He has been in this cell 52 months, awaiting trial for the killing of another inmate.

Ontario’s politicians and bureaucrats are yip yapping the usual lines, calling the Capay case unacceptable and not nice. Premier Wynne calls it disturbing.

Well Ms. Premier, here’s what I call it: * * * outrageous, evil, cruel and criminal. Clearly it is a violation of international laws regarding torture.

At first word of the Capay treatment Wynne should have been on an airplane to Thunder Bay to personally manage and correct this outrageous wrong. The premier’s mind, however, can’t seem to get outside downtown Toronto and its pressing issues of gender neutral language and bicycle lanes.

Especially sickening is that the Ontario government knew about Capay’s torture for a long time and did nothing. Protocols for solitary confinement mean that dozens of monthly reports on Capay’s segregation were sent, or should have been sent, to the ministry of institutional services.

The dirt only hit the fan when Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane was tipped to Capay’s plight. She visited him and witnessed the conditions in which he is being held.

A bright spot in this ugly story is that a jail guard pushed it into the spotlight by informing Mandhane. That’s heartening because corrections officials have not been known to show much empathy for aboriginal inmates.

I recall vividly being slipped a plain brown envelope many years ago that contained a photocopy of a top-secret Northwest Territories prison training manual. The manual informed new prison staff that aboriginals are “lazy, uncreative, unthrifty and adolescent,” traits that come from their “mongol origins.”

Hopefully the sentiments in that training manual have long disappeared, but the shockingly high rates of aboriginal imprisonment have not.

Almost 25 per cent of inmates in Canadian federal, provincial and territorial lockups are aboriginal. Aboriginals are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned in Canada than non-indigenous people. Ninety per cent of the inmates at Thunder Bay Jail are aboriginal.

Our prisons and jails are the new residential schools. 

The Capay story shows us clearly the political rot in Ontario and the urgent need to overhaul our democracy.

Much of the rot can be attributed to swelling numbers of career politicians whose decisions too often are based on re-election, rather than the concerns and needs of the people. They are masters of the political game, when they should be masters of the art of management.

Good managers lead from out front and recognize problems before they become crises. Letting a young man sit in a brightly-lighted Plexiglas cell for more than four years is managing from the bleachers instead of being on the field.

This Ontario government, and others of the last three decades or more, have demonstrated that they are incapable of managing a peanut stand.

The way to get fewer career politicians and better government is for people to become involved in the political process. The next Ontario election is in 2018 and people need to become involved now in the nomination process.

That means deciding what type of people we need in government and encouraging them to run. It means challenging the existing nomination practices and, if necessary, tossing people who have been a political party’s choice.

This is not about party politics. It is about getting into government people dedicated to working for the people, not the party. If that means people without political party affiliations, all the better.