Thursday, June 21, 2018

The positives of creepy crawlies

Finding something good in everything takes work.

For instance, it requires a colossal imagination stretch to find positives in the forest tent caterpillar onslaught chewing parts of Ontario.

There are no reports of wide scale infestations in Haliburton, however serious outbreaks have been reported northwest of the county. The Sudbury-Manitoulin Island region seems to be the centre of an infestation that stretches west to Sault Ste. Marie and east into the Ottawa Valley.

The creepy critters have been crawling all over Sudbury’s landmark Big Nickel, the nine-metre tall replica of a 1951 five-cent piece. In some places they are covering outdoor furniture, cars and house walls.

Caterpillar infestations are nothing new. They aren’t caused by climate change, rising oceans or anything like that. Folks back in the late 1700s reported witnessing them.

There are numerous species of caterpillars but the ones we most often see are the forest tent caterpillar and its close cousin the eastern tent caterpillar. The tent caterpillar has white or yellow spots on its back while the eastern tent caterpillar has a solid white or yellowish back stripe.

These worms follow bust-to-boom-to bust cycles, reaching peak numbers every 10 to 12 years, then dying off before beginning a new cycle.

Peak infestations see billions of caterpillars chewing the leaves off thousands of acres of forest. Defoliation can be severe with trees left with nothing but naked limbs. The preferred leaves of the tent caterpillar are poplar and birch although they also are attracted to hardwoods.

Even peak infestations do not seriously damage healthy trees. Tree trunks hold enough nutrients to keep themselves going long enough to produce a new crop of leaves.

However, armies of caterpillars have been known to delay highway and rail traffic when squished bodies make pavement and rails dangerously slippery. Caterpillars also have been known to crawl along power lines, causing outages.

They can be a major nuisance but pose no threats to human health.

Tent caterpillars emerge in spring and go on a feeding frenzy until late June or early July when they transform into flying moths. The moths lay egg masses on tree twigs the thickness of a pencil. The egg sacs remain there until next spring when new caterpillar populations emerge.

During peak infestations masses of caterpillars actually can be heard munching leaves.

Anything that eats that much has to go the bathroom. And, caterpillars go to the bathroom a lot.

Walking through a forest where caterpillars are at work you might hear what sounds like  light rainfall. It is not rain. It is caterpillar poop, little pieces the size of pepper flecks, falling from the trees.

Scientists have positive thoughts about all this. Caterpillar excrement is rich in protein and nitrogen, they say, so it is good fertilizer when it falls to the forest floor.

Also, folks who study these things say that when caterpillars defoliate a forest they create openings that let sunlight into lower areas, creating healthier conditions for smaller plants.

Caterpillars also provide food for birds and to a lesser extent, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons and mice. Fish are said to gorge on them when they fall into lakes or streams. However, as caterpillars grow, the hairs on their sides stiffen and make them less palatable, and less digestible.

That doesn’t seem to bother bears. The North American Bear Centre in Minnesota reports that a black bear consumes roughly eight to 10 kilograms of caterpillars a day. Considering that a fully developed caterpillar weighs only one-half gram, that’s a lot of caterpillars.

The centre said one bear consumed 25,192 caterpillars in one day. How could any researcher come to that exact count? Certainly not by watching the bear stuffing them into its mouth.

It turns out that caterpillar skins pass through a bear’s digestive system intact and can be found in their scat. A researcher tracked one bear for three 24-hour periods, collected all of its 73 droppings and counted the caterpillar skins in the poop.

So, as ugly and unwanted as they are when they come in masses, caterpillars do have their positives. They provide food for other wildlife and work for researchers willing to poke their fingers into stuff most of us gladly sidestep.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Time to start body slamming

We Canadians are just too polite. There are times when we need to swap our signature friendly, sometimes phoney, body language with genuine Canadian hockey body slams. 

We acted far too nice last week when we greeted Donald Trump upon his regal arrival for the G7 summit at La Malbaie, Quebec.

Justin Trudeau, with a smile as wide as the St. Lawrence, not only shook the hand of the Blusterer in Chief enthusiastically, he squeezed the chief’s forearm in a special display of warmth. So did Sophie Gregoiré, Trudeau’s wife.

An outstretched handshake from a distance reserved for someone who plans to hurt you would have sufficed. And he is hurting Canadians, imposing tariffs on our important exports, and threatening to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trudeau could have engaged in some  psychological one-upmanship. For instance, when Trump descended the steps of Air Force One Justin could have taken his outstretched hand much the same way you take raccoon poop off the cottage deck.

“Good flight, Ronnie?” (Bullies hate when you confuse them with someone else).

No ‘Welcome to Canada’ because for most Canadians, he isn’t.

Then with a disdainful glance up at Air Force One Trudeau could have added: “Geez, the old ship looks a bit grungy. Whenever Obama visited it was always bright and sparkling clean. You must have flown over West Virginia. All that coal dust. We need to talk about that at the summit.”

Bullies have an over-inflated sense of their importance and constantly seek the spotlight, so at La Malbaie it should have been kept off him. A couple of sharp Gordie Howe-style elbows would have kept him out of the centre of the official G7 photograph.

Trudeau has the perfect outfit for toning down Trump. Remember last Hallowe’en when he trotted down the stairs of Parliament Hill’s centre block on his way to the daily question period? 

He had the Clark Kent look with slick black hair, geeky black-rim glasses and blue suit with the red tie. As puzzled reporters looked on he ripped open his dress shirt to reveal his Superman costume.

Repeating that performance at the G7 opening would have shown who is the boss.

The U.S. president often invites other leaders to his Mar-a-Lago resort to show off his wealth, power and brilliance.

Invited or not, Trudeau should have raised Mar-a-Lago during the meeting by telling Trump: “Sorry I can’t get down to Mar-a-Lago this summer, or even the fall, Too much going on. Vlad Putin has invited me to go mushroom picking and Kim keeps asking me to go over for a banchan lunch. When you see him next week tell him I’ll give him a call and we’ll set a date.”

There are other ways everyone involved with the G7 could have stuck pins in Trump’s ego. Staff at the Manoir Richelieu, where the G7 leaders were staying, could have been instructed on how to serve the U.S. president with mind games.

For instance, when he called down for his late night cheeseburger and Coke, the chef could have said: “Je suis désolé, Monsieur Le President. Angela Merkel just got the last one.”

Unfortunately, there was not enough time to play really serious mind games with the president. He came late and left early, not wanting to spend time with powerful and intelligent leaders who are no longer in the mood to shower him with the flattery he craves.

Once again, Canada was far too polite to him. What we got in return was that he came reluctantly and quickly escaped from what he no doubt considers another outhouse country.
There’s an old saying that a bully is always a coward. Trump fit that proverb perfectly when he left the G7.

Once in the air on Air Force One he took to Twitter and called Justin Trudeau a liar. Trudeau was “very dishonest and weak” and acted “so meek and mild.” He did the name calling on Twitter because he was too cowardly to do it face to face.

Later, Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser said there is a “special place in Hell” for people like Trudeau.

It’s time we started taking these people into the boards.
Read From Shaman’s Rock:

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Let them eat horses

It’s amazing what you learn when you open a book.

I thought I had a solid grasp of North American history, until I picked up Wild Horse Country by David Philipps.

I got the book because Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize New York Times correspondent, has a theory of how mountain lions can solve America’s wild horse problem. The read taught me something about wild horses, but more importantly how the horse changed North American history.

The wild horse, or mustang, is an American icon, and a problem that costs U.S. taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars. Eighty to 100,000 mustangs freely roam public lands in the West, exhausting grassland food supplies for themselves and other wildlife.

Their numbers need to be controlled but the U.S. government can’t decide how that should be done. Slaughter or mass sterilization are two options being considered but there is a dilemma: the wild horse is as much a symbol of America’s freedom as the bald eagle and the general public wants the horse left wild and free.

So the U.S. federal government rounds up hundreds of wild horses and puts them in holding areas where it pays to room and board them. Meanwhile, open range wild horses continue to breed and the overpopulation problem continues.

In explaining the wild horse issue, Philipps gives a fascinating history of the horse in North America and that’s where I got my history tuned up.

Horses did not always exist in North America. Ancient forms of small, horse-like animals did exist tens of millions of years ago but disappeared. Horses, as we know them today, did not appear on this continent until the 1600s, arriving on galleons with the Spanish Conquistadors.

To the Spanish the horse was a weapon of war that allowed them to conquer the Americas and enslave its indigenous populations. They brought horses by the thousands to the Americas.

Before then, North American Indigenous peoples lived in forested areas or southern pueblos near water needed for growing food. Their movements were restricted because the only transportation they had was their feet and various forms of dugouts and canoes.

The Conquistadors’ horses changed all that, and the history of the continent.

The Spanish conquered the Pueblo of the southwest and put them to work doing jobs they needed done, including looking after horses.

The inevitable happened. The Pueblo learned how to care for horses, how to treat them and how to ride them. They also learned how to steal them.

Horses wandering off, thefts and trades soon had horses showing up in the territories of other tribes. The result was the birth of the Horse Nations, tribes such as the Navajo, Apache, Kiowa, Sioux ,and the greatest horse people of all – the Comanche.

Horses freed these people from coaxing vegetables out of parched soil and chasing bison on foot. They hunted and explored on horseback and moved their villages to better locations as needed.

Tecumseh, the celebrated Shawnee warrior and diplomat, travelled thousands of miles on horseback organizing the pan-Indian confederation aimed at stopping American takeovers of Indian land. The Americans chased and killed him in a battle along southern Ontario’s Thames River during the War of 1812-14.

The horse, an animal unknown to any North American native before the Europeans arrived, allowed tribes to hold off total colonization for decades, if not a couple of centuries.

All that, however, is a historical explanation in Wild Horse Country. The book’s main message is that the U.S. government ignores the wild horse management potential of mountain lions.

Philipps has noted the federal agriculture department killed 305 lions in 2014, gave grants to agencies that killed hundreds more while private hunters, encouraged by government bureaucracies, killed almost 3,000 lions the same year.  Had those lions not been killed and had eaten three horses each that year, there would have been almost no growth in the wild horse population.

Government initiatives continue to promote killing lions in some areas where the government also wants wild horse populations limited.

Philipps says killing fewer lions so they can eat more wild horses will restore an important balance and save taxpayers money.

In other words, let nature do its work without more human meddling.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

What if no one voted?

I’m trying to figure out whether it was a wishful dream, or a nasty nightmare. Whichever it was, I know what prompted it.

Before bedtime I had been reading opinion columns on what might happen in the June 7 Ontario provincial election. One piece, by Margaret Wente of the Toronto Globe and Mail, noted the indigestibility of the choices.

,Although I don’t always agree with her opinions, I respect Ms. Wente’s work. So I was interested to read her view that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have zero chance of being re-elected and her labelling Doug Ford as a “blustering ignoramus” who has no grasp of policy, platform or budget.

The other choice was New Democrat Andrea Horwath, who Ms. Wente wrote “plans to run gigantic deficits for years and years, until Tinker Bell arrives with magic bags of money.”

All that reading heightened my anxiety over this election, and no doubt the anxieties of voters who can’t see a palatable choice among the three major parties.

Ontario is in trouble, and has been for some time. Its manufacturing sector is evaporating, its health care system is a mess, its hydro policy is sinful and its debt load is shocking.

It is doubtful that any party will make the hard choices needed to pull the province out of its nosedive and onto the straight and level. A Sir or Lady Galahad is needed to take charge but there are no such persons on the political horizon. They exist, but they are unwilling to enter the fanatically partisan circus that politics has become.

All that was floating in my mind when I went to bed.

 When sleep took me I found myself back as a junior reporter assigned to gathering lesser aspects of the election, what is known in the news business as getting colour. I decided to visit polling stations just before closing to interview last-minute voters.

I walked into one polling station and found the place as silent and still as a cemetery. The returning officer, various polling clerks and scrutineers all sat staring at the ceiling and looking bored. There wasn’t a voter in sight.

“Pretty quiet here. The rush must be over,” I said to no one in particular.

Several officials stared at their hands, Others began to look busy.

 I walked over to the table where you check in to vote. On the table was a sheet listing the names of eligible voters in that polling district.

When a voter approaches the table to get his or her ballot, one clerk checks the person’s eligibility and hands out a ballot. The other clerk, usually holding a pen and ruler, puts a line through the voter’s name to show he or she has voted.

The sheet in front of the poll clerk had no lines drawn through any names. No one had voted all day at that polling station.

I checked other polling stations. Same result. No lines through any names. No one had voted!

I went to the polling stations of the three major party leaders. No one, including the leaders themselves, had voted.

I ran down the street, searching building after building for a telephone. This was the biggest story any reporter could hope for and I needed to call it in.

Wherever I went there were no telephones. The more I searched, the more panicked I became. It was terrifying having a massive scoop and not being able to file it to your editor!

I ran until my lungs ached. I was sweating and screaming when a ringing telephone woke me. I never thought a marketing call could make me so happy.

It took me a few minutes to return to the real world, and I began thinking about the June 7 election. What if it really happened? What if no one turned out to vote?

That seems impossible, of course, yet just the thought is scary. We already are partly there. In the last two provincial elections combined, fewer than one-half of eligible voters turned out.

Troubling as it was, my dream gave me an important realization: There are times when we dislike our voting choices, but at least we have some.