Friday, March 24, 2017

Here Are The News

I woke this morning with a head like a fermenting pumpkin, ready to explode.

No, I do not have a late winter cold. It’s just that I’m stuffed to the sinuses with unhappy news overload.

The UK is leaving the EU. Scotland is leaving the UK. The Dutch and the Turks keep yelling at each other. Bad Vlad, the new leader of the modern world, is busily sowing evil seeds in everyone else’s garden.

Forrest Trump, the nutbar president, ran out of people to insult this week so had more time to spend at his Florida golf course making America great again.

The only cure for bad news overload is to let the mind drift back to days long passed when the daily news was more fun, certainly a lot less threatening.

Many folks who collected and wrote the news back then did so outside the corridors of huge populations and power. They were a lot closer to real people living real lives.

I always enjoyed reading Margaret ‘Ma’ Murray’s (Aug. 3, 1888 – Sept. 25, 1982) writings in the Bridge River-Lillooet News from the B.C. interior. Her stuff was earthy and loaded with acid that peeled the pretentions off people who thought they were much smarter than the rest of us.

She told it like she saw it (“that’s fur damshur!”) enraging politicians and others, who often threatened her with legal actions or lickings. She rolled with the criticism saying:

“It’s a poor turkey who can’t pack a few lice.”

Then there was Edith Josie who wrote a column about life in the remote Yukon community of Old Crow, a place you’ll never hear about these days unless some calamity or tragedy occurs there.

Josie (Dec. 8, 1921–Jan. 31, 2010) was a Gwich’in whose Here Are The News column appeared in the Whitehorse Star for 40 years. It told of the comings and goings of life in the isolated village above the Arctic Circle.

She was single woman who had three children and wrote about giving birth to one.

“At 8:30 p.m. I had baby boy and he’s 6 lb. . . . . I give it to Mrs. Ellen Abel to have him for his little boy. She was very glad to have him cause he’s boy. I was in nurse station and Miss Youngs sure treat me nice. Myself and baby I  really thanks her very much for her good kindness to me.

Her writing was in broken English and ungrammatical but it gave the outside world clear pictures of life in that place, and presumably places like it.

Neither Ma Murray nor Miss Edith had much formal education. Ma left school at age 13, Miss Josie at 14. They didn’t know many rules of writing, but that did not matter. What mattered was the story.

You don’t hear many stories these days from tiny, tucked away communities like Lillooet and Old Crow. That’s a shame because the news of those places can tell us a lot about Canada and Canadians.

And these places produced stories that often brought you laughter. One of my favourites was about a famous parrot in Carcross, Yukon and was written by my talented Canadian Press colleague, Dennis Bell, who has since passed.

 “The world famous Carcross parrot is probably the oldest, meanest, ugliest, dirtiest bird north of the 60th parallel,” Bell wrote.

“He hates everybody. Which is understandable, because the damned old buzzard has resided within spitting distance of a beer parlour since 1919 and has had to endure 64 years of beer fumes, drunks who mash soggy crackers through the bars of his cage, and phantom, feather pluckers.”

Bar patrons amused themselves by feeding the parrot beer and shots of booze. Sometimes it got  so drunk it fell off its perch. But then someone taught it to sing Onward Christian Soldiers and it found religion and quit drinking.

One day in the 1970s it was found drumsticks up on its cage floor. It apparently died of old age. A public funeral was held, which included a procession down the hamlet’s main street. After the burial everyone went back to the hotel for drinks.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

'We Are Story'

Richard Wagamese completed his life journey last week, leaving behind the only thing any of us leave: his story.

It is a brilliant, inspiring story. A homeless street kid fights alcoholism and the torments of being born Indian to become one of Canada’s most important writers.

Wagamese, 61, died Friday, March 11 at his home in Kamloops where he had lived for the past 10 years. He was born at Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nation near Kenora, Ont. but was taken from his parents by the Childrens’ Aid Society and raised in foster homes.

Wabaseemong is one of the two Ojibwe aboriginal communities ravaged by health and social ills created by mercury poisoning from a pulp and paper mill.

His parents were residential school survivors deemed incapable of looking after him. When he was a teenager he took to the streets and at age 16 stumbled into a library in St. Catharines where he developed a passion for reading and began teaching himself to write.

He returned to his reserve roots at age 24 and became a journalist, landing a spot at a native newspaper in Saskatchewan. He became a columnist for the Calgary Herald, winning a National Newspaper Award in 1991.

Wagamese began writing books, achieving wide acclaim for his two most recent novels, Indian Horse and Medicine Walk. Indian Horse, the story of a residential school boy who finds hope in hockey but despair in racism, is in production as a movie.

How a tormented street kid with a Grade 9 education could teach himself to write with such powerful simplicity is both mysterious and inspirational.

Here is an example taken from Indian Horse:

“We were hockey gypsies, heading down another gravel road every weekend, plowing into the heart of that magnificent northern landscape. We never gave a thought to being deprived as we travelled, to being shut out of the regular league system. We never gave a thought to being Indian. Different. We only thought of the game and the brotherhood that bound us together . . . . We were a league of nomads, mad for the game, mad for the road, mad for ice and snow, an Arctic wind on our faces and a frozen puck on the blade of our sticks.” 

No big, showy words. No sledgehammer sentences designed to pound a judgment into readers’ heads. Just simple words evoking powerful thought. Writing that is clean and humble. Exquisite.

Wagamese was believed to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his childhood, and fought alcoholism on and off throughout his life. In 2011 he pleaded guilty to three impaired driving charges, which court was told occurred during a two-week binge. He was sentenced to house arrest and banned from driving for 10 years.

The best advice he said he ever received was from Norval Morrisseau, the Ojibwe ‘Picasso of the North,’ who told him to “work for the story’s sake.”

“When I work for the story’s sake I leave my ego at the door and the energy of the story emerges without my interference,” Wagamese once said. “. . . because me and my ego are not in the way of the story pouring outward.”

For me, the best words Wagamese ever wrote were not in one of his novels. I found them on his former website some years back, wrote them down and still keep them at my desk:

“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”

Richard Wagamese is gone, but his story is here forever. 


Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Winter-Spring Battle

There is good news and not-so-good news about the weather for Haliburton County over the next three months.

The not-so-good news: What we saw this week is likely what we’ll get for the rest of March and early April. And, what we got was a whacky mix of spring one day, deep winter the next.

Last weekend saw some of the coldest temperatures of this unusual winter. It was minus 24 degrees Celsius Saturday morning, and even a little colder Sunday morning. This week there is rain and the melt is back on, only to be followed by more winter cold.

I asked meteorologist Michael Carter at the Weather Network in Oakville what’s going on. He says wild temperature swings result from competing air masses. That happens in March with warm and cold air fighting to dominate each other.

The original people of this country had that figured out long before meteorology was a science.

The Ojibwe told stories of the earth shaking as Biboon, the old winter giant, and Ziigwaan, the strong young man of spring, would fight to overthrow each other. Ziigwaan always won eventually but sometimes the battle lasted until the arrival of Niibin, the summer.

That is what happened last year when spring, which was winning the battle in March, was pinned to the mat by well below temperatures through April and into May. People shook their heads then and asked what happened to spring?

“There are no indications of a cool spring like last year,” Michael Carter tells me. “It’s a good story overall.”

The winter-spring battle will continue for the next few weeks, but April, and especially May, will see a quick transition toward summer-like temperatures, Michael says.

There is a chance of more precipitation, however. The number of rainy days likely will not be above average, forecasters say, however, rainfalls might be heavier than usual.

Although the spring outlook is positive, we can’t count out some heavy snowfalls. There is more open water than usual and cool air over warm water can bring lake effect snow.

As of last Sunday only 11.8 per cent of the Great Lakes had ice cover, meaning more lake effect snow to come. The lack of ice also means coastal areas of the Great Lakes will see an earlier spring warm-up.

Although temperatures are forecast to be below normal for the next week to 10 days, it has been a relatively mild winter. As far as I can tell, the temperature not factoring in wind chill, did not hit minus 30 once. The coldest day this winter was Jan. 7 when the low was minus 29.5.

By my count there were only 16 days between Dec. 1 and March 6 when the low temperature sank below minus 20. During the same period last winter there were 24 days below minus 20, six of them below minus 30 and one below minus 40.

Snowfall so far has been about 250 centimetres, which is about average.

I have collected this data from a mystery weather site called Haliburton 3, which lists its location at  Latitude 45°01'56.094" N and Longitude 78°31'52.014" W. On my map that’s somewhere on the south side of Haliburton Village.

I call it a mystery site because I can’t find out much about it. It is an Environment Canada site on the Internet, found by searching for Haliburton 3.

The site does not give current weather and lists only historical data like how much snow/rain fell and what the temperatures were on days past.

I have asked Environment Canada several times to tell me about Haliburton 3. They tell me to contact the severe weather department. Neither the site, nor my request, has anything to do with severe weather. Follow-up messages have not been answered.

It is the only site I know that every day measures and records Haliburton County daily snow- and rainfalls, high, low and mean temperatures and snow depth on the ground. It is an interesting and valuable site for anyone following the weather.

I just don’t know who is doing all that valuable measuring and recording and would love to know more about it. If anyone reading this knows, give me a shout.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Walls or Reservoirs?

When you’ve lived much of your life in snow country, grossly swelling snow banks are no big deal. Certainly nothing to worry about.

Last week, surrounded by snow banks towering 12 to 14 feet high and growing, I began to worry.


I was visiting our daughter and her family in California and accompanied them up to ski country for President’s Day Weekend (some called it Not My President’s Day weekend). The snow appeared at the 6,000-foot level and farther up we entered a world of white passageways cut through towering mountains of snow.

I have never seen snow like that. Driveways into chalets were tunnel-like with snow banks more than twice the height of our car. Snow blocked the view from my bedroom window, located on the second floor.

Throughout the village, tractor snow blowers wheezed diesel exhaust as they chewed and spit streams of snow to keep the passages clear.

On President’s Day Monday ski families scampered to pack up their gear and get down the mountains in case the highway closed. The forecast called for as much as another five feet to fall over 24 hours.

That area, Sugar Bowl ski resort near Truckee, California, gets an average of 500 inches of snow a year. That’s roughly 42 feet, or 13 metres. By Feb. 20, the day we left, it had received about 360 inches (30 feet) with much more expected.

Haliburton County gets an average of roughly 280 centimetres (nine feet) of snow each year. We are close to that this winter with about 250 centimetres up to the start of this week.

Walking the snow-drowned village was scary. Street signs had disappeared beneath the snow. It was difficult to tell directions and easy to become lost in the maze of snow passageways.

The deep snow was welcome news for Californians. The state has just been through its most severe drought in modern history. A drought state of emergency was declared by the governor in January 2014. Water use was restricted by 25 per cent and as much as 50 per cent in some places.

The Sierra Nevada mountains supply 30 per cent of California’s water, so this year’s heavy snowfalls are being cheered by more people than just the skiers. But there is another part of the story, one that should cause everyone to pause the cheering and think about the future.

When the mountain snowpack melts, much of the water it produces will flow out to the Pacific Ocean, never to help quench California’s thirst.

The state has not built any new reservoir infrastructure in 35 years. This winter’s  drought-ending rains have replenished existing reservoirs, some of which are full and have begun dumping water.

The huge Lake Oroville reservoir in northern California was drained partially  when its dam threatened to give way and flood populated areas. Two hundred thousand people were evacuated from the area but were allowed to return when the dam was reinforced.

So California is throwing out water while waiting for the next severe drought. And more droughts will occur. They are a recurring feature of California’s climate, but appear to becoming more severe.

Major droughts have occurred in 1929-1934, 1976-1977, 1987-1992, 2007-2009 and 2012-2016. 

These dry periods hurt people, and the economy. They suck huge sums of money out of government, change ecosystems and wildlife patterns and are devastating to agriculture and the people who work in food production.

More than one-third of the United States’ vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruit and nuts are grown in California. The state’s farm sales were $54 billion in 2014, a significant industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people.

To keep that going, the state must have water. And more reservoirs are needed to store that precious mountain snowmelt and other water from being wasted.

After the weekend ski trip we returned to the San Francisco Bay area and watched the rain wash down the hillsides and pour into the ocean, causing flash flooding in some areas.

As I watched I wondered: If I lived here would I want $30 billion spent on wall to hold back people seeking a better life, or more infrastructure to better manage water, which is the source of all life?


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