Thursday, November 12, 2020

When Trust is Lost

From Shaman’s Rock
By Jim Poling Sr.

It seems that you can’t trust anyone or anything these days. And, that has become a serious, but much overlooked problem for our so-called civilized society.

A recent Pew Research Centre survey showed that only 20 per cent of adults in the United States trust the federal government to do the right thing. The survey shows Americans also have a declining trust in each other.

Some people blame declining trust on the Trump presidency, but it predates all the lies, misinformation, disinformation and deceptions of that administration.

In Canada, trust in government actually has risen dramatically this year. One survey, from the Edelman public relations firm, showed that 70 per cent of Canadians surveyed trust government during the pandemic.

The survey showed that 73 per cent of respondents agreed with government decisions to restrict people’s movements during the pandemic.

Polls often show that only 50 per cent of Canadians trust the institution of government and its decisions.

As recently as last year an Edelman survey showed government ranked last among four institutional categories – the others being business, media, and non-government organizations. The pandemic put government firmly in first place.

“. . . Clearly, our political leaders are doing something right in fighting this pandemic,” said Lisa Kimmel, head of Edelman’s Canadian operations.

No matter what the polls show about trust and the pandemic, I believe most of us would say we Canadians have seen a general decline in trust, much like the Americans have.

Declining trust actually could, and probably is already, allowing the pandemic to spread more.

“Citizens expect democratic governments to be responsive to their health concerns,” says Orkun Saja, co-author of a European bank study that says young adults who endure a pandemic tend to be more distrustful of governments for the rest of their lives.

“And where the public sector response is not sufficient to head off the epidemic, they revise their views in unfavourable ways.”

The really bad news is that the pandemic likely will leave us with many psychological scars, including the declining lack of trust, for a long time to come.

The pandemic and the ensuing recession likely will see us all unwilling to resume previous spending and savings patterns. Experience with one recession makes people very sensitive to the possibility of another.

An overall decline in trust is becoming a serious concern for some people.
One of those is Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and unsuccessful candidate to become the Democratic presidential hopeful.

Buttigieg has just released a new book titled Trust. America’s Best Chance. Buttigieg is not only a good speaker, he’s a pretty good writer.

He writes that a General Social Survey has revealed that between 1972 and 2012 the percentage of people who say that most people can be trusted fell from 46 per cent to 32 per cent.

That, of course, was even before the Trump era.

He says that this decline in trust is not part of some natural ebb and flow, but a dramatic change over a specific period.

“It amounts to a genuine and historic emergency . . . . And the better we can understand the toxic roots of this crisis, the better chance we have if addressing it.”

I agree with Buttigieg on this because the opposite of trust is distrust, which really is a club we use in self-defence.

We must have high levels of trust to have healthy, functioning societies.

One of the recent studies on the decline of trust has an interesting quote from Mark Schmitt, director of New America’s Political Reform Program: “Poor performance leads to deeper distrust, in turn leaving government in the hands of those with the least respect for it.”

But the best quote on trust comes from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Anyone who has been burned in the past is not likely to put full stock in that quote.

As Ronald Reagan, U.S. president and movie star, once said: “Trust but verify.”

And, from Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator: “I trust no one, not even myself.”

Well he didn’t exactly run a healthy, functioning society. And trust is indispensable for that. 

Read From Shaman’s Rock:

Trees that say when autumn is done

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

Still six weeks to go before the calendar says that autumn is over. But the calendar doesn’t have to click over to Dec. 21 to tell me that. 

Tamaracks, non-conformists in our northern forests, tell me when fall is done. When their soft green needles turn golden yellow, then light brown, I know that the last, tough resistors to winter have accepted that change is here.

Also known as larch, the tamarack is the toughest tree in the forest, in my humble opinion. Some might vote for the oak, but oaks grow tall and heavy and often lean toward the sun, leaving them susceptible to wind damage.

The tamarack is a trim, small to medium tree growing to a height of 10 to 20 metres, smaller the farther north they appear. It has a slim, conical figure with a narrow trunk. 

The most unusual thing about tamaracks is that they are what you might call biracial. They are both deciduous - broad-leaf trees that shed their leaves annually - and coniferous, commonly called evergreens.

The tamarack is an evergreen, except when it’s not. It is not late in the fall when its needles turn color and fall, leaving the tree dark gray and barren, in sharp contrast to its neighbouring evergreens. 

Some other evergreens do drop their needles, but gradually and not so noticeably. White pine, for instance, shed some needles every two or three years, while spruce do it every three to five years,

Although it is different - an oddball among evergreens - the tamarack lives free of the harassment humans often suffer if they tend to be different. It is not mocked or called ugly names. It is not prohibited from occupying spaces or doing things that other evergreens do.

Tamarack is classified as a softwood, as other evergreens are, but it is probably the hardest, and most useful, of the softwoods. It is strong and long-lasting, yet flexible in thin strips.

The indigenous people were quick to figure that out, using flexible but durable tamarack strips for snowshoe frames. They also used tamarack wood, roots and twigs in building canoes and toboggans.

The Cree used tamarack twigs in making goose decoys, a practice that has become an art form. 

The tree also was an important source of medicine for indigenous people. They used its inner and outer bark to treat everything from wounds, frostbite and hemorrhoids to colds, arthritis and various aches and pains.

They passed all that knowledge along to European settlers who made significant use of the rot-resistant wood. The newcomers used tamarack poles as fence posts, railroad ties and to build corduroy roads.

It also was used tamarack wood in horse stables because it resisted abrasion and kicking damage.

It never was, and still isn’t, a major commercial timber species. It is harvested mainly as pulpwood, which is used to make paper, cardboard and various types of fibreboard. It also is used for poles, posts and general rough lumber.

Tamaracks also are well used by wildlife. Birds love the small seeds found inside the tree’s cones. So do squirrels and mice. Porcupines love the bark.

Tamaracks are not easily distinguishable during the summer. They hang out with black spruce and other evergreens and you have to get close enough to see their narrow trunks and the slender and short needles that grow in soft clusters of 15 to 20.

They are more identifiable, if you look closely, in early spring. Bright new needles appear in blue-green clusters that deepen in colour as summer progresses. The tamaracks also provide other spring beauty when their tiny, egg-shaped cones, retained throughout the winter, appear yellow and reddish or maroon.

But the tamaracks really come into their own in autumn, offering late season elegance when other leaves have fallen or have turned a wrinkled brown. They provide us a last touch of nature’s beauty in a bleakness about to be overcome by winter’s whiteness.

That golden elegance has been fading fast in the last few days. But it’s been wonderful to have as a finale to what has been a pretty fine year for fall colours.



Wednesday, October 28, 2020

New Effort to Sell Frost Centre Lands

It’s official. The For Sale sign is up at the Frost Centre on Highway 35 just south of Dorset.

Workers were out early last Saturday morning assembling a huge sign offering the 40-acre historic site as available to buy. The property is listed by the CRBE (Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis) Group, a worldwide commercial real estate company.

A check of various CBRE websites did not reveal any listing details, like price and conditions, but perhaps they are still being drawn up.

The Frost Centre lands, and presumably its dozen or more empty and rotting buildings, apparently have been for sale for the last decade. But this is the first time, apparently, that the property has been listed with a real estate company that will work actively to find a buyer.

I say apparently because the Ontario government never has told taxpayers, who have paid hundreds of thousands of hard-earned tax dollars to keep the empty places heated and lighted while its exterior rots, much about what is happening.

For example, as a working journalist I asked Laurie Scott’s office twice over the last two months for information on what is happening with the Frost Centre lands. I have never had the courtesy of a reply. 

Also, a friend who is a taxpayer on St. Nora Lake where the Centre is located, has asked Scott’s office for information. No reply.

Scott is MPP for the area, as well as the cabinet minister responsible for dealing with the Frost Centre.

A major worry of many people is what a new owner will do with the Frost Centre. They worry that it might become another party palace resort (hello Trump International!) destroying yet another natural and heritage resource.

There is no need for weeping and gnashing of teeth over what might happen to the hiking and canoe/kayak trails on the Frost lands. Carol Moffatt, mayor of Algonquin Highlands Township, tells me the township has a long-term agreement with the province that allows it to operate its trails system.

The overall Frost Centre area is huge, covering roughly 26,000 hectares stretching far east and northeast toward Algonquin Park. The 40 acres up for sale were severed from the larger package some years back and cover the area surrounding the buildings on Highway 35. 

The province apparently is trying to do something to protect heritage and natural resource aspects of the Frost Centre. Again, ‘apparently’ because the government has not told us what those protections might be and how it intends to see that they are accepted and observed by any buyer.

Exchanges of property can include heritage and conservation easements, which legally bind a new owner to maintain and protect the heritage and conservation aspects of the property.

Mayor Moffatt said she believes there are heritage easements on parts of some of the buildings, but does not have the details.

That is interesting because it could mean that the easements would prevent a buyer from bulldozing all the buildings to put up a sky-piercing resort and marina.

However, there are ways around easements. For instance, a building with a heritage-protected fireplace used to warm Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, could be demolished if the fireplace was left standing and incorporated into the new building. It could be incorporated into a barroom or a pantry and still satisfy the easement.  

So, the 40-acre Frost Centre site on St. Nora Lake might undergo dramatic change, but at least Algonquin Highland’s terrific trail and camping system will continue. It has been increasingly popular this year as more people seek distance from the Covid pandemic. 

The tragedy of the Frost Centre is that it likely never again will be what it once was for the people of Ontario – a natural resources centre offering education and experience in understanding nature and how we should live as a part of it. 

Leslie Frost, the Ontario premier for whom the Frost Centre was named, felt strongly about the importance of education in understanding and protecting our natural environment.

“The government believes that the best approach to the conservation and administration of our natural resources is to be found in education,” he once said.

 Good words, unfortunately not taken to heart by his successors.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

When the red, red . . .

 Now you see them, now you don’t. 

The robins were everywhere until recently. Listening and pecking for worms beside the house. Flitting branch to branch back in the woods as they searched for any remaining mountain ash or other berries. 

Hardly a day would pass without seeing several or more. Now there is none to be found.

 Some say the disappearance of the robins foretells an early winter. When they sense snow and cold moving in, they move out.  I’m not sure that is totally accurate. 

Although robins are considered migratory birds I think of them as nomads. They don’t follow the consistent north-in-spring, south-in-autumn paths of most birds. They wander off track stopping wherever they find food. 

That’s why I was seeing so many of them earlier this month. Rains and morning dew brought out the worms, and there were still some berries left on bushes. Colder temperatures and some frost have changed that, so the robins have moved on to find more profitable locations. 

Many people see robins as delicate, pretty little birds that travel south early to avoid dying in the cold. However, they are tough birds who are being seen more often in northern regions during winter. 

Their outer feathers block wind and snow, while softer downy inside feathers provide insulation that helps them maintain their body temperature, which is 104 Fahrenheit. 

Project FeederWatch, a research project gathering data on winter bird populations, has reported that more robins are hanging around later in northern regions.   

It said that during the 2015-16 winter robins visited 11 per cent of winter backyard feeders in northern parts of Canada and in Alaska. That compared with only six per cent of winter visitations in 1989-90. 

One of the reasons could be climate change, and the fact that Canadian winter temperatures have been getting milder over recent decades. Urban landscaping might be another reason why more robins are being seen later in the year. 

Fruit trees and berry-producing shrubs and bushes have become popular with people  landscaping their town and city homes. Robins are mainly fruit eaters in winter, so if there is more of it to be found in built-up areas, they will be there. 

Robins originally were a forest species but they have adapted well to a changing landscape, which has seen forests shrinking and urban areas expanding. 

Many of us see robins as fairly solitary birds, hopping about alone, or sometimes with a mate. But serious bird watchers say that they tend to flock during the fall months. In southern areas they have been seen in flocks of hundreds. 

Flocking gives robins more eyes and ears to find food and some extra warmth if they crowd together in trees. 

Being in a crowd also offers some protection from predators. Although it is hard to imagine anything wanted to hurt these friendly songbirds, they have enemies, including crows, jays, hawks and a variety of other aggressive birds. 

Robins don’t seem to fear humans, although they are cautious and will attack if someone approaches their nest, especially if it contains babies. They have been known to come close to humans exposing worms when the dig in a garden or water a lawn. 

They do pose an indirect threat to humans because they are carriers of West Nile virus. 

Other West Nile carriers such as crows and jays die quickly from the virus, but robins survive it longer, therefore passing it along to more mosquitoes, which can infect humans. 

The robin also is an impostor, although not through its own fault. It is named the American Robin, but in fact is not a robin at all. It is a thrush and has no relation to the European Robin. 

Early American settlers who first encountered the bird called it a robin because of its reddish breast, which was similar to the European Robin commonly called Robin Red Breast in England. Other than that, there is little resemblance to the European bird, which is a member of the flycatcher family. 

If climate change does bring more milder winters we may see more robins during the winter months. That’s a good thing because there are few birds that provide as much pleasure with their vast repertoires of song.  


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Stand tall. Stand firm

 Young people are getting much of the blame for the soaring number of infections in what is being called the second wave of Covid-19.

You know, the private house parties, those crazy car rally gatherings, the eating out and flocking to the bars. Ignoring all the advice about avoiding large gatherings, social distancing and wearing masks.

I wonder if the young would act more responsibly if the rest of us older, so-called full-blown adults were setting a better example for them.

More than 31,000 young Canadians age 20 to 29 had contracted Covid-19 as of the end of last week, according to federal government figures. That’s 18 per cent of the total 178,000 cases reported across the country.

However, the statistics show that despite a high number of infections, few people 20 to 29 get seriously ill from the virus. Since last February only 309 people in that age category have been hospitalized across the country. Only 149 have ended up in Intensive Care Units, and 11 have died. Total Canadian deaths now are approaching 10,000.

So, no great danger, no great fear. Many older folks say the young are being irresponsible because, although their risk of getting very sick is small, they can infect others who can become deadly ill.

If we are going to criticize the young, we need to think about what kind of example we have been setting for them.

Consider the case of Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the prestigious Notre Dame University in Indiana.

Jenkins, a well-educated Catholic priest, ignored his university’s Covid protocols when he attended a White House gathering announcing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Barrett is a Notre Dame graduate and a member of its faculty.

Notre Dame requires all its students and staff to wear masks and observe physical distancing.

Jenkins attended the White House event without wearing a mask and did not observe physical distancing. In fact, he shook hands with several people. He was one of at least a dozen people who tested positive for Covid after attending that event.

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame students to pick up on Jenkin’s irresponsibility. There were calls for his resignation and discussion of a ‘no confidence’ motion among faculty.

Jenkins has been highly embarrassed and apologetic.

“I failed to lead by example, at a time when I’ve asked everyone else in the Notre Dame community to do so,” he wrote in a letter to university students and staff. “I especially regret my mistake in light of the sacrifices made on a daily basis by many, particularly our students, in adjusting their lives to observe our health protocols.”

The tragedy of Jenkins is that he allowed himself to be sucked into the weak-willed crowd around him. Many of the people at the event were allies of a U.S. president who has mocked the wearing of masks.

Wearing a mask at that event would make anyone stand out as someone opposed to the group think; someone open to mockery.

Real leadership is about standing tall and firm in your beliefs, no matter how large or powerful the opposing group surrounding you. Jenkins obviously failed to do that.

He is not alone. Many of us will back off from Covid protocols because we don’t want to appear rigid or fanatical.

It’s not easy to tell someone NO! when they start to enter your elevator without a mask. Or, when someone decides to speak to you from a distance of two or three feet.

But all of us need to be firm if we are ever to get out from under this terrible virus. You have to be brain dead not to see and understand that relaxing Covid protocols has resulted in an explosion of second wave infections throughout the world.

If all of us stood firm in observing Covid protocols we would set an example that the young, and others, would find hard to ignore.

Humans don’t learn from being blamed and yelled at. We learn from example.

We don’t have a vaccine, or proven, readily available drugs to prevent or knock down the virus. But we should have the intelligence to be setting a good example.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Welcome to October, a nice month with a reputation for pre-winter fun gatherings, fall beauty and okay weather.

This October is different. Octoberfests are out. Crowded Thanksgiving dinners are not recommended. Hallowe’en is looking to be the night of the empty streets, and that’s really scary.

The second Covid-19 wave has arrived, carrying in its wake the fears and social restrictions that we experienced during the initial outbreak of late last winter and early spring.

New cases are rising throughout much of the world. Ontario had two record-breaking days of new cases last week and Quebec’s new cases increased steadily, reaching more than 1,000 in 24 hours late last week.

October never has been a good news month for health. Temperature swings bring on colds and flu season. Ailments like sinusitis and arthritis are more prominent. Allergies increase misery as they take their last desperate gasps before winter.

Also, the American Heart Association says there are complications for those with heart problems as our bodies work to adapt to lower temperatures, icy rains and cold winds.

Add to that a Columbia University study of New York city health records showing that people born in October have increased disease risk.

One of the deadliest disease months in history was October 1918, the year of the Spanish flu pandemic. In the United States roughly 200,000 people died of the flu in the 31 days of October.

All dark news indeed. Plus, the expectation that Covid cases and deaths, and all the madness that comes with them, will increase even more before October ends.

But let’s not focus on the darkness. Remember that old saying: It is always darkest before the dawn.

There are glimmers of light. Every single day the medical community learns more about this virus - how to lessen its spread, how to treat it and how to make it less deadly.

Last week scientists studying Covid cases in India reported that eight per cent of people carrying the virus were responsible for 60 per cent of all new infections. On the flip side, 71 per cent of people with Covid-19 did not spread it to anyone else.

That is encouraging news because our chances of encountering it are less than first feared, if we follow the advice delivered regularly by the medical community: Avoid people, keep your distance from those you can’t avoid, do not meet in enclosed places or tight groups and wear a mask.

After eight months of this everyone is exhausted. Exhausted from worry. Exhausted from working to maintain some necessary normalcy without creating more opportunities for the virus to spread and further damage our lives.

Exhausted from thinking about what can be done to help the front-line workers, put at risk every day, and the business owners and others suffering disastrous income losses.

No matter the exhaustion, remember that dawn will crack the darkness, providing the light needed to illuminate the lessons we need to follow for rebuilding better lives.

A key lesson is to shut up and listen. Listen to the medical experts who deal in scientific facts and know that injecting politics into a life crisis is really bad medicine. Ignore the politicians, who need to talk less and spend their time designing non-partisan policies helpful to everyone.

Especially ignore the social media goonies and the unintelligentia who say their rights are more important than a nation’s health.

Ignore also the United States, which no longer has anything positive to offer about building a strong, better society for the future. It is a country of self-serving individuals, while Canada is a society of communities looking out for others.

While waiting for the darkness to recede completely we can enjoy thinking about all the good things that will return when the light appears and the darkness is gone. Like the joy of walking up to someone, asking them how they are and giving them a hug.

This October will bring not only some gloom and unhappiness, but expectations of good things to come. The October winds and rains now taking down those beautiful leaves of autumn also are blowing away the craziness of the Covid-19 pandemic, and all the madness of the year 2020.

Read From Shaman’s Rock:

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Only individual passion can save the planet?

“All the rainbows in the sky

Start to weep, then say goodbye
You won't be seeing rainbows any more . . . .”

I was listening to those lyrics when I opened a newspaper to a shocking new United Nations report on the state of nature. The lyrics are from Roy Orbison’s 1964 rock ballad ‘It’s Over.’

When I finished reading the UN report I feared Orbison was right – it is over. We are well on the way to having destroyed our planet. 

I admit that listening to Orbison can cause someone to view the world darkly. His music often was dark, sad and lonely, much like the singer himself. 

Orbison had reason to be sad. His first wife, whom he divorced because of her infidelity then remarried her, died in a motorcycle accident. A couple of years later two of his sons died in a house fire. 

For all his troubles, Orbison did not have to worry about pollution and climate change destroying the world. They were not big issues back then. 

They are now and the just-released UN report - Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 – says that in the past 10 years the world has not fully met a single target to slow the destruction of wildlife and life-sustaining ecosystems. 

Twenty targets to reduce pressures on our natural world were agreed to by 193 countries meeting in Japan in 2010 for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Despite some progress, says the report, a large number of species are threatened, natural habitats continue to disappear and governments still offer hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies that allow environmental damage. 

Also, the Living Planet Report 2020, produced by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London, reported that earth’s wildlife populations have declined dramatically because of human overconsumption. 

There was an average 68-per-cent decrease in mammal, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish populations between 1970 and 2016, said the report. 

It adds that nature is declining at a rate unprecedented in millions of years. Deforestation and conversion of wild lands for agriculture were cited as two main reasons. 

The way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model, has pushed the natural world to its limits,” Marco Lambertini, WWF director general, writes in the foreword to the report. 

All this has led to humanity at a crossroads, says Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the UN’s biodiversity head. It’s a crossroads that will decide how future generations experience nature.

“Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised,” she says. “And the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own well-being, security and prosperity.” 

What is needed urgently, says the Living Planet report, is a deep cultural and systemic shift to a society and economic system that stop taking nature for granted and “recognises that we depend on nature more than nature depends on us.” 

The countries signed on to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity are supposed to meet next May in China to finalize targets for the current decade. 

The meetings continue, the targets get set and the reports flow, but little changes. 

Real progress is hampered by the bureaucratic blob that feeds off slow-moving governments and institutions like the UN. 

The changes needed are to our lifestyles and they won’t come about quickly through government and its bureaucracies. They will happen if people passionately want them to happen and begin taking individual actions that lead to group action. 

Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist prominent in the 1960s-70s, had that figured out long ago. 

“Never ever depend on governments or institutions to solve any major problems,” she said. “All social change comes from the passion of individuals.” 

The recent reports are depressing enough to put Orbison’s ‘It’s Over’ on replay. 

However, another report, released this month by Newcastle University and BirdLife International, says 28 bird and mammal extinctions have been prevented by conservation efforts in the last 27 years. 

Hopefully Margaret Mead’s faith in individual passion will be proven out and more extinctions will be prevented as people decide it is time to become stewards of nature, instead of simple users.