Thursday, October 19, 2017

To Catch A Litterpig

“We’ve got a good one,” Scully calls out.

She holds it up, examining it carefully before dropping it into a plastic evidence bag.

“It’s recent,” she says, “maybe this morning.”

“Perfect,” I reply. “No frost last night or even heavy dew. We should get what we need  from it.”

Scully grins, smile creases forming around her deep blue eyes, which match the colour of her blue latex lab gloves.

I am lucky to have her as my partner, seconded from the X Files. Fox Mulder, her weird regular sidekick, is not happy but he can live without her because our work here is more important than investigating supernatural stuff.

We are working the stretch of Highway 35 between Minden and Dorset, one of the most heavily littered pieces of highway in the province. Our mission: catch litterpigs and make them pay for their stupidity.

What Scully bagged was a Coke can tossed out the window of a passing car. Advancements in DNA and fingerprinting could lead us to the person who pitched the litter and bring them to justice.

I had walked 696 steps on one side of the highway just south of the Frost Centre. I found 27 beer or pop cans, 13 plastic water bottles and coffee cups, nine juice boxes, five cigarette packs and a variety of plastic containers, and other confection cartons. In all, 63 items, one piece of garbage for every 20 steps.

Tossing crap onto roadsides is environmental crime and Scully and I are determined to stop it. We have to because no one else will. The Ontario government has no anti-littering strategy, and says that roadside litter is a municipal responsibility.

That is short-sighted because littering is a slap in Mother Nature’s face, one that damages plant life, hurts birds, fish and animals and stains the beauty of our countryside. And, Mother Nature slaps back. Just ask the folks in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and California.

Litterpigs are not your typical don’t-give-a-damn hardened criminals. They are simply slow thinkers. Many litter because they wrongly believe that litter breaks down much quicker than it actually does.

An aluminum pop can take 80 to 200 years to break down. That can could be recycled and put to another use in a matter of weeks.

Cigarette butt filters, the world’s most common litter, take up to 10 years to decompose.  
Five trillion cigarettes are smoked each year worldwide, the filters of which weigh in total about two billion pounds. Canadians alone toss tons of butts into the environment.

Even a Tim Horton’s cardboard coffee cup, a most popular piece of litter in Ontario, takes weeks to years to break down depending on where it ends up.

Decomposition times of some other items found along Highway 35: paper bag - one month; wool glove - one year; plastic bag – 20 to 1,000 years; plastic jug – one million years; glass – one to two million years;  disposable diaper – 550 years; banana peel – three to four weeks.

Most of us are tempted to litter at times, especially if we are not being watched. Statistics Brain, a U.S. research institute, says 75 per cent of Americans admitted to littering some time in the last five years.

Littering begets littering. Studies show that people are more likely to litter a highway or beach that already has been littered.

Scully and I intend to stop that from happening on Highway 35.

Backs bent and heads down we are raking the ditches with our eyes when suddenly an odd-sounding car horn blares. I grab Scully and pull her to me to prevent her from being hit.

When I open my eyes I am holding my bed pillow, not Scully. The alarm clock is blaring on the table beside my bed. Scully, the Coke can and the hopes of nailing a litterpig all have been a dream.

I get out of bed, shower, dress and get ready for my morning walk along Highway 35. I’ll scan the ditches to see what the litterpigs have left since my last walk. That’s when reality turns my nighttime sweet dream into a daytime nightmare.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Trouble in Bahteh Wallow

Bahteh Wallow was a democratic society founded on the idea that all animals are created equal. It had evolved from a revolution and a civil war as a homeland for elephants, but other species were welcomed.

Immigrants from far off came to Bahteh for a better life in which animals of different shapes, sizes and colours might live in harmony under a guarantee of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Bahteh was not a perfect society but it was admired and respected. It grew into a leader among global communities and its advice and generous aid were sought by many.

As time passed it became apparent that the principles on which Bahteh was built were not as easy to sustain as its founders believed. Differences in beliefs and social status widened, creating rumblings of discontent. The rumblings warned of an approaching storm.

There was no single reason for the growing discontent. Some blamed immigration, saying that different animals brought differences that disrupted the structure and culture of the traditional society. Immigrants were blamed for robberies and rapes and there were calls to block them from entering Bahteh.

Others cited ascending communities that exhibited growth and strength and were taking away from Bahteh’s influence in trade. They said Bahteh should withdraw from the world, adopt protectionism, and focus on making itself great.

Also, Bahteh’s climate was changing, resulting in more wildfires, floods in some areas, droughts in others. Arguments broke out between those demanding more environmental protection and those who said environmental rules were ridiculous and killing prosperity.

As a global leader, Bahteh often became tangled in conflicts in distant places. Its youth were sent to fight in communities that did not fit the pattern of Bahteh’s success.

However, it had not won any of those wars in more than 60 years. Some Bahtehans saw that as a embarrassment and a humiliating loss of influence.

So it was a combination of factors that made Bahteh an increasingly unhappy place. Unhappiness soured the social order, turning it more aggressive and less tolerant.

The young complained that no matter how hard they worked, their lives were not as good as those of their parents. They believed their future to be bleak.

Older, conservative Bahtehans were especially annoyed with the way the society had changed. They said it had become soft, liberal and too tolerant.

Some elephants sought comfort and escape by chewing hallucinogenic grasses and leaves that grew nearby. Community leaders encouraged the practice and changed laws, making hallucinogens legal, and taxable.

It started as recreational dosing but soon Bahteh was fighting a full blown drug epidemic. Elephants were found passed out under the trees, many dead from overdoses. Families broke up, crime increased and there was a general breakdown of society.

Some of the older bulls said Bahteh needed to toughen its approach to governing. It had become too dependent on a matriarchal approach in which governing was done by consensus. It needed to return to the patriarchal approach, which was governing through power.

They found a leader, a wealthy old bull named Mazeka, who promised to make Bahteh great again.  Mazeka trumpeted against everything Bahteh had stood for in the past.

He promised to drive out the immigrants, tighten Bahteh’s borders, tear up treaties with other communities and stop environmental and social improvements at home.

Bahteh society became more disordered and divided than ever before. Mazeka’s trumpeting sparked arguments that caused stampedes in which reasoned debate was trampled into the dust.

Many began to fear they were witnessing the most dreaded occurrence in elephant society – an old male gone rogue. That happened when an elephant broke away from the society’s norms and became excessively aggressive and violent. A rogue often stampeded others, creating chaos and destruction.

An intense debate developed over what to do about Mazeka. Would it be best to drive him out or try to live with him and his erratic ways? Either choice could have  dangerous consequences.

Meanwhile, other communities around the world watched nervously, waiting and  wondering whether Bahteh Wallow would collapse under another civil war or another revolution.

Read From Shaman’s

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A tree dies in Haliburton

 An old and dear friend at the lake passed away this autumn.

Our grand sugar maple, the signature tree of our lake property, became too sick to save and had to be taken down.

It was a glorious tree, with a trunk six feet in circumference, and just over two feet in diameter. I won’t know its age until we cut the stump closer to the ground and count the growth rings. Sugar maples can live 200 years or more.

I noticed that the tree was not quite right early in the summer. Its leaves were well formed but stunted. By early fall they still had not grown to full size.

Summer was a washout, much rain and little sunshine and warmth. So I thought maybe that was the reason the leaves were not growing, even though those on other trees had reached maturity.

Then I noticed a scabby area near the ground. Poking around with my fingers revealed a large area of rot.

I called in Josh Burk of ArborView Tree Care who confirmed the tree was sick and would not recover.

I wanted to let it stand as long as possible but it was a 40-to-50 foot tree and if it came down in storm it would hit a building, or land heavily on the septic field. So, sad as it was, it had to come down, in pieces.

That old maple was an important part of life at the lake. It sheltered us as we cooked, ate and slept while clearing the lot for a building more than 30 years ago. Later, it shaded the south side of the cottage from the afternoon sun and protected it from snow and rain.

Children played games beneath it and one spring we tapped it to show them how its sap could be turned to maple syrup.

And of course at this time of year it provided a beauty pageant with leaves turning pale yellow, then orangey, then brilliant scarlet.

It was a larger-than-life example of how trees are givers rather than takers and why they are critical to life on our planet.

Trees are the largest plants and the longest living species on earth. The benefits they provide are extensive.

To begin with, trees absorb carbon dioxide, an important factor in climate change, and they give off life-giving oxygen. It is estimated that one large tree can supply oxygen enough for four people for one day.

Trees are earth’s most important pollution filters. It is believed that a large tree canopy removes up to 1.7 kilograms of dust and other pollutants every year.

They filter the soil as well as the air, absorbing chemicals and sewage with their roots. Their large root networks are important in slowing flash flooding and erosion. That’s why some governments forbid the cutting of live trees along lake shorelines.

Tree canopies reduce wind and lower temperatures. They also absorb sound, lessening noise from road traffic and generally reducing noise pollution by as much as 40 per cent.

They are good for human health. Research shows that being among trees lowers blood pressure and slows the heart rate.

They supply us with many material goods. They provide fruit and flowers, fuel for cooking and heating and lumber for building.

The giving nature of trees is illustrated exceptionally well in The Giving Tree, a 1964 children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein. Early on the Giving Tree provides a boy with a place to climb and play. Later it gives him apples, then wood for a variety of building projects.

When the boy becomes an old man, the tree has given him everything until it has been reduced to a stump. Even then it still gives – the stump providing a seat on which the old man can sit and rest.

The Giving Tree is one of the most popular books in the history of children’s literature, and one of the most controversial. The controversy relates to whether the relationship between the boy and the tree is about selfless love, or an abusive relationship.

It is a silly controversy. All I know is that trees are good and that I am going to miss our old sugar maple.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Ma Bell and Me

In the beginning there was none. No television. No electronics.

The lake itself was the entertainment. Swimming in it, canoeing on it, fishing it or just sitting by it listening to loon calls float across its surface.

Just us, the lake and the pleasures of the woods around it.

Then it came. That first piece of electronic wizardry – the television set.

It was a small black box donated by a family member. It had a 12-inch screen and a single pull-out antenna that delivered ghostly shapes moving in electronic mist and snow.

I got it a pair of rabbit ears to boost its draw power enough to provide adequate black and white images and reasonably static-free audio.

That television was not allowed to be part of the cottage furnishings. It lived in a closet, unplugged from any electrical outlets that could bring it to life.

It was only an occasional visitor, pulled out of its closet on special occasions. Major sports events like the Stanley Cup playoffs, the World Series of baseball or the Superbowl. And, of course, major news events like the death of Princess Diana.

It died one day and was replaced by another castoff, a big box tube set the size of a bank vault. It took four people to carry it. It was too heavy to move in and out of the closet so we placed it in the living area where it became a cottage fixture.

It didn’t get many channels so was not used much more than its predecessor. That changed after a visit to a spring Cottage Life Show.

Ma Bell was at the show and offering a sweet deal. She would set you up with satellite TV service at your home and your cottage for the monthly price of one service.

No longer would you have to lug the satellite box from home to the cottage and back to avoid paying for two services. It was irresistible and I succumbed.

The old, chunky TV was not compatible for satellite so another family member donated a wide-screen set being discarded because at 40 inches it was considered too small and outdated. The trend in the city was for sets with screens the size of a tractor-trailer.

That would be the limit of digital electronic intrusions at the lake. Or, so I thought.

Then came the Internet. It made sense. If work could be done over the Internet at the lake, more time could be spent at the lake.

With the Internet came the laptops, the tablets, and those ubiquitous smart phones.

Those machines swallow huge amounts of insanely expensive data. Someone suggested getting WiFi. It would provide more data time and better TV options.

So in came the WiFi box and yet another monthly ransom payment to Ma Bell. Her monthly take became the size of a new car payment.

I decided enough was enough. I unplugged the WiFi box and put it in the closet where the little black television had lived.

Then I called Ma. I explained that I was paying her too much and needed to reduce the monthly bill. We talked for quite a while, me complaining about the cost burden and my disdain of commercials.

Television, I wailed, now was two minutes of program followed by five minutes of commercials. Ma was sympathetic and offered a variety of solutions.

The very next day a young man in a Bell truck arrived. He installed a PVR (personal video recorder) that allows the viewer to record a program and spin through the commercials. The PVR required a high definition satellite receiver, which he installed on my roof.

So my monthly Bell bill, once the size of  Toyota hatchback payment, now is the size of a Lexus payment.

I seem to have everything now that Ma Bell has to offer. She doesn’t think so because her marketing people call me almost daily. They call on my landline while I am eating supper. They call on my mobile phone while I am cutting firewood in the bush. 

I want to call Ma and tell her to stop calling. But I am afraid to call because whenever I call her it costs me more money.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Car Buyers Beware

Mopping up the messes of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is happening hundreds of miles away but Canadian consumers need to take care that they don’t get soaked.

Flood-damaged goods from Texas and Florida can start showing up anytime and anywhere. Quick buck artists already are working to pass off damaged goods to  unsuspecting buyers.

The area of greatest concern is the used vehicle market. There are estimates of 500,000 vehicles damaged in Texas, and probably that many again in Florida.

There are legal processes designed to protect buyers from cleaned up, water-damaged vehicles with serious hidden problems. There are unscrupulous people who find ways around the laws and sell flooded vehicles camouflaged as normal used cars or trucks.

A 2014 study by Carfax Inc., an online company supplying vehicle history reports, said  that 800,000 vehicles on U.S. roads may have been subject to title washing schemes. A large number of those were autos damaged in floods.

Resale autos must have ownership titles that list a history of damage. Scammers, however, have found ways of altering, or washing, titles.

Flood vehicles often are transported well beyond a flood zone because distant buyers are less likely to think about water-damaged vehicles.

Carfax estimates that historically about one-half of vehicles damaged in flooding are resold. Some have been repaired and the flood damage noted on their titles but many others get sold through scammers.

“They (scammers) will buy them, they will make them look OK, and sooner or later some unsuspecting party is going to buy one and it will end up being a nightmare,” Jim Tolkan, an automotive dealers association president told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently.  

U.S. used vehicles usually come to Canada for sale through honest dealers. Some might have been flooded and the damage and repairs noted and price adjusted to reflect that. There is a danger that some come through scams.

Here’s some advice, gathered from consumer reports and auto mechanics, that might be helpful to anyone considering buying a used auto from the United States. (Or, from Canada for that matter because several regions of the country have had major flooding this year).

It is best to have a used car you are considering inspected by a qualified mechanic. They know the hidden signs of water damage.

Water damage to autos can be much more than stained upholstery and musty odour. Water gets into mechanical systems, lubricants and electronics. Today’s vehicles are heavily dependent on delicate electronics that drive computerized systems.

Salt water of course causes corrosion problems that might not show up until months, or even years, later.

Seat mounting screws should be checked to see if they have been removed. Carpets cannot be dried properly without the seats being removed.

Look into difficult-to-clean places – gaps under the hood and between panels in the trunk. There might be mud stains or water lines in spots where they are difficult to remove.

Engines have all sorts of nooks and crannies where mud or stains are missed in a quick cleaning. A light, magnifying glass or mirror on a stick can help in looking for evidence of exposure to water.

There are areas in autos where unpainted screws are used, like under the dashboard. Any unpainted screws will show signs of rust if the vehicle has been submerged.

Drain plugs beneath the car or at the bottom of doors should be checked to see if they have been removed. Plugs are removed to drain flood water from inside the panels.

The reflectors or lenses on headlights and taillights sometimes show slightly visible water lines, solid evidence that the vehicle had been partially submerged.

Thoroughly searching a vehicle’s history is an important first step when looking to buy a used car.

There are plenty of online sites offering information about ways to protect yourself from damaged used auto scammers. Sites like and provide vehicle histories at a cost. Carfax also has a flood damage site ( with helpful information.

I know people who have had great luck buying used vehicles exported from the U.S. Like buying anything these days, you just have to be on top of all the ways to protect yourself.