The Alberta Wilderness Association invited Mike McIvor (joint recipient , along with Diane McIvor, of the 2008 AWA Defenders of Wilderness Award) to deliver the First Annual Martha Kostuch Wilderness and Wildlife Lecture at the AWA’s Annual General Meeting on November 14th, 2008.
The following is the text of Mike’s lecture:
At Home and Away in Wilderness
Last day of our trip. The trail angled downward. I'm not sure what Diane was thinking but I had banished all trivial thoughts and was plodding along wrestling with a bewildering and profound question: what did I want most from life? A thick chocolate milkshake or a tall mug of cold beer. We were completing a circuit that probed the eastern edges of the Continental Divide. The scenery was spectacular. We had seen stark cliffs, big, rugged mountains, shimmering glaciers, sparkling streams, larch-fringed meadows, and a mountain goat or two. We had been anxious to get started a few days earlier, eager to leave behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life, ready to rid our entire systems of nagging discomforts from home. Now, as we sensed the end of the trail, we knew we had been away in the wilderness.
There are some things I should say at the outset. This talk is not intended to be sternly prescriptive although I will identify some avenues the conservation community may wish to explore further. The Alberta Wilderness Associations is the last organization I would presume to advise with respect to priorities or the need to expend new efforts. Instead, I will offer some observations about the current focus of the wilderness movement and suggest some ways to strengthen or broaden it in the future. No doubt, some of these are being considered, even implemented, already, and if so, you should treat my comments as endorsement. And finally, I should acknowledge that what you are about to hear is pretty rhetorical. If you are looking for solid, concrete recommendations you will be disappointed. But if we can find agreement over what constitutes the problems, maybe new solutions will eventually be found.
Language and the way we use it is critically important but for the most part, I have tried to steer clear of the muddiest puddles waiting to confound or deconstruct definitions of "nature" and "wilderness". So let me deal with these quickly: as animals, we humans are part of nature. While I will refer to nature or the natural world to encompass largely the non-human, it is a truth I have not forgotten.
And while I have heard the arguments distinguishing wildness from wilderness, even asserting that, as human designations, wilderness areas are places where wildness is incarcerated, I'm content to keep this simple. For this evening, let's think of nature as everywhere and wilderness as a place - places - not dominated by humans and their stuff; a place, with ecological connections to other similar places where all forms of life that belong there have the room they need to follow their own evolutionary destinies; destinies humans witness, participate in, but do not curtail.
Initially, I want to raise two main points for your consideration: the first has to do with the way, as advocates for wilderness, we present our case; the second, with the size, shape, and effectiveness of the wilderness support base.
A few years ago, it began to occur to me that the arguments in favour of protecting wilderness had undergone a significant shift. (Not overly surprising perhaps, when you realize it is an enterprise rife with irony; here we are, after all, as humans, struggling to protect certain parts of the world - from what? From ourselves! No wonder the task perplexes.) In the old days, or at least the days when Diane and I first became involved almost 40 years ago, wilderness from the point of view of its protagonists, was primarily a place you went backpacking. Its value was measured in terms of human experiences - very particular kinds of human experiences. With debates over future land use in Alberta, especially in the Eastern Slopes, heating up, the AWA became the most articulate and ardent champion of Wildland Recreation Areas, both as a concept and as specific, proposed sites.
To some extent, this emphasis on recreation was a reaction to the restrictions of the provincial Wilderness Areas Act of 1971, which prohibited activities such as hunting, fishing, and horseback riding. But it also reflected the way these issues were thought about at the time. We catalogued various components of the ecosystem but in many respects the landscape was background, scenic backdrop. In a brief introduction titled "Why Wilderness" in one of the AWA's great early publications, "Wildlands for Recreation" we are informed that the 9 proposed recreational wilderness areas are "those few remaining natural land areas which can ensure that Albertans never lose their opportunity to experience and understand the type of frontier that was instrumental in shaping the Canadian heritage".
Prior to this statement there is a discussion of what were deemed appropriate and inappropriate activities for such areas, views that probably have not changed substantially over the intervening years. Clearly, industrial development and motorized access must be excluded. But the piece begins, almost poetically - in a rough and ready kind of way - with an attempt to invoke the feelings engendered by wilderness: the deep connections, the welcoming solitude, the sense of timelessness, the liberating sensuality.
Have these feelings changed for you? I doubt it. I know they haven't for me. Now imagine a similar publication, written today. What would we highlight? Threats to ecological integrity. Endangered species. Barriers to ecological connectivity or its global converse, invasions by non-native species. All absolutely crucial to be recognized and I would not begin to suggest we should back-off from placing them at the forefront of our campaigns. The planet and the province have been changed dramatically and badly over the past three and a half decades. The pace of destruction has accelerated; its scale has blossomed; overall pressures on landscapes have multiplied; reasonable limits have been vastly exceeded. In addition, at the same time, we have gained a much better understanding and appreciation of ecological foundations, relationships, and processes; new knowledge with implications and responsibilities attached. William Catton's masterful portrayal of "Overshoot" in his book of the same name, leaves no doubt that current humanity is competing with our descendents, stealing from the future. (Do you ever find yourself, with me, thinking - or singing - in unison with Bob Seeger's: Against the Wind: "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then".) Out of sheer necessity, we have shifted emphasis to the role of wilderness in preserving functioning ecosystems and ecological diversity.
I fear, however, we may have dropped or forgotten something valuable in the meantime. Forgive me for my generalizing. These days when I attend presentations about wilderness, and I mean serious presentations not depictions of self-indulgent adventuring, I seem to encounter a broader flow of information than in the past; more relevant facts and figures about ecological conditions, status of wildlife, land use trends in surrounding areas; probably fewer images of the places; more graphs and tables; more insightful and therefore, perhaps inevitably, more cynical assessment of current political realities. But often something is missing and I think I know what it is. With the best of intentions, driven by a keen determination to convey the seriousness of the situation and the urgent need for positive action, wilderness advocates seem less able or less willing to convey a sense of our own excitement about these places.
Why is this so? Perhaps we are deliberately downplaying our self-interest to contrast with the aggressive self-interest displayed by exploiters. Or perhaps we have been persuaded that reason prevails and reason alone, however defined, must underlie every position. But don't feelings count? Don't complete human beings come replete with emotions? Let's not allow ourselves to abandon the language and meanings that matter to us, in order to comply with, or conform to, a sensibility that reeks of exploitation. Why shouldn't we be celebrating the land as well as protesting pending abuse?
Edward Hoagland wrote that "the jubilation of discovery" is the defining characteristic of wilderness experience. (I might add it would be a pretty good defining characteristic of our lives.) We should be expressing more of it in our advocacy. Let's be as forthright in our descriptions of the wonders of these places and the creatures that inhabit them, as we are in enumerating our fears about what may befall them. Why? Because members of the public, the people we hope to motivate, will be touched by different things. For some, warnings about the future may be sufficient to provoke engagement; for others, the catalyst may be a response to the nature of the place in question. These approaches are not in conflict; we need both and certainly the idea of wilderness is big enough to contain them. Sanctuaries are essential for wildlife but they are essential for people too. And the best sanctuaries are wild.
Now let's move to my second area of concern: the constituency for protection of nature in general and wilderness in particular. Without knowing whether numbers of supporters are heading up or down or are static, - and of course we need more than bodies we need engaged citizens - I think it is fair to say that all of us in the conservation community are frustrated by our inability to mobilize with sufficient force to accomplish our objectives. Too often, lone, heroic voices are heard - some belonging to people in this room - when a chorus in necessary. What can we do? There is nothing to be gained by blaming politicians if we haven't examined the culture - our culture, our way of living - that spawned them.
I want to poke away at one piece of this puzzle, a piece with the potential to hurt our cause if left unattended, and the potential to help immeasurably if carefully nurtured. I am convinced the single biggest obstacle to meaningful change in the direction of more appropriate relationships between humans and the rest of the world, is the growing degree to which more and more people are disconnected from that world. An increasingly urbanized - and wired - populace is losing touch with their origins, their sustenance, their place in the universe. With their gaze inward, as the bizarre, disturbing barriers around individualism and self-gratification are fortified, whether they are merely oblivious or truly alienated makes little difference to outcomes affecting wild places.
As more and more of once natural landscapes are paved over, built on, or, in tiny slivers, converted to homogenous "green space", the most sensitive observers will undergo what Robert Michael Pyle calls "the extinction of experience" while the newest and youngest among us will fall victim to a silent affliction identified by David Wilcove in The Condor's Shadow as "generational amnesia". You can't remember what you didn't know and without that knowing or remembering there can be little caring. You won't want wilderness if you don't know nature. So, if we want more caring - and there can be no doubt the world needs more - we must work on the knowing. This, of course, is the essence of conservation: thinking long term, acting short term.
I suggest we have to approach this from several directions, some perhaps deviating to an extent from the long standing core of the AWA's organizational mandate; some requiring alliances with other organizations and individuals already immersed in the activity, some probably already the recipients of some of AWA's attention, none likely to produce instant results. Oh, and by the way, all to be undertaken while all the necessary, day-to-day conservation struggles continue. (Yeah, what the hell. When Vivian asked me to do this she gave me instructions I was to challenge you.)
The multi-tracking I propose involves first of all, strengthening the rationale and motivation for people to establish connections with the world beyond people. This can't help but be concerned to a great extent with the shape or scope of the educational system at all levels, although, to be honest, I have a better idea about why it would be worthwhile than how to accomplish it. And secondly, because directly experiencing nature is at least as important as being taught about it - perhaps more so, especially for the very young - we must ensure there is sufficient supply and variety of places where this experience can occur.
In his second book of essays "Earth Alive", published in 2006, 2 years after his death, Dr. Stan Rowe - who incidentally, was the banquet speaker at the AWA's annual conference held in the Bow Valley in 1991 - quotes historian and educator Hilda Neatby: "Here is as good a definition of education as any: the discovery that the world is more interesting than oneself. It is also a good definition of citizenship and of mental health". Rowe notes, however, that her discussion, though useful, was limited by the fact her "world" was confined to human society and culture. Not wide enough, he said. Instead, he insisted human ecology - the search for a healthy people - planet relationship should be at the core of education. He wanted our interests and our concerns expanded to embrace all life. For him, "the basic goal of a liberating education (is) understanding what it means to be human in a living world".
Being human in a living world demands we overcome the drag of illiteracy. That is ecological, or nature, illiteracy. It means finding a cure for Nature Deficit Disorder, a malaise pin-pointed by Richard Louv in "Last Child in the Woods". Scientists studying ecosystems often refer to indicator species. Louv offers his own version of "an endangered indicator species: the child in nature". I believe if we want support for natural landscapes to grow in the future, we need more children in nature now. And adults. Parents and children together. Feeling connected in visceral ways, opening their minds and senses to the invigoration of endlessly fascinating discoveries about place and time. Their worlds expanding. I realize I'm treading along the slippery shore of idealism here and I won't pretend to be able to draw a straight line between a person's exposure to nature and instant conversion to empathy, let alone advocacy. But I am certain, that without that exposure, without even tentative connections, there will be no embrace of life other than the self or the purely human. I know all too well how thin our time and energy is stretched, but if there is a small surplus anywhere, it might find a fruitful target in school curricula.
If we accept that the kind of connecting we hope to see can come only from genuine, intimate contact with nature, we need to think carefully about where. Obviously there is a spectrum of protected areas available for varying kinds and levels of human use. And as wilderness advocates we devote much of our energy to one end of that spectrum. Which is fine. But is it enough?
Nature is not generic; it is intensely specific and firmly attached to place: prairie, boreal forest, mountain, stream-side, ridge-top. Human connections must be grounded in the local from the beginning, or context will fade. Will there be as many tears for the tiny remnant herd of mountain caribou in Banff National Park if they disappear as were shed for the baby elephant that died in the Zoo?
Looking back, we can see the work we have done that has been most directly related to the places we treasure has taken the form of promoting protection, initially for recreational purposes and to a lesser extent for watershed and wildlife values, while more recently, accommodating broader ecological considerations has moved to the forefront. We also have responded when we feel these places are under threat whether from inappropriate activities or from overuse. As I said, this work is absolutely essential and must continue. But I think, as we have been dashing from one crisis to another, we have become better at saying where we don't want people than where we do want them. With our full attention on what we have determined to be the most ecologically valuable, sensitive, and vulnerable landscapes we have little time to identify areas that might be capable of handling more intensive use - and I am not talking about industry or motorized recreation.
We tend to forget that if we want other people to care enough about the same things we do to offer their support, they need the opportunity to experience some of those things. Should we be spending some proportion of the time we devote to areas we don't want trampled to finding areas that could handle, with appropriate management, a certain amount of trampling, a degree of intensive use that will enable more people to contact nature and begin to develop those vital connections? Modest places admitting modest uses. I think so. But it will require us to look and think differently about people on the landscape. It also will require us to define some parameters around use and experience because any opportunity for contact is wasted if there is no learning, if all that is expected or obtained is, in essence, entertainment. So, no toys, no artificial distractions. Just encouragement for preliminary explorations of the fullness and complexity of the natural world. (None of this is to deny the reality of limits or to defer confronting them which will be a never-ending task until our civilization comes to its senses.)
The more we help locate places people can and should go, the easier it will be to retain in good condition those places where strict limitations must prevail. This holds true for provincial and municipal lands, as well as federal. And these opportunities should be sought as close to where most people live as possible. There is something fundamentally wrong when people come to believe that nature begins at a park boundary or can be encountered only when they have crossed a threshold into wilderness. The most important lesson for every human is that wherever they are, they are in nature. This knowledge does not imply constriction or confinement; it pushes the door to the world wide open.
I suppose, if anything the argument I have been making is that in the long run, we won't be able to sustain the backcountry if we don't take good care of the frontcountry. We won't be able to save the big wild if we don't have smaller, less wild places that many people can touch. Is there a positive way to accomplish this without feeling we are creating sacrifice areas, compromising too much? It's worth a try.
It would be foolish for me to spend this time urging the enablement of people to connect, or re-connect, with nature and with place and leave dangling a vague conclusion that any such connections are a worthy end in themselves; because at this stage in the life of our province and the planet, the process simply cannot stop here. What I am looking for, as a result of people touching and being touched by the wider world, are more good citizens, more active, more politically engaged citizens, more staunch advocates for the wise use of land. We can help by making it abundantly clear that becoming engaged as citizens should not be viewed as a chore, an unpleasant duty. It is a right; it is also a responsibility, but when it involves acting as defenders, or champions of the things we love, it can be a joy. The world may be changing in ways we despise, but much we care about remains. So lets do battle with smiles on our faces, angry inside perhaps, hurting perhaps, but keeping in mind that wilderness is more enriching, more fulfilling, more lively and beautiful than anything money can buy and proving that hope is stronger, and way more fun, than despair.
Another way we can help is by being completely honest when we speak to the public or the media. Do we really think the dominating, domineering stance of the current, global economic system can be rectified by fine tuning? Or is wide-ranging, radical change necessary? If yes, we should say so. We've tried tinkering and it doesn't work. Surely, reasonable people can not continue to put their faith in the dangerous absurdity of a "sustainable, environmentally friendly, industrial growth economy".
Wendell Berry, the American poet, farmer, and very fine essayist contends that conservation will always be bogged-down "unless answered positively by an economy that rewards and enforces good use". Our present economy, he says, does not account for value "it is simply a description of the career of money as it preys upon both nature and human society". I think we should be willing to voice our resistance.
Another way of veering towards an inescapable and long overdue confrontation is to compile, carefully articulate, and begin to shout aloud, our own definition of progress because I know it is fundamentally different from the one foisted on us by those in power. If we don't accept that trying to achieve endless growth in a finite world is progress, if we refuse to agree that ever increasing material consumption is the highest good and a useful measure of progress, we should say so. And offer our own ideas in rebuttal. We may need to tackle small issues one at a time, but we dare not ignore the overriding assumptions, the collective greed, fear, and selfishness that create them.
Speaking of taboos, let me broach another topic: human population. I won't go into any detail but it needs at least to be uttered. I agree with the social justice activists who say unequal distribution of wealth and the means of living is a huge problem, worldwide. However, I don't agree that therefore, the size of population in itself is not a problem. Being too polite, reluctant, or timid to talk about it won't help anything. In a meeting hosted by Parks Canada last year to discuss management options for what have been labeled "hyper-abundant species" - elk in Banff, double-crested cormorants in Point Pelee, white-tailed deer in some of the other eastern parks - I took the occasion to declare that there was no more hyper-abundant species than our own, no species more desperately in need of its numbers to stabilize and then decline. The speaker at the time nodded his agreement and while that particular topic was not discussed further, I was surprised to have several people come up to me afterwards to express their appreciation for the tabling of the concern. It’s time we pushed this issue out into the light of day.
Before I finish my flailing around up here, I want to further burden you with one last notion, a favourite of mine. It's my version of the 3 Rs: receptivity, restraint, reciprocity. (A 4th R, of course, is respect - respect for the land, for wildlife, for each other, for the future - but it is so all-encompassing I treat it as a given.) The first time I pitched this was at a conference on backcountry recreation where I held forth on the merits of these as guiding principles for those who travel in wilderness. Aldo Leopold wrote about the need to "build receptivity in the still, unlovely human mind." I think of receptivity as a process whereby, as we open ourselves to the world the world opens itself to us. Restraint is what we must exercise when our desires stretch beyond our needs and threaten to damage their objects. It makes room for other forms of life and for their descendents as well as ours, the generations who will follow us. Reciprocity comes from the knowledge that wilderness - indeed nature itself - is not a conglomeration of resources but rather, is a source - a source of gifts. To fully appreciate those gifts, whatever form they may take - living landscapes, food, water, silence, solitude, beauty, opportunities for recreation, contemplation, inspiration - it will vary from person to person - we must be prepared to give back; we must be willing to ensure the supply is permanent.
The more I thought about this the more I realized we need these principles to guide us everywhere: in decisions about the way we live, in personal relationships, in evolving social and cultural settings, even in attempts to find international peace. Those of us who have had the immense privilege to experience wilderness have learned the necessary lessons about traveling lightly and with care. We need to pack out those lessons from the backcountry and share them everywhere.
Years later. Same place. Last day of our trip. The trail angled downward. Visions of beer and milkshake plagued me. We were completing a circuit that probed the eastern edges of the continental divide. The scenery was spectacular. And it was alive. We had seen stark cliffs - with ferns on them, big, rugged mountains, smaller but still shimmering glaciers, sparkling streams with hatches of mayflies rising above them, larch-fringed meadows full of species after species of wildflowers we recognized, a mountain goat or two. And we saw butterflies. Dragonflies and damselflies darting around the lower elevation wetlands. Mushrooms of every size, shape, and colour. We heard winter wrens near the canyons and fox sparrows at timberline. Pikas greeting us from scree slopes and hoary marmots whistling their alarms from boulder fields. We caught the scent of bruised juniper after stepping on sprawling branches, felt the softness of larch needles and the sting of icy water in the fords. We had been anxious to get started a few days earlier, eager to enter the high mountain valleys. Now, as we sensed the end of the trail, we knew we had been at home in the wilderness.