Saturday, October 10, 2009

Black fly jams; or, Animal Preserves...

"How are the bugs this year?" I asked the faceless man on the other end of the phone.

"All you can eat," he responded with a chuckle.

I laughed too. I knew what he was talking about. Even then, I knew what I was getting myself into. There can be no exaggeration. Way up north, in the wilds of Manitoba, the bugs are quite simply Hell.

When one is preparing to displace from a waterless, sun-baked climate to the treed muskeg of the northern boreal, there must be more than a simple nod to the fact that the insects will be worse. In truth, there can be no possible comparison. If you wish to subsist in the land of black spruce, you have to understand, and be okay with the fact that you will be eaten alive by bugs that don't simply show disregard for your suffering, but take pleasure in every drop blood they coax from your skin.

Studies have been carried out showing that the large ungulates of the north: the caribou, moose, elk, and deer, can incrementally lose the equivalent of half of their total blood volume from parasites in a month. Mind you, these animals are somewhat larger that we are, but even if you scale it down, it would be akin to a human being robbed of nearly 100 mL of that essential fluid per day. In the early spring and late summer, it often reaches points where these grazers will be driven mad by mosquitos and black flies, and gallop aimlessly through the forest, bouncing like pinballs off the trees they are too small the demolish, often running headlong into highway traffic in pursuit of a moment's respite from the incessant torment. Even when the bog has frozen over, and the buzzing has been silenced by the winter chill, the battle is far from over. Ticks, arguably the most gruesome of the bloodsuckers, will hold fast to the warm mammalian skin, sheltered from the cold by a thick layer of fur, feeding and swelling to store ever more nutrients and energy. The host will of course do its utmost to shed the parasite, but this too has its risks. Many of the great beasts of the forest will meet a frigid death, hypothermia brought on by the loss of fur from endless scratching.

Mind you, we humans have certain advantages. Our simian design allows for an incredible range of motion, allowing us to swat and smack in nearly all directions. Failing that, we can add additional layers of 'fur', ones impermeable to insect attack. The only weakness to this measure being that black flies get underneath loose clothing, and mosquitos through the tight, and if you apply both, the heat of the summer sun will make you almost as uncomfortable as the bugs would. There are other options, though. DEET, a synthetic toluamide, has been scientifically proven to prevent arthropod bites. It also is readily uptaken through the skin, where it is rapidly distributed though the lymphatic system to glands throughout the body. It has been associated with mild to moderate toxicities (individually variant), and there is some evidence pointing to carcinogenic tendencies from long term use. It also smells bad, tastes worse, numbs sensitive tissues and melts plastics. There exist botanical repellants, but they don't work at all. Bug netting is quite effective, but unfortunately won't last a day amid the clawing limbs of a thrifty spruce stand. Of course, there's always the option of staying inside, but that somewhat defeats the purpose of going out into the forest to work. In short, there is no solution. You are going to be eaten. But then, I suppose that's the way it goes. Eat or be eaten. Or, in this case, eat and be eaten. Thus is nature.

There is an interesting dichotomy that I've noticed. Those who spend most of their time in urban centres are likely to refer to time in the forest as 'being in nature' , while those in rural areas overwhelmingly call it 'going to the bush'. I think this is telling. There is a certain romance in being out in nature, and conversely, a sense of burden attached to heading to the bush. Certainly, there is component of exposure to this: there is no challenge in romanticizing that which is seen rarely. From a park campsite on a long weekend, it is easy to see nature as essentially life-giving, benevolent, and beautiful. But that is only one side of the equation. The rest of the place, and the rest of the time, nature churns on in a manner completely indifferent to us. The sun bakes, the rain soaks, the frost chills, the bugs pester, and the predators devour. It is only by our ingenuity and ceaseless effort that we avoid falling victim to these dangers. And even the ingenious and tireless sometimes fail.

But our ingenuity seems to have gotten ahead of these days, and for the most part, it's not us that need to be protected from nature. Perhaps, for the first time in the history of the planet, it is the other way around. At least that is the notion behind the modern environmental movement. That our abilities and desires have overshot our needs, and that this is causing us to destroy nature, and we should therefore take action to prevent this. Seems reasonable to me. However, not everyone sees it this way, and environmentalists have been castigated for a number of reasons, although typically not for their fundamental belief: that nature should be protected. After all, who could hate nature?

Well, George Carlin took issue with this principle. He didn't hate nature, but he stated that environmentalists represented the lowest of the unenlightened self-interested, since their desire to protect nature existed only to maintain a clean habitat for themselves. Now, the rant is funny as hell, but I don't think George quite hit the nail on this one. To be quite honest, if the environmental movement was so pragmatic, I would probably be much more involved. But I don't think we need environmentalists to look after the human habitat on earth. I believe that as a species, despite our shortcomings, we are far too intelligent to make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. We might destroy nature, as it were, but we won't kill the planet. Will we net every last wild fish, convert every square metre of arable land to monoculture, and manage every forest as a tree farm? Absolutely. Will we poison every catchment, render our air unbreathable, and blare Fergie 24-7? Obviously not. We'll leave that for the developing world.

I think the reality of the environmental movement is a little more abstract. Environmentalists aren't in it to simply protect their own habitat (although that would certainly be a byproduct of their goals). No, the environmental movement is about protecting an idea. The idea of nature.

How can one be certain that environmentalists are fighting for the idea of nature? It's quite simple. Nature doesn't exist outside of human conception. We invented it. It's true, I swear. Before humans, there was no nature at all. Oh, sure there were furry things, and slimy things, and feathery things, and leafy things. But nature hadn't been invented yet. There was just a planet with billions of organisms all respiring, some photosythesizing, all of them eating and some being eaten. Those that procreated survived genetically, and those that starved before maturity didn't. And there was swimming and walking and flying and hanging out in trees, and it all sounds a lot like nature but it wasn't. It simply was.

And for a long time our great-great-great...-grandparents were part of this 'great was' until, after sufficient selective pressure and massive consumption of animal protein, all of a sudden a lightbulb went on over the wrinkly brain contained in someone's head, and there was a recognition that we were humans, and that we were something different. Something special. And the rest of that 'great was' was something else. It was special alright. But we were more special. And thus nature was born, as those furry things, and slimy things, and leafy things, et c., which existed outside of us.

There are some who argue that we diverged from nature when we ceased to be hunter-gatherers, or later, when we started burning coal. Some tribal cultures even claim to have had no distinction between themselves and nature, but this is not true in a rational sense. There may have been an understanding that humans were a product of nature, and that they had to interact with the natural world, but there was still a clear hierarchy that placed humans at the top. Otherwise the culture would have rapidly died out for lack of food. To eat is to kill. To kill is to establish separation and hierarchy. If a human kills another animal, and shares it with another human, then there is a recognition that the humans are more valuable than the animal. Otherwise, why should the animal die, and the humans live? There may have been an element of respect, but respect is not equality. If humans were to survive, it was to be at the expense of nature.

But now we rest so dizzyingly high above nature that we threaten to wipe it all out. Or so we assume. But a big part of the problem is that we haven't defined what it really is we're trying to save. Because 'nature' in the vernacular, is a suitcase word: it carries all kinds of baggage. If the goal is to maintain untouched wilderness from human intrusion, we've already failed. You can fly to the most remote swamp in the most undesirable bush in one of the least populated places on earth, and when you hit dry ground you'll find a steel can rusting on the forest floor. Or perhaps it's animal habitat we want to protect, so we establish more provincial parks. But any kind of boundary we lay down will invariably contradict the organic character of the land. The overlapping patchwork of habitat types means that if you cover all the moose, you cut out half the caribou, or something of the like. Or maybe we want to just leave things as they are now. But is it really best to leave nature to its own devices? If we don't suppress fire, then hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest will surely burn. Sure, it's natural. But dead is dead. Does it matter what the agent was? Would it have been better to at least make some jobs out of the lumber before it went up in smoke?

I'm certainly not saying that nature isn't worth being protected. But when I get into a helicopter in the morning and lift up over the boreal, all I can see in every direction is an endless expanse of poplar, Jack pine, and black spruce, spreading out across the land, flat as a pancake, disturbed only by pockets of deep blue water, I think, "this is infinite, and those who care about it don't know, and those who know don't care". And I wonder if those who are are trying to protect the 5% of this forest that might ever get cut have any idea how generally unproductive, expansive, and invariant it is. Or if they understand that this forest will be wiped out once a century, whether we touch it or not. Or if they realize that their concept of this forest is just an idea. The idea of nature that they aim to protect. Protect because it has 'implicit value', an implicit value that, oddly enough, only humans seem to attribute and recognize (or discount, at their leisure).

In forest management, there is heavy emphasis placed of maintaining the 'triple bottom line' of social, environmental, and economic value. From the moment I first heard this term, I knew it to be ridiculous. Really, there is only one bottom line. And no, it's not economic. It's social. After all, economic and environmental values are both social values. We're certainly not paying the earth for what we're taking, and the fish don't get angry at us for silting the stream. What forest managers (and politicians) are concerned about is keeping people happy, whether it's by making jobs, hiking trails, or wildlife preserves. And even if wildlife preserves may often be ineffective at actually preserving wildlife (a failure to respect environmental values), at least it gives people the idea that something is being done, thereby conforming to our social values. And since environmental values are just a kind of social value, everybody wins. Except the poor caribou, of course, but we're oblivious to his suffering, so we can't be held responsible.

And as I float some two hundred metres above the treetops on my way to the bush, chance should have it today that I see a woodland caribou labouring his way through the muskeg. This is noteworthy, as my two months here have yielded the sight of only three ungulates, even from above. We're somewhere near the Grass River Provincial Park, and I wonder if my antlered friend is in the safe zone, or if he has wandered beyond the imaginary line, and runs the risk of being picked off by a keen-sighted sportsman. As the animal shrinks to nothing in the distance, it ceases to be real to me, and becomes just a memory, an idea of the wildness it represents. But I still feel a sense of empathy for it, a hope that, for some reason I can't explain, the caribou will survive, and prosper, and procreate, and get all those things in life that caribou need to be happy. It's silly, I know, but despite the irrationality I still feel this way.

The chopper sets me down in my own patch of muskeg, and in a whirl of grass and seeds and dew, the machine is gone, and I'm left alone there. Alone as the caribou in this never-ending bush that stretches for literally thousands of kilometres in every direction. It's calm at first, but as the sun rises, so too does the mercury, and it doesn't take long before I'm wading my way not only through the bog, but also through a sea of black flies. The swarm is so thick that I can barely see. They're in my eyes, in my ears, in my mouth. Sometimes they bite, but mostly they just crawl around, which is almost worse, since they're not stationary enough to smack, and when I let down my guard they go in for a drink. I take off my hard hat and swat at them, and the cloud disperses a moment, but in a few seconds reforms to its original strength. There is really no winning this war, so I resign myself to that fact, do my best to ignore them, and pray for the wind to pick up, an idle prayer in densely treed forest like this.

And I think about my friend the caribou, who has it even worse than I do, what with his planar limbs and tiny tail, and no pick-up coming at the end of the day. And even if he does survive the insects, and the cold, and the predators, he still runs the real risk of being shot when he migrates in search of food. It's not an easy life, out there in nature. There's danger at every turn. God the Father may love all of creation, but Mother Nature frankly doesn't give a damn.

But even if the caribou ends up staring down the barrel of a .303 on the edge of the park boundary, does it mean that our efforts to protect him were in vain? I mean, it was a nice idea, right? We did do our best to maintain a nice little piece of nature for him, within reason. And after all, it's not actually a caribou, but an idea we were trying to protect, so in a real sense, isn't it the thought that counts? If it's just the idea of nature, the idea of doing the right thing that lets us sleep at night, haven't we succeeded formidably? I mean, I'd like to think that there's more to it than that, but I can't in all honesty say that there is. There could be a a spark and a hot dry wind just waiting to take out thousands of caribou, and none of our efforts would have mattered anyway.

Then there's the romantic in me. There's that part that wants to believe that my actions count, and that there are beautiful and incomprehensible qualities worth protecting. That there are things that have implicit value, and that in my quiet moments, I can feel this in a way I can't rationalize, and there there's a sense of completeness: warmth and sadness, conflict and peace, clarity and confusion all rolled together, and I feel alive, and I become acutely aware of the blood pumping through my veins, and the lively electrical impulses firing throughout my brain. And everything seems to make sense despite the underlying confusion. In these moments I think that even if, in our drive to preserve nature, we neglected the caribou, and he's left with a bullet in his lungs, it was still worth it. Because in our goal to protect something worthwhile, whether it be tangible and in front of us, or an idea a thousand kilometres away, we shouldn't think about how we failed, or what we've lost. We should focus on how we succeeded, and how we can continue to succeed, and keep some of that beautiful nature out there, silent and unknown, so we can feel better about ourselves, and know that regardless of the outcome, we've done something right. So that maybe our children can experience this nature, and feel this well-being too, even if it is all just an idea, somehow.

Because even if we couldn't save our caribou from a cruel death by hemorrhaging and shock ... at least he doesn't have to deal with the black flies.


-Neil A.