Friday, April 29, 2011

The names of things

Anenome patens, we call it Pasque Flower, a name that seemed just right this year, because I took this photo on Easter Sunday.

Like a lot of men, I often find myself asking forgiveness of the woman who puts up with me. What I have noticed lately with my wife is that when I am too obtuse to realize I have goofed up, she gives me a look that lets me know. Hard to describe, but it’s one of those graceful things a woman seems able to manifest without a lot of forethought.

Yesterday morning Karen joined me on a morning walk in the city and we stopped to listen to a junco singing from the top of a spruce tree. She said something about all the “fir trees” in the neighbourhood. Rather than outright correct her, I thought I would be more gentle, skilful, even a bit inclusive, and ponder aloud, “Odd, isn’t it that we have hardly any actual fir trees in the whole city, and spruce trees everywhere but we still call them ‘fir’. Hmmph. Strange.”

Turning to Karen I saw her face flash from incredulity to the Buddha who suffers fools inclined to say one too many times that a paddle and an oar are two different things. I opened my mouth to make apologetic noises but was stopped by another look.

“Don’t even bother,” the look said. And so I didn’t.

Then spent the rest of the day wondering why the names of things matter to me, apart from their obvious utility as merit badges for the know it all and convenient handles for communication. Why not just have direct, unmediated experiences of each thing in its thingness, each being in its (inter)beingness? Why let any “spruce” or “fir” intervene between our apprehension and the green cone of branching, prickly matter shooting up from the lawn?

Naming seems like the most human of acts. Yes, dolphins can recognize one another by unique signature whistles, but can they refer to one another by repeating that whistle? Other animals use non-linguistic communication to recognize their own offspring of course, but naming allows more than recognition; it allows for reference. A name makes it easy for me to tell you about a subject that is neither you nor I.

Pasque flower again next to a piece of limestone sprinked with lichens I cannot name though the yellow one is likely a Xanthoria

We have no way of knowing whether any other animal can stick a referent on something and use it in language, but it seems unlikely. Interesting too that in Creation myths, it’s usually man and not God or nature that does the naming of the myriad forms. There is a built-in arrogance there, and assumption of primacy or dominion, but perhaps it is not unfounded. For a primate with very dependant offspring travelling in extended family clans, the capacity to use words to differentiate and tag the differences must have been a tremendously helpful advantage. A few hundred generations later, however, these naming hominids have taken the adaptation to the hubristic extremes now threatening the planet’s life systems.

Even as we homogenize the earth with the bland over-culture of our desires writ large, we are losing the names of the things. Entire indigenous languages have been extinguished and degraded so that the names of places and creatures most intimately christened by human tongues are lost to our wisdom. Prairie school children not very long ago would learn the names of several birds and wildflowers as part of the curriculum, but that is gone. A fifth-grader today can recognize and name twenty corporate logos, but would be unable to put a tag on the red-breasted bird yanking worms from his front lawn.

Science and faith seem to agree that we live in a relational cosmos, a universe where things are intimately interconnected and wonderfully complex. Naming helps us to participate consciously in and to make some sense of that relationality. Even revel in it if we choose. But it does something else too that could perhaps help us renew our relationships, the oh so crucial ones that might keep us from destroying the earth. In traditional narratives of romance between two people or religious narratives of blessing between Creator and created, the saying of a name is a deep expression of love.

In our hearts we understand that we can only love what we know and only know what we can distinguish within the many forms that surround us. To love a child is certainly to love all children, but paradoxically, to love a child is also to recognize that child as unique, to say its name.

I may never be privileged to see creation from the mystic’s or the quantum physicist’s perch and know that all is truly united in a singular flow of matter and energy, despite the illusory spin of time and space. Like most people, I am caught in an ego that sees itself as real and distinct and looks outward on a lot of other creatures that seem very real and distinct too. I confess to enjoying the distinctions and am endlessly curious to know more of what it is that makes one being a little bit different from another.

this time of year on the prairie, every willow that looks like this is a "Pussy Willow" and maybe that is name enough

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Issues on grassland I am following

Grasslands National Park, East Block
I did a fifteen minute radio interview the other day with Michael Short who does an outdoors program played by AM radio all over Alberta. We were talking about the Tax Recovery Lands issue in Alberta, where the Stelmach government seems determined to find a way to hand thousands of acres of ancient grasslands over to those who would like to plough it. (The program ran on April 17, but you can listen to the interview here. Go to the 6:50 point in the show and you should find the interview. It is a bit tricky though, because there seems to be an overlay of some other interview and every second time you click on the zone where my interview is (approx 6:50 to 20:26) you get the other interview. Click again and you should find the TRL discussion.)

But that is only one attack on prairie wildness that has come to my attention in recent days. Last week there was an editorial published in both the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Western Producer, written by the Reeve of Churchbridge, arguing that in fact destroying wetlands and ploughing most of the prairie under has brought more wildlife to the countryside. Take a look at it here and then keep your eyes out for a letter sent in response by Lorne Scott, Reeve of Indian Head.

Finally, the day before yesterday, I receieved word that the National Energy Board is considering a new gas pipeline that will be built right across some of the last large pieces of native grass in the province. If you have a moment look at some of these documents:

1.Draft Scope of Factors for the Environmental Assessment
2. Project description prepared for the NEB
3.NEB’s notice of public hearing on the project.

Does it cross native grassland? Here is what the project description document says:

Within Saskatchewan, habitat of high potential for listed species and other species of management concern includes native prairie and shrub/treed habitats, wetlands, riparian systems and valleys, and coulees. Land traversed and in the vicinity of the proposed development within Alberta is cultivated and is therefore of lesser value to listed species.

Worrisome. The doc also says on page 30 that the pipeline goes through Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands (which begs the question of what the Sask Environment people are doing or not doing). Pipelines leave a big scar and will undoubtedly introduce weeds that will degrade the prairie.

With all of the cultivated cropland we have in this province they should be able to find a route through land that has already been destroyed!!

I see nothing in these documents about mitigation. Can they rip up miles and miles of native grassland, displace native species of plants, ruin habitat for species at risk, introduce invasive species, and then do nothing to make up for the loss? Don't they have to do some native grassland restoration work on equivalent acres they purchase or at the very least purchase conservation easements on other pieces of native grass that match the amount they destroy?

We are going to need Saskatchewan people to speak up at the hearings this fall, request intervenor status if they can (deadline is May 17) and ask the hard questions.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Photo Post: Burning Bluestem, 2011

Four of us (Sylvie, Rob, Karen and I) headed up onto the prairie at Cherry Lake this past Sunday to do another spring burn.

We like to do it in spring when there is still enough snow on the ground to protect the woods and give us options for control. In most of these shots you can see that our grassland is never far from woodland, which is typical for prairie in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion.

This year we bought a fancy drip-torch to light fires. Fire boss Rob let me hold it long enough so I could look important in a photo.

But this is what the unskilled labour was doing most of the time--sweeping out the fire edges once we had burned as far as we wanted to. (In a better photo you'd be able to see how keen Karen was at this job because I don't let her do it at home very often.)

I just like this shot Karen took.

This is what it looked like when we were done. We were burning mostly Little Bluestem grass and brome at the base of our biggest, south-facing slopes, stopping the fire when it rose up to the more xeric grasses at mid-slope.

The whole time we were working, there was a kettle of red-tailed hawks circling just south of the column of smoke rising from our valley. The image above shows how they appeared to the naked eye--there were fourteen in all.

Here is a closer look with the telephoto lens. In the bottom left corner you can see that one of them is a Turkey Vulture.

They stayed for hours in roughly the same piece of sky, leading us to wonder if they had some instinctive attraction to burning grassland or whether there were warm updrafts from the fire that were fun to ride.

One, a typical Borealis Red-tailed Hawk, wheeled close enough for this shot.

Not Dick van Dyke, but this sweep loves the soot and the smoke of a prairie fire and the thought of crocuses rising just below the ashes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Landscape of the Soul: Courtney Milne

image by Courtney Milne, from his Pool of Possibilities

Last night, in a theatre with 100 other people, I was immersed in a symphony of light, shadow, colour, movement, and song that achieved what the best of human art aspires to: a reflecting back to the Creation something of its own beauty. The late eco-theolgian Thomas Berry often said that "human consciousness is the universe reflecting back on itself" and that our creativity in art and science is the Cosmos celebrating itself in conscious awareness.

In his life and death, Courtney Milne, one of the prairie's great artists and mystics, joined in that Cosmic celebration more than anyone I know. Courtney died just last August, leaving us with his photographs and wisdom to accompany us on our own creative paths. Seeing his work again last night on a large screen in a multi-media presentation, illumined by a choir singing poems to life and to the earth, was incredibly moving. All of us gathered there could feel it, our hard edges blurring just a bit, a flow of energies we don't often acknowledge binding us together in a shared experience that seemed, for lack of any better word, liturgical.

The choir, focussed, balanced, and singing and moving with great mindfulness and accord, was conducted by Jean-Marie Kent, a visiting professor at the University of Regina. The music she selected worked seamlessly with the dance of Courtney's imagery put together by Gerald Saul and David Gerhard. A luminous spirit shone through the whole experience, a spirit well familiar to those who knew Courtney and his work.

image by Courtney Milne, from his Pool of Possibilities

The Mendell Art Gallery is putting together a solo exhibition of Courtney's Pool of Possibility work this summer. Perhaps there will be a way to recreate something from last night's performance at the show's opening.

To learn more about Courtney's most recent work, the beauty he found in his own backyard and the wisdom it engendered in his heart, please visit the Poolof Possibilities website. Courtney's partner Sherrill Miller maintains the site, which I recommend to anyone looking to find creativity, insight, and soulfulness in their days.

During the last year of his life, Courtney gave me a year's subscription to an e-calendar of his poolside wisdom and daily photographs. Spending a few minutes each day with Courtney at the Pool of Possibilities always brought me down to earth, reminding me I have a body and a soul and some responsibilities that go along with them.

image by Courtney Milne, from his Pool of Possibilities

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