Thursday, July 19, 2012

Privatizing the last of the prairie commons.

There was a time in this fair land, only five generations back from these days of high-priced real estate, when the prairie was not a commodity. The place where you pitched your lodge on a given day did not belong to you any more than it belonged to the grasshoppers or the buffalo. No one creature or species could claim to own the land because everyone knew it was a gift, as the air, the river, and the sun were gifts also.

Such gifts shared by everyone have been called “the commons”.
“A set of assets that have two characteristics: they are all gifts, and they are all shared.” [Peter Barnes]

Commons by nature are inclusive, not exclusive. To exclude, you need fences, boundaries. Which is why the process of giving public lands to favoured private citizens in 18th and 19th century Britain was called “the enclosures.” Lands that had formerly rested in the public trust were placed by the Crown into the private hands, driving subsistence peasants, pastoralists, hunters and other traditional peoples as well as wild animals from the commons.

From the Hudson Bay Company’s original land grant, through the Treaty land alienation process, the Dominion Lands Survey and homesteading provisions, the prairie world has suffered a succession of enclosures.

The final stage of land alienation that began on the other side of the Atlantic in the 17th Century is being enacted now here in the New World, where we long ago drove from the land the original keepers of the commons. Now even the smallest remnant of anything like a commons--the federal community pastures so important to the last grassland birds--are in danger of becoming private property.

In prairie conservation circles, we are a little leery of the word, “commons” because of the experience of Frank and Deborah Popper when they advanced their concept of the Buffalo Commons in the late 1980s. It was a radical idea that flushed out into the open our Western North American myths of independence and property rights, but of course the land here was all commons until we found a way to alienate chunks of it from the unified, unbounded prairie.

But preserving at least a remnant of the commons, a set of lands that are shared and managed as part of the public trust, is a venerable tradition that runs deep in Western civilization. The PFRA pastures now being divested by the Harper Government were established originally in that spirit of a public good being served by designating and protecting the gifts of the land in a specific geography.

For more than seventy years, this last scrap of the once vast prairie commons has served the mostly unknowing public with soil conservation, carbon sequestration, and all of the other ecological goods that come with healthy biodiversity, landscapes, and waterways. A few people have always recognized their public worth. Local farmers, bird watchers, archaeologists, botanists, hikers, and photographers have found these places to be rich and evocative, stirring the soul and opening the mind to the possibilities of belonging and living here with forbearance and respect.

All of us will be excluded and many of those public benefits degraded if these lands are privatized.

If there is such a thing as the “Tragedy of the Commons” it is the loss that occurs when we stand by and let ideologues convert the commonwealth into private property.

It is time now to reclaim the last of our prairie remnants as opportunities to connect to the places we live; as geographies that can help us foster social capital around forms of agriculture that work with the gifts of the land. Our beautiful federal pastures should be treasured as the jewels that they are. They should be centres of knowledge, research and learning; places people go to learn how to use the prairie well, to discover better ways to graze livestock and restore grassland health; and to show that yes we can share the fruits of the land with one another and with the native people and indigenous species who were here for thousands of years before us.

Sharing the commons at Grassland National Park

Friday, July 13, 2012

Owlful morning on Cherry Lake

An hour or so after dawn last Sunday, I took our small kayak out for a paddle on Cherry Lake. As I stepped out of the cabin I heard the begging calls of the young Great Horned Owls that fledged recently in the valley. No surprise there. I'd been hearing them for a week but only catching a distant glimpse of one now and then. At night we'd hear their screeching come through the cabin walls from somewhere on the other side of the pasture. The next morning I'd walk out the door and find a breast feather on the grass. Young owls moult from their natal fluff into adult plumage through the summer months.

As I launched the kayak, though, I was ignoring the owl sounds, tuning it out as I had for most of the weekend. I brought the camera with me hoping to take some shots of the Forster's Terns. Soon after I was on the water I saw what I thought were a couple of night herons perched along the far shore in a clump of dead willow branches, just above the surface of the pond. The herons fish from the shoreline willows almost daily.

I lifted the camera and took a first shot. But when I blew up the image to get a closer look I found owls instead of herons.

That's one of the parents on the far right, the mother I guessed, considering her size. She left soon after she saw me coming, but the young ones stayed for a series of photos as I drifted nearer in the kayak.

There's no way to plan such an encounter but that's what I love about a 6 am paddle on the lake. It is one of the only times in my life when my will seems utterly useless and I am left with whatever the graces of water, willows, and cattails will bring my way.

"Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them." Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,  "The least we can do is try to be there."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Photo Series: Loggerheads nesting in Regina

Loggerhead Shrike, nesting in Regina (location undisclosed)

This seems to be my year for Loggerhead Shrike nests. A birder friend called a few weeks ago after he started seeing shrikes near his workplace on the edge of the city. That got me curious because I remembered them nesting not far from the same location back in the early '90s not long after we realized the species was in trouble.

Officially on the Endangered list, the shrike--a predatorial songbird--has been declining steadily over the last 25 years across its range in the grasslands of North America. When Ed first called and I went to look a couple of weeks ago, I found two adults on a chain link fence along a line of small trees. I took a couple of photos including this one and the one above . . .

. . . and then both birds flew directly into a nest in a tree near the edge of a paved parking area. Here they are at the nest (I was sixty metres away to take this shot to be sure to avoid disturbing them).

I quickly backed away and decided to return when the young were fledged and flying, less vulnerable to the intrusions of a photographer. Ed kept watch on his way to and from work and then called this week to say, "I saw at least one young one with the parents. You should come this week."

Last night I returned with the camera and met Ed. The two of us looked around and initially found one fluffy fellow on a lump of dirt.

The two adults were nearby and I took a couple of more photos and looked for other fledglings. It seemed like there was only the one. After a while, I decided to leave, but as I opened the car door, I heard some loud begging noises coming from the parking lot. There were two more young ones sitting on the pavement. Here they are mouths open, calling to be fed.

One flew up into a nearby spruce tree to get some food from a parent (on the right with the heavier mask).

Here is a close-cropped shot showing the soft plumage of the young shrikes.

And a final shot of an adult flying away over the lawn to get more bugs to feed the young. Right about now, I am feeling very grateful that there are still some of these graceful and fierce little birds on the Regina Plains. May we find a way to let there be more.

Share this post

Get widget