By Leslie Campbell, September 2015
Animals, vegetables, and a thought-provoking book.
Four years ago David and I decided to combine Focus’ July and August editions. This has allowed us to spend a good part of recent summers at our property on Quadra Island from which we watch the rhythms of nature unfold.
This summer I grew vegetables, David dug a new well and worked on a renovation project, and we both did a lot of birdwatching, reading and swimming. It was idyllic, a natural high.
One of the great books I read this summer was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a book that makes you think about what humans have done to themselves—as well as other creatures. He takes readers on a swashbuckling ride from the birth of our species 200,000 years ago, through the rise of agriculture, industry, science, empires, trade, capitalism, and monotheistic religions.
According to Harari, we are masters of embracing “improvements” that fail to improve our well-being. Harari calls the Agricultural Revolution (beginning 12,000 years ago)—as well as the growth of the modern global economy—colossal frauds. Skeletal evidence shows that our bodies were healthier as nomadic foragers, than as farmers. The latter suffered poorer diets, longer work hours, more disease (joint issues included), greater food insecurity and oppressive forms of hierarchy. “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us,” he writes. And our treatment of farm animals after we industrialized production, he says, “might well be the greatest crime in history.”
As for the capitalist-consumer ethic, he labels it a religion, one of the most successful ever because its followers “actually do what they are asked to do.” We invest (if we have capital) and we shop even if we don’t. And none of it makes us happier.
It gave me much to mull over as I tended my garden over the summer. My organic, unmechanized style of food growing definitely makes me happier than shopping, even if it does give me an aching back at times. I grow—in a small plot—carrots, potatoes, garlic (enough for close to a year), onions, beets, lettuce, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, squash, beans, peas. Gardens reflect their gardeners; I tend to cram lots in, as I do the rest of my life. It’s a bit crowded and messy but productive.
I feel very fortunate to have my patch of soil in the sun—along with David’s ability to maintain an excellent water system during the drought. Vegetable growing seems about the sanest, most soul-satisfying thing one can do in this era of rising food costs, chemical contamination, corporate agribusiness, and disconnection from the land. (I think Nathalie Chambers of Madrona Farm, interviewed in this edition about her new book Saving Farmland, might agree.)
Bird watching was another delightful and sometimes exciting occupation during our summer sojourn on Quadra. We are blessed to live across a narrow cove from a nesting pair of eagles who raise chicks every summer. This year their nest began to fall apart in high winds during July. One morning we woke to see only one of this year’s brood of two eaglets perched on a high branch of the nest-free tree.
We decided to investigate. After scrambling up the densely-ferned hillside beneath the tree, we found the wayward eaglet upright and alert—and a little freaked out.
The bird, too young to fly or feed itself, was not calling for its parents, and with their six-foot wingspans they would have had trouble getting into the forest floor in that area. They were also busy feeding the other eaglet. So we called Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society near Courtenay. Volunteers Sandy and Jackie were dispatched with a large fishnet, a dog kennel and elbow-high leather gloves. The talons of such a big nervous bird can do a lot of damage. But the mission was successful and we all survived unscathed.
Since then, Mountainaire has kept us informed about how the eaglet nicknamed “Hy II” is doing. We were happy to hear he or she was being fostered by an adult eagle who specializes in fostering (who knew!). Then it attended flight school. This fall when the salmon return to our nearby creek, it will be released back in its home territory. With a good food supply and other eagles around to show Hy II the ropes, it should do just fine. (Hy II’s sibling, by the way, is now flying and catching its own food—with a lot of guidance from its parents.)
Mountainaire has been doing this type of work since 1995. Most of the birds and other animals it rescues and rehabilitates have been injured from human-related causes. Staffed mostly by volunteers and funded by donations and some provincial gaming grants, it also conducts educational projects aimed at protecting wildlife habitat.
Which brings me to our newest Focus column. For several months, we’ve been planning a series of articles on people who work in a hands-on way to protect Victoria’s native flora and fauna. This series is written by Maleea Acker, who we profiled a few years back when her lyrical book on Garry oak meadows was published. Now pursuing doctoral studies in human geography, she seemed the perfect choice for a column about the people who dedicate themselves to nature’s protection, whether it be swallows (as in this edition), salmon, or eagles.
THOUGH I'M RELUCTANT to leave summer and Quadra behind, there’s work to do here in Victoria. There are art events, bridges, sewage systems and elections to re-focus on.
Listening to the federal election coverage, I feel dispirited by the polarization, along with the pre-packaged, rehearsed statements and promises we’re fed during campaign time.
We’ve also witnessed some pathetic games played around the leadership debates. Green leader Elizabeth May has been largely excluded for no good reason. And recently, because Mr Harper wouldn’t participate in a rare and needed debate on women’s issues, Thomas Mulcair backed out and the whole event was cancelled. Way to go boys.
Sapiens author Harari wrote that our species gained immense power during what he calls the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 to 30,000 years ago when new ways of thinking and communicating evolved. These skills allowed our ancestors to imagine collectively—and thereby tackle far more complex problems than we had previously. Ideally, our political leaders would re-inspire our collective imagination to address the many challenges facing our nation. That, however, will take more authentic communication and cooperation than certain sapiens seem capable of.
Leslie Campbell was pleased to hear the Dogwood Initiative and BC Sustainable Energy Association have teamed up to present federal election debates in Victoria on climate change and energy.