For the early part of my life I had the incredible good fortune to live the summer months embedded in rural Ontario. During those months I was immersed in the daily activities of running a half cottage, half hobby farm. It was a family owned property that supported a couple of acres of vegetables, dairy cattle and chickens perched on the edge of a lake that offered a full range of swimming and boating options.
It was a childhood paradise living under the sky only to be forced indoors at the end of the day by the discomforts of biting insects, nightfall and the insistence of adults. Nature was home, familiar, welcoming and full of creatures large and small, domestic and wild all cherished accomplices to a youthful adventurer.
One grows up, life moves on and like almost everyone now I ended up living in a city – Toronto. Not in the suburbs but smack downtown in the shadow of the CN tower in the St. Lawrence Market neighborhood. It was an equally valued home as the Ontario countryside only different. Toronto is engaging, meaningful, chocked full of opportunity, sports, cultural and business related thrills and pursuit. Some evenings, at loose ends, I would catch a breath of air (fresh?) and stretch my legs by walking up Yonge St. – Front to Bloor and back – a thoroughly enjoyable outing.
Cities are not only where most people end up, urban intensification is also touted as a solution to many of our environmental troubles. Proximity to work, shopping, transit and community are determined to be effective means of minimizing travel, space requirements and reducing the environmental footprint of a crowded planet. In fact the LEED green building rating system scores highly urban locations and transit nodes as determinants of the degree of sustainability it attributes to a property.
All the while I was living in Toronto I imagined our family property, which as an acreage has remained essentially unchanged in its dimensions, no longer a farm but still a cottage, would continue untouched by the human hand. I imagined a place that would somehow always retain its basic character – same plants, birds, water and the look and feel of a quarter century earlier.
Now after many years I have had the incredibly good fortune once again to return to that enclave of early sweetness and there have been some discoveries. It isn’t the same. It is really very different and some changes it isn’t easy to recall, describe or fully understand. While the owners have done little to alter the landscape the winds of change have blown in from beyond its border.
No barn swallows, where in the past flocks used to lined the electrical wires in the evenings, eating their weight in insects, swooping, diving, chattering and tormenting building owners by nesting where they weren’t welcome. No wrens, humming birds, meadow larks, king birds, purple martens but a lot of crows and vultures. The first birds in the morning a robin, a blue jay, a chickadee and a sprinkling of other songs where an orchestra of voices once filled the air.
No water snakes, salamanders, toads and a distinct decline in the number of smaller frogs and common garter snakes. There seems to be a bonanza of turtles and some larger frogs but not the same mix as in the past – a different sound emanates from the marshes.
While the water is still fairly clear the lake bottom is now covered in a thick layer of algae that clings to rock, soil and sea weed alike. An algae bloom in the spring appears like huge green cauliflower beneath the surface that in the heat of the summer settles to the lake bottom.
Uncountable numbers of zebra mussels clinging to the rocks and crevices of the lake bottom and around the docks and shorelines making walking in the water treacherous. Fewer pan fish, the rock bass, perch and sunfish that used to swarm around the dock always willing to grab a hook and worm just as the line hit the water.
There are also the new arrivals such as deer, coyotes, bears and raccoons in healthy numbers unknown in the days when farmers eliminated animals that preyed on their livestock and crops.
There is a flourishing collection of noxious plants that thrive in the warmer summers, poison ivy, sumac, grape vines and now also the giant hog weed. These are plants that are known to have adverse reactions when in contact with people or to readily steal the sustenance from another species.
Co-incidentally, or perhaps not, this summer I had a skin reaction to an as yet unidentified plant that wasn’t poison ivy – the result of a gardening incident – that created permanently scaring blisters. In the past I have been immune to plant toxins and able to stroll through fields of nasty and prickly weeds with little concern.
These are some of the obvious changes to our family’s country property that are easy to point out. Then there are all the things that you can’t quite recall or place a finger on – a forgotten flower, bird, tree, bush, butterfly or insect. Come to think of it there is tons of milkweed but not many monarch butterfly caterpillars.
The environment is simply not as diverse, lively, bright or full of the same rich mixture of sounds and sights. While it is still nature with all its infinite attractions, in my view, the quality of the environment has quite obviously deteriorated.
I wonder how many people living in cities were raised in similar rural settings? How many of them are living with this fantasy that their sanctuary awaits them? Given that there has been an unprecedented trend toward urbanization over the last 50 years I imagine many Canadians are in this category.
There is also a whole generation of people who will experience nature, as we know it today as ‘normal’. For them the missing animals, algae infested water, the invasive species are all simply the way it is – it is their starting point – a new lower standard and expectation.
Furthermore with such a high proportion of the population living in cities how accurately is the environment going to be understood, observed and monitored and who is going to do it. Environmental scientists already suffer a credibility gap evidenced by the recent debate about whether climate change is caused by humans.
While urbanization presents a genuine solution for slowing the pace of climate change it may also produce an environmental amnesia amongst a generation of city dwellers. Paradise Earth of only 25 years ago is rapidly becoming a forgotten World, residing in the memory of an aging population, many of whom naively may think it still exists. A robust and healthy planet is being replaced by media imagery of the way it used to be perpetuating the belief that beyond the urban boundary little has change.
This is a personal account of my observations over the summer of 2010. While I prefer to dwell on solutions I occasionally feel compelled to remind myself, and others, that the natural world is suffering at our hands. It is also important, once in a while, to reinforce what an enormous loss we are experiencing by not preserving the natural environment.