A friend in need

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The smooth-skinned and often rain-slicked Arbutus tree is only found on the salty, mist drenched coast of Vancouver Island and close surrounds. Growing nowhere else across Canada, its naked trunk is a specific marker in this unique biome. 

Steller’s Jay, the mohawked goth relative of the Blue Jay, is the official bird of British Columbia. Their bright blue and grey heads are often seen foraging in my backyard, alongside red-breasted sapsuckers, hummingbirds, and many others I have yet to identify. 

Sitka, spruce, cedar, and pine are four variations of the towering trees surrounding me, silhouetted against the vibrant sunrises and sunsets that seem to roll in from the open ocean each day. The trees are solemn – ancient, perhaps – and welcoming. 

On rainy days, and there are many, mist hangs heavy and branches drip while moss and fungi proliferate. I’ve learnt how to identify Queen Anne’s Lace, and wild carrot; mountain currant, dill, and the difference between yellow and red cedar. The grey, clouded sky envelops the coast like a weighted blanket, soothing and soft. 

On sunny days, the sky stretches so wide to meet the sea, and from rocky outcrops, the competing brilliance of each blue points back to the shore as if to say “look, so wild.” Branches rustle, and grasses nod in agreement with the Pacific winds.

I moved to the Pacific Northwest just four short months before the pandemic began. I’ve lived in many places, but never somewhere the landscape speaks to me quite like this. The coast of British Columbia has been the soft “oh” of a puzzle piece, long missing, gently dropping into place. I’m grateful for this. 

Many, many people have turned to the natural world for solace this year, and rightfully so. This year has, by necessity, been a time for turning inwards and for introspection. It’s immensely comforting to discover a whole ecosystem, untouched by our fears, continuing on with no concern for us. Nature has been a salve, a distraction, and a comforting friend in this, the year of 2020 – the year where seemingly anything is plausible, so long as it’s causing suffering to someone, somewhere. 

This year has cast a stark spotlight on our systems and our societal philosophies. There are many things we know we need to preserve and improve now. Community. Access to support. Healthcare. Well-funded, innovative science. 

So, what then becomes of our new-found friend Nature, as vaccines emerge and with them, a glimmer of hope? Will we turn our back on a friend in need? 

We can’t continue to admire our backyard roses or wild raspberries in a ditch while ignoring a year where wildfires raged on all continents except Antarctica or the four preceding years of deliberate, willful undoing of crucial regulation and legislation protecting our natural world – a world that grows and migrates across our borders, too. Can we? 

We already know that as humanity encroaches on more wild territory than ever seen in human history, our relationships with the natural world are becoming more fraught with silent risk. As I write this, 58.6 million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded worldwide, stemming from a virus that made the transition to a human host. MERS, a similar respiratory virus, has been percolating in the Middle East for years, jumping from camel to human and back again. SARS and swine flu, mad cow disease, scrapie, and dozens of other potential risks to human health sit in labs, all linked back to one source: animal husbandry. 

Seventeen million mink will be killed by the end of this year, after endemic COVID-19 infection was found in fur factory farms, skipping from mink to human and back again – just like the camels. Whether you feel that seventeen million animals of any sort should be raised and killed for their skin is a personal opinion, but I fail to see how it can be part of a path forward. 

Crop monoculture is not-so-slowly eroding the nutrient-rich topsoil across the globe, leading to desertification of vast tracts of land; this is the same land we rely on to support the food chain delivering broccoli to our local Safeway. Arable land is receding, and monoculture also puts our crops at high risk for targeted pests – if you’ll recall, this year also featured a locust plague – so, what’s going wrong here, and why aren’t we moving faster to do something?

I recognize this has been the year of Very Bad News, and I am not currently helping. However, hidden amongst the overwhelmingly scary list of things we’re doing wrong to the planet is hope.   

Right now, we crowd animals together; we grow monoculture crops; we spray ever-increasing amounts of chemicals in the face of growing evidence that there is, in fact, a better way. Not a more PC way, or a more liberal way, but a science-backed, evidence-based pathway forwards. And herein lies the crux: there is another way. 

Here’s what I’m asking you today. If you have spent any amount of this horrible, no-good, anxiety-riddled year taking solace in your garden, your provincial parks, your local dog park, a lake, a beach, the little herbs growing on your apartment balcony, any small piece of the natural world, please – hold that appreciation close, even when Target opens again. Return the favour; learn more about one single action you can take. Maybe you’ll learn to compost, or just stop littering, or start writing emails to your local politican about environmental policy. Whatever it is, it will be one step on a cumulative path. 

Where does this path lead? It leads towards a future where fewer people will be displaced due to irreversible climate disaster, where agricultural production is sustainable, and where we can all finally sit back and enjoy the damn roses.  

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