Friday, 17 March 2017

Wilderness, Wildlife and Finding Common Ground

Just in time for March break, the Cochrane Ecological Institute held a symposium in Cochrane, Alberta. The leaders of this environmental charity, responsible for the re-introduction of the Swift Fox, an extirpated species, to southern Alberta and the northern US, invited me to be one of the speakers.

I wondered: Why me?

Two other speakers (Ted Chamberlain and Sharon Butala) are Officers of the Order of Canada and have made their names writing about nature. Another speaker, Mark Winston, a bee specialist at Simon Fraser University, won the Governor General's award for his book Bee Time. Sian Waters teaches at Durham in the UK and studies the Barbary macaques of the Rif Mountains in Morocco. The speakers also included a bear specialist and a woman who owns an oil company which she insists will make "clean hydrocarbons," an idea she dreamed up while brainstorming at Richard Branson's island retreat (to which only the very clever rich are invited).

Apparently I was included because the second book I wrote, while escaping from the legal woes of my first, interested CEI's leaders. They have long memories. Cloak of Green was published in 1995, before the Internet connected everyone to everything, before Google, Facebook, Uber, self driving cars, robotic handmaids, delightful drones, and before Silicon Valley folk made millions inventing software for the CIA, as others linked our souls to the NSA. Several leaders of Canada's environmental movement were featured in Cloak of Green doing surprising things--okay, improper things-- with donated money. Clio Smeeton and Ken Weagle, founders of CEI, are environmentalists of another kind. They found the book useful. It helped explain to Smeeton why World Wildlife Fund Canada refused her request for a grant for a Swift Fox re-introduction program--until she was able to arrange a boot to that organization's back side (courtesy of Prince Philip?). Weagle had once worked for CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency] as well as the federal Department of the Environment. Some of the reportage in Cloak of Green resonated with his experiences.

It's nice to be useful, especially when it begets an invitation to an event so unique as CEI's second symposium.

Cochrane, Alberta is a very small town/bedroom community about a half hour northwest of Calgary, the Houston of the North. On a clear day in Cochrane you can see the spectacular snow-capped Rockies lording over the grasslands where buffalo once roamed, where the Blackfeet and the Blood once held sway. Just off its main street, in the hills above the town, lies the Cochrane Ranch House, a post and beam structure where the symposium was held.

I got a ride to Cochrane from Calgary with author Sharon Butala O.C. who gave a talk about how she and her now deceased husband, Peter Butala, gave the Nature Conservancy a huge swatch of ranch land in southwestern Saskatchewan. Peter Butala had inherited it from his family who had been there as ranchers since the 1880s. The land was never plowed and so still retains the biodiversity of the old Prairie before European colonizers (such as my grandparents) homesteaded and tore it apart. Neither Butala nor I knew much about CEI or what to expect from the symposium other than that Blackfoot elders would start the day with a ceremony. We had never met Smeeton or Weagle. We were invited to their home, the base of CEI and a Whale watch organization as well as an allied operation called Happy Tails Animal Retreat (which pays the bills), for dinner. We knew roast buffalo was on the menu. But nobody mentioned that relatives of those buffalo would be visible through CEI's back windows, lounging in the snow.

It was bitterly cold. The snow crunched underfoot, the sound of deep winter. CEI is off a township road about twenty minutes north of Cochrane, a slippery road because it was minus twenty, and narrow enough that I wondered if we'd find ourselves climbing out of a ditch. Though it was still light, the light was fading.  We hoped for a bright moon to find our way back to the hotel. We had just overshot CEI's gate when I spotted a large moose grazing beside the road on the wrong side of a fence. On the proper side, there was a small moose herd. What the hell, I said to Butala. I've never seen a herd of moose before, have you?

We opened the gate, drove along a track that wound through a forest of spruce and ended in a parking area in front of a house and a barn-like structure. There were open fields beyond. There were buffalo out there. People were carrying trays of food into the house. We followed. It was a ramshackle wander of a place. There was wood everywhere, wooden walls, floors, stairs to a living room loft, the whole place the work of human hands. A tall woman with short grey hair and a certain reserve stood in the main hall to greet us--Clio. She was a model in London during the Carnaby Street era and she is still a long, tall noodle of a woman. All I knew of her had been gleaned from a few emails, one explaining that her parents were great travelers, that there'd been a homestead in BC before this land was bought, but mainly that Clio grew up on the family boat sailing around the world until she fetched up in art school in London.

Her stories of her mother had intrigued me utterly: Beryl Smeeton was born into the English aristocracy, married a man 14 years her senior and ended up in Imperial India with him, unhappy. She left him after ten years and headed out of India for the UK overland: that's when for her life of adventurous travel began. She journeyed alone, in 1935, from India overland through what was then Persia under the new Shah, then across the Soviet Union on trains, without any real language skills, and with nothing but a few clothes and determination to meet people as they are, to immerse herself in the way others live. She was invited into home after home, protected, defended, entertained from Asia to Europe. She wanted to see Japan, China, southeast Asia. She met up with her brother who was in the military and was being transferred to Japan and traveled with him by train and ferry to Japan, which had just invaded Manchuria. She walked from village to village over a famous Japanese hiking trail, staying in the small hotels along its path, a strange and barbarous foreigner, then went on to China, where she traveled on foot, train, bus, and boats-- up and down the Yangtze River and west and south to the Mekong and finally out to Burma. She communicated with gestures, goodwill and a few words written in splendid calligraphy on cards, her few clothes tied up in bag and a small pack. After meeting the man she would marry next, she sailed the world, then homesteaded in British Columbia, and took off once more, with Clio in tow. They bought the land where CEI resides in 1971-- for $50 an acre. Clio picked up the adventure gene and found herself fetching a white rhino back from Africa to the Calgary Zoo where she was soon offered a job..

Clio had mentioned in an email that her mother had written about these travels.

I'd like to read that, I said.

Clio had a copy of her mother's book ready for me. It was published by a small BC press, and it should be better known. The title is  Winter Shoes in Springtime. I read it all the way home.

Sharon and I walked into the Smeeton/Weagle den, a large room with grand yet battered arm chairs set around a wood stove. A fire roared behind its glass door, tended by Ken Weagle. I had pictured a smallish man because his emails were apologetic. He turned out to be about six foot three, broad, white haired, an extremely able person who spent years in the north where he became very familiar with dogsled travel.

Why did you organize this symposium, I asked, because this setting didn't have any of the familiar symposium qualities. There were no stuffy academics to be seen, no whiteboards, just the particularity of handmade lives, some interesting pictures, many, many books, not to mention an old sextant once used by Clio's parents to find their way across the oceans of the world. What's a sextant? one of their volunteer/ students wanted to know. Is it like GPS?

We wanted to get ideas moving,Weagle explained. While they had sold lots of tickets to the symposium to raise money for CEI and were planning a "gala" dinner ( with two stand-up comedians down from Edmonton for entertainment) and a silent auction, this symposium, like last year's, would not do much to fill CEI's coffers. Though ideas matter, they take time to percolate. It will likely be the 10th CEI symposium, or the 20th that turns this into an environmentalist's version of TED.

Stories were handed round with the sherry and the wine and the gin and tonic. In the the center of the room, a large mattress was suspended by chains from the ceiling, with a giant stuffed toy for a pillow, a place for a tall person to lie down and read by the fire. The ends of the mattress appeared to have been chewed. By what? I was told to go and look out the door to the back deck. There, a moose was chowing down on dinner provided by Ken and Clio because it is recovering from injury. We stared at each other, the moose and I. Apparently that moose that had found its way into this room and had its way with the mattress.

The house was full of volunteers who helped put the symposium together, several of them young students, two learning animal care techniques as part of their degrees from European universities. They'd helped make and lay out a perfect array of smoked buffalo meat in elegant strips, buffalo meat balls, salmon and cream cheese in a mound, carrots, salads, several kinds of hummus, pita, dips, desserts. The smoked buffalo came from an animal which was once part of the herd out back. Their land can only support so many and when they had too many they gave some to the Blackfoot who had to ferry them to the reservation in cattle trailers which rocked and rolled through rush hour Calgary to the terror of the drivers. When there were still too many buffalo, Ken asked an elder of the Blackfoot named Francis to help them kill a few and take some of the meat .

I spoke in the morning, got it over with. [If you want to know what I spoke about, click here for the pdf. It was about how wilderness and wildlife are bad ideas that should have died in the 19th century and that we need to recognize that we humans are not singular organisms above nature, but meta-organisms which do the bidding of the bacteria, Archaea and fungi whose cells outnumber our own ten to one in every one of us.] At noon, Ken and Clio were asked to step down onto the stage because the Blackfoot had decided to give them Blackfoot names, to bring them into the Blackfoot community.

Francis, the elder, sat on the stage, his feet in moccasins, with his eagle headdress firmly set on his head. He is a big man, broad, with a big belly which he cupped in his hands.  He instructed a younger elder on where Ken and Clio should stand, and how their blankets should be be wrapped -- over their clothes, over one shoulder and under the other, almost as a Roman toga was once worn. Francis told us the story of why these names were being given. The Swift Fox reintroduction was part of it, but really it was more about the reestablishment of the buffalo. When Ken called Francis to offer him some, Francis had been ill, barely able to imagine getting himself up to Cochrane and CEI let alone helping with the kill, but he'd called around and found help. Francis explained that at that time he had had many ailments, especially diabetes. Yet when the buffalo meat was given to him, the buffalo having once been everything to the Blackfoot, their meat, sinew, bone, hide, all of it used either as food, or for making tools, or for making homes, or for making clothes, his health problems just vanished. He spoke of the Creator and of spirits. He sang.

For some reason that I can't quite explain, Francis' s ideas and stories were the most affecting of the day, not that this naming and the beauty of it really needs an explanation.

It just needs to be shared.

So here is a picture of Clio and Ken getting the names they have earned in their long and fruitful lives upon this earth.


  1. What are your thoughts on the 'decolonization' movement?

  2. Wow.. almost $1400 for that Cloak of Green on Amazon today.. sheesh... more than worth its weight in gold.. I gift a copy to my sister in Alberta... Dr. Tim Ball always recommends it too.