Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fallout from the Quest for Gold

A century after the gold fever changed the landscape of British Columbia, Alaska, and Yukon, the lust for this metal continues to kill. But this time it’s galvanized iron that’s doing the deadly work. A network of telegraph lines was built at the turn of the twentieth century using wire that does not corrode or crumble. The sad irony of its durability is that when wire sags or falls to the ground, either from trees falling on it or due to collapse of the original poles, it ends up in the perfect position to snag and trap moose (and cariboo further north). My husband came upon this silent tragedy as he foraged for lobster mushrooms east of Sand Lake in the Nass Valley north of Terrace, BC. Trained as an electrician, he recognized the type of wire right away: number 8 galvanized wire about 5 millimeters thick. On a one-kilometer stretch of abandoned telegraph line he found three moose skeletons tangled in the wire, some older and covered in moss and others more fresh. He wanted to cry, and was glad I was not with him to see the devastation.

In our research aided by Bill Miller’s “Wires in the Wilderness” we identified this stretch of telegraph line as part of the Stewart branch of the Yukon Telegraph built in 1910-1911. From this book I was shocked to learn that the problem of wildlife entrapment in abandoned wire has been known at least since 1941. The wire, a small segment of which I saw myself closer to the highway, is bright and shiny as on the day it was installed. The metal used to galvanize it is toxic enough to cut an inch-wide swatch of bare soil through the mossy forest floor. Having no camera or cell phone on him my husband was unable to document what he found, but the picture in an article from September 2015 is representative. WARNING: while not graphic per se, the photo is heartrending. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/moose-caught-in-telegraph-wire-euthanized-by-yukon-wildlife-officer-1.3228290

This moose in Yukon was put out of his suffering relatively quickly, but countless others die slow agonizing deaths that will continue as long as the wire remains on the ground. Reading this article brought me mixed feelings of sorrow and relief - sorrow to realize how widespread this problem is, and relief to know that efforts, no matter how slow and inadequate, are being made to correct it. Misery loves not so much company as solidarity. On my part I shall work to bring the problem to the attention of the media and the BC government, and if it comes to that - maybe organize a volunteer campaign to go into the bush and remove the wire. On your part you can help by spreading the word, and if you have experience with this or similar issues, please share it or help me get in touch with people who might be willing to help. Let’s join forces, and I will keep you, my readers, appraised of the developments.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Show and Tell: Pelion, and a Cat's-Eye View of England

Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words must have had some seriously chatty friends not keen on taking photos. But there is truth behind every exaggeration. In this post I'm letting pictures of our recent trip to Pelion (Greece) and London do most of the talking. At the above rate of conversion, it's probably one of the longest blog posts out there.

Unlike much of Greece, the Pelion peninsula is lush and green from the many creeks and waterfalls carrying melting snow from Mount Pelion. We visited this area during the off season and before most of the hotels and guesthouses had opened, and although this left the village of Agios Ioannis looking somewhat like a ghost town, it was eerily pleasant to have the beaches to ourselves.

The water off the Aegean coast of Pelion is very clear, but strangely enough there is no algae in the sea, and none washed up on the shore. The colour variations in the rock of this grotto are quite something. The black horizontal streaks are dried oil from a spill (several, actually) that happened some twenty years ago.
"Networking" has a different meaning on Pelion. The entire peninsula is crisscrossed with stone paths built some five hundred years ago for donkey transport. No cement was used to hold the stones in place; they were simply driven into the ground. Ridges of taller stones make a sort of ladder for the donkeys' hooves. The animals have been replaced with trucks, but the paths will last at least another five hundred years, and are great for hiking from anywhere to just about anywhere else on the peninsula. The piles of manure (not shown) on the paths around larger towns are not from donkeys but from horses who get hired out to tourists. For some reason it is assumed that tourists do not care for donkey rides, although I would have loved to go on one.

This donkey living in a meadow outside Volos is one of the few that remain on Pelion. She is kept more as a pet than for practical purposes, has plenty to eat, and, being a highly intelligent animal, is easily bored. After the first introduction she would greet our approach with loud braying.

The forests of Pelion are cool and shady, especially along the banks of streams. This bridge outside the village of Tsagarada is a couple of hundred years old. The Roman arch technique is amazing in its reliability: the vertically-placed stones outlining the arch are wedged tightly against each other under the weight of the bridge. There is no way this structure can crumble, since there is nowhere for the stones to fall.

Sweet cold water flows from a spring into the basin of a waterhouse. Everywhere along Pelion’s roads there are small stone grottos with a faucet. Even the lion has been recruited. 

Now that’s a giant peacock moth to end all moths. We were very glad to find resting on the grass in an olive orchard. It was there early in the morning and it was still there seven hours later as we returned from our hike, a welcome and a farewell to a day in the hills.

This fellow was barked up the pole by two rather impolite dogs (who fortunately followed us and left him alone). Like any cat caught in great embarrassment, he desperately wished we’d go away.

A fog bank rolls toward land in the early morning. On hot days moisture evaporates from the sea and condenses overnight into fog that reaches the hills and seeps along gorges. The mist usually clears by midday if the sun is working well. There were no ghosts inside it, but I can see why the Greeks pictured Hades as souls of the dead poking around in a fog. It is a place of coldness and confusion.


This very pregnant lady came to the door of our condo and appointed us as her providers, but remained independent between meals. Unlike many stray animals in Greece, she approached us without hesitation or fear. We don’t know what awaits her and her kittens, but we’re glad our journeys crossed and we could give her affection, if only for a short time.

Seven years ago my husband came to Pelion for the first time with the assumption that it is arid and has no trees. As a German who can't stop working on holiday and who will not be stranded without material for his carvings, he brought with him from Canada a large bag of wood pieces. Then he met a few centuries-old platans in the village of Tsagarada. If trees could laugh...

I don’t know the name of this tree, but it seems to live in two seasons, with last fall’s berries right next to this spring’s blossoms.

Sunrise on the Aegean sea happens very fast, as if the sun is making a running start before slowing down for its daily traverse.

Peter and a tomcat share a moment of male bonding. But not without some disagreement over who has the sexier moustache.

The lovely turquoise waters off Damouchari beach.

Pelion's little narrow gauge-train that could, and did.

On this visit to London I met Benjamin the cat who was drawn to church by the holy spirit - a very warm and comforting holy spirit. No wonder Benjamin raised a howl when I interrupted his devotions. It made for rather interesting acoustics.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

To End All Wars

Today is a day to reflect on the meaning of World War I and to make sense of the lives lost in the horror that was supposed to end all wars. When I was younger I rebelled against the words "hero," "service" and "sacrifice" in a context where people - and animals used in war - had no choice in the matter. I was enraged by the arrogance that permitted humans to drag innocent animals into a carnage of their making. Now that I'm getting old(er), I have come to realize that a sacrifice need not be voluntary; most, in fact, are not. But I still insist that it must not be wasted, and today I have been reflecting on what this means.

At this point it is customary to show your credentials. Russia pulled out of WWI to attack itself and thereby made it much easier on Germany (a bad thing to do), but my grandfather served in the Soviet air force during WWII (a good thing to do), so these contributions even themselves out. This says absolutely nothing about my own virtue or glory. My grandfather taught me how to be systematic and not make empty promises, but I did not defend Moscow in December 1941. My husband, born and raised in Germany, had no hand in starting WWII. We both left behind the countries of our birth because of irreconcilable differences with them, and because Canada really is unique in its benevolence and capacity to bring out the best in people. Still, I don't wear a poppy on this day: as the literal-minded person I am, I must first figure out exactly what it means.

It is common knowledge that as a Russian in WWII my grandfather fought for freedom and against evil. Interestingly enough, so did my husband's grandfather, a fighter pilot with the Wehrmacht - so he was told, so he believed. Everyone wants freedom, everyone knows it's a good thing. The word works miracles, for better and for worse. This magic word is indispensable if you're going to put the burden of an emperor's wayward madness on working grunts and have them destroy working grunts of a different nationality. If your emperor won't give you freedom while you live, you can at least die wishing for it and blaming a foreign land for taking it away. Those other guys had it right: World War I was supposed to end all wars. It didn't, and there will likely be more. The best I can wish for is that we stop dragging freedom into this sordid affair to make it look prettier than it is.

The nature of today's wars is already very different. We may not be dying for our country or even someone else's, but a distant war is never entirely foreign to us. What worries me is the carelessness with which Canada is extending its naive benevolence to victims of the war in Syria. Such promises are not to be made lightly; these people are not an opportunity for us to feel pleased with ourselves. I am afraid Canada is unprepared for such a commitment because I see on each volunteer trip to a First Nations reserve how badly it has failed to understand a different culture already living here, and to coexist with it into the present day. To this day the white man is simply afraid to speak to native folk as to grown people, preferring to treat them as perpetual children to be placated rather than taken seriously. To assume that the newcomers will just melt with gratitude in the warm glow of our benevolence is nothing short of arrogance, a 21st century version of the white man's superiority. I do not know what the practical solution to this is, but I firmly believe that charity begins at home, and must be our priority until the very word "charity" becomes obsolete.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Darla of the Foggy Raincoast

On a November morning in the Pacific Northwest Darla wakes to pouring rain. At least it’s dry where she’s taking shelter, and the three children who are with her are warm and well fed. But carrying and raising them is draining her strength, and Darla cannot live such a life for much longer. With some persuasion from a friend she trusts, she has come today to the clinic where her life will be changed.

Darla has the most beautiful eyes, and a quiet dignity about her which some might call shyness. She is gentle and loving, and her many children have grown up to be like her. Perhaps this is why they are so highly prized and why she was left to have many litters of puppies until her owner made the decision to have her spayed. She lives on the Ahousaht First Nations reserve on Flores island off the Pacific coast, a place of rare and wild natural beauty. The very idea of owning and keeping animals is alien to people who had a deep bond with nature before the advent of the white man, but it is here to stay, and the way the Ahousaht community relate to the animals in their care is changing. There is a growing understanding that dogs and cats are as vulnerable as people, not part of wild nature that must be left alone to follow its wisdom. Only a few days before the Canadian Animal Assistance Team arrived in Ahousaht for its fourth makeshift clinic here, Darla’s owner was one of the first to come to the rescue of the passengers and crew of the whale watching boat “Leviathan” that capsized not far from Flores island. The community felt deep grief for those who perished and joy for the lives saved. Life here is tough, and precious.

Darla’s day at the clinic begins with an exam to make sure she is healthy enough to undergo surgery. Next she is given an injection to make her drowsy and prevent pain before it is sparked off, but as the vigilant mother she is, she resists going to sleep. The drugs win, and sleep gets the better of her. A swatch on her arm is shaved to put in an intravenous catheter, a portal through which she will receive fluids to keep her blood pressure from dropping during surgery. But first it is used for induction, an injection that makes her completely unconscious and unable to feel my instruments and hands as I operate. A tube is placed in her windpipe to make sure she has an airway and to deliver oxygen should she need it. I make a cut in her belly, as small as I can, and remove her ovaries and uterus after tying off the blood vessels that feed them. I close her up, and she is taken to the recovery area where she will be watched as she slowly comes awake. An injection of pain medication is given to keep her comfortable for the next 24 hours, after which she will take this medicine in her food. Her puppies, the last of the children she will raise, were napping blissfully while she went through her transformation. As soon as she is able to get up, she is reunited with them, and her relief is obvious. She stands while they nurse, then watches over them as they eat solid food with ravenous gusto. All four settle into a siesta, the pups to sleep off their lunch and Darla to sleep off her anesthetic. Her remarkably loud snoring is her only unladylike quality.

Late in the afternoon Darla and her pups are taken to the home where she will recover and continue to raise them in warmth of every kind. The first part of her life was spent caring for her children and trusting people to do right by her. People have come through for her, and it is her turn to be loved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Scaredy Cats and the People Who Love Them

One feature of Halloween will always be lost on me: I am incapable of being frightened by animals. Naturally existing animals or their fictional derivatives, it doesn't matter. Spiders, bats, toads and snakes are all invaluable sources of that burst of adrenalin that sends normal people running and shrieking, but I'm afraid all they do for me is send me into a frenzy of dotage: "Oh, look at that cute little spider/snakey/[insert name of hideous and repulsive animal of your choice]." If the animal is not downright venomous or obviously rabid, I will try to pick up and cuddle it. As for mythical creatures like werewolves, well, those are really just people pretending to be animals. What self-respecting wolf goes around grunting and slobbering like that? We know that animals are simply more competent and effective than we are - we know, because we used to be them, - and on Halloween we express our admiration and nostalgia in clumsy and roundabout ways.

Last week I was awakened in the middle of the night by a shaking and quaking of my pillow. My first thought was that I must have imagined it. (We have no pets because we both travel too often.) When the quaking repeated itself, my next thought was that it must be an animal, because my husband was right there and sleeping. It had to be. A normal person would have been scared out of their wits. I know this because everyone I'd told the story assumed that I was scared (which also means I've been mistaken for a normal person). All I thought was, "Cool: an animal. Touching me. Way cool! Let's see who it is." Never mind that it was impossible for an animal to be there. Suspension of disbelief works much better when you're only half awake. I turned around and saw a cat on the windowsill. A fully-grown cat had materialized inside a closed room. I stretched out my hand to let him sniff, and we made contact. I patted the mosquito net to evaluate the size of the hole he'd torn to get inside. But of course there was no hole, and he'd never got in through the window. He wanted out, not in. By now I was awake enough to realize he'd got in through the open balcony door during the daytime, had hidden under the bed as we walked into the apartment, and had lain in wait until the middle of the night. Maybe he was scared, or maybe he'd fallen asleep. Until he decided it was time to pee or eat or return home. I let him out on the balcony and he went back down the way he'd come. One cool cat.

So the stories I find scary never contain animals. And here is the next installment of this week's Halloween Reads from Angela Kulig: www.angelakulig.com/2015/10/halloween-reads-2015-day-two.html

My "Day of the Dead" is among them. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Be Very Afraid - or as Much as You'd Like to Be

I don't know what it is about the appeal of Halloween, and that's a good thing: If I knew, it might not work. Which would be a bad thing because I love Halloween, I love to be scared. It seems that we have an organic need for fear as much as for air and water and you-know-what. (Of course I'm talking about coffee, you dirty people!) Our modern lives are built on a foundation of safety. Safety is an expectation, an entitlement, and a cult. But as creatures who evolved by surviving and overcoming danger, it's in our blood to take perverse pleasure in fear. Fear is our friend and our saviour. And in a culture sanitized by safety, we turn to movies and books for our daily allowance of fear.

Especially books, and especially this week. My "Day of the Dead" (appearing tomorrow) is among a number of books featured by the lovely Angela Kulig on her blog. Do check them out. And next time you clean, don't be too pleased about killing the 99.9% of germs. It's the surviving 0.01% you might want to be worried about. Very, very worried... www.angelakulig.com/2015/10/halloween-reads-2015-day-one.html

Friday, October 2, 2015

If I May Ride into the Sunset

Before a difficult surgery yesterday I was fortunate to spend some quiet moments alone with a cat. He snuggled up to me for security and warmth, I snuggled up to him for primal peace that only an animal can give. His purring radiated through me in soft waves and melted away my worries and my very thoughts. There was only the cat and myself in the universe, the two of us oscillating with dumb gratitude for our lives. But since I can't banish thoughts for very long, they came back soon enough. I though about the less healthy animals I had held like this, some on their way to recovery and others at the end of their life's journey. I thought about who would be with me when my turn came to say goodbye to life, and for the first time I gave it serious thought. I knew it would not be my dear husband - I hope not, as he is incapable of being alone. I hope he precedes me, but not because I want to live longer. While I would be devastated to lose him, I have a feral and solitary self I can revert to. He does not. We have no children, and I do not wish to be comforted by strangers. Right then I knew that I wanted to hug an animal close to me as I made my exit. If I am fortunate enough to plan this moment and lucid enough to make this request, if I have enough feeling in my shrivelled skin to delight in the softness of fur, the warmth of a sniffing nose and a tongue grooming my face, I will go out with this kind of flourish. I would like to hope I have earned this privilege.

The surgery went well, and for that I am thankful to the cat. He made my hands steady and cautious, and my purpose bold and brazen. He reminded me that the rest of the world is none of my concern at such moments.