Environmentalists & Naturalists

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The Way of the Gardener

The Way of the Gardener

Lost in the Weeds Along the Camino de Santiago
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Not on My Watch

Not on My Watch

How a renegade whale biologist took on governments and industry to save wild salmon
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Wonder and Resistance

When I was a child I was drawn to animals, especially the wild ones, and to the ponds and forests where they lived. I was curious. I tracked them and watched them. No matter whether I was looking into the gold-flecked eye of a frog, or at the way a deer held her ears as she stepped out of the forest at sunset, animals were mysterious, beautiful and wise. When I turned eight, I knew wanted to become a scientist but I wasn’t sure how. The only picture of a woman scientist that I had seen was of Madame Curie, and I was afraid to become that person in the blurry picture wearing a white lab coat. At the same time I realized that only small children “played with animals.” A growing dread consumed me. To grow up I needed to stop spending time in the woods and marshes. I still remember the sensation of stopping myself from looking under a piece of wood where I knew a snake almost certainly lay coiled.

Then just before Christmas 1965, I received an issue of National Geographic with Jane Goodall on the cover. I stared at it. The outer world paused and went silent as I sank to the dark brown carpet of my mother’s study. I pored over every picture of this beautiful woman, looking perfectly happy, who studied chimpanzees in the frightening jungle. Was she real? I felt an explosion of joy as the walls I was building around myself crumpled and the inner compass I was trying to redirect slipped free. I would follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall. That was my promise to me. Seeing those pictures of Jane gave me my life. Thank you so much, Jane, for allowing National Geographic to expose your work and your paradise, no small sacrifice, I realized years later.

Over the next decade, I read every book about scientists who, following in Goodall’s footsteps, went into the wilderness to study an animal. And I saw a pattern. While they began as people driven by curiosity and the need to understand, they inevitably became “activists,” though none of them used that term back then. The more they understood the animal they had chosen to study, the more urgently they felt the need to stand in the way of the crushing advance of human appetite for the land on which the animal relied or for the creature itself. I felt sad for these scientists. They had to abandon the dream they had worked so hard for. They had to leave the jungle, savannah or ocean to confront the people who were causing the damage. Once the scientists found the perpetrators, they had to figure out how to stop them.

Dr. Jane Goodall did more than reveal the origins of our humanness through her science; she demonstrated that becoming a groundbreaking scientist didn’t require a loss of compassion. Other scientists criticized her heavily from the start for giving the chimps she was studying names instead of numbers. Today she admits in her lectures that she went into a conference on primates a wildlife biologist and came out an activist, when she refused to accept the methods of her colleagues, who, in the name of science, were torturing primates in a way that horrified her.

I took this all in and decided I was not going to be shoved off my life’s path. I was going to plug my ears, ignore the “issues” and follow my dream to the end. I was going to decipher the language of some large-brained non-human species, creating a Rosetta stone of sorts to end the solitude of my species. We needed to hear what another animal on this planet was saying, I thought, because it seemed that we were going mad in our isolation. A lofty aim for a teenager, I know, but this is what I wanted to do. Of course things are so much simpler when you are a child, and so I failed to stay true to my fifteen-year-old self. What I didn’t realize back then was that if I ignored the impact humans were having on the animals I had chosen to study, I would end up studying their extinction.

It gets even more complex. Scientists who go to learn about animals in the remote regions of our planet also meet Indigenous people. While the peoples and cultures that evolved over thousands of years in one place are adapted to their home environment, the scientist is, in many ways, an introduced species.

When I first arrived in the remote archipelago on the west coast of Canada, where I still live, to study whales—my chosen large-brained mammal—I didn’t understand the land, the animals or the people. I had no idea how to respond to storms or predators or where to find food. I didn’t immediately recognize the difference between the nomads of the planet, meaning people who moved generation after generation, and the people who spent thousands of years in one place. Over the years I have encountered instances where my Indigenous companions have heard and felt things I don’t. Asking them questions didn’t help. I was simply not adapted to the place and did not have the internal hardware to perceive some things.

However, the act of doing science—decades of continuously counting the number of birds or fish, the minutes between whale blows, the date the herring arrived, the amount of rainfall—leads to a gradual understanding of a place. I learned to expect the rush of black and silver herring schools roiling beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, pulling huge spring salmon in their wake, with the A-clans of the northern resident orca on their tails. As I began to feel the pulse of this place, I perceived the difference between “normal” and exceptional. For example, a healthy run of salmon as opposed to a run of salmon that never arrived. Seeing the missing pieces is important, too, because they affect the world as much as the things I can see.

No scientist can spend ten thousand years becoming finely tuned to a place, but the constant counting, measuring and weighing, then analyzing data to reveal the trends of life, can bring scientists into alignment with Indigenous viewpoints. As a result, when the big machines of industry advance on us, whether clear-cutting forests, damming rivers to flood valleys or exterminating animals for profit, scientists can see the running cracks as they form, undoing the entire web of life. We see the disappearances. We are emotionally hurt by the loss and naturally move to take a stand with the people of the place, the Indigenous people. In all the books I read as a child I didn’t notice this alliance, but when I went back to them as an adult I realized it was there. It is not an easy relationship for many reasons, but saving our planet and acting in accordance with Indigenous tradition are one and the same.

Salmon and people came back to the coast of British Columbia together ten thousand years ago as the glaciers receded. The land had been scraped down to bare rock by the crushing weight of the ice. Salmon, swimming up the rivers by the millions to spawn and then die, helped rebuild the soil, feeding trees that eventually decayed, became soil and fed new forests. As much as killing was important to the survival of the humans, so was stewardship. They had to make sure they left enough for tomorrow, for their children, for the future.

Alliances between scientists and the people of the land are forged because in very different ways we personally experience the changes, we feel the death of the land and this urgency drives us. Thinking I could ignore the urge to push back against the destruction of the place I came to think of as home was a child’s view, because standing in this place, the harm was advancing on me as well.

I have so many questions. Do world leaders and CEOs of oil companies, manufacturers of pesticides and myriad other destructive industries experience niggling concern for their own children? Do they worry whether their gated community can withstand the brute force of the runaway fires, floods and storms of this new climate regime they are creating? If so, they must hope, if even for an instant, that someone is going to throw on the brakes and make sure there is enough left for their children to thrive. Can they see that they are behaving like addicts to rising share price, that they are on a treadmill with no off switch, harming their own, as they take us straight to Armageddon? Do these questions strike you as extreme? If they do, you might find that by the time you finish my account of this fight to save the wild salmon, the whales and ultimately the humans of the Pacific Northwest Coast, you might be asking even more pointed questions yourself. Especially given that as I’m finishing this manuscript, the world is in the grip of a viral pandemic that is revealing the cracks in the artificial web of life we hastily constructed and now depend on.

A recent prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, said that environmental activists are “terrorists” and he began legislating how such terrorists would be dealt with. He miscalculated. Canadians, for the most part, did not accept this characterization and pushed back in the most wonderful way, by realizing they were activists too. This grassroots support took the target off our backs and allowed us continue our work to keep natural systems alive.

Activists are trying to protect all our children. If we, as a society, fail to bequeath a planet to future generations that can support human civilization, we will be the target of hate as hate has never been felt before. It is not hard to see that we are stealing the ability to thrive from future generations, but even as the destruction continues, the tide is turning.

Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, calls activists Earth’s immune response. Jane Goodall, a beacon, assures scientists that it’s okay to be an activist—that, morally, you have to be an activist. I now can add that it feels good to be an activist. It feels good to refuse to allow yourself to be chased—to turn around and meet those who are killing the planet with everything you are.

To undertake this journey from whale researcher to front-line activist was not a choice. The other option was to go numb and pray that I truly was powerless, that there really was nothing I could do. However, nothing is very big. Doing nothing requires thousands of decisions to look the other way, withdraw your hand, clench the change in your pocket, scoff, duck, lie and feed the very thing that is killing us.

The governments and industry I’ve been facing off with over the impact of fish farming on the marine waters of British Columbia had a game plan. They knew what and who was going to get hurt, and they knew how to feign concern while their actions and inactions pushed wild salmon and all the beings that depend on them towards extinction. Did they think the changes caused by the devastating pathogen spillage from industrial salmon feedlots would be better for us all in the long run? I don’t think so. But I do know that some people had made a decision to support the industry ahead of all other concerns. I learned that ministers of government had almost no idea what is going on; their senior bureaucrats, working in offices a couple of flights downstairs, were the architects of what happened here. The ones who ignored all the evidence must have known they were up to no good. While they were careful about leaving fingerprints, once they caught my interest, I followed them through access to information requests for their internal communications like I had once followed whales. You’ll see that I did not find innocence or good intentions.

Many scientists are sending increasingly urgent messages to society that we are hurting ourselves, the way our fingertips send messages to the brain to pull our hands out of a fire. Bureaucrats try to insert themselves like sponges, absorbing our messages and wringing them out into sealed receptacles, making sure no one notices and can react. They tell their bosses and the world that we are activists, not real scientists. Our funding dwindles, we endure financial ruin, our careers do not advance and our own colleagues and allies step away from us. We are slandered and our science is smothered, unless we can outsmart them.

This is my story. I tell it because we learn from stories such as mine. During the first two decades in which I tried to save the ecosystem I live in, I refused to use the word fight, but I have adopted that term now. This is the story of a fight to keep part of this Earth alive.

I have seen a lot, worked with people who could not be more different from each other and from myself, and watched in wonder as decades of failure mysteriously blossomed into a movement, an uprising, and caused change. I don’t know yet if that change will be enough—I am waiting to hear from the wild salmon on this—but I know the survival of this part of the planet depends on this fight and everyone who stepped into the ring.

I have been on the front lines now for so long I don’t make plans. I’m part of a wave of unstable, raw energy, the ruthless grinding of evolution in play. How can I possibly know whether I am available Tuesday at 2 p.m., three months from now? There might be a die-off in a salmon river to be investigated, an infestation to measure, a front line I have to stand on with my allies. I am careful with my energy now because there is always too much to do. I have opted to be the small mammal, not the big dinosaur. I try to be strategically nimble so that I can respond to the shape and direction of the wave. I have intentionally kept my voice free from big institutions so the opposition can’t find and cut off my supply line, a braided trickle of support from a diversity of sources. I realized that when I was responsible for the salaries of other people, I had to be careful not to scare funders away by speaking the unvarnished truth. So I now work with allies, not employees.

These allies are like wild horses, a tough, raw crowd. We experience a lot of casualties—hurt feelings, misunderstandings, the collision of egos, sudden departures—but we are inexorably moving in the same direction breaking the grip on the pulse of life. There is no leader negotiating on everyone’s behalf, who can be haltered and led into a barn, then silenced.

I am part of the resistance movement against extinction. The movement spans the globe. We are a force of nature. Like a river, we well up, slip around, bore through and dive under obstacles. We don’t stop.

Not all of this story is mine to tell and so there are some gaps. I have also withheld the names of people who have already suffered too much in this struggle. I hope my book will help, in at least a small way, to bring the species that we named human into ecological compliance with the planet we live on. This is not the time to give up.

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The Third Dive

The Third Dive

An Investigation Into the Death of Rob Stewart
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Following the Good River

Following the Good River

The Life and Times of Wa'xaid
also available: Hardcover
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