Sunday, 24 April 2016

Other Americas

I began my Sunday morning as a good citizen of the world, by deciding to catch up on the week in US presidential election.  Pretty soon, I was back in the slough of despond.  The thing is, there is an America that is not the grotesque caricature that is dominating its politics just now.  At times like this I just need to make a special effort to remind myself of it.  
So I jammed the earbuds in and went for a walk on the windy beach.  Richard Shindell began singing Wisteria: “The vine of my memory is blooming along those eaves.”  Soon enough, I felt a bit better.
It is a cold October night and my friend Sam Morse and I are camped on Tumbledown Mountain in Maine, which is not so much a mountain as a long ridge of ancient granite that looms over the miles of forests and farms of northern New England.  We have a campfire going, and we are working our way with some deliberateness through a bottle of Jack Daniels, solving the last few remaining puzzles in the mystery that is the universe.  It’s a dark starlit night. Just when I am starting to think it is time to crawl into the sleeping bag, a car pulls up, filled with teenage boys.  They ask if they are on the right road to Mexico.  I start to laugh.  Sam, who knows the backroads of Maine, asks, “Where are you boys from?”  They reply, “Paris”. I laugh again. Sam looks at me as though I am the completest idiot ever to set foot on earth.  He turns back to the boys in the car and says, “I’m afraid you’ve overshot Mexico.”  And then he proceeds to tell them how to get back to the right road.  It turns out there’s more than one way to get to Mexico from Paris, in Maine.  In that other America.
It is a summer afternoon in the early 1990s, and we are sitting in Fenway Park, in Boston, in a row of seats halfway up the stands behind home plate.  The Blue Jays are playing the Red Sox.  It’s a sunny, muggy day. We catch bags of peanuts from the vendor and make a mess of shells at our feet.  We watch as pitchers and batters duel, fielders make spectacular catches, and there is a collective intake of breath with every long ball that arcs towards the Green Monster.  We feel like we are sitting in the nave of a cathedral built to honour the soul of a nation. On the row beside us sit two men who have probably been watching Red Sox games at Fenway Park for over half a century.  They see an opportunity for education.  And so for the whole of that long, deliciously slow August afternoon, they generously regale us with stories of their team, its players and managers, its successes and heartbreaks.  They fill our heads with statistics of unsurpassing obscurity, which they disagree about vigorously. They tell us what to watch for with every batter, and call every pitch before it is thrown. All is said with what can only be described as wise-cracking reverence, as though there could be nothing more important in this world than to know every fact about the life and career of Carl Yastrzemski, the greatest Red Sox player of them all.
There’s a room in Washington D.C. in an art gallery called the Phillips Collection which holds four paintings by Mark Rothko.  We were there last December. Its mid-20th century construction marked the first time an entire room had been created specifically for Rothko’s work.  It’s not a large room; and it is dominated by the paintings, abstract expressionist works that are fields and bands of colour.  When you enter the room, you are literally immersed in Rothko’s vision.  It’s deceptively simple: colours and shapes on four canvases; purely abstract.  But if you take a slow breath, and let it wash over you, you start to realize that the paintings are somehow humming; as though they are alive. And then you realize that you are not just looking at something, you are feeling it. You’re buzzing, elevated by an emotion that’s almost impossible to explain.  It’s glorious to be in the presence of such achievement. 
There is a book by the American photographer Robert Adams called Prayers in an American Church.  It’s a small book, a collection of a dozen or so photographs, accompanied by meditative words from diverse sources.  The church in the title is not a building; it’s the natural world, whose beauty is honoured in the photographs.  Not the grandeur of mountains and canyons, but the simpler beauty of sun-dappled tree branches and leaves, and the peace of quiet places.  Robert Adams’ images are austere.  He captures the intersection of humans and the landscape of western America. It might be a treeless suburban housing tract on the outskirts of Denver.  Or a scarred clearcut hillside in Oregon. Or a woman pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store.  Or the line of the prairie horizon broken by a single tree.  Or a lonely road. He is determined to find beauty in all these places, and, against the odds, he does. 
When I want to think of that other America, I think of Dar Williams, whose early songs were, for a time, the soundtrack of our life as a family.  When I Was a Boy was a kind of anthem for our belief as parents that our children could grow up on their own terms, unconstrained by the limiting stereotypes of mass consumer culture.  The Christians and the Pagans is a generous and funny hymn to the possibility that we can get along, despite our differences, as long as we can find a way to eat together.  The Babysitter’s Here is a short story about love, growing up, and everything else, sung in about four perfect minutes.  She still makes amazing music. 
One summer a decade ago, we rented a car in Las Vegas and began a road trip by heading towards southern Utah and its breathtakingly beautiful red sandstone natural monuments. On our first night we stopped in a town called Springdale, which is on the doorstep of the majesty of Zion National Park.  We try to be respectful travellers.  We had read that Mormon traditions were strong in southern Utah.  We were prepared, then, for a few days of righteous, stoic, alcohol-free travel. But on our first night, we sat down at the table of our restaurant and read a menu that suggested we might like a glass of Polygamy Porter.  Why?  Because, as they said, “you can’t have just one.” It’s hard not to love a country that can make fun of itself.  And while I am at it, I think, too, of Las Vegas, all of it, because, as I said, it’s hard not to love a country that can make fun of itself.
When I think of America, I think of Aaron Copland, and that moment early in the first movement of Appalachian Spring when the orchestra comes alive and I always jump from my seat. And Bob Dylan, because, well, because everything.  Even if “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” And Edward Hopper’s paintings.  And Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”
And I think of lightbulbs, Linus Pauling, the Hardy Boys, Huckleberry Finn, Rosa Parks, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Walter Cronkite, e e cummings, Rebecca Solnit, and that moment when, after screaming in terror all the way down the Matterhorn at Disneyland, our daughter turned to us and breathlessly said, “Can we do that again?” 

And my favourite sentence in the English language. “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Happy Earth Day, British Columbia

The Globe and Mail published this piece online tonight.  I've read some of the comments, which, really, no one should do, who wants to maintain any faith in humanity.  But the hilarious thing is that no one (so far) seems to have read what I've actually written. They've read the headline and that's about it.  Maybe I shouldn't be surprised?  Anyway, here we go.  

Happy Earth Day. Earth Day can be a day to honour the precious gift that is our planet. Often, however, it is also an occasion to lament, or at least feel guilty about, the way we use it.

There’s reason enough to lament. But I would suggest there is another perspective, that there is also, sometimes, a reason to celebrate. In British Columbia today, we actually have an enviable environmental record to celebrate on Earth Day.

A recent report by Corporate Knights confirmed that no jurisdiction in Canada protects more land than British Columbia. There are 1,029 protected areas managed provincially. As of last June, over 15 per cent of British Columbia’s land base, or nearly 14.3 million hectares, was dedicated to protected area status. That’s 2.2 hectares per resident. It’s a remarkable achievement.

And the story gets better. Earlier this year, after years of conflict and negotiation, the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast was fully and properly protected.

The agreement now in place permanently protects 85 per cent of the old-growth forested area in this enormous and remote part of British Columbia from industrial logging, while allowing restricted logging on the balance. That’s over 5.4 million hectares of additional protection, an area nearly the size of Nova Scotia.

For once, I don’t have to go out on a limb to agree with the Greenpeace spokesman who stated: “From conflict to collaboration, we now celebrate the protection of areas of cultural and ecological importance while ensuring economic opportunities for the communities exist long into the future.”

This achievement is especially important because our forestry, energy and mining resources will continue to drive the growth and stability of our economy.

The reality for our province – and for Canada – is that our prosperity is founded on resource development. That’s not to say we should not diversify our economy; we have done so and should continue to do so. But it’s resource development that built our province, and responsible, sustainable resource development will be a cornerstone of our economy for generations to come.

That makes it all the more important to find the right balance between land development and land protection.

That’s why for the past couple of years, I’ve been involved with a group in Vancouver that is sparking an informed conversation about these issues. Resource Works, a non-profit society with representation from all sectors and corners of the province, works to raise awareness of the importance of our resource economy to our standard of living in British Columbia.

Too often in this province, we hear a discourse that presumes we can somehow maintain our quality of life by leaping immediately to some postresource economy. It won’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen. For as long as we continue to drive cars, take buses or ride bicycles; use smartphones, tablets or computers; expect our streets to be safely lit at night; boil water for coffee or tea; expect our homes to be warm in winter; build and live in houses; catch fish; eat fruits and vegetables in winter – in short, for as long as we continue to do everything that is indispensable to our quality of life, we will make demands on the planet. It’s simply not credible to pretend or suggest otherwise.

Somehow, we need to hold two thoughts in our minds at the same time: the need for access to sufficient resources to sustain our quality of life and ensuring that we respect the planet. Neither side holds a monopoly on truth in this debate. There is no point or purpose in trying to out-shriek each other. The task, again, is to find the balance.

But I’m not suggesting it’s easy. I am suggesting it is fundamentally important that we embrace both sides of the question, and find a path forward that can both recall our duty to protect the planet and yet also find a way to continue to sustain ourselves from its amazing bounty.

Count all of the protected areas, wrap your mind around the millions of hectares of British Columbia that have been put outside the reach of resource development – the forests, mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, estuaries and marshlands that have been been protected. It’s been the labour of a generation to reach a point where our record of land protection is second to none. It’s Earth Day. Let’s celebrate that achievement.

And then ask the question: Is that enough?