Wilderness Protection — A complex task

by George Sipos

Originally printed in the Gulf Islands DriftwoodSept. 25, 2013

A lawyer, a philosopher, a poet and a lichenologist walk into Wells Gray Park and the flora and fauna say, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

Well, that’s not quite right. Let me start again:

Fifty scientists, naturalists, environmental activists, philosophers, writers of various stripes, a first nations elder, a half dozen members of the Order of Canada and yes, Canada’s most renowned lichenologist gathered during the first week of September in the Upper Clearwater Valley north of Kamloops to consider … well, I guess you could say to consider the nature of the bad joke that human kind is perpetrating on the living biosphere of the planet.

The immediate impetus for the unusual meeting, called “Speak to the Wild”, was the urgent need to protect the habitat of mountain caribou threatened by proposed logging on the periphery of Wells Gray Park.

The convener of the meeting, lichenologist Trevor Goward, who lives in the valley, believes that a simply scientific, or simply political, or simply activist approach is inadequate.

If an appeal on behalf of the caribou is to be made, he believes, it needs to be founded on a much broader and deeper understanding of the meaning and value of “wilderness“, one informed by metaphor, by philosophical insight, by aboriginal teachings, and by the observational generosity of old-fashioned natural science, as well as by such hard sciences as wildlife biology, atmospheric chemistry and so on.

Hence the participation in Speak to the Wild of such people as philosopher Jan Zwicky, naturalists Syd and Dick Cannings, ethonobotanist Nancy Turner, Saskatchewan grasslands activist Trevor Herriot, cultural historian Robert Bringhurst, former Canadian poet laureate John Steffler, environmental law professor Mark Haddock, and a goodish number of others equally renowned and equally diverse.

The four days of discussion and debate, interspersed with forays into the mountains and river valleys of the park, moved well beyond the specific problems of the caribou (whose numbers have declined drastically during the past few decades) to discussion of the larger problems of the biosphere. The very idea of wilderness is now most often equated with designated parkland reserves rather than meaning the interconnected ecologies of the entire planet.

Rightly understood, people’s relationship to wilderness really means their relationship to themselves as biological organisms within the environment of a living world.

Wrongly understood, of course, wilderness becomes simply something alien to be cut down, dug up, soiled and brutalized in the many ways we have unfortunately become accustomed to.

The way forward, the meeting agreed, is to encourage a public understanding of the concept of wilderness not as a location for resource extraction or for periodic recreation, but as the very condition of biological sustainability not only of the so-called “natural world” but ourselves as well. Both the premise and consensus of the meeting was that such an understanding needs the collective insights not only of science but also of art, activism and ancient teachings.

I was honoured to have been invited to Speak to the Wild as one of the poets, though rather awed by the calibre and commitment of the company. Nevertheless, the experience felt and was both urgent and exciting.

What practical steps the meeting will lead to remains to be seen. There is a move, already initiated by the David Suzuki Foundation, to bring Canada in line with over 100 countries who have included a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, and Speak to the Wild will doubtless join in that and similar campaigns.

More importantly, however, the group wants to catalyze similar conversations about the meaning of wilderness across Canada. How that will happen is unclear for the moment, but it’s heartening to know that the effort is seen as relying on an indispensable symbiosis among poets, scientists, philosophers, first nations, and yes indeed, lawyers and lichenologists too.

One way or another we need to work together to avoid the punch line of the sad joke our recent history vis a vis wilderness has tended to become.

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