Saturday, March 31, 2012

Eaarth (not a typo)

Tonight between 8:30 and 9:30 lights will be turned off in 150 countries around the world.  An hour of voluntary darkness covering Buckingham Palace, the Arc de Triomphe, Brandenburg Gate, the Great Wall of China, Sydney Opera House and even the Faleolo Airport in Samoa is an expression of concern for the environment.  The action started in 2007 by members of the World Wildlife Fund in Australia has become a popular public event for raising awareness and promoting green initiatives.

 “We can all change the world we live in, whether that change be big or small. This year as the lights switch off, Earth Hour encourages you to commit to go beyond the hour and inspire your friends, colleagues, organization and leaders to do the same,” said Andy Ridley, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Earth Hour.

Beyond the rousing call-to-action message, the gesture of darkening the planet for "Earth Hour" hints of a Victorian era mourning custom requiring black cloth to be solemnly draped over mirrors and paintings in the house.  Considering the hard facts about the effects of global warming and the grim forecast for our planet's future, it is entirely appropriate to be acting out a ritual with funereal connotations.

The book "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" by environmentalist Bill McKibben brings home the bad news: our planet is past the point of environmental rescue.   Unprecedented changes in the global climate are already well under way, the consequences are grave and the situation is irreversible, no matter how many lights we switch off, or wind and solar energy sources we switch on.  McKibben gives plenty of evidence for proclaiming the environment mortally wounded.

Ignacio Dillon, 2009
Electrical storm, La Plata, Argentina
  • Scientists initially overestimated the amount of CO2 that would be tolerable for earth's atmosphere.  The number 550 ppm (parts per million) turned out to be too high.  According to a NASA study, the limit or crisis point would be reached at 350 ppm.  The earth is already at 395 ppm and rising 2 ppm every year.  
  • The earth's average temperature has risen by 1 degree Celsius which causes 45% more thunderstorms, and an increase of 1.5% in global rainfall per year.  
  • Changes have occurred in the insect population, with infestation by destructive species such as the mountain pine beetle becoming more widespread.
  • Between 1995 and 2008 there was a 75% increase in hurricanes in the tropical zone of the Atlantic.
  • Ocean waters are more acidic than they have been in 800 years. In 2009 the oyster industry reported an 80% mortality rate for oyster larvae. 
  • Ice in the Arctic and Antarctic is melting faster than ever anticipated. In 2008 the Arctic ice cap was 1.1 million square miles smaller than ever before, reduced by an area twelve times the size of Great Britain.  
  • The tropical zone is increasing in size, pushing arid areas further to the north and south.  Aridity and heat have reduced wheat, corn and barley yields by about 40 million tons per year.  The number of people on earth with too little to eat is rising.      
  • The frequency of lightning is increasing by 6% with each degree C of warming, causing disastrous wildfires.  
  • The cycle of global warming is increasing due to natural causes as well as our own emissions.  Methane gas is released into the atmosphere when ice or permafrost melts, adding more heat.

"We have travelled to a new planet, propelled on a burst of carbon dioxide. That new planet, as is often the case in science fiction, looks more or less like our own but clearly isn't," says McKibben.  That's why he alters the spelling of the planet's name to Eaarth in the book's title.

Not one to give up easily, McKibben points out that the action we need to take is a rethinking and reordering of our daily lives in order to prepare ourselves for a radically changed future.  He advocates less growth, more independently-run resources and a return to a small-scale, local approach to address the challenges of a changed environment.  Reviving the sustainable family farm and developing supportive community networks are positive, practical steps.  "De-centralized self-reliance" is key, as is the acceptance of a new human aim: to "manage our descent"  through "a relatively graceful decline."    

Photo by David Fernandez, 2009
Drought conditions in Argentina have reduced productive fields to desert.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Catalogue of Dreams

After two days of false spring heralded by a freakish warm front that drove the temperature up to 25 degrees C, a Maritime storm has moved in.  The wind howled fiercely all night and we woke up to a blast of snow ghosts whipping horizontally across the yard.  Our plastic garbage pail, set out at the curb for early morning pick-up, was retrieved from its resting place in the ditch three houses down from ours.
Reality, late March in NB
Spring may not be in the 5-day forecast, but it's already blooming in my mailbox at the Cap-Pele post office.  The 2012 edition of Veseys seed catalogue came just at the right moment, when my hope for a change of season had been dragged along the asphalt like a wind-blown trash can.  The glossy images of petunias and zinnias, carrots and zucchini, radishes and tomatoes delivered a strong dose of Tonic de Primavera.

I am enthralled by the text in Veseys catalogue and spend a lot of time poring over the written descriptions.   Evocative names like Indigo Treat blueberries,  Applause tomatoes,  Pay Dirt corn,  Red Ace beets,  Sugar Sprint peas, Noir des Carmes cantaloupe,  Calypso cucumber, Star of Yelta morning glory, Snackface pumpkin and Kong sunflowers might have been penned by a writer of romance novels.  There are passages loaded with adjectival phrases and similes that stir the imagination: cauliflowers with "beautiful lime green heads comprised of small pointed florets," tomatoes in the "one-slice-per-sandwich category," and pansies "with ruffled edges like whirling petticoats."  Words like "synergistic", "uniform," "earliness" and "bolt resistant" seem to jump off the pages.

Matthew Ridley (1848-1904) Wingfield Park, Lucknow, India
There are professional gardeners in my ancestry, and although I'll never achieve their level of horticultural knowledge or skill, I do share a basic love for growing things.  My great-grandfather Matthew Ridley trained at Kew gardens in England and subsequently served as Superintendent of Parks and Gardens in Lucknow, India.  He experimented with cotton crops, introduced rubber trees, and wrote extensively about the characteristics of different varieties of mangoes and pears.  I like to think that I've inherited his green thumb.

My own modest gardens have been planted in soil native to Canada, Europe and South America under a  wide range of climatic conditions.  The Veseys website informs me that the last frost in this area (Zone 5A) of New Brunswick can occur as late as May 24th, and the first frost as early as September 27th!  Four months is not a long growing season, but it's enough time to produce food for the table and freezer.  It's long enough to engage in the annual cycle of digging, planting, weeding and harvesting that satisfies the need to get your hands dirty with authentic work.   In the meantime, as the snow flies, I'm filling out my Veseys order form and dreaming of  Espresso corn with "delicious 9" cobs, 16 rows,  tapered ends and good tip coverage."

N.B. For a look at another paper garden, read about Mrs. Delany and her amazing botanical mosaics. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wildlife Patrol

When we started looking for a house to purchase in New Brunswick I had one item on my wish list that was an absolute essential - a window over the kitchen sink. You wouldn't think that this would be of utmost importance, but the houses we owned in Argentina and Uruguay both lacked that feature and I learned just how tiresome kitchen chores could be while staring at a tiled backsplash.

My current kitchen affords a view of our acreage, a long open stretch of land that extends from the backyard garden to an untamed wooded area.  Tall spruce, birch, poplar and pine trees stand in a thick mass of overgrown vegetation at the end of our lot.  I like the fact that this property combines a patch of cultivated soil with a fringe of uncleared growth; Eden adjacent to the wilderness.  The satellite photo on Google Earth shows that the treeline visible from my kitchen sink is actually the edge of a sizeable forest that goes on uninterrupted for several kilometres to the east.

I've been looking for wildlife ever since we moved in, hoping to see something out there in the backwoods.  Road signs posted along the highways in N.B. show silhouettes of moose, but the only moose I've seen this season has been a dead one, lying in the back of a truck in the parking lot at Tim Hortons.  I've spotted raccoons along the roadside, (also deceased) and one large porcupine (alive, but immobile) perched in a tree.  There have been no deer sightings, but I have heard the yipping of coyotes on winter nights with a full moon.

Last Sunday evening, as I peeled potatoes at the kitchen sink, I looked up and saw something moving in a snowbank at the back of the property.  The sun was just setting, and the woods were bathed in an orange glow.  At first I thought it was a tomcat, but the scale was wrong - a tomcat on steroids, perhaps?  The animal's shape was clearly visible as it stalked along the perimeter of the forest.   I called my husband who took one look and said "cougar."   We watched, dumbfounded, as the big cat paced, turned around and then disappeared into the bushes.

The elusive Eastern cougar ( Puma concolor couguar)

Are there Eastern cougars in New Brunswick?  I do believe so, but it's a matter that's open for debate.  There are suggestions that cougars seen in the East are either exotic pets let loose in the wild or Western mountain lions who have strayed too far from home.    In 2011 biologist Mark McCullough, an endangered species specialist, declared the Eastern cougar officially extinct after a five-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review of the animal's status.

Canada's federal Wildlife Service says that the evidence regarding extinction of the Eastern cougar is inconclusive.  While data may be deficient, there have been recent sightings in New Brunswick.  One thing is clear - a window over the kitchen sink is an essential architectural feature.

Room with a view