The Fragile Earth - writing from The New Yorker on climate change edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder
Old Man On His Back - portrait of a prairie landscape by Sharon Butala
Featuring: Less Mowing, More Growing by Heather McLeod
Less mowing, more growing
Growing our mothers, growing the wild. Growing the ways we help our relatives thrive
Growing our people, growing the land. Growing the way we make our neighbourhoods strong
Growing our food, growing our energy. Growing our listening ears and community
Growing our knowledge, willing to change. Growing our courage as we open our hearts.
& Something Different This Way Comes by Heather McLeod
(Tran)script: (this is the script I prepared - the actual podcast does not stick strictly to it)
Welcome to the debut of season two. I have a lot I want to share with you in this cast and the next eight this season. Thank you for joining me, I am HM - host, author, funder, one woman show. I have been thinking about this podcast all summer and I so glad to have you listening.
I took my kids Ben & Sam, my husband Arno and my Mom on a road trip West this summer. I wanted my kids to see places that are important to me and I wanted to revisit them myself with my Mom, to see what I have straight and what I had crooked or at least learn more about our family history.
Do we did: first a stay in Winnipeg with my Dad’s side of the family, my McLeod brothers and sisters and my Step-Mom’s family too. Then along the Yellowhead to Edmonton, farther yet to Jasper and down the Icefields Parkway - which just about broke my heart. Time in Banff, and the badlands, visiting Calgary then down to Southern Saskatchewan to visit Cadillac and Old Man on his Back Conservation area, then detouring up to Gimli to see my cousin Bill before heading home.
Bill has been such a gift to me in making this podcast. He’s my Mom’s cousin actually. And although he is not the only person listening to each episode pretty much the day I upload it, he is the most consistent in letting me know how it hit him, what it made him feel and think. He says a lot of nice things, which is - amazing. So when he said he wants me to give him more music - to not just noodle but give him a tune he can learn to sing, something simple but true, I listened. So here you go Bill. This week’s tune to kick the season off:
Less mowing, More growing...
I started by thinking about lawns and bush. I see the attraction of a neatly mowed lawn: it opens up vista, keeps the bugs down, frames and simplifies things. We like to simplify. We can understand and appreciate a lot of different things (I’m not getting personal here, I’m talking as a species) but we are not good at multitasking. We can set a routine or a habit and do it while we focus on other things, but we just can’t wrap our minds around the multiverse of life: all the things going on, interconnected and interdependent, all around us.
Let me give you an example: when we focus on growing food, for example, it is very tempting to just clear out everything that we don’t understand to be related to the growth of that food.
Same thing happens when we tell a story: so much happens around us and in us and to us in every moment of every day, but we don’t see it all, we remember even less, and when we craft a story to tell people what we we want to share about our experience, we edit even further until we get a beautiful, perfectly crafted narrative arc. Which might be perfectly true, might tap into broader truths it may not even spell out, but is not the whole truth. The whole truth is a lot -more than we can understand.
I think a key to figuring out what the best choice is as we adapt to this climate crisis and work to make things better, to fix wrongs and do right, I think a good rule of thumb would be:
Don’t think you're smarter than Mother Nature. That's how Sami summed it up when we were talking about agriculture on our roadtrip this summer.
Be humble - there is more going on that you can fully understand. And that's okay. It’s amazing actually. It’s the only way we can rebound from crisis back to calm. Let the wild wisdom have its way.
Next week I want to share with you a conversation with Phil McGuire. He is a Metis man from Nipigon, and he knows what good looks like. He calls it Save the Mothers. That's what it says on his t-shirt each time I’m seen him so far, with a beautiful picture of a fish.
Save the Mothers
The mother fish and crayfish and insects ready to spawn, the mother moose and marten and moss. Save the mothers so the wild can rebound and renew itself and keep on feeding us and all our relations for generations to come
We went to Cadillac to see the homestead my Mom’s grandparents settled in 1910. And left to their son at the end of the dirty thirties, not confident he could pull what was by then a 3000 acre farm through another year. My Mom inherited a piece of that homestead from her parents, so we contacted the people now living in the house my great-grandparents built and they walked us across fields of mustard to where my Aunt set up a plaque a few years back.
Now those fields of mustard looked great from the road: great blocks of yellow, seed already set soon to be harvested. But man what a difference to walked through it. The ground puffed up like soft dust, a wave of clicking grasshoppers pushing away from us in all directions, each plant a couple of feet high, about half a foot from its neighbour, maybe six seedpods and three thin stalks.
It made Charlie Brown's Christmas tree look lush.
If I grew a plant like that in my flower bed I would be ashamed, and alarmed.
And that soft, empty dirt, puffing and blowing away... no wonder Canada loses inches of precious agricultural soil every year. I could see it once I climbed out of the truck and walked - blowing away. Dirt is not a given you know, it is a miracle of plant taking root, turning sun and carbon in the air plus water into food, that when it dies and rots feeds a mind-staggering multitude of living things that slowly, slowly build the thin coat of soil on our planet that makes life possible.
Desertification blows dry, lifeless dirt turned to dust over the relicts of so many human civilizations that came out of lush, rich places full of life and did not manage them well, took more than could be sustained, and lost the soil that made it all possible.
That field in Cadillac just about broke my heart
Then we went a few kilometres West to another homestead settled about the same time as my family took up their homestead contract in Cadillac, only the Butala family did not grow much grain. They ranched their land. They only broke as much prairie as they had to to meet their government homesteading contract. The rest remains ancient, perennial prairie. And in 1995 Peter and Sharon Butala gifted their ranch to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In 2003 they reintroduced plains bison to it.
Sharon Butala wrote a book that came to my mind when my daughter Ella died in 2005, about how and why they made that gift and loved that land. And I was thinking of my homesteading settler family when I decided to make a gift to Old Man On His Back in Ella's memory, and keep giving ever since.
Driving up to Old Man on His Back ranch you can see its borders clearly as you approach. The bright fields of yellow canola and mustard in huge sharply edged fields, and their darker, more mottled land. Then we stepped out of the truck and walk onto the prairie
And the ground was thickly covered in so many different plants and lichen and mosses, holding that earth down and building it up, actually creating a little micro-climate right down close against it so when I put my hand flat on the ground, even as the wind whistled past my ears and tugged at my hair, the tiny leaves by my hand did not stir.
The buffalo grazing encourage the plants to grow new, deeper roots, pulling carbon from the air and building dirt. They digest that fibrous food and their pee and poo stir it up with all the mind-boggling mix of micro-organisms in their gut so their waste is rich and nourishing, feeding the land.
The neighbouring ranchers tease the scientists who monitor and manage these acres, for how few head of buffalo they range on all this land, less profitable than the more intensely grazed acres given to near by cows.
But all I saw was plenty, health and wealth and promise for a better future
Growing our mother buffalo, and perennial prairie, and all our relations who live there in greater connection, in deeper diversity, than I can even wrap my head around.
It is humbling
It is inspiring.
So we're driving across the prairies and Ben & Sam are making jokes because it is mile after mile of Canola. Sometime a little cluster of workers on giant machines farming, sometimes a little town around a grain elevator.Sometimes the grain elevator had the name of a farm on it, instead of the town because the farms have gotten so big.
So I told the boys - looking out these windows this is what I see: Canola, yes. But also: this land has been prairies since the last glacier retreated north thousands of years ago and it was a rich land supporting many Nations I wish I knew more about. But I can tell you they raised their families and lived their lives sustainably for thousands of years, without leaving any ruins. Then Europeans came here. Why did they come here? Because they were desperate. Europe had a lot of hungry people, it had lost many of its forests, its clean water, its animals. It had a few people who ran the place, and lots of insecurity. From younger sons of the wealthy few to workers, many many poor, insecure workers.
So when Europeans first came to the Prairies they saw plenty, and they traded with the people of this land to take from here what Europe no longer had. Trading that was neither fair nor balanced for the Europeans I must note, considered a good trade to be one in which they got more than they gave.
But then they wanted more. So in the 1800s they launched a campaign to kill all the bison, to starve the people who relied on them, and get them out of the way. It was terrible. And it was successful. Devastating.
Then those few powerful Europeans contracted out this land to ranchers, who brought cows here to graze where the buffaloes no longer roamed. And those big ranches did well for about ten years. Which is a pretty short business plan, I have to say. Then one cold winter killed almost all the cattle, and the government cancelled most of those ranching leases within a few months.
Instead they measured up the prairies into half mile square sections, and called people to come sign a new contract, one that gave them that land for free if they move here, break the prairie to grow crops for export, built a road and a barn.
So people came. My family came. My Great Grandpa was a blacksmith with a growing family and a nest egg to invest, he came. And for about ten years it went great. That ancient prairie is not easy to break, but those deep perennial roots as they rotted fed those first years of crops so they were tall and rich and thick. But 20 years laterthe drought came, the dirty thirties. And I have to say, a 20 year business plan is not much of a business plan. And the soil blew away, and so did most of those homesteaders, abandoning those homesteads, refugees of a climate crisis. Leaving just a few to feed the soldiers gone to war.
Then after the war the factories build to make mustard gas were rebranded to make nitrogen fertilizer, then chemical weed killers and insect killers like the Napalm used in the Vietnam war. And great big machines so few people could work many acres.
And that has kept the prairies agricultural for another seventy years now, as the farms get bigger and the chemical inputs a little more precise perhaps, and ever more necessary, definitely.
So who is the winner here?
Certainly not the people who lived here forever and had it right, they left no ruins, but their cultures and wisdom that lived sustainably on the prairies for all those thousands of years was devastated as Europeans moved in.
Maybe we can count as winners some of the people who came to ranch then to homestead, those that survived the errors built into the contract that brought them there might have gained some wealth that gives their family more resilience even now, a few generations on.
Certainly my Grandpa was given by his Dad a gift of capital to start him off in life: a couple of vehicles, some pregnant animals. A not insignificant gift he made the most of. Owning your home, having some investments, having family who can give you a hand, give you a home when you need it - that is huge. It certainly allowed me to take risks like a decade living hand to mouth as a musician - that I probably wouldn't have dared if I didn’t have family who would help me out if ever I needed it. And could help me out. They owned their homes, they had savings or could borrow on favourable terms. They had resources that can make all the difference at key points in a persons life.
But those ranchers and homesteaders and their hired hands and servants, they were also pawns a wealthy few were manipulating and aiming to profit by.
When my Grandpa and fellow farmers started organizing the cooperative and united grain growers organizations, those wealthy few pushed back hard. They predicted dire consequences. They organized to protect their interests and tried to convince us all that we shared their interests.
And sometimes we do. And sometimes we don’t. But generally we can do more when we connect as equals and problem solve, than when we wait for some distant leader to tell us what to do and how to do it.
That’s what I see when I drive through the prairies: along history of mis-led expertise and workers manipulated like pawns in a chess game being played by over confident, under informed egoists trying to win - rather than solve. That's what I told Ben & Sam as we drove through Alberta and Saskatchewan and Manitoba this summer. And you thought your family road trips were harsh!
I found a treasure at the library last week: The Fragile Earth - a compilation of feature articles about Climate Change published in the New Yorker from the late eighties until 2020. Which is about as long as I have been reading the New Yorker. In it I rediscovered things I had forgotten but that I think have really influenced me
In 2004 David Owen wrote an article about how much less of a carbon footprint, and how much healthier a life style a person living in Manhattan has, to someone living in a small rural home. Smaller home, less commuting, more efficient utilities, more neighbourhood connections.
In 2013 Eric Klineberg talked about the mass of research tallying up the powerful, positive impact of neighbourhood. On our health, our resilience in crisis, our opportunities to connect, innovate and solve local issues with local solutions tailored to fit.
Starting with two Chicago neighbourhoods with very different mortality rates during the 1995 heat wave. Side by side, both equally poor, equally and similarly ethnically diverse, but in Englewood 33 people died for every one hundred thousand residents. And in Auburn Gresham only 3 people died per one hundred thousand. An 11 fold difference. Why? Neighbourhood. Englewood was gutted, empty stores, empty lots, no local businesses to cut your hair or buy some milk, no congregations keeping the churches going. Auburn Gresham was poor but packed, people and everything they really need all cheek by jowl tucked in together. So people in Auburn Gresham knew one another, they quickly gathered and organized and made sure no one fell through the cracks. Englewood was nothing but cracks.
Thunder Bay has some great community. But it also has cracks. Lots of cracks we could fill. I can imagine great ways to make our neighbourhoods strong.
I made a few things happen with that in mind myself since last I podcasted.
We threw a block party.
Ben drew a picture of people chatting. Sam drew the words Block Party out of bright blocks. I put those together into an invitation. Ben went West and Sam went East and they put invitations in mailboxes, another night I walked with my neighbour Diane and extended the invitation to more neighbours in person. And people came. And it was great.
And we called people and put an invitation on facebook, made posters and asked people to spread the word to gather a new class at our Church’s Sunday School, after two years of COVID leaving those rooms empty. And it worked, Sam & I have a new class of great students at Sunday School this semester, and I am so glad.
It is a step in the right direction. It is something we could do, and screwed up our courage and we did it, and it is good.
I was so glad to get to visit with my cousins Betty and Allison and Eric and their families when we went to Calgary. Allison had been listening to this podcast, and she was excited to tell me that it had helped inspire her family to go solar. And how wonderful and easy that had been. It was so great to hear - and so inspiring that I wrote her and asked her to write it all down for me. Here is what she said:.
- The whole process only took only 3 months from getting quotes to final installation.
- Getting started:We went online and in minutes had an estimate of how much power they could generate with roof-top solar panels just by plugging in their address and the size of their roof.
- Yes! We used theCity of Calgary residential solar calculator. You enter an address and annual energy consumption (from electrical bills), and it tells you the optimal number of panels, solar energy generation, estimated costs, potential environmental impact (in metric tonnes of CO2 saved annually, and finance options (monthly savings and payback period). This tool gave us easy access to information that made making the switch to solar feel really doable.
- Timing: Biggest delay was arranging for the pre-inspection energy assessment (EnerGuide evaluation) of the house required to qualify for the $5 000 Greener Homes grant from the federal government. (When the grant was announced there was a rush of people requesting inspections and there were only 4 approved inspection companies in Alberta; however, there are now more than 500 companies across Canada.)
- Once the EnerGuide Evaluation was done, the city permit took 2-3 weeks, Enmax installed the meter within a day, and panel installation itself was just two days.
- Cost:Just under $15 000 (just under $10 000 if you subtract the $5 000 grant). This includes a couple of extras (a Sense consumption monitoring system that allows us to track our real time energy consumption so we can compare it to our energy generation through an app) and rodent guards. Payback period 7 - 8 years when the grant is included (11 without grant).
- Financing: An interest-free loan program has now also been added as an option to the federal Greener Homes Initiative program. In addition to the $5 000 grant, it allows people to borrow up to $40 000 interest-free for 10 years to use towards making energy efficiency upgrades of all sorts to their homes. (Not sure if the program also applies to small businesses or not.
- Current status. Now generating enough energy on an annual basis to equal the energy we consume in a year. We sell extra energy generated in the summer to the grid and buy extra energy needed in the winter from the grid.
- We also plan to join theSolar Club Loyalty Programthat allows us to sell back power to the grid at a higher rate (25 cents/kWh) and to switch to a lower rate in months when we use more than we generate (8 cents/kWh). UTILITYnetruns the program whereby it uses profits from Renewable Energy Certificates earned by individuals and groups who install solar panels on their homes and businesses to pay back microgenerators for the energy they are contributing to the grid.
- Tenet Powerwas our contractor for the whole process. We worked with Alex Qu, an engineer and one of three partners in the small company. Working with Alex and Tenet was awesome. Tenet is one of the service providers affiliated withSolar Alberta, a not-for-profit dedicated to serving as an industry and community promoting the transition to clean energy as a hub for solar energy education and advocacy. If you wanted a contact to learn more about the journey of a small business owner moving into green energy, I wouldn't be surprised if Alex would be happy to talk to you. He was a pleasure to work with!
Isn't that cool? My cousin Allison in Calgary.
And Ontario should be even easier right? I mean a decade ago we were a leader in moving from fossil-fuel to renewable energy feeding our grid. I remember when I first moved here in 2008 we,d have strangers coming by to convince us to put up solar and promising to make sure we took advantage of every grant and incentive out there. But we didn't do it then, and hadn’t really looked into it since. So Allison inspired me to update that quest - and it is turning into a quest. One I will focus on in another episode.
Growing more of our own food, that too I want to dig into again from another angle in the coming weeks. Europeans were sent here and set up as workers to profit an international and imbalance colonial trade system. I don't think that's what good looks like.
So what does good look like when it comes to that basic necessity and primal pleasure: food? That is worth looking into, right here in Thunder Bay. And imagining.
When I get a little information, it is like manure tea on my imagination. I start imagining away, what might good look like, what could we do differently that would work better. But I have to keep remembering that imagination is fed by information, but should not be mistaken for it. And that the full capacity we have to make a difference, if wider and deeper and more diverse than my puny little head, my tiny little imagination, can ever grasp. Particularly considering my fondness for simplifying things, for seeking a clear, edited story line.
I have been thinking a lot about courage.It is not a lack of fear (as I know you know), it is often doing something despite your fear. And change is scary. Changing the topic, changing the tone, changing the expectations. Powerful, scary stuff.
But once you dare to do it once, it gets easier. And when you know you’re proposing change that is needed, you are being brave because this matters, well it feels so much better than just looking away and trying not to let yourself worry. The best antidote to worry, is action.
And this podcast is my action.
If you like what I am doing, if you'd be happy to buy me a coffee in appreciation for my making the time and spending some money so you can listen to this podcast, please consider buying me that coffee by contributing to this podcast through my webpagewww.SomethingDifferentThisWayComes.ca
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My name is Heather McLeod. Something Different This Way Comes has no sponsors except my own time and pocketbook. It represents no one’s opinion but my own. And if you want to know more about what I am referencing, I list and link them all on the website.
Thank you for listening.
Join me again for the second episode of the Season: Save the Mothers next Tuesday October 11.