Landscapes of the Heart
Bogdan, my late mother’s first cousin, turned 101
just under a year ago. Resembling Robert Frost in appearance
and sharing Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy, Jacob
awed me long before I’d heard of those venerable individuals.
He loves nature, disdains materialism, is kindly in disposition,
and almost invariably has a cheerful expression on his ruddy
face. On many occasions during the early 1950s, my father
thrilled me by announcing we would visit Jacob at his little
log cabin in Spruce Valley, near the Athabasca River. Once,
at the end of one of our visits, Father casually informed
me I could spend the night at Jacob’s if I wanted
to. If I wanted to? Of course I wanted to!
that evening, Jacob and I watched bats and listened to nighthawks.
We walked along the wood adjacent to his field, hoping to
see a bear or a deer, but seeing a skunk instead. The light
in the northwestern sky gradually faded. By eleven o’clock,
countless stars sparkled like jewels, but, because there
was no moon, the landscape itself was velvety black. We
paused for a while—listening, looking, wondering—and
then headed back toward the faint glow of the kerosene lamp
in the distant window. I followed hard on Jacob’s
heels; owing to his intimate familiarity with the immediate
environs, he made his way easily through the all-but-invisible
hazel bushes and wild raspberries that bordered the tall
wheat. Compared to the blackness outside, the light of the
glass lamp in the one-roomed cabin seemed bright—especially
after Jacob turned up the wick.
At seven next morning, there wasn’t a breath of wind,
nor a cloud in the sky. The wheat field and forested terrain
beyond were bathed in the golden light photographers cherish.
We sat on the steps, enjoying the six eggs we’d boiled
while making supper the previous evening. Then, with no
haste whatever, Jacob harnessed his matched pair of black
geldings and hitched them to his buggy. Before long, we
were headed down the hard-packed dirt road toward my parents’
home. As we neared our destination, the road wound along
the tortuous boundary between sandy hills to the north and
thickly-treed muskeg to the south. None of that seemed special.
Not the wooden buggy with tall, black wheels. Not the soft
sound of hoofs on sand and the jingle of harness. Nor the
seamless blend of spruce, birch, and alder, the aroma of
Labrador tea and sphagnum moss, the absence of motorized
traffic. I now know all that was special—very special—but
it was so prevalent in those days that it didn’t warrant
any particular attention. I took in the natural environment
like a flower takes in a bee: with total abandon, but with
equally total unawareness of the benefits. The environment
was just there. I didn’t know it was as important
to my spirit as food is to my body.
Today, I can experience that environment only by drawing
on my memory bank. Today, a mere three miles from Jacob’s
abandoned cabin, the Alberta-Pacific pulp mill devours the
forest, befouls the air, and pollutes the river. With powerful
halogen lamps radiating light in all directions from the
mill, and from considerable height, the summer night in
the area is never velvety black. The morning dew—once
pristine—is suspect. The road that wound along the
edge of the muskeg is now straight as an arrow. Enormous
tractor-trailers barrel down that road day and night.
retiring from active farming some thirty years ago, Jacob
rented his patch of cultivated soil to a neighbour, but
he continued living in his Thoreauesque cabin. He refused
to sell his land until he was pushing 90, and maintained
a lush vegetable garden to the very end of his tenure there.
With a seriousness unusual for him, he referred to his farm
and garden as his medicine.
as living nature is my medicine, I am like Jacob. Unlike
Jacob, though, I lost that medicine well before the end
of the average human lifespan. Until recently, nature in
the form of unspoiled boreal forest kept me emotionally
healthy and sustained my spirit. When I was immersed in
the fragrance and texture of boreal forest, stress evaporated
from my body. What a wonderful feeling that was.
But, no more. The intact boreal forest that once blanketed
northern Alberta is history. Shattered fragments still exist,
like shards of glass scattered on a sidewalk, but those
fragments resemble a forest ecosystem as much as four quarters
of beef resemble a walking, breathing bovine. According
to renowned University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler—winner
of the Stockholm Water Prize, Volvo Environment Prize, and
the Gerhard Hertzberg Canada Gold Medal (Canada’s
top scientific award)—“The day is gone when
we can talk of sustaining the boreal forest. We must begin
to talk of restoring it.” Recently, Schindler hinted
at the emotional benefits he once derived from the boreal
forest. “Almost daily I see trees being bulldozed,”
he related, “and it depresses me every time. I’m
glad the end of my life is approaching, for it means I won’t
have to witness the destruction of the last remnants of
respect Jacob Bogdan and his contemporaries accorded their
natural heritage left my generation a legacy of healthy
ecosystems capable of sustaining healthy minds and healthy
bodies. But there has been a sea change in the culture of
northern Alberta during my lifetime. Where not so long ago
most folks were satisfied with a lifestyle based on subsistence
farming and selective, small-scale logging, or on tending
a post office or a small general store, now we see vast
patchworks of clear-cuts and gargantuan open-pit mines.
Robot-like harvesters pile tree trunks as if they were matchsticks.
The oil sands are being excavated and exploited at a frenetic
pace. Stacks towering hundreds of feet above bitumen extracting
and upgrading plants disperse airborne pollutants across
Since Jacob last slept in his “shack” a mere
20 years ago, there’s been an alarming increase in
materialism among Albertans. Today many people seem to value
money above all else, eager for the prestige that comes
with it and for what it will buy: grey mansions, $300,000
motorhomes, huge fifth-wheels with walls that telescope
out at the push of a button.
good news is that, despite being materialistic, a fairly
large proportion of Albertans nonetheless enjoy natural
environments. Witness the current appeal of city parks,
provincial parks, national parks, wilderness areas, lakeside
campgrounds, summer resorts, and hiking trails. A strong
tendency toward materialism and a capacity to enjoy nature
can, in fact, be present in the same individual concomitantly.
In other words, people can value both big motorhomes and
natural landscapes. However, the materialism represented
by huge motorhomes and overpowered motorboats ultimately
damages the environment and is unsustainable, while what
might be termed the spirituality
from left column...
represented by non-consumptive enjoyment of nature does
no harm to the environment and is sustainable indefinitely.
Herein lies the irony: materialism ultimately damages
the natural environment to which it provides one with
access and which it enables one to enjoy. The relationship
is sometimes subtle, but always very real.
culture is malleable. Values, which lie at the core
of culture, can change for the betterment of future
generations. Through observation, reading, and thought,
for three decades I’ve been exploring a project
I now term “Toward a Culture of Sustainable Development:
An Innovative Approach to Fostering Ecologically-Viable
Values in Youth.” The seeds of those values occur
naturally in all children. What child isn’t fascinated
by a puppy? A fawn? A frog? In his biophilia hypothesis,
E. O. Wilson (Harvard-based winner of two Pulitzer Prizes
and author of books on the biological foundations of
human behaviour) suggests nature-oriented values ultimately
have a genetic basis that exists in all humans, giving
us reason for hope. All we need do to make such values
a dominant feature of our culture is to nurture them
in young children.
In an attempt to foster nature-oriented values in young
people—values that are respectful of ecosystems
and thus of the world that sustains us—in 1970
I recommended “the introduction of human ecology
into the curriculum as a regular course to be taken
by all students in all grades.” Ecologically-viable
values, which emphasize the importance of healthy ecosystems
and highlight the adverse environmental impacts of both
materialism and consumerism, would be the central component
of such a course. Because values are a critical ingredient
of culture, and because elementary schools are an effective
means of influencing culture, it seems reasonable to
expect such a program would work, given sufficient support
from government. However, my recent review of Alberta’s
K-12 curriculum revealed that human ecology has not
become a systematic part of the school curriculum. If
we hope to create a sustainable culture, a societal
value system that promotes consumerism and materialism
must be discouraged—whether through the official
Alberta curriculum or through other means in Alberta.
As a step toward fostering a culture of sustainable
development, I recently undertook a publishing project
to demonstrate to just what an amazing degree many individuals
value the natural environment. I created a Web site
titled “Nature, Environment and Me: Personal Explorations
in a Deteriorating World,” and invited scholars
to submit material for an anthology on the subject.
The response was overwhelming. Out of 100 proposed chapters
received in my editorial office, NeWest Press published
11 earlier this year under the title Landscapes
of the Heart: Narratives of Nature and Self. The
Globe and Mail’s reference to Landscapes as an
“elegant little book” was gratifying to
everyone who participated in the project.
The essays in Landscapes demonstrate the two ways in
which we relate to the environment. The living environment
is obviously important to our physical existence on
this planet—that is, to our physical health. However,
it is also important to our emotional and spiritual
well-being, and thus to our mental health. Forests,
scrublands, rivers, lakes, swamps, flower gardens, vegetable
gardens, house pets, and even those trees outside the
office window are not luxuries for those of us who value
nature: they are necessities. We all have an emotional
connection with nature that goes back to our very origins
as a species. One might even say nature was our womb.
We have been on planet Earth in our present form for
one hundred thousand years. That’s a long, long
time! And throughout that time, we were immersed in
living nature. It was there when we went to sleep, it
was there all night, it was there when we awoke. We
depended on living nature—and on each other as
part of living nature—for everything. It is thus
hardly surprising that we evolved an emotional dependence
on nature, that it is our medicine, that we need it
for our emotional well-being. And it’s not surprising
that many of us look to nature as a source of spirituality,
as something essential to our spirit.
All 11 chapters in Landscapes of the Heart reflect this
deeply personal relationship to nature. Aritha Van Herk,
professor of English at the University of Calgary, describes,
among other things, her lifelong affair with thunderstorms.
In a chapter titled “Body Shock,” she writes,
“To say that I loved and still love thunderstorms
is to speak the obvious. There is something about the
heavy pressure of the sky . . . ” In an exceptionally
insightful essay titled “The Arctic Habitat and
the Integrated Self,” Robert Williamson (research
associate at the Arctic Institute of North America in
Calgary) shows us the environment through the eyes of
an aboriginal people. He tells us that the “soul-name
system” links the individual to the habitat, “so
that among the Inuit no one ever feels alone . . .”
For one who lived through the entire twentieth century,
Jacob Bogdan left a very small ecological footprint.
He was, of course, an exception to the rule. Nonetheless,
his generation left their offspring a legacy of robust,
intact ecosystems that were capable of sustaining the
human population of Alberta indefinitely. Indeed, those
very ecosystems had sustained human populations for
ten thousand years. My generation is leaving their offspring
a legacy of unprecedented material wealth. However,
the ecosystems that are the source of their wealth,
and their health, are in exceedingly poor condition,
and, unless values change, they will not be capable
of sustaining us much longer.
Time is running out, but it is not too late. The term
sustainable development is all the rage these days.
In the Government of Alberta we have a Ministry of Sustainable
Resource Development, and even industrial corporations
are getting into the act: TransAlta Utilities has a
vice-president of Sustainable Development. Development
for economic gain as now practised is, unfortunately,
not sustainable. What we really need is to develop a
culture that is sustainable. I once asked Dr. Michael
Asch, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University
of Alberta, how he defines the word culture. “Culture
is a way of life,” he replied. That’s good
enough for me. Our current way of life, with its emphasis
on materialism and consumerism, must change. And in
order for that to happen, values must change: they must
especially become more ecologically viable. Why? Because
the health of our children and grandchildren depends
The bottom line is holistic health: ecological, economic,
social, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
That’s a legacy of which I would be proud.
Aleksiuk recently held a five-year term as senior research
associate in the Department of Psychology at the University
of Alberta. He is now an independent scholar and writer
living in Edmonton.