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Exploring Landscapes of the Heart
by Michael Aleksiuk

Jacob 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!

Late 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.

After 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.

Inasmuch 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 the forest.”

The 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 the continent.

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.

The 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

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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.

However, 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 upon it.

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.

Michael 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.

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