“Nature is the first ethical teacher of humanity.”
— Peter Kropotkin, Russian zoologist, geographer.
Sometimes, while advocating for ecology and peace, I spend too much time with books and computer screens and not enough time with the real teacher.
My home is on the west coast of Canada, and - like communities worldwide - here we’re struggling against an incessant assault on our remaining wilderness. Recently I visited one of our endangered wild landscapes, Bute Inlet, where General Electric and its local partner want to convert 17 creeks and rivers into electrical power plants. They call this ‘green energy’.
The plan would see river beds bulldozed, water diverted through massive pipes, and turbines installed to generate about 1,000 megawatts of power capacity. To export the electricity, GE would clear-cut hundreds of kilometres of forest for transmission lines. This massive destruction of nature is only the beginning. The power companies have their eyes on 700 western Canadian watersheds.
We have groups – such as the B.C. Citizens for Public Power, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Greenpeace, Watershed Watch, and the B.C. Rivers Alliance – working to save these watersheds. We’re up against a lot of money, influence peddling and corruption. Like other communities throughout the world, we’re working every day to preserve our wilderness, and sometimes the struggle feels overwhelming.
It helps, however, to actually spend time inside the wilderness one is attempting to preserve. Wild places can still teach us essential lessons about why we’re doing this work, why Greenpeace exists, and why we all get up every day and go back to the struggle to save what is left of wild nature.
Forty years ago, during the early Greenpeace campaigns, we were all volunteers. We had very little money and were usually in debt. Nevertheless, by staging the campaigns at sea and on land, we received a priceless education from nature. Today, Greenpeace campaigns provide volunteers and crews with this same extraordinary gift.
I learned the best and most important ecology lessons by spending time with harp seals on the ice floes; with whales in the ocean; with dolphins and flying fish, sea turtles and sharks; with rivers, trees, mountain goats and caribou. In wild, undisturbed forests I discovered what ecology really means.
In nature, we witness the strengths and weaknesses of every creature, the power and vulnerability of nature’s ecosystems, the micro-habitats that support unique species, the symbiosis within each ecological community, and the tireless service of moths, bugs, worms and wolves.
As I kayaked into the Bute wilderness, I recalled that feeling of living within the embrace of wild nature. I felt a great relief in the comfort of nature’s care - the ocean and forest appear to possess an intelligence and magnificence beyond anything that humans could ever reproduce. As we walked up the rocky beach and hiked through a thick valley, I witnessed the river as a living system.
A bush pilot once told me that he could identify good salmon streams from the air by the dark green ribbons weaving through the forest. He didn’t have to be a biologist to notice the effect of nutrient circulation by a river. Falling, splashing, churning rivers create moist, productive riparian zones, cradles of life that link aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The rivers circulate nutrients and provide transportation highways for wildlife. When a salmon or trout swims upstream, it carries nutrients with it. Bears and racoons carry fish carcasses into the forests, leaving a trail of nutrients.
When a single leaf falls into a stream, micro-organisms break it down and distribute the organic wealth downstream, providing food for insect larvae. Crayfish and amphibians eat the larvae and insects. These, in turn, are eaten by fish, birds and mammals. The nutrients are deposited and absorbed into the forest soil and taken back up by the trees to fall and cycle again. This cycle of nutrients produces the ribbons of life that the bush pilot could see from the air.
The moist riparian soils provide critical habitat for rushes, sedges, cattails, lilies and certain trees. In our region, willow, dogwood, red cedar and black cottonwood flourish in these moist, northern rainforests. Salmonberry and thimbleberry thrive. Trees and shrubs overhang the rivers and streams, cooling water, soil and air, benefiting fish and invertebrates while limiting algae growth. Tree roots provide structure, collect sediment and strengthen river banks. Fallen trees create pools and special habitats for delicate aquatic species.
In most regions of the world, up to 80 per cent of the wildlife depends on rivers and riparian habitats for at least part of their life cycle. The rich animal life starts with the flies, nymphs and beetles, and moves up through the food chain to copepods, amphipods and fish. The rivers provide spawning and nursery habitat for salmon, trout and other anadromous fish, for rare frogs and salamanders, each playing a vital role in stitching together an ecosystem.
People and rivers
On this day, we saw great blue herons, mallard ducks, pileated woodpeckers and a belted kingfisher diving into pools. In the canopy, we could hear the varied thrushes, song sparrows and the warblers that come north for the summer. These miracles of life represent something more precious than anything that one could buy with money or design with the world’s best engineering.
Historically, humanity grew up in the lap of nature in such river valleys. Our ancestors were born in the watersheds and spent their entire lives living from the bounty of watersheds. I feel fortunate to have met indigenous communities who still today live from the bounty of their watersheds. It remains a particular illusion of our industrial age that we will gain ‘sustainability’ by converting our last wild watersheds into power plants to fuel more human consumption.
Human settlements traditionally flourished along rivers for very good reasons: abundant food, clean water, material resources and transportation corridors. Even in our modern world, rivers provide ecosystem services that may not appear obvious. Rivers purify water for human use. The soils filter and store water during high rainfall and prevent floods. Riparian vegetation controls erosion and sequesters carbon, while soil micro-organisms break down contaminants and release nutrients.
Wild watersheds still provide services, education, pleasure and inspiration to our communities. Even in settled regions, rivers provide parks and greenways, enhancing community value.
Human environments can obscure our connection to nature. Many of us live in environments entirely dominated by human design, paved, built up or trampled underfoot. Whenever we are fortunate enough to find ourselves in non-human environments, something inside us comes alive. We remember something that we cannot define or control, something beyond us that provides for us. A great weight lifts from our busy minds. This feeling is the genetic memory of living inside nature’s care.
Deep Green is Rex Weyler's monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.