Salal is one of the toughest plants he knows, Guujaaw told me. Never would he have expected to see it dying off. And yet, this is exactly what started happening this spring all over the island of Haida Gwaii, Guujaaw’s home. Guujaaw, who introduced himself as hunter gatherer, craftsman and artist, is also an important indigenous leader. He served as President of the Council of the Haida Nation for many years and stood at the forefront of his people’s engagement to protect their land from logging and other natural resource extractions. Guujaaw’s engagement and leadership has been recognized by many, including the Buffett Award for Indigenous Leadership, a program supported by the two sons of billionaire Warren Buffett. Guujaaw and I met in Vancouver’s Stanley Park on 23rd of June, the day before I started cycling.
Salal is an evergreen shrub, known for its drought-resistance. A popular landscaping plant across the Pacific North West, its fruit is an essential food source for many First Nation communities in British Columbia, and an important winter food for deer. It is not yet fully understood why the plant is dying at such a large scale, but scientists suspect climate change being the cause.
Indeed, BC has just experienced an unusually dry spring. And not only that. “This past winter”, Guujaaw said, “we have experienced our first winter drought, something unheard of in the cold coastal rainforest of Northern BC.”
The last three years also brought record-breaking wildfires to British Columbia. In 2017, over 12,000 square kilometers of forests were burning across the province. Those were fires at an unheard of scale, with an area burning 40% larger than the one that burned in 1958, the wild-fire record-breaking year until 2017. Then, in 2018, the record was broken again, with almost 13,000 square kilometers blazed by forest fires - that is an area roughly equal to the size of the entire state of Connecticut. 2019 has not yet seen a large outbreak of fires, but after the unusually dry winter and spring, drought levels were at the second highest level in 19 of BC’s 32 basins in mid-June. With the lack of rain in May and June – the months when BC normally gets its rain – and the traditionally dry months of July and August, 2019 could shape up to become another record-breaking year. We will know in a few weeks from now.
Towards the end of our conversation, Guujaaw cited his Nation’s old philosophers who used to say that “you got to respect Earth, or else things start going wrong.” Arguably, the droughts and wildfires in BC are local manifestations of things going wrong globally. For Guujaaw, people’s disconnection with the natural world lies at the heart of the environmental challenges we are facing today: “Most of humanity has only ever lived in human created environments and knows nothing much else besides that. They do not feel personally attached to the land, and hence are not really inclined to act.” And he continued making the observation that “humans are interesting creatures. Individually, they are caring, loving, thoughtful beings. Yet as the collective, we seem to have lost control of ourselves and of the impacts of our actions, even though issues such as climate change have become too obvious to ignore.”
Indeed, it has become too obvious to ignore. About a week after my conversation with Guujaaw I arrived in Penticton, a small town in the Okanagan basin, where berries and grapes seem to grow in abundance. The Okanagan is the most water scarce region in Canada, yet people consume twice as much water than the average Canadian. On the last downhill part, I got once again drenched under the daily afternoon showers. But that rain was by far not enough to ease up the drought, I read in the news. Water scarcity has become a more serious issue here over the past few years, Corinne Jackson of the Okanagan Water Board told me.
Cycling through Penticton, I came across a huge mural, showing two human hands out of which a baby and all kind of wildlife are emerging. “Environment .. Is in our Hands” is written on top of the mural, painted by Laura Johnson. Luckily, Laura left her email address at the bottom of the mural. I wrote to her, and a few days later we talked over Skype. She told me she painted the mural in response to the horrifying fire seasons that turned the skies of Penticton grey and the air unbreathable for weeks. With her painting, she wanted to share a positive yet firm message with the people of Penticton, a reminder on the need and our responsibility to protect the landscape we live in and depend upon.
Laura’s message is as simple as it is true. Science would maybe have labelled her mural “Living in the Anthropocene,”the title of a book published in 2015. Her piece of art is a good example of how the arts - by alluding to people’s emotions - can convey a message that climate science has struggled to bring across to the broader public.