Thursday, January 19, 2023

What Lies Beyond

Campaigners protesting on the Blachford estate.

In England at present there is a furor over the right to what is called 'wild' camping i.e. outside managed campsites. The location for a keenly watched legal contest about the right to camp is storied Dartmoor, a national park where, as is usual there, some land is owned privately. I am familiar with Dartmoor Park as, when long ago in Bristol University’s Officer Training Corp, we roamed the moor’s roads in army trucks searching for a good pub to finish off the day's exercise. I did not then realize that much of the park was actually private land. The British public’s use of ‘rights-of-way’ footpaths over private land, a right stretching often as far back as the Middle Ages, is an oft-contested issue in such a crowded island, but this enthusiasm for camping out wherever is not something I recall from childhood.

On the formerly British lands across this continent there is a tradition of accepting walkers and campers on owned landscape where the right of passage has been legislated, negotiated or at least verbally accepted. Canada beyond the farmed lands very largely belongs to the government in right of the Crown. On occasion it leases parcels of land for settlement or minerals extraction, but otherwise one is free to roam, and to camp when distance or preference requires it. 

Until I became elderly I did a great deal of camping across Ontario, Quebec and the contiguous USA. Our two children regard the experience as being among the best times of their youth. It is a fine way to get a feel for Mother Nature up close and personal. For example my daughter recalls opening our house trailer door one morning to find herself face to face with a curious bear cub when camping in a remote provincial park way up north in Ontario. Out bike riding on rough trails in the bush I had on occasion truly close encounters of a bear kind in suddenly confronting a large adult out ‘berry picking’. Perhaps the most thrilling experience of wilderness travel is, while canoe camping, hearing wolves howl across the water at night, the eeriest wild sounds I’ve ever known. 

The right to ‘roam free’, whether in an often densely populated and heavily managed landscape such as Britain or in a wilder and much wider land such as ours, is, it seems to me, a key requirement in satisfying our innate urge to wander and to see what’s over the horizon. Ratty in the much-loved book Wind In The Willows is my prototype for this very human sensibility. New World lands like the one I choose to live in were created from this urge. Many of our most revered historical heroes were those who just had to see what lay ‘beyond’



Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Americans Love News (Though Putin Does Not)


A recent report,, from Oxford University and Reuters on the state of public confidence in journalism in six developed nations rates the public in the USA as having an especially low (and declining) trust in media as a source of valid information. 

Lacking an imperial overlord to manage national information transmission, the USA has always had a highly localised journalistic landscape. As Indian land became colonies, then, with westward expansion post-independence, territories and eventually states, news reporting was very much a regional matter. When radio arrived there were no central government networks created from the get-go like the CBC, BBC, ABC, JBC and so on throughout the British Empire. US radio was and has remained largely regional. While national radio and TV networks like NPR, PBS, NBC and Fox eventually developed there, much of the news content was and still is locally focused. In recent times a few quality US newspapers (NY Times, Washington Post) have developed a national following, but content about the USA emphasizes its source region (e.g. the NYT I get to read is the Great Lakes version).

Thus I find the Reuters report inadequate as it features centralized and geographically small nations such as the UK and Finland alongside vast and decentralized media environments like Brazil and the USA. Until the widespread  availability of digital media only a generation or so ago, populations across a large federal nation without national (and usually government supported) broadcast media were treated to greatly varying versions of what constituted news. This seems to have remained so even though other regions’ news is now accessible digitally. This may well be because many people in a country of large and varied territories don’t often visit or even care much about what distant regions think of as important. In the USA and it seems Brazil that has translated in recent years to a distrust of information deriving from afar, especially where it is seen as emanating from an elite centre. Even here in Canada where both the French and English media tell much the same story across the land, some communities, especially in Alberta and Quebec, distrust news they see as deriving from Ottawa-based outlets.

I know the USA well, having lived next to it or, for a few years, in it and having worked there frequently for over 50 years. Americans have been and still are are voracious consumers of news. They just don’t believe what doesn’t emanate from their own ‘tribe’. The creation of online media has massively enhanced the opportunities for extremists of all stripes to extend the boundaries of what constitutes broadcast news and opinion. Paradoxically (?) this has led to a widespread distrust of media in general in the democracies, especially in the USA. It's just too bad that isn't also true of today's Russians! But of course full control of information is a seminal requirement for any lasting autocracy.


Monday, June 20, 2022

Beauty in Mixing Nature with Nurture in the Garden


This year, 2022,  has been declared the Year of the Garden. It happens to coincide with a rising enthusiasm for gardening with native plants. For example here in Toronto we have an actively growing organization called the North American Native Plant Society. We might hope that a process to a possible intermarriage of enhanced plant biodiversity and conventional ‘novel super-plant’ display could develop from these initiatives.

While experts on the poor pollinator and other biodiversity value of hybrids versus wild stock trot around the environmentalist and nature club speaker circuits and as yet rarely make it to gardening clubs, we who enjoy the sights and sounds of managed gardens of exotics are becoming more aware of the limited value these have in any process of returning human-planted landscapes to active centres of local biodiversity. Here in Southern Ontario we have a wonderful widely spread-out Royal Botanical Gardens with multiple locations that feature exotics and local hybrids that do well in our climate (e.g. we have the world’s biggest collection of lilacs and dogwoods). The RBC has made some attempt in recent times at featuring natural areas, lying as it does in a traditional oak savanna landscape. For a few years I lived in the milder climate of New Jersey where I visited several exotic gardens that had allowed the fecundity of local botany to embrace their landscapes by overlaying it into the non-natives.  

My approach to my own garden is to conserve some native plants that spring up among my hybrids and exotics in an attempt to improve the potential for pollinators and other native-plant-dependant species to return. While there are native plant seed sellers, the many and varied soil types within my berms, woods and lawns make guessing what to try too hit and miss, so I concentrate on spotting what happens to sprout naturally and, if promising, to protect it from both aggressive invasive weeds like plantain and dandelions and rampaging hybrid perennials. I’ve had some success in creating a panorama of mixed beauty from both wild and garden plantings. 

As there are some highly aggressive wild plants that can totally overrun a garden or pond once established, protecting cultivars from being squeezed out can on occasion be important. An example is a large swamp reed called a cattail that completely encircles still freshwaters if left to spread. It is important as a bird nesting site and water-fowl habitat, as well as having roots providing nutrition in a wilderness emergency (not my problem here yet!) but, if I don’t control it, many beautiful waterside and shallow-water plants, both native and imported, are soon smothered and gone.

Attempting a complete conversion of all gardens to native plant that some native plant apostles shoot for is Fools Gold it seems to me. Much of beauty and interest would be lost to us, plus the fact is that seasonal vegetables are virtually all non-native. Eurasian bulbs and shrubs brighten our spring well before any natives show, plus some lawn still has both social and aesthetic purpose and requires using Eurasian grasses (our native North American short and tall-grasses are not suitable for lawn). 

Disappointingly I’ve yet to read of any seriously active promotion of a ‘hybrid’ approach to gardening that intertwines the variety and colour of human plant breeding with the best looking and/or most valuable to our ecology that Mother Nature has produced by herself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Big Lie as Propaganda

This sort of outrageous bombast was the ‘genius’ of Hitler and his cronies:-

‘Wagner-linked Putin ally: “Dying west thinks Russians are third world scum”

 ‘Putin’s cook’ Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serving food to Vladimir Putin at a restaurant outside Moscow in 2011.

Yevgeny Prigozhin accused of financing Wagner mercenary group responds to accusations of massacres in Mali. A Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin accused by the US, EU and others of financing the private military company Wagner Group has said that “a dying-out western civilisation” will be defeated by Russia.

The Guardian had approached Yevgeny Prigozhin seeking his reaction to evidence implicating Wagner fighters in massacres in Mali. In response he said he had “repeatedly said that the Wagner Group does not exist” and that he had “nothing to do with it”. “You are a dying-out western civilisation that considers Russians, Malians, Central Africans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and many other peoples and countries to be third world scum,” the businessman added. “Remember, this is not true …. You are a pathetic endangered bunch of perverts, and there are many of us, billions of us. And victory will be ours!”

Prigozhin said he was “closely following the events taking place in Mali” where “the collective west, namely the USA, Britain, France and other countries trying to pursue a policy of enslaving Africa, have been planting and organising terrorist groups in Mali for years”. This was being done, he said, “in order to keep the population of this country in fear, to plunder its natural wealth and to write off the money allocated for so-called peacekeeping operations”.’

Seems amazing tripe in these days…but only if we ignore history.


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Finding and Sticking With Our Own Crowd

The article Covid Pandemic Pushed Social Media to Become Increasingly Tribal by a researcher at Concordia University in Montreal points to a phenomenon that the forced stay-at-home aspect of the current pandemic has allowed to evolve - as we have a lot more time and opportunity without oversight to peer at whatever we wish on our screens, we have been enabled to more accurately define just to whom and what we wish to pay attention.

While we may 'belong' to quite a number of social media platforms and subscribe to a panoply of news sources we have had both the time and opportunity to refine just what information we take away from online sources. Indeed many of these sources have themselves come up with ways we can refine our viewing. A multiplicity of online subject newsletters and podcasts have emerged from news outlets, allowing us to better align our reading and listening with our enthusiasms and concerns. Aggregators like Feedly and Pocket allow us to save and view only what interests us. Special interest groups are formed and grow within the major social media platforms. I myself no longer follow any individuals on Facebook but do belong to (and even have in a couple of cases managed) a range of Facebook SIGs.

The days when intellectuals aka thinking people could legitimately scorn social media in their entirety as a toxic stew of ignorance and lamentable prejudice are almost over. Although online provider AIs are fighting a strong rearguard action to present us with source options they derive from our digital behaviour, just as rapidly app tools are being developed to help us filter out the ignorant and unwanted. With some diligent research we can, in my experience, find ways of screening out much of what we did not ask to be presented with onscreen. 

For the avidly curious like myself serious self-discipline is needed to manage time spent onscreen. This is made worse by the luxury of my retirement from work, allowing me each and every day to roam through the world's digital knowledge trove -  this being largely without the interruptions of visitations and recreational travel during our ever-extending pandemic.

While there is legitimate criticism of the fact that we these days can all too easily avoid being exposed to alternate points of view, the onscreen assault of pictures and text that accompanies each power-on of any digital device demands we refine our sources to a manageable number. What the web has facilitated is a greatly enhanced ability to source the 'long tail', data on specialised, even esoteric, interests shared by few or none in our personal communities. We can now belong to many 'tribes' with no obvious connection to each other and located far beyond our immediate neighbourhood. Nothing like this has existed in history. Russia's crimes in the Ukraine are exposed to the world in real-time.

Current disenchantment with and moves to slow increasing globalisation do not preclude us being eager to find out what others afar are doing and thinking. It is possible to be tribal in one's interests and yet internationalist in one's outlook. Today's internet facilitates that. I can be a Settler history buff and Gaelic heritage enthusiast while still remaining connected across the globe.