Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for October, 2007

Where have all the apples gone?

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

“That looks like an apple tree,” I said to Marjorie. “But how come it doesn’t have any apples?”

Feral apple trees abound in Isle Madame – dotted through the woods, standing gnarled in deserted fields, adorning the edges of roads. They include several different varieties – probably heritage strains, since they apparently descend from orchards planted by French settlers in the 18th century. In October, they should be groaning with apples. But this one, growing beside a long-abandoned road, bore not a single fruit.

Later that day, I drove the five miles from the bridge at Lennox Passage to my house in D’Escousse. Apple trees grow along that road as closely as school children waiting to cheer a parade – so many, in fact, that I would like to see the dull name “Route 320” replaced by Route des Pommiers/Apple Tree Road.

But I saw no pommes on Route des Pommiers either.

By now I was curious, and rather alarmed. What about my own fruit trees, the ones that grow around my boat shed, and carpet the ground with little sour apples at this time of year? Local deer-hunters generally phone me in the fall to ask if they can have the apples to set out as deer-bait. But nobody had called this year.

No wonder. Five trees, and between them they had barely produced enough apples to make a pie.

My buddy Edwin DeWolf, who built the shed, drove up beside me.

“No apples this year,” I said.

“No apples anywhere,” said Edwin. “No bees, that’s why.”

Ye gods.

That evening I saw Farley and Claire Mowat, who last month donated 200 stunning seaside acres to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. This splendid gift includes 35 years’ worth of the Mowats’ careful records and observations on the site and in the area.

“We saw almost no fruits of any kind this year,” said Farley. “No plums, no cherries, nothing. And it affected all kinds of things. It was a cold, wet, late spring, and we had so few insects this year that the insectivore species of birds didn’t reproduce. The tree swallows and the barn swallows live on flying insects. They made nests, but they didn’t lay eggs and they didn’t stay around. I’ve never seen them behave that way before.”

Was it truly just a cold, late spring – or something more alarming? Bees, I remembered, have been dying off in record numbers right across the United States and Europe, and nobody knew why.

Honey bees are not native to North America, and indigeous North American plants didn’t need them for pollination – but the species which do need them are the ones in the supermarket, the products of industrial agriculture: apples, almonds, cherries, tomatoes, zucchinis, cantaloupes. Theories about the cause of their decline ranged from new pesticides, mites and genetically modified crops to climate change, fungi and even radiation from cell phones.

Whatever the reason, the US problem was serious. Every third bite we eat, says one expert, “is dependent on a honeybee.” In the US, the crops pollinated by honey bees are valued at something like $15 billion. The California almond crop alone is worth $1.5 billion.

With money like that at stake, agribusiness doesn’t leave pollination to nature. Bees have been bred to work both earlier and later in the season – and they migrate to where they’re needed. Huge semi-trailers packed with hundreds of millions of bees rumble through US agricultural districts, renting the bees’ services to farmers.

These bees make money, not honey. (Believe it or not, American honey is being undercut by cheaper honey from China.) Industrial bees don’t eat nectar, either. Their food arrives in tanker trucks full of protein supplements, sucrose and corn syrup. It costs $12,000 per load.

“I don’t think the situation in the States is related,” said Farley. “We had extreme conditions this year, including the most rain we’ve seen in 35 years, nearly 40 inches. We also had a lot of fog, and flying insects can’t handle fog.” A biologist from the Nova Scotia Museum later confirmed a “patchy” die-off of bees in some districts of the province.

“It isn’t just the bees,” said Farley. “We had minimal populations of butterflies and moths too, and they came late. It may be several years until insect populations recover, since there aren’t many insects left to breed.”

And what about the swallows?

“They would have gone to where there was more food,” Farley said. “It might be just a few miles inland, out of the fog – but remember, these birds migrate 10,000 or 15,000 miles, so it would be nothing for them to fly a couple of thousand miles to find food.”

The apples of Isle Madame have survived 250 years so far, so I guess they’ll be back. But it’s a very strange autumn without them.

– 30 —

The Celtic Kids

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

The youngsters just keep on coming, and it’s a lovely thing to see.

In 1971, when I moved to Cape Breton, I didn’t realize that I was immigrating into the Canadian Gàidhealtachd – the only remaining Gaelic district outside the British Isles. I had been raised in a Scotch broth so dilute that I knew nothing of the music, the heroic legends, the poetry or any other aspect of the culture of my ancestors.

Cape Breton was a revelation. At my first Broad Cove Concert, I heard someone on stage crack a joke in Gaelic – and 15,000 people laughed. These folks were Scottish in a way I could barely imagine.

And then there was the music. Hearing Celtic music was like coming home for the first time. I didn’t stop loving Bach, the Beatles or the blues – but this new music reached far inside me and plucked strings of emotion I had never known were there. In some mysterious fashion, it was my music, and it spoke immediately to my character, my temperament, my spirit.

But the music, it seemed, was in danger. A film-maker named Ron MacInnis had recently aired a documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, and the island was reeling at the idea that the jig might be up, so to speak.

And so began a concerted effort to celebrate the music and enlist a new generation of players. Led by Father John Angus Rankin, the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association was formed. It organized a couple of spectacularly-successful mass concerts at Glendale. The Association also encouraged a gifted teacher named Stan Chapman, and by the 1980s, a whole crowd of Chapman’s young students was taking the stage at the Scottish summer concerts – Jackie Dunn, Tracey Dares, Kendra MacGillivray, Stephanie Wills, Wendy MacIsaac, Glenn Graham, Rodney MacDonald and others.

I remember being particularly delighted by two teenage players at a Big Pond concert: a slender girl with tumbling blonde ringlets and a very proper young man in white dress shirt and red tartan tie. Both of them played like angels on fire. The girl was named Natalie MacMaster and the boy was Ashley MacIsaac.

The Chapman Generation is now in its thirties, at the height of its power. This month, the Celtic Colours festival included a concert in Judique called “Wendy’s World,” centred on Wendy MacIsaac, and featuring many of those same young people. Mary Jane Lamond sang, Stan Chapman was in the audience, and Ashley MacIsaac delivered a blistering, passionate performance which prompted his cousin Wendy to remark that he was “simply the best fiddler in the world.” At that moment, probably nobody in the hall would have disagreed.

So we’re all right today. But what about tomorrow? Who’s coming along now?

For me, that was the big news from Celtic Colours this year. The show in D’Escousse featured the Alberta band The McDades – and also the remarkable Jerry Holland, one of the most eloquent and melodic of all the fiddlers. But the show was opened by 16-year-old Krysta MacKinnon of Dundee, already a self-confident and accomplished performer – a fine player now, with a long future ahead of her.

The concert in St. Peter’s consisted entirely of musicians 26 or younger. Two were from Scotland — Calum Alex MacMillan and Catriona Watt, a piper and Gaelic singer respectively. The other six were Cape Bretoners. There were four fine women fiddlers, all of whom were also step-dancers: Leanne Aucoin, Rachel Davis, Beverley MacLean and Chrissy Crowley. The youngest player, Douglas Cameron, was just 13, already a veteran who described himself as an “all-purpose” fiddler, capable of handling weddings, dances, concerts or whatever other assignments might be handed to him. But when he was asked to step-dance, he resolutely shook his head.

But the most remarkable performance of the evening came from 23-year-old Jason Roach, a pianist from Cheticamp. Cape Breton pianists are superb musicians, but almost all confine themselves to “chording” – accompanying the fiddlers with pulsing rhythms, liquid runs and great sweeping chords. The only major exception I know is Dougie MacPhee, a legendary figure precisely because he is an accomplished solo performer, playing the tunes with his right hand while accompanying himself with a powerful rhythmic left hand.

Jason Roach does the same thing. He has studied with some of Cape Breton’s finest pianists, notably Maybelle Chisholm, and he also has a degree in music from St. Francis Xavier. He is a dazzling performer who plays at sizzling speed, with arms and fingers of rubber. Yet he also has a musicality which serves the tunes rather than overwhelming them. I have never seen anything like him. Like J.P. Cormier on the guitar, Roach does things on the piano that I wouldn’t have believed possible.

The kids just keep on coming. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

– 30 —

The Secret Beach

Monday, October 15th, 2007

by

Silver Donald Cameron

On an impossibly warm and clear October day, the trek in to the secret beach is almost as enchanting as the beach itself.

We parked the truck and struck off across an eroding drumlin headland covered in brown grasses, yellow vines and lavender-coloured asters. Beyond the drumlin was a bit of wetland, draining through an abandoned concrete sluice-gate covered with orange lichens, where tall bulrushes had already exploded into seedy fluff. Seaward of the marsh was a short, gleaming sandy beach, with a ridge of round cobbles acting as a dune line.

I looked carefully at the marsh. I have seen fat muskrat in such mini-marshes before – once, memorably, swimming under a thin pane of clear ice, like a muskrat under glass – but there were no muskrats today.

We walked carefully across the round, rolling cobbles and up into the dark spruce and fir. The track rose through stout, short trees to the crest of a crumbling bluff, providing intermittent glimpses of the glittering sea. In the restful shade of the woods, the little Sheltie trotted busily between tree-trunks, sniffing the rustling copper-needled floor.

In the clearings, the rosebushes stood chest-high, crowned by red bursts of rose-hips. Browning umbrella stalks of angelica reached above the tawny grass, and low reddening leaves of wild strawberry lay hiding on the ground. As the track rose and fell, the footing sometimes became tricky where fierce recent rains had carved deep rocky furrows in the ground.

We picked our way down a last steep defile to find ourselves beside a tiny rivulet chuckling its way from a dark lagoon down through the dunes and out to sea. Behind the lagoon, a shallow valley curled back into the wooded hills. Cormorants perched on rocky outcrops in the water, gulls swooped overhead, and tiny wading birds – plovers or sandpipers, perhaps – ran busily through the swash of the gentle surf.

We forded the streamlet, and the beach lay open in the sunlight before us – a mile of wide sand, wet, taupe-coloured, curving between forest bluff and grassy headland. MacTavish thundered down the beach, his ruff blown backward, his ears flat, his tiny legs drumming out the exact same rhythm as a horse’s hooves, tossing his head back and barking for the sheer frantic joy of living.

The sand was spotted with sand dollars, razor clam shells and the cast-off exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters. Just offshore, the dark yellow rockweed swayed with the swells, surging back and forth in the shallows. A small vivid orange-and-black caterpillar was humping its way from stone to stone. A tiny black spider shot across the sand at high speed. A yellow butterfly flirted with the lacy edge of the water.

The sun hung high and hot in the pale blue sky. I was wearing shorts and a golf shirt – in October – and I was still a little too warm.

“Look!” said Marjorie, squinting upwards. “How many?”

I tilted my head. The sky was laced with the contrails of jet airliners, each leaving a fuzzy white brush-stroke across the heavens. Every morning, 100,000 people leave Europe by air. At mid-day they converge on Moncton. We could see 20 jet trails and six actual planes, all at once. But the only other signs of human life were a few tiny houses across the bay, and a few bits of sea-borne detritus, including – this was Cape Breton, after all – a Captain Morgan rum bottle, which we carried out.

Essentially, this is the beach as nature made it, quietly going about its endless ballet of continuity and change. Wild beaches are our heritage as human beings, places where the eternal processes of creation and destruction take place right before our eyes. Human beings need access to such places – places to view with reverence, places where we take away nothing but memories and photographs, and leave nothing but footprints.

A developer would see this beach as a magnificent opportunity for profit, which is why I will not say where it is. The Maritimes have more wild beaches than any other region of North America – but they are only a day’s drive from Boston, a four-hour flight from Europe, and in the ten years since I first wrote about their vulnerability, many of them have been snapped up, fenced off, subdivided and sold. If we do nothing, they will all vanish, as they have vanished in the continental US and Europe.

Last month, in this paper, Environment Minister Mark Parent declared that “it’s imperative that we have a well thought-out, proper policy on coastal protection.” He’s right – and we have already lost ten years and many miles of shoreline.The sooner the province can implement such a policy, the better for all of our souls – and the better for all our children.

– 30 –

Silver Donald Cameron’s award-winning book The Living Beach is available at www.capebretonbooks.com

The Greening of the Taxman

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

“It is difficult to imagine a tax that actually improves our lives,” says Paul Hawken. “We are so battered by the insults of the existing system that we fail to see how creative are the alternatives.”

Hawken is a notable author, businessman and environmentalist who cuts to the heart of issues by framing them in a novel way. In The Ecology of Commerce, he argues that the problem with taxes is a design problem. Our tax system isn’t designed to recognize the true costs of human activities – so it punishes things we should encourage, and leads us to disregard the real environmental and social costs of our actions.

For example, we tax incomes, profits, sales, payrolls and savings – which suppresses jobs, savings, new investment and business formation. The tax system encourages everyone to cheat, and it is ferociously inefficient. The cost of accounting, administration, paperwork and waste may amount to 65 cents for every dollar collected.

But, says Hawken, look what would happen if we shifted our focus to products and processes, and placed heavy taxes on pollution, waste, energy consumption and the use of non-renewable resources. Instead of taxing things we value, like initiative and entrepreneurship, we would be taxing things we wanted to discourage. The tax would induce people and companies to make environmentally-sound choices.

In truth, green taxes simply send the correct signals about what things cost. Oil is unique, finite and irreplaceable. We should be using it as sparingly as possible. If it is priced appropriately – as a resource far too valuable to be burned, and also a fuel which pollutes and poisons – then people will use it carefully. Where possible, they’ll choose renewable energy sources instead.

Green fees could also help to conserve minerals, old-growth forests, clean air, clean water and many other vital resources. A carefully-designed green-tax regime would support business in doing what it does best – adapting, inventing and innovating, searching for lower costs and greater efficiencies. Every success would lower the corporate tax bill – and reduce environmental damage.

To succeed, green taxes need to be substantial. If the price of gasoline rises by 10 cents, not much will happen, because we’re used to small fluctuations. If it doubles or trebles, people will start looking for alternatives.

But surely the last thing we need is more taxation? Hawken agrees, arguing that the new green taxes should not be added to the existing system, but should replace it. As green taxes are phased in, taxes on incomes, profits, sales and the like should be phased out. The shift should be “revenue-neutral,”meaning that at the end of the process government would be collecting exactly the same amount, but from different sources.

Hawken’s example is a person earning $30,000 a year and paying $5600 in income taxes plus $1100 in energy costs. If we double his energy costs to $2200, but cut his income tax to $4500, his total bill is no higher – but now he has a powerful incentive to conserve energy and thus increase his net income.

Does a shift to green taxes represent an intolerable intrusion into the free market? Hardly. Markets are never free. They require a framework of legislation and regulation to ensure the fair and orderly conduct of business. Green taxes are essentially just a regulatory change, though a dramatic one.

Paul Hawken’s fundamental theme is that business has become the dominant institution on the planet, and is largely responsible for the ecological crisis – but business is also the only force with enough dynamism, creativity and energy to turn things around. The key to the whole human future is “restorative” business, the evolution of an economy which does not merely cease despoiling the world but finds a mission in repairing the damage.

Is he dreaming? Maybe not. Odd though it seems, corporate leaders are actually human. Like the rest of us, they have children and grandchildren. They drink the poisoned water, eat the pesticide-laced food and breathe the brown air. They too are beginning to see that radical change is our only hope.

Last week, incredibly, the pin-striped paleolithics of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives announced an “unprecedented consensus” that climate change is our “most pressing and daunting issue.” Furthermore, the CCCE members recognized that government should bring in emissions trading, and also institute green taxes to raise energy prices.

Ye gods. And three cheers.

So perhaps Hawken’s hopeful expectation of a leadership role for business will prove justified. He is, incidentally, one of the thinkers interviewed in The Eleventh Hour, Leonardo DiCaprio’s jet-propelled environmental documentary – and his message there is delightful.

“What a great time to be born!” he says. “What a great time to be alive! Because this generation gets to, essentially, completely change this world.”