Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘The Green Interview’

Our Greatest Companions

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

September 19, 2010

I pushed the shovel into the earth, lifted it and swung it to one side. MacTavish pounced on the hole and began digging furiously. He backed off as I took another shovelful, then pounced back and started digging again. The third time, I finally caught on, and a whole afternoon’s behaviour suddenly made sense.

My dog was helping me work. That’s why he’d been right in my face as I worked on the wooden walkway. That’s why he was guarding the tools, standing on the next board to be screwed down, hanging in close to me wherever I walked.

He’s a working dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, very bright and observant. I was working, and he was pitching in. It sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense.

Channel-surfing that evening, Marjorie and I came upon a PBS program called Nature — and this episode was about dogs. The relationship between dogs and humans, the program noted, is unique. We have close relationships with other animals — the cat, the horse, the camel — but with no other animal do we have the same level of intimacy or the variety of shared activities that we do with dogs.

Dogs live in our houses, play with our children, do the tricks we ask of them, eat our food, warn off intruders, sleep in our beds. They hunt with us, protect our property, rescue swimmers, guide blind people, track criminals and lost children, sniff out drugs and cadavers and much, much more. Many breeds have special talents and adaptations. Sled dogs bear their puppies right on the ice, subsist on snow and blubber, and can run five marathons in a day. One can argue plausibly that human beings could not possibly have settled in the Arctic but for their relationship with dogs.

The most intelligent of dogs, by common consent, is the Border Collie, developed along the Scottish border as a herding dog. The PBS program showed a couple of Border Collies working on the steep slopes of the English fells with a shepherd. The shepherd whistled his commands continuously, sounding almost like a bo’sun’s pipe, and the collies maneuvered the sheep accordingly. Bring them over here. Get them across the brook. Look back, you’ve missed one. The rapport between shepherd and dog was uncanny.

Dogs evolved from wolves at about the same time that human beings settled down in agricultural villages — and, although evolution normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, the dog emerged in an eyeblink of 5-7000 years. How is that possible?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist, may have found the answer. In the 1950s, even after generations in captivity, silver foxes were still wild animals, wary and hostile. Seeking a more manageable, less aggressive fur fox, Belyaev bred the tamest foxes together. After 18 generations of selective breeding, his foxes would approach people, play games and come when called. Even more surprisingly, their coats were no longer silver-black, but piebald. Their ears were floppy, their tails curled upward, and they barked. By breeding only for tameness, Belyaev had effectively transformed foxes into dogs.

Fascinating. And perhaps that’s what happened in mesolithic villages. Perhaps the tamest wolves began hanging around the settlements, scavenging the garbage, cautiously developing a rapport with humans, and speedily evolving into dogs. The more tame the animals, the more they worked together with humans, the better they fared.

No doubt the same was true of humans. The ones who got on well with the proto-dogs had companions in hunting, protection from other animals, and warm bodies to hug in the chilly nights. For Australia’s aborigines, a really cold night is a “three-dog night,” when you need the body heat of three dogs to stay warm.

Digging away beside me, MacTavish is enjoying his work. He and I are the beneficiaries of a sad, brilliant strategy. The wild wolves are now down to a few hundred thousand. Their domesticated descendants number in the hundreds of millions. MacTavish’s ancestors made a wise choice. And so, I think, did mine.

– 30 —

Silver Donald Cameron’s environmental web site, www.TheGreenInterview.com, will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 at Mount Saint Vincent University. The event will be webcast live by haligonia.ca. For further details, see Silver Donald’s blog on The Green Interview site, or visit his Facebook page.

Storms of Angels

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 9, 2010

In the frosty pre-dawn darkness, Bridget Stutchbury is slipping stealthily through the Pennsylvania woodlands, occasionally flashing a light to illuminate a landmark. She is trailing a philanderer, hoping to catch the hussy in the act. For two hours she tracks her target by sound and by radio — and she fails. The floozy demonstrates perfect chastity.

The philanderer is not a woman, but a bird, a female Acadian flycatcher, and Dr. Stutchbury is not a private eye, but an ornithologist who studies the social life of songbirds, including their sex lives. This is not leering voyeurism. Songbird populations are falling steeply, and to reverse the decline we need to understand not only the reasons for their decline, but also their requirements for successful reproduction.

Professor Stutchbury, who teaches at York University in Toronto, actually calls herself a “behavioural ecologist” or, more colloquially, a “bird detective.” That’s also the title of her newest book, and of the talk she’ll deliver at Dalhousie University Wednesday evening. She has spent her life studying songbirds in the wild, and her first book, Silence of the Songbirds, described what she had learned about them.

Silence of the Songbirds is an intensely readable book, a finalist for the Governor General’s literary award. But the story it tells is a sad one.

Songbirds are astonishing little creatures. Many of them winter in tropical forests from Central America to mid-South America, and breed in the Canadian north. They cross the Gulf of Mexico in a sustained 15 to 20-hour overnight flight that can cost them nearly half of their body weight. At the height of the migration season in April and May, US coastal radar stations pick up huge clouds of north-bound birds soon after sunset — as many as 50 million in a single night. In the early days of radar, before operators realized what was happening, they referred to these mysterious waves of aerial movement as “storms of angels.”

The destination of billions of these “neotropical migrants” is what Stutchbury calls “the biggest migratory bird nursery in the world,” the vast northern boreal forest that stretches across Canada from Newfoundland to the Yukon and Alaska. Here, in a few intense summer weeks, the birds find mates and build nests, conceive, hatch and nurture their young — and then fatten themselves again for the long trip south.

The birds are at risk in every part of this demanding life cycle. Fully half of them die in the course of every year’s migration, and the explosion of human populations has multiplied the hazards they confront. Their breeding grounds in the boreal forest are being chipped away by industry. The temperate forests of eastern North America once provided a vast leafy flyway from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, but they have been reduced to fragments and the tropical forests are falling at a terrifying rate.

Lighted skyscrapers and transmission towers represent lethal obstacles to night-flying birds. Latin American farmers use staggering quantities of pesticide, with lethal effects on wintering birds. A Wisconsin study in the 1990s estimated that, in that state alone, domestic cats annually killed somewhere between 8 million and 217 million birds.

And all of this is in addition to natural predators like squirrels, raccoons, snakes and other birds.

Stutchbury notes that we can all help by behaving thoughtfully — keeping our cats indoors, drinking shade-grown organic coffee, eschewing pesticide-soaked produce, buying FSC-certified lumber and paper products, dousing office lights during migration season. Most of these are better choices anyway.

Meanwhile, the annual Breeding Birds Survey shows at least 18 species of migrant songbirds in serious decline. And if you think this has nothing to do with you, think again. The songbirds are an integral part of the web of life that sustains us all. The quality of our air, for instance, relies on healthy forests — and the trees rely on the songbirds to control their insects, pollinate their flowers and distribute their seeds and fruits.

But to value songbirds for their usefulness to humans is morally bankrupt. Songbirds are among nature’s most exquisite creations. If they don’t lift our hearts, if we can’t value them for themselves, then we have no right to share a planet with them.

– 30 —

I interviewed Bridget Stutchbury for The Green Interview during her visit to Halifax. We’ll run the interview on the site later this year.

Update: The Green Interview (May 1, 2010)

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

May 1, ,2010

Hi, everyone:

There won’t be a column tomorrow because the Herald is devoting the entire section of The Novascotian to the centennial of the Canadian navy, and even my page will be given over to that. I’ve taken the time off to do more work on TheGreenInterview.com — and here’s an update on our progress there.

Many of you are members of The Green Interview, and so you’ll be getting a second copy of this update. My apologies. We’re still working some of this stuff out.

Cheers,
Don

New at TheGreenInterview.com!

FARLEY MOWAT!

The Farley Mowat interview is posted and accessible. If you’re a subscriber, go to the Home page or the “Interviews” page and click on the thumbnail. If you’re not a subscriber, you can still see the video sample from the home page. That little five-minute snippet – which is also on YouTube – is a powerful interview in itself.

STUDENTS/SENIORS PRICE

As a direct result of visitor feedback, we’ve just implemented a reduced subscription fee of $6.95 monthly for students, seniors and other low-income members. I’ve just posted a Forum entry and a Blog note about this change, and about the site’s pricing policy in general terms, and I invite your comments.

MP3 FILES

I want to remind everyone that you don’t have to sit in front of your computer and watch these interviews – though a lot of people are doing just that. One alternative, though, is to download just the audio tracks of the interviews as MP3 files, and then listen to them at your convenience, while you’re driving, exercising, walking, riding the subway or whatever. In fact, that was the original concept of the site, until Chris Beckett persuaded me that people as exciting and important as our guests should be captured on high-definition video as well.

TRANSCRIPTS

I’ve also posted a Forum note about transcripts. A couple of visitors have asked whether the interviews could be made available in that form. It’s an appealing idea. (One of these is a world-cruising sailor who wants to print off the transcripts and read them at sea, like a book. Another has only slow dial-up access to the internet.) We can certainly do this, but transcription is an additional cost. Would other people like the option of reading transcripts? Please let us know.

NEWSLETTER

This note is going out as a mass-mailing to everyone who’s registered on the site, and to members of a couple of other mailing lists. Since not everyone will want to receive all the updates, we aren’t going to do mass-mailings very often. Instead, we’re going to issue future updates as Newsletters. If you want to stay in touch, please go to the site and subscribe to the Newsletter. You don’t have to be a subscriber to the site to subscribe to the Newsletter — and you can unsubscribe at any time, of course.

Happy spring!

Silver Donald Cameron

Introducing The Green Interview! Please do me a favour…

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Dear friends — and I do think of the people on this list as friends:

This is an important occasion for me. And I need you to do me a favour.

For the past two years, I’ve been working on a new environmental project called The Green Interview — a subscription website that presents in-depth interviews with major figures in the environmental movement, discussing their ideas in lively conversations. It’s a subscription site because we want to be supported by our members, the people we’re here to serve, and not by corporate or institutional sponsors.

Voila! The site is now ready to use, and it’s already enrolled its first few subscribers! We’ve posted the first three interviews — with James Lovelock, Vandana Shiva and Paul Watson — and we’ll soon be releasing the interviews with Farley Mowat and Elizabeth May.The “About Us” page is pasted in at the bottom of this message.

Please come and see us at www.thegreeninterview.com. I hope you’ll like the site and find it worthwhile — and of course I’ll be delighted if you join. If you do join, we’ll send you a DVD of my video The Living Beach, a $20 reward for taking out a $15 subscription.

But even if you don’t join — perhaps especially if you don’t join — I’d be grateful if you’d do me the favour of sending me your reactions. If you did join, what features of the site particularly attracted you? Where would you like it to go? Who would you like to see interviewed?

And if you didn’t join, please tell me what might have made the site more attractive to you — and please be frank. Interviews too long? Poor choice of people interviewed? Price too high? Dumb interviewer? Disapprove of this “personalized” approach to environmental issues? Is there anything we could have done differently that would have changed your reaction?

I promise I will never argue about your responses. I will certainly thank you, and I might ask you to clarify what I don’t understand. But I truly believe in the old adage that a business’ best friend is a tough and demanding customer, because a customer like that constantly drives you towards excellence.

Be our best friend, and drive TheGreenInterview.com towards excellence. And thank you in advance for your trouble.

Very greenest regards,

Don

ABOUT THE GREEN INTERVIEW
IN BRIEF:

TheGreenInterview.com is a subscription web site of extended interviews – normally about an hour in length – between Silver Donald Cameron and the thinkers, writers and observers whose ideas and perceptions are leading the way to a new era of sustainability. Most interviews (but not all) are on video, with the audio tracks available separately for subscribers to download as MP3 files.

TheGreenInterview.com site includes a forum where subscribers can discuss the interviews among themselves, and sometimes with the interviewees. When an interview has been booked but not yet recorded, members of the forum can suggest questions to be asked.

TELL ME MORE:

As a subscription site, TheGreenInterview.com essentially divides its viewers into visitors and members. Visitors are welcome to view the site, read the posted biographies of interviewees, view short segments of the interviews (which will also be posted on YouTube), and read the comments in the forum. Access to the full-length interviews, either by streaming or download, is reserved for paid-up members. Paid members also have complete access to the archive of interviews and the right to participate actively in the forum.

Regular membership costs US$14.95 per month for individuals, and $29.95 for institutions. Students, seniors and low-income members may join for $6.95 per month. Members are guaranteed at least one new major in-depth interview every month, but will normally receive many enhancements. For instance, for the first 100 members, we will include a free DVD of Silver Donald’s video documentary on shorelines, The Living Beach.

Some interviews take place in the studio of Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Copies of all interviews are deposited in the University library, where they are accessible to students and faculty. The university may also broadcast selected interviews or portions of interviews on its educational TV services.