A Winter Lull-a-bye

For some people it means snow shovelling and hazardous driving. Others see it as a time for skating, skiing and snowmobiling. It is something that I enjoyed as a kid and now, as an adult, I am rediscovering the joy it offers. 

I still remember the delight of catching the first flakes of the season on my outstretched tongue. I still remember school-closed days and the imaginative thrills of building tunnels and forts. I still remember the jubilation of sledding with my children. Now I value the sanctity and inner-peace as well as the change in the balance between people, animals and nature.

For now, at least in my quiet country lifestyle, the deep-freeze of winter holds all of us in its vice grip.

In my backyard, even the water surface transforms into a frozen extension of the adjacent land and separation between the two becomes almost indistinguishable. The separation that does exist, however, is between man and animals for in this white on white landscape there are, temporarily, few people and an abundance of animals. 

It strikes me as an awakening of animal life but perhaps my sightings are just more obvious to me against a white canvas. Nonetheless, this is nature and the somewhat featureless landscape serves the predator’s keen sense of sight and smell. This advantage coupled with the scarcity of food in winter means that many animals will be eaten because they are more vulnerable in winter. Yet even their death will allow other animals to survive another day. For the cycle of life and death isn’t interrupted by wonders of nature or when animals sit precariously on the knife-edge between the need to survive and the need to kill in order to survive. 

It is a reminder of the preciousness of life, primarily because it makes obvious that inescapable death awaits us all. 

I don’t want to be morbid but I do want to be realistic. For me, death is natural and I am attempted to reframe my dualistic religious conditioning, in part from my psychedelic journey, and to accept death openly as part of a cycle that connects all of us to the universe, including all life forms, and to the spirituality that I once experienced as a kid feeling snow melt on my extended tongue and tasting joy and wonder for the first time.

Wild animals are unlikely to consider their demise in such a favourable fashion, however, as, for them, death is ever-present and this burden requires every day, every task, especially in Winter, to be about their survival. Winter is a test of energy management and, when food sources and stored fat recedes starvation looms. When this becomes a matter of life or death it will lead to desperation and the likelihood of animals leaving the comfort of their homes and risk encountering man in order to survive.  

This may seem harsh but animals don’t have the same choices that we enjoy. 

During daylight I have seen deers, coyotes and foxes put themselves in harm’s way in their search to secure the necessities of shelter and food. Fortunate for them I am not a hunter, despite having hunted. I know that their chance of survival is just a matter of luck as it is unlikely they will survive as the weak seldom do. 

They have no central heat, layered clothing or corner store. Nor do they have access to regular medical care, let alone emergency treatment. For many animals there is no safe place except parks or nature reserves as hunters will not always respect hunting seasons or bag limits. Something we all know but ignore due the enforcement costs. We also may choose to ignore the plight of wild animals forced to survive such circumstances with the meagre subsistence imposed by winter, a starvation prone diet that our throw-away, order food-at-home culture feels immune from. 

Such indifference stems from the cruelty we have long-since accepted with our animal-based consumer choices, choices that we no longer consider whenever we have a hamburger or purchase a pair of leather shoes. We look at the price and don’t look and the benefits or the costs to other people or other life forms. Man may be the apex animal but I judge others by how they treat those who have no voice to protest or defend themselves. 

Instead of being an apex animal I see man often operating more like a bottom-feeder.

I find it incredibly sad to witness a doe with one or two offspring cautiously navigating open spaces only to dash head long into the tick of the forest not knowing if their desperation will lead them to more people, more enemies or even that there are fewer and fewer natural places where she will find safety for her and her children. 

Yet, despite the challenges and with proper wildlife management some survive. I don’t like wildlife management but I do like hunter management. I prefer that there is no hunters and wildlife are free to have a full and healthy life without the threat of head-on collision with man. I also believe that their survival has less to do with management than the wondrous ways in which they survive our cruelty. 

Some animals adapt like the seasonally-adjustable snowshoe hare which turns white in winter so they can be less visible in a snowy environment. Others, like the Canada Goose or the Great Blue Heron, travel south for the winter. But the most wondrous feat, in my estimation, is reserved for animals, like the groundhog, the arctic squirrel and fresh water fish that hibernate.

For during hibernation, an animal can lower its temperature. In fact, one mammal has had their core temperature recorded at an incredibly low minus 2.9 degree Celsius. But of possible interest to pharmaceutical industry is that their heart rate can be significantly reduced. The fact that breathing can be reduced, in some cases reduced from fifty percent up to one hundred percent is of interest to scientists dreaming of man visiting distant galaxies on voyages that could take months or years.

A personal pleasure for me are the flocks of arctic bunting birds that Winter brings us. 

They summer in the Arctic but travel south for the winter. There are an extremely cautious bird but, fortunately, for us are on full display from our living room. I call them ‘popcorns’ from their constant popping up into the air, sometimes for only a foot or two at a time. My wife has observed a seemingly playful behaviour where the birds use their wings to ‘splash’ snow around like a child might do in a bath. Hence, she has termed such behavior ‘snow baths’. 

During a fierce wind the buntings effortlessly borrow beneath the fury of the howling winds that mold and shape the wintry landscape here like they might a desert there, sculpting each flake or grain into a conforming coherence. Soon they are all but invisible and the landscape again becomes an inhospitable surface.  

In contrast to wild animals, man’s operating principle is often ‘something out of sight is something out of mind’. When the ocean’s bays and inlets become encased and their ceaseless waves and currents are no longer apparent than such beauty is transformed in the same manner that natural beauty is always transformed, by man. In this case by using fishing shacks to pursue their ‘sport’. 

For me, this makes the distinction between animals and man shift ever more in favour of animals.

There are those that will drive on this secure surface and some who abandon their vehicles in order to use the glory of springtime to release them to the bottom of a deep ocean. There are others who use a fishing shack to dump unwanted garbage down the hole they use to fish.  

Such mindlessness makes these acts and many other such acts, both here and everywhere else, an offence against nature and all life forms, including fellow man. It is an action that can no longer disguised by ignorance or acceptable because others also do the same. It is far too late for us to act against our better knowledge as the connection between polluting our environment and the quality of our water, air and food and our very survival is beyond question.

It is also beyond question that animals and all life forms are under assault and that their existence as a species may be now threatened with extinction from our ever expanding population and increasing footprint. Experts now agree that between 1,000 and 10,000 species a year become extinct because of man. Knowing what we now know how can we accept this loss in our planet’s biodiversity without acknowledging our own species is the scourge of the Earth.

Wildlife can adapt to the harshness of winter but it cannot adapt to the extremes of climate change man has created from his/her short-sightedness and greed. In this part of the world we have seen the collapse of the cod fishery where once fish were so plentiful that they were caught in open baskets lowered into the water. Now, after a couple hundred years of cod stock pillaging by in-shore and off-shore industries the cod industry is taking its first baby steps towards a tightly regulated recovery after years of no-fishing.

We have also flattened forests to create farmland in this area. Canada’s smallest province is largely cleared farmland. In the head-long rush to grow potatoes and manufacture and potato chips there is very little ‘original forest stands’ or even forested areas in existence any longer. The natural habitat is, in effect, destroyed.

Now, in addition to the lack of a home for wild animals and plants, soil erosion is a concern on this wind-swept Atlantic Island. The cause is unsuprisingly the lack of trees. Although it is more politically correct to say that it is caused by increased erosion from heavy rains, frequent tillage and a declining number of livestock operations.

More startling is the fact that we have failed to protect our wetlands and the rich bio-diversity that they embrace. The demands of industries and home owners coupled with the attraction of tax revenue has often resulted in government regulators being uneven when it comes to protecting the wetlands. Such habitats destruction is short-sighted but not unexpected in a world that chooses to ignore climate change.

I understand that our world can no longer sustain our population so change is inevitable. I don’t accept, however, the abuse and destruction of our diverse safety net of animal and plant life. We are like the complacent frog that dies slowly in water that is gradually heated until it boils. At what point to we awaken to our own danger of survival?

The frog doesn’t get his understand his dilemma until it is too late. What does the fact that scientists are seeking a hibernation breakthrough in order to provide us with the possibility of an escape, a new start on some distant galaxy suggest? Is it that are also too complacent to act in our own self-interest, let alone on behalf of the animals and plants that have no voice. That’s my vote.

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