by Lisa Hupp, courtesy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Before I get into what I intended to write this morning, a word about the federal criminal indictment of the former President of the United States of America, under the Espionage Act. You’ll be submerged in commentary for days come, so I’ll spare you. Except for this: if the U.S. and the several states — their police forces, prosecutors, judges, and the culture at large — prioritized the scourge of corporate crime and corruption on a par with incidents of street crime, Donald Trump would very likely not have been able to run for president in the first place. And our nation would have been spared a world of hurt.
But that’s not what I was burning to write about this morning. I wanted to write about burning.
Google “Canada wildfires;” even add the word “map,” and you will see images whose angry red splotches are concentrated well below the Canadian boarder. They are not maps of fire; they are maps of smoke. Keep scrolling down. More and more smoke maps, from different sources. Incredulous listings of the activities the smoke is temporarily denying human inhabitants of various cities. But I have been unable to find any significant tribute to the countless lives lost inside the burn zones raging across acres and acres of irreplaceable Canadian landscapes.
And that is but more evidence of this heartbreaking fact: Non-human lives don’t really matter. Not to us.
Vegetation and wildlife maps of Quebec and Nova Scotia are so generalized I’m not even sure who had to undergo the unspeakable torture, whose lives, exactly, have been lost — to their families and communities, and to the world. I’m reduced to guessing.
The stately Eastern Hemlock is native to both regions. There is a thicket of them back in the hollow behind my house. Rising straight as a plumb line, with scaly bark-skin and tiny needles arrayed parallel on their twigs, so their limbs look feathery in the distance, these evergreens tower above their neighbors. I love to lean the length of my body against them, feel their steadfastness against my knobby self. Every year, I’m forced to watch one or two die. Eastern hemlocks, whose inner bark can feed a human, and whose needle-tips make a balsamy tea that helps stave off colds, is struggling against multiple climate-driven threats as it is — without genocide by fire.
Hemlocks love the company of black birch, a tree whose shiny gunmetal bark is scored by countless horizontal dashes. Cut a nick and you’ll be entranced by the scent of wintergreen. Birch beer originally came from this bewitcher. As far south as I live, I only have black birches on my land because it is part of a rare treasure of an ecosystem: the elevated ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mother Forest. Quebec and Nova Scotia, on the other hand, are home to great communities of black birches — far larger and more complex in their social structure and relationships than any human city.
Or, they were home to those communities.
Those communities included many people with feet and wings, instead of roots. Warblers love to nest in tall hemlock trees. Black bear mothers with cubs almost never leave their vicinity, often den amid their roots and shelter high in their branches.
Where are those black bears now? Did the lynxes who gracefully prowl the Quebecois night manage to escape the flames? Where are the voles and the northern flying squirrels, whose nose for truffles is sharper even than those of dogs trained in Europe? Without the squirrels, who will send the truffle spores out on the wind? And without truffles now cinder indistinguishable within the smoking earth, who will help the trees speak to one another? And what about the Blandings Turtle, with its yellow legs, who normally lives as long as a human? Under the laws of both Nova Scotia and Quebec, it is “illegal to kill capture, harm, harass, or destroy the residence of this turtle.” What are the chances of a turtle outrunning a fire?
Maybe let’s move from fire to water.
I live on a floodplain. For several weeks each spring, every flat foot of my land goes under. Later, amongst the fascinating flotsam the river has deposited, a forest of grasses begins to rise. I took a stroll last summer with a friend who manages wild meadowland restoration for a county park. He’d reel off the names of different grasses, stoop to tenderly reveal some invisible plant clinging to the rocks beneath our feet. He showed me how to distinguish the slender stalks of Virginia lespedeza, with its hemlock-like leaves, from its blunter invasive Chinese relative. Among the sparse sycamores and paw paw trees and spiny locusts, whose flowers waft out the scent of May heaven, I found dozens of baby American persimmons.
It was thanks to Owen that I finally came to understand plant communities. These different green people don’t just all happen to live here because they can. They like living together. Scientists haven’t even begun to explore all the reasons why. What do they do for each other? What stories do they share by way of their sensitive roots? What age would you give a stand of prairie grasses that regrows after winter and water, year after year after year?
The river that habitually floods this place — a tributary to the mighty Potomac called the Cacapon — is home to many creatures of the webfooted or clawed variety. Secretive wood ducks, with their colorful comic-book helmets, are among my favorites. Also the otters, joyfully practicing their sea serpent routine.
Scientists have given this community a name. It’s a switchgrass-big blue-stem river-scour prairie. And is endangered.
On the southern reaches of the Dnipro/Dnieper River lies a national park. It protects a richness of different such communities that I have never seen to describe. I can imagine the moss-velvet crevasses where streams tumble down rocks to the marshy estuary below; the water-threaded flats thick with reeds, where egrets stake out their stalking grounds. I can imagine the long-snouted lady sturgeons who nose their way upstream to spawn. These migrators have to transform their entire body chemistry to weather the shock of exchanging the salt atmosphere where they lived their whole lives for the fresh water of their birth.
Now, due to the act of some vindictive humans locked in combat with other humans, that delicate Eden is being swamped in dirty, debris-strewn floodwaters, escaped through breaches in the Nova Kakhkova Dam, and sweeping tons of our unlovely leavings with them down towards the sea.
In the face of losses of these dimensions, the least we might do is mourn.