There are fewer creatures on the timber road.
When the dog and I walk into the backcountry behind our home in the mountains we were used to seeing animals or at least, the signs of them. Lately, there’s been an obvious decline in evidence of their presence.
Sure, there are coyotes in the bush, a bear or two will wander through in berry season, the occasional moose and deer traipse through and there are random sightings of cougar and bobcat. But largely, the walks have become solitary ventures unblessed by proximity to creature life.
That’s sad. Part of the mystique of being on the land is the knowledge that it’s a shared experience. Part of the overwhelming feeling of expansion that happens when you walk in undeveloped areas is the certainty of being watched, observed and accepted. The land has the power to increase you at the same time that it returns you to your proper size — and animal spirits make that possible.
So it was disheartening for me to read of the shocking decline in the population of Arctic caribou. I have never had the pleasure of roaming the tundra but the romantic image persists of teeming hordes of caribou pouring across the land. It’s an image of Canada, a national motif that fascinates and compels me.
Scientists report that the number of cows on the calving grounds has fallen 98 per cent in the last 14 years. Only 93 cows were spotted near Baker Lake in the NWT. That’s down from over five and a half thousand in the same area in 1994. This results in a birth rate that is one-fifth its traditional level. For a herd like the Beverly herd that once numbered over a quarter million, it means doom.
Doom is a powerful word. It’s at its most heinous as a verb and although scientists are quick to label the decline of the caribou as ‘mysterious’ it’s just a handy euphemism for ‘don’t bollocks the funding.’ There is no mystery to the impending demise of the caribou. Industry has doomed them to extinction.
It was industry in the guise of progress and development that resulted in the disappearance of another Canadian motif, the buffalo. Here in the mountains where the rough and tangle once held great numbers of assorted creatures, logging and mineral exploration have decimated them. Similarly, it’s industrial activity that has shredded the calving grounds of the caribou.
Despite urgent meetings as recently as 2007 aimed at fostering new calving grounds nothing has been done about it. Instead, the iron horse of progress and development continues to roll along and the Beverly herd along with five of the eight main Western Arctic caribou herds continue to run in serious long-term decline.
That’s tough news for the Dene, Metis and Inuit whose diet and culture depend on them. Then again, aboriginal people are a Canadian motif too and there’s an apparent lack of interest in preserving any of them. Caribou and Indians occupy land and it is land that’s needed for development so, hey, what’s a species or a culture or two in the long view of things?
My people say that animals are our greatest teachers. They provide us, in close observance of them, with elemental teachings in harmony, balance and sharing. They show us, by their staunch natures, how to live with the rolls and turns of Creation and how taming it, controlling it, harnessing it, is a foolhardy business. As a species, we’ve never learned that and nature is rebelling.
My people also say that there will come a time when the animals turn their back on man and cease to be their teachers. At that time, man will feel a loneliness unlike any other and the world will become a barren place.
Recent signs across the globe prove the accuracy of that old teaching. Everywhere animals are in danger, are disappearing, vanishing or refusing to return to the places we’ve come to expect them to be. In turn, the world is becoming unpredictable with numerous natural disasters and vast alterations in rhythm.
But we march along to the beat of progress. We allow industry to determine when we will meet carbon limits and believe global warming to be a fashionable theme rather than an extinction-level phenomenon. And the caribou are leaving us.
The spirit teaching of the great herds is community. They exemplify the principles of trust, loyalty and sharing. What they have offered to us in their time on the planet is a model of interaction, sacrifice, humility and purposefulness that we are the richer for if we’ve paid attention.
What they leave behind when they disappear is a moral, spiritual and ethical vacuum, a hole in our relationship with the planet.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org