SPECIAL PLACES IN CANADA:  Natural Riches and Ecological Treasures

INTRODUCTION

Selecting “Special Places” in Canada is not easy. Not because Canada lacks “Special Places” — quite the contrary. So many places are special that the mind and the spirit are beguiled by the natural wealth of the land. We could select only a few from the enormous natural wealth that makes Canada a globally recognized treasury of “Special Places”. It is not only those fortunate folks who actually visit these places, Canadians and visitors from other lands, who recognize this wealth. As pointed out by Wallace Stegner in Wolf Willow 1, those who never get to visit these special places in reality, do learn about them and virtual visits become a “geography of hope” to them. The simple fact that such “Special Places” continue to exist gives hope to even the most disconnected urban spirits.

We chose our selection of Canada’s “Special Places” on board a retired 40-foot trawler exploring the northern coast and the fjords of Labrador. We had two selection criteria. “Special Places” needed to be photogenic (almost unavoidable), and the ecological functioning of the place had to be explainable, at least in broad outline, in ways that are understandable regardless of the reader’s background and experiences. We wanted to be able to unite the major natural processes that were explored in our previous book, Discovering Natural Processes 2, to show how the integrated assembly of all those processes makes each “Special Place” function as a whole environment. Our view of “ecology” is essentially the same as the view explained in Stan Rowe’s 2006 book, Earth Alive 3. Ecology is an attempt to grasp the interactions of all the environmental structures and processes. Being able to do that for each “Special Place” depended heavily on our ecological experience and capabilities and the existing base of knowledge about the places. We all know that this is a young country politically, but many do not realize that much of our land is also very young geologically and ecologically. New land is still being uncovered and new environments are being put together as we shall see at the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier in Kluane. Much knowledge is yet to be discovered and delivered to Canadians.

We were also drawn by the balance between natural processes affecting the ecological system of a “Special Place” and the influences on those processes stemming from human activities. Our view is that humans are now an important component of all ecological systems and how humans fit themselves into a place is important to explore. It is unrealistic to search for landscape-scale ecological systems that still are truly ‘natural’ — uninfluenced by human activities. It is equally unrealistic to believe that the natural processes explored in our earlier book are completely resilient, capable of adaptation to any human presence. It also is untenable to assume that those natural processes lack the power to impose any absolute constraints on human activities. To exemplify the gradient in our effects on the natural processes and their effects on us, we have selected places ranging in the importance of human influences from little to overwhelming.

The Track that We Choose

Stan Rowe, ecologist, philosopher and author wrote in an email to Jeff Amos:

“The . . . track seems to me to be one that tries (!) to change the deep cultural assumptions of who we are and what our role here on Earth might be in a down-to-Earth way. If we could begin to see ourselves and all humans as Earthlings, dependent in their bodyminds on the matrix elements of air, soil, water, plus other organisms, that would be a forward step. I’ve been plugging the idea that Earth is a better metaphor for “life” than organisms with whom it’s usually equated. Ecologically, organisms are dead without their matrix, so planet Earth is really where the mysterious quality of “aliveness” exerted its evolutionary effects, and continues to do so.”

Box 11, New Denver, BC, 7 December 2001

Our first two special places are coastal environments where all the natural processes are still functioning reasonably. Then we will go to the boreal forest where some patches in the mosaic have had their natural processes significantly affected by economic exploitation for fibre. But natural processes are still functioning widely across the boreal. Similarly in our visits to the mountainous “Crown of the Continent” and to the tundra, we will find no natural processes completely displaced or totally degraded. However, when we visit the Peace-Athabasca Delta, we will find major damage to the natural processes. We can see emerging consequences of the loss of those processes in the dislocation of the people of Fort Chipewyan from the natural environment in which they have been so closely integrated for so long. Following that view of partial disintegration of the natural processes of an ecosystem, we will visit a system, the Greater Golden Horseshoe, where the natural processes have been essentially completely replaced by political, economic and technological processes generated by us. We hope that this range of special places will stimulate the readers to investigate the effects of decay of natural processes on our present and future environments.

Of course, our choices were also influenced by our sense of how important places are, or should be, in Canada’s history and future. Our hope in presenting this selection of Special Places in Canada is that readers and viewers will gain understanding of how these places developed under natural forces, how human activities have modified those forces and how a system of modified natural forces is now maintaining each place. For each place, that system of modified forces, both natural and human-generated, will follow a path of change into the future. Where that trajectory takes each “Special Place” included in this book and all the other places in Canada, depends on the values we hold for these places and for the system of natural processes that formed and maintained them. Those values will determine the alternative futures that we and unborn generations will live with. We hope fervently that this book will encourage Canadians to realize that their land holds incomparable natural riches. That is how the world sees Canada — in a recent global poll, people selected Canada as their preferred destination.

Gray Merriam
Arden ON, 30 June 2009

1Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2000
2 Discovering Natural Processes: Beauty in Nature’s Ways by Jeff Amos and Gray Merriam, Penumbra Press, Manotick, ON, 2005
3 Earth Alive, by Stan Rowe (Don Kerr, Ed.), NeWest Publishers, Edmonton, 2006