End of an eraApril 25, 2018 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 11 °C
Before Europeans even dreamt of finding new lands across the ocean, before they could even imagine ships that could take them so far, native cultures across the world were thriving in their natural environment, practising thousands of years of cultural norms that taught them to take what they needed from the land, but never so much that the land could not give again the next year.
Many of us live in urban environments today with very little contact with the land and even less understanding of where our food, products and resources come from. Travelling this year has taught us a greater understanding of our connection to the land and the resources it provides. It has given us a keen awareness of nature and our treatment of it as humans.
The people we met, the beautiful places we visited, the animals we admired from afar, the history of the land and how it came to be ‘owned’ humbled me and evoked questions I never knew to ask. But most importantly, the nature and rate of change in today’s world has shown me our connection to the environment, our dependency on it, our huge influence over it and that we cannot continue to use, build, extract and destroy our natural environment at our current rate.
We arrived first into Alaska and were welcomed with open arms; ‘Alaska is your first stop? Thank you!’. It seemed like the obvious first choice to us, but they feel isolated, tucked away in their corner of the world. You cannot help but be immediately bowled over by the immensity of the natural world here. Everything is huge, the glaciers are ten-a-penny and the animals are plentiful (and not so small themselves). In Denali National Park we were particularly struck by the enormity of nature; we felt like tiny pawns in a huge game, where at every turn we could be eaten by some new foe or caught out by the weather. We plunged right in with our first camping experience outside the UK; outside a more genteel version of nature where leaving your food out only results in it being gnawed at by curious squirrels. Across Alaska and Canada, we were given a new respect for nature, an edge to every walk where your eyes are constantly over your shoulder, your ears listening for every rustle, your hand hovering nervously over your bear spray. A 4am visit by a bear in Vancouver Island ended our Canadian camping experience and we were relieved to get to New Zealand where, as in the UK, you can skip your way through the woods, not a care in the world. But I miss the way that bears, cougars, wolves or lynx, heighten your sense of being on something else’s territory. How acute your senses become to any sound or movement, forcing you to pay attention and take in what’s around you.
We camped for a significant part of our journey and we learnt to love being so close to the sounds around us – the wind, the birds, the water. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t often a struggle, particularly when the weather was bad, but it taught us a great deal about how you interact and live in nature and how you lessen your impact on your visit into the natural world. I really noticed a different attitude when back inside four walls, with most vestiges of the natural environment scrubbed out. You feel any dirt, creatures or weather are encroaching into your space – an unwelcome intrusion, rather than working with and around them. We learnt where to camp to avoid the natural hazards around us (trees, water), where to put our grey water, where best to ‘use the facilities’ and most importantly, where to cook and store our food (or toothpaste or soap) out of the smell of prying animals.
To our dismay, not everyone around us felt the same way, and neither have many people throughout recent history, the effects of which have left their mark on every place we visited. Climate change reared its head as we saw glaciers in very noticeable retreat from Alaska to New Zealand and terrible fires raging throughout British Columbia and California. Climate change can be hard to see physically, but there was much anecdotal evidence from locals about general increases in temperature over the northern winters, huge increases in temperature closer to the equator, more regular fires and freak weather events, and even melting permafrost in Alaska and the Yukon. Even the UK saw its share of weird weather while we were away – weird spikes in summer temperatures and a colder, snowier winter than many of us had ever seen. It’s notoriously difficult to link any of these events directly to man-made climate change, but the patterns are too regular to ignore.
It may be difficult to directly connect weather and warming events to climate change, but the human effect on the landscape, on the waterways and on the animals is plain for all to see. The Northwest Territories in Canada is a vast open space, stretching endlessly beyond what little human civilisation exists there. Standing on the strange rock formations, looking across lake after lake after lake, you can’t help but feel small and lonely. When bears, wolves and lynx roam across a homestead, they are most decidedly in their own territory, not invading that of humans. Yet this landscape has huge, deep human scars which have taken a horrendous toll on the local environment. Gold mining in NWT has produced thousands of tons of arsenic which have caused fatal illnesses for miners and local First Nation residents. It’s in the surrounding lakes and water supply, so that the city of Yellowknife cannot get its water from the lake on which it sits, the giant Great Slave containing 1580 km3 of water. About 237,000 tonnes of arsenic dust currently sits underneath the abandoned Giant Mine, contained by a frozen wall (which requires power to keep frozen) with no long-term solution in place. We saw polluted waterways in New Zealand from the county’s huge dairy farming industry, waterways siphoned and diverted to a shadow of their former might and development encroaching further and further into the natural environment. We saw hundreds of hunters out for the first Elk hunt of the year in Washington and of course, hundreds of thousands of tourists (including ourselves) trampling over places of natural beauty.
Inevitably, the populations worst affected by many of these changes are the native people; those that still live on the land or have intentions of doing so. Over the years, successive government policies have meant that native populations are often poorer and less well-educated, giving them little ability to fight any environmental injustices. The Yellowknives Dene community were unable to use much of the natural resources around them due to arsenic poisoning. Inuit populations have suffered from the ban on seal hunting, intended for overzealous non-indigenous hunters. The ‘Namgis First Nation are protesting salmon farms in the area which they say harm the wild salmon population. Its a similar story in mainland British Columbia where the salmon population in the Fraser River fished by many First Nations has dwindled and is inedible. These native populations know the land; they live on it, feed themselves and source their natural medicines or building materials from it. They notice changes before the government, scientists and even other locals, but it is only in recent years that they have started to be listened to and consulted about changes on their land. These ancient communities have lived sustainably off the earth for thousands of years – at what point do we start to listen to their warnings in earnest? When will we realise that we should in fact be learning from their way of life, not imposing our western way of life upon them?
But we came across many positive actions and attitudes which try to limit our impact on the natural environment, ensuring we can continue to live within our means. Denali National Park carefully monitors human access beyond the one road that runs 80 miles into the park. Only 2 groups of visitors are allowed to walk on any particular area each year and all are encouraged to tread carefully and walk alongside each other, so the impact on the tundra is minimised. Many of the households in the communities we visited in northern Canada and Vancouver Island have renewable solutions for providing their energy and in Australia, solar is big business. We learnt to be more sustainable ourselves with the water we used – one place we stayed at had no mains water, so we were particularly careful when we washed and cooked. Many places had various ‘policies’ on flushing (if it was available) to minimise water usage and New Zealand’s DOC is quite the expert in the art of the composting toilet... In more remote communities, many things we would usually just replace, or buy on whim simply aren’t available, so they learn quickly to mend broken items or make a second use out of those beyond repair. In northern Canada, the lack of topsoil means composting is vital and every scrap of food is recycled, helping to grow what you eat the next year.
Particularly in NWT we saw the impact of sustainable food production in an area where much is imported as it’s very difficult to grow food or raise animals. The Yellowknife Farmer’s Market is a large operation promoting food security in NWT. We worked for one of its founders who grows a huge amount of produce to sell and is helping to teach others in the community and across the Northwest Territories to support themselves. Sadly, it is often the remote First Nation and Inuit communities who are most in need of this support, having lost their ancestral knowledge of living off the land due to successive government policies taking that land and suppressing their culture, short-sighted hunting bans and man-made environmental problems which affect the food supply.
Across Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia, I was struck by the history and plight of indigenous peoples following European colonisation. It is not something taught or talked about in the UK education system or in the media, so it was a shock to learn of some of the cruel acts and treatment performed by those I would call my ancestors. I was equally shocked by the amount of time it has taken for any acknowledgement of fault by the governments of these countries who allowed atrocities to take place even into the 1980s, taking children away from their families and rehousing them in white, Catholic schools. Whole generations of native communities have been brought up to repress their heritage, if they had any knowledge of it all. Most of the cultures we encountered traditionally passed down learning through the spoken word, so much of their history has been lost with those who died in large numbers due to introduced European disease or war. Even after the decimation of these populations, those remaining were discouraged or even banned from practising their culture. How much knowledge of nature has been lost this way? How much could we have learnt about how to protect the natural environment if only we’d listened?
And it continues today. Unfortunately, many in those countries still harbour negative views towards their native populations, through bigotry or simple lack of understanding of their recent history. Many are not even taught what happened to native populations after colonisation and the government and media do little to educate. Even New Zealand, which has always treated the Maori better in comparison to other former colonies, still has a long way to go before the Maori are fully compensated, before racist attitudes are eradicated and before the Maori are seen as equal citizens.
The UK renounced any responsibility for treatment of the native peoples in their former colonies over 150 years ago, and whilst we may not be able to have a large impact on their treatment today, it would be a step forward to educate us on the behaviour of our ancestors, the true impacts of colonisation and perhaps bring more people to fight for the cause of aboriginal people. But fundamentally, there is so much we can learn from the respect these cultures have for the land. That practise has long been lost in western Europe and looking backwards in history to how other cultures lived with the land and used it sustainably could go a long way to finding a path towards a more sustainable future for the rest of the world.Read more