Category Archives: Environment/Nature

Strange ideas in Algonquin Park.

I realize that hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and I don’t want to adopt that annoying “we are are so much more advanced now” attitude, but this sort of thing nevertheless makes me shake my head in frustration and disbelief:

“In the early days government officials were unsure of what [Algonquin Park] should be that they sent one James Wilson north to make suggestions. He was head of Niagara Falls’ very tame Queen Victoria Park and, perhaps in keeping with his station, quickly recommended the eradication of the common loon — now a commonly recognized symbol of the Canadian wilderness — on the grounds that the bird was consuming the fish that would attract American sportsmen. The park’s first superintendent made a similar recommendation — that all bears and fox “be destroyed without mercy” so that people would have no fear of coming to the park. George Bartlett, the walrus-moustached bureaucrat who became superintendent in 1899, felt the same way about wolves and encouraged early rangers to shoot them on sight and leave poison out for them. (Today, the “wolf howl” is the most popular tourist attraction the park has to offer.)” ~ Roy MacGregor, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, 53.

On a semi-related note, I’ve always thought that Park Ranger would be a cool job to have.

Supernova

I have loads of reading to do with a theology class I’m taking (in San Diego!) at the beginning of February, which is precisely why I’ve started reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything again. Because that’s what I do when there are things to get done: distract myself with other things.

I came across this in a passage about supernovae and it ground my brain to a halt:

The question that naturally occurs is “What would it be like if a star exploded nearby?” Our nearest stellar neighbour…is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away. I had imagined that if there were an explosion there we would have 4.3 years to watch the light of this magnificent event spreading across the sky, as if tipped from a giant can. What would it be like if we had four years and four months to watch an inescapable doom advancing toward us, knowing that when it finally arrived it would blow the skin right off our bones? Would people still go to work? Would farmers still plant crops? Would anyone deliver them to the stores?

Weeks later, back in the town in New Hampshire where I live, I put these questions to John Thorstenson, an astronomer at Dartmouth College. “Oh no,” he said, laughing. “The news of such an event travels out at the speed of light, but so does the destructiveness, so you’d learn about it and die from it in the same instant” (36).

What?

So it takes 4.3 years to reach us, moving through 4.3 light years of space in that time–that is, moving from A to B and covering the distance between–but we would never see it approaching. I imagined it, much like Bryson, rather like watching a ball approach one’s face from a distance. Not so.

Instead, it would kind of be like the running scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except without the extended approach–Sir Lancelot would simply appear suddenly at the gate and kill the guards without warning.

I understand that (as far as we know) light is the fastest thing in the universe and we wouldn’t see the event until it reached us, meaning that as soon as we saw the event it would have arrived. Conceptually I get it. But it nevertheless boggles my mind–I can’t “see” it in my imagination.

Fishing at a neglected historical site.

The mouth of the irresistibly-named Rat River, which forms the meandering southern boundary of the Providence campus as it flows toward the Red River of rebellion and flood fame, lies about 20kms northwest of Otterburne. Dixie had heard that someone had caught some fish at the mouth and since it was nearby I planned to try fishing there with Olivia. That plan was waylaid by a brief but painful bout of strep throat. Today, however, was the day.

Google maps’ satellite view indicated that access to the mouth of the Rat River was a short gravel road off one of the main highways. The map didn’t indicate anything topographically or otherwise significant, but in fact there is a gate there indicating that we would be entering Mennonite Memorial Landing Site.

The gate.

I thought it wasn’t much more than a reasonably well-kept nature area until I noticed the marble monolith standing some way back in the forest.

The Monolith.

On it was engraved this significant historical information:

THIS IS THE SITE OF THE FIRST LANDING OF MENNONITE SETTLERS IN CANADA. ON 1 AUGUST 1874, THE “INTERNATIONAL,” A STEAM-POWERED RIVER BOAT, LANDED HERE WITH THE FIRST CONTINGENT OF 65 MENNONITE FAMILIES. BETWEEN 1874 AND 1880 SOME 7000 MENNONITES CAME TO MANITOBA FROM GERMAN-SPEAKING COLONIES IN SOUTH RUSSIA (UKRAINE). THE MAJORITY ARRIVED AT THIS SPOT… (read full text here)

How about that? If that isn’t a significant historical site, I don’t know what is. But why isn’t it on the map? Why isn’t there any signage on the highway nearby? How many Manitoba Mennonites know that it all started here?

All of this is on the Red River floodplain. You pass through treeline fifty yards deep, in which the monolith marking the site’s historic significance stands. The other side opens up into clay covered in fresh vegetation–the water on the Red River rises high in the spring even in non-flood years such as this one. The boot-sucking shore of the river is littered with old cans, broken beer bottles, recently gorged-on watermelon husks, and other detritus. It’s a shame that such a significant point of interest is treated more like a dump for those fishing there. But it’s otherwise a beautiful spot (and great company)!

The scenery.

The smile.

(The Red River is about 30 feet to the right. It didn’t occur to me until now to take a photograph facing west to the place where the two rivers meet!)

But I’m not writing this piece of faux travel literature to bore you! No, I say, it was a monumental day in the Vandersluys household!

So Olivia and I came here to go fishing together. We made our way down the dirty, sticky shore. There were a couple of men already fishing. They spoke in a foreign language. As we approached, I assumed it would be German, but it sounded more like Ukrainian. We moved off to our own corner of the shore, farther into the mouth.

The men were casting their lines and letting their poles sit on forked branches jammed into the clay on the shore. I couldn’t tell what they were using for lures, but I felt conspicuously wrong in taking my standard cast-and-reel approach. They brought in a fish each as we were setting up. The caught a couple more while Olivia did some practice casting with a de-hooked weighted lure and I cast-and-reeled my generic rubbery/wormy lure. I kept spying on them to see what they were using. I couldn’t tell. Looked like fresh bait–chicken livers, maybe?

Olivia was ready to fish with a real hook. I asked her which hook and rubbery lure thing she wanted (you can tell I’m a fisherman, right?). She picked what she thought were the brightest and best colours. Away she went. One of the other guys had switched his lure to a large spoon/floating-fish kind of lure.

I cast out my line a couple of times. Then I hear splashing and–what do you know!–Olivia has a little jack on her line! Huzzah!

The catch.

Closeup of the fish and the lure:

The fish and the lure.

The other guys noticed. A friend of theirs who must have been fishing around the bend came and I think took a picture. I slipped and slided around the shore trying to get a quick picture of Olivia with the fish so that I could unhook it and let it go before it died. I got the picture and the fish jumped off the line on its own!

A good morning with Olivia.

(Here’s my first time fishing with Madeline and Luke. Here’s Luke’s first catch, several years later. Madeline is due to catch her first fish this summer, I think.)

A stop-motion walk across the Appalachian Trail

Those who have read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America Along the Appalachian Trail (it’s one of my favourite books, though when I read it the subtitle was slightly different) might appreciate the following video. It’s the Appalachian Trail (which Bryson hikes in the book) in 4 minutes:

(via BoingBoing)

Perhaps it’s time for me to read that book again. Or perhaps it’s time for me to hike the Appalachian trail.

It’s spider season in southern Manitoba

A couple of school girls fundraising in our neighbourhood spotted this spider on the side of our trailer:

Spider on our trailer

I measure its body to be about 5/8-3/4″, but note that its legs are retracted (it’s cold and rainy outside), so it’s actually bigger.

I really don’t want to find one of these guys inside the trailer. I can’t stand spiders. Last autumn I avoided dealing with a spider living in our entrance window and as the weeks went by, it grew significantly larger, to the point that when I finally realized I need to get rid of this thing, I was unwilling to even kill it with several layers of paper towel in hand. I’m not sure if it’s the thought of the thing crawling up my arm and into my shirt that gives me the heebie-jeebies, or if its the thought of hearing and feeling the crackle and squish as I squash it.

My solution? Suck it up with the vacuum cleaner and then empty the container into the garbage (and then take the garbage out).

(I fully expect you, Scott, to comment on this post with scientific accuracy and warmth, and quite possibly incredulity with my phobia. Perhaps you can identify the spider?)

For the birds.

Well, the trees are in full bloom ’round these parts, abuzz with bees and their ilk, and I, whilst a pork tenderloin cooked in indirect heat on the barbecue, went out bird watching for the first time.  Dixie bought me binoculars for my birthday, along with The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, and I was putting them to use.

I discovered, first of all, that Otterburne may fall into the Eastern region of the continent, at least in terms of bird-books.  The dividing line seems to travel through Manitoba.  We are, at best, in a transition region.

My first sightings were difficult. A jay of one kind or another might be a better find for a rookie, but I spotted some kind of blackbird.  It looks to me like we have quite a large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds in the tree line across the field from us. This is not entirely a confident assertion, because judging by the pictures and details in both Sibley’s and my older copy of the Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Western Region), male Brewer’s Blackbirds and Rusty Blackbirds are nearly indistinguishable. Subtle differences–e.g. slightly longer beak, slightly shorter tail–are not helpful when both birds are not standing side-by-side.

It doesn’t help, either, that the two guides seem to differ on their descriptions.  Where one describes a bird as “drab in colour”, the other pictures the same bird as having quite deep, shiny colour.  And what, pray tell, is the difference between “check” and “chick” in terms of bird calls?

Having said this, the Brewer’s Blackbird is common (the Rusty is uncommon) and its habitat seems to fit our surroundings here.  So I’ll say it’s a Brewer’s Blackbird until someone corrects me.

There’s a third party involved: the Brown-headed Cowbird, which is often found among blackbirds. Unfortunately (again), the Brown-headed Cowbird looks a lot like the female Brewer’s Blackbird, though the latter is slightly lighter than the former.

What I’m really interested in figuring out is which of the two birds occasionally makes a sound akin to a soft sneeze.  The Blackbirds’ “chick” or “check” could sound like this, but so could the cowbirds’ “ch’ch’ch’ch”.

It seems that bird identification is, like translation, an art as much as a science.

Incidentally, the legend of the painted pigeons was repeated to me on the weekend, as an explanation of the campus mystery bird.  I haven’t spotted that flock since before the snow melted (Dixie thinks she may have hit one with the van), but I hope to get a closer look. I don’t have good lens to get a picture, but my binoculars are quite powerful.

This is Our Father’s World.

I haven’t written anything about creation/evolution in a while.  I’m not really going to in this post, either. At least not in terms of theories or possibilities. However, the BioLogos Foundation has been posting a series of short video clips on YouTube, in which a variety of Biblical scholars talk about various aspects of creation/evolution, theology and Genesis 1. The videos featuring N.T. Wright were interesting, but this one with Bruce Waltke (conservative OT scholar, connected with the NASB, NIV/TNIV translations) sparked some new thoughts in my mind:

Initially I had some reservations with his concern about church becoming a cult (or at least looking like one), because that seems like a poor reason to accept a different view. But I think that what he says in this context (as well as his specific definition of “cult”–a “group which does not interact with the real world”) is important.

I think that if the data is overwhelmingly in favour of evolution, then to deny that reality will make us a cult–some kind of group that is not interacting with the real world…To deny the reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world and would be to deny truth. So I think it would be our spiritual death.

The implication of the creation story is that this world is God’s world and it his creation. To deny or ignore the evidence* in creation of the method or process of creation is in essence to deny the message of the creation story. It would be to “deny the truth of God in the world”–to deny what God has done.

In other words, to deny the evidence for evolution found in God’s creation is potentially more dangerous to our view of God than to affirm it. “It would be,” says Waltke, “our spiritual death.”

If God created the world, and the evidence within the world he created points to an evolutionary process, then we must conclude that God may well have used an evolutionary process to create the world.

God and evolution are not mutually exclusive.** For some reason this isn’t self-evident to many Christians. In fact, many Christians, at least by implication, would say that they are mutually exclusive, and so to preserve the one, we deny the other (some scientists will do this as well, except vice versa). So, for some Christians, the evidence must be either non-existent, faulty, or misinterpreted.

The comments on blog posts about this video show a certain lack of self-awareness on the part of the Christians commenting with unequivocal rejections of evolution. The general response of the Christian skeptic is generally that scientists are reading the evidence however they want to or that they are imposing their views on the evidence. However, Christians have to have the humility to recognize and accept that we are often no different when it comes to interpreting the “evidence” of scripture. We are often imposing our view on scripture rather than letting scripture be what it is.

Another comment might go something like this: scientists are making the evidence say more than it can. This is normally in reference to coming to naturalist/materialist view of the universe based on the evidence–i.e. the suggestion that the evidence proves that God doesn’t exist. This is a legitimate concern, but not reason to deny evolution or the evidence for it altogether (evolution and evolutionism/materialism/naturalism are different things**). But, once again, are we able to recognize that same tendency within our own views? Particularly as concerns the question of creation/evolution, are we making the Bible say more than it can or was meant to say?

_________________________________

*the “if” in “if the data” is important. It’s important for two reasons: 1) most people discussing this issue in this kind of forum are not scientists. So we are dealing with what we think we know about the issue, which is probably not very much. 2) the “if” is not an implied denial of the evidence, but actually an affirmation of what is accepted by scientists generally (but, again, I need to be careful here, because I don’t know for sure), including scientists who are also Christians.

** it’s important to make the distinction between evolution and evolutionism–which is basically a distinction between science and worldview. When I say “evolution” I am referring to the scientific theory relating to the evolution of biological organisms. I am not referring to “evolutionism” or any of its worldview relatives. Unfortunately, many Christians conflate the two, making evolution a denial of God’s existence, which I think does a disservice to the scientific community as well as this whole conversation.

Some sabbath poems

Came across these during some morning “fun” (i.e. non-assignment) reading this morning.

II

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

* * *

IV

What consolation it is, after
the explanations and the predictions
of further explanations still
to come, to return unpersuaded
to the woods, entering again
the presence of the blessed trees.
A tree forms itself in answer
to its place and to the light.
Explain it how you will, the only
thing explainable will be
your explanation. There is
in the woods on a summer’s
morning, birdsong all around
from guess where, nowhere
that rigid measure which predicts
only humankind’s demise.

(Both from “Sabbaths 1999″ in Wendell Berry’s Given: Poems)

More blustering

Dixie taped me walking home from the library this afternoon.  By that time the snow had stopped blowing around, but the wind was still high.  This video gives you an idea of the drifts that have grown on the road in front of our trailer.  The drift I pat near the end is sitting on the part of the road that had been cleared with a snowblower this morning.  I hope the snowblower comes through again tomorrow morning or Luke won’t be going to preschool.

I was born in the Netherlands and lived there for the first 7 years of my life. The weather there is mild and snow, as I recall, was an occasional treat. But my first winter in Caronport, a small town on the plains of southern Saskatchewan, had me acclimatized to inland Canadian winters. In fact, it was in drifts much like those outside our trailer (possibly bigger) in which my mother worried she’d find me when I disappeared during that first prairie storm we experienced in 1985.

A day like we had today would have shut down towns on Canadian coasts, but we land-locked prairie folk are a hearty people, so those of us who live on campus or in Otterburne across the river bundled up and went to the library to study or to offices to work. The school was effectively closed (all classes cancelled) because travel was simply not safe for commuters coming from Winnipeg, Steinbach, Niverville and other villages in the surrounding areas. With the blowing snow, visibility was extremely low and snow drifts on the highways can be treacherous.

But here’s the thing about Canadian prairie people: I’m fairly certain that many of the staff and students were a little ashamed and frustrated that they let a winter storm keep them housebound. As much as we often pine for our brief summers, we take pride in our harsh, cold winters and our willingness to put on toque, parka and leather mittens and face the blowing snow and wind-chills. These days will some day be recounted with pride and mutual understanding, like soldiers exchanging stories from the battlefield.