A Cross Country Move Inspired My Urgency

By: Shannon McCready (Director, Education Programs, Pollinate Collingwood)

We had to get out, and we had to do it fast because roads were beginning to close down, and soon there might be no way out.  My wife and I grabbed the ‘go bag’ officials advised families to make the week before and did a quick google search on how to get a car through a road surrounded by fire safely and how to prepare the house for firefighters to have the most success saving your home. As I filled up buckets of water for every doorway, my wife grabbed the wool blanket – a material known for not being very flammable. 

Photo by Melissa McCready

Maybe it would come in handy if we got stranded and had to walk along a road surrounded by fire.  Images of hell-like infernos filled our heads as we choked back the smoke trying to get our baby in the car seat.  We were off to Ontario, our safe haven where family would greet us with relief. 

The fire never did reach our town, at least not that summer.  We were able to reach the airport that was a four-hour drive away and had a wonderful time in Ontario as we checked in on fire reports back home.  The idyllic BC summers hiking and camping in our oasis were disappearing, and it wasn’t just one odd summer; it was becoming a regular part of most summers. 

Photo of Castlegar, BC by Shannon McCready

The benefits of living there were dwindling as the pull to be closer to family strengthened.  So almost two years ago, on somewhat of a whim, we googled Ontario towns and found one that seemed to offer everything we liked about BC. So we took a chance, found a rental, sold our house and packed up our little family to make the big move to our new hometown of Collingwood, Ontario.

We couldn’t be happier to be here.  Exploring our new landscape and meeting wonderful people, even amid a pandemic, has been refreshing and inspiring. 

Photo by Jeffrey Eisen on Unsplash

Last summer, a forest fire came even closer to Castlegar, my former town. I mourned as I watched friends post about evacuations, seniors sleeping on church floors, ruined camping trips and to top it all off, a heat dome that killed 595 people provincial-wide.  This time the fire was on the mountainside at the edge of town, creeping closer to houses by the day.  When the smoke and heat get that bad, there’s no playing outside for your kids, no gardening and no swimming in the lake. It’s not far off from a lockdown.  You stay in your house as much as you can, trying to keep the doors and windows sealed to keep the air inside as breathable as possible.  If you’re lucky, you can afford air conditioning and extra air filters in every section of your house.  If you’re even luckier, you can afford to leave.

Last summer, as we were frolicking on the beach, we caught a whiff of smoke in the air here in Collingwood.  The memories came flooding back, and suddenly it dawned on me – soon there will be no place to move.  If we continue with the status quo, there will be no getting away from it; it will just be our reality. As I watched my daughter happily rolling around in the sand, I thought about how climate change felt much more threatening to me than the pandemic. But it wasn’t just climate change; it was also how we see, use and value plants. 

       Photo by Shannon McCready

Someone once told me in BC that unless you’re in an old-growth forest (of which there are few left), most of the time when you think you’re hiking through a forest, you’re actually in a plantation.  As you look around and observe how the trees have been planted in straight lines and how little diversity the trees have in species and age, you can start to see that the cause of the forest fires is not just climate change.  The logging companies have planted most of these ‘forests’ to be of economic value for themselves.  There are few deciduous and old-growth trees, which are known to burn much slower because forestry companies actively use glyphosate on deciduous saplings, so they don’t take space from more profitable trees.  

Photo by Josefina Di Battista on Unsplash

As wind rushes through spaces created by perfectly lined trees, the community begins to face its denial.  The lost upper canopy that would typically create the shade and moisture required to keep the forest floor from being kindling, along with decades of clearcut debris, ignites easily.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

The build-up is worsened by decades of natural wildfire suppression and the prevention of the Indigenous practice of cultural burns. The solutions are not easy to navigate. Talking about how forestry practices contribute to the wildfires can be socially isolating in towns where the economic backbone is forestry, sawmills and pulp mills.  Discussions often avoid blaming anyone in particular and result in solutions like wiping the brush and deadfall off the forest floors near towns so that cigarette butts thrown out of car windows and unmanaged bonfires don’t spark devastation.  Once again, nature takes the hit, but it’s not without consequence.

Last month, I came upon a rare social media post of environmental success.  The western population of monarch butterflies was arriving at their overwintering site in California, and their numbers were phenomenally more than the year before.  In 2020 they counted approximately 1,900 monarchs, and this year they found around 20,000. 

Photo by Studio Kealaula on Unsplash

I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  To be honest, before I moved to Ontario, I didn’t even know there was a western monarch butterfly population.  I had never seen them in BC and assumed they were more of an Eastern species.  In Interior BC, you hear about doing things to save the bears and caribou, but not once had I ever heard of efforts to save butterflies.

Luckily, things have changed in Castlegar since I moved. Thanks to the David Suzuki Butterflyway Project, a resident was inspired to take charge and create a group named Castlegar Butterflyway, with a similar mission to Pollinate Collingwood. They have linked up with the Kootenay Native Plant Society to build meadows and spread the word about the importance of pollinators and native plants throughout the town.  As a member of their Facebook group, I decided to share the great news regarding monarch populations.  What followed gave me that familiar feeling of despair.

The leader of the group Olga Hallborg commented, “Let’s hope they come to the Kootenays.  There have been no monarchs seen in the area since 2008.” And the next comment was even worse, “We have pollinator failure in the Kootenays around milkweed.  Milkweed itself is very specific to how it’s pollinated.  It needs larger native bees to do the trick, or knowledgable humans.”  

It’s hard to say precisely why the Kootenay region of BC no longer has the native bee population required to pollinate milkweed.  Hallborg refers to the worldwide 70% drop in insect population since the 1970s due to pesticides and herbicides, tidy lawns, invasive species, lack of native species and new development.

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

I suspect that the practice of sweeping debris off the forest floor near towns and the actual forest fires themselves are making the problem notably worse in that region. It’s a good wake-up call.  If we don’t take action now, the species we admire today will not be around for our children, and it’s happening already. In a quest to find more information about this milkweed pollination failure, I searched for local newspaper articles about it and found nothing.  The sad thing is, a species was lost in that region, and it seems that few people knew about it. 

Monarch butterflies are no longer in the collective memory of the residents.  They left without fanfare or grief.  They left within the whispers of a dedicated few. How many other species have succumbed to the same fate?  It turns out, many. And not only in this place, but everywhere across the globe.

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

And this, my new neighbours, is why I feel an unbridled urgency to do something.  The time for sitting back and waiting for others to take action is over.  The native plant movement is the most hopeful way to make change that I have found.  Native plants store carbon deep within the soil, fighting climate change.  Their deep root systems improve water infiltration into the soil and reduce erosion. They feed our insects, thereby feeding our songbirds.  They create no need for lawn mowers and leaf blowers that emit CO2 into the air and add to the stressful noise pollution of our time.  Switching to ecological gardening practices will connect ecosystems and strengthen pollinator and wildlife sustainability, giving us healthier and more resilient communities.

I hope we, as a collective, feel the urgency to create a town where we wake up to the sound of songbirds, not lawnmowers. I aspire to a place where children make memories of butterflies and bumblebees dashing from flower to flower as they play in their backyards and schoolyards. 

A connection to nature brought most of us to this town, and as it grows, we have a growing responsibility to protect it.  I’m inspired by the progress Collingwood has made in the last year to protect pollinators and deal with climate change, but we have just begun. 

Photo by Robert Bottman on Unsplash

When we have arrived where we need to be, our neighbourhoods will look, sound and smell much different.  As we walk through our community enjoying the wafting sweet scent of native flowers, animated by birds, butterflies and bees, where there used to be grass desert, we will feel proud of what we accomplished. It’s going to take everyone’s participation, and it will be to everyone’s benefit.  I hope over the winter, many of you will join us by visualizing something new for your property – a garden that expresses your love and hope for the future.

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