Posts Tagged ‘nature

Can’t See The Forest For The Trees

- May 31st, 2011

temagamiaerial4

Although the vast majority of Canadians live in urban environments, we tend to define ourselves as a nation through the rugged, wild, natural character of our country.

If asked to describe Canada, most of us would reference water in some form, mountains or rock (depending on where you live), rolling prairies (again depending on where you live), ice and snow in winter, sweltering heat and mosquitos in summer.

But above all else, I think, we define our country as a land of forests — vast, uncountable swathes of trees spreading endlessly north to the Arctic and west (or east, depending on your coast) to the grasslands of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Forests so endless that we could have half a dozen fires, each bigger than Prince Edward Island, raging in Northwestern Ontario this summer and barely be aware of their existence down here on the muggy shores of the Great Lakes.

We take nature’s bounty for granted and look with a certain smug condescension on other nations of the world who do not have such vast, limitless resources or are in the process of squandering what they do have.

I was stunned to find out — and I am assuming you will be too — that this view of ourselves and our position in the natural world is a load of crap.

forest_Canada_map

Really. I know it’s hard to believe, but let me explain.

Just to put your head in the right space, consider these three points:

1. The United States has far, far more forested land than Canada — more than 300 million hectares compared to just over 200 million hectares for poor, barren Canada.

(I visually judge large areas in units of football fields; I cannot conjure up a mental picture of either an acre or hectare, so we’ll stick with the metric hectare since those are the figures I have. A CFL field, by the way, is about two acres and it takes about 2.47 acres to make a hectare so Canada has about a quarter billion CFL football fields worth of forest by my count.)

2. When I think of China, I think of the world’s most populous country — more than 1.3 BILLION people — and one of the world’s oldest societies. A land, in other words, that has been intensively cultivated for eons, a land of rice paddies, not forests. Wrong again. China is smaller in total area than Canada but today has almost exactly the same amount of forested land as Canada — but with an extra 1,265,000,000 mouths to feed.

I’ve been to China, I travelled through its countryside, I’ve hiked in its forests … but I always subconsciously felt there was a city of teeming millions or a sprawling industrial  complex just beyond the treeline. Wrong again.

Chinaforest

One of these photos is from Canada and one is from China. Can you tell which is which?

british-columbia-forests

Answer: Top photo is from Inner Mongolia, bottom photo is from British Columbia

3. Canada’s forest change is basically neutral — new forests grow or are cultivated at approximately the same rate as old forests are cut down or destroyed by fire or pestilence — but both China and the United States are growing more and more forests every year. Over the past decade, U.S. forested land has increased by about a third of one percent each year. Not bad, but nothing compared to China’s staggering 3% a year forest growth rate.

(All this data comes from the wonderfully informative and reliable Economist magazine, which in turn is using global satellite analysis collected by Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais — National Institute for Space Research — to track deforestation in the Amazon and keep tabs on the rest of the earth’s forests.)

So, despite our self image, Canada does not have as much forest wilderness as we believe in our guts we do and we don’t do as good a job as those nasty industrial carbon footprinters, the United States and China, in replenishing our forests.

Here’s a chart The Economist ran a few days ago showing the world’s top 10 countries with largest forest area and here’s a link to the online article accompanying the chart at www.economist.com.

20110604_WOC818

As you can see, Mother Russia has by far the most forest on earth, at around 800 million hectares, followed by Brazil at more than 500 million hectares. (They’re both chewing through their forests at a fair clip, Brazil especially, but that’s a discussion for another time. The fact remains that Russia has four times the amount of forest that Canada does and Brazil’s forested area is about 2.5 times greater than Canada’s, both of which comparative circumstances surprised me. I would have said Russia’s forests were at most double the size of Canada’s and that Canada probably had more forest coverage than Brazil.)

Then there’s the U.S. at about 300 million hectares, Canada and China at just over 200 million hectares each, followed by the rest of the world.

(Again, I would also have said Canada has two or three times more forest than the U.S. I’m starting to get a case of wood envy.)

The next five have some interesting revelations.

For starters, I never would have believed that Australia and Sudan have some of the largest forests in the world. I think of them both as being basically arid desert countries.

And I thought India, like China, had too many people and too much history of human habitation to have much in the way of forests left. And, yes, I’m impressed that India has been increasing its forested land by about .3% a year over the past decade.

So I guess I’ve changed the way I look at Canada and the rest of the world. I don’t feel quite so smug about our endless, majestic wilderness.

forestlake

It’s still there and still vast and still defines us to a large extent, but there are cautionary limits as well.

I think I’ll go out and hug a tree.

Then I’ll dip a toe in Canada’s vast, endless supply of pure, fresh water.

Hey, where did all the water go?

foreststream

How To Shear A Sheep

- April 28th, 2011

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF HAMBURG — I would never be so presumptuous as to shear a sheep myself: It’s a full body shave so the process is, shall we say, intimate.

Feeding them and scratching them behind the ears where they can’t reach is about as intimate as I’ll ever admit to getting with sheep.

Alan&sheep

But I do know people with the skills, experience and electric clippers to do the shearing job.

Volker raises sheep in a beautiful small village (ein schönes kleines Dorf, since I am using a computer keyboard with umlauts at the moment) in the once and future autonomous Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein.

Each spring, Volker shears the year’s growth of wool from his sheep, a service he also performs for the grateful flocks of a few friends and neighbours who are also into sheep.

The  sheared wool is once again being used for knitting and weaving, but only because corn and grain production for biofuels (we’ll talk about that piece of crazy business some other time) is so lucrative — only because of  government subsidies — that it’s supplanted a lot of the world’s cotton farming, thus raising worldwide cotton prices, thus collaterally raising demand for wool and worldwide wool prices, thus making wool once again a financially viable commodity in Europe. For many years, there was so little demand for wool, compared to cotton, that the wool sheared from these particular Schleswig-Holstein sheep was just used  as a natural insulation for houses (which is a nice, ecologically appealing concept, but really a waste of good wool from the farmer’s viewpoint).

IMG_1596

IMG_2073

The shearing is a necessary process for the sheep. By late April they were already sweating profusely in their thick winter coats under the warm spring sun.

Local media a week ago carried the story of an Australian sheep which wandered away into the Outback five years ago. When found recently, the sheep was weighed down with 70 kilograms of wool, barely able to move after half a decade without shearing.

So Volker’s visit on Easter weekend, though a matter of some alarm for both adult sheep and their lambs (who are not sheared), freed them of a heavy, sweaty burden.

Here´s how Volker shears a sheep.

IMG_2334

He starts at the nape of the neck and works toward the tail, shaving down the sides of the sheep as he works his way backwards.

Then he goes back to the head and removes the remaining mane around the neck, not touching the face or lower legs.

IMG_2338

IMG_2387

Once sheared, the sheep are mighty different — slimmer, lighter and trembling with post-traumatic excitement. Actually, they sort of look like a room full of little old men in a sauna. Sorry, sheep.

IMG_2305

IMG_2426

Sometimes it takes a few minutes for  lambs to recognize their clean-shaven mothers. Unsheared sheep often act quite aggressively toward their de-fleeced sisters, and uppity young ram lambs, despite their actual inability to perform libidinous acts yet, are still driven by natural instinct to try to mount the newly nude ewes. (I guess it’s sort of a sheep MILF thing.)

The newly shaved sheep stay indoors for a while, partly to let the lambs get reacquainted with their unfamiliar mothers and partly to avoid sunburn from the strong afternoon sun. Really. Sheep can sunburn without their protective coats.

Then it’s back to the good life in the pasture.

IMG_2437

IMG_2443

So, with a few more photos of Volker and the sheep, here´s looking at ewe, kid.

IMG_2323

IMG_2336

IMG_2298

IMG_2345

IMG_2358

IMG_2409

IMG_2445