Heron Tower Reflections

In the late winter through early summer of 1989 I spent three days a week in a six foot by six foot plywood box, a “bird blind”, about 25 feet up in a stand of trees.  As part of my Masters of Science degree I was observing behaviours of Great Blue Herons nesting near a pulp mill.  I was attempting to determine if there were behavioural abnormalities that might be linked with chemical contamination originating from the mill.  During this time of “field-work” I had quite a lot of spare time to meditate and to think about the bigger questions of life and my place in the world.  I had a tiny AM radio and one day in early July I listened to David Suzuki talking about the environment and suggesting that we had maybe 10 years to alter our actions or the world as we knew it would drastically change for the worse.

The words of David Suzuki were certainly not new to me.  I had been giving a lot of thought to what direction my life might take and his words spoke to my heart.  I was following a goal of becoming a Wildlife Biologist with an interest in environmental protection and conservation.  I was examining my relationship with the natural world and the world altered by human activities.  I was looking for ways to help repair places where humanity had broken the natural unfolding of creation.  I felt angry and powerless and sad when I thought about how the culture I was born into seemed dominated by greed, and how the desire for money and material goods was destroying the natural world that I valued very deeply.

Sitting in my tower I looked across the soft upper branches of gary oaks, arbutus and shore pine, over a little bay towards the herons.  If I looked in the other direction I could see the boiling plumes of effluent from the stacks of the mill.  I felt like I was sitting on the boundary between heaven and hell.  The later 1980s was a time when the human impact on the environment was entering mainstream awareness.  For me it was a time when many pieces of information were converging into defining my life path.  On the little table in my blind I had a copy of Emily Carr's Diary and recently read about her finding God in the world and in her work as a painter.  As part of recent course work I had been examining classic scientific papers by Lynn White Jr: The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis and Garrett Hardin: The Tragedy of the Commons.  1989 was two years after the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, the result of The World Commission of Environment and Development, and the document which coined and defined the meaning of the term "Sustainable Development".  It was four years before The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, seven years before the Koyoto Protocol.

As I sat and recorded the behaviours of the herons I thought about how conservation and protection efforts so often lead to groups fighting over beliefs.  The other side was always bad.  I thought about how there was to be a protest at the mill with regards to how pollution was killing the herons, and how I had recommended the protest be cancelled because the herons were doing very well that year.  I thought about getting permission to be on the mill property and a lunch I had with the mill manager, how he talked about his family and how I saw his humanity.  I remembered that I lived in Vancouver, in a wooden house in a clear-cut.  I thought about the real origin of environmental destruction how in the deepest recesses of the basic premise of my cultural tradition words in biblical texts gave humanity dominion over the world and instructions to subdue creation.  I thought about how all life and creation is in a constant state of fluctuation; how conservation and protection efforts must carefully not close the doors to change.  I wondered if after 60 million years it might just be time for the herons to pass from existence.   Who was I to know the answer?

Looking back and forth between the mill and the herons I realised that “my cross to bear” was an ability to see both sides of the situation.  As a scientist it was my job to observe and present the information, to produce a result, not to judge what was good or bad.  Looking at the sunlight sparkling on the water and backlit on the trees behind the herons my sadness and anger softened.  For a few hours I descended into a place of profound peace.  I decided that my life path was some middle road between – I was not sure what.  Thinking of William Wordsworth and William Blake I wanted my life effort be to advocate for a world where dominion was translated into reverence and subdue was translated into stewardship.  Reflecting back to that time, almost 30 years ago, I feel sad in that my success has often been measured by situations where a compromise is made and no one is really happy.  The line between the natural world and civilization remains in constant retreat.  For much of my career I have felt alone but found peace when I hold an inner sense that I tried.