Stephen Bolwell is a photographer, painter and writer. His blog - 'Take a Picture - Save the Planet' deals with both serious and light hearted environmental issues; he has a background in wildlife documentary filmmaking for television and posts short wildlife clips on YouTube.
When I was a small child, I would go to the fair with my grandmother and I hated it, the noise, the grubbiness, the smell of sweat and the stickiness of candy floss all upset me; my grandmother on the other hand was in her element, she would display clear delight as her penny rushed down a wooden channel, then slowed and wobbled hesitantly as it ran towards her frequently missed winning number. Better still, she could place a ping pong ball in the open beak of a huge yellow fibreglass duckling that waggled from side to side until the ball was ejected from its bottom to run into one of a variety of differently numbered compartments. With five balls to place, the lucky, or perhaps ‘unlucky’ high scorer might win a hideous brown vase as brittle as brown crystalline sugar.
Like his mother before him, my father enjoyed similar entertainments, his favourite was the circus. My parents took me to one when I was about six years old and it was an horrifying experience. Why were men in outsized outfits with gaudily painted faces driving a junk car around an arena until the doors blew off with a bang? By the response of the crowd it was obvious that it was me – the one with the ‘can we go home now’, sense of humour failure, that was out of place. Maybe the 1950s was a time when we laughed at different things – apart from me that is – I was laughing at different different things.
Today, more complex games are available than my grandmother could ever have imagined, let alone find at the fair; the mindless nature of these new forms of entertainment invade our homes every day via the internet to be absorbed by our children’s brains, the greatest wasters of irretrievable time so far devised (the games not our children, although sometimes….?). Certainly modern electronic games eat into more spare time than was ever available to my grandmother and father combined, both of them having no other choice but to live in the real world. I have watched my children as they get sucked into imaginary meaningless worlds each with a slightly different slant on predictable stories told with uninspiring graphics – the flickering opiates of a darkened room. O.K. I’m from a different galaxy, but I’ll struggle on, deriving pleasure from the natural wonders that my adopted planet has so far managed to hang onto, and as I do, I will do my best not to get suckered by the incredullous cheap tricks that have infected the minds of generations of my gullible family.
I met a man today who wanted to know what I though I was doing – and that’s not unusual – I meet people everyday who ask the very same question, and I’m often obliged to explain why I am lying front down in the dirt. On this occasion I was photographing toadstools and I told him exactly that; then I notice that he had a dog with him, and I said, ‘That’s a nice dog’, because it was. ‘What’s his name?’
‘It’s Improbable’, said the man.
And my response was that this was an unusual name for a dog.
‘People often say so’, he replied, ‘but I don’t think that this is the case. It is simply an improbable name for a dog, whereas Unusual might be an unusual name for another dog’.
So, it seemed that he was a wise guy, but I was completely drawn in by the way he thought, and so I asked him why he had called his dog Improbable’.
‘Because he’s very big for a small dog’, he said, ‘and so for me he’s a bit like the Universe – improbable. But, I should add, by no means impossible.
I realised that I should then have said, ‘A well behaved dog then?’, but by the time I’d thought of that the moment had passed. So having lost my best opportunity, I didn’t know quite what to say, but I did know that if I asked the obvious question, Impossible would be an impossible name for yet another dog. All that I wanted to do at this stage was the usual thing, and that was to pretend I hadn’t noticed anybody standing close by, but it was too late for that, and so instead I said (rather stupidly in hindsight), and as much for something to say as in reply.
‘Are you perhaps interested in the improbability of the Universe?’
‘No I am not’, replied the man. ‘I’m not interested in the Universe or anything of that sort. I don’t have a telescope or any of the required knowledge that would allow me to be remotely knowing about such a thing – I simply wouldn’t know where to start. Infact, I’m not interested in science, mathematics or anything along those lines… I think it is safe to say that I’m not an inquisitive person’.
I couldn’t help myself. ‘Are you interested in anything at all’. I asked.
‘I am’, he said.
There was a pause and I thought the conversation might mercifully be over, but this wasn’t the case.
He continued, ‘Mostly I’m interested in novelty, mystery and the misfortunes of others’.
‘Oh’, I said, because I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. So I changed the subject.
‘My name is Stephen’, was all I could think of at short notice.
‘Mine’, said the man, ‘is Arthur… Arthur Cottingley’.
‘That’s an unusual name’, I said, and he didn’t say, ‘What – Arthur?’, because he wasn’t that predictable. Instead he said, ‘I am sure you already know it, because you must have heard it before’.
I decided to ignore his presumption about what I must have heard before and changed the subject for a second time.
‘The light isn’t quite right for this shot’. I said, ‘I’ll have to come back and try again tomorrow morning’.
And it was then that he asked a rather strange question.
‘And will you be doing your picture from the position you are in now, or will you do it from the other side?’
‘This is the shot’, I said, ‘it has to be exactly from here’.
‘Exactly?’ he asked in confirmation.
I checked the shot and said yes, but when I looked up Arthur Cottingley was nowhere to be seen, and I must admit to being quite relieved.
As the sun began to set, I packed up my gear and walked out of the wood.
The next day I went back and took the picture below; and thought no more about Arthur Cottingley until the result had been imported into my computer, and then I began to wonder if I’d ever met Arthur Cottingley at all.
When you take a picture, you don’t always save the Planet, but once in a while, you get an image that your grandmother might find entertaining – improbable as that might sound.
Perhaps the most reliable way to ‘save the planet’ is to take a picture that has been constructed by using mathematics and arithmetic; these exist in a variety of forms, but most commonly they are represented as charts or graphs that can provide at a glance, information on any subject for which there is reliable data, and graphs in particular are good at showing numerical change against a baseline of time.
I’m one of those unfortunates who have trouble adding up a column of figures – seldom do I get the same total twice – even with a calculator! That’s discouraging, but it’s not a valid excuse to give up. And mathematics doesn’t come any easier, but let’s face it, we owe it to the planet to try, because mathematics is the key to measuring everything important that is going on around us.
A politician or national spokesman who says, ‘I’m just hopeless with maths’ or ‘math’ (depending on where they are standing) and then laughs it off, should be looking elsewhere for work. There is understandable concern when the people who represent us do not usually have backgrounds in mathematics or science – political science doesn’t count, because that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, the ‘I don’t get mathematics’ excuse is unacceptable from any elected official and we should urge them to ‘try harder’.
When I heard a health spokesman say recently that the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa was growing exponentially month by month there was obvious cause for concern. The spokesmen then gave the number of infections that occured during the previous month followed by the predicted figure for the month to follow, and the figures were exactly the same. This implied that he either didn’t understand exponential, or the increase wasn’t exponential at all. The statement was confusing: was the rate of infection steady and controllable? Or was it expanding exponentially, suggesting that heading for the hills was the best possible option?
Understanding exponential growth shouldn’t be a problem. Most small children can draw it, even if they can’t describe the outcome.
In everyday life, most people don’t think much beyond arithmetic progressions, where the increase between numbers is constant. But exponential growth is nothing like that. Once you start down the road to exponential, by doubling up, it isn’t long before the figures are mind blowingly large, and if they relate to a dangerous disease that goes unchecked, no health service on the planet will be able to deal with it.
There is an ancient Persian story that explains the process well. An inventor who pleased his king with a wonderful invention was asked to name his reward; but he at once disappointed the ruler with the seemingly meagreness of his choice. The inventor asked for grains of wheat to be placed upon a chess board in the following manner: one grain on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on, until all of the 64 squares were covered. The numbers start small and most of us don’t think much beyond the 8th square where the total hits 128 grains, which isn’t an outrageous figure. Quite a surprise then to discover that to reach the 64th square requires 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat – more wheat than was available in the whole kingdom. The tale is spun as an example of intelligence winning the day, or alternatively, it is a story of cunning and greed – the inventor either becomes ruler of the kingdom, or he loses his head.
In today’s world we might relate this story to pyramid selling where an investment doubles up every move it makes down the line and before long the numbers become vast, but by then, many individuals have dropped out of the scheme and never pay their contributions, while those who stay in begin to run out of suckers to sell to.
Telling a story is a great way to explain numerical change, but an artful graphs is a more visual approach. The two graphs below are free of annotation which allows the image to pass for art if you prefer it – perhaps as a late Matisse paper collage.
The upper curve begins between yellow and red but continues for the most part between yellow and green – it starts shallow, then rises exponentially before levelling off. This forms a ‘logistic curve’ first used by Pierre Verhurst in the mid 1800s to show natural population growth where numbers are held to an upper limit by predation and availability of resources.
The lower curve that runs at first between red and yellow and then red and green takes time to rise, but when it does the line steepens rapidly – this is exponential growth that hasn’t levelled off. The world human population presently follows this ‘run away’ curve, but without infinite resources it cannot continue to grow in this manner. In a finitely resourced world the predictable result is a sudden levelling of the curve and a plummet downwards that mirrors the up. To alleviate suffering, it makes sense to control the drop – this really is a case of the higher you go the harder the fall. Birth rates are presently falling across the developed world, but for economic reasons the numbers are usually bolstered by immigration (O.K. there will then be fewer people somewhere else, but that doesn’t regulate the population in places where people are genuinely trying to control their numbers).
The logistic curve along with the wave curve (see the predator prey relationship graphs below) apply to almost any species other than our own and they have longterm benefits for both the species and the environment – and make better models for longterm regulation than does uncontrolled exponential growth. All the information we need for responsible behaviour is contained within a couple of simple graphs, indicating that self regulation of human population is a better option than the inevitable collapse that continued exponential growth has in store .
Unfortunately, governments do not run economies with a view to longterm sustainably – they invariably opt for growth above all else, and are reluctant to make changes, preferring instead to pass the parcel onto the next generation – a ticking time bomb which they’ve chosen to ignore. Economies are run as if resources are infinite and without cost beyond extraction, refining and transportation. However, at a certain point, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain this, and if the present generation continues to charge up the steep end of exponential… future generations will be forced to pay the price, and will know that we had all the information available to make the right decisions, but instead carried on, business as usual.
HERE WE ALL ARE, UP ON THE STEEPEST PART OF THE CURVE.
Things often start off slowly before exponential growth kicks in. With the human population nothing much changed for a very long time. There was even a period around70,000 years ago (long before the time line represented in the above graph), when the human population dropped so low we almost disappeared altogether.
It may well have been cooking meat and the development of agriculture that started things moving, but there have been other set backs: the black death was a devastating pandemic and can be seen as a dip in the population graph around 1400. Prior to the plague weather conditions around the mid-1300s were unfavourable, and throughout Europe crops repeatedly failed. It was a perfect storm of a disaster and millions died – but the loss of a third of Europe’s population did change the economy. Suddenly, there was a shortage of workers and for the first time in recorded history a more reasonable wage could be asked by those who survived the devastation. Poverty was still widespread, but many people were liberated from serfdom, and took the first steps along a path that generations later would drive the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and eventually the modern Western economic system we have today.
In the broadest sense exponential growth isn’t a disaster, it is often the way things increase in the natural world, but there are always boundaries. A fertilised ova wouldn’t develop at a rapid enough rate if cell growth wasn’t initially exponential, but once a certain functional level has been reached, cells are programmed to be replaced when and where they are needed – if they keep on dividing without control, we call it cancer.
Almost everything that relates to our rapidly increasing human population is unsustainable. The graph below demonstrates a normal predator prey relationship where foxes are eating hares; it could equally be wolves preying on deer, or any number of other predator prey interactions.
Other species also benefit as predator and prey numbers ebb and flow. Plants for example will escape total obliteration by hares and rabbits as predators reduce herbivore numbers. Without natural predation environments become less diverse as certain species are eaten beyond their capacity to regenerate. However, the predator prey graph is an oversimplification, and although the general principle holds true, the system is really a three dimensional web of life that demonstrates far greater complexity. We refer to a natural balance of nature, but the reality is closer to a series of peaks and troughs. If our human population followed closer to the logistic curve, modern technology would allow us to regulate against a roller coaster of loss and gain in a manner that can’t so easily be applied to the steep end of exponential growth.
Related closely to our population numbers is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
It is impossible for us to remove and burn fossil fuels indefinitely, because such resources are finite and as time passes, these diminish and become increasingly difficult to extract. And another consideration is the effect that burning fossil fuels has on our atmosphere should we decide to try it.
The increasing emission of carbon into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned is clearly changing the Earth’s atmosphere.
Burning fossil fuels has a special place in the grand scheme of things, because it increases the levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that in turn increases global temperatures. Continuing to do so at an ever increasing rate not only changes the atmosphere, it also changes the weather and at a certain point these changes may be irreversible.
If you looked only at a graph showing the period between 1950 to 1970 you’d consider global temperatures to be fairly stable. There has also been a similar levelling of temperatures in recent years; these are the favoured areas for climate change sceptics to cherry pick their examples and tell us, ‘there’s nothing to worry about’, but unfortunately, there can be no denying the general temperature trend is upwards – the planet is warming, which supports the idea that it is necessary to always view the whole picture.
The Ebola infection figures discussed earlier do indeed appear to be growing exponentially (at the time of writing). The curve ran fairly level through May and June, which would have been the ideal time for the developed world to have moved in and defeated the disease before it took off. To have ignored this opportunity seems careless if not arrogant. The question is, if I can manage the calculation on the back of a cigarette packet (see below), why can’t those in power do the same. It would be generous to put the terrible suffering in West Africa down purely to ignorance, but sometimes it is suffering economies rather than suffering people that elicit the most rapid responses.
Below: an ‘on the back of a cigarette packet’ calculation derived from figures freely available from news reports. This was quite tricky – not the mathematics… it’s just that I don’t smoke.
So far there have been around 5,000 deaths due to Ebola and there will be many more in the coming months, but hopefully, now that medical help is arriving in the affected West African countries (better late than never), the infection will begin to come under control.
Whenever we hear a spokesman say that ‘growth is exponential’ it is good to be clear about what he or she means. Certainly this is important when it refers to human population growth; or the increasing use of fossil fuels; and the rapid spread of a contagious disease. In each case we need to ask the right questions, then be certain that our answers make sense, and last but not least, act as quickly as possible – and so far we have been unforgivably slack on the last one.
The ciggy packet slip aside, all of the simple ‘mathematical’ pictures shown above have been colourful, and without exception are easy to interpret – this isn’t intended purely for the benefit of small children – it is also to grab the attention of the mathematically challenged politicians making important decisions; they really do need to, ‘get the picture, act in good time’, and in so doing, ‘save the planet’.
In mid October 2014 Tony Abbott predicted that coal would be the world’s principal energy source for decades to come. It was he said, ‘Good for humanity’. I wonder if I’m living in a parallel universe – Tony Abbott must be better informed than I am… he’s the prime minister of Australia.
At the time of posting there was some hopeful news. A decrease in the number of reported cases of Ebola in Liberia. WHO’s spokesman Bruce Aylward said the response to the virus was now gaining the upper hand, but warned the crisis wasn’t over. The Head of the U.N. Mission says that ‘presently he doesn’t have the resources to defeat the disease’. How nuts is that?
For a perceptive and amusing view of man’s destruction of the Planet, take a look at this cartoon:
A photograph can be targeted to help save the Planet, or more precisely, benefit present bio-diversity, but what about a painting? Perhaps a painting can provide a more imaginative approach and demonstrate truth more effectively than photography. Our minds relate to stories and a photograph sometimes tells a good one, but paintings can be honed more precisely – nothing need be left to chance – creating an image that really sticks in the mind.
When a few years ago I started photographing eagles on a local nest where generations of birds have reared their young for as long as anybody can remember, I wasn’t expecting such a rapid urbanisation of the surrounding area.
A chat with a local resident who has lived here for many years brought home a truth that can only be told with the benefit of time. Once there were six pairs of eagles nesting close by and now we are down to a single pair. Continued runaway development across the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is responsible for the declining availability of eagle hunting habitat and threatens the longterm survival of nest sites. This is important because disappearing eagles are indicators of failing ecosystems. In another environment some other animal will carry the banner for species diversity and a reliable measure of the health of our planet.
As usual, my story starts elsewhere. Some years ago I was filming during February at The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and each day I walked the short distance from my hotel to work. Then, one morning, a sudden gust of wind took my breath away, causing a severe pain in the nerves of my teeth and drove up through my head. I had the sudden impression that my eyeballs had frozen open and imagined myself as a cartoon character in icy motionless mid-walk, about to shatter into a thousand pieces, although in reality I’d made it through the museum doors.
As I was thawing out, I asked a professor how people survived days like this when temperatures dropped well below -20C; I never established exactly how low because nobody wanted to discuss that. He said, mostly, it was about dressing appropriately, but when things got really cold they just didn’t go outside.
Weather in Canada it seems is not simply a question of the wrong clothes, there are days when you could end up a stiff no matter what you are wearing.
Is it any wonder that the mild southern coastal area where I live is so popular. I am one of many outsiders who don’t have the cold tolerance of most Canadians who live in the interior – for more than half the year, winter temperatures fall lower than anything you could experience by sticking your head in the icebox of your fridge.
The mild Lower Mainland is caught between a rock, a wet place and another country and three things happen when space is limited: people move in, house prices go up and developers make money, but this isn’t a longterm reality because urbanisation can’t continue indefinitely – eventually space runs out and the environment in which we live becomes degraded. And it doesn’t make sense to build on the only location you have for food production with a reliably long growing season.
Worldwide we have colonised the most habitable regions and are increasingly disinclined to share with other species even when they benefit our general wellbeing. Our indifferent attitude to nature is a bit like strangling the canary before going into the mine instead of bringing the bird chirping along with you.
Eagles are at the pinnacle of a wide range of less charismatic creatures that go largely unnoticed, they are representatives of whole ecosystems, but once you move beyond using an eagle photo to ask ‘Will they stay or will they go?’ their image can so easily end up as just another agreeable wildlife picture. So, maybe there’s a more startling way to make a point… With a painting.
The claim that painting is dead has reoccured with great regularity over the years, because technology is always moving forward, creating a dazzling array of new ways to make images.
During the 1990s artists became increasingly indulgent – like naughty children they wanted to shock, but the only real shock was the employment of artisans to do their work for them. Then there were the naval gazers. ‘Look at me’, they bleated – ‘I’m full of angst and want to tell my story’. Fortunately, self analysis is no longer cool and science backs up the view that too much introspection is bad for us – looking outwards is far healthier. And then there are the artists still painting fruit bowls and goldfish… Is is any wonder that so many commercial art galleries are empty?
Art is usually related to the period in which it is produced and ‘now’ couldn’t be a better time to show ourselves as part of nature, rather than living above and dominating it. We can no longer ignore the havoc we are causing and this should be reflected in the art we produce.
Certainly landscape painting is of its time, although in the past it has either romanticised the natural world, or glorified the changes that humans have made.
John Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ is amongst the most famous and seriously underrated paintings ever made; its artistic reputation steadily eroded over the years to the level of chocolate box art.
Our understanding of the painting has been seriously skewed by the passage of time. Apart from the course of the river Stour and the usual wild Constable sky, everything else is a construct of man and we might do well to reassess it with the benefit of the passage of 200 years.
Constable moved trees and buildings for artistic convenience, but still he painted a certain reality. Sadly I can’t paint as well as he did; I can’t even copy his technique – he sparkled the surface of his oils with white flecks that are difficult to emulate.
My paintings aren’t in any case a reality; they are allegories that examine our relationship with the natural world. ‘The Mixed Blessing’ was painted under the influence of place; it would not exist if I lived outside of this land of eagles, and relates directly to a moment in time.
On one level the baby represents us, and the eagles, the natural world. On another level the baby might be Jesus giving a blessing, and careful examination indicates that the blessing is not all that it at first seems.
Close to the beginning of the Old Testament God says ‘Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth.’ Genesis 1:26. The King James Bible – a book that would be much shorter if God had been less inclined to repeat things.
At 1:28 God expands his instructions. ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth.’ This, all too spookily, is a description of our present behaviour. Maybe it’s a co-incidence – perhaps we’d be doing the same things even without God’s rule book, but as a directive – under the present circumstances, the ‘dominion over’ approach is seriously misguided.
I am not concerning myself with either God’s will or his existence, the point is that societies based upon Judeo-Christian foundations adhere to certain doctrinal behaviours, often long after their religions have faded, and that may not be a good thing.
THE STORY OF THE PAINTING.
I’ve painted Jesus as a baby before. I say painted, but all I did was copy ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had two choices because Leonardo painted the subject twice. His first effort hangs in the Louvre and was intended for a church that was paying him a pittance. Leonardo sold it off quickly to another buyer, then rather insultingly took ages to knock out the second painting to fulfil his agreement – this now hangs in the National Gallery and the version I copied to form part of a much smaller painting. It was copied many years ago when I was a student (of Zoology – not art, so I won’t make any false claims about technique!)
Baby John is next to Mary and she is introducing him to Jesus – he is the baby sitting next to the angel to the right, and he is clearly giving a blessing – the action I wanted in the ‘The Mixed Blessing’, because anybody who has a background in art would get the reference straight away, but for most of us this doesn’t matter. Essentially I kidnapped this baby from the National Gallery’s version of ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ for a second time, and spent several days changing the tonal quality of the image to match the ‘all sweetness and light’ sunday school illustrations of childhood.
Then my wife saw the painting and told me, ‘this isn’t a baby… it’s a little old man.’ And because she works with babies I was forced to take note. ‘What do you mean…This is Leonardo Da Vinci, we’re talking about’, I told her, but a response based upon experience rather than art was difficult to argue against, and she wasn’t finished. ‘I don’t care who we’re talking about… He can’t paint babies!’, and she was right… I wonder how many art experts have noticed this. Maybe Leonardo couldn’t bring himself to render either Jesus or John as anything other than self aware and not in the malleable clay of infancy. – even as babies he could see only spiritual wisdom.
I felt my choices narrowing, and so it came to pass that the baby in the nest moved into the 21st Century, and perhaps this was for the best.
If there had never been a Genesis version of ‘In the beginning…’ would we think differently? Or, with the real possibility of a genetic predisposition to believe, might we have travelled another route to the same conclusion: God/us/the rest of life on Earth?
Without the option to rewind time, there is only scientific evidence to draw upon and this indicates we behave better when we think we’re being watched! Would overcoming this hardwiring in our brains allow us to see with more clarity how things really are.
Could we accept the blindingly obvious? We are clever animals but only in comparison with all the other animals – our brains have limitations. If we accepted that, might we be more inclined to see ourselves as part of, rather than above the natural world.
The ‘sole dominion’ approach clearly hasn’t been a great success in terms of the Planet’s biodiversity, and presently we need to chose diversity over dogma. Maybe it’s time to try something else… Humility perhaps? We might be stuck with faith, but a little logic wouldn’t go amiss; and if we can’t trust ourselves to live without a rule book, then at the very least the rules need to be updated once in a while in the light of new and reliable information.
And God said, ‘Go forth and be at one with nature’.
If we have to believe something – why not give that one a go. Sadly I’ve lost the Biblical reference, but it has to be in there somewhere.
With thanks to Dorcas for reminding me that God can be a difficult subject to discuss without upsetting somebody.
Other paintings by Stephen Bolwell can be seen at: agilispictures.com
After I wrote my first blog my daughter told me that I would need to write new ones quite regularly, because, as Punch said to Judy, ‘That’s the way to do it …’ This was quite a shock, although it has nothing to do with Punch sounding loud and shrill, and everything to do with ‘quite regularly’ sounding like a job. The blog started over concerns about an environmental issue and rather stupidly I hadn’t thought much beyond that. There are a couple of other concerns as well, and my friend Colin put his finger on one of them straight away, ‘the trouble with you,’ he said, ‘is that you usually say what other people are just thinking’… and in these politically correct times that could be a problem. Assuming that I do have readers, I will eventually upset them all and end up writing for myself, which begins to sound less like writing and more like therapy; and that brings me to my second problem… I’m not sure I’m bothered.
The Canadian fish eagle – sometimes known as the bald eagle – is quite something. When living in England I lived at the wrong end of the U.K. to see Britain’s, or more properly, Scotland’s national equivalent, the golden eagle. You’re best chance of seeing one of these would be to travel to the Western Highlands and get well organised for a photo opportunity. There are around 440 pairs nesting in the U.K. and I have only viewed single birds in flight, none of them near a nest.
Then, I moved with my family to New Zealand where you can forget about seeing eagles altogether; most of the interesting native avians are either extinct or moving down that rocky road to oblivion; although New Zealand has been a land of birds and so it is no surprise to discover that there was once an eagle in the mix – Haasts’s eagle, the most impressive tick for a birder that can be imagined – and I don’t mean that in the parasitic sense, although the bird may well have had species specific ticks that disappeared when the bird did. The great thing about this eagles is that it was the largest predatory bird ever known to exist. Sadly, Haast’s eagle disappeared about the same time as nine species of flightless moa which were all hunted to extinction by Maori around A.D.1400. With their prey gone, the eagles quickly climbed the stairs to stuffed, or more precisely, to ossification. Imagine if you can, 35 lbs (15 kg) of bird in flight, the estimated upper limits for a large female… extraordinary, and I missed the picture by around 600 years, but it wasn’t personal, so did everybody else. And right now you’re probably Googling the bird’s name to see if I’m fibbing.
Over the years I’ve made many trips to the United States but it was a long time before I saw my first bald eagle. To avoid confusion I use the bird’s American name although I don’t feel obliged to do so, vultures are bald but eagles for the most part are not. In the middle ages ‘bald’ would refer to a patch on a stock animal, but an entire bird’s head is something else. I love America, but let’s face, it, Americans are none to precise with words – in reality a bathroom isn’t a lavatory, and if an herbivore is an herbivore, how can an herb be an ‘erb’ What’s that about? And ‘The World Series’???… Let’s not go there.
Sorry I digress, we all know what a bald eagle is, but they were certainly less frequently seen during the 1980s than they are today in every state in America, but the bird did manage to cling on and breed in a few of them, including Florida which is where I had my first encounter with this wonderful eagle in the Everglades. Startled from its resting place in a tree, the poor creature almost fell on top of me as I quickly tried for a picture with the 200mm lens that was attached to the sharper end of my camera. Unfortunately the eagle was far too close for a long lens and by the time its feathers came into focus the bird was moving away and quickly hidden by foliage. If I had failed so completely and missed the photo in almost any other state my story might have been doubted, but in Florida seeing a bald eagle was very believable and nobody had reason to question it. I had nevertheless missed the shot – photographers see things differently, they freeze away packets of light while others have life experiences; they store away little capsules of time to be viewed at a later date, although any picture that has been recorded successfully is soon forgotten. It is the ones that get away that are remembered forever, or more correctly… remembered until you die. A photograph on the other hand need not suffer oblivion, but it is as well to consider that there are as many bad photographs in the world as bad memories; and by that I mean memories are unreliable, while photos – if we exclude photoshop – pin down a certain kind of truth… I know, we could argue that one all day.
If you are out in the woods – don’t let one of these fall on you.
In British Columbia, where I now live, people can be complacent about their Canadian fish eagles, because the birds are so frequently seen, but that could easily change as habitats become degraded or destroyed. In the United States the birds have survived in part because they have a wide distribution. Early in the 20th Century they were hunted mercilessly because of the fear that as predators they might eat young stock animals, in particular lambs. Nobody at the time had heard of trophic cascade and many still haven’t. The term describes the important role that top predators play in shaping ecosystems or even landscapes as they work the top end of the food chain and the results tumble down through the system. Only recently has this process become more clearly understood and eagles are certainly up there amongst the top carnivores when it comes to ripping at the tapestry of existence.
Having survived an initial assault with guns the eagles would plummet in numbers again around the middle of the 20th Century with the widespread use of the pesticide D.D.T. which would accumulate in the bodies of many predatory birds and cause eggs to suffer from a thinning of their shells which were easily broken before the embryos inside had a chance to develop fully. Many raptors would totter precariously on the edge of existence until D.D.T. was banned in 1972; it takes about 15 years for the pesticide to break down in the natural environment, and so it was a while before fortunes changed and eagle numbers began to climb.
In the United States the bald eagle appears on just about everything from national seals to custom paint jobs on Harley Davidson motorcycles – a perfect example of the power of visual imagery, but you have to wonder how the bird might have faired had it not been politically expedient to save it. More generic eagles with less literal forms show up on the coats of arms of more than twenty five countries, but there has never been a closer association with a single bird species than the United States has with the bald eagle, except perhaps the relationship that New Zealanders have with their namesake the kiwi.
In British Columbia and Alaska, this fish eagle might be described as common, which is perhaps why it is taken for granted. During the salmon run, the fish move some distance inland along the rivers of the North West coast of North America to spawn and the eagles, congregating in numbers, rely heavily upon them for food. When the salmon stop running the birds behaviour changes and in late winter an early spring they move off to their traditional nesting sites, many of which are now threatened by development, especially when bordering urban areas, which in lower mainland B.C. is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. Urban eagles can cope with some human disturbance, but increasingly there are fewer places for them to hunt while they are tied to the nest feeding young.
I have been fortunate to record eaglet rearing activity at my local nest over the last few years, which will attest to their presence should they finally run out of prey and are forced to move away; certainly things appear to be moving in that direction. In 2012 two eaglets fledged successfully on the local nest; last year there was only one eaglet and this year one again, after the adults were forced to rebuild when the old nest fell during a winter storm.
Under exceptional circumstances a pair of Bald, or Canadian fish eagles might rear four youngsters; three is hopeful, but two is more usual, or rather the laying of two eggs is more usual. The rearing of only one offspring is common enough, but doing so season after season suggest a lack of available prey – perhaps they could do better under more favourable circumstances. At least two other nests in the area also managed only one youngster during the 2014 season.
Nobody it seems can remember a time when there weren’t eagles nesting here; people have become so used to seeing them and may be unaware that the birds could be lost to the urban developments spreading across the surrounding woods and farmland. Close to the park’s borders this process has been startlingly rapid over the last couple of years, which is unsettling and casts doubts over the longterm viability of the nest and I really hope the adults manage the increasing distances they will need to travel to hunt down prey. Whatever happens, it has been a privilege to have spent time watching and photographing these wonderful birds.
An adult drops food, quickly grabbed by the dominant eaglet.
If planning departments are prepared to give over land designated for agriculture, along with natural areas in and around urban locations, then many native plants and animals will inevitably disappear from the landscape and our lives will be the poorer for it. Only a few people will gain financially from intensive house building, whilst the majority will see little benefit. Living closer to nature has been demonstrated to be of great benefit to our health and this is increasingly denied to a great many people. Essentially, we will move past the point where there are teachable class sizes at local schools, or reasonable waiting times in the emergency rooms of hospitals. It is of no great benefit to the majority to push urban density to the levels we expect to find in cities, but few of us are allowed any part in the decision making. As a neighbour recently pointed out, ‘When it comes to development, money talks and b/s walks.’ And that pretty much sums it up. Urban development programmes should not be ruled by a minority who are turning a buck at the expense of the majority, and above all else financial gain should not be allowed to push intelligent urban planning into second place.
Next time: If You Can’t Take a Photograph a Painting Will Do.
With thanks to Harold Myers for providing details on local nests. Thanks also to Colin Shotter and Penny Beck.
Many years ago I went out into the desert and there I met a man who had a vision. I’ll have to stop doing that… building up my story before I’ve started. More prosaically, I was setting up to film a sequence on elf owls for a movie about, well, what else but owls… and the man I met in the desert was Bill Peachey, one of those experts the B.B.C. seek out when their freelancers aren’t sure what they are doing – pretending to know is useless and in any case, you can’t know everything. Elf owls nest in holes in saguaro cacti in the Sonora desert and if anybody was going to be able to find them, it was Bill… but sadly, not this time around – two long nights and we didn’t see a single owl. But all was not lost…… I learnt something else, something quite useful, and I’ll share it with you.
Bill had seen things in the desert – interesting things, mass animal migrations in the moonlight and creatures noted in the past that hadn’t been seen for many years. Then he’d tell somebody – a hunter perhaps, and they would say… ‘Never!’ A common response from people who hadn’t lived in the area for very long. The problem Bill pointed out was that as we begin to spread out into natural environments, many of the animals that live there move on. To be clear on the changes, Bill told me, it was essential to get a photograph of everything of consequence that you saw, preferably with a signpost in shot, or something that would date the picture exactly. It was my turn to have a vision – I imagined an elk with a copy of today’s paper wedged in his antlers, then a cougar walked in front of a circus billboard with the show dates prominent to one side, but as I took my picture the cat’s body moved and obscured them. It was hopeless – we were living in 1985 – far too early to make any of this work.
Today technology has moved on and most of us now carry something that will take a pretty good picture, whether it be a camera, a small computer or a mobile phone, and nearly all will automatically record the date, the time, and in some cases a GPS position. In the 21st Century nothing much can happen in public view without somebody noticing and recording the change, and if we care about the environment, more of us should be making visual notes and start using them as the basis for asking questions about how we all feel about the situation.
I am the most unlikely person to write a blog, but when I see things changing in my local area that I don’t think are in the best interests of my neighbour’s or the local environment, I feel obliged to comment. You of course may not be living in the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia on the West Coast of Canada, but it is likely that something very similar will be happening close to your home, because there is a general disconnect between what most of us want, and what our local councils and planning departments would like to slip past us.
Here is the story I have on my mind:
It’s time to rethink high density development, or say goodbye to the natural wonders of the Lower Mainland.by Stephen Bolwell.
When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska she got into hot water for something she never said, ‘I can see Russia from my house’. Well, I’m living on the coastal side of Lower Mainland B.C. and I really can see another country from mine – it’s America, and that’s exciting, although stretching things a bit, because all I can really see is Mount Baker – it‘s just so big, but despite this, to get a clear look I need to take a short walk to my local nature area, ‘Surrey Lake Park’, because all expansive views in my area are now built across.
Twenty years ago it was all fields and woodlands, but now you don’t see much that is natural, and recently somebody on Surrey Council told me why, ‘You are living in a high density development area,’ he said, ‘and soon all those scruffy little open spaces around you will be filled with houses’. I felt obliged to enquire whether the locals had been asked if they wanted to live high density – and that turned out to be rhetorical, because what council officials like best are people who don’t ask troublesome questions; the conversation was over – tragically the poor man had been struck suddenly deaf.
I am British by birth and as most Canadians know, Brits have a reputation for whinging; we like to think we’re organizers, but whinging is what we do best. So, when I took my first outing from Surrey to Vancouver on the SkyTrain, it wasn’t long before I started whinging quietly to myself about the ugly sprawl of development flowing past my window and I didn’t feel entirely happy again until my feet hit Stanley Park – I love Hyde Park in London, Central Park in New York, almost any park you care to mention, but Stanley Park is easily the best, and although Vancouver is near the top of the list of most beautiful cities, it is the natural beauty of B.C. that makes this place so special. However, the Lower Mainland is changing; as you drive South out of Vancouver towards the U.S. border, it is impossible to miss the urban sprawl and it isn’t until you get into the U.S.A. that the countryside begins to open out. The lower mainland is filling up – it is impossible to ignore a rapidly expanding urbanisation as it pushes hard into diminishing pockets of agriculture. At this point I should say that I do see the irony of moving into an area and then moaning about development; with so may outsiders arriving, it is clear that we all need to live somewhere. There is though, an important consideration, the lower mainland has a unique beauty that once buried beneath development cannot so easily be re-instated, and for residents with a long family history, the changes are painful to witness. The creation and conservation of natural parks and reserves is essential because they represent environments that were once extensive across the area. The question is – are these places getting the respect they deserve? And the evidence suggests that probably, they are not.
I’ve spent my working life traveling to interesting places to film wildlife documentaries, but nothing compares with my present location; I live in suburbia, but am only a short walk from my local Canadian fish eagle’s nest, where I can take some really great pictures… not just a whinging Pom then, but one with a self-inflated sense of his ability.
Later in the year I will be only a short drive from the centre of Canadian fish eagle activity when the salmon are running. I know Americans call these birds ‘bald eagles’ and claim them as their own, but in the fall along local coastal areas and up the Fraser River and its tributaries this place will be bursting with eagles as they arrive in numbers to form the largest congregation of vertebrate predators anywhere in the world. Make no mistake these are Canadian fish eagles, and it might even be claimed that these impressive birds appear most at home in British Columbia. So, imagine my surprise, when early in 2014 I went walking through Surrey Lake Park and discovered that an adjoining woodland along the park’s eastern border was being ripped out by heavy machinery, a complete destruction worryingly close to the eagle’s nest. Surprisingly, nobody seemed bothered, apart from a few locals who were, and still are understandably upset because they live so close to the noise and destruction.
In all, a little short of 4.2 hectares of forest including valuable and fully mature trees were cleared from the site, and these are unlikely to show up on the Surrey tree loss figures for 2014. For me the changes were startling, only a few weeks earlier this had been a quiet farm, with woodland, streams, and paddocks of grazing ponies; suddenly the land had been scraped bare and its earth carted away by the truck load. Weeks passed, the area expanded, hardcore arrived to form a base along with the accompanying rumble of cement lorries. The disturbance was extreme and seemingly endless.
There was of course a notification of construction for local residents which some claim not to have received – in fairness at less than a page this might easily have been overlooked – it stated that preparations for BC Hydro’s new Fleetwood Substation at the south end of 156th street would be completed between January 17 and May 15 2014 with day shifts from 7.00am to 6.00p.m. and afternoon shifts from 7.00p.m. to 6.00a.m. – an odd sense of time, but technically this is still after noon. The development pushed on through August with trucks coming and going every few minutes through daylight hours, which was a pretty full on disturbance for both the locals and the parkland reserve. The troubling thing is, there never have been any signs posted to indicate what this development was for, potentially one of the biggest Hydro power sub-stations to be built in British Columbia. I thought it odd that BC Hydro should describe itself as a conservation powerhouse, but I soon realised that it wasn’t the sort of conservation that I was thinking of.
With a natural reticence for B.C. Hydro to get promotional on this site many people in the district are still unaware of the development, and those who are, often don’t know of its relationship to the ‘conservation powerhouse’. But now the natural world has been swept away and there is clearly nothing left to conserve, perhaps the company will take a more upfront approach to the site. There was a short article in a local paper that mentioned B.C. Hydro by name, but the story focused mostly on unhappy neighbors; there was a generous acknowledgement by one, that such developments have to go somewhere, but there were also clear concerns over the disruption and adverse effects upon the environment, particularly the birdlife and several endangered animal species.
A report from ‘AMEC Environment and Infrastructure’ was undertaken during 2013 which stated that ‘due to the time of year it wasn’t possible to conduct a bird nest survey’ which is odd because there were two site visits, one on 29th May when there should have been clear signs of birds nesting. Some locals say that red-tailed hawks nested in trees on the property and I certainly know of a pair that were present during the two previous years. The report also noted three species of conservation concern potentially on site: the red-listed and SARA schedule 1 listed ‘Endangered’ Pacific water shrew; the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Western Toad and the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Northern Red-legged Frog, with tadpoles present in one stream that may have been of the same species.
As a know it all Brit I am knowledgable about amphibians and noticed pictures in the report that showed both woodland and reedy areas along streams that were suitable for species known to exist in the adjoining park; creatures like the Pacific tree frog and long-toed salamander which few will ever see – and so it is sadly a case of out of sight out of mind, but there is a real issue here: if a suitable habitat bordering a small reserve disappears then the chances are that any species that can’t fly in will have a good chance of going the same way – an affliction common to island populations, and the reason why buffer zones and corridors beyond park boundaries are so essential to the diversity of small reserves.
On a recent visits to the park I am troubled by the additional noise, of a radio playing at high volume across a dyke close by the reserve – I am told, for the benefit of blueberry pickers. Passing joggers already have music plugged into their ears and they don’t notice. As for the rest, mostly people walking out to empty their dogs, they don’t notice either. At certain places on the reserve the din is so loud it drowns out bird song completely; birds sing for a reason that has nothing to do with increasing their berry picking speed, and everything to do with maintaining territories. Cognitive dissonance sets in and I begin to ask whether it really matters for 2014, because there are so few birds to be seen in the area, certainly far less than in previous years. Several locals have told me that before the development started, an attempt at netting was employed, but having established that this was illegal, bird wailers were installed that played distress calls to put birds off and deter them from nesting (both activities were against the advice of the environmental consultant). This appears to have worked though, because during this spring and summer there have been fewer birds in the adjoining Surrey Park and the nearby woodland reserve at Fleetwood.
The Hydro development at the lower end of 156 St lies in an agricultural zone, not far from another recent development which is also ongoing. A little over a year ago on this second site there was also a mature woodland, but this has now been replaced by large houses entirely out of keeping with their surroundings and it is difficult to understand why building consent was granted. Until recently this woodland was another essential buffer zone for the park and busy with wildlife; nothing natural remains there now, all has been replaced by housing with sterile new lawns kept green by water sprinklers that are not so good during a dry summer, but apparently there is no sign of a water shortage; although with the race on to fill Surrey with housing, there soon will be. With many more people living close to the nature park, there is likely to be extra pressures, with pollution from cars, noise from mowers and many more dog walkers with easy access to the park’s dog emptying facilities. If you can get away with taking out a woodland and building on this site, then you can get away with it almost anywhere.
Maybe it’s just bad timing, but on 22nd July a local paper ran a feature on Surrey’s latest ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’. Coun. Bruce Hayne said, “It’s time to focus our efforts on building our inventory of natural environment”, and, “It’s not good enough to protect the eagles bedroom, i.e. their nest. You have to protect their kitchen and dining room too!” A sound bite from Deb Jack, president of Surrey Environmental Partners, “What a legacy this is for the history books” is also contrary to the local reality. Surrey City Council claims to have adopted a green initiative that is expected to have an impact on the city’s ecosystems for decades. Well, better late than never I guess, but it is certainly too late to put things right for the biodiversity of Surrey Lake Park. In truth, there never was a need to implement a green initiative to conserve this area, everything was covered by existing planning laws; all that was necessary was to implement them. ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’ …It sounds impressive. I’m guessing there’s an election in the offing.
So, now that two extensive developments have been permitted at the bottom of 156 St, it won’t be long before all the other natural areas along the quiet lower end of the street are filled in. Penny Beck’s family have lived here for 40 years, they are the closest to the Hydro development and the residents most affected by the disturbance. ‘We still have that’ says Penny pointing to a tangled area of scrub and forest across from her house, ‘hummingbird habitat – the council know better than to spray with roundup while I’m still here’. Penny is a rarity, she has a practical understanding of what wildlife really needs, but the Beck’s family home is up for sale and when Penny goes, the hummingbird nesting site will disappear. Canadians are tidy people and their gardens don’t make great habitats for wildlife, and if all ‘the scruffy little wild spaces’ are built on there will be no more hummingbirds visiting local feeders because nesting sites won’t be available. I wonder how long it will be before the local Canadian fish eagle’s nest lies empty, to eventually fall from the tree, and with no eagles returning to rebuild, it can only be a matter of time before people forget that there were ever eagles here; just as they have forgotten that not so long ago a female black bear used to come and feed with her cubs in the local berry patch.
I can whinge as much as I like, but it isn’t my place to speak for the community. I believe that those with historical connections to the area need to have a say about their area, and then they need to remain vigilant over what might be lost, namely the natural wonders that are the true heritage of the Lower Mainland. To conserve the area something has to change, because presently, the essence that makes this corner of British Columbia so special is being given away – not just without a fight, but without a murmur.
N.B. A precedent has now been set. On 13 August a notice of proposed development was received by a resident at the lower end of 156 St, informing of an application to the Surrey Planning Department for the rezoning of a nearby area of woodland and scrub from “General Agricultural Zone (A-1)” to “Comprehensive Development Zone (CD)” to permit the development of 46 family lots with 16% open space (great news – only small lawns to water then!), and the planning staff won’t be making any written responses to comments. The notice appears insensitive to local feeling, even a little arrogant perhaps, but above all it seems unCanadian. If globalisation goes belly up, we might all need to grow our own food locally and serious questions need to be asked about the persistent development of agricultural land. In the end of course, the local planning department might just do the sensible thing and say no, but I’m not holding my breath.
A local resident informs me that the native Douglas squirrel has not been seen so readily since the development. For a short sequence on the squirrel view :-
Pictures don't just tell stories – they change the world