Land and Nature

Canadians relate closely to freedoms and democracy, quality of life, caring for others and multicultural tolerance and have long viewed environmental issues as a major public concern, according to surveys of our values. National Parks are one of the often cited symbols of Canada. We are proud of the abundance of nature in Canada, yet we have been slow to establish national celebrations of the great natural world we inhabit.

Cultures are defined by traditions, protocols, and ethics reflected in such endeavours as the arts, cuisine, literature, music, language, legends, philosophy, religion, and science. In a Nature Culture, the natural world would be a guiding influence in these endeavours. A compelling reason to adopt a Nature Culture is the discovery of the health and childhood development benefits nature provides. You can read more about the strength of these connections in a review paper by Paul Sandifer and his co-authors. Cecilly Maller and her coauthors call for a rethink of how we design cities because of potential cost savings derived from nature. They wrote “This approach [nature connection] offers not only an augmentation of existing health promotion and prevention activities, but provides the basis for a socio-ecological approach to public health that incorporates environmental sustainability”.

These conclusions are beginning to shed a new light on the role of land conservation. For over a century now, conservation in North America has focussed largely on saving species and habitats. The approach varied on how much human activity was tolerated, but the philosophy remained firmly on the priority of preservation of nature. There was good reason to do so for imperilled species and ecosystems and where species were sensitive in their lifecycle such as at nursery and migration areas. Although conservation activities often spoke to the importance of nature to people, nature was seldom viewed as essential to the society. Despite environment being an ongoing concern, Canadians gave only about 2% of total donations to environmental causes, according to Charity Intelligence Canada. The evidence for benefits from nature to humans alone should be a rallying call for conservation.

In a Nature Culture, the preservation of species and habitats becomes part of the cultural fabric. Sustainability is vital to the continuity of the culture. The loss of nature in a Nature Culture takes on special meaning because not only are species and their habitats lost but the culture too. The Nature Culture focus shifts from preservation for nature’s sake to preservation of nature for the sake of the culture.

This difference might seem academic but in practice, it is anything but moot. In a Nature Culture, some places would justifiably remain off limits or have limited human access in order to sustain species or ecosystems. Other protected areas might provide for human use with certain caveats to ensure sustainability. Several conservation applications fit this premise. British Columbia’s Ecological Reserves program restricts access to reserves to preserve representative species and ecosystems. Parks fit the example of areas with limited human activities and they allude to a cultural connection. For example, Canada’s National Park’s web site says:

National parks protect natural environments representative of Canada’s natural heritage. ….Each provides a haven, not only for plants and animals, but also for the human spirit.” The goal is to “establish a system of national parks that represents each of Canada’s distinct natural regions.”

Although there is recognition of humans, there remains a need to connect people with nature as an element of Canadian culture.

If this sounds a lot like what some indigenous people have being saying for a long time, you are correct. Not that long ago, all human societies were closely associated with nature.

Living in Canada with its abundance of nature provides an opportunity for a testing ground to use our science and technology to sustain nature as a foundation of a culture. There is also potential economic growth in nature activities.

There is a germ of a Nature Culture connected to the land already in place in Canada. Where I live in British Columbia Bird Week, the Meadowlark Festival, Brant Festival, Adams River Salmon Run, and Wings over the Rockies are a few examples of opportunities to learn about nature. The Squamish Eagle Festival is especially interesting because of the breadth of the cultural events associated with the return of the eagles. All of these events could be underpinnings of a Nature Culture if they became traditions.




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The Perfect State

Our film, The Perfect State is now finished and available for viewing. You can find the trailer and events at the web site. The film is about reconnecting with nature which was also a theme at the second annual Active Pass Festival held on Galiano Island last weekend. Along with a plethora of events celebrating nature, the arts, science and the people inspired by the natural world, was a banquet of local food. Over 100 people attended the dinner where I spoke on Nature Culture.

I especially like the Active Pass Festival for its focus on Nature Culture and the enthusiasm of islanders to participate in events. The organizers did a great job in putting on a good program and assisting people to get to the venues. Galiano Island is only a ferry ride from Vancouver. Next year, the festival returns to Mayne Island on the opposite shore of Active Pass. I hope to see you there.

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Join Nature Culture at Hollyhock


This summer, I will be holding a workshop from June 29 to July 3 at Hollyhock on lovely Cortes Island. Hollyhock is situated at the northern end of the Salish Sea northwest of Vancouver British Columbia. I have a particular affinity to this part of the world because it is where I began my biologist career.

My summer job in 1967 was to search for grouse in the mountains of Vancouver Island overlooking Cortes island and the Discovery Islands. I was set loose with a Brittany spaniel to locate grouse that wore plastic colour bands previously attached to their legs by graduate students. Nowadays, biologists can use radio transmitters to locate and follow birds but in ’60s, the technique was to search for them with the help of a dog. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but one of my dreams would soon come true.

On a whim and after a summer of traipsing over hill and dale, I made an overnight trip to a small island in the northern Strait of Georgia a few miles south of Cortes. Mitlenatch Island was a seabird nesting island that instantly took hold of me. The island would come to play an instrumental role in my career. (If you click on the above link, you will see a video shot by our foundation embedded in the web page).

Three years later, in 1970 I was hired by BC Parks as a park naturalist on Mitlenatch Island and in 1973 my wife and I were both hired as park naturalists. It seemed like threes had some significance because in 1976 I began to study crows toward a Master of Science degree.

In 2013 (there is that three again!), I returned to Mitlenatch during an expedition around the Salish Sea to produce a film we called The Perfect State. I will show the film during the workshop. The film is based on the Nature Culture theme.

The workshop is aimed at develop traditions and ways of life connected to nature. For many people, nature is foreign so I thought the best way to proceed was to experience nature directly. From my two decades of tours to Haida Gwaii, the Great Bear Rainforest, and Alaska, I know that spending time in nature is far more inspiring  than talking about it. We will rise early to hear the dawn chorus of songbirds. The chorus begins at first light and hits full voice near sunrise. We will also do some bird watching.  The low tide on Saturday looks promising for a discovery of sealife. The waters stream around the north and south ends of Vancouver Island to meet south of Cortes. The outcome is an abundance of marine life. Participants will be able to see many of the animals in the intertidal up close. In addition to learning the names of the birds and marine life, I will explain the ecological world they inhabit. The story of the interactions of living creatures is as interesting than the animals themselves.

I am hoping that all of us, including me, will take away new ideas of how to grow a Nature Culture. We will explore ideas of what we can do as individuals to build a new pact with nature. But I also look forward to discussions on what cities, governments and businesses can do. Did I say we will do some drawing and painting? I am a Signature Member of Artists for Conservation and I want to show you how easy and fun its is to sketch during your excursions. I am working on some other ideas to add to the mix and once confirmed, I will let you know. Of course all of these events take place at the beautiful Hollyhock retreat. You can read more, see an on line brochure and register at or by calling 1-800-933-6339 x 232. There are also scholarships available. You can also follow these blogs where I will post more information, attend my events or contact me at my web site.

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Nature in the City


I attended the 11th annual Eagle Festival in Campbell River last weekend along with hundreds of people. The event sponsored by Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society showcased the many local organizations in their region. The individuals from the largely voluntary organizations, shared a common desire to preserve and restore the environment. In the past, this sentiment was held by a small fringe group but today the view has entered the mainstream. This issue was apparent in my discussion with Mayor Andy Adams and Karen Adams. Mayor Adams explained how the city of Campbell River has embarked on restoring parts of its shoreline to allow a more natural shore to recover and plans were underway to plant trees to increase canopy cover. These are important steps and what impressed me was their pride in telling me their plans. Campbell River is one of several other municipalities and cities that are getting on the green band wagon. The plans also reflect a broader desire of the electorate for a greener cityscape.

Over 45 years ago, I began my biological career in the mountains above Campbell River tracking and recording the movements of grouse as a UBC summer field researcher. I travelled often to Campbell River to get supplies. In those years, Campbell River was a fishing and logging town famous for the huge salmon pulled from the waters and massive trees trucked out of the forest. Campbell River is also well known among the fishing and conservation crowd as the home of conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown who lived along the Campbell River. He wrote several classic books about fishing and was an early Board member of The Nature Trust of British Columbia. The Trust has purchased several key parcels of land in the region and supported the Brant Festival. Incidentally, I am a volunteer Board member of The Nature Trust and will be speaking at the Brant Festival on April 7.

What will be next once all the green infrastructure is in place? My hope is that events like the Eagle Festival and Brant Festival become traditions that involve all aspects of the community in a grand celebration of nature. Nature Culture is all about sustaining nature and the livelihoods as a uniquely west coast flavoured culture. We can encourage a Nature Culture by attending nature festivals, encouraging local governments to build green infrastructure, and by purchasing sustainable products.

Vancouver is renowned for its green policy and with it has come expectations of leadership. Smaller communities like Campbell River do not get the same recognition partly because of their size but each community contributes to the region’s ecological sustainability. Ecosystems often operate at scales much larger than cities. The greening of cities will require collaboration toward a shared vision that goes beyond city boundaries.

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Nature for a New Year

I am interested in nature inspired creative works and for the start of 2016, I thought I would share a story about bird song. It will be several months before most birds will begin to sing but you can hear bird-song inspired compositions at composer Peter Cowdrey and musician Liz Cowdrey’s web site Conference of Birds. I was intrigued by how the Cowdreys connected bird song to a broader cultural experience. Nature inspired music has been around for a long time but always within another cultural paradigm. The example of the Cowdreys indicates that nature inspired works are well underway. What is missing is a broader cultural tent beneath which these works can reside.

A goal of a Nature Culture is nature sustained by cultural tradition. Put simply, without nature there is no Nature Culture. Over the coming months, I will write more on this subject but to start a new year, a resolution seems timely to take the first steps toward a more sustainable lifestyle at home.

To get you started, consider doing a personal audit of what you use and see where you can make adjustments towards a more sustainable lifestyle. List all the things you buy and use – food, clothing, transportation, cleaning products, water, air, home heating etc. For each one, examine if the way it is made or harvested is sustainable. You will discover that some things are easy to change while others are more difficult or you might be unwilling to change. Make the easy changes on your next shopping visit and consider how you might tackle the more difficult tasks. The choice of things we buy is one way to encourage sustainable products and there are many sustainable products now available.

 Whether you choose to do a personal audit or not, you might want to start a tradition among family and friends where you celebrate nature where you live. Food is a traditional way to celebrate events and a place to explore how much food comes from sustained practices. Sustainable food makes an interesting dinner conversation especially when it is pot luck. The Pacific WildLife Foundation holds a pot luck each year with lots of surprises in store. Our family has held several of these feasts and the the theme was first used by The Nature Trust of BC dinner at the Deep Bay Field Station a few years ago. The Active Pass Art and Nature Festival also had a local dinner where I spoke about Nature Culture. I will be speaking about Nature Culture at the 2016 Active Pass Art and Nature Festival on Galiano at the end of April and holding a workshop at Hollyhock from June 29 to July 3.

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What is Nature Culture?


A Nature Culture sustains nature as a fundamental part of its traditions, customs, livelihoods and beliefs. Nature Culture encompasses the need for sustainable lifestyles by creating a demand for products as part of the culture. It also provides a philosophy for innovation, technology, arts and science.

One reason why a Nature Culture has merits is the benefits accrued from nature.

There is a legion of studies that make a plausible case that nature provides benefits to our physical and emotional health and childhood development. I suggest you read Paul Sandifer and co-authors’ review. The strength of the studies they reviewed was sufficient for Sandifer and others to conclude that nature derived benefits were likely although the mechanisms were not well understood. The British Ecological Society has done a nice job of summarizing this discussion.

Many cities are adopting aspects of a Nature Culture; Vancouver , Bristol and Oslo are a few examples. ‘Greening’ cities and they way we live is an important step in moving toward sustainable lifestyles. A Nature Culture exhibits appreciation of sustained nature in celebrations and traditions.

I can imagine regional responses emerging rooted in local nature that comes to define the region. A cultural response is typically expressed through local arts, but I imagine Nature Culture to encompass fields such as science, innovation, technology, and traditional celebrations. One of the most exciting aspects will be to see how the imaginations of people from all backgrounds express a Nature Culture.

You might be asking how to get involved? Start with an audit of your lifestyle to see where you might make changes to a more sustained world. The exercise is often illuminating. It will show you the easy and not-so-easy things you might change. For example, look where your food comes from, how you travel, how you heat or cool your home, the clothes you buy, and the products you use around your home. Whether you choose to change your habits or not is your choice, and the exercise will be good food for thought around your next dinner party.

Speaking of dinner parties, our family holds what we call a First Day Feast each January 1 using entirely local food. We have held four feasts so far with few repeat dishes. What surprised us was how much local food was available. This might not be the situation where you live but the fun is exploring what is available. You might decide to put away food when in season for a later feast.

First Day Feast was a way for our family to learn where food comes from in our region and a means to support local producers. We look for products that are harvested sustainably. In our small way, the First Day Feast has become part of our family tradition that has at is core some of the fundamentals of a Nature Culture.

The First Day Feast concept became a community event in 2015. The first Active Pass Nature and Arts Festival on Mayne Island, British Columbia last year held a gala dinner using foods largely sourced from local islands. The organizers intentionally asked for local sourced food to coincide with a presentation I did on the concept of Nature Culture. The event was a sold out success but more importantly it showed that the First Day Feast concept could be expanded into a community event. I will be speaking at the festival again in April 2016.

One way to get closer to nature is to go for a walk in a green space near to where you live. Make it a regular event. After a while you will become aware of the changes in your area over the seasons. Learn the names of a few plants and animals. Once you feel comfortable on your walks, consider exploring new places eventually aiming for wilderness areas. You might join a club to build on your new confidence. In British Columbia contact BC Nature to find a club near you, and if you have young children, contact Nature Kids.










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Young children dream about many things and for me it was to paddle a canoe into the wilderness of Canada. I read John Rowlands ‘Cache Lake Country – Portage to Contentment’ as a boy and I was hooked. There was something very Canadian about canoeing. Several years ago, I bought a wood and canvas Chestnut canoe. The classic canoe still has the original decal on its bow. All that I needed was an excuse to get to Algonquin.

Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario is the heart of canoe country. The park has many lakes connected by marked portages and campsites where canoeists can set off for a day or for weeks.

The opportunity arose when my cousin – who had canoed much of his adult life – invited me to join him on a trip to Algonquin in October. To get in the right mood, my wife bought me a copy of Roy MacGregor’s ‘Canoe Country’ that speaks to the Canadian connection to the canoe. I read much of it on the flight to Ontario.

I arrived in Ottawa where I spent a few hours looking over Tom Thomson’s paintings from Algonquin. The centenary of his death is coming up in 2017. I wanted to visit a few places where he canoed and painted iconic images to see how it had changed and to get a sense of the land.

Our visit was planned to coincide with sunny weather and I had hoped, the changing autumn leaves. The former prevailed but the leaves were only beginning to change. My cousin taught me to paddle properly and how to portage.

I brought along a few post cards of Thomson’s paintings to match up with a location shown on a map of the park. I think it is an open question if the location is correct, at least to my eye.

What struck me was how nature has infused the Canadian culture through the thousands of children and adults who have fond memories thanks to the canoe and artists who have been drawn to the wilderness. There is much to be gained from nature if we can find a way to let it become part of the culture for everyone.

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