Share | | More

Monday, December 13, 2010

Victories in the context of centuries

Last week was a good week for groups working on oceans issues in B.C. The House of Commons voted in support of a legislative ban on tankers on B.C.'s North Coast, Justice Bruce Cohen ordered the release of 10 years' worth of salmon health records for 120 salmon farms, and a Federal Court judge ruled that DFO has failed to meet its responsibility, under the Species At Risk Act, to protect the critical habitat of B.C.'s resident killer whales.

So, good news, right? High-fives all around! 

But let's take a step back. It was a good week and those are all very important steps, but even a good week needs to be viewed in context. And around here, on the Pacific coast, few things can put our day-to-day actions into context like some long-forgotten sticks in the mud. 
"Ozymandias", by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away". 
About halfway up Vancouver Island, in Courtenay, B.C., there are some stakes driven into the mud of an estuary. (See an image of the stakes here). They're visible at lower tides, and there are plenty of them - over 150,000, in fact. They're remnants of fish traps used by First Nations people, and some of them are ancient; the oldest to be identified so far was driven into the estuary approximately 1,400 years ago. Some, however, are quite new, with the youngest stake having been driven within the last 200 years. Thanks to the dedicated work of a wife-and-husband team and a host of individual donors, the history and significance of these 'sticks in the mud' are being brought to light.

These stakes make humble messengers, but they carry a profound message in the span of time that they encompass. They offer silent testimony to the sustainability of a way of life, a sustainability that was so complete that its practitioners were apparently able to stay in the same physical location for over 1,000 years. The owners of those wooden stakes fished in such a way that they did not have to change their fishing gears, or their fishing location, for centuries.

Those stakes, then, are the anti-Ozymandius. They are humble remnants that testify not to the pathetic hubris of a long-forgotten people nor to the inevitable victory of nature over human aspiration, but to centuries of success found by existing with and within nature.

And then there's us. Mighty modern humans: a global society, superior in our information and material capabilities to any society that has come before. We undoubtedly have access to more information than the ancient owners of those stakes, and therefore it seems that we should be able to create systems that are no less sustainable than theirs. After all, we have vast industries dedicated to the collection and interpretation of data and to the training of individuals to carry out such activities in every corner of the globe. But what is the sum? We now deploy ever-more powerful fishing vessels across every wet place in the ocean, and we now decide the fate of legendary fish species behind closed doors. Perhaps our information and our specialists are so finely tuned that fisheries won't experience a global collapse in the next few decades, but be that as it may, certainly nobody can honestly believe that the modern way of taking fish from the sea will be maintained for the next 1,000 years.

And that brings us back to the stakes, and their message.

Down near Courtenay it'll be low tide at 6:30 pm tonight. Maybe it'll be a clear night, and if it is, the stars will shine down on those stakes as they have for centuries. I won't be there and you probably won't either, but we can both imagine. Imagine the most ancient among those stakes, a simple muddy piece of wood, put into place by human hands over ten centuries ago, or even earlier. We can see it emerging from the tide, silently, the water running past it on both sides. And finally, there it is: just a lowly stick in the mud, a humble starlit wooden nub. But what a message it sends! A message that effortlessly sails across the void of centuries, a simple and direct cord from ghostly ancients to us, the mightiest of all, and I think that in its message that little wooden nub may smash the controls of every industrial fishing vessel and scramble the equations of every fisheries scientist and tie the tongue of every environmentalist, because the only message that I can make out is: 

 "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"


  1. Please consider submitting this to the Carnival of the Blue. It was a great post. Thanks.

    Submission form:

  2. Thanks very much, Jason, and will do.