It was one of those absolutely gorgeous, early autumn days in 2020, here in my home village of Hillsdale, Ontario, Canada. The type of day where the people who have developed an intolerance to winter would say, “Boy it would be nice if it would stayed this way all winter.” I just got home from walking back from my crossing guard duties and was puttering around in the front pollinator gardens when I heard a very foreign, unique sound that caught my attention.
It was my good neighbour and friend Paul O’Hallarn pulling up with his beautiful 1929 Model A Ford. This little man steps out of his car with a smile that seems to reach ear to ear. It is easy to see he is in his “happy place” whenever he gets behind the wheel of his car. Although this car was fairly complete when Paul purchased it, he is putting the finishing touches on it. One of those things is finishing the wiring and electrical system. Paul O’Hallarn reminds me so much of my Uncle Don, who also loved to repair and restore cars and other items.
In a throw away society, Paul will often repair items that have become broken, rather than throwing it out. Newer isn’t always better. And it uses an incredible amount of resources to manufacture and ship new products. Some other items that Paul has repaired/renewed/restored is his Ford tractor and a 1928 Essex car. The more stuff that can be repaired instead of throwing it away and buying another one, the better it is for our planet.
Another area that Paul is really passionate about is collecting cans and bottles, and donating the proceeds to charity. His favorite charity is the Ontario Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA). He has a big container at the end of his driveway where people drop off their empty cans and bottles. If the can or bottle is refundable, Paul will return it for a refund. Non refundable pop cans, Paul will crush the cans. When he has enough for a trip, he will deliver them to a local metal recycler. It is weighed and Paul is paid for the value of the scrap aluminum and steel. Paul mentioned that the OSPCA receives no government funding. So every bit helps. Since 2013 Paul has donated over $6,500 from the proceeds of his can and bottle collecting, mostly to OSPCA, and some to the Seeing Eye Dog Foundation. He also mentioned that it is so important to keep busy with something to do in his retirement. But the real winner is the environment.
There is no long distance travel allowed these days with the pandemic. But we can travel virtually (and it is much cheaper). So let’s go out to mile 300 on the Alaska Highway, to a small resource driven town town called Fort Nelson, British Columbia. And let me introduce you to my blogging/Twitter, forester, running friend Angie White. Interesting enough, there is a connection between Angie White and Paul O’Hallarn, who supports the SPCA. Angie has a rescue dog named Kobi, and together the two of them go out “Plogging”. This fancy word comes from “picking up litter while jogging”. Even somewhere as remote and beautiful as Northern B.C where Angie and Kobi are located, people still litter by using the earth as a waste basket. As a fellow trail runner, Angie directs a local grass roots race in the mountains called “Summit Run-It”. In 2019 the event drew just under 100 people. In 2020 with COVID, where she was located, she was able to hold the event but at 50 max (including volunteers). With significant protocols in place. It is a wonderful way to bring people close to nature. Angie and her husband make the medals themselves from locally sourced alder or birch.
Like myself, Angie has been picking litter for years. She mentioned, “Years and years ago there was a small informal running group and we’d do roadside clean up on some of the running routes we ran on”. So much has changed there. Ten years ago the mill shut down. With the natural gas industry slowing down, this once boom town has taken a major downturn. With people moving away, Angie has lost all the plogging help she used to have. But she still faithfully does it alone. Angie shared with me that there is a stigma attached to it. I totally agree. It could be an association with paid prison inmates in the United States known as Inmate Road Squads who go out to clean up litter. I honestly don’t know. For myself, it is the weirdest feeling when I pick litter. Drivers will just stare going by. Others will gun up their engines as they drive by me. I don’t understand it. But it is what it is.
I told Angie, I’m really not a plogger, because I am stopping to pick up litter every three or four feet where I am. She assured me that I still am. In 2020, I never went out at all litter picking. With COVID, every week there seemed to be a new update, so it was hard determining what was safe, and what was not safe to do. In May 2021, a couple of weeks after my first vaccination I went back out. There was just so much litter. It has been really overwhelming. I’ve been getting a large garbage bag of litter from every 200 to 300 feet of road. That is just on the two municipal roads leading into my village. The Provincial Highway I know is much worse. So I don’t bother with that road at all.
Sometimes my plogging friends around the world will share on Twitter what they find on their rounds. There is still always lots of the single use cans and bottles. And lots of plastic, take out containers, junk food wrappers and toxic to wildlife cigarette butts. In a semi-sort from 300 feet of road just on the edge of Hillsdale that filled a large bag, there was several masks. Something I never encountered pre-pandemic, masks are now thrown out as litter. Now they are everywhere. As well as plastic dog poo bags left behind with the poo in it. Why even own a dog? In the garbage bag there was some butane fuel and lace women’s undies. Even someone’s soggy stash of nasty porn in a black plastic bag.
As frustrating as littering is, what I really struggle seeing is the illegal dumpling that regularly goes on. This is a common occurrence in our beautiful county forests. This past early spring, there was an extensive illegal dumping just outside of my village along one of the roads I go plogging. It was thrown over a steep bank, and the only way to notice it was if you were on foot. It was just too big a task for me to individually clean up. I ended up contacting the family of the owners. They I understand in turn contacted the township, who sent a crew to clean things up.
On a municipal road on the other side of my village (where I also go plogging), someone had dumped what appears to be gallons and gallons of used motor oil on the grass at the edge of the road. Which ran into the ditch where water runs nearly all year round. This took place in our designated safe water area, in the vicinity where our water wells are located for the water supply for our village. The dumping took place 300 feet from a sign which read, “Drinking Water Protection Zone”. These areas with the signage are known as Wellhead Protection Areas. The British Columbia Used Oil Management Association mentions that one liter of used motor oil can contaminate one million liters of water.
On that same stretch of road, not far from where the oil dumping there is a printer discarded just in the woods off the side of the road. The person who dumped it would have had to carry it through the deep ditch to hide it in the woods on the other side. What makes this very ironic is that living nearby (10 houses away) is a gentleman named Paul Ricci who will gladly take for free any unwanted, old electronic waste, so it can be properly disposed of. Paul has a drop off container at the end of the driveway of his beautiful nature paradise. When he gets enough for a load, he’ll deliver it to a proper electronic waste disposal site. Paul and his partner Anelora have such a passion for the protection of our planet.
Except for the year 2020, I’ve been picking up litter for the 30 years I have lived in Hillsdale. It can get lonely and disheartening. To help cope I gravitate to others who care for our planet. It is just too overwhelming to do this alone. We need to join together. When I see Angie White on Twitter faithfully plogging with her rescue dog Kobi in Northern British Columbia, I am a bit encouraged. Or having a chat with my wonderful neighbour Paul Ricci about how important it is we care for our planet, I know I am not alone. It doesn’t make me any less sad. It does however offer solidarity and hope.
Last year in 2020, Yale University ran what is known as the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Using 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, the EPI ranks 180 countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Those 11 categories are air quality, sanitation & drinking water, heavy metals, waste management, biodiversity, ecosystem services, fisheries, climate change, pollution emissions, agriculture and water resources. In a 3 way tie with Italy and Czech Republic, Canada came in 20th out of 180 countries.
The top 11 countries were all from Europe. The 3 countries that led the world were Denmark in 1st place, Luxemburg in 2nd place and Switzerland in 3rd place. I asked my Swiss ultrarunner friend Catrina Denker on some of the reasons that why Switzerland is standing on the podium as an environmental champion,
The first thing Catrina mentioned is that “People do not litter in Switzerland. Yes, it is as pristine and beautiful as those postcards depict. People there take great pride in their country. Their waste system is quite sophisticated: trash bags are taxed and thus quite expensive. This means that people are motivated to reduce waste as much as possible by recycling. Thanks to this strategy, recycling has doubled over the last 20 years. Their recycling rate is 52.7%. Switzerland is one of the top recycling countries in the world”. Despite having a formal curbside recycling program in place, Canada in comparison recycles only 27% of the waste it creates.
Switzerland ranks 2nd in the world in standard of living, compared to 21st place in Canada. From World Population Review, Standard of Living refers to “the level of wealth, comfort, necessities, and material goods available to a particular geographic area”. You would think with such a high standard of living in Switzerland, there would be a high demand for the building of those supersize homes. They don’t. Swiss people have a totally different mindset. They don’t care about that obsession with excess like Canada has. The area in which I live is continuing to be built up with gigantic, multiple thousand square foot homes with multiple car garages. Our vehicles on our roads are often huge, carry all the comforts of home with them. They are like floating living rooms. Many times (depending on the vehicle) they are driving around with 4 or 5 or 6 empty seats.
Catrina and her husband Kai are professionals who live in an apartment that is 45 square meters (484 square feet). She told me this is plenty of room. They have been able to host up to 12 people in their apartment. Catrina mentioned, “On average, a Swiss person uses 46sqm as living space. Because of the mountains, most of the inhabitants live in the Swiss midlands, which is densely populated. Land for real estate is very expensive. In the cities, people live in apartment buildings like we do. Overall, only 28% of Switzerland live in single-family houses”. Catrina mentioned that she and Kai don’t have a car in Switzerland, as it is easy to get around with public transportation (trams, trains, buses). Kai and Catrina usually use their bike to get to places in the city. When they both were employed, Kai walked to work and Catrina biked. If they do need a car, they use a car-sharing platform called “mobility”.
If Canada is ever to meet it’s Climate Objectives, it needs to adopt a Switzerland mindset. Filling our roads with electrified cars and trucks is not the answer. It is simply the same excess waste from a different energy source. Picture yourself if you can, going to the store for a 24 ounce loaf of bread with the new F-150 Lightning. You would literally be dragging along over 1,800 pounds of battery to achieve this. That same 1800 pound battery for a single F-150 Lightning could be split to power 300 e-bikes. For which the charging infrastructure already exists. Even more outlandish is the GMC Hummer EV Pickup, which is expected to weigh in at 9,046 pounds. As a country, Canada needs to do better. It needs to greatly improve it’s public transportation, which equates to less cars and trucks on the road. It needs a much more safer cycling infrastructure, so cyclists don’t feel like they are taking their life in their hands each time they go out riding.
I love cycling so much. But I have had so many close calls with either aggressive or distracted drivers, I am afraid to go out. This makes me very sad. To many people when I get on my bike, I’m no longer a father, a husband, a crossing guard, a neighbor, a lay pastor, or that strange guy picking up litter. I’m now a “cyclist”, a menace on the roads. In a car culture society like we have in Canada, to many drivers I am now the enemy. Often I just just want to go to Craighurst or Elmvale to get some groceries and keep my carbon footprint low to help our planet. A 2018 CBC article mentions that between 2010 and 2016, there were 131 cycling deaths in Ontario. Forty three per cent of those cyclists were killed by being mowed down from behind. There is no cycling infrastructure around my village at all. I wanted to know what it is like to cycle elsewhere, so I contacted Jesús Guevara, one of my favourite Twitter friends. He is such an encourager. Jesús lives in Mexico City, the 5th largest population centre in the world. It has a population of almost 22 million people. To put this in perspective, my province of Ontario is expected to reach 14 million by the end of 2021. Twenty four years ago, Jesús gave up his own car to lower his carbon footprint. For the past 24 years he has been using his bicycle for transportation in and around Mexico City.
Jesús responded to my query regarding cycling in Mexico City with this amazing answer. “With 4.7 million cars circulating daily, riding a bicycle in México City may seem like a risky act, but on the contrary, transporting yourself by bicycle in México City is an act of love to your community. Love for the health of others and love for your time by avoiding traffic jams and helping to improve the environment by not emitting air pollution when transporting you”. Simply put, our planet needs more people like Jesús Guevara.
In 1992, (5 years before Jesús gave up his car to lower his carbon footprint). the United Nations cited Mexico City as having the worse air quality in the world, with so much pollution that birds sometimes dropped dead in mid-flight. Along with pedestrians killed by cars at a rate per capita 3.5 times higher than Toronto, writer Ryan Anders Whitney from the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank looked at all the improvements taking place in Mexico City. Mexico City has deliberately moved from a city where it was nearly inconceivable to ride a bike to one that now leads bicycle planning in Latin America and beyond. Jesús mentioned to me, “There is still much to do but it has been improved. Currently there are 260 km of infrastructure to cycle around the city, not all the infrastructure has the necessary standard, but there has been a wide improvement.”
I was deeply encouraged with my interaction with Jesús. When I was in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2016 for my daughter’s graduation from teachers college I noticed the cycling infrastructure was amazing. Entrepreneurs were often using a cargo or utility bicycle as their work vehicle. Perhaps improvements will be made here in Canada as well. It has been said that humans on bikes move more efficiently than any other creature on earth. Our cities, towns and villages should not be built around car dependency. They need to be planned to be more livable and mitigate the negative consequences associated with automobile development. These include noise pollution, driving stress, obesity, discrimination, traffic deaths and injuries, expense, decline in small business, traffic congestion, social isolation, loss of valuable land to build more roads, wildlife deaths, pollution and the environment, and the effect on public health through air, soil and water pollution.
Even though I have not been cycling much, I still get out running, and also do lots of walking. In the first five months of 2021, I’ve covered just over 3,000 kilometers. This is all actually deliberate point A to point B walks and runs, and does not include daily routine “steps”. I see a lot of things on those personal powered journeys. Some things I see bring me so much joy. Like walking or running past the Birch Family Farm. Their farm which prides on its’ regenerative farming practices. Their farm reminds me so much of my own family farm growing up. Rotating crops, and incorporating cover crops such as alfalfa each year, which feeds the biology of the soil and sequesters atmospheric carbon. Because of the way it is grown, their GMO free market garden produce is the tastiest you will find anywhere. My final photo uploaded on this post (the following photo), taken on my morning walk, is of Mr. Birch on his simple, vintage farm tractor scuffling his sweet corn. This is the organic method for keeping weeds under control, when no toxic weed killers are used. It brought me much joy to see this on #WorldEnvironmentDay. Buying local, organic food does so much good for our health and the environment. Know where your food comes from. Please support local.
Other areas I walk by I become very pensive and sad. This is where I witness large scale industrial style monoculture farming taking place. When I took the bus down to Mexico in the fall of 2019 to help run sections for the Monarch Ultra, I saw vast amounts of land paved over, football field sized parking lots, and hundreds upon hundreds of continuous miles of monoculture style of farming. I wanted to witness what the Monarch butterfly faced on its’ migration to Mexico. I was deeply saddened.
Genetically modified “Roundup Ready crops” such as corn or soybeans are sprayed with glyphosate to kill off all plant life in an indiscriminate manner, including plants that are essential for the survival of many animals. Everything dies except for the genetically modified monoculture crop itself. Glyphosate has been designed to kill every plant that has not been genetically modified to cope with the chemical. In these massive fields, there is nothing left but corn or soybeans. You will have very few insects. If any. You will have very few birds. If any. You will have very few mammals that live on insects and birds. If any. Using huge amounts of this very effective weed killer, the entire ecosystem is destroyed.
A 2019 World Economic Forum article mentions our impeccably “perfect” monoculture lawns have the very same effect. Our one lawn might not seem like a big deal, but take multiple millions of them across Canada, and the total acreage of the combined sum is massive. In Canada, according to the David Suzuki Foundation our lawns produce no seed, nectar or fruit, yet it is North America’s largest irrigated “crop”. David Suzuki’s article mentioned that even if we convert 10% of our lawn into a pollinator garden or rewilding an area, it is a huge boost for the insect population and the natural world. The 2019 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report has listed biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse within the top 10 lists of Likelihood and Impact. it is one of the biggest threats facing mankind today. The report concluded: “Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.” In 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, which is under the United Nations umbrella) issued a report. Some of the different sentences that jumped out at me were, ” Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction over the next few decades. And current global response is insufficient. ‘Transformative Changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature”.
Our natural world has changed so much, even in my own lifetime. As a kid my dad used to pay me a dime to clean off with soap and warm water his windshield of his car of dead bugs. My dad didn’t drive very far, but it was something I did once or twice a week. There was that many bugs. Nowadays a person can drive thousands of miles, and easily go all season without having to do this. Slowly government policies are changing for the better. It actually took a classification in 2015 by the World Health Organization that stated that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen before any changes actually started to take place. Only now are countries finally beginning to ban the product. There are 20 countries now banning it. Other countries are in the process of phasing it out.
After decades of lobbying, in my province of Ontario the milkweed was finally removed from the Noxious Weed Act on April 11, 2014. This was a year after the Eastern Monarch reached its’ lowest numbers in recorded history of 20 million. Twenty years prior there was close to a billion Monarchs. This is a 97-98% decline in population numbers. So what does a Monarch butterfly require? It requires various nectar sources to feed from. With enough variety to last the entire season. The reward to humans is that when it feeds, it pollinates. It requires milkweed. The Monarch butterfly specifically lays its’ eggs on the milkweed plant. Depending on the weather, the eggs that are laid take 5 to 10 days to hatch. The hatchling caterpillar will then feed voraciously on that milkweed for approximately two weeks before metamorphosing into a chrysalis. Depending on the temperature, approximately two weeks after that, the fully developed monarch butterfly emerges. Please remember, from 2014 on, no longer would landowners who care for the environment be forced to eradicate milkweed, or face a hefty fine. It is now okay to plant milkweed.
This year a few residents in my village participated in what is known as “No Mow May”. In a society where there is a lot of obsession with lawns, it was refreshing to see those who put bees first, ahead of societal and social pressure of needing to keep a trimmed “weed” free lawn. Taking the risk of being marginalized by the neighbors, it was incredibly cool seeing these environmental radicals in action. These people rock. It was also a nice gesture of most municipalities (though not all), to wave the bylaw that lawns cannot be over a certain height during “No Mow May”. We can now actually feed the bees without receiving a fine. These municipal bylaws that deeply discourage biodiversity have around for decades. So it has been an extremely hard sell to try to encourage people to give their mower a rest for only a month. In early spring, nectar sources are very scarce, and the dandelion is one of the earliest sources of nectar. I loved walking or running past those few “No Mow May” lawns. Most days I planned my route for my walks or runs to check in on them. A quick stop each time revealed the lawns were alive and buzzing with happy bees. We desperately need our pollinators. I don’t know anyone who wants to eat only staple foods like soybean, wheat and rice (plants that don’t require insects for pollination), or corn (which is wind pollinated) the rest of their lives. But in terms of getting a healthy, varied diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, insect pollinators are absolutely key. If we lose our biodiversity, we’ll end up with huge amounts of malnutrition globally.
I have so much respect for people like Paul O’Hallarn, who can take an old beat up car and restore it to its’ former glory. It takes a lot of time, dedication and energy. I also have that same respect for those who can maintain a family car so it remains like new for decades. My wife’s grandfather and father were 2 such people. Her grandfather had special ordered and brought in brand new from England to New Zealand, a 1956 Austin Countryman van. Over the years, it was cared for and maintained impeccably. When my wife’s dad inherited the van he continued the tradition. When I went to New Zealand in 1988 to get married, the car was still the daily driver in a one car family. As this car was a special order from England, whether it was the only one like it (or one of a kind) in all New Zealand, I’m not sure. But it certainly turned heads wherever we went. Eventually Lynne’s dad sold their van to an Austin car collector who saw the beauty, rarity and value of the car, which was affectionately called Methuselah (named after the oldest person who lived on earth). He was going to add it to his private museum collection of Austin cars.
The analogy is this, if we drive a car carelessly, recklessly and to the ground, with little regard on caring for it, it will end up in the junk heap sooner than later. Then it is off to the dealership for another car. But, we just can’t do that with our planet earth. Our earth is one of a kind. We have to look after it. There is no planet B. Thank you for taking the time to read! Happy #WorldEnvironmentDay.🌎
All photos are my own except those sent to me or used with permission by Jesús Guevara, Angie White, Catrina Denker, Paul O’Hallarn, Lynne Wright, Alicia Freeborn and Paul Ricci.