Part inspiration, part desperation, a gathering called Speak to the Wild drew 60 people to Wells Gray Provincial Park recently for five days of discourse about a pressing issue — the decline and fall of wilderness.
Co-hosted by TRU and the Wells Gray world heritage committee, the event brought together an unusual mix of scientists, writers, activists and visual artists alarmed by a world that has nature in retreat.
They challenged themselves to find answers to perplexing global questions and to imagine narratives that might renew hope and bring a fresh sense of direction.
As naturalist Trevor Goward put it, reinforced by keynote speaker and poet Robert Bringhurst, they are not alone in their uneasiness with the status quo.
“Most of us feel something’s gone wrong with the way we relate to the wild,” Goward told participants as they assembled at Upper Clearwater Hall. “We have a sense we are living in a time very near the end of time.”
“A billion more people per decade, each one with machinery in tow, is much more than the world can bear,” said Bringhurst, a cultural historian.
“It’s a happening!” declared Tom Dickinson, TRU’s dean of science, recalling the spirit of the ’60s that helped shape many of those present. There were young scientists and activists on hand as well. Eighteen months in the making, Speak to the Wild represented the committee’s “dream team,” Dickinson said.
Daily, participants gathered for discussion before fanning out into the vast parklands — exploring canyon trails, visiting waterfalls, sharing stories — for inspiration.
The gathering was the centerpiece for a season of events designed to build interest in establishing the park as a UNESCO World Heritage site, yet it was much more. Gradually, the group was unified by a sense of purpose and a belief that this was seed of an ongoing collaboration.
“It was a wonderful success,” Goward said afterward. “By every measure, I was impressed. It exceeded my expectations. We came to some decision as to what we need to do to move forward with this.”
With the arrival on Friday of Robert Bateman, the committee will cap the season as the world-renowned painter and naturalist speaks publicly and takes young people on nature walks. He’ll also turn sod to mark the start of construction of TRU’s research and education centre.
Bateman, who has travelled the world and resided in B.C. through much of his career, is excited by the opportunity, partly because he has never been to Wells Gray before. More to the point, he has long been an outspoken advocate of the ideas discussed at Speak to the Wild.
Naturally, Bateman will talk about his painting when he speaks on Friday, 7 p.m. at Clearwater secondary school, a springboard for a broader discussion about humanity’s flagging relationship with the biosphere. It’s not endangered species, but children who are his primary concern.
“We are now confronting a juggernaut,” Bateman said on Monday from his storm-lashed home on Salt Spring Island. Too many people, but most especially, children, are spending too much time absorbed by electronic screens, he said.
“That’s just been in the last 15 years, and ever since the beginning of mankind the majority spread out for time out in nature. That’s now stopped.”
He paraphrased a Cowichan elder, who asked, “What kind of world are we leaving for our children?”
“What kind of children are we leaving for our world,” the artist wondered.
Sedentary lifestyle means this generation will have shorter lifespans than their forbearers. Without the bonds of experience, familiarity and knowledge of nature, how can they possibly understand, never mind address, the ecological imperative? How can they save the world that we have imperiled?
All is not lost. Hundreds of organizations are focused on the importance of realigning people with their natural environment, Bateman said. The Robert Bateman Centre, newly opened on Victoria harbour, could help foster those connections, strengthened by forging relations with people who continue to work within the natural world in traditional ways, such as hunters and fishermen, he suggested.
“I’ve never known more wonderful kids than those alive right now, who are using the Internet as a tool for worthy causes,” he said. “I’m scared about the majority, though.”
Saturday is Yorke Edwards Day in the park, an event honouring the biologist and naturalist instrumental in designing interpretation programs in B.C. parks, including Wells Gray where he first made his mark. Those programs have largely been axed through budget cuts.
“What is atrocious is that’s taking us in the opposite direction to what we’re trying to go,” Bateman said. “They should be augmented, not cancelled.”
Edwards (1926-2011) was a mentor to Bateman when the artist was a teen, chopping wood in Ontario’s Algonquin park.
Goward and his group are building on the momentum of Speak to the Wild, working on multiple levels. They plan to publish presentations from the gathering and to take the discussion to a national platform, lobbying for a land ethic to be enshrined in the Constitution. They also hope to raise awareness about the plight of mountain caribou, a species under threat.
“My feeling is that Canadians want to do better than we’re doing right now. Did you mean to give the government the power to change the face of the country forever? They may feel it’s the best way forward, but I don’t feel it in my life.”
Speak to the Wild was but a tentative first step.
“The time has come to institute some sort of right to a healthy environment and right to nature for the rest of the country so ecosystems can continue to function in perpetuity.”
* * *
WELLS GRAY WORLD HERITAGE YEAR
Final events scheduled for this weekend.
FRIDAY: Robert Bateman speaks at Clearwater secondary at 7 p.m. Tickets, $5 ($15 per family), can be reserved by calling 250-674-3334.
SATURDAY: Yorke Edwards Day, honouring the father of interpretation in B.C. parks. Starts at 9 a.m. at Upper Clearwater Community Hall, 26 km north of Clearwater. Lunch and dinner included for $35. Registration required. Call Trevor Goward at 250-674-2553 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.