A damaged planet is normal now

In June 2018, I drove a rental car four hours into the central wilds of Vancouver Island, searching for a single gigantic tree. Stories of this arboreal titan came to me from locals who, at least on the surface, weren’t all that excited or impressed that I was going out of my way to find it, just as a Maritimer might scoff at tourists eager to see the ocean. Who cares about one more giant tree, they seemed to say.
But for an Easterner like me, giant trees could only be found online, certainly not in Ontario’s farm belt where I’d grown up or in Atlantic Canada, where every stretch of forest has been clearcut and burned several times over. This was going to be a big moment for me, so I rented the car.
I found my tree early that afternoon, tucked away in the single most spectacular forest I have ever traversed: its average tree twice the height of anything in the Maritimes and its biodiversity, from canopy heights to luscious understory, staggered me. Mats of lichen and moss hung off every branch, most larger than the blankets covering my hotel bed, and the thickness of vegetation imposed a blunt, peaceful silence on the entire scene, broken only by songbirds. The trail was short, and I was already overwhelmed.
The tree I’d come to see (the Harris Creek Spruce) came into view slowly. Turning a woody corner, the width of its trunk just grew and grew and grew, vanishing into the canopy above and widening in great, sweeping leaps against the ground. I was completely alone and thank goodness, because when I reached its base I fell to my knees and began to weep.
Did I suffer this reaction because I’m a hopeless hippie whose never seen a tree I didn’t embrace? No. In fact I’m not prone to tears, but that afternoon I collided head-on with a psychological phenomena I was unprepared for, perhaps one of the most deceptive and dangerous mental quirks facing our species: shifting baseline syndrome.
The amount of damage we’ve done to our planet, even here in Canada, is tragic. The trouble is that we humans learn what to perceive as “normal,” “natural,” “beautiful,” or “healthy” in childhood, like the diversity and size of the fish we recover from the ocean.
What you might perceive as a magnificent trophy fish today would look pathetic to our parents or grandparents, who fished these waters when they were still relatively intact. Every generation deals its share of damage to our planet, and the next grows up thinking this damage is normal. Hence, shifting baselines.
Fires and forestry have hammered the Acadian forests of eastern North America for centuries, and photographs from the olden days are wild, and rare. The oldest Eastern hemlock I’ve seen personally was a little over 400 years old, the tallest about 30 metres and the largest was four metres in circumference.
The Harris Creek Spruce, by contrast, is 80 metres tall, 12.4 metres in circumference and ancient. The people of Vancouver Island are less impressed because they still have giant trees, but in anther couple decades of catastrophic logging they will be like us Nova Scotians, disbelieving that anything so mighty every occupied their coast, or having forgotten altogether.
This syndrome has been documented across North America in a variety of natural settings. For example, some estimates are that our eastern coastal waters has lost 97% of its biomass (the combined weight of all its organisms) since written records began, and yet modern fishers marvel at the scraps they’re able to haul in, chiefly lobster.
Show them the ocean before Europeans, so thick with Atlantic cod that you could walk on their backs, and I bet they’d weep as readily as I did at the base of the Harris Creek Spruce, at once blessed with such a sight and devastated to know it was destroyed before their birth.
When I visited Vancouver Island, I also admired the reintroduced Plains bison of Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, gawking at five or six of these beasts when once they moved through this landscape by the millions.
In Southern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park I saw the Carolinian forests which, generations previous, had covered my farm belt hometown a little ways north, seeming to me like an amazon jungle with glorious trees entangled in endless networks of vines, the birds so dense it took no effort at all to fill out my life list.
We humans, and we Canadians, are poorly equipped to appreciate the long-term destruction we’re imposing on the natural world. At one time much of Nova Scotia was covered in old growth forest, perhaps not as mighty as the titans of the west but nevertheless colossal compared to our present mess, lacking entirely in maturity or diversity.
We used to host herds of Woodland caribou here, Eastern wolves, Canadian lynx, Atlantic walrus, Great auks on our shores and so many Passenger Pigeons in our skies that they would blot out the sun for hours at a time. Imagine for a moment what that must have looked like, and you may understand why I fell to my knees last June.
If we, and the biodiversity we depend on, are to survive this century, shifting baseline syndrome must be overcome, so we can comprehend the changes we’ve imposed on our home in their entirety. My personal efforts have involved a reading list longer than my arm and adventures into the most pristine places this province has to offer. There is no single place in Nova Scotia as flawless or genuine as it was 500 years ago, but some get close, and they can open your eyes just enough to allow enlightenment.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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