Happy Easter

Although the spring equinox has come and gone, supposedly signalling the end of winter, you would not know it from the weather outside. We are in the last stages of an ice storm, a night of freezing rain and high winds having left roads icy and scattered full of downed branches. It is not a good day to be in the garden, but it is a good day to write a blog.

There was a full moon a week ago, one of those ‘super moons’ that looks brighter and larger than usual because it coincides with the perigee, when the orbit of the moon is closest to earth. These moons tend to have names; this was the Worm Moon, so called because the light is supposed to bring the earthworms to the surface of the newly unfrozen earth. The tides were extra strong that day, over 18 inches higher than normal, and that helped float the super-tanker which had managed to get itself stuck in the Suez Canal.

Here on the Island, we noticed the higher tides in the bay at Ellen’s Creek, but they weren’t strong enough to shift the old shopping cart that’s been stuck in the mud there for the past few months. It’s really only visible at low tide, sitting on a sandbank about three metres from the causeway. It must have been a very strong or cranky person who threw it there, unless (more likely) it was wheeled out one night during a winter storm, when the ice was strong enough to support its weight but there was nobody around to watch.

Today is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox, and therefore it is Easter Day. As you unwrap your chocolate eggs or prepare the leg of lamb for dinner tonight, please say a word of thanks to the Council of Nicaea, a group of men who met, in 325 A.D., in a small city near present-day Istanbul and established the rule which sets the date for Easter, much to the chagrin of those who can’t understand why their holiday weekend keeps moving, “why can’t they just fix a date like they do with all the others?”. I’m not sure who “they” are, no doubt the same people who will hopefully decide that there will be no more springing forward and falling back with the clocks, just a simple year-round time.

Today also marks the end of Lent, that period of 40 days (plus Sundays) that precedes Easter and commemorates the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness, getting tempted. It is traditional to give something up for Lent, although nowadays a lot of people try to add something to their lives instead. Rather that not eating French fries, or whatever, they try to do positive acts. One friend with whom I spoke yesterday has spent the past six weeks writing letters, one a day, to friends and family around the world. She did observe that she hasn’t received any letters back though, just e-mails saying thank you for writing! I gave up alcohol and red meat and, despite the nay-sayers who said this would be an impossible task for me, I kept my pledge. I must say that I am very much looking forward to the leg of lamb we’re having for dinner tonight, and to the red wine which will accompany it. I’ve got a couple of bottles of a nice cabernet franc that to my palate is a perfect match for lamb.

This morning when we were coming back from church the tide was going out, the shopping cart visible but ignored by the black ducks and ring billed gulls that bobbed in the channels. We don’t go to church a lot these days, what with all the limits on social gatherings, but truth to tell I didn’t really go that often even when I didn’t have the pandemic to blame. I suppose I’m part of that collective called C and E Christians, a pun on ‘Church of England’ (or Anglican) but really meaning ‘Christmas and Easter’, as those are the two big feast days.

For what it’s worth, today is the bigger of the two festivals, for although Christmas (Christ’s Mass) celebrates the birth of Jesus, Easter celebrates the resurrection – which is nowhere near as common an event. According to the Venerable Bede, writing 1318 years ago, the day is named in honour of Eostre, sometimes known as Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility.

Easter has long been a time of celebration, of bright new clothes and decorated eggs. The bright new clothes reflect the bright new growth one hopes to see in the garden while the decorated eggs, according to Germanic tradition, are from a time when Eostre was out for a walk and found a wounded bird. Worried that it could not fly, she turned it into a hare, but because she was in a bit of a rush, she didn’t finish the job properly. The next spring, the hare found that instead of having live young, it was laying eggs. This reminded it that it had been a bird. So, it decorated a couple of eggs and left them as a gift for the goddess, to say thank you for saving its life. One does wonder why a goddess couldn’t have simply fixed the wing.

In the 1700s there was a large immigration of settlers from Germany to the United States, mainly into Pennsylvania, some of whom then moved north to Canada in the 1780s. With them they brought their stories, including the ideas of decorated eggs and of Osterhase, the Easter Hare. Children would build ‘nests’ of sticks, and on Easter morning they would find decorated eggs lying in those nests. Over the next century or so the decorated eggs evolved into chocolate ones, and Osterhase morphed into the Easter Bunny, and with the help of early 20th century manufacturing and marketing skills, chocolate eggs became synonymous with Easter. It is perhaps no accident that Hershey’s is headquartered in Pennsylvania.

If nothing else, then, Easter should remind us to recognize that there were old ceremonies that the new religions commandeered. Colonization of the soul, as our First Nations friends have long tried to teach us, has a history of following close on from colonization of the land. But that’s a topic for another blog.

It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me

I came across this traditional folk song the other day, it popped up when I was searching the internet for something completely different. No, not the Spanish Inquisition, which actually should have been expected as people took great pleasure in denouncing their neighbours. More on that later. The version of the folk song I found was the one made famous by The Dubliners, so I wasted a bit of time listening to it, as one does, procrastination being the number one outcome from web-surfing, and it caused me to pause and take stock.

It was a year ago today that I ran away from my holiday, not on a Yankee clipper ship bound for California but in my car heading to Heathrow, and thence post haste to Charlottetown. I had been in Liverpool for four days, checking out some interesting ‘modern art’ at the Tate, the river and the docks, the ruins of a church bombed during the Blitz, the duelling cathedrals.

I went on the Mystery Tour that took a bus load of tourists to the gates of the orphanage called Strawberry Fields, and past the Cavern Club, where I had my photograph taken next to the bronze statue of John Lennon that stands across the street from those hallowed doors. On Penny Lane we saw the barber’s shop on the corner, and even the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, although there was no pretty nurse selling poppies. Anyone would think the Beatles drew upon the local context for their music.

On the Tuesday, Liverpool played at home against Athletico Madrid, and that evening the hotel was full of very happy Spaniards whose team had won the game. When I got back from dinner, there was a bottle of hand sanitizer on a small table by the lifts (elevators), together with a bowl of apples, but that was the extent of the anti-virus activities.

I knew from the newspapers and television news shows, which being a news junkie I devour even on holiday, that there were 25,000 cases in Italy, which had seen 600 deaths, and hospitals were starting to implode. Indeed, case counts were rising all over Europe. The number of positive cases in Spain had reached 6000 and was doubling every day (it is now at 3.1 million), yet soccer fans were criss-crossing the continent, and in the lobby, I had watched as Spanish and Liverpudlian fans linked arms and sang alcohol-fueled songs which made no sense in either language.

When I spoke to the guide on the tour bus, however, he thought all the doom and gloom stories were just to sell newspapers. Another person on the tour, who had been listening to our conversation, contributed that he thought this was all just a European phenomenon, something which could probably be blamed on the poor sanitation habits of continentals. There were murmurs of agreement.

Not being convinced, and as I mentioned in my blog at the time, somewhat discombobulated by the relentless media coverage, I called Air Canada and got a seat on the first available flight. I left the city, driving past Prince’s Landing where the ferry leaves to ’cross the Mersey, another famous song, and down Skelhorne Street past Lime Street Station. I didn’t see Maggie Mae, I’m afraid, nor any crazy coons running around in their underpants. It was early, though.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you obviously never listened to the Let it Be album, or to Lime Street Blues on the B side of Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale!

Anyway, I got back to Prince Edward Island on the Saturday, isolated myself for 14 days as requested, and have only been off the island twice since then. During the summer the case numbers in eastern Canada were very low, and an Atlantic Bubble was established. This permitted people to move unhindered between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, and I managed to get to both of our neighbouring provinces, albeit only for a couple of days.

Then the numbers in New Brunswick spiked, and the bubble burst. Since then, we’ve been hunkered down throughout the winter, where the biggest news has been the reports of people who ‘came from away’ and didn’t self-isolate properly, or who had gatherings of more than 10 people, or who weren’t wearing face masks when they should be. The habits of six hundred years ago, when people took great pleasure in denouncing their neighbours to the Spanish Inquisition, die hard. So far, the city hasn’t acted on my suggestion that in addition to the fines levied, they also publish the names and photographs of those involved, and erect stocks in the main square downtown for multiple offenders, but I’m sure they’ll come around.

It’s not just people who are breaking the rules, though. The other day someone coming over from New Brunswick was surprised to see a fox going the other way – just trotting along across the bridge! I hope he filled in the Public Health Form first. This is one of the good things emerging from the past year. The relative lack of traffic has helped re-introduce people to the idea that this is shared world. In Barcelona, the city reported that in June 2020 there was an increase of 74% in the number of butterflies, compared to June 2019. Yes, they have someone who counts them. The increase was put down to COVID, because months of lockdown restricted the number of maintenance crews cutting grass and spraying for weeds, aided and abetted by a wetter than normal spring, and less smog as fewer people were commuting to work. It is good to learn that both the pandemic and climate change can have a positive impact in some spheres.

Those of us in the northern latitudes are getting ready for the official end of winter, the Spring Equinox, which takes place on 20 March. It has just been announced that the Atlantic premiers are meeting next week, to discuss the re-opening of the Atlantic bubble and the potential for local tourism to start up again. Our clocks ‘spring forward’ on Saturday night. These are all signs that the summer is coming, and with it the chance to get back into the garden. For those of you in the southern hemisphere who are getting ready for autumn, enjoy!

As we mark the official one year anniversary of the pandemic, I think its time to try to refocus on the positives. I hope that people continue to buy local, even when the big superstores get their supply lines straightened out. I hope that society invests time and money into resolving the staffing crisis at long-term residential care homes. I hope that musicians will be able to play live gigs again, and artists to have gallery openings. I hope some people will continue to work from home, and the number of daily commutes remains lower than it was a year ago. I hope that governments put as many resources into fighting climate change as they did into developing vaccines. I hope that Leeds United finish in the top six of the Premier League.

Ah well, it’s good to have one that you know won’t happen.

The World is Starting to Breathe Again

That big ppfffffftt you heard on Wednesday was the world starting to breathe again, as the inauguration of President Biden took place without riotous QAnon crazies, outrageous Twitter messages, or an Anwar Sadat style assassination. All of which were very much on the cards and, in truth, would have been met with a general “thought that might happen” sort of vibe. Please give thanks, to whomever or whatever you thank for such things, that the general sense was that the ceremonies were traditional, almost boring.

That the status quo was being shaken was evident in two special ways – the inauguration of Vice President Harris, and the poem written and recited by Amanda Gorman. However, these were not flouted or exaggerated, at least not by the Canadian media I was watching, but rather simply reported. The commentary included statements like “oh by the way, not only is she the first African American in the post, she’s also the first ‘she’.” As if that wasn’t one of the most amazing things, especially given the age of the President. And then, the kicker that summed up the past four years:

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

I hope that schools across America, and indeed around the world, have added “The hill we climb” to their curriculum. Those of us in education have spent many years talking about cross-curricula learning – well, a critical reading of that poem would give the class a platform to discuss history, geography, politics, English language, social studies, civics, science … one could build a whole integrated curriculum unit from that poem alone.

Now that sanity has prevailed, and news will once again be distributed though policy documents and regular briefings rather than manic rantings on social media, we can give our heads a long and collective shake and watch the new President move on to some of the other things which need to concern his administration. There are many of those to keep him busy! But of course, action on none of these issues will be successful unless he can somehow bridge the partisan divides which exist in American politics. I fear that the shadow of the Past President is going to be hard and dark for a long time to come.

Indeed, it’s hard to keep writing this blog without dipping back into the well of outrage which has been accumulated over the past four years. I have an urgent desire to start sentences with “Do you remember when he …”. I am going to try to resist that urge, and instead look forward. Where do we go from here?

Personally, I’m looking forward to visiting America again. I’ve had my own private boycott going for the past four years, one exacerbated but not caused by COVID. I’m sure nobody noticed but it made me feel better. I’ve always tried to avoid authoritarian states and after the last inauguration I determined that I could not, in good conscience, travel to a country under such leadership. I’ve avoided conferences, holidays, and even flights requiring stop-overs, and as a result have missed seeing many friends and colleagues over the past while. I’m hopeful that once our current travel restrictions ease, and the longest unmilitarized border in the world is reopened, then ‘normal relations’ will resume. There are lots of great places I’d like to visit.

Until then, there are six issues on which I hope to see new leadership from the United States. Although conceptually clear, these issues are experientially incoherent. Each one has so many sub-sets of challenge, so many degrees of risk, so opaque a policy lens, that it is almost impossible to determine what might be prioritized. But we must try.

Actually, I’d like to set this as a task for you, dear readers of this blog. Imagine for a moment that you have been hired as an advisor for the new administration in Washington. You are presented with a list of six pressing issues, and asked: do you agree with these, or would you substitute one (or more) for something else? If so, what changes would you make? Of the six issues that remain, how would you prioritize them, in terms of urgency and immediacy of action?

The six issues I am putting before you have, of necessity, been simplified. ‘Climate change’, for example, has multiple layers of policy implication, from agricultural productivity to pipelines, from weather events to windfarms. I recognize that I have collapsed all these sub-sets into these six topics which are, in alphabetical order:

  • Climate change.
  • COVID19 pandemic.
  • Economic, social, and racial inequality.
  • Global human migrations.
  • Militarization of space.
  • Political and trade relationships with other nations.

Although I am presenting these as matters of interest to the incoming US government, they are in truth areas of interest to all of us. Every political jurisdiction in the world, from the smallest hamlet to the largest country, is being impacted by these issues, often in very direct and specific ways. I believe that as individuals we have to be part of the solution as well as part of the problem and so, if you are willing to share your thoughts on these things, I would love to hear them.

As a collective the readership of this blog is global in nature, something which truly amazes and humbles me. As such, your ideas and perspectives will ensure that I broaden my own lens to something beyond a Canadian view. You can contribute via the Comments feature on the blog, but beware that this will place your ideas in the full public domain. Or you can e-mail me directly, and if I decide to share anything you write with others (for example, by a summary in a future blog) then I shall do so in an anonymised way that protects your privacy. For those that don’t know it, or have forgotten it which is why I didn’t get a Christmas card, my e-mail address is jtg045@gmail.com

There are a few reasons why I am interested in how you view these matters. First, my general default position is one of intellectual magpie, so I like to collect shiny things like ideas. You never know when they might come in useful! Second, I’ve been asked to write a book chapter that focuses on educational leadership in a time of global uncertainty, and all these matters impact on that theme, so <see first point>. Third, I need provocative things to talk about at my irregular coffee mornings, when I and a couple of friends get together to discuss the issues of the day <again, see first point>.

I apologise to those of you under severe lockdown restrictions who’ve forgotten what it’s like to visit with others, but here on the Island we still have cafes open and we are allowed to sit inside with small groups of friends. We’re probably allowed to sit outside as well, but right now it’s minus fifteen Celsius, so nobody does. That’s the downside of winter. But that’s another blog.

300 Days

I had intended to start this first blog of the new year with something like: “Well, we made it. Hello 2021. Everything’s going to be different this year.”

As the adage says, “Be careful what you wish for.”

I never thought that I would invoke my inner Dolly Parton, but at times like these, her latest song has some prescient lyrics.

Even though we’re walkin’ through the valley of death
Scared and wonderin’ what happens next
Uncertainty, division, anger and the rest
I still believe

Questions of what and why and when
What is it, why it happened or when will it end
These are strange and crazy times that we’re living in
But I still believe

I believe to my very core
We’ll walk again in the sunshine by the seashore
That we’ll dance and we’ll sing and be happy again
Don’t know how or when but we will again, you’ll see
I still believe (I believe)

If you missed the Holly Dolly Christmas Special on TV, then check out the song on YouTube https://youtu.be/s9j5cxP1GZQ

Or simply Google “dolly parton I still believe lyrics”. It really is a positive way to start the year.

Which is much needed. After the warmest (and greenest) Christmas since records have been kept on the Island, the New Year arrived with a dump of 27 centimetres of snow. I thought that perhaps, at last, a modicum of normalcy was returning to the world. Although that’s a difficult claim to make, as five days later I saw a Northern Cardinal in my backyard. This is quite a rare bird here, a marginal visitor at best, and was the first one I’ve ever seen on the Island. So perhaps, I thought, we’re not quite ‘normal’ yet.

Then I checked what was happening in the rest of the world. Mass arrests in Hong Kong. The United Kingdom moving to a new level of COVID emergency. The President of Brazil saying the vaccine might turn people into crocodiles. Nope, everything’s still pretty 2020.

Personally, I think Boris Johnson did quite a smart thing, having the COVID emergency tiers start at 1 and go up. It gives him all sorts of latitude. In terms of threat, most alerts go from three (low), to two (medium), to one (high). So, what happens when you reach one? The same for the colour system. Canadian provinces tend to go green, yellow, orange, and then red, in levels of increasing severity. What does one do after red? Boris, however, can simply add another level each time things go sideways. Actually, the other day quite a funny cartoon to that effect made the rounds.

Still, I thought, at least things are going to transition to ‘more or less normal’ in the US, as that country moves from one president to another. Then Wednesday happened. It’s Dolly time again.

In fact, I can’t even articulate what I think about what took place in Washington. It’s too raw right now. Perhaps in a future blog. Instead, I would like to share an anniversary.

Today, 8 January 2021, marks the 300th consecutive day I have remained in the same time zone.

This has not happened for 25 years, and not just because of holidays! In every year that I was a university professor there were conferences and meetings, research trips and seminars, events which kept me on the road two or three (or more) times a year. In my quest to become full professor I made sure that my work was widely disseminated – I tried to present a paper or be part of a symposium in at least one local, national, and international conference a year. In addition, there was my educational development work, which gave me the opportunity to work around the world, in many wonderful countries such as Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Sweden. The travel became strangely addictive, and I got a great sense of enjoyment out of knowing which were the best airline lounges. When I learned of the Air Canada Million Mile program, there was a tangible reward in sight, and it was with glee that I unpacked my model aeroplane once it arrived. Appropriately it’s a model of a Boeing Dreamliner – appropriate because now the only place I’m flying is in my dreams. C’est la vie.

But if I could, where would I go? I have made my bucket list and prioritized the top 5 places I’d like to visit as soon as travel becomes feasible again. I’ve ignored issues like cost, time, and the convenience to other people, these are my dreams!

First, the west coast, and a chance to see our youngest daughter’s new house, on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver. That part of the country is ironically named, as it has some of the heaviest precipitation in the country and supports a temperate rain forest. At least they don’t have to shovel it. From there one can drive to Inuvik, on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, a 3800 kilometers (2300 miles) odyssey that encompasses northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and the Dempster Highway. According to Google Maps it is a 51-hour drive, so allowing for sightseeing and other stops that would be a 10- or 12-day trip, with four or five hours of driving each day. I’ve never been to the Yukon, or to that side of the Arctic, so that would be fun. Of course, it’s 3800 klicks back as well, but that would be faster as it’s all down the map.

Second, I want (and need) to get back to the UK, to see family and friends and to resume the trip which was rudely interrupted last March. I’ve never been up to the very north of Scotland and would love to see that part of the country. A quick side-trip into Europe would be good as well, to visit friends in France. Luckily, Brexit has no impact on my travel into the European Union.

Third, Australia beckons me back. I’ve never been to Tasmania and would like to complete my ‘set’ of states. There are many friends to visit on the north and eastern coasts, and a trip across the Top End from Cairns to Broome has always been something I’ve wanted to do.

In fact, I would probably try to go the other way, arriving first in Perth and then going from Broome to Cairns, and then down the coast to Tasmania. That would leave me in the correct geographical location to start trip 4, which would involve a cruise across the Pacific to the west coast of Canada or the US. It would be magnificent to drop in at all the islands of Micronesia and Polynesia, visited by Captain James Cook (and Paul Gauguin) so many years ago. Plus, I’ve never been on a cruise.

Finally, closer to home and not requiring an aeroplane to facilitate, another road trip is the one which goes from Red Bay, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river, all the way round Labrador to Tadoussac, near Montreal. It’s almost 2400 kilometers (1500 miles), so about a two-week drive. Plus of course the three days it would take to get to Red Bay, which requires a long drive up the northern peninsular of Newfoundland and then a ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle from St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon. That narrow channel is also known as ‘ice-berg alley’, so one’s timing has to be pretty careful! And the two days to drive back from Montreal. So about three weeks in all, and not an airport lounge in sight.

After that … well, I’d love to visit with friends from Umeå to Ottawa, Boston to Bretagne, Massachusetts to Medellín, New York to New Zealand, and places in between. That’s the problem of staying in the same time zone for 300 days – it gives you too much time to dwell on the wider world outside. Still, that’s where the Dreamliner comes in useful.

Of course, I’d better hope I can achieve these trips quickly. I was thinking the other day of the Mayan calendar, and of Michael Coe, who wrote that “there is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [bʼakʼtun]. Thus … our present universe [would] be annihilated … when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion” (1966, p. 149). The date of this ‘completion’ was set as 21 December 2012, and many people were happy when that date came and went without any major catastrophe. But what if he was a bit dyslexic, and simply got his numbers inverted? Perhaps he really meant 12 December 2021.

Just saying.

You read it here first!

—–

Coe, M. D. (1966). The Maya. Ancient peoples and places series, no. 52 (1st ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.

(Re)defining Normal

So here we are, ten days until Christmas, a year since the Coronavirus was first reported, and nine months since the pandemic was declared. I think we’re all getting tired of it. I know I am.

I’m not the only one who is finding it hard to achieve anything these days. Russell Wangersky is a Newfoundland writer, who is also one of my favourite newspaper columnists. He recently described how his reactions to adversity are changing.

An axe sticks in the log he’s trying to split, he stops splitting wood; the glue won’t hold on a repair, it takes three times as long to fix the problem; a shed roof leaks but he can’t replace the material because the pandemic has interrupted the supply chain, and none is available.

His response to all this? He gives up and goes for a walk in the woods, wishing things were back to normal. Those three little things have thrown him. Three little things which, in the past, he would no doubt have resolved with ease. Three little things which, in the wider scheme of things, are nothing more than irritations and inconveniences. And yet his day is ruined. He is starting to feel depressed. He wants to return to normal.

But do we remember what ‘normal’ was like? Earlier this morning I re-read my ‘End Time Blues’ blog from last December, which reported that there were so many not-good things happening and yet made no mention whatsoever of COVID-19 or a possible global pandemic. The thing is, those not-good things have continued happening, we have all just been ignoring them as we grapple to learn the language of social-distancing, face masks, and hand-sanitizers.

My response to the chaos of 2019 was to dry a selection of pole beans, various heritage varieties which I had grown over the summer, and then sell them at the Christmas Craft Market as Apocalixir Beans. The basic premise was that if the Zombie Apocalypse arrived, one could hide in the basement and cook the beans and live on them, the elixir of life, until things quietened down. And if there was no Zombie Apocalypse by June (2020), you could plant them in your garden and grow your own crop for next year. I sold a number of jars, mostly to people who thought they’d make a great ‘gag gift’ for someone.

The Farmers’ Market was closed down in March, and then reopened as an outdoor market during the summer. Unfortunately, my daughter owns and operates a cheese supply company and was therefore not able to participate, as the Health inspectors were not keen on her sitting in a parking lot cutting up wheels of Brie. Eventually, in late October, it was decided that the indoor market could open again, albeit with a limited number of customers, and I got my Saturday job back.

As the customers returned, I met up once more with some of the people who had bought my beans last year. They reported two things. First, some told me that they had been pleased to have the little jars on hand during the shortages of spring, providing a modicum of comfort when food, toilet paper and other essentials were in short supply. Second, others said that they had planted the beans in a sunny spot and grew their own vines, and in some cases even got the plants to harvest.

So, both advertised options were apparently feasible and illustrated the foresight of the purchasers, as well as the old adage that many a truth is spoken in jest. Sadly, the Christmas Craft Market was cancelled this year, due to COVID restrictions and a mini-outbreak here on the Island. Which is sad because I had another good harvest and could have tried to sell my Apocalixir Beans again. If things were normal.

It seems to me that this might be part of the problem. We’re having a hard time getting our heads around the possibility (fact?) that things are probably not going to be going ‘back to normal’.

Indeed, perhaps it is time that we recognized that we are going to have to create a new normal for our lives. What might that look like? How might we adapt to life with COVID?

Our adaptations will no doubt be based on three hopes. But these are just hopes, they are not predictions. Because really, who knows what the heck is going to happen next? And let’s face it, even hope has a serious downside these days.

First, we hope that the supply chain will ensure that the newly developed vaccines get to everyone who wants to have them. That said, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the process of vaccinating the population won’t be completed until towards the end of 2021, and that’s only for those of us fortunate enough to live in a western industrialized country with a strong infrastructure.

There are many parts of the world where the ability to store a vaccine at -80 simply does not exist. Even within the WEIRD countries (i.e., those that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), populations who are unable to travel to the place where the vaccine can be stored are going to be out of luck for a while, as apparently the people have to go to the needle, not the other way round. So, unless you are independently mobile, and live in an urban centre with a designated freezer, your time will come later rather than sooner.

Second, we hope that we will not have terrible forest or bush fires, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, significant conflicts, asteroid impacts, winter storms, plagues of locusts and other pestilences. The effects of a changing climate are being experienced across the planet and are visible everywhere except on the 24 hours news channels. According to Copernicus, the EU Climate Change Service, November 2020 was the warmest November since records began.

The Arctic Institute notes that the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the permafrost is melting, leading not only to an impact on infrastructure but also to the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Oh, and just for fun, that is raising a concern that viruses which have been frozen for thousands of years will begin to thaw out and bring old pestilences back to life. Soon we might be saying, “move over, COVID, there’s a new game in town.”

Third, we hope that we shall all get to travel internationally again. The reliance of so many economies on unfettered tourism has been exposed this year. Those of us who live in places that others like to visit found that the pandemic exacerbated the chasm between those who own tourist operations and those who work in the industry. The large resorts were able to pivot and restructure themselves as ‘isolation hotels’, where returning residents and essential workers could stay for their required quarantines. The people who sold the gifts in the craft shops, meanwhile, were laid off and forced onto government support. They will probably not be hired back until the cruise ships return, or the airlines resume service.

One day, perhaps towards the end of next year but perhaps more likely in 2022, the WEIRD countries will have reached ‘herd immunity’ against COVID-19. We still may not know whether this requires just the one vaccination, or becomes an annual event like the flu shot, but at least most people will be immunized. There seems to be an agreement among epidemiologists that 70% of the population need to be either recovered from the coronavirus or else vaccinated against it in order for herd immunity to be achieved.

That might work on a local or even national level in many countries, but it will be very difficult in others. There are currently 7.8 billion people in the world, which means that someone will have to make 5.46 billion doses, sometimes double ones. Media reports indicate that “according to health officials, each box containing the vaccines … will need to be opened and unpacked manually at specially licensed sites. The shots also have to be checked by a specialist medical logistics company to ensure there was no damage in transit.”

How is the vaccine going to be delivered to the islands of Papua New Guinea, the mountains of central Afghanistan, the villages of the Šar region of the Balkans, all places where I have lived and worked? It’s going to take months, if not years, to get this vaccine out to the global community.

I had intended that this would be a ‘feel good’ blog, something to cheer me up (and hopefully you as well!) in the days before this most unChristmaslike of Christmases. I was thinking of the year ahead, of all the things I’d like to do, of all the places I’d like to visit. Sadly, the world got in the way, and those thoughts will have to wait until another blog.

till, I am grateful that I can follow Russell Wangersky’s lead, and go for a walk in my garden and the adjacent fields and woods. I’ve just got to find my mask.

Bubbling Along

There are farm stands all over the Island selling pumpkins and squash, corn cobs and hay bales, turnips and zucchini. Some of these are eaten, most become decorative so as not to interfere with Burger Love (seriously: https://peiburgerlove.ca/); at least there’s no Porktoberfest this year.

Some of the huge orange pumpkins are no doubt being kept and will be carved for Halloween, the next festival in the run-up to Christmas, but many are being used now. As you drive around you see them sitting on many doorsteps, and often there is a display of corn stalks, large green zucchini and yellow squash as well, all artfully arranged on a hay bale and offset by a pot of red or orange chrysanthemums, or a planter of multicoloured kale. A colourful cornucopia of all that this land can offer us.

No wonder my First Nation friends call it the “You’re Welcome” weekend.

In the USA they celebrate Thanksgiving in November. After the election.

Our main meal tends to be a big roast turkey, with a breaded sage and onion stuffing at one end and sausage meat at the other, served with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, roasted squash, carrots, gravy, etc., as side dishes. On the Island there is a certain pride at stake as well, as it is acceptable to murmur (not brag!) that “I grew all these myself, you know.” Unfortunately, we can’t have any guests this year, so I’ll mention it to you instead!

A week or so ago, in my first blog for six months, I managed to avoid focusing on the two items which have dominated our news cycles recently. I tried to encapsulate some of the things that have been going on as well as the global pandemic, but which might have been lost in the noise of COVID19. Indeed, of the 25 stories that I mentioned, only 3 related to the coronavirus, and only one referred to the US election.

I’ve since heard from a few of you who’ve agreed that it’s been a dismal year, or a totally f**ked up one as someone phrased it, and I’ve heard from others who’ve told me in no uncertain terms that my litany of woes wasn’t really helping! I agree – but as I asked in my ‘End Time Blues’ blog of last December, before this all started, “Does one simply turn off all the newsfeeds and pretend nothing is happening?”

Perhaps we should. In Canada, we have been very fortunate when compared to many other countries. We have not experienced the tragedies that have occurred in Italy, Spain, the UK, or other parts of Europe. We have not been exposed to the chaos and carnage of Mexico, Brazil, India, or the United States. So, in many ways, living in Canada is to live in a small little bubble in the world.

Within Canada, the Maritime provinces are in their own little bubble as well. Most of the Canadian cases are in the larger and more urbanized provinces of Quebec and Ontario, with significant numbers also in Alberta and British Columbia. Here on the east coast our numbers have been a lot lower, with fewer than 2000 cases and less than 100 deaths across all four provinces.

And within the Maritimes, our little Island seems to be in its own bubble as well, with 59 reported cases that have all recovered, and no hospitalizations or deaths at all.

So, if I turn off the news and ignore what has been happening in the world these past six months, here are some of my experiences from living in a bubble in a bubble in a bubble, as cocooned from reality as one might possibly be without pharmaceutical assistance.

The first couple of months of COVID were challenging here, as they were everywhere. The Island pretty much closed itself off from the world. The ferry service was cancelled, as were most flights, and a checkpoint was established on the Confederation bridge. A few ‘essential workers’ were still allowed in, plus Islanders who had been stuck somewhere else and were coming home, but that was it. Seasonal residents and tourists were banned. ‘Foreign’ number plates (from Ontario or Quebec, for example!) were identified and reported. Restaurants and bars were closed, as were many shops and service providers. We were allowed to travel pretty freely on the Island, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. My working life stopped – it’s hard to be an international consultant when there are no planes flying. I did manage to teach a course for the University of Saskatchewan, but instead of having a couple of weeks in Saskatoon, which the late great Leonard Cohen described as the ‘Paris of the Prairies’, I had to pivot online.

Slowly things started to ease up a little and by the beginning of July, the Atlantic bubble was established. At the same time live music returned to the Island, with small concerts being organized. These were limited to 50 people, seated at socially distant tables, and were nerve-wracking for all concerned. For the audience, we weren’t sure quite how things were going to work. For the musicians, some hadn’t been on a stage since February and were learning their craft all over again. But it was good to get out, good to support people who needed it, good to be part of an audience. We have a lot of fabulous musicians here on the Island, and with the Atlantic Bubble we even managed to attract a couple from Nova Scotia. So that was all good.

And as we moved into July, we were blessed with an incredible summer, with 99 days where the temperature exceeded 20 degrees Celsius. It was supposed to be 100 days but on the last day the ‘official’ thermometer at the airport stopped at 19.6, so we can’t claim it. Even though my car told me it was 21 degrees outside.

I spent the summer in my garden, planting flowers and growing food. Victoria and I grew lots of things from seed and most of them transplanted well. I have nearly finished landscaping the pond, and that has now attracted a dozen frogs from two distinct species. Five of my goldfish survived the winter, to my amazement, and were a joyful sight in the early spring. Then they disappeared. I found a couple of dozen corn husks lying around and figured they had been brought down by racoons, who often wash their food before eating it. Perhaps they had then scooped out my fish as well. After a couple of weeks, I went back to the pet shop and bought seven new goldfish. They seemed to acclimatise pretty well. Then one day there were twelve goldfish in the pond, five big ones and seven little ones.

This was a bit of a shock, as the pond is only about 4 feet deep. I have no idea where the missing five had been for three weeks. But I know what they were doing.

In mid-summer, the seven new goldfish were now medium sized, and all 12 would swim around, in and out of the lily pads, all very dramatic. Then I saw some minnows. Half a dozen or so, very small black fish. I was flummoxed. The pond is a self-contained unit, with no stream or creek connecting it to anywhere else. Where could minnows have come from, I wondered.

Victoria told me, authoritatively, that ducks often transported small minnows from one water source to another. She described in detail how the duck, swimming around in pond or stream A, would not realize that a minnow had got caught up in its leg feathers. The bird would then fly to pond or stream B, where it would paddle around, and the minnow would get shaken off into the new body of water. This of course made perfect sense to me and in the absence of any other information, became the accepted origin story.

The next day there were 20 or so minnows, the day after another 20. There are now over a 100 of them, and they have not only grown but many have also changed colour. There are gold ones and white ones and multihued ones … they look wonderful, darting through the shallows at the edge of the pond. Not minnows, but baby goldfish. Duck-assisted travellers indeed. Victoria still laughs that I believed her.

I’m not sure how many of my minnows will survive the winter, being stuck under the ice for two or three months. Some are getting to the size of my little finger now, so they might have a chance, but it seems like there have been three hatchings (is that what one calls it, when fish eggs become fish?) because there are three distinctly different sizes of minnow. It will be fun to see what the spring looks like – but if there are a lot then that might be problematic. The pond is rain-filled only, and I don’t know how many fish it can support.

I might have to get one of those long-handled nets and try to catch some. I could put a selection of old jam jars in the back tray of my truck, some empty and some filled with water (and a goldfish), then charge small children $1 to throw a ping pong ball and see if they can land it in a jar with a fish. $2 for three balls. That should be an interesting way to spend a Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market and would no doubt make me really popular with parents!

Of course, this summer was enhanced mightily by the football (soccer) news from England. As some of you know, I am a born and bred Leeds United supporter. Indeed, one of the last things I was able to do, pre-pandemic, was go to Elland Road with my brothers and watch Leeds win. Little did we know it would be the last game in front of spectators for that year, and even for this year so far. Everything got put on hold for over three months, and when the league restarted in early July, we continued to win games, and the Championship, and were promoted to the Premier League. Where we belong. So now, as the winter nights start to draw in, and the cold winds blow, I am warmed by the knowledge that nearly every weekend there will be a Leeds game on TV, and I’ll be Marching On Together with other like-minded souls. Ah bliss.

So that was the summer of 2020. I spent a lot of time in my garden, growing stuff that we have frozen and pickled and canned in the hope that if (or when) things go sideways again, at least we’ll have something to eat. Leeds United won the Championship and got promoted back where they belong. I got to go to a half-dozen or so concerts and thoroughly enjoyed being in one of the few places in the world with live music. I took advantage of the Atlantic Bubble and managed a weekend in Nova Scotia, visiting friends in Cape Breton.

I didn’t learn to speak French properly, or to play the guitar, or to develop any other new skill. I didn’t have to cope with losing family or friends to COVID. I didn’t get restricted to my house except for an hour a day of exercise or limited to a 3-mile radius except for shopping. I didn’t run out of toilet paper or yeast. I just carried on, as one does.

That said, I did lose some good friends. I chafed at not being able to grieve properly, at not being able to provide support to their surviving partners or children, at not being able to attend a funeral or a wake. If 2020 is the year of COVID, it seems like 2021 will be the year of memorial services and celebrations of life.

So, on that note, in closing I would like to use this space to remember five particular people who were lost this year. Richard Rusk, a renowned architect who was my daughter Kate’s father-in-law and who provided much needed help (and comic relief) when we tried to show the wedding guests how to open a lobster; John MacLeod, a good friend and mentor, who for many years was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and who introduced me to the statistical concept of ‘optical significance’; Roni Godwin, the much-loved wife of another friend, Debbie, who taught with me in the Dene community of Black Lake, northern Saskatchewan; Uncle David, my father’s youngest brother and the last of that generation, who used to go shark fishing off Cornwall. All will be missed.

As will be Dr. Steve Wilde, one of my best and longest-standing friends, whom I met on our first day of teachers’ college, in 1971. He was from London, I was from ‘up North’. He was a rabid Tottenham Hotspur fan, which I could never understand, and he played a mean guitar. Over the years we have been a regular part of each others lives, celebrating momentous occasions together. He carried me home from my 21st birthday party, I dragged him out of many ill-advised arguments. With some other friends we were hippie travellers in an old Volkswagen camper across Europe and the Middle-East, on the “Katmandu for Christmas” route, having all the adventures you might imagine five 20-somethings would have at such a time and in such a place.

In India he was struck by the life conditions of the people he met and came back from that trip determined to retrain as a medical doctor, which he did. He visited me in Papua New Guinea, exploring the villages of the Sepik River by canoe and crashing my new truck on a mountain highway, something I never let him forget. I could find his house in England without a map, as he could many of mine in Canada, and rare was the year in the last 49 that didn’t include an evening of food and drink and conversation, not only reminiscing but considering the current issues of the day, before finishing with a wee dram and a song or two from Tom Paxton or Leonard Cohen. My deepest condolences to his wife, Anne, and to his sons Adam and Tim.

Steve, this one’s for you. COYS.

One Hundred Days of Summer

Well here we are – it has been six months since my last blog, and I apologize for that tardiness. It just seems that every time I sit down to write about something I have experienced in the world, something else happens, and I get sidetracked. But yesterday was the last straw. I was reading a story on the BBC website and got introduced to Naegleria fowleri, a threat so ridiculous it sounds like it comes from a Monty Python sketch. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first a review of the year.

Spoiler alert – it is not very happy reading.

Trigger alert – contains references to climate change, armed conflict, societal upheaval, global pandemics, economic devastation, and general human stupidity.

Incompletion alert – this is just a review of some things I have noticed, and I don’t pretend it to be an authoritative summary. Please feel free to add your own stories.

So with those caveats, here we go …

January: The United States authorized the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq; Iran retaliates by firing missiles at US bases and then a Revolutionary Guards unit accidently shoots down a Ukrainian airliner, with 63 Canadians among the 176 people killed.

January: Five earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 to 6.4 hit Puerto Rico over a three-week period, causing $3.1 billion in damage.

January to now: Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Mali, Ukraine and Yemen continue to cause thousands of civilian deaths (as well as military ones). Political and social upheaval continues in Brazil, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, and Venezuela, among other places. Now a war has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

January – March: The Australian bushfires burnt over 18.5 million hectares (46 million acres, which is about 33 times the size of Prince Edward island or 1.4 times the size of England), killing at least 34 people and nearly 3 billion terrestrial vertebrates – mainly but not only reptiles.

January – April: 460 confirmed tornadoes churned across the south-central US, which is worrying as the main tornado season is in the fall.

February – April: hundreds of millions of desert locusts decimated East Africa, swarming all over Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia and causing significant crop damage.

March to now: A worldwide pandemic was declared as COVID19 spread around the world. In my last blog (March 24), I noted that “the number of people infected [by COVID19] world-wide is rising rapidly – it took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise.” Well, the numbers just doubled and then doubled again, and there have now been over 33.1 million cases and over one million deaths.

April: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized and in intensive care with coronavirus.

April: The Great Lockdown led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s; at one-point crude oil was trading at minus $35 a barrel.

April to now: Severe tropical cyclone Harold caused catastrophic damage to South Pacific Islands such as Vanuatu and Fiji (April), Cyclone Amphan tore through India and Bangladesh (May) and Typhoon Maysak was the largest storm ever to hit South Korea (September).

April to now: Las Vegas broke its previous record of no rain for 150 days and as of Monday 28 September has had no measurable rain since 20 April (161 days).

May to now: The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has featured a total of 24 tropical or subtropical cyclones, 23 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes, all of which hit the southern US and then (so far) faded out before causing damage to Canada. The season continues for another month.

May to now: Months of civil unrest in the United States followed the death of George Floyd and was exacerbated by other incidents coming to light. In September, the Department of Justice declared three cities – New York, Seattle and Portland (Oregon) – as “anarchist jurisdictions.”

June: The warmest June on record, with temperatures of +1.5C or more above ‘normal’ pretty much everywhere around the world and at one point reaching 38C in Siberia – the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic.

July – now: The wildfires in the western United States burnt over 6.6 million acres (nearly 5 times the size of PEI), killing at least 30 people. There have been minimal reports of animal fatalities.

July – September: Severe flooding in Sudan led to over 120 deaths, while monsoon flooding in South Asia (Indian, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal) resulted in over 1300 fatalities.

August: 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people, wounding 5000 others, and leaving 300,000 residents temporarily homeless. 

August: Highest temperature ever recorded on earth of 54.4C reported in Death Valley, California.

August: A derecho caused severe damage across Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and other central states in the US. According to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a derecho “is a widespread, long-lived wind storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms variously known as a squall line, bow echo, or quasi-linear convective system. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of a tornado, the damage typically occurs in one direction along a relatively straight swath.” It now joins “weather bomb” and “polar vortex” as a meteorological word I’d never heard of until recently.

September: Denver broke 14 temperature records (both hot and cold) in 6 days – including going from 34C to -0.5C overnight on 7/8 September.

September: ‘Zombie Tropical Storm’ Paulette re-establishes itself after disintegrating in the south Atlantic.

September: The two contenders for the Presidency of the United States redefine the word “debate”.

October 2, 2020: Today. This is the one hundredth day on PEI where the temperature has met or exceeded 20 degrees Celsius this year. Our ‘normal’ number of +20 days is 79, so this is basically a 25% increase over the annual average. It has made for a gorgeous summer, although the farmers have complained about the lack of rain, and of course there were very few tourists around to enjoy the beaches. But even a sunny day casts some shade, I guess.

It has also just been announced that President Trump and his wife have both tested positive for the Coronavirus. Which is sad, as nobody wants anyone to become ill, but at the same time it does reduce their risk of contracting Naegleria fowleri, the new threat to our world.

If you haven’t heard of this one, it’s quite a doozie. In essence, it’s an amoebic microbe that eats your brain! Interestingly, though, it only infects people when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose. This typically occurs when people go swimming or diving in warm freshwater places, like lakes and rivers. The Naegleria fowleri amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain where it destroys the brain tissue. You can’t get it by drinking contaminated water, or from water vapour such as shower mist, it has to go up your nose.

It seems that Naegleria fowleri has been around for quite some time, but it is now spreading into the northern hemisphere because global warming has increased the water temperature in the lakes and rivers to the point that the amoeba can now survive in places where it was previously absent. And of course, on hot summer days many people tend to jump into any available river or lake, hoping for the cooling effects. If you are part of that group, please try to keep your head above water.

Which is a good way of looking at the world, really.

Pandemiconium

24 March 2020

A month ago, I was sitting at the table in our Portuguese apartment trying to figure out which of three local wines I liked best. The late afternoon sun was shining on the Douro river, the oranges on the trees in the garden were shimmering in a light breeze, and the wines had each cost less than €3 a bottle. Exactly one month later I am sitting at the desk in my home office, trying to figure out what surface to disinfect next. The late afternoon sun is highlighting some of the low grey cloud and reflecting up from the snow drifts in the garden, the leafless branches of the maple trees are swishing urgently in the wind, and the liquor stores are all closed. What a difference a month makes.

I’m in Day 11 of self-isolation and, so far, it’s not going too bad. Mind you, as a colleague from Calgary mentioned, those of who us who have been teaching online or are part of international research networks have been practising for this for a decade! Spending ones day in a home office, communicating by e-mail or FaceTime or Skype or WhatsApp, never interacting with a real person except at a distance, only venturing into the living part of the house during the eveningthis is all normal for many academics. What is different, apart from the fact that the rest of the household is now home as well, is that there is a psychological barrier to going outside. In normal times one might stay at home from choice, but maintain the possibility of going out to meet friends for coffeenow that option has been removed.

After Portugal I went to the UK, planning to be there for a couple of weeks. After a week I got spooked by the UK media coverage of the pandemic and called Air Canada. I was able to get an earlier flight back and left London on a Friday morning. Heathrow was eerily empty. I got to Toronto late on Friday afternoon and connected through to home, arriving at 0200 on Saturday.

In Toronto I was delighted to discover that they have a new system in place, where passengers with connecting flights clear customs and immigration in a separate room and then get bussed to the domestic terminal, no longer having to leave the air-side and then re-enter via security. The customs lady was very nice, asked me where I’d been, said welcome back to Canada, and waved me through.

That was it! No health questions, no probing about the places I’d been to in England or Portugal, nothing. Not even a request to check for symptoms over the next week or so. After the screaming headlines in the British press, it was a welcome reprieve, if one I found a little bizarre. The next day I saw a recommendation from Health PEI that returnees from international travel should practice 14 days of self-isolation. So, here I am, with lots of time for thinking. Perhaps too much!

Generally, things are not too bad in Canada, yet. Our daily routines are framed by two events. First, the morning press conference from the Prime Minister, who himself is self-isolating, praising Canadians for all the good things they are doing to keep our country safe. Second, the afternoon press conference from the Provincial Chief Medical Officer [PCMO], telling us off for not maintaining enough distance in grocery stores or buying too many toilet rolls. The good cop – bad cop routine is probably unplanned but is nonetheless very effective.

The PCMO was particularly cross when it was announced that the liquor stores and cannabis shops would be closed at 2:00 pm the next day. Islanders immediately stopped whatever they were doing and rushed off to, lined up for, and crammed into, both kinds of shop. After berating us all for ignoring the rules about social distancing, she did acknowledge, belatedly, that perhaps officials had misjudged what Islanders considered essential! Most people here say they were stocking up because they expected to the bootleggers and dope dealers to be back in business by 2:15 pm and prices would likely go up.

Globally, it seems that a pattern where countries ‘spike’ about a month apartChina in January, Italy in February, Spain in March, and probably the UK in April. I reckon we’re about a month behind the UK and so I’m expecting total chaos here in May or possibly June, unless the warmer weather interrupts things. My calculations might also be thrown out of whack by the situation in the US, especially as we have only just closed that border, and then only to tourists and non-essential travel. There are loopholes in the cross-border agreement big enough to drive a very large truck through.

Things are still relatively quiet here on the Islandwe’re small enough that the government has been able to install road blocks and health checks at the bridge, the ferry terminal, and the airport, so that will help control incoming tourists (or returning residents). Except for people on essential business, everyone who comes to the Island is now being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, no matter where they came fromapparently nobody has yet tried to claim a quick trip over to Costco as an essential activity. Most people here are following the new rules, and we’re already seeing ‘social shaming’; the other day someone called out a fellow who was in the supermarket, “You just got back from Florida yesterday, what’re you doing outside?” 

Social shaming, social distancing, self-isolationthe new vocabulary of our times. These phrases are all indicative of a very human response to the COVID19 pandemic.

And yet, there are other elements to this situation that we seem to avoid as discussion topics, ironic realities that are worthy of consideration. For one, isn’t it ironic that those who are taking an individual approach, who view themselves as invincible and are ignoring all the guidelines related to gatherings, are in effect putting the social collective at risk. Whereas those who believe in the social collective, and are making sure they do their best to preserve appropriate distances and so forth, are providing the anti-social individuals with the herd immunity and support they need in order to maintain their individual anti-social actions.

For another, it is helpful to put our minds back a few months. Our main concerns at the end of the second decade of the 21st century were focused on ‘big picture’ issues such as taking steps to combat global warming, being concerned about global overpopulation, countering the insidious nature of the internet, andin Canada at leastworrying about caring for a generally aging population. Isn’t it ironic that COVID19 is addressing all these on our behalf?

Suddenly, global levels of smog and CO2 gases have been reduced significantly, as factories are shut down, planes are grounded, and fewer people are driving cars because their work has been closed. Suddenly, a highly contagious virus with an average fatality rate of 3.4% of infected individuals (14.5% for those over 80 years of age) is starting to ‘flatten the curve’ of global population growth. The number of people infected world-wide is rising rapidlyit took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise. Suddenly, the Internet is starting to collapse under its own weight, as house-bound people under “shelter in place” restrictions try to access entertainment and communications online. Suddenly, there is an expectation of a ‘baby boom’ next December, the outcome of other diversions resulting from long periods of being quarantined at home.

It’s so easy to get swallowed up by all these matters and that way madness lies. It’s a pandemic, yes, but we’ve had others, and no doubt more will come in the future. Right now, the best way to cope with this one is to wash your hands a lot and try not to get too close to other people. Actually, the best advice I heard was from a British epidemiologist. He said, “Don’t worry about catching the virus. Pretend you already have it, and now just make sure you don’t give it to someone else.” If we all did that, if we simply tried not to give the virus to others, then pretty soon nobody would have it.

Once things calm down, hopefully later in the summer but perhaps not until the fall, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact the virus has had on the overall life of the planet. In the interim, I’ll finish my 14 days of self-isolation, and then enter a phasethe length of which is unknownof socially distancing myself from others. Because this situation isn’t going to go away, and just because I didn’t bring the virus back from England doesn’t mean that I can’t catch it from someone else. Like everyone else, I shall have to get used to this new normal, of keeping friends and strangers at a 2m distance, of not being able to get my hair cut, of going to the grocery store at odd hours in order to avoid the biggest lines, of not being able to go to movies or plays or concerts. The spring and summer of 2020 are going to be unlike any other period of our lives.

Wherever you are, stay safe. Wash your hands. Avoid crowded spaces.

And remember, even if we each individually are required to keep 2m away from other people, we have the technology to keep in touch and communicate at a distance. There is no requirement that we must become Carthusian hermits, locked away in monastic cells under a self-imposed vow of silence. To be human is to be part of a community, and now more than ever it is important that we all participate in that community.

A pandemic does not need to result in pandemonium.

 

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

Well, we’ve nearly made it through the first two months of the Roaring Twenties, even though it was touch and go sometimes. From swarms of locusts to a virus of plague-like proportions, from monstrous storms churning across the northern Atlantic to catastrophic fires in Australia, from earthquakes to volcanoes to floods – it seems that every day brings some new menace, some biblical pestilence raising its ugly head somewhere in the world.

Indeed, there is so much of the news cycle given over to these catastrophes that nobody seems to have noticed that over 800,000 people have been displaced from their homes by the latest carnage in northern Syria; that the World Bank projects there will be an additional two million Venezuelan refugees and migrants between October 2019 and December 2020; that the western Pacific islands of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and others are rapidly being inundated by rising sea levels.

And it’s still February!

In the face of such a maelstrom of chaos, what is one to do? Some say that we must make sure we are properly informed, that we should turn our attention levels “up to 11” [thank you, Spinal Tap], that we should seek multiple perspectives and cross-correlate what we are reading. There is less chance, perhaps, of us being taken in by ‘fake news’ if we are subscribing to the CBC, CTV, BBC, Sky News, CNN, and Al Jazeera, to name a few, than if we simply relied on one source. Some go further and suggest we also sign up for Fox News and CCTV, for the sake of balance, but personally I think that would be too much information altogether.

And when it comes right down to it, how will being more aware stop the storms, the fires, the locusts, the waves of refugees fleeing conflict and catastrophe? How will knowing the various political influences and machinations of the world stop the manic behaviours of those for whom power is absolute? It won’t, really.

The only answer, I believe, is to run away. My first thought was to go to my garden and hide in the studio-shed, but the wind was howling, and my snowshoes kept breaking through the top layer of crusty snow, plunging me down through two feet (60 cms) of powder to the next ice-layer. So, I went with my second thought, and I am writing this blog from the Douro valley in northern Portugal.

It’s my first time in Portugal and I must say that it is a most interesting country. We’re staying in a small town called Peso de Regua, which gives us access to most of the wine country of the Douro, an area which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The scenery is stunning, vast terraces carved into the hills, olive groves marking the edges of vineyards or in designated fields. I hadn’t realized that the olives are kept separate from the vines because the olive leaves leach a fatty residue into the soil as they decompose, and the grapes react badly to this compound. I also didn’t know that although the Romans produced wines here, and the valley was the primary source for port wines from the sixteenth century until the present day, the ‘modern’ red and white table wine industry is only about 30 years old. We’ve been to various Quinta, the estates where the grapes are grown, and have learned an amazing amount about port, table wines, and olive oils. I’m not sure how useful this knowledge will be, except to bore people at dinner tables. Be warned!

Even in this quiet little valley, though, the issues I mentioned in the first paragraph are top of mind. People are worried at how dry and sunny it has been, so early in the year – there should be rain through March but instead the cherry blossoms are already out. There is a concern that there might be fires again, as there were a few years ago, when even the grapes which survived were ruined because of smoke damage contaminating the juice.

The growing number of tourists is impacting the cost of living, especially as people buy property and establish holiday homes. Labour shortages develop as young people travel to France, Germany and the UK for work, leaving labour-intensive industries like grape harvesting having to recruit from transient or senior populations. Apartments which used to provide affordable housing to low-income workers are now being upgraded and turned into short-term holiday rentals. In the bigger cities like Porto and Lisbon these issues are of even greater concern, with municipalities imposing tourist taxes to try to mitigate against the overcrowding and residential outmigration experienced by Barcelona and Venice.

We’ve been told that food prices are rising as production and transportation costs increase. Portugal is known for its seafood, and there is an astonishing array of fresh fish at the supermarket. But we have heard that there is not the quantity or the variety that there used to be, and that new species are being caught in what were traditional fishing grounds for cod, mackerel, and hake. Today at the store I saw something called the Black Scabbardfish, Aphanopus carbo, a metre-long black fish with fang-like teeth that apparently is found in deeper waters (200 to 2000 metres) in the eastern Atlantic. However, when I looked it up, I discovered that its range is moving north and west, and it can now be found off Canada and even into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. According to Robins et al., 1991, this is an “important and fabled food fish in Madeira”. One wonders how it would go down in Charlottetown.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the prevalence of single-use plastic bags. They are everywhere. On Prince Edward Island these have been banned, and plastic wrapping of any kind is discouraged. Many Island shoppers take their own refillable containers to the store, and all take their own carrier bags. Any plastic that is acquired is immediately separated for recycling, as are bottles, cans, jars, newspapers, cardboard, and so on. Here, everything gets tossed into a black plastic bag and, presumably, taken to a landfill. There are a few recycling bins on some street corners, but not many, and certainly not enough to make a difference. We have accumulated a drawer full of plastic bags and hope to find an elusive bin before we leave.

Portugal has proven a fine haven from the storms and madnesses of the new decade, but it is not a new Eden. It has its own issues, its own crises to manage, and it must learn to function in our rapidly changing world. As must we all. Like all havens, the Douro valley will soon banish us from its heart. It will be time to return home, to get the grow-lights mounted, and to start planting the seeds that will be transplanted to my garden once the snow has gone. By the time May comes around, hopefully I shall have a new haven in which to hide.

End Time Blues

It’s been a strange few weeks since the witches soared on Samhain night. At times it appears that we are watching the end of the world unravel before us, and then some small incident will provide a spark of hope and light. I think we should try to take more notice of those little things – the family reunited, a lost wallet returned, the Christmas dinner cooked and served by volunteers.

But it’s hard – the sheer volume of the negative swamps all the other messages. I confess to being a bit of a news junkie, and I tend to read and watch and listen to a lot more than I probably need. The 24-hour news cycle results in the same stories rotating, and each repetition simply entrenches that issue more firmly in the mind. I don’t “do” social media to any great extent – I have no Facebook or Instagram pages, and am not part of Twitter – but I do use my phone and e-mail and of course have this webpage. Even as a minimalist pseudo-Luddite on the edges of the technosphere it is hard to ignore all the stories with which we are inundated on an hourly basis. I was moved by this dawning comprehension to put pen to paper and compose a little ditty. I can’t write (or play!) a note but if anyone wants to set these words to music, I’ll split the royalties:

There’s Brexit and Impeachment
And the Australian fires of hell;
There’s a cyclone in the Philippines
And the Amazon burns as well.

The ice caps are all melting
We’re told climate change is not to blame;
It’s flooding in old Venice
And there are ashes by the Seine.

We’re getting ready for the Apocalypse
But when you listen to the news;
It seems it got here early
And I’ve got the End Times blues.

There’s school shootings and car crashes
And an oil spill on the lake;
Our numbers just keep rising
How much more can this earth take?

They legalized old Mary Jane
In the hope we’d tune life out;
But the voices of the teenagers
Are rising in a shout.

We’re getting ready for the Apocalypse
But when you listen to the news;
It seems it got here early
And I’ve got the End Times blues.

Of course, it’s not all as bad as this really, is it? I honestly don’t know. In my little part of the world we are certainly seeing some more severe weather events than we have known in the past. The traditional seasonal patterns appear to be changing, with a longer and wetter spring followed by a longer and drier summer. The fall has seen some intense storms, Erin and Dorian being the biggest in terms of infrastructure damage and economic impact. The forecast is for a heavy snow season through the early part of the New Year, but any suggestion that this is driven by CO2 levels in the atmosphere is tempered by the older generation commenting that this is “the kind of winter we used to have”. So, at my local level, perhaps things are not horrendously bad.

And then I get a Christmas letter from a friend who lives on the east coast of Australia, where the fires are burning out of control and the air quality index of Sydney is now the worst in the world. Sydney, that perfect city, with the white sails of the Opera House and the golden sands of Bondi, now smothered in smog. It seems that Beijing and New Delhi have found a way to outsource their reputations for having the world’s worst air pollution.

It’s not all about climate, of course. I get phone calls and text messages from friends in the UK or the US, inquiring in a “just joking – honest” way about how to get a visa to come and live in Canada. There is bloodshed on the streets of Santiago, Chile, which when we were there in April was reported to be one of the most livable cities in South America. In Colombia, a friend is spending Christmas trying to help her neighbours, families of Venezuelan refugees who are living in the house next door and who are part of a diaspora that rarely makes our northern news. So, at those local levels, perhaps things aren’t very bright at all.

I am afraid I have no answers to these conundrums. Does one simply turn off all the newsfeeds and pretend nothing is happening? Is that better than being overwhelmed with the daily gloom – and recognizing how difficult life must be for the younger generations, who are looking to a most uncertain future. But in the absence of answers, perhaps there is action.

My response was to dry a selection of pole beans, various heritage varieties which I grew over the summer. I’ve put a medley of them together in little jars, 100g in each, and am selling them at the Christmas Craft Market as Apocalixir Beans. The basic premise is that if the Zombie Apocalypse comes, one can hide in the basement and cook the beans and live on them, the elixir of life, until things quieten down. And if there is no Zombie Apocalypse by June, you can plant them in your garden and grow your own crop for next year. It’s only a small response to the chaos around us, but it does make people smile. I sell them at $3.50 a jar, five jars for a cow.

Fe fo fi fum!

With best wishes for the holiday season, and for the new decade ahead.