An Interview with a Bull Thistle

Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

Darwins Paradox-2nd edI write mostly eco-fiction. Even before it was known as eco-fiction, I was writing it. My first book—Darwin’s Paradox—published in 2007 by Dragon Moon Press as science fiction, was also eco-fiction. It takes place in 2075 after climate change has turned southern Ontario into a heathland and Toronto into a self-enclosed city. My latest eco-fiction—A Diary in the Age of Water published in 2020 by Inanna Publications—is set mostly in Toronto from the near-future to 2065 and beyond.

As a writer of eco-fiction and climate fiction, I’m keenly aware of the role environment plays in story. Setting and place are often subtle yet integral aspects of story. In eco-fiction, they can even be a “character,” serve as archetypes and present metaphoric connections to characters on a journey (see my guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character published by Pixl Press for more discussion on all aspects of nature’s symbols in writing).

EcologyOfStoryThings to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance, is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?

Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.

Archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place or aspects of place act as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—this provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.

“Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story,” writes Donald Maass in Write the Breakout Novel Workbook.

Diary Water cover finalWater has been used as a powerful archetype in many novels. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, water plays an important role through its unique metaphoric connection with each of the four main characters; how they relate to it and understand it, and act on its behalf. Water in A Diary in the Age of Water is often personified; water reflects various symbolic and allegorical interpretations and embraces several archetypes including herald-catalyst, trickster, shapeshifter, and shadow.

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment).

FictionWriter-cover-2nd edIn these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With the Wind; the white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; The animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

All characters—whether the main POV character, or a minor character or personified element of the environment—have a dramatic function in your story. In my writing courses at George Brown College and The University of Toronto and in my guidebook The Fiction Writer, I provide a list of questions you can ask your character to determine if they are functioning well in the story and if they should even stay in the story. I call it interviewing your character. You can interview any character in your story; it can provide incredible insight. And speaking of character…

I have of late been walking daily to a lovely meadow beside a stream and thicket where brilliant Bull thistles have burst into flower. I felt the need to research this beautiful yet dangerously prickly plant and why it peaked my interest…

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Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 Interview With the Bull Thistle

Nina: Pardon my saying, but you seem to scream paradox. You’re dangerously beautiful. Alluring yet aloof. Standoffish, even threatening. For instance, how is it that you have such a beautiful single purple-pink flower at the top of such a nasty prickly stem and leaves?

Bull Thistle: First of all, it isn’t just a flower at the top; it’s a flower head of over two hundred flowers called florets. Each flower head is a tight community of tube disk bisexual florets arranged in Fibonacci spirals and protected by a collection of spiked bracts called an involucre. And inside the protective outer shell, embedded in a fleshy domed receptacle, are the tiny ovaries, waiting patiently to be fertilized and grown into a seed or achene.

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Honey bee getting nectar from the thistle flower head (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: Ah, I beg your pardon. But you still have all those sharp spikes everywhere. I’m guessing they are to protect your developing young, the ovaries. But doesn’t that isolate you? Keep you from integrating in your ecosystem?

Bull Thistle: The bristles are specifically aimed at predators who wish to harm us, eat us, bore into us, pull us out of the earth. We have many friends—the pollinators, the bees, wasps, and butterflies that help us cross-pollinate from plant to plant. And the birds—particularly the goldfinches—also help.

Nina: Wait. Don’t goldfinches eat your babies—eh, seeds?

Bull Thistle: They do. But they also help disperse our children. They land on our dried involucres—now opened to reveal the seeds and their pappus. The birds pull the seeds out by the thistle down that rides the wind. The birds eat the seeds and also use the thistle down to make their nests. But—like the squirrels who love oak acorns—the birds miss as many as they eat. By carrying the down to their nests, they also help the seeds travel great distances farther than the wind would have carried them. By dislodging the seeds in bunches, they help the seeds break away from the receptacle and meet the wind. The pappus, which is branched and light like a billowing sail, carries the seed on the wind to germinate elsewhere to help us colonize.

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Opened involucre with achenes and pappus ready to disperse, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: So, your enemy is also your friend… The shadow character, who helps the hero on her journey by presenting a perilous aspect of enlightenment.

Bull Thistle: Agreed. Nature’s resilience derives from the balance of give and take over time. Prey and predator. Death, decay, transcendence. Destruction and creation. Ecological succession and change are a gestalt expression of Gaia wisdom as each individual fulfills its particular existential niche. Even if that is to die…for others to live.

Nina: Yes, the hero’s journeyBut you’re not originally from here, are you? You were brought to North America from Eurasia. Some consider you an interloper, a disturbance. You could serve the shadow or trickster archetype yourself—outcompeting the native thistle, creating havoc with pasture crops. You can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, letting you spread to new areas. Your high seed production, variation in dormancy, and vigorous growth makes you a serious invader. You cause wool fault and physical injury to animals. Storytellers might identify you metaphorically with the European settler in the colonialism of North America; bullying your way in and destroying the natives’ way of life.

Bull Thistle: We’re unaware of these negative things. We don’t judge. We don’t bully; we simply proliferate. We ensure the survival of our species through adaptation. Perhaps we do it better than others. You’ve lately discovered something we’ve felt and acted on for a long time. Climate is changing. We must keep up with the times… But to address your original challenge, if you did more research, you would find that we serve as superior nectar sources for honey bees (Apis spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and sweat bees (Anastogapus spp.) who thoroughly enjoy our nectar.

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Sweat bee draws the sweet nectar of the Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re considered a top producer of nectar sugar in Britain. Cirsium vulgare—our official name—has ranked in the top 10 for nectar production in a recent UK survey.  The goldfinch relies on our seed and down. And we’ve provided food, tinder, paper, and medicine to humans for millennia. As some of your indigenous people point out, it’s a matter of attitude. Change is opportunity.

Thistle group Pb copyNina: I guess that every weed was once a native. I also agree that times are changing—faster than many of us are ready for, humans included. If you were to identify with an archetype, which would you choose?

Bull Thistle: That would depend on the perceiver, we suppose. Some of us think of us as the hero, journeying through the change and struggling to survive; others see us as the herald, inciting movement and awareness by our very existence; some of us identify with the trickster, others with the shapeshifter—given how misunderstood we are. In the end, perhaps, we are the mentor, who provides direction through a shifting identity and pointing the way forward through the chaos of change toward enlightenment.

Nina: Yes, I suppose if someone stumbled into your nest of prickles, incredible awareness would result. Speaking of that very awareness, this brings me back to my original question: why are you so beautiful and deadly?

Bull Thistle: We are the purest beauty—only attained through earnest and often painful awareness. We are the future.

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Flower head of Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You can read more on this topic in Nina’s writing guidebook series, particularly The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Relevant Articles:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

Ecology of Story: World as Character” Workshop at When Words Collide

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with The Water Brothers

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AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

Join the discussion!

In Episode Six of Age of Water, we join Canadian film educators The Water Brothers—Alex and Tyler Mifflin—in Toronto, Ontario, where they discuss their eco-adventure TV series and other documentary initiatives to educate, entertain and connect people with water and environmental issues. Alex and Tyler are two young eco-adventurer brothers who travel the world to explore our relationship with water. What are the problems and where will the solutions come from? The next generation takes us on the search.

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The Water Brothers

The Water Brothers is an eco-adventure documentary series that follows brothers, Alex and Tyler Mifflin, as they explore the world, uncover the planet’s most important and leading-edge water stories and interview top scientists and experts on solutions to help overcome the many and diverse environmental challenges we all face. There is nowhere they won’t go from high mountain peaks to the bottom of the ocean.

 

Alex and Tyler are passionate about the subject of water conservation and use their respective educations in film and environmental studies to create this award-winning series. Alex is the lead researcher, co-writer and co-host and Tyler is the co-host, director, videographer and co-producer. They share a love of travel and adventure, a passion for the subject and a powerful desire to communicate their passion to audiences, especially their own generation.

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Water Brothers

Age of Water talked to the Water Brothers about their adventures from the Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River—largest gathering of humans on earth—to diving into dead zones to sailing into the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The Water Brothers circle the globe to bring back stories that affect, inspire and educate viewers.

The Water Brothers airs in Canada on TVO, Knowledge Network, and Radio – Canada in Quebec, as well as in over 50 countries worldwide.

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

Age Of Water Podcast: Nina Reads from “The Overstory”

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, Nina reads from the eco-fiction book “Overstory” by Richard Powers, an exploration of the relationship of trees and humanity…

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At the heart of Richard Powers’s The Overstory are the pivotal lives of two women, botanist Patricia Westerford and college student Olivia Vandergriff. Both will inspire a movement against the destruction of forests.

theoverstoryPatricia Westerford—whose work resembles that of Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest) and UBC’s Suzanne Simard—is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position.  But, just as with Lynn Margulis and her theory of endosymbiosis, Westerford is finally validated. She is the archetypal ‘mother tree’, the metaphoric Tachigali versicolor, who ultimately brings the tangle of narratives together through meaning. Westerford writes in her book The Secret Forest:

“There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer…Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded. A forest takes care of itself, even as it builds the local climate it needs to survive…A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Olivia Vandergriff miraculously survives an electrocution to become an ecowarrior after she begins to hear the voices of the trees. She rallies others to embrace the urgency of activism in fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods and even camps in the canopy of one of the trees to deter the logging. When the ancient tree she has unsuccessfully protected is felled, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” Vandergriff weeps for this magnificent thousand-year old tree. So do I. Perhaps the real heroes of this novel are the ancient trees.

EcologyOfStoryIn his review of Overstory in The Guardian, Banjamin Markovits wrote, “ There is something exhilarating…in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-DickThe Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference… And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”

I further explore the use of metaphor and other storytelling devices used by Richard Powers in his strongly symbolic novel in my writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Age of Water Podcast: Nina Reads from “Barkskins”

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcastcovers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, Nina reads from the novel “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx a poignant exploration of the forest industry in Canada and North America.

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Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (Rene Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America starting with the arrival of the Europeans to contemporary global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France “to clear the land, to subdue this evil wilderness,” says their seigneur. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and build a timber empire.

Barkskins AnnieProulxProulx immerses the reader in rich sensory detail of a place and time, equally comfortable describing a white pine stand in Michigan and logging camp in Upper Gatineau to a Mi’kmaq village on the Nova Scotia coast or the stately Boston home of Charles Duquet. The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect and a fierce hunger for “more.”

The novel rolls out events in a relentless stream of life and death; no character is safe from the ravages of nature or the notions of that time period. While most of the book flows like a great amoral river—filled with feckless, unheroic and at times miserable characters—there are moments of emotional shoring. They act like exclamation marks for their rarity.

EcologyOfStory“The reader comes to realize that the novel isn’t really about the human characters so much as it is about the forests,” Gus Powell of The National Postconcludes of Barkskins. “As [the forests] disappear, the narrative seems to recede in importance, revealing a crucial interdependence between the human and the natural world previously handled almost entirely as subtext. This is especially true in the novel’s closing, where the anger and despair that have characterized the novel shift into an outspoken environmental advocacy.”

I further explore the use of metaphor and other storytelling devices used by Annie Proulx in this strongly symbolic novel in my writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Launch of “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

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Diary Water cover finalOn June 18th, Toronto book publishing house Inanna Publications launched its second spring series and A Diary in the Age of Water, my near-future/far-future speculative fiction book was among them.

A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to water.

Evoking Ursula LeGuin’s unflinching humane and moral authority, Nina Munteanu takes us into the lives of four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. In a diary that entwines acute scientific observation with poignant personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Particularly harrowing are the neighbourhood water betrayals, along with Lynna’s deliberately dehydrated appearance meant to deflect attention from her own clandestine water collection. Her estrangement from her beloved daughter, her “dark cascade” who embarks upon a deadly path of her own, is heartwrenching. Munteanu elegantly transports us between Lynna’s exuberant youth and her tormented present, between microcosm and macrocosm, linking her story and struggles – and those of her mother, daughter and granddaughter – to the life force manifest in water itself. In language both gritty and hauntingly poetic, Munteanu delivers an uncompromising warning of our future.

—Lynn Hutchinson Lee

 

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Renee Knapp and Nina Munteanu toast Inanna and all participants at the launch

A Diary in the Age of Water starts with young Kyo in the dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada. Kyo yearns inordinately for the Age of Water, a turbulent time of great change, before the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity. Looking for answers and plagued by vivid dreams of this holocaust, Kyo discovers the diary of Lynna, a limnologist from a time just prior to the destruction.

At the book launch, I read from Lynna’s first diary entry—in 2045. I then answered questions from audience members who came from Canada’s coast to coast:

 

What inspired you to write this book?

The Way of Water-COVERWho really… My publisher in Rome (Mincione Edizioni) had asked me for a short story on water and politics. I wanted to write about Canada and I wanted something ironic… so I chose water scarcity in Canada, a nation rich in water. “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua”) resulted, which has been reprinted in several magazines and anthologies, including Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change (Exile Editions), Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction (Future Fiction/Rosarium Publishing), Little Blue Marble Magazine, and Climate Crisis Anthology (Little Blue Marble). The story was about young Hilde—the daughter of the diarist—dying of thirst in Toronto… It begged for more … so the novel came from it…

 

Why did you choose to write your novel as a diary?

I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and even real people. I wanted personal relevance to what’s going on, particularly with climate change.  I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of the mundane and a diary felt right. The diarist—Lynna—is also a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting.

 

If the oceans are rising because the ice caps are melting, is the ocean actually getting less salty?

The short answer is “yes.” As glaciers melt and introduce fresh water to the ocean—contributing to the rise in sea level—salinity is reduced in the surrounding sea. This has far-reaching consequences that lie beyond just rising sea levels and promise to affect all ocean life. Because freshwater is less dense than seawater—hence the saltwater wedge we experience on the lower Fraser River in Vancouver—freshwater increase in seawater will interfere with the pattern, mixing, and movement of ocean currents; this could be devastating to ocean life. The overall movement of ocean currents throughout the planet is called the Great Ocean Conveyor—or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—which circulates ocean water very much like in a lake, with dense water sinking beneath warmer, less salty water. As my diarist in the book writes, dumping in more and more freshwater into the ocean has slowed the sinking (and mixing) and the whole machine is slowing down. Freshwater is jamming the conveyor. If it stalls, this would unbalance the heat flux of the planet with more climate devastation.

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Sketch of Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) from “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications (sketch by Nina Munteanu)

The main protagonist is a limnologist; so are you; is there any resemblance?

Oh yes! Well, apart from the obvious—we both chose the same scientific discipline, we have similar views on the environment and humanity’s place in it. I might even have some of her foibles…hopefully not ALL of them… But, I’d say that all good characters have a piece of ourselves in them. Some dark and some light. The resemblance is heightened because she is depicted through her diary, which adds a gritty realism and a highly personal aspect to the fiction. In truth there’s a piece of me in each of the four women depicted in the story.

 

What is happening to the water in Ontario?

Water quality in Ontario waterways has not improved in the last decade and this can be placed squarely on the shoulders of local, regional and provincial governments and their failure to legislate and act. Inaction varies from lack of regulations and policing of industry to lack of city infrastructure and lack of ecological foresight.

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Cladophora alga in Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario itself receives pollution from Chicago, Sarnia, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Hamilton and Toronto. Pollution includes agricultural runoff (such as excess nutrients and cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides), disease-carrying sewage, and hormone-disrupting storm water runoff. Nine million people rely on the lake for drinking water. Greatest threats to the lake’s health come from urban development, electricity generation, sewage, and storm water contamination. In cities with large amounts of impervious surfaces, storm water runs over pavement and parking lots, picking up oil and other pollutants before flowing into a nearby river or stream. Flash floods are often accompanied by sewage overflow, which carries numerous pathogens. In addition, storm water picks up toxic heavy metals, endocrine disrupting chemicals and pharmaceuticals. All with devastating consequences to humans, never mind aquatic life and other wildlife.

Every five years the Conservation Authority Watershed Report Cards provide an assessment of ground and surface water quality in various watersheds of Ontario. The latest one by the TRCA (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority) in 2018 gave an overall grade of “D” (unchanged from 2013). They cited storm water runoff and lack of its management improvement as the chief reason for the poor grade. Increasing chloride concentrations in the Toronto region (mostly from liberal use of road salt) poses a real problem to aquatic life.

 

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Forest swamp in Deas Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You mentioned that each of the four generations of women have a singular relationship with water. What role does water play in the book?

Well, in some important way, water is the fifth character. You could say even the main character. Water is the theme that carries each woman on her personal journey with climate change and the devastation that occurs—through water, I might add. Climate change is a water phenomenon, after all… So, water—like place and setting—plays a subtle yet powerful role in the story, influencing each character in her own way and bringing them together in the overall journey of humanity during a time of great and catastrophic change.

 

Are there other ages/epochs?

Yes. The story begins in the far future with young Kyo during the Age of Trees, after the end of the Age of Water. It is, in fact, the end of that age as well and that is why she prepares for the Exodus to “humanity’s” new home.

All Inanna titles are 30% off with coupon code: summer20. Please also consider purchasing “A Diary in the Age of Water” from an independent bookstore this summer. Find your local bookstore: http://open-book.ca/News/Your-Community-Your-Bookstore. And here is the current map of independent bookstores that are doing curbside pick up and delivery across Canada.

 

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Surf on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo and illustration by Nina Munteanu)

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

What If the Birds All Die?

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a science fiction writer. I’m thinking “what if” premises all the time. One that nags me is: What if the birds all die?

We might be closer to it than you think…

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Chickadee in Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

The focus of the study wasn’t on extinction; these are still common species—just greatly diminished in numbers. This makes sense to me. My naturalist friend and I have both noticed how even the common house sparrow have declined in our neighbourhoods. My friend noticed fewer dashes of colour in the trees provided by yellow warblers in the past few years.

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Northern Cardinal (photo by Merridy Cox)

 

The Guardian reported that two thirds of the house sparrow population have disappeared in Europe. That’s close to 150 million birds. The article blamed changes in land use (destruction of habitat), coastal management (destruction of wetlands) and weather (including climate change). In another study, car exhaust was implicated in a 60% loss of common sparrow numbers from the mid 1990s.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Unchecked deforestation. Unchecked use of toxic pesticides. Turning wetlands into parking lots. Climate change. We are destroying the integrity of ecosystems throughout this planet on a massive scale. And the birds are telling us…

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Baby Robin rests on a porch chair in Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

subTerrain 85 coverMy short story “Out of the Silence,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of subTerrain Literary Magazine (Issue 85), tells the story of Katherine, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of soundscape ecology.

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures—unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks—roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance…

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Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

RachelCarson-LindaLearIn her 1997 biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, historian and science biographer Linda Lear wrote:

Silent Spring, the product of [Carson’s] unrest, deliberately challenged the wisdom of a government that allowed toxic chemicals to be put into the environment before knowing the long-term consequences of their use. Writing in language that everyone could understand and cleverly using the public’s knowledge of atomic fallout as a reference point, Carson described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides altered the cellular processes of plants, animals, and, by implication, humans. Science and technology, she charged, had become the handmaidens of the chemical industry’s rush for profits and control of markets. Rather than protecting the public from potential harm, the government not only gave its approval to these new products but did so without establishing any mechanism of accountability. Carson questioned the moral right of government to leave its citizens unprotected from substances they could neither physically avoid nor publicly question. Such callous arrogance could end only in the destruction of the living world.

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life. And it’s making us sick too.

Bumble bee

Bumble bee at risk

In a 2012 article in the New York Times—exactly fifty years after Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962—Nancy F. Koehn tells us that, “[Rachel Carson] was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.” Carson, writes Koehn, was an introverted scientist with a lyrical bent, who saw it as her mission to share her observations with a wider audience. Carson wrote Silent Spring while battling illness (including breast cancer) and caring for her young son. When the book was published, she faced an outburst of public reaction and strong backlash, primarily from chemical companies. Not unlike another female eco-hero (Greta Thunberg), Carson endured with dignity and deliberation the vulgar censure by opponents (virtually all men tied to corporate giants) who attacked her personally with vilifying stereotype. Men accused her of being disloyal and unscientific, and being a hysterical woman. One letter to the editor that the New Yorker saw fit to print read:

silent-spring-rachel carson“Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.”

Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote privately to former President Dwight Eisenhower that Carson was “probably a communist.”

Environment & Society Portal provides a revealing synopsis of the response by established patriarchy at the time:

Allegations that Carson was just a hysterical woman appeared both in the pages of chemical and agricultural trade journals as well as in the popular press. Women were imagined to be less rational, more emotional, and more sentimental than men, who could be relied upon to study the issues dispassionately and propose rational solutions. An agricultural expert told a reporter at the Ribicoff hearings, “You’re never going to satisfy organic farmers or emotional women in garden clubs” (Graham 1970, 88). In his letter to Eisenhower, Benson wondered why a “spinster was so worried about genetics” (Lear 1997, 429).

As Carson had no institutional affiliation, she was dismissed as an amateur who did not understand the subject like a professional scientist would, or who distorted or misread the science. To her critics, Carson’s frequent use of terms like “nature,” “natural,” and “balance of nature” identified her as a mere sentimental nature lover or a pantheist like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Reviews in TimeU.S. News and World Report, and even Sports Illustrated took her to task. The reviewer in Time, for example, criticized her “emotion-fanning words” and characterized her argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional and inaccurate outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature” (Brooks 1989, 297).

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American Robin (photo by Merridy Cox)

Even inoffensive public portraits of Carson showed her in more domestic rather than scientific settings. Life magazine published a story about her accompanied by photos of her talking with children while on a nature walk or watching birds with a group of Audubon Society members. Dressed like a housewife and surrounded by children and “bird people,” Carson projected an image of a teacher or stay-at-home mother, although the picture on the first page of the article showed her at a microscope. Carson, said the story, “is unmarried but not a feminist (‘I’m not interested in things done by women or by men but in things done by people’)”

According to historian and biographer Linda Lear, “the industry spent a quarter of a million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. In the end, the worst they could say was that she had told only one side of the story and had based her argument on unverifiable case studies.” According to Lear, “Carson was an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment, first because she was a woman but also because her chosen field, biology, was held in low esteem in the nuclear age. Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice. She deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience. For anyone else, such independence would have been an enormous detriment. But by the time Silent Spring was published, Carson’s outsider status had become a distinct advantage. As the science establishment would discover, it was impossible to dismiss her.”

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House Sparrow (photo by Merridy Cox)

Not unlike Greta, Rachel and the message in her book exerted a great impact on the environmental movement. Silent Spring became a rallying focus for a new social movement in the 1960s, which endures to the present day.

According to Lear:

“Carson’s concept of the ecology of the human body was a major departure in our thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It had enormous consequences for our understanding of human health as well as our attitudes toward environmental risk. Silent Spring proved that our bodies are not boundaries. Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death. Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable. All forms of life are more alike than different.

“Carson believed that human health would ultimately reflect the environment’s ills. Inevitably this idea has changed our response to nature, to science, and to the technologies that devise and deliver contamination. Although the scientific community has been slow to acknowledge this aspect of Carson’s work, her concept of the ecology of the human body may well prove to be one of her most lasting contributions.”

Bernie Krause Florida

Bernie Krause

In the meantime, alarming signals suggest that Rachel Carson’s 1962 warning is currently underway. The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

“Man’s war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”—Rachel Carson

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

Craig Russell’s “Fragment” in the time of COVID-19

Fragment-CraigRussellCraig Russell begins his eco-thriller Fragment with a TV interview of glaciologist Kate Sexsmith in Scott Base Antarctica. The interview is interrupted by what turns out to be four runaway glaciers that have avalanched into the back of the Ross Ice Shelf and a fragment the size of Switzerland surges out into the open sea. Hence the title: Fragment.

The original slide / wave and ensuing tsunami wipes out both Scott Station and the American McMurdo Station. The TV station records the moment:

Where Kate had stood to touch the map of Antarctica moments before, something hit the wall like an artillery round. It left a ragged hole through wall and map alike, framing an eerie light-show. A sheet of jewels flickered, glinting greens and blues, until a white mountain appeared and the screen went black.

Ross Ice Shelf 4

Ross Ice Shelf, Antartica

With astute prescience, Russell reveals humanity’s behaviour in the stress of such a momentous event: from scientists who understand the global significance of this rogue fragment to those who minimize its effect such as the media and tourist industry who wish to exploit this anomaly and self-centred politicians obsessed with protecting their status.

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Antartica

 

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Senator Inhofe and infamous snow ball

My first thought was: he’s stereotyping a little. Then COVID-19 broke out to become a global pandemic. The reactions of scientists, media and certain politicians (e.g. the Trumps of the world) have played out with COVID-19 just as Russell had predicted with Fragment. Then again, good science fiction reaches deeply into a society’s core being, our motivations, fears and strengths; this is why science fiction is so eerily good at predicting. The best way to predict possibilities of the future is to understand the present and, as Russell demonstrates, science fiction writers are in touch with the zeitgeist of the world.

Reflecting the American government’s ridiculous denial of climate change, and calling to mind Republican Senator Inhofe’s snow ball in the senate scene, Russell’s character David Rookland (Washington’s Science Advisor) uses the glacier avalanche and fragment that he (purposely) misunderstands to illustrate with equal lack of logic the same misguided myth: “these theorists claim that around the world, glaciers have been receding. Thankfully, as you can see in the second photo, dear old Mother Nature has proven them wrong again.”

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Blue whale

 

Russell’s chapters devoted to the POV of character Ring, a young blue whale also fragmented from his pod, are particularly touching and powerful. Chased alternatively by Killer whales and human hunters, Ring must warn his kind of the danger posed by the fragment. In one chapter Ring observes that “there’s a special taste to the air here, a tang carried north from the twin Smoking Mountains, which send their steamy vapors into the sky forever.”

Russell then weaves an inspiring legend among the blues about a whale named Long-Throat and the “hard/noisy things” that came to hunt. Men slaughtered so many and scattered the pods in all directions. According to the legend of Long-Throat, the faint bitter smell of the Smoking Mountains brought the pods together again. This had been a time, thinks Ring, when the pods were not afraid to be different, or of new places and strange experiences. But no more. “The Slaughter scarred his race and young Blues are fed fear with their mother’s milk. Fear that never heals, never sleeps. Fight it though he may, that fear lives inside him too.” Ring hopes that, by facing this new fear of the fragment and its incredible power to devastate (any whale caught under its massive moving force will drown), “the old fear can be allowed to sink away.” His course is clear: he must compose a new song to warn other blues. Ring ends up doing far more than sound the warning of the moving behemoth to his people when he is discovered by an American nuclear missile submarine. What follows is what I think is the real story and its magic.

Ross Ice Shelf

Ross ice shelf, Antarctica

The book is appropriately titled Fragment because in some ways the fragment is a main character, carrying the theme. It is herald, harbinger, and misunderstood by many. Its power is greatly underestimated by others, and it is set apart from its fold to become something else. Like Ring and his people. Like humanity, even. Just as the Corona virus pandemic (currently ravaging the world as I write this article) promises to change every aspect of our world, so too does the fragment.

The fragment: “….Its northern rim is a world of chaos. Pack-ice, bulldozed by the Fragment, has been swept up into a bramble, miles deep, piled up and over itself in a frozen explosion. The corpses of countless penguins lie within, broken by the onslaught. Behind this jumble rises the Wall. A hundred metres above the water line and six hundred below, the Shelf is old, formed before Columbus stumbled his way across the Atlantic. In the Fragment’s back, imbedded like spears, are vast sections of the four glaciers. Byrd, Nimrod, Beardmore, and Shackleton. Truly ancient, each is a fortress, hard as granite, laminated layer upon layer over millennia…The creatures of the sea meet the wall in their millions. The air breathers, penguins, seals, dolphins, and so on, have no hope. They swim and die, exhausted and drowned. For many of the water breathers like fish and squid, the drop in temperature near the Fragment is too much…Some species of fish, well able to withstand the cold, succumb instead to the unfamiliar fresh water that has begun to pool around the Fragment.”–Craig Russell, Fragment

In a scene near the end of the book, which could be taken out of our current COVID-19 crisis, Russell describes how carefully considered warnings by scientists are downplayed as “alarmist” resulting in devastating inaction:

When Kate Sexsmith presents a possible scenario of the Fragment smashing into Europe, the Chairman of the European Fragment Conference counters with “in that highly unlikely event” all is under control by the world community. To this dangerous platitude, Sexsmith challenges (only to receive a mealy-mouthed double-speak reply):

“Respectfully, Mr. Chairman, [says Sexsmith] the world has faced plenty of hurricanes, tidal waves, and earthquakes. But we have no historical event to compare with the Fragment. And Europe isn’t the only place in danger. There are millions of people at risk on the Caribeean islands. Many are poorly educated and have no resources of their own. When do we mov them? How do we move them? Who is prepared to take them in? And based on Stanley [which was totally destroyed by the Fragment] who is prepared to take them in on a permanent basis?”

“We are not blind to these concerns, Doctor [says the chairman]. But we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist approach. Our scientific community’s reputation for sound council is too important to risk…”

But when great disaster strikes, all peoples (whales and humanity) come together in solidarity. With new humility, kindness and wisdom. I was astonished at the way Russell pulled things together toward a unique resolution. I give Craig Russell five stars for the courage to end his book the way he did. It was pure magic. The kind of magic we all want to see more of in this currently beleaguered, divisive and consumer-obsessed world.

Antarctica ice

Antartica

As Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort said of COVID-19, the Fragment “might just turn the world around for the better [as] an amazing grace for the planet.”

Antarctica melting

Antarctica melting

 

Whales and Intelligence:

Scientists are still finding ways to assess “intelligence”, particularly in life that isn’t human. Whales have been shown to have emotional intelligence. They show signs of empathy, grief, joy, and playfulness. All of these learned behaviors, types of intelligence, and signs of teamwork have led scientists to think about groups of whales in new ways.

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Blue whale

Most humans believe that our ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other animals, but cetaceans may be superior. According to a comparison of cetacean to primate brains from Michigan State University, “They have the distinct advantage over us in that their primary sense is the same as their primary means of communication, both are auditory. With primates, the primary sense is visual and the primary means of communication is auditory.” Communication is so great in cetaceans that there is a strong possibility they are able to literally project an “auditory image” that replicates a sonar message they may receive.  MSU describes it this way: “So a dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

Specialized brain cells called spindle neurons are most often associated with an organism’s ability to “recognize, remember, reason, communicate, perceive, adapt to change, problem solve and understand.” Spindle neurons have been isolated in the brains of both whales and dolphins, which suggests that whales do a lot more thinking than previously thought. Dolphins, for example, have been known to recognize themselves in mirrors, solve problems, follow recipes, and associate a part of their anatomy with that of a human’s (such as when a dolphin waves it’s fin whenever a trainer waves their arm). Recent studies even indicate that dolphins are capable of creating personalized whistles that act as names for individual members of a pod. With this name, dolphins are able to communicate more efficiently while roaming the open seas.

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Mother humpback and her calf

In a Scientific American article entitled “Are Whales Smarter Then We Are?” R. Douglas Fields writes: Logically, brain function and intelligence must relate to the number of neurons. Intelligence resides in the neocortex (the thin, convuluted “rind” of the brain) rather than in other, underlying areas devoted to controlling vital housekeeping functions for the body, so Eriksen and Pakkenberg focused their investigation there. The frontal lobes of the dolphin brain are comparatively smaller than in other mammals, but the researchers found that the neocortex of the Minke whale was surprisingly thick. The whale neocortex is thicker than that of other mammals and roughly equal to that of humans (2.63 mm). However, the layered structure of the whale neocortex is known to be simpler than that of humans and most other mammals. In particular, whales lack cortical layer IV, and thus have five neocortical layers to humankind’s six. This means that the wiring of connections into and out of the neocortex is much different in whales than in other mammals. The researchers’ cellular census revealed that the total number of neocortical neurons in the Minke whale was 12.8 billion. This is 13 times that of the rhesus monkey and 500 times more than rats, but only 2/3 that of the human neocortex. What can account for the fact that whales have bigger brains — and similarly thick neocortexes — but fewer neurons? Eriksen and Pakkenberg found that there were 98.2 billion non-neuronal cells, called glia, in the Minke whale neocortex. This is the highest number of glial cells in neocortex seen in any mammal studied to date. The ratio of neocortical glial cells to neocortical neurons is 7.7 to 1 in Minke whales and only 1.4 to 1 in humans. This finding may indicate a tendency for larger glia/neuron ratios as brain mass increases to support the growing neurons. But when one considers other recent research revealing that glia play an important role in information processing (see “The Other Half of the Brain,” fromn Sci. Am. April 2004), one is left to wonder. Is the whale brain intellectually weaker than the human brain, or just different? They have fewer neurons but more glia, and in traditional views of the glia, the neurons count for much more.

In her article in One Green Planet entitled “Whales and Dolphins Might Be The Smartest Animals”, Madison Montgomery leaves us a strong message and exhortation: “While it appears that cetaceans have incredible abilities to feel emotions, understand complex problems and communicate in ways we can’t even imagine, humans don’t seem to value this. Because we assume we are so smart, we put the other creatures of the world underneath us. Knowing how dynamic cetaceans are, keeping them in glorified bathtubs and forcing them to do tricks for food is insulting and cruel. Could you imagine the pain of living in a small room your entire life and having to do flips to be fed? Sounds like a miserable existence, doesn’t it?”

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

A Diary in the Age of Water: The Rocky Mountain Trench Inland Sea

Diary Water cover finalIn my novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) the diarist writes about the huge 800-km reservoir complex built in the late 2020s in the Rocky Mountain Trench to rehydrate the United States. Of course, it’s science fiction, but it was based on real plans that went all the way to Congress in the 1960s.

Snaking along the length of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the reservoir promised to submerge numerous British Columbia towns such as Dunster, McBride and Valemount and pose an existential threat to northern communities of BC and Alaska.

 

The Trench

The Rocky Mountain Trench is a long and deep valley walled by sedimentary, volcanic and igneous rock that extends about 1,500 km from Flathead Lake in the Bitterroot Valley of northwest Montana through British Columbia to the Liard Plain just south of the Yukon Territory. Blanketed mostly by white and black spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine, the northern trench stretches 3–20 km wide to accommodate the major river systems that snake along its mostly flat floor. This rich ecosystem is home to bears, caribou, moose and wolves. To the south, where the valley meanders more at lower elevation, the forest opens up and gives way to grasslands, marsh and farmland. The Trench is sometimes referred to as the “Valley of a Thousand Peaks” because of the towering mountain ranges on either side: the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Columbia, Omineca and Cassiar mountains to the west.

The Trench is a large fault—a crack in the Earth’s crust—and bordered along much of its length by smaller faults. Major structural features resulted from the shifting and thrusting of tectonic plates of the crust during the early Cenozoic Era, some 65 million years ago to form mountains. The ridges of fractured crust then pulled apart and the land in between dropped, creating the floor of the Trench.

RMT near Golden-south of Kinbasket

Rocky Mountain Trench, near Golden, B.C.

Among the major rivers that flow through the trench are the Fraser, Liard, Peace and Columbia rivers. Construction of hydroelectric projects—particularly those at Peace Canyon and Mica Dam—have disrupted the seven major rivers that once flowed through the Trench. All but the Fraser and Kechika rivers now empty into reservoirs on the valley floor; these include several reservoirs along the Columbia River in the southern trench such as the Kinbasket reservoir (created by the Mica Dam in 1973 to form Canoe Reach), and Revelstoke Lake (created by the Revelstoke Dam in 1984). Williston Lake was formed by the A.C. Bennet Dam on the Peace River in 1968. I had studied the effects of pulp mill activities for the federal government’s Environmental Effects Monitoring (EEM) Program.

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The Rocky Mountain Trench is topographically visible as it follows the BC-Alberta border south from Williston Lake

 

The Inland Sea

Like pseudopods of a hunting amoeba, the Rocky Mountain Trench reservoir system would have sent tendrils of water up river arms, and drowned swaths of ancient oroboreal rainforest. The rainforest corridor of Robson Valley—a conservation area that continues to experience existential risk due to development, resource harvest, and other disturbance—would have been one of the many casualties.

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Ancient Redcedars in old-growth rainforest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Una stopped the car and we stared out across the longest reservoir in North America. What had once been a breathtaking view of the valley floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench was now a spectacular inland sea. It ran north-south over eight hundred kilometres and stretched several kilometres across to the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. Una pointed to Mount Mica, Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau and several other snow-covered peaks. They stood above the inland sea like sentinels of another time. Una then pointed down to what used to be Jackman Flats—mostly inundated along with McLellan River and the town of Valemont to the south. Hugging the shore of what was left of Jackman Flats was a tiny village. “That’s the new Tête Jaune Cache,” my mother told me.

If villages had karma this one was fated to drown over and over until it got it right.  Once a bustling trading town on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, Tête Jaune Cache drowned in the early 1900s when the Fraser naturally flooded. The village relocated to the junction of the original Yellowhead 16 and 5 Highways. Villagers settled close to where the Fraser, Tête Creek, and the McLellan River joined, all fed by the meltwater from the glaciers and icefields of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains. The village drowned again in 2025. I imagined the pool halls, restaurants, saloons and trading posts crushed by the flood.

“This area used to be a prime Chinook spawning ground,” Una said. “They swam over 1,200 km from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs right there.” She pointed to the cobalt blue water below us.

Kinbasket Lake-RMT

Kinbasket Reservoir

The reservoir sparkled in the sun like an ocean. Steep shores rose into majestic snow-capped mountains. The village lay in a kind of cruel paradise, I thought. It was surrounded by a multi-hued forest of Lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Douglas fir, paper birch and trembling Aspen. Directly behind the village was Mount Terry Fox and across the Robson valley mouth, to the northeast, rose Mount Goslin. Behind it, Mount Robson cut a jagged pyramid against a stunning blue sky. Wispy clouds veiled its crown. I couldn’t help thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. And yet, for all its beauty, the villagers had lost their principle livelihood and food. The reservoir had destroyed the wildlife habitats and the fishery. And its people with it.

Una pointed to where the giant reservoir snaked northwest and where towns like Croydon, Dunster, and McBride lay submerged beneath a silent wall of water. Her eyes suddenly misted as she told me about Slim Creek Provincial Park, between what used to be Slim and Driscoll Creeks just northwest of what used to be the community of Urling. She told me about the Oroboreal rainforest, called an “Antique Rainforest”—ancient cedar-hemlock stands over a 1000-years old. She described how massive trunks the width of a small house once rose straight up toward a kinder sun. The Primordial Grove was once home to bears, the gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine and ungulates. It was the last valley in North America where the grizzly bear once fished ocean-going salmon. Now even the salmon were no longer there, she said. Then she bent low beside me and pulled me close to her in a hug. She quietly said to me, “This is what killed Trudeau.”

I stared at her and firmly corrected, “but that was an accident.”

“Yes,” she agreed. Then added, “a planned one.”

A Diary in the Age of Water

 

NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance)

The original NAWAPA Plan was drawn up by the Pasadena-based firm of Ralph M. Parsons Co. in 1964, and had a favorable review by Congress for completion in the 1990s. The plan—thankfully never completed—was drafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and entailed the southward diversion of a portion (if not all) of the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, now flowing into the Arctic Ocean as well as the Peace, Liard and other rivers flowing into the Pacific by creating massive dams in the north. This would cause the rivers to flow backwards into the mountains to form vast reservoirs that would flood one-tenth of British Columbia. The water would be channeled south through the 800-km Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir into the Northern USA, and from there along various routes into the dry regions of the South, to California and reaching as far as Mexico.

NAWAPA proposal Ralph M. ParsonsCo-1960s copy

NAWAPA was envisioned as the largest construction effort of all times, comprising some 369 separate projects of dams, canals, and tunnels, for water diversion. The water diversion would be accomplished through a series of connecting tunnels, canals, lakes, dams, and pump-lifts, as the trench itself is located at an elevation of 914 m (3,000 feet). To the east, a 9 m (thirty-foot) deep canal would be cut from the Peace River to Lake Superior. NAWAPA’s largest proposed dam would be 518 m (1,700 feet) tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (at 221 m) and taller than any dam in the world today, including the Jinping-I Dam in China (at 305 m).

Conspiracy theorist and convicted fraudster Lyndon LaRouche was a principle proponent of the environmentally destructive NAWAPA plan. Although the plan was scrapped in the 1970s due to environmental concerns, it resurfaced in 1982 particularly by Parsons engineer Roland Kelley, who wrote a report called NAWAPA Plan Can Work. LaRouche and his movement revived interest more recently. In 2012 the LaRouche Political Action Committee released their NAWAPA XXI special report, which contained a detailed plan for the revival of an updated and expanded version of NAWAPA. The LaRouche movement continues to promote this outlandish plan today with support from various American politicians and industrialists.

In his book Cadillac Desert, environmental writer Marc Reisner described the plan as one of “brutal magnificence” and “unprecedented destructiveness.” Historian Ted Steinberg suggested that NAWAPA summed up “the sheer arrogance and imperial ambitions of the modern hydraulic West.”

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Expanded NAWAPA XXI plan

Rocky Mountain Trench near Radium Hot Springs, BC

Rocky Mountain Trench near Radium Hot Springs

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

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Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

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Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

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White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

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Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

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Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

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Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

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Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

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Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

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Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

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Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

Intarsia using blue-green spalted wood

Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

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Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia), Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

The Aggressive Symbiosis of SARS-CoV-2: Seeking Balance in an Unbalanced World

SARS-CoV-2

SARS-CoV-2

In the following scene of my upcoming speculative novel “Thalweg” (set in 2053 Toronto) one of my characters, Daniel–who is a bit of a conspiracy theorist–is trapped in an old abandoned garage, about to fight off a pack of stray dogs. His feverish mind thinks back to the COVID-19 pandemic:

“The official story was that SARS-CoV-2, which caused the COVID-19 pandemic of the early ‘20s resulted from the recombination of two previous viruses in some host—supposedly a bat or pangolin—which then ended up in a Wuhun wet market; there, the recombined virus gleefully jumped species to humans, who, in turn, gleefully spread it worldwide. But, according to the study at the Wuhun hospital, patient zero hadn’t been anywhere near the wet market. So, where did the virus really come from?…”

Daniel then recalls a conversation he had–when he still had a job–with colleague Lynna in which he  suggested that the chimera virus–and the others that followed–were developed as a bioweapon through Gain-of-Function research and they somehow leaked into the public. To her scoff, he reminded her that the aim of GOF research is to induce an increase in the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens. He then provided numerous examples involving Influenza, SARS, and MERS.

Influenza virus

Influenza virus

Did she know, for instance, that in 2014 Obama put a funding moratorium on all GOFR experiments that might enhance virus pathogenicity or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. Then in 2017, under the Trump administration, the NIH turned it all back on.

squirrel monkey

Squirrel monkey

Lynna responded calmly with a convincing argument, based on science and ecology. “Sure, they could be that,” she acknowledged thoughtfully. “Or they could simply be more cases of co-evolution and aggressive symbiosis…” Then she informed Daniel that viruses commonly form aggressive relationships with their hosts. Every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses, she said. The herpes-B virus that chums with the squirrel monkey is one example. The virus and an immunity to it passes harmlessly from mother to baby monkey. If a rival species like the marmoset monkey invades their territory, the virus jumps species and wipes out the challenger by inducing cancer in the competing marmoset monkey. Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a similar pattern of “aggressive symbiosis.”

This community-symbiosis functions like an ecosystem’s “immune system” that protects its own from the encroachment of invading species—even when that invading species is us.

—excerpt from Nina Munteanu’s “Thalweg” (upcoming)

 

Aggressive Symbiosis & Virus X

Virus X FrankRyanIn his book Virus X, Dr. Frank Ryan coined the term aggressive symbiosis to explain a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator. Examples abound, but a few are worth mentioning. In South American forests, a species of acacia tree produces a waxy berry of protein at the ends of its leaves that provides nourishment for the growing infants of the ant colony residing in the tree. The ants, in turn, not only keep the foliage clear of herbivores and preying insects through a stinging assault, but they make hunting forays into the wilderness of the tree, destroying the growing shoots of potential rivals to the acacia.

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Bamboo forest near Kyoto, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Borneo, a species of rattan cane has developed a symbiotic relationship with a species of ants. The ants make a nest around the cane and drink its sweet sap. The ants, in turn, protect the cane. When a herbivore approaches to feed on the leaves, the ants attack.

Ryan draws an analogy between this aggressive symbiotic partnership and that of new zoonotic agents of disease. He argues that when it comes to emerging viruses, animals are the cane and ants are the virus.

Viruses & Zoonotic Agents of Disease

Ryan suggests that Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a pattern of aggressive symbiosis. This may explain why Ebola is so virulent. The Ebola virus is so fierce that victims don’t make it very far to infect others, suggesting that the virus is an evolutionary failure. However, if the virus is acting as an aggressive symbiont, it may be fulfilling its evolutionary purpose by protecting a host species we haven’t yet identified.

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Azteks meet Spaniards who bring smallpox

Historian William H. McNeill suggested that a form of aggressive symbiosis played a key role in the history of human civilization. “At every level of organization—molecular, cellular, organismic, and social—one confronts equilibrium [symbiotic] patterns. Within such equilibria, any alteration from ‘outside’ tends to provoke compensatory changes [aggressive symbiosis] throughout the system to minimize overall upheaval.”

One of a legacy of examples of aggressive symbiosis in history includes smallpox: the Europeans introduced smallpox (symbiotically co-evolved with them) to the Aztecs with devastating results. Other examples of aggressive symbiosis include measles, malaria, and yellow fever.

 

Wet Markets & Factory Farming

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Inhumane and unsafe treatment of animals in wet market in China

The National Observer gives a vivid description of the potential for zoonotic viral spread in the world’s wet markets, particularly in Wuhun:

“Dozens of species that rarely, if ever, come in contact with one another in the wild ― fish, turtles, snakes, bamboo rats, bats, even foxes and wolf cubs ― are confined in close quarters, waiting to be butchered and sold. The animals are often stressed, dehydrated and shedding live viruses; the floors, stalls and tables are covered in blood, feces and other bodily fluids.

This is the scene at many of China’s so-called “wet markets,” where a poorly regulated wildlife trade thrives and creates conditions that experts say are ideal for spawning new diseases.

“You could not design a better way of creating pandemics,” said Joe Walston, head of global conservation at the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. “It’s really the perfect mechanism, not just for the Wuhan coronavirus but for the next ones that will undoubtedly emerge sooner rather than later.”

Zoonotic diseases, or diseases that can leap from animals to humans, are not uncommon and they don’t always come from exotic animals, writes Ari Solomon of Veganista. “Many come from the animals we regularly farm and eat. The 1918 influenza pandemic, or the Spanish flu, infected more than 500 million people and killed between 40-50 million worldwide. It is now commonly believed that the disease originated in birds. When the H1N1 virus, the same strain that caused the Spanish flu, showed up again in 2009, it first emerged in pigs. Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and pig MRSA also came from animals exploited for food.”

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Happy cows in Seelisberg, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In 2004, Linda Saif, with the Department of Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center summarizes a number of farm and domestic animal reservoirs of zoonotic corona viruses that have caused human diseases historically and many that may still do so through recombinations. Animals have included cows (BCoV), pigs (PEDV and PRCV), chickens (IBV, turkeys, cats (FCoV and FIPV), ferrets and macaques. Saif cautions that, given an estimated 75% of newly emerging human diseases arise as zoonoses (from wild or farm animals), interspecies transmission poses a continued threat to human health.

Wet markets aren’t the only places where animals are kept under and treated with cruelty and lack of any compassion or kindness:

“Thanks to the advent of factory farming, billions of animals are routinely kept in crammed, filthy conditions that cause them extreme stress. This abhorrent practice creates the perfect breeding ground for new diseases to thrive. Add to that the fact that we regularly feed factory farmed animals low-doses of antibiotics and we really have a recipe for disaster.”—Ari Solomon, Veganista

It comes down to balance. Something about which the human species has much to learn.

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Buttressed fig tree in Costa Maya (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It is clear to me that these pandemics are exacerbated—if not outright caused by—our dense over-population and an exploitation mentality: our encroachment and defilement of natural habitats and the life that inhabits them. Gaia is suggesting that we live more lightly on this planet. Her ecosystems are responding to our aggression with equal aggression. And, make no mistake, we won’t win that battle. Just as we won’t win the battle with changing climate. It’s time to learn humility as a species in a diverse world. Time to cultivate respect for our life-giving environment. Time to learn the power of  kindness.

The National Observer recently ran an article stating that: “COVID-19 and other health endemics are directly connected to climate change and deforestation, according to Indigenous leaders from around the world who gathered on March 13, in New York City, for a panel on Indigenous rights, deforestation and related health endemics.” The virus is telling the world what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for thousands of years: that “if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri Indigenous person from Costa Rica and co-ordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

Many environmental experts agree that the novel coronavirus will only be the first in waves of pandemics we can expect if we ignore links between infectious diseases and the destruction of the natural world.

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Bamboo, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“I’m absolutely sure that there are going to be more diseases like this in future if we continue with our practices of destroying the natural world,” said marine ecologist Dr Enric Sala to the Independent.

 

Reiterating the work of Dr. Frank Ryan, David Quammen, author of 2012 Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic told the Independent: “Our highly diverse ecosystems are filled with many species of wild animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. All of that biological diversity contains unique viruses.” This unique community has developed over many many years into a functional community symbiosis in which viruses play an important part.

“There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” says Richard Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health.

The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before, said Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL to The Guardian.

“We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,” says Jones. “Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from…We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

“It’s like if you demolish an old barn then dust flies. When you demolish a tropical forest, viruses fly. Those moments of destruction represent opportunity for unfamiliar viruses to get into humans and take hold.”–David Quammen

It’s aggression meeting aggression.

“Community-symbiosis functions like an ecosystem’s ‘immune system’ that protects its own from the encroachment of invading species—even when that invading species is us.”–Lynna Dresden, in Nina Munteanu’s Thalweg

 

EcologyOfStoryFor more on “ecology” and a good summary and description of environmental factors like aggressive symbiosis and other ecological relationships, read my book “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press, 2019).

Glossary of Terms: 

Aggressive Symbiosis: a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator (Ryan, 1997).

Co-evolution: when two or more species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution through the process of natural selection and other processes. 

Gain-of-Function Research (GOFR): involves experimentation that aims or is expected to (and/or, perhaps, actually does) increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens (Selgelid, 2016). 

Patient Zero: the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases. 

Recombination: the process by which pieces of DNA are broken and recombined to produce new combinations of alleles. This recombination process creates genetic diversity at the level of genes that reflects differences in the DNA sequences of different organisms.

Symbiosis: Greek for “companionship” describes a close and long term interaction between two organisms that may be beneficial (mutualism), beneficial to one with no effect on the other (commensalism), or beneficial to one at the expense of the other (parasitism). (Munteanu, 2019).

Zoonosis: a zoonotic disease, or zoonosis, is one that can be transmitted from animals, either wild or domesticated, to humans (Haenan et al., 2013).

Virus: a sub-microscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. The virus directs the cell machinery to produce more viruses. Most have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material.

 

References:

Frazer, Jennifer. 2015. “Root Fungi Can Turn Pine Trees Into Carnivores—or at Least Accomplices.” Scientific American, May 12, 2015. Online: https://blogs. scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/root-fungi-can-turn-pine-trees-into- carnivores-8212-or-at-least-accomplices/

Munteanu, N. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 198pp. (Section 2.7 Evolutionary Strategies)

Munteanu, N. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto.

Ryan, Frank, M.D. 1997. “Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues.” Little, Brown and Company, New York, N.Y. 430pp.

Ryan, Frank, M.D. 2009. “Virolution.” Harper Collins, London, UK. 390pp.

Saif, Linda J. 2004. “Animal Coronaviruses: lessons for SARS.” In: “Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary.” National Academies Press (US), Kobler S., Mahmoud A., Lemon S., et. al. editors. Washington (DC).

Selgelid, Michael J. 2016. “Gain-of-Function Research: Ethical Analysis.” Sci Eng Ethics 22(4): 923-964.

VanLoon, J. 2000. “Parasite politics: on the significance of symbiosis and assemblage in theorizing community formations.” In: Pierson C and Tormey S (eds.), Politics at the Edge (London, UK: Political Studies Association)

Villarreal LP, Defilippis VR, and Gottlieb KA. 2000. “Acute and persistent viral life strategies and their relationship to emerging diseases.” Virology 272:1-6. Online: http://bird uexposed.com/resources/Villarreal1.pdf

Wohlleben, Peter. 2015. “The Hidden Life of Trees.” Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC. 272pp.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.