What Ecology Can Teach Us: “Rogue Harvest” by Danita Maslan

Farmer’s field, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Sometime in the future, Earth is recovering from a devastating 50-year plague that has destroyed most of its natural forests and grasslands and killed two out of every three people. Environmental technocrats now run the world under strict rule: while virgin ecosystems are re-created from original templates through genetic engineering, no human is permitted to set foot in these sanctuaries. As sanctuaries grow ever larger, humanity is pressed into over-crowded cities where boredom and strife dominate. The Emerald Coalition hires reclamation company EcoTech to “recreate the world their great, great grandparents lost.” But their ecosystems are morphing into “aberrations” (new species with surprising properties), which would shock the applied Ecology community—except EcoTech is keeping it a secret. So begins Danita Maslan’s eco-thriller Rogue Harvest by Red Deer Press. Published in 2005, this powerful environmental story is as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago. Perhaps more so.

In his Foreword to Maslan’s book, Hugo-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, shared a story from a 2004 presentation he gave at Mount Royal College in Calgary. In his presentation, Sawyer lamented that science fiction seemed to pull in opposite directions to such an extent that any message was cancelled by its opposition. The example he gave in the Foreword came from two bestselling authors: Kim Stanley Robinson whose Forty Signs of Rainwarned of rising temperatures due to climate change; and Michael Crichton, who denied global warming as fearmongering in State of Fear. According to Sawyer, Rogue Harvest provided a fresh story grounded in the balance of a third perspective—not a neutral middle-ground, but “one that shears away at right angles from the current polarized debate, taking our thinking in new directions by predicting both environmental collapse andenvironmental salvation.” 

Told through the unruly character of Jasmine, Rogue Harvest explores a post-plague world in recovery. After radical environmentalists from Green Splinter assassinate her father, Jasmine enlists a street-smart mercenary to help her vindicate her father’s call to open the forbidden preservesto the public. This leads Jasmine into the depths of the genetically re-created South American rainforest, where political intrigue, corporate greed and violence collide in a combustible mix. This is where it gets messy—which biology certainly is. But it gets messy for other reasons. Human-reasons. Reasons of power-mongering and lack of compassion. The very reasons why the environmental technocrats established their hands-off edict in the first place. This is explored through great irony in Rogue Harvest. An irony that L.E. Modesitt, Jr. astutely notes, “[the environmental technocrats] prove that, given power, they’re just like everyone else.” Just as there remain uncompassionate exploiters and pillagers in the likes of harvester Gunther Vint, who heedlessly pollutes the rainforest as he harvests it.

buttressed strangler fig in Costa Maya jungle (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The South American rainforest provides some of the most vivid, colourful and memorable scenes in the book. Maslan traveled to the tropics and ensured accurate science of this incredibly rich ecosystem through Mark W. Moffett’s The High Frontierand Donald Perry’s Life Above the Jungle Floor, as well as Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. It is in the South American recreated jungle that the key elements—and posed questions—of the story play out. 

In his testimonial to Rogue Harvest, Hugo Award Finalist James Alan Gardner poses: “We see both sides of an ecological conundrum that resonates with the present day: how can we live in harmony with our environment, neither vandalizing it nor walling it off as too precious to touch?”

This is the tantamount question. Can our species achieve this balance? Rogue Harvest answers this clarion call with mixed optimism. While showcasing the propensity for greed and careless exploitation, the book also reveals a more altruistic and kinder side of humanity. One that promises hope and light to our darker side. But, is this realistic, given our current dominant worldview? 

On page 149 in Rogue Harvest, Jasmine’s politician father Owen Lamberin defends his position of wishing to open up the protected Nature preserves to regular folk by proclaiming, “Do they want to keep us out forever? Then who are we reseeding the globe for if not for us?” This is later echoed by Jasmine to justify flouting the preservationist edicts of the Emerald Coalition. When I first read this passage, part of me rankled. Does not the natural world have an intrinsic value and right to simply be? Must we justify all things by our own presence and direct use of them? Surely functional ecosystems provide ecosystem services for planetary wellness that benefit ALL life, not just humans, and not all directly. For example, our terrestrial and marine forests provide necessary oxygen and climate balance (by removing excess carbon dioxide) that benefits all life on the planet. Ecologists—particularly Canadians—recognize the benefit of ‘preservation’ (wilderness that is not accessed by humans) over ‘conservation’ (areas where humans extract resources with some environmental risk) and the need for both to exist for the planet’s overall well-being. This is based on the simple fact that not all humans behave as they should. Those of us who follow a utilitarian neo-liberal worldview of consumption and “othering nature” are not acting as efficient partners in the natural world. Many see themselves as apart from Nature, above Her, even, and will act less than kindly. Current deforestation of the Amazon and the old-growth forests of British Columbia, are just two examples that reflect this destructive “Nature othering” force. 

Ancient red cedar tree in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In contrast, indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world of which they are a part. Knowing that they are part of Nature, they act accordingly, with respect. They are efficient partners, taking only what they need, thanking Nature for her gifts, and giving back in return in a process of reciprocal altruism and mutualism.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Gathering Moss” and “Braiding Sweetgrass” writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave these to us, as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well. 

These gifts are also responsibilities, a way of caring for each other. Wood Thrush received the gift of song; it’s his responsibility to say the evening prayer. Maple received the gift of sweet sap and the coupled responsibility to share that gift in feeding the people at a hungry time of year. This is the web of reciprocity that the elders speak of, that which connects us all. I find no discord between this story of creation and my scientific training. This reciprocity is what I see all the time in studies of ecological communities. Sage has its duties, to draw up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail. Part of its responsibility is also to the people. Sage helps us clear our minds of ill thoughts, to carry our good thoughts upward. The roles of mosses are to clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds … Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher.”

Robin wall kimmerer

  

Wall-Kimmerer is talking about a way of life through willing participation and an attitude of great respect and humility. But many non-indigenous people do not ascribe to this philosophy and way of life—with dire consequence to our environment and our own welfare. In Rogue Harvest Maslan rightfully demonstrated the continued presence of this destructive force in humanity even as a respectful and thankful attitude was shown by Jasmine and her harvesting team. The question is: How many does it take to spoil this balance?

It would be close to fifteen years after Rogue Harvest was published that I would finally read Maslan’s book—this year, in 2020, during an ongoing planetary-wide plague. Ironically, only two years after Danita’s debut novel, my own debut eco-thriller Darwin’s Paradox was released by Starfire in 2007. And the theme was eerily similar: struggling with the devastation of an environmental plague (Darwin Disease), the Gaians—environmental technocrats who run the world—have isolated humanity from Earth’s treasured natural environment. One main difference between Rogue Harvest and Darwin’s Paradox is that in the latter book the technocrats have kept the public ignorant of how the environment has recovered, ensuring its safety from destructive human hands—except for the ‘enlightened’ Gaians, who secretly live out in the beauty of a recovered natural world and commute to the indoor world. However, as the environment recovers, humanity deteriorates in its cloistered indoor world. Darwin’s Disease—related to indoor living—sweeps across humanity with debilitating genetic deterioration, violent death and the promise of extinction.  This is something the self-professed deep ecology Gaians—akin to Maslan’s Emerald Coalition—are content to see in—if it means preserving the natural world.

Both the Gaians and Maslan’s Emerald Coalition demonstrate a lack of faith in humanity and an unrealistic need to restore environments to their pristine pre-human levels; something that is highly unrealistic—and doomed to fail. “Aberrations” (as Maslan’s characters called them) are part of the natural process of adaptation and change inherent in the natural world. As a practicing ecological consultant, I was constantly running against an idealised and unrealizable notion to put everything back to what it used to be. For several decades ecologists were tasked to restore habitats to their pristine condition—when the notion of “pristine” was impossible to achieve, let along discern. It would have been like turning back the clock of history to prevent John F. Kennedy from being shot. Ecologists finally realized that in lieu of “restoration” and looking back, we needed to “rehabilitate” by looking forward. This is what Nature has always done. Nature adapts. So must we. Our management programs must incorporate Nature’s ever-changing processes of resilience and look forward—not backward—to achieve a sacred balance. 

If there is a deeper message in Maslan’s book, it is this: that our salvation—and the salvation of the world—lies in not obsessing on returning to a past pristine state (with attempts at over-protection), but in looking forward to healing and nurturing a world in which we have a place. This would involve reimagining our niche (our job) as efficient partners in an ever-evolving and changing natural world, by casting off the parasitoid1role we’ve all too often assumed and replacing with a role of mutualism2. But … and there is a huge BUT here. This will only work if we pursue this approach with integrity. With our eyes and hearts open to Gaia’s sacred plan of which we are a part. Robin Wall Kimmerer shows us the way through Traditional Ecological Knowledge:

“If each plant has a particular role and is interconnected with the lives of humans, how do we come to know what that role is? How do we use the plant in accordance to its gifts? The legacy of traditional ecological knowledge, the intellectual twin to science, has been handed down in the oral tradition for countless generations. It passes from grandmother to granddaughter gathering together in the meadow, from uncle to nephew fishing on the riverbank … How did they know which plant to use in childbirth, which plant to conceal the scent of a hunter? Like scientific information, traditional knowledge arises from careful systematic observation of nature, from the results of innumerable lived experiments. Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher. Plant knowledge comes from watching what the animals eat, how Bear harvests lilies and how Squirrel taps maple trees. Plant knowledge also comes from the plants themselves. To the attentive observer, plants reveal their gifts.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

But is this possible? To return to Sawyer’s remark and Gardner’s question, can we achieve this sacred balance and harmony? For many of us, I think, yes. But for many more, I’m not sure. And that is what worries me. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our parasitoid archetype of self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward towards a sacred balance. And time is running out for us. Time to rewrite our story.

In Maslan’s book, humanity is given a second chance to prove itself worthy of inclusion. Her book is a call to action. Can we do this before it’s too late for us? Time to listen and learn from our indigenous peoples. Time to learn about Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Time to slow down, set aside our egos, and use all our senses to learn from Birch, Bear, and Beaver…

Cedar pine forest in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

1.parasitoidis a term that describes a parasite that grows on the body of another organism from which they get nutrients and shelter. Unlike typical parasites, a parasitoid usually kills its host (Munteanu, 2019).

2.mutualismdescribes an ecological interaction between two or more species that increases fitness in both, through direct interaction and co-adaptation. Two examples include vascular plants and mycorrhizae, their fungal partners, and flowering plants and their pollinating insects. Even predators act in some form of mutualism when their role of culling weaker individuals from the prey gene pool is considered (Munteanu, 2019). 

References:

  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 198pp.
White cedar tree and stump in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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 Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Smell the Earth and Breathe in the Beauty of this Day

Willows on shore of Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

If COVID-19 has taught us anything I hope it is to live with less and rejoice in it. To be grateful for what we have. To take joy in acts of kindness to others. To live with less is to give more and live lightly and sustainably for this dear planet of ours. Our sustenance. Our friend.

NINA MUNTEANU

Why is it, then, that we have ceased to converse with Her? We no longer communicate with Nature and Gaia. We’ve isolated ourselves with hubris and greed and the pursuit of wealth and power.  And what are these? Do they make us happy? Do they bring joy?

Poplars on a country road in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

We’ve become unruly self-centred bullies who think somehow that Homo sapiens alone was ordained by God to rule this planet. But there is no ruling Her. Why do we still cling to the ancient human-centred philosophies that have created “the other”? Descartes expounded that no other life or being other than “man” had a soul. Or feelings, for that matter. This preposterous notion has carried on for over six hundred years into today’s abhorrent racism, the creation of homo sacer, creation of property, subjugation of women by men, patriarchy, androcracy, cruelty to animals, deforestation and so much more that ails us and the world. 

Moss on log in Cedar swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world they are part of. They do not separate themselves from the sacredness of creation and the evolving world of matter and energy. All matter is living and has a soul, connected to the “oneness”. European settlers dismissed their wisdom as primitive and simple. How wrong the settlers were. How simple the settlers were. This is the wisdom of quantum physics. Have we—their descendants—changed?

White / red pine forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

COVID-19 is but one iteration of a conversation Nature is trying to have with us. She is talking to us in words of climate change, storms, disease and pandemic. She is telling us something and we aren’t listening. Her message is clear: live in partnership. Live in humility and joy. Live the galanic life of cooperation, respect, and kindness to ALL THINGS in a world with no “others.” If we don’t start listening, we will find ourselves more than alone…

Poplar forest in northern Ontario in the fall (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All in Nature is a gift.

In her book “Gathering Moss” Robin Wall Kimmerer shares this wisdom:

“In indigenous ways of knowing…every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave us these stories as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.”

ROBIN WALL KIMMERER

Kimmerer shares that the sage “draws its up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail…Mosses clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds.” The tree provides a whole ecosystem that shelters, feeds and nurtures so many organisms and its environment. Every part of a tree is involved; trunk, bark and leaf to cambium, xylem and phloem. And this from when a squirrel first embeds into the ground the nut poised to germinate to a fallen tree in full decay and returning to the soil.

Moss-covered Eastern cedar tree grows on decaying prone cedar in swamp forest (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is our gift?

Go out into Nature. Touch a tree. Tell it that it is beautiful. Thank it for its shade. Feel its corky bark. Feel the miracle of creation sing through you. Touch a leaf, feel its supple texture and filigree of intricate markings. Imagine the chloroplasts swimming inside, capturing the gift of energy from the sun in the dance of quantum life. Imagine that energy surging through tissue, cell, interstitial water. Then in a deep sigh hear it release its Great Breath of Life in the most beautiful song. Its gift to the world. 

Smell the earth and breathe in the beauty of this day.

Ancient red cedar in Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Maple swamp in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Marsh stream off a country road in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Swamp forest, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Decaying beech and ash leaves, Little Rouge River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Willows at mouth of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Reference:

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.

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 Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Subversive Side of Colonization & The Emerald Ash Tree Borer

Col-o-ni-zation: 1) the action by a plant or animal of establishing itself in a [new] area; 2) the action of appropriating a place or domain for one’s own use; 3) the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people [or other native species] of an area.

 

AshTree decaying-EastDonRiver

Ash tree decays with help from colonizing blue stain fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In a previous article, I wrote about how escaped Atlantic salmon from farm pens in the Pacific posed a threat to the wild Pacific salmon. Some argue that these interlopers will outcompete their Pacific cousins for habitat and food like many exotics when they are first introduced (think of Purple loosestrife in Canada).

Tree-bore holes close-EDRpark

Insect bore holes in dead tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Purple loosestrife spread rapidly across North America’s wetlands, roadsides and disturbed areas after it was introduced in the 1800s when its seeds were included in soil used as ballast in European sailing ships and discarded here; Purple loosestrife is present in nearly every Canadian province and almost every U.S. state. This plant can produce as many as two million seeds in a growing season, causing dense stands of purple loosestrife and outcompeting native plants for habitat. This results in changes to ecosystem functions such as reductions in nesting sites, shelter and food for the native birds, as well as an overall decline in biodiversity (which causes ecosystem fragility).

What we often forget to consider is the indirect impact of the invasive: disease. What something considered innocuous brings with it. When the Atlantic salmon was brought from its native Atlantic habitat to be farmed in the Pacific (because it grew so fast), it brought its toolkit of adaptations—and what it carried—that was unfamiliar to a vulnerable Pacific wild population. The piscine orthoreovirus (PRV) that makes the Atlantic salmon sick, kills the Pacific native (think how the European settlers inadvertently brought in smallpox that killed thousands of indigenous people in Canada).

Ash-bored-RougeJPG

Ash tree succumbs to Agrilus in Rouge Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is a “disease” inadvertently brought in by Chinese or Russian traders to North America that is destroying the native ash tree (e.g. green ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica; American ash, Fraxinus Americana; Black ash, F.nigra; Blue ash, F. quadrangulata). A native to East Asia, including China and the Russian Far East, the ash borer has no natural predator here. It was likely brought to North America on wood packaging materials in the early 1990s. They were first detected in Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario in 2002; and have since spread to more than 30 states and 5 provinces since. Most species of North American ash trees are vulnerable to the beetle, which has already killed millions of trees in Canada in forested and urban areas. No North American natural predators (e.g., woodpeckers, other insects or parasites) have slowed the spread of the emerald ash borer. Up to 99% of all ash trees are killed within 8-10 years once the beetle arrives in the area.

In a note on the text of his small collection of stories entitled “Trees Hate Us” (Odourless Press, 2019) E. Martin Nolan writes on behalf of the Ash tree:

Dying Ash-Patrick ButlerThe Emerald Ash Borer hasn’t a real predator here. Don’t blame it for doing what it does, for being in the crates humans ship across oceans. Killed 30 million in Michigan, where it was first found. It’ll kill clear to the ocean.

I am a living ash. For my own safety, I cannot disclose my name or location. Call me Last Ash. The humans do not understand why I lived. I believe it to be a curse—one I’m prepared to live out. Perhaps I contain a deformity that kills the beetle. Maybe I don’t attract it. Call that evolution. Your words will always be your words.

I have watched all of my kind die around me. Dying gives them the art of poetry. Foreknowledge of death opens their language so a human can hear it. One human. Immune, I am left alone like a city tree, to converse in prose among strange maples, birches, pines and firs reluctant to share speech with a member of so plagued a species. As I live out my natural days, these poems—at least the middle bit—will bring me some small contentment. And we may yet return. The trees’ story is long and slow, despite this lightning-fast shrapnel from the human timeline.

E. Martin NolanE Martin Nolan is a poet, essayist and editor. He edits interviews at The Puritan, where he’s also published numerous essays, interviews and blog posts. He teaches in the Engineering Communication Program at The University of Toronto, and is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at York University. Born and raised in Detroit, he received his Bachelor’s Degree in English Writing at Loyola University New Orleans, and received his Master’s in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto.

 

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.