“My parents reduced, reused and recycled before we knew the words,” said a friend recently. “They didn’t replace anything until it was entirely worn out and then old clothes were turned into patchwork quilts. We are the throw-away generation, beginning with Kleenex and disposable ballpoint pens and razor blades and now including almost everything.”
But the children of early settlers , including my parents whose history books I have, grew up with Canada’s British-published history book which chided the hunter-gatherer First Nations for wasting the land, and lauded European settlers for finally making proper use of it by cutting down the trees, getting rid of the buffalo, and building farms and cities. Not surprising, then, that it was an easy leap to city sewage systems that discharged directly into the local rivers and lakes and that, by the 1960s, scientists advised prairie farmers to upgrade their practices by draining all the sloughs, cutting out all the brush, and planting road line to road line.
We were the children of those children and we grew up in one-roomed country schools where we celebrated Arbour Day in the spring, a loose date dependent on the weather. It was an outdoor celebration — we weeded the area around the flagpole, rescued perennials from clumps of grass, and generally beautified our school grounds. By contrast, when J. Sterling Morton organized the first American Arbour Day in Nebraska City on April 10, 1872, an estimated one million trees were planted across Nebraska.
The first Arbour Day ever, in fact, was organized almost 70 years earlier by a priest in a little Spanish village in 1805. Don Ramon Vacas Roxo organized a three-day festival and personally planted the first tree because he believed in the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs. Church bells rang and there was feasting and dancing.
Earth Day was organized for the first time in 1970, and now attracts action across 192 countries. I most remember the early days in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., when along with ceremoniously planting one tree on one day a year, we had begun tentatively to recycle glass and paper. It was a start. Still, over the last half century, we have managed to foul our inland waterways, fill the oceans with trash, and create a landfill crisis.
Our generation played in the now-drained sloughs, brought home tadpoles, lived in the midst of nature, absorbed the changing seasons as we walked to school. What do we do for the next generation?
I believe strongly in local library memberships, especially now that we can order books from anywhere knowing we will have them within a few days. My fall-back position, of course, is always books. There’s an author/illustrator, Karen Patkau, born in Winnipeg, educated in Manitoba and Alberta, now living in Toronto, who has created six Ecosystem Series books exploring the value of spaces that we North Americans once considered “wasted” — the prairies and swamps — and also looks at why humans, as much as animals, need reefs, icebergs, jungles and desert. The books are recommended for young people, ages seven to 10, but the wisdom behind the text is multi-generational.
There’s a pattern to the series. Who Needs a Prairie begins with the plants and animals that live on the prairie and talks about their dependence on one another. It covers life and death — who eats what and who gets eaten — the restorative power of fire, how prairie plants protect the land. As in all the books, the text morphs away from plants and animals into the role that the prairie ecosystem plays in the lives of all of us humans. The case for a healthy prairie is made as a source of desperately needed food.
Each book ends the same way. “Who needs a . . .? We all do.”
Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Saskatchewan Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.