River Pilgramage

From Monday evening through to Thursday morning we were both swept up by the beauty of the area of Brule (just north of Jasper National Park where we enjoyed a mountain view accommodation) and the many amazements within the Park during our days.  I took Mary on day trips to see the Athabasca River ‘story’ in the Park … from Sister Water’s liquid emergence off the Columbia Icefield to her early formation as Athabasca River.  Early on we see that she grows with the merging of other streams, waterfalls and smaller rivers (like the Sunwapta) into her widening river-body.  There’s a dignity and majesty about her presence as she passes between mountain summits and evergreen forests! A steady stream of people from all over the world marvel at her force and striking beauty at the Athabasca Falls.  Her water nourishes elk, deer, mountain goats and mountain sheep, black, brown and grizzly bears, and all manner of other life!  Her river body has been habitat for at least 14 species of fish in the Park.  (This year the panel about this biodiversity of fish is removed from its usual site overlooking Athabasca Falls and I wonder why.)  It truly is a constantly sobering truth to me that this same glacier water, such a deeply revered and respected river presence in Jasper National Park, is so unprotected as she travels northward through the midst of industry in Hinton, Whitecourt and then the extractive bitumen (formerly call ‘tar sands’) industries north of Fort McMurray.


Athabasca Falls Beauty




Here we see the contrast, the story of the Athabasca – in glacier form, in waterfall, and traversing through Jasper area, then snaking through the northern Boreal Forest, and then to where we are now: millions of litres a day being used (by Suncor and Syncrude and other companies) in the intensive bitumen extraction process north of Fort McMurray.  Lakes of this river water sit toxic in what is called ‘tailings ponds’ with human-form decoys and canon shots scaring off water-loving birds from landing on its dangerous surface.  It is a frightening scene, but industry does their level best to give everything a greener face by emphasizing their efforts at reclamation of land and tailings ponds.  In fact, that’s exactly what they want the public to see as the primary focus of their tours and tour guide ‘script.’  These areas are postage stamp size in comparison to the aerial view of the vast expanse of the strip mining activity.  We have seen the process now from the ground (as much as is allowed with the tight security) and from the air (which is also limited because industry does not permit aircraft to fly too close, so small aircraft skirt the edges of massive strip-mining sites).

It all leaves both of us very unsettled within, soul sick really, about the operative worldviews beneath the activity of such a devastated life (eco) region:  the worldviews of ‘use’ (that everything is there for our use) … earth is crass matter, all is ‘object’ for our use, not ‘subject to commune with’ … everything for the almighty dollar with lots of room for greed to have its way in ‘business.’  Large blocks of Boreal Forest – where permits have been granted to oil companies and they are currently marked off for upcoming strip mining and extraction – are home to diverse animal and plant life.  But within these sections of the boreal, government and corporate decisions reign supreme in favour of industrial enterprise.  Other life forms have no vote, no voice in their own right to exist.  They don’t even factor into the equation of ‘exploration’ of a site ready to be ruined (clear-cut) in preparation for strip-mining.  And fish and other aquatic life in the Athabasca River are not even mentioned on industry tours.  They are all collateral damage, I suppose.

I am reminded of two reflections offered by one of my greatest teachers, Thomas Berry:

“The glory of the human
has become the desolation of the earth.

The desolation of the earth is
increasingly becoming the destiny of the human.

All human institutions, activities, projects …
must now be judged primarily by the extent to which
they inhibit, ignore or foster
a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship”

– Thomas Berry

When we came here
We might have seen this land as a divinely blessed land
to be revered and dwelt in as a light and gracious presence.
We might have felt the divine in every breeze that blew across the landscape,
seen in every flowering plant,
wondered at in every butterfly dancing across a meadow in daylight,
in every firefly in the evening.

But if in the past we have not been sensitive to the deeper meaning of this continent,
we come here today as petitioners.
Pilgrims, penitent, we bring with us the promise of dedicating ourselves
to relieving the oppression we have imposed in the past
and beginning a new era in our presence here today.

We are finally awakening to the beauty of this land.
We are finally accepting the discipline of this land.
We are finally listening to the teaching of this land.
We are finally absorbed in the delight of this land.

While we learn the sacred quality of this continent in its spatial extent,
we also experience those historical moments of grace
whereby all the various features of this continent took on their present modes of expression.

Today we come here to begin to relieve an ancient wrong.
We wish especially to restore to this continent its ancient joy.
For while much of what we have done is beyond healing,
there is a resilience throughout the land that only awaits its opportunity
to flourish once again. with something of its ancient splendor.

We are concerned for the children,
the children of every living being on this continent,
the children of the trees and grasses,
the children of the wolf, the bear, and the cougar,
the children of the bluebird, the thrush, and the great raptors that soar through the heavens,
the children of the salmon that begin and end their lives in the upper reaches of the great western rivers,
the children, too, of human parents,
for all the children are born into a single sacred community.

It is increasingly clear that none of the children
nor any living being on this continent or throughout the entire planet
has any integral future except in alliance with every other being that finds its home here.

Today we come as pilgrims to this continent
To beg a blessing from its mountains and valleys and from all their inhabitants.
We beg a blessing that will heal us of our responsibility for what we have done,
a blessing that will give us the guidance and the healing that we need.
For we can never bring a healing to this continent
unless we are first blessed and first healed by this continent.

To make ourselves worthy of this blessing is the task to which we dedicate ourselves
in these opening years of the 21st century that all the children of Earth
might walk serenely into the future as a single sacred community. 

– Thomas Berry




A Day in the Suncor Tar Sands

Tire at SuncorToday was the day.  Suncor’s mission is “Creating Energy for a Better World!”  We did not get near the mine operation itself, but were allowed to see the dump trucks transporting the huge chunks of oil sand. That and the gargantuan infrastructure required for this industry was sobering. Can you believe that five mines at Suncor alone extract 1,500,000 barrels of oil a day?  The site operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  The party line is how environmentally sound it all is. All will be recovered when any particular mine is closed in maybe 10 years.  Yes, the lunar landscape will be returned to wilderness, with clean water and an abundance of wildlife!  What’s not to love?  One former tailings pond has been stocked with fish, but they keep the birds from landing on it anyway with little cannon shots…why?  Well, it isn’t QUITE ready yet to apply for reclaimed status.

Both Maureen and I were exhausted both with what we saw and with the Big Brother doublespeak.  I never heard such propaganda in my life. They also told us we could not publish our pictures (except the one with the big tire) without written permission from Suncor.  Mmmmm, I wonder how they can stop me! I am on a mission to learn what I can and share it widely.

If you follow the science on our fossil fuel reserves then you know that we have to keep 80% of them in the ground to avoid  run away climate change.  It is hard to imagine that happening in an industry as large as this. There are countries from all over the world with  operations here.  Each one brings in their own staff, flies their families in, arranges visas, pays very well, (average income is $186,000.) Who will keep this dirty bitumen in the ground for the sake of the future?

My quest has been to somehow allow Martin Luther King’s creative genius “To make a way out of no way” appear and shine through in this dark place.  I sing the serpent song, “In the places that reek of impossibility, the serpent of life coils”  with all the Gaia singers on the continent!…there must be a way.  We must make a way.dump trucks 2