I was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, a place that everyone in Canada seems to hate except the people who live there, because they know how great a city it is. There were a couple of childhood periods spent away from Alberta. One was when I was but a wee lad of six and we lived in the state of Oregon, in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town. The acreage had a woodshed full of scary spiders, a cherry orchard across the road and a grass pasture for a backyard. One of the cows in the pasture must have aspired for rodeo fame because she would let me ride her bareback as she sauntered along the fence line.
Then there was the year when we lived in southern France, where I learned to speak very good French but discovered I was a very bad soccer player.
By the end of high school, I had decided that I wanted to work with birds, as I had spent the summer of my 15th year living in a quaint log cabin in Banff National Park and working on a bird survey of the Vermillion Pass area. So, it was off to university to become a biologist.
I did my Undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, where I started off in zoology but then transferred to geography because the lectures were more interesting and the courses more enticing. In zoology, we dissected cockroaches; in geography, we dissected the world.
I eventually finished with a degree in Biogeography, which nicely bridged the zoology-geography divide. (Which, in hindsight, isn’t really much of a divide except in academic bureaucracies).
I spent my undergrad summers working for a professor in the geography department, which meant disappearing into the Arctic for months at a time and doing the kinds of things you normally only see in National Geographic specials.
It was hard work but fascinating, as I got to work on birds, small mammals, caribou, insects, plants, geomorphology and soils. One rainy day I was chased by a grizzly bear over a mountain ridge until he realized I wasn’t the yummy young caribou he was stalking for a snack. The caribou had gone one way, I went the other. The bear went away mad. But at least he went away.
Another day I was chased by a black bear who was miffed because I interrupted the nap he was having in my tent. He wasn’t really serious about the running away part; I was.
After university, I worked for the Alberta government, doing biophysical inventories and ecological landscape assessments all over Alberta, from the Canada-USA border up to the northern oilsands area and the Peace River country. I found teepee rings in the prairies, ancient balsam fir trees in the foothills and rare plants in karst cave systems in the boreal region.
I also found what I still believe, to this day, was the most beautiful patterned fen in the world.
Fens are boreal forest wetlands which occur only in very special environments and takes hundreds if not thousands of years to form. I wish I could go back there to see it again but it is now the site of a heavy oil upgrader plant – part of the oilsands development. (And people wonder why I am so cynical about the Alberta government’s claims about being “environmentally responsible”).
A few years later I hopped into my little car and made the trek across Canada to Trent University in Ontario, where I worked on a graduate degree in Watershed Ecosystems. One of the disadvantages of having an academic supervisor who doesn’t do much supervising was that it makes it harder to get through graduate school. One of the advantages of that inattention was that I got to work on whatever I wanted, which meant yet another trip to the Arctic. This time it was to study migratory songbirds and just exactly what they do in the arctic, since several of those species are the same ones you can see if you went on a winter vacation to Central America.
After a summer of camping in a bog, I produced what I thought was a great research paper explaining how the singing patterns of arctic songbirds are influenced by the unique environmental conditions of the arctic. Two internationally famous scientists agreed with me; one had reservations. So unfortunately, the paper was never published. Would love to go back and prove that I was right; all I need is three months of free time.
After graduating with a Master’s degree, much to my supervisor’s surprise, I moved to Ottawa and worked for a variety of environmental agencies: the National Wildlife Research Centre (as a waterfowl biologist), the Canadian Wildlife Service (more work with ducks), and the Petawawa National Forestry Centre (surveying much of northern Ontario in search of old growth white pine forests).
That was great fun for a few years but a return to Alberta was necessary, due not only to the sudden economic downturn in central Canada but also to the arrival of a child, a lovely little girl named Annie.
The next ten years back in Alberta were marked by numerous short-term jobs working for various environmental consulting firms, a short stint with the Alberta government, and several weird jobs which can only be described as “ugly but necessary to pay the bills”. The brightest light during that time was the arrival of another baby girl, Christine, two years behind her older sister.
Having two daughters meant play dates, tea parties, swimming parties, birthday parties, sleep-overs and driving. Lots and lots of driving. It also meant sporting events and horseback lessons. And eventually, dance lessons.
But not the same dance lessons. Annie was into hip hop while Christine became an Irish dancer. It was Ying vs. Yan; the dark and brooding thumping of hip-hop beats vs. the bright cheeriness of Irish jigs. The intricate Celtic knotwork of Irish dance dresses vs. the simplicity of black on black with fluorescent kicks. Just like my two daughters; each with their own unique personalities and styles.
During this time, I found myself drawn back into academia and spent four years as a sessional lecturer at the University of Alberta, teaching a variety of undergraduate courses in physical geography, human geography, environmental science and statistics. Long hours, lousy pay, no benefits, but still was a great job.
It was soon after I finished at the University that I began my last stint working for an environmental consulting firm. More and more environmental planning work is being farmed out to private consultants, who have become willing to sell their ethics and their souls to whomever will give them lucrative contracts.
I once wrote an report stating that 31% of a region in Alberta had ecosites with rare plants and therefore, had to be treated carefully by the forestry company who owned the logging rights to that area. They requested that the report be “edited” by the head consultant; the multi-national forestry conglomerate made the boss an offer he couldn’t refuse. As a result, the percentage of rare plant ecosites decreased from 31% to 4%. I will flip burgers for minimum wage before I work for another private consulting company; at least the burgers are palatable.
So my career took another unexpected turn and I found myself in municipal planning. Unlike working for the federal or provincial governments where the citizens are little more than distant abstractions, municipal administrations are where The Government meets The People. It’s the sharp end of the stick of land use planning. Forget the grand policies and White Papers of the Canadian government, it’s at the municipal level where the myriad of important decisions regarding land development take place. It is (to mash in yet another bad cliché) where the rubber of environmental and developmental policy meets the proverbial road of land use reality.
I also discovered that being a municipal planner means serving three masters at once: senior management, the elected Council and the tax-paying citizens. All three of them will try to claim your soul and woe be to the Planner who allows any one of that triumvirate to dominate their waking hours. I was able to balance the three and at that point, it became an honourable and worthwhile job.
After a few years, I moved away, not only from science and planning but also in a geographic sense. I now live on an island (albeit a very large one), in a small apartment on the top floor of an old house. The apartment is all weird angles and sloping ceilings with a mixture of old hardwood flooring and hideous carpet.
But I live here for the great views. The fir and red cedar trees from the kitchen window, the Giant Sequoia tree and copse of old oaks from the living room, the tangled mass of the large plum tree next to the bedroom window where the hummingbirds chase each other, and the hillside of trees and houses I can see from the skylight, which at night looks like The Shire. But the best view is from the bathroom; I don’t imagine there are too many places where you can take a shower while looking at glacier-covered mountains in the country next door.
Most of all, I revel in the fact that I now spend my days writing, building websites, and spending quality time with my daughters, both of whom are lovely young ladies on the cusp of proving they are smarter, and far more astute than their old man
And that is a good thing.