The rich heritage of our Indigenous citizens

In Indigenous culture, staghorn sumac has been used for a number of medicinal remedies, dyes and tobacco blends

In Canada today, September 30th, is now officially the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It was chosen to coincide with an earlier commemorative day begun in 2013, Orange Shirt Day. It’s a step towards our country’s acknowledgement and reparation for of the awful legacy of our Residential Schools.

I began learning about the Residential School system through presentations by the Indigenous counselor at the college I was working at. As time has passed, more and more information has come out, including the grim discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children who disappeared through those schools, after the kind of suffering that makes its way into horror movies.

It saddens me that so many lives were damaged by that reprehensible period in our history, but also that the rich culture of our Indigenous people has been rejected, a way of life that is close to nature and could teach us a lot about respect for the world around us. I was introduced to a little of it at the seminars.

One thing I particularly remember is a lovely daily ritual of gratitude to the Earth and its creatures. I found this document online which sounds like what I experienced, if you’re interested in finding out more (Source: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian).

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) has released a Indigenous Culinary Directory of places in Canada offering Indigenous culinary experiences. As the directory states, “We want to make it easy for the world to find and fall in love with our Indigenous culinary community.” Scrolling through the PDF, I can say that the food looks amazing, and I’m only sorry that the seven locations in Ontario aren’t anywhere close to us, but hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to try one out some time.

You can learn much more about Indigenous history and culture on the Government of Canada’s website dedicated to today’s event.

I wore an orange top on my hike today in honour of the event, and I saw a smattering of others doing the same; in future years I hope the practice will have much wider support.

What do rising global temperatures mean for all of us?

When I was growing up, fathers made skating rinks for their kids every winter. Once the snow began falling my dad would make the wall for the rink, and then I tried to be patient while he decided when it was cold enough to flood the space and let it freeze. New ice skates were common gifts under family Christmas trees.

There was always enough snow to make snowmen and snow forts, and ‘snow days’ were regular occurrences. By the time I was married just ten to fifteen years later, my hubby and I bought cross-country skis to enjoy winter more instead of grumbling about it, but we rarely got enough snow to use them.

Within the past thirty years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, “the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95%.” Within less than one lifetime, my hubby and I have noticed a significant change in our local weather, and we live in a very temperate zone. Changes in other parts of the world have been much more dramatic.

WWF predicts that by 2040 there might be no ice in the Arctic. That’s a horrifying thought – our majestic polar bears would then literally have no place to survive. Here in Canada we’ve already been experiencing dramatic shifts in temperature, from frigid polar vortices in winter to heat waves in the summer, which this year have led to catastrophic fires in parts of the country.

I’ve been extremely worried ever since the Greenland Ice Sheet began seriously melting several years ago. According to WWF, “if it melts entirely, global sea levels could rise 20 feet.”

Read more at “Six ways loss of Arctic ice impacts everyone”.

August’s stunning report by the IPCC told us that over the next 20 years the temperature of our globe is expected to increase by at least 1.5°C. That may not sound like a lot, and like you I wondered why that amount is so significant, so I did some research.

That increase in global temperature would result in extreme hot days “in the mid-latitudes” (which includes most of North America and Europe above the equator, and below it most of Australia and about the bottom third of South America), becoming 3°C hotter (5.4°F) than pre-industrial levels.

There will be more droughts and heatwaves; hurricanes will become stronger; there will be more wildfires, more insect invasions, more disease, less food. If you want to watch a truly frightening film about what our future could be like if we don’t start making changes, watch Interstellar (2014).

So what can be done? Following the KAIROS climate action calendar, I looked at Day 10, which says to “learn to laser talk”? I had no idea what that meant, so more research was required. The LASER acronym appears to mean “Leonardo Art & Science Evening Rendezvous”, and represents an international program of gatherings with artists, scientists, and scholars presentations and conversations. Apparently there have been quite a few regarding our global environment and climate change, which you can read and watch to start your own conversation.

I found examples on the website of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), as well as a great overview resource about Climate Change and how to solve the growing problems, CCL Canada LASER Talks Booklet updated November 2020. I encourage you to download the PDF – it’s 38 pages long but so well organized that it will be easy for you to sift through the information. You’ll have a much better understanding of the economic issues and viable solutions.

Sections I found especially useful were:

  • “Carbon Pricing 101”, which explains the heavy costs associated with carbon pollution and how they tend to land on we individual taxpayers instead of on the corporations that generate the most greenhouse gases.
  • Six ways of pricing carbon pollution, how that could be done more appropriately and how that would take the burden off middle- and lower-income citizens.
  • There’s an interesting section on Canadian Family Wealth Distribution. The document tells us that “the top 1.0 % quintile of Canadian families possess more than a quarter of all wealth in Canada” and pay the least taxes toward the federal budget. The same applies to Canadian corporations. The income from more equitable taxation could be used to invest in better sources of fuel.
  • Data about where Canada’s damaging emissions come from.
  • Why Canada’s relatively small percent (<2%) of global greenhouse gas emissions still really matters: global responsibility and cumulative impact, the leverage we could gain from being leaders in environmental recovery, the increase in jobs, lower costs from dealing with climate disasters, and what should be foremost on the minds of all Canadians: improved health.

We still live on a beautiful planet. Let’s ensure that future generations do too.

Celebrating bees

We tend to take these busy little workers for granted, and many people are afraid of them (with good reason, for anyone who has an allergy), but in their tiny unassuming way they’re one of the most important creatures we have on our planet. Without their pollination of plants, we’d have a lot less to eat. Today’s post is in honour of World Bee Day.

It’s challenging to get a good photo of a bee. You need a lot of patience to try and catch them hanging around in one spot long enough; they do live up to the saying ‘busy as a bee’. I’ve tried many times; the photo above is one of my best, but I have plenty of photos that are as fuzzy as their little bodies.

I’m lucky enough to not be allergic, so I really enjoy watching bees zip around from flower to flower. I was stung many times as a child — we lived on a farm in northern Ontario that had an extensive patch of wild blueberries across the road and up a hill, and my mom and I would go picking as soon as the berries ripened. Sometimes we emerged unscathed, but I remember quite a few times when we fled back to the farmhouse sporting a few welts. My mom was a nurse, so she kept a ready supply of vinegar around to make compresses for the stings. The berries, and the adventure, were worth it 🙂

At my home now we have several plants that the bees love to visit: a pink spirea in the front, a pea bush in the back that fills with yellow flowers in the spring and is a favourite of area bees, and a big linden tree also in our back yard which, in years when it blooms, spreads its wonderful fragrance through the air. The huge bumblebees really love the linden, and there’s something about their drowsy buzzing that makes the world feel perfect for a while. We are proud bee supporters!

There are many plants available for home gardeners that invite bees; if you’re worried about having them around, as far as I’ve observed every summer, they’re really not interested in us at all and we’ve never had an issue — except when our late dogs each caught one in their mouth and learned that wasn’t such a good idea :/

You can learn much more about bees and World Bee Day at the Food and Agricultural site of the United Nations, and you too can “Bee Engaged”.

Photo by me and all rights reserved.

Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.

Less heel-dragging, more doing the right thing

St. Catharines, Ontario 7 Day Weather Forecast – The Weather Network

Yesterday, April 7th, was World Health Day, and I think we can all agree that this initiative has never been more topical. More than a year after the first Covid cases were recognized, the world is still struggling to turn the tide.

Here in Ontario we’ve all been put back under a stay-at-home law as the province grapples with the biggest wave of infections so far. I think I can speak for all of us who’ve been diligently following the rules in saying that we’re getting pretty frustrated. So it’s time to face facts, even if we may not like them:

A) Vaccines prevent disease and save lives. You have only to look at the freedom we have now from diseases that once decimated the population — smallpox, diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis — to understand the truth of this.

B) Preventative measures — wearing mask, washing hands and keeping our distance — prevent infection and save lives. If you or anyone you know ever had surgery, you can be grateful that the OR doctors and nurses followed this practice.

Granted, our governments have not done the best job with this situation, but as citizens we also have to do our part, or this pandemic will just drag on and on and on, as it has already.

Yesterday, I went for a drive to take advantage of the last free day we’ll have for the next four weeks. A lot of other people had the same idea, and I was happy to see everyone following the rules!

First I visited my favourite garden centre to pick up some planters of flowers; if my hubby and I are going to be sitting around the house, at least we can look at something cheerful. The centre was full of plants that needed a good home.

Although I don’t plant geraniums, this lovely Martha Washington was a temptation.

After some exploration of side roads I haven’t taken before, I found myself back at my favourite relaxation spot, our local botanical garden, to see what changes have taken place in the past couple of weeks.

Masses of daffodils have been spreading all over the place…

,,, and the trees all have leaves bursting out.

I spotted a Downy Woodpecker searching for lunch on one of the trees…

… and a pretty Mourning Cloak butterfly that was kind enough to perch on a plant label long enough for me to get a photo.

Large clumps of Glory of the Snow had also popped out all over.

My hubby and I will continue to make the best of things, and to everyone getting frustrated, please stay strong and take care. If you develop symptoms, stay home and avoid spreading. And don’t believe what you read on social media; all medications have a risk of an adverse reaction, but those are rare. As I mentioned in a previous post, my hubby and I have had numerous vaccinations against all the diseases in less-fortunate countries that we no longer have to worry about in North America, and those vaccines have allowed us to travel safely all over the world without becoming ill. If you’re interested, read this excellent and very blunt article about vaccines vs. the fear-mongerers, and do the right thing, for the good of your own health, your family’s, and all the rest of the people you know.

The Skies of Africa – Part 4, Serondela

As we observe Earth Day this week, it seems a great time to celebrate one of the most magnificent continents that our planet is blessed with.

There’s so much to see in Africa – the vast plains of the Serengeti, gorillas in the jungle, some of the greatest rivers on earth – that it takes some serious thinking to decide where to go on safari. Even one trip is a great gift, and yet there can never be enough visits. My hubby and I have been there four times – we’ve seen the pyramids of Egypt and cruised up the Nile, watched antelope stand up on their hind legs to graze and Samburu villagers dance for us, gotten soaked to the skin in the spray from the waterfalls named after England’s queen – and we’ll never get enough of it. It’s the only place that we don’t want to leave to return home.

So as we weather this pandemic and watch the unsurprising effects on nature of having humans mostly leaving it alone, we can take the opportunity to rethink our role as caretakers of all the precious places where we can still see animals living freely the way that they should be.

One of the greatest of those places is Serondela.

By this time in our safari, you might think we’d be jaded about seeing animals in the wild. Yet I’ve been on three different safaris, and I can tell you that every game drive is exciting and different. Should you ever go on a safari, don’t sell yourself short with just a handful of drives – the more your trip includes, the better! Every habitat is different, and the way the animals interact with it.

After the excitement of a leopard sighting in Savute, what could Serondela hold to top that?

The journey from camps Three to Four involved a long morning drive toward Kasane, the ‘gateway’ town to Chobe National Park and the Serondela Reserve within it.

The scenery began to change dramatically as we drove up and down long rolling hills, flanked by deep green shrubs and towering trees as the tires of our truck kicked up clouds of red dust. Occasionally someone would pull a bandana up over their nose and mouth to block out the sand, and guests who wore contact lenses learned pretty quickly to carry moisturizing drops in their day pack.

We could tell we were getting near ‘civilization’ again as we began to pass more vehicles going in the opposite direction and our guide made us put our seat belts on.

Directional signs and the odd roadside billboard began to show up, like this one about HIV, which was a big issue in Botswana at the time. It was nothing for visitors to worry about unless you planned on having a fling with one of the camp staff, which would have been challenging within the intimacy of a small tented camp. We could often hear our fellow travellers like laughing with each other, or cursing if they dropped something on the floor of the tent in the early morning darkness.

It was impossible not to know what your fellow guests were up to any given time. Although a bit disconcerting at first, we soon got used to it – sharing battery chargers or a friendly euchre game, laughing over unavoidably bad hair, helping each other recall what that bird or animal was that we’d seen over by the river or at the bend in the road for our journals. Having worked in the pharmacy business for many years, I always carry a well-stocked first-aid kit and was often treating rashes and scrapes. (The guides have their own kits, but I have a few ointments and concoctions that I like to keep on hand.)

As we got closer to Kasane we could see outlying farms, threatened by the rising waters of the Chobe River, which had already started swallowing shrubs and small trees. Some of our fellow guests had brought school supplies to donate, so our guides had arranged for us to visit a small school on the outskirts of town.

The school consisted of several low buildings built of dusty pink brick and plaster, lined up in a sandy clearing. We were greeted by the principal, vice-principal and one of the teachers, who were welcoming but quite formal and serious. They led us into the cool interior, past classrooms, walls full of the students’ artwork, and cork boards with the usual teachers’ notices.

We sat around a wide boardroom table while our guides introduced us. Botswana has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, and the school was in good condition, but for anyone interested in contributing something to a country they’re visiting, extra school supplies are always welcome. On the way out, I decided to try thanking the principal in Setswana for allowing us to visit – our guide had taught me the phrase, Ke a leboga. I suspect that I mangled the pronunciation somewhat, but the effort was worth it, because the stern principal, official in her pink suit and hat, broke into a wide smile and gave me a big hug!

Kasane straddles a fine line between residents and the surrounding wildlife. As we approached town a herd of elephants decided that they needed to cross the highway, and it can be quite dangerous to argue the point. We waited patiently from a safe distance, although one little elephant, straggling behind the adults and already annoyed with an oncoming car that decided to bypass him, turned around and decided he wasn’t happy with us either. He flared his ears out, stamped his little feet and blared at us crossly for a couple of minutes before trundling off to catch up with the rest of the herd.

In town, there are a number of shops for buying souvenir t-shirts and handmade jewellery, and for restocking supplies. While our guides filled up their gas tanks and some supplies for camp, we were able to check out a small grocery store (impala steaks, anyone?), bottle shop (liquor store), camera supply store and a variety of t-shirt and jewellery vendors. There was a small internet café for anyone who wanted to fire off a quick email or two. Warthogs and other amiable critters wandered the streets freely!

After our short shopping excursion, we had another picnic lunch just outside the entrance gate to Chobe National Park.

There is no shortage of delicious food on safari, even in bush camps where the chefs may be cooking food on a jury-rigged stove – a grate set over top a wood fire, with a metal baking box resting on tin cans. You can do far more luxe safaris than this, but if you want a genuine Hemingway-worthy adventure, this is the way to do it.  

We drove along the river, spotting more animals on the way to our fourth and final bush camp. Serondela has its own unique atmosphere. The river attracts large herds of a variety of animals – the elephants are famous for their daily excursions down to the water, which teems with hippos as well as crocodiles.

It’s de rigeur to do a boat cruise on the river, but our guides warned us not to reach down and touch the water! Basically, if you fall in or get pulled in, there will be no chance to rescue you.

The river is the focal point, but wildlife is everywhere. In the cool morning air, marabou storks spread out their wings to dry off while warthogs rooted around in the dirt for breakfast. Along the river bank, crocodiles were warming themselves, their jaws open towards the sunlight to draw in the heat.

Fish eagles perched on top of trees, waiting to swoop down and snatch a meal out of the river.

Rock cobras, almost perfectly camouflaged, slithered through the scrub.

Giraffe spread their legs to reach down low enough to lick salt from the ground, looking so awkward in comparison to the elegant kudu.

There’s a large and rambunctious troop of baboons who took over one of the old safari camps years ago and had refused to give up their turf. We’ve seen them striding the grass like a street gang looking for a rumble, pursuing amorous liaisons (or sometimes refusing them ungraciously), indulging in some grooming while babies romped in the dirt, or sometimes just harassing other animals for the fun of it.

On our boat cruise, just as the elephant herd was coming down to the water’s edge for a nice drink and a bath, the baboons decided they wanted to throw a party. They proceeded to run up and down the sand and up the trees, chattering and screeching. The elephants were having none of that, though! They stomped back and forth along the water, bellowing their displeasure and shaking the trees for emphasis.

It had little effect, to be honest, but eventually the baboons seemed to get tired, or bored, and moved back up the hill to annoy elsewhere. Then we were treated to the spectacle of an entire lineup of elephants jostling for drinking room, the babies sometimes falling in the mud and being rescued from their own endearing clumsiness.

Farther down the river we carefully skirted a large pod of hippos, and our guide stopped the boat probably about 20 yards away so that we could watch them slowly swimming around their little inlet, flapping their ears and snorting water. They seemed unconcerned with our presence – until a massive male suddenly reared up right behind our boat and lunged at us with a roar!

He must have been swimming around below the surface – we hadn’t seen him anywhere nearby. Our guide, who had prudently left the motor running, fired up the engine and we lurched across the water, the hippo in hot pursuit.

Hippos are extraordinarily dangerous. They’re extremely territorial and have very short fuses. Couple that with surprising speed in the water, enormous strength and a massive jaw full of long teeth, and they’re responsible for more human deaths than any other creature in Africa. They’ve been known to bite canoes in half, and this one could have easily flipped our motorboat if he’d caught up with us, dumping us into those pretty crocodile-infested waters. It could have been an abrupt end to our safari. Fortunately, the guides in Botswana are some of the best-trained in the continent (the testing is rigorous), so while we watched in shock our guide got us to safety.

As dusk falls, the lions come out to hunt, strolling right down the sandy road. From that vantage point, we were able to see the black markings on the backs of their ears and the tip of their tails. With their beautiful buff coats, they blend well into the taller grasses and use the markings to find each other.

Sunset along the river is magical, and one evening we caught up with the wonderful sight of a trio of giraffes lifting their heads into the evening breeze as the sky turned pink and lavender.

Even the nights in camp were exciting. One evening we could hear two male lions sounding their territory. It’s not a growl or a roar, more like a throaty huffing noise that carries for miles. A couple of times hyenas visited the camp after we’d all turned in – we could hear them sniffing and chuckling as they passed right between the tents.

A bush safari puts you right in the midst of the untamed African wild – by turns remarkably peaceful and incredibly exhilarating. The animals you see are fairly used to the game vehicles bouncing around, but they are never to be considered tame or safe. Most will run away, and elephants will usually mock-charge and make a lot of noise if they think you’re too close.

But when you run into the fierce water buffalo, you can see on their faces that they’re not to be messed with. The words ‘mock’ charge are not in their vocabulary – we were told that if one of them takes a run at you, you get the hell out of there.

After two days in Serondela that were a little more exciting than we’d anticipated, we were heading to the border to cross over to the place that explorer David Livingstone made famous, where the great Zambezi River separates Zimbabwe and Zambia – Victoria Falls!

We were reluctant to leave behind beautiful Botswana, and the amazing safari staff who had taken care of us over the past eight days. We’d become more than guests — we’d become friends whom they were proud to share their country with,

For me, having grown up near Niagara Falls, I wondered if I’d be very impressed with the other equally famous falls we were soon to see.

Join me next week for the final leg of our safari, the expedition to Mosi oa Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders!