Saturday, April 21, 2012

Medicine Hat, the Gas City

As I write this we're passing through Medicine Hat (the Gas City, as the sign says), on our way home from a nine day driving adventure from Victoria to Manitoba and back.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough on the camera draw to get a photo of the Hat's sign.

I wonder if residents wonder about the irony of a city named for healing, and destruction, at the same time.  I suppose they don’t think much about it, and if they do they probably argue that the gas economy is what keeps their community healthy and vibrant.  For now, I suppose.  But the word “medicine” implies, at least to me, something bigger than the mere economics of human activity.  And the word “gas” implies, to me, destruction of environment, pollution, and radical global climate change.  Yes, oil and gas exploration has improved our collective quality of life, providing heat and the ability to live comfortably, but it’s old technology and time, now, to consider alternatives. 

Perhaps, at the time they commissioned the sign, they weren’t aware of all the negative implications associated with “gas,’ but surely there must be some awareness now about it.  I suppose it’s none of my business anyways. I have enough to worry about back home, on Vancouver Island and throughout BC.  I am aware of Prairie concerns, even more so now that I’ve spent a week traversing and inhabiting the place, but I realize I can’t possibly take it all on.  It’s important that I know about it, and see the connections between what’s going on here and there, but I realize and accept that I can’t change all, or perhaps any, of it myself.  Thank goodness there are others who are aware and concerned and taking action that will benefit all of us, and especially the earth.

The issue of Shoal Lake, for example.  I now know that Shoal Lake, located several miles east of Winnipeg, is their water supply.  I also know that the indigenous people who have traditionally inhabited the region of Shoal Lake, and who currently reside on “reservations” nearby, are unable to access water from the lake as their neighbours in Winnipeg do.  The First People living near Shoal Lake receive a ration of water every day, delivered in some form of water container, about the equivalent of what people in the city use in their morning shower, my Winnipeg friend estimates. 
My Winnipeg friend is the reason I’m writing this, from the passenger seat of another (Victoria based) friend.  Until this past week I hadn’t seen my Winnipeg friend for about 40 years, when we were in grade 5 together in Brandon.  We wrote letters until about high school and then, all these years later (with thanks to Facebook) we were reacquainted.  And thanks to my Victoria friend who had a seat in her car, I was able to enjoy a delightful four day reunion with my childhood friend.  It could have been otherwise.  It could have been disastrous.  I’ve never before walked into the home of someone I haven’t seen for 40 years.  We could have vastly different worldviews and ways of being.  Amazingly, we’re both still goofy kids at heart.  We laughed the way we laughed all those years ago, and had some intense conversations too.  We each have evolved a concern for righting, in our own individual ways, some of the many injustices that we see all around us in our world.  We’re both concerned about the damage being inflicted on our beautiful earth, in the name of profit, and we share an understanding that we are guests on land that was inhabited, prior to our ancestors’ arrival, by many and diverse indigenous peoples.

These are the friendships that do not die.  And I’m very grateful.

While I was visiting my friend we walked the muddy flooded out path alongside the Assiniboine River to the Forks where the Assiniboine meets the mighty Red River.  After we’d examined the medicine wheel astronomical structure there, and found the grave and two statues (one in Winnipeg and one in St. Boniface) devoted to Louis Riel, I asked my friend when she first awakened to the profound realization that we are living on stolen native land.  She thought for a moment, and then declared it happened in high school under the guidance of a hippie teacher named Don.  Don informed his students about the history of the region from inside the classroom, and he took his students onto the river in canoes.  He wanted them to really understand the lifestyle of the First Peoples, to learn to respect their strength and their vastly different worldview.  Thank goodness for teachers like Don. 
Now I’m on my way home to Victoria.  Travelling east from Medicine Hat, leaving the prairies behind us and marveling at the majestic mountains in the distance, my driving companion and I marveled at the massive wind farm near Pincher Creek.  I really do think those big wind turbines are beautiful.  I’ve lived in a small industrial town, very near the proposed starting point for the horrid Enbridge pipeline at Bruderheim Alberta, and I’m all for energy production that doesn’t occupy masses of land, or spew masses of chemicals into the air and water.  We wondered if the turbines and the energy they produce remains in public hands, as we agreed it should (along with our water supply), or whether small independent power czars are allowed to begin their rise into corporatehood and privatized energy control from these otherwise beautiful beginnings.

As we drove through Taber we remembered there was a big gun shooting some years ago, so hard to believe people would do such things in what seem to be friendly small towns.  That reminded me that I had been informed that I’d travelled on the very same route where the infamous decapitation had occurred on a Greyhound bus just outside of Brandon near Portage la Prairie.  I don’t recall what happened to the Taber guy, but the decapitation guy’s apparently still in the Brandon mental health facility.  The local discussion is about whether he ought to be trusted with unsupervised daytrips from the hospital.  If memory serves, it was 2009 when he took a knife and carved off the head of a fellow passenger, who happened to be sleeping on the back seat of the bus.  Thankfully I wasn’t reminded of this terrible act until after I’d completed the bus ride from Brandon to Winnipeg and back to Brandon again, although the odds are that terrible thing would never happen again.  Yikes.

Travelling through the southern mountains of BC, I was shocked to see the extent of the damage caused by the Pine Beetle. My driving companion and I remembered that the pine beetle infestation was announced as a clear indication of global warming (warmer winters result in an increased opportunity for beetle eggs’ survival).  I knew of the beetle’s devastation in northern BC, because my driving adventures usually lead to Edmonton.  I hadn’t travelled the southern route for many years.  After witnessing the tell-tale brown (dead) trees on mountainside after mountainside between Cranbrook and Castlegar, we entered the famous Okanagan valley, whose dry and hot temperatures contribute to a very different environment and where there’s much harvesting of fruit like peaches and cherries, and grapes for consumption and wine.  There’s evidence of beetle infestation here too, though not so dramatically as the wetter and more densely forested landscape of the southern Kootenays, and we speculated about the future of those beetle infested mountains whose trees are dying in droves.  What will be the impact as show and rain has no environment to mingle with, as soil is swept down the mountains into the rivers and onto the dangerous mountain roads.  Will beautiful BC’s interior become another desert?  How will that affect the regional climate?  What will happen to our beautiful, clean water supply?

The next day it’s Victoria’s Earth Walk.  The sun shines.  Some of the local indigenous folk bang the drum and sing songs.  They remind us that all we need to know we can learn from the earth.  They teach us to sing, and to dance, despite the difficult knowledge we share.  Our beautiful earth is precious, and fragile, and under attack.