Potatoes and glyphosate were on my mind this morning as the dogs and I walked down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone.
That may come as no surprise in the worldwide community of Finding Hope Ness readers well aware of my continuing concerns about the risk vast quantities of weed-killing herbicide containing Glyphosate being sprayed on crops around the world may pose for human health.
And, yes, I have gone on and on about how much I like potatoes often enough, that some might shrug and say, ‘so, what else is new?’ and turn the page, so to speak. But bare with me.
I have taken it for granted that because I don’t use Round-up or any other herbicide containing the active ingredient glyphosate that my potatoes are free of it. But I bow my head. I confess, after all these years it has taken me too long to find out that may not be true.
So, the question now is: what to do? And the answer may be … Well, I won’t go so far as to say ‘life-changing,’ not in a world where ‘life-changing’ events have become an ongoing or sudden reality. Not being able to do the things you love and live to do because of Covid-related travel restrictions or because climate-change-related weather extremes have already destroyed your life’s work – that’s truly life-changing.
As a good friend has often said when something goes wrong, “it’s not the end of the world” if I have to stop growing potatoes. But I love doing it; and I take pride in the way I do it, especially my habit for the past 25 years of mulching the newly emerged plants with good, clean straw. As a result, I’ve never had to spray any kind of insecticide to control the Colorado potato beetle, the major pest of potato crops. Also, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to weed control. I never use herbicide, and nowadays that means products that contain glyphosate, the best known being Round-up. Developed by Monsanto, it was first approved by the U.S. 45 years ago.
Glyphosate has been increasingly controversial in recent years, with the big question being, does it cause cancer or doesn’t it? Several lawsuit cases in the U.S. have answered yes and ordered multi-million-dollar damages. Bayer, the current owner of Monsanto, has set aside billions of dollars to cover similar future judgements. Various regulatory agencies, in Europe for example, disagree on the answer to the fundamental question. A study done for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) from 2015 to 2017, with results published in 2020, concluded levels of glyphosate residue in food product samples taken from retail stores do not pose a health threat, based on Canada’s existing Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). The study gathered 7,955 food samples from Canadian retail stores. of those samples, 3,366, or 46.3 percent, contained a “detectable” amount of glyphosate. And of those, 99.4 percent were within the Canadian MLR limit, while 46 samples were “non-compliant.”
“The high level of compliance (99.4% of samples with the Canadian regulatory limits) and the lack of a health risk for non-compliant samples indicate that, with respect to glyphosates, the food available for sale in Canada is safe,” the study concluded.
This past August Canadian officials decided after a period of public consultation not to go ahead with proposed increases to some MLRs until “at least” next year. Meanwhile, the government will look at enhancing its monitoring of pesticide matters.
In the best of all possible words, I would much prefer to consume no glyphosate. None at all, zero, nada.
Which brings me back to the beloved potato, that which my Celtic ancestors largely survived on; which Hope Ness pioneers, I’ve been told, had nothing else to eat except; and which originated in the Andes mountains a very long time ago, thanks to the indigenous people who lived there.
Winter is the time to start planning for next year’s garden crops. Every year I tell myself not to bite off more than I can chew, but rather, focus on the essentials, of which potatoes are one. So, with that in mind, as well as glyphosate, I went looking online for any possible concerns. Overdue, yes, I know.
I was surprised to find potatoes are, if anything, more sensitive to damage from incidental, wind-drift spraying somewhere else than I imagined. In fact, I thought I was far enough away on the Bruce Peninsula in secluded Hope Ness that it wasn’t a problem, despite the prevailing west and southwest summer winds. I assumed too much.
I found several online sources that spoke of the damage even a small amount of such incidental exposure to glyphosate can cause to potato crops. Most troubling was how glyphosate can travel down the parent-plant into the soil, and the daughter root ‘tubers,’ They are the actual potatoes that are marketed either as food, but most worrisome here, as seed potatoes.
“Tubers may have a normal physical appearance but have glyphosate in the seed that can cause a variety of germination problems the following year,” says a current article in Potato News, written by two associate professors at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.
I routinely buy seed potatoes from certified growers to plant in the spring. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the federal Seed Potato Certification Program.
“The objective of the Seed Potato Certification Program is to supply Canadian growers of seed, table stock and processing potatoes with certified seed which is of high varietal integrity and is relatively free of tuber borne diseases,” says a CFIA web page. (my italics)
No offence, dear CFIA, but I think I may have to delve deeper into seed potato suppliers and how they deal with possible glyphosate contamination. As other on-line sources note, ‘organic’ is no guarantee regarding the effect of incidental drift.
I want to be able to say, “no glyphosate residue in potatoes grown at Cathedral Drive Farm.” Hopefully, that will be possible.”
So, it has happened: that inevitable Canadian morning that says in no uncertain terms, winter has arrived for the next five months or more, and the season of necessity is in control our lives. You don’t dare refuse or neglect its demands, without risking varying degrees of trouble and misadventure, up to and including …
Well, let’s not go there. Let’s not even think of being without heat when the temperature falls below -30 degrees, or more, and you didn’t cut or buy enough firewood, or you forgot to check the furnace-fuel level, or do routine maintenance on the generator and snowblower; or – and this is most likely the biggest mistake city folks make – you still haven’t got your winter tires on. Of course, those are mostly things you should have done well ahead of this morning if you woke up to the first significant snowfall and sub-zero temperatures overnight. It’s November 23, a little less than a month from winter’s official arrival. So, what else is new? It’s Canada, eh.
The ‘necessity’ I’m thinking of especially this morning is rising to the occasion. Want to sleep in? Not allowed. Feeling a bit lazy? Not allowed. Feeling blue? Not Allowed. Ask yourself any number of questions of the sort, and the answer is always, ditto, ditto and ditto.
The remarkable thing about winter’s absolute rule of necessity is how it can remind us how strong and capable we are – especially if we have gnawing doubts about that – just by giving us a push to get going. I venture to say that can be the key, not only to surviving, and even enjoying winter, but making the best of life itself.
Years ago, when I was a young man and drove a cab for a while in Toronto, a well-seasoned old cab driver gave me good advice. We were all about to get our assigned cars for the night – the best to get, by the way, was a Dodge or Plymouth with a 225, six-cylinder engine, the venerable ‘slant six,’ good on gas and plenty of power.
The old-timer next to me leaned over and said, “I’ll give you some advice kid: whatever you do, keep moving.”
He meant keep moving in the streets with the cab, and someone would wave you down sooner than if you parked somewhere and waited for the dispatcher to call your number. It was indeed good advice for that job.
But I’ve never forgotten what he said for other, important reasons. It’s truly amazing how often “keep moving” has struck me as good advice for life: physically, mentally, and spiritually. Invariably, when I feel myself getting down, or lately, worry that age is catching up to me, I think of what the old cab driver said: it was just as good or maybe even better – inadvertently perhaps, but so what? – than an ivory-tower philosopher with a doctorate might be able to offer. Not that I would devalue the worth of a good education. Perish the thought in today’s world, so desperately in need of understanding.
I thought of that good advice again this morning as I, rather grumpily, donned a winter coat for the first time this season and the dogs and I went for our morning walk down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone. The rising sun was brilliant in a blue sky. An infinity of stars sparkled on snow-covered tree branches, and everywhere around on the fresh snow-cover.
Welcome winter, I thought. Good to see you again, and thanks for being here.
Civilization and the social stability it provides, allowing human beings to live their lives in peace and pursue their plans and dreams can never be taken for granted. Recent history has shown how fragile is the veneer of civilization when a would-be demagogue, sensing an opportunity in the mass despair and confusion of a people, can take over one of the world’s most civilized nations; with disastrous results for that nation and the world.
How quickly history and its lessons are forgotten. It is happening again in, of all places, the great democracy that saved the world from history’s most evil tyranny. And again, It can only get worse if that country, the United States of America, can’t somehow save itself from self-destruction.
It’s terrifying to see, even from this distance, day after day how badly American politics and society are divided. On one side, the cult-like obeisance of a large proportion of the population and conservative lawmakers to the demagogue and his outrageous lies. If anything, it grows more extreme, driving the world’s first and greatest democracy toward an existential crisis. On the other side, various commentators are beside themselves with loaded language, preaching to the converted and looking down upon the others, as yet more evidence of the demagogue’s failed coup after he lost the 2020 election is daily revealed. There is no effective communication between the two sides, nothing that might offer a glimmer of hope.
Meanwhile, nothing is done about the continuing, horrendous decline in the quality of life of millions of people who have lost hope of ever being part of the ‘American Dream’, or who live in fear on the edge of that despair. Take a short trip on YouTube and see the depressing sight of how countless people now live in many American cities, like Oakland, in California, the U.S. state with the world’s 5th largest economy.
Speak the truth, by all means; it is the only hope. But start where it begins, at the root cause of the malaise that now threatens the end of a great nation, and the future of the world.
The underlying causes of the rise to power of a ruthless dictatorship in Germany in 1933, leading to the Second World War, and the Holocaust is well-documented: a First World War lost at great cost of life; a punishing peace treaty with crippling reparations; drastic out-of-control inflation, and then a global depression. The demagogue who has already pledged to make Germany great again blames it all on communists, and especially Jews. His Nazi party has become the largest, but with less than 40 percent support of voters, after several democratic elections, still lacks a majority. But he is appointed Chancellor (Prime Minister), of a bipartisan government by an elderly, increasingly senile, figurehead, war-hero president. It is expected the demagogue can be controlled. The Reichstag (Parliament) is set on fire, the communists are blamed, the demagogue is given emergency powers. The old president dies. And the demagogue and his racist party seize total power. Other political parties are banned. Jews, homosexuals, and other people considered racially or mentally defective are persecuted, sent to concentration camps, murdered. All members of the military and government officials are required to pledge personal loyalty to the leader (Fuhrer).
So, the question arises, what has made such a large proportion of the American people, so vulnerable to a demagogue who wraps himself in the Star-Spangled Banner, declares himself the only person who can save the country and return it to greatness, demands loyalty to Himself, and tells lies constantly?
Let’s start by talking about war and how, even before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S., wars and the military-industrial complex that thrived on war became a predominant fact of American life; and then how, after 9/11, they became much more predominant, to the extent that in the next two decades the U.S. spent $14.1 trillion (measured in 2021 dollars) on post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
First, a prophetic warning about the growth of the military-Industrial complex from the late, former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the former Commander-in-Chief of Allied (western) forces in the Second World War, in his farewell address as president on January 17, 1961:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
The Viet Nam War is a good place to start a discussion about the fateful impact war has had on the American psyche and body politic. Its complex causes have been well documented, for example, on this history.com website.
At its height close to 500,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam. By the time the war ended in 1973, 58,200 had died, and an estimated two million Vietnamese, mostly civilians.
A final, humiliating image of U.S. defeat was helicopters landing on the roof of its embassy in Saigon to evacuate Americans, some of whom fought off Vietnam refugees desperate to get on. That image was the parting wound among many others that cut deep into the proud American psyche. “The war had pierced the myth of American invincibility and had bitterly divided the nation. Many returning veterans faced negative reactions from both opponents of the war (who viewed them as having killed innocent civilians) and its supporters (who saw them as having lost the war), along with physical damage including the effects of exposure to the toxic herbicide, Agent Orange, millions of gallons of which had been dumped by U.S. planes on the dense forests of Vietnam,” says the history.com article.
And this: “According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.”
Many Vietnam veterans are still alive today, the fathers and grandfathers of millions of Americans. Many of them, and others, would have recalled that humiliating image of how the Vietnam war ended when the shocking images of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan were shown around the world this past August. They showed thousands of Afghans desperately tried to get on flights at Kabul airport. It’s no coincidence President Joe Biden’s approval rating suddenly dropped, though it was former President Donald Trump whose administration negotiated the withdrawal deal with the Taliban insurgents, without the involvement of the now-defunct Afghanistan government.
The U.S. spent $120 billion on the Vietnam war from 1963 to 1975. But that number pales in comparison with the $14.1 trillion spent following the 9/11 attacks. As noted above, there never was a formal declaration of war by Congress before the U.S. invaded, first Afghanistan, with justification, and then Iraq, without.
The Center for International Policy, at Brown University’s Watson Institute, has recently published a series of research papers called, ‘20 Years of War, a Cost of War Research Series.’ One is titled, ‘Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Pentagon Spending.’ As far as I can tell it has received little news coverage. That’s a shame because it contains a wealth of revealing, and shocking, information about the “dramatic increase” in U.S. military funding since 9/11.
That paper includes a quote attributed to a high-ranking official of one of the five major, private defence contractors, in this case Boeing. It underlines the extent war fever at the time left the public purse wide open for huge increase in military spending after 9/11:
“Harry Stonecipher, then vice-president of Boeing, told The Wall Street Journal in October, 2001, the month after 9/11, ‘the purse is now open … any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for the funds we need to defend this country will be looking for a new job after next November.’”
Of the $14.1 trillion total Defence/Pentagon “$4.4 trillion went for weapons procurement and research and development, categories that primarily benefit corporate contractors,” the Watson Institute article says. It adds “the rest was used to pay for pay and benefits for military and civilian personnel and supporting expenditures needed to operate and maintain the U.S. military. It noted the $4.4 trillion figure is “a conservative estimate of the pool of funding Pentagon contractors have drawn from in the two decades since 9/11. The Pentagon’s massive budget for operations and maintenance also subsidizes contractors, but it is harder to determine what share of this category goes to private firms.”
The article notes the Pentagon has become increasingly reliant on private contractors in the post-9/11 period; and “that raises multiple questions of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness. This is problematic because privatizing key functions can reduce the U.S. military’s control of activities that occur in war zones while increasing risks of waste, fraud and abuse.” (my italics, for emphasis)
“One-third to one-half” of the $14.1 trillion went to defence contractors that earned profits “that are widely considered legitimate,” the article says. But “other profits were the consequences of questionable or corrupt business practices that amount to waste, fraud, abuse, price gouging or profiteering.”
The paper notes the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that waste, fraud and abuse in the two war zones as of 2011 had already totalled $31 billion to $60 Billion.”
It goes on to describe numerous examples. I will focus on a couple that had a direct and deadly impact on American troops. See the link above to the full report for all the examples.
What the paper calls “a particularly egregious case of shoddy work that had tragic human consequences involved the electrocution of at least eighteen military personnel in several bases in Iraq beginning in 2004 due to faulty electrical installations.” It says some of the installations were done by Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) and its subcontractors. KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, one of the best known and controversial reconstruction and logistic contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Watson Institute paper says, “An investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General found that commanders in the field had ‘failed to ensure that renovations… had been properly done, the Army did not set standards for jobs or contractors, and KBR did not ground electrical equipment it installed at the facility.’”
In another case: “The 2008 death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a Green Beret who was electrocuted while showering in Iraq, brought Congressional and public attention to the issue. While KBR had inspected the building that Maseth died in and found ‘serious electrical problems’ almost a year before his electrocution, KBR did not fix the identified problems. Notably, KBR’s contract did not require ‘fixing potential hazards.’ A former KBR electrician accused other KBR contractors of falsifying documents to make it appear that they had fixed the previously identified grounding issues. Another former KBR electrician testified to the Senate that KBR used untrained or inexperienced electricians to do electrical work at a lower rate while billing the U.S. government at the same rate used for experienced electricians. Lastly, in July 2008, a KBR electrician testified that the (Department of Defence) had no oversight system for the electrical work, even after soldiers had been electrocuted.”
Halliburton was controversial in the post 9/11 wars because of its connection to Dick Cheney, U.S. vice-president in the administration of President George W. Bush. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton when he was picked by Bush as his running mate in the run-up to the 2000 election. Cheney had previously been Secretary of Defence in the administration of President George H.W. Bush before he became Halliburton’s CEO. Widely regarded as an unusually powerful vice-president, Cheney strongly favoured the invasion of Iraq, despite knowing before it actually happened that the intelligence that supposedly justified it was faulty. As well, there was no evidence of a connection between Iraq leader Sadam Hussein, and bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization. After the invasion and the defeat of the Sadam Hussein regime, no weapons of mass destruction were found.
The Iraq war claimed the lives of between 275,000 to 306,000 people. They included 4,598 U.S. troops, 3,650 U.S. contractors, 15 U.S. Department of Defence civilian workers, up to 208,964 Iraqi civilians, 323 ‘other allied troops,’ and 39,881 opposition fighters.
Canada did not join the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq, but it was a member of the coalition that sent troops to Afghanistan where 158 Canadian soldiers lost their lives.
Another Cost of War study in the Watson Institute series found at least four times as many active duty personnel and war veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have died of suicide than died in combat. An estimated 30,177 have committed suicide compared with the 7,057 killed in post-9/11 wars. The report notes “the increasing rates of suicide for both veterans and active-duty personnel are outpacing those of the general population – an alarming shift, as suicide rates among service members have historically been lower than suicide rates in the general population.”
The U.S. had the moral high ground after the 9/11 attacks that killed 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 that terrible day. The as-it-happened, shocking images brought the watching world to a standstill. Hardly anyone could question the justification to go in force to Afghanistan, to investigate and find and arrest Osama bin Laden and members of his Al Qaeda terrorist organization; and, as well, members of the Taliban government who were complicit, by allowing bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a base of operations. And then they all could, and should, have been brought back to the U.S. to face justice at the scene of the crime, under the rule of law.
Perhaps that’s incredibly naive, or too much to expect, given human nature and its primal need for vengeance; and given the long, established history of nations going to war with or without justification. Some would even argue, and have, that war is the natural state of human beings in a perverse, ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario. Sometimes there does appear to be no choice, as in the Second World War, other than allowing absolute evil to take over the world. But Heaven forbid civilized nations should do something different, something better, when possible, even under such provocation as the 9/11 attacks?
Imagine, if you will, what the U.S. and the world would look like today if, after the inevitable fever for war arose, a strong but less disastrous course of action had been taken that did not kill, wound and traumatize millions of people; that did not cost trillions of dollars; and did not shake the stability of the U.S. to the core, leaving old and new generations afraid and confused about what the future holds.
Instead, the war fever in the wake of 9/11 was exploited by unscrupulous people in high public and private places, who were motivated above all by one desire: to live the American dream of getting filthy rich, and remaining in lucrative positions of power, whatever the cost to the country and their fellow Americans.
Of course, there is a tragic malaise and a lot of deep-seated anger in a large proportion of the American population.
Now, two decades after 9/11, the Biden administration has been having a lot of trouble getting Congressional support, especially from so-called, conservative lawmakers, for legislation to update long-neglected, crumbling, U.S. infrastructure, and improve the quality of life of Americans; millions of whom are struggling through poverty, homelessness, and physical and mental health issues.
Yes, it was going to cost several trillion dollars to begin restoring a damaged nation to health. Gaining approval for more much more than that to fund war and the military after 9/11 was never a problem; more often that not, Congress approved more than was actually requested.
Radicalized conservatives, following the ‘big lie’ strategy of past and present demagogues, have taken to calling the Biden plan “communist” and “Marxist.” That’s how stupid they think the American people are. It can only be hoped they are wrong.
(A note first to my thousands, if not millions of global readers of this blog: this is a local story. It involves local people trying to make a living from their business of providing their small community in Canada with essential needs, like food and hardware. Some of those needs are met by imported products made or grown elsewhere in the world by other local people in other countries trying to make a living; and thus, in some modest way they, we, are also helping each other.)
One of the special things about shopping in Lion’s Head is the friendly relationship you can develop over time with local business owners and staff. So, as I read the current issue (Nov. 2 to 23, 2021) of the Bruce Peninsula Press, I was dismayed to learn that those people and their businesses are hurting as a result of the implementation of paid parking, and the lack of prior consultation with them.
In the Publisher’s Column on Page 4, John Francis writes about letters on the agenda of an October 25 special meeting of the Northern Bruce Peninsula municipal council. He quotes from one written by Scott and Carla Hellyer, owners of Scott’s Home Hardware. Noting the lack of a Business Improvement Association, they write, “we wish that council would have asked individual businesses for input into paid parking in the downtown core before enforcing it during our COVID pandemic.”
Other letters, “some thoughtful, some angry,” Francis says, without naming those authors, were also critical of council’s approach: “Most importantly, local business owners feel that they were not at all part of the planning consultation process,” said one.
He goes on to blame the apparent lack of communication largely on “understaffing” at the overworked-staff municipal office, from the Chief Administrative Officer on down. As a result, no one has the time to devote to developing and implementing a sufficient communication strategy.
Now, I have to say I’ve long been a fan of The Press, and the amazing job John Francis has done over 40 years to start and keep it going, and apparently flourishing, at a time when print newspapers are an increasingly endangered species. The current issue also includes an article about the recent hiring of actual reporters on a paper that for years has largely depended on submitted content.
Meanwhile, over those many years, under corporate, ‘bottom line’ financial pressures, other local/regional news venues have disappeared, or experienced layoffs leaving them as pale shadows of what they used to be. I think back to that time in the early 1980s when the Bruce Peninsula National Park was a controversial proposal and the subject of an often-contentious, local-community debate. Numerous meetings, open houses, and other news developments mostly coming out of Tobermory were covered like a blanket by reporters from two Owen Sound-based TV satellite offices, local radio, the Owen Sound Sun Times, and the Wiarton Echo. Yours truly, based on the peninsula, did most of the reporting of the park debate for the Sun Times and the Echo, and the occasional story for a couple of Toronto-based newspapers before I became a full-time Sun Times staff reporter. But those days of ongoing, extensive, local news coverage are gone and may never come back. So, Kudos to the Bruce Peninsula Press for being there.
But, that being said, I find it ironic that what should have been a front-page story about paid parking hurting business was missed. Instead, the topic was divided in two, in the Publisher’s Column and the separate Reporter’s Notebook on Page 6, also written by the publisher. Odd, considering The Press appears to be transitioning to an actual ‘news’ paper.
If there is a communication problem regarding local government and public affairs on the upper peninsula, and that certainly appears to be the case, then the relative lack of professional news coverage is part of the problem. ‘The Press’ has long had an important role in public affairs and the peoples’ right to know. It is not “the fake news.” And beware of anyone, especially politicians, who say things like that.
The other point I want to make is that it shouldn’t be necessary to hire someone to develop and implement a municipal communication strategy when all that’s required is for someone to have the presence of mind to realize what’s needed. Was it such a stretch after all that a member of council could have said, shouldn’t we consider how this might affect local businesses?
And from there, actually talking to them would surely have come to mind. And if not? Well then, that’s a problem of another sort.
(Author’s note: This post has been edited to add some information and further comment.)
What a perfectly glorious autumn morning it was as we, the dogs and I, left the house for our after-breakfast walk down Cathedral Drive to the Touchstone:
The air was still, barely a breath of wind as the fall-colored forest trees just beyond the back field to the west welcomed the rising sun. A gentle mist was rising off the dew gently left on the field overnight. There was not a cloud in the bright, blue sky with the sun above the treetops. At the end of the driveway, I noted how far south the sun had already gone by this early October morning, and how much further it had to go yet before it reached its winter solstice
I thought again about the reality of that apparent phenomena, the movement of the sun, as if the Earth were the center of the solar system or, for that matter, of the universe. It is our home, this small, but wonderful, blue-green jewel of a planet that orbits our sun. As it moves, the position of the Earth’s tilted axis in relation with with sun determines the annual passage of the seasons. Modest in size, and still relatively young though many billions of years old, our sun is one of countless others in a universe still without measure. What lies beyond remains a Great Mystery.
But what we have learned in the relatively short time humans have scratched the surface of knowing has in my view done nothing to diminish the wonder and miracle of this precious moment. Some there are who would even say, surely there must be another world, another parallel moment even, just like this morning. Maybe, maybe not.
But, come what may, I find myself thinking, this morning will stay with me until that most fateful, personal moment when I linger for a while, in a certain amount of ‘fear and trembling’ wondering what comes next.
Shakespeare had Hamlet say, in his last, living words, “The rest is silence.” That could be taken literally, death being a rest from all the turmoil of life; or it could be what comes after death. I think he meant the latter. But in that case silence is not necessarily nothingness, I have good reason to believe. They are reasons I have previously written about in Finding Hope Ness, reasons having to do with the spirit of my father after he died.
And so, as I reached my Touchstone this morning, and said a prayer, the thought occurred to me that from somewhere in the “Great Mystery” I will look back on the spirit-memory of this glorious morning, and others, with life-loving appreciation for the gift of life; and likely also, I daresay, with longing.
As we walked back, the view down the road was again striking. We paused, the dogs wondering, as the sun, a little higher above the forest beyond the trees on the field to our left, illuminated the mist rising from the dew-covered tall grass and low-lying, new, wild apple trees. I felt the touch of a gentle breeze. A small cloud was forming in the eastern sky where by now Georgian Bay was responding to the sun’s warmth. And, on either side forest trees were painting their fall colors, various shades of gold and amber.
I thought those leaves are not so much fading or dying, as celebrating the life they had lived for another season among many, and giving life back to the Earth in return.
I regretted not having brought my camera to capture all those images. So, leaving the dogs in the house, I went back out, down the road again. But in that brief time, of course, the moment had passed. The mist had disappeared, and more clouds were forming, blocking out the sun now and then.
And yet, somehow it seemed right to have let the most precious moment go free, undiminished by not being photographed. So, what you see here is what it is, lovely enough in its own right on this sacred gift of a planet.
Yesterday, the people of the United States of America, and countless other people around the world, remembered the shocking horrors of the 9/11 attacks. Like many others that morning, I watched in disbelief, hardly believing the terrible images happening in real time before our eyes.
“The solemn day of commemoration offered frequent reminders for Americans of a time when they united in the face of unimaginable tragedy,” said an Associated Press article about the day of remembrance. “That fading spirit of 9/11 was invoked most forcefully by the president at the time of the attacks, George W. Bush, who said, ‘That is the America I know,’ in stark contrast to the bitterly divided nation President Joe Biden now leads.“
The AP article continued, “Biden left the speech-making to others, paying his respects at the trio of sites in New York, Pennsylvania and outside Washington where four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, shattering the nation’s sense of security and launching the country into two decades of warfare.”
With all due respect to Bush, who is a better former president now than he was a sitting one, there is much he could have said about his role in leading his country in the two disastrous, post-9/11 wars. He was largely a figurehead president, while other powerful men in his administration pulled the fateful strings. But as the late, former President Harry Truman famously said about his presidential responsibilities, “the buck stops here.”
Hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan died, and many thousands of soldiers and security forces in uniform, from Afghanistan itself, the U.S., and other NATO countries. They include 158 Canadians. On a percentage basis of the total number of Canadians who served in Afghanistan, that was one of the highest rates of death, second only to the U.K. One of the most shocking statistics I came across, was that 30,177 American soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Syria, committed suicide as of the end of 2019. That’s according to The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, of Brown University in the U.S.
The American involvement in the 20-year Afghan war officially ended on August 31 of this year, amid much chaos. That was as the Taliban, the extremists who ruled over Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, regained power so easily and quickly after the fall of a U.S.- backed government. After 20 years of war, the deaths of so many people, and the expenditure of an estimated seven trillion dollars, it was, to say the least, no victory.
The continuing tragedies of 9/11 and those two misbegotten wars include a shaking to the core of a great country, once the light and hope of the world, the country that created the world’s first liberal democracy – yes, liberal – and dared to proclaim, all people are created equal. Yes, it was always a work in progress; but the strength and spirit of that idea helped immeasurably to save the world from domination by the most evil tyranny history has ever known, based on the idea that people are not equal.
The United States had an historic opportunity to show the world how a great democracy deals with even such an atrocious criminal act under the rule of law and due process in pursuit of justice: Send a strong and professional police presence to Afghanistan; conduct an investigation; find and arrest the material suspects; charge them with relevant charges; and take them back to the scene of the crimes to face justice and appropriate punishment according to the law if found guilty. But it failed to do that.
And now that great country is in a downward spiral, terribly divided, between those who believe in its founding principle, and those who don’t. Yes, it is as simple as that.
I don’t blame the millions of Americans who, in their distress and confusion, are being exploited and manipulated by others whose only motivation is a deceitful will to power, and not the good of a great nation.
Twenty years of war and so-called ‘nation-building,’ and trillions of dollars spent for no good reason has neglected the needs of the American people. Who got rich from the spending of that money? The increasing economic inequality of American society belies the country’s founding principle. No wonder there is turmoil, even to the point of ominous talk about another civil war
.Meanwhile, here in Canada it’s like living next to an ongoing earthquake across our southern border. With our socio-economic life so closely tied to the U.S., the seismic waves of the ongoing upheaval are being felt. Canadians have long taken an interest in what happens politically in the U.S., far more than Americans take in our politics. The current angry divisiveness south of the border appears to have infected the Canadian national election now under way. Elsewhere in the world democracy is struggling to survive, and civilization itself is in peril.
I am a father, grandfather, and great grandfather of a large extended family. I live on a small farm in a secluded rural area of Ontario, Canada called Hope Ness. I am surrounded by a Nature Reserve. Some people say I live in a “paradise” on Earth.
I try to live in Hope. I pray. But I am worried, I fear for the future of my family and the world.
Did this continuing tragedy have to happen?
I invite you to read the article below that was published 20 years ago as an editorial in the Owen Sound Sun Times newspaper a few days after the 9/11 attacks. I might change a few words now; but I’ll leave it as is, and ask you to consider if the point made was valid then, and is still:
The central question facing the human race is how to break the cycle of hatred and violence that is leading it, apparently inexorably, to self-destruction. That was the question hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. And it’s still the question, underlined yet again by the terrible events of last week, the mass murder of thousands of innocent people in the United States by religious or ideological fanatics.
We say religious OR ideological fanatics because, although the mounting evidence so far points to a crime committed by Islamic fanatics, such atrocities are not the exclusive property of any one culture, creed, race or religion, no matter how much it may comfort us under such circumstances to think they are. They are the evil, criminal acts of human beings who are so full of hate and twisted in their beliefs they can actually justify, even sanctify what they’ve done.
We have no doubt that somewhere in the Middle East today there are people celebrating the deaths of so-called martyrs who, by their deed of mass-destruction, are now regarded as being in paradise enjoying the pleasures of countless compliant virgins. But we also have no doubt that, just as there are grotesque perversions of every religion on earth, including the Christian, such concepts do not reflect the beliefs of the vast number of Muslims, a few of whom live and work in our own community.
The crime that took place last week was on a scale that boggles the mind. We look on in disbelief. Our hearts and eyes recoil at the terrible images played over and over again on television as if someone is trying to convince us that, yes, it really did happen. Talking head after talking head tries to explain how and why it happened, and who might be responsible. There’s a sinking feeling in millions of hearts, that such a thing could happen and might happen again, in North America, of all places. Such terrible things have always happened somewhere else. Or, most comforting and reassuring of all, they’ve only happened on television or in the movies. So they’re not real.
But of course they are. And though our society has refined the art and technology of seeming to safely distance ourselves from the cruel reality of human nature (while indulging in it for entertainment) it’s never really that far away. And perhaps now more than ever before we are being called by the terrible events in the U.S. last week to confront that reality and do something about it once and for all, or be doomed.
People – young people especially – often question the sense of studying history. Why learn about what happened 5,000, 2,000, 200 or even just 50 or 20 years ago if you’re planning on becoming a mechanic? Anyway, it’s boring.
In fact, history is anything but boring. But, more to the point, history is the chronology of human events that, if learned and properly understood, can be turned into a collective wisdom that could potentially save the human race. Someone once said, ”he who fails to learn the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them.” No truer words were ever spoken.
Even a superficial study of history reveals that the human race has regularly repeated its most atrocious mistakes. Man’s inhumanity to man, war, atrocities and terrorism on a massive scale have occurred throughout recorded history, in every part of the world, including North America. And we can see a terrible cycle of violence, hatred and cruelty, as one evil deed begets another. There are people in the Balkans (the former Yugoslavia) today, for example, who still feel obligated to seek atrocious vengeance for terrible atrocities that took place more than 500 years ago.
Today we understand the anger of the American people in response to a terrible atrocity. Those who say the entire civilized world was attacked, and may be attacked again soon, are right. It’s understandable the U.S., indeed the whole world, must defend itself, and respond aggressively to investigate thoroughly and take action to prevent further attacks. If the evidence points to outlaw terrorist organizations then criminal charges should be laid and justice should be done under the rule of law. If the evidence also points to the material involvement of rogue states, then they too should be punished.
But we caution the U.S., and everyone else whose blood is understandably up after what happened last week, let’s not fall into the trap of history. Let’s not commit our own atrocities in retribution. That’s precisely the escalation of violence the terrorist enemy wants, so the cycle of violence can keep turning toward the apocalyptic goal their twisted minds crave.
And then let’s all of us do some serious soul-searching and thinking about human nature and what we can all do to avoid falling victim to its dark side.
Ah, there’s nothing like listening to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique, to remind me that the tragic sense of life has always been with me.
That’s ‘always’ as when my father saw it when he casually looked down at me, a newborn baby in my crib just as I opened my eyes and looked up. He put his arm across his eyes and abruptly looked away in apparent shock, so I was told many times, and exclaimed, “My God, he’s been here before!”
And, just now, as I write that, as if on cue, a torrential downpour such as I have not seen here in Hope Ness for a long time is flooding my hopeful last planting of sweet corn. But for just a few minutes. Already it has passed, and to the west I see a patch of blue sky.
Tchaikovsky did not, when he wrote this music, his last symphony, near the end of his famous, but deeply troubled life. He suffered bouts of depression, and anxiety about his creative abilities. Had I been there I would have consoled him about that. He conducted the premiere of this music, his last symphony, in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1893. Nine days later he died under circumstances that are still not clear. To say he left his broken heart in this music, and in concert halls around the world countless times through the years since then, is to put it mildly. But it is so much more than that. From beginning to end in the Pathetique Tchaikovsky speaks through his music of the complex human story: innocently hopeful and joyful, full of the spirit of life, but troubled by it, disappointed, regretful, grieving; but ultimately accepting finally with quiet relieve, yet still echoing the sadness of parting in silence.
This is no “rage, rage against the dying of the light:” That too is past; the struggle is over. He, we, imperfect beings have done what we have done, for good or ill, in terrible or most wonderful ways; triumphant even, for a time, but not enough, the promise of our being, not fully realized. And therein lies our tragedy, fading slowly into the vast silence. This music certainly should have been included aboard Voyager, to tell our story.
The last movement especially of the Pathetique is beyond despair: it is an utterly tragic ending. I don’t find it strange at all at this moment in the life of this world, that it seems so to me even more-so now.
And so it apparently seems to conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, as they linger in a YouTube video for a long, last note of silence after the written music ends. It is deliberate, and it is brilliant, as Gergiev, whose quivering fingers I have occasionally found irritating, go perfectly still over the orchestra for that extended moment. No one, in my experience, has ever understood this music so well.
I first heard it when I was 16, one of the first LP records I acquired, with the help of a promotional deal at the supermarket where I worked on weekends and after class; and the last movement especially made it one of my favorite and most-loved pieces of so-called classical music. Strictly speaking, it is Romantic. From that moment on I was sure to come to Tchaikovsky’s defense when I heard someone belittle him as shallow and overrated. On the contrary, he is underrated. Okay, there is the 1812 overture. And yes, the parade of crescendos does wear thin sometimes. But nobody’s perfect. And besides, the music for the thrilling, transcendental finale of Swan Lake makes up for it many times over.
Thank you, Pyotr, for sharing. And I hope your spirit has found peace and joy, in knowing you are loved.
My recent discovery of the creative, literary works of late 19th Century, American author Kate Chopin, most notably her novel, The Awakening, has been a deeply moving and continuously thought-provoking experience. That meets one of the important criteria for a true work of art; and so does speaking so well to readers about what they may be experiencing, as they struggle to find themselves.
It wasn’t only for my own sake, but more especially for my maternal grandmother, Clara, whose tragic life I was reminded of as I read The Awakening and continue to think about it every day. Kate Chopin would have understood perfectly what happened to my grandmother; and would have felt for her. Maybe she is, right now, somewhere, somehow. It may sound strange, but I find consolation for my grandmother’s sake in such thoughts, thanks to Chopin
As a young woman of 28, and mother of two children she dearly loved, my grandmother was desperately unhappy and neglected in her marriage when she dared to fall in love with a married man, famous at the time, 100 years ago. But despite loving her too, he could not face the prospect of living openly in their love, and the consequences it was certain to have for him in the emotionally repressive, post-puritanical, societal norms of the time. That was especially true in the narrow-minded, provincial confines of WASPish (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), Toronto “the Good” where she lived, or tried to. And it was also true of the U.S. Midwest where he was a church pastor, and a prominent figure in the progressive, social gospel movement.
As it was, the consequences of being a married woman who fell in love with a married man were terrible: a broken heart, the court-ordered loss of her first two children, her desperate abandonment of her love child, my mother, her lonely misery and abject poverty in Montreal for 18 years, and her death from cancer at an early age after her sudden return, alone, to her parental home in Toronto in 1942..
In The Awakening, Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, raised ‘American’ in Kentucky, is married to Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy member of upper-class, Creole society in Louisiana. She and her husband live in New Orleans, the focal point of the unique, French-based Acadian culture. He’s often away to the north, including New York City and Wall Street, as the story unfolds. Though apparently doting, he cares most about the material trappings of wealth, including what today would be called his ‘trophy wife.’ But she dares to question and ultimately rebel against all that. They have two young children; but Edna rejects the prevailing, social attitude that a woman should always sacrifice her needs for the sake of her children; ‘unessential things,’ yes, but not the soul of her being, as she struggles to discover what that is. She falls in love with a young man who, among other things, teachers her how to swim. That is a crucial, beginning point in her journey of self-discovery, including the awakening of her repressed sensuality. It continues through to the end of the unconsummated relationship with her ‘lover’ who abandons her, “because I love you,” he says in a parting note. Soon after that comes the final and still controversial ending of the novel when Edna, naked and alone on a beach, walks into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand,” she thinks, as she swims out as far as she can before exhaustion sets in. She had by then already rejected the possibility of other, passing lovers. She thinks fondly of her two young boys, left, apparently happy, in the care of their paternal grandmother in the countryside. But she affirms again her unwillingness to sacrifice herself and live for their sake only.
I confess to being troubled by how Chopin handles that important issue in The Awakening. It needs more attention. A key character in the novel, a happily married woman, tells Edna more than once to not give her children short shrift: “The children, the children!” she says. How Chopin’s heroine may have struggled with that begs for more creative exploration, especially when her two young sons are ultimately described in her apparently final thoughts as ‘antagonists’ seeking to control her life. It’s not hard to imagine how outrageous that must have seemed to many readers at the time, in a society where the role of woman was so locked-in to motherhood.
Speaking personally, being similarly ‘farmed out’ twice by a loving, well-intentioned, single mother to pseudo-foster parents – exploitive and abusive in one case – was a deeply troubling experience. I still struggle with it. There are other cultures in the world that have a more natural, realistic approach to parenting than one that puts all the pressure and responsibility on individual mothers: such things as a greater, shared reliance on both parents, the extended family, and the social group. There are many examples, even in the animal world.
A shallow, perhaps too-obvious interpretation of the ending of The Awakening assumes Edna’s suicide. The last the reader sees of her she has gone as far as she can out into the waters of the Gulf, with no strength left to make it back to shore. But Chopin, deliberately, I think, leaves her fate uncertain. Meanwhile, recollections of childhood memories, including walking through a “blue-grass meadow” with “no beginning and no end” come to Edna’s mind.
I am left with this thought: that Edna’s journey, her ‘Awakening,’ reaches its consummating climax, its ultimate expression of her sensuality-come-alive, in and with the sea. I might have said best would have been to go on living, in some state of love, in the world. But, in all the circumstances, Edna had realized that was not possible, that it could only lead to personal tragedy. Meanwhile, her spiritual and sensual reunion with the sea, is love, timeless and complete.
It’s also a testament to Chopin’s literary genius: to have written such a powerful scene in such a book on such a theme, in 1899, in the U.S. Midwest.
And yet, what an injustice, that The Awakening was widely condemned after its publication. Chopin was shunned in the St. Louis, Missouri community where she lived at the time. She had been born there, but married a Creole man herself, moved to Louisiana, and had six children. She, with her children, moved back to St. Louis after her husband died to look after her sick mother. She began writing in the 1890s as a way of overcoming depression after her mother died. She soon made a name for herself as a regional (Acadian) writer. But after the bad reaction to The Awakening, her further works were largely rejected. She died five years later and was virtually forgotten for 70 years. Now she is a regarded as a forerunner of the modern feminist movement. The Awakening and her short stories are required reading in literary studies.
But with all due respect to feminism, and her courageous contribution to it, any label, be it ‘regional writer’ or ‘feminist,’ diminishes her even now: Kate Chopin speaks of the human spirit in all its wonderful, though often tragic, complexity. There was much more she could have said, in the years before and after The Awakening, had she found her wings sooner. It is not quite a great novel, by a writer who clearly had it in her to be great.
Though it’s late in coming, there’s nothing like the onset of something that resembles a good, old-fashioned Canada winter to test the myths and realities of growing old.
Let’s just say I’ve reached a certain age, well beyond the date when I officially became a ‘senior,’ and became eligible for what’s still called here in Canada, “Old Age Security.”
It’s not that I mind the money. I’m far from being a rich man, financially, anyway. But there’s something fundamentally wrong with sticking the “old age” label on someone at 65, or older, or at all, when they’re not old, not really.
When I was 65, I was still a young man. I could still keep up, and more, with guys half my age. I was still going strong at 70, and even, well, older than that. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve finally had to face up to slowing down to the extent that it may, just may, be time to say, yeah, okay, “I guess I’m old.”
December and January were unusually easy months, as Canadian winters go here on the peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. What happened to those lake-effect, ‘zero visibility,’ early-winter snow squalls? Well, it’s early February and they’re happening now, for the past couple of days, and forecast to keep happening into next week.
Just now, I look out my window and it’s coming down at a rate that could see another 10 to 15 centimeters, or more tonight.
And that means, again tomorrow morning it won’t be time to sit back and think about growing old: it will be time, like this morning, to rise to the occasion, fire up the tractor and the snowblower, clear my long, country driveway; then climb up on that too-old, home-built garage roof and finish clearing the snow off it so it won’t collapse under the weight. And then there’s that other, low-sloped roof I’m not all that secure about and would rather not take a chance and let the snow pile up. Better safe than sorry.
Actually, it’s more than safety; it’s survival. So many big and little things in secluded, rural living can turn into a big, survival problem if you don’t give them their due: a loose bolt on the snowblower tightened, chain and auger mechanisms greased; fresh gas for the generator in case of a power-outage; diesel fuel in reserve, a spare key for the tractor, and careful usage. They’re family, after all, Mr. Massey and now Mr. Massey Too.
I count it a blessing that winter and its challenges have arrived, and I am still up to meeting them.